Tony Bender recalls the thugs of summer

Tony Bender

Baseball has always been big in our family. I have a picture of me as a baby being held by my mom with my dad, wearing a city league baseball uniform, standing beside us. He was a Tigers fan while pretty much everyone else in Ashley in that era cheered for the Yankees. He didn't mind the autographed Mickey Mantle ball I gave him for his birthday one year, though.

Last week, my sister Sherry, who has almost an encyclopedic knowledge of the Twins, updated me on the promising upgrades to the pitching staff. She also shared her plans for retirement after working for decades as a VA nurse. She's been hired by the Twins as one of hundreds of guest services employees, working the gates, handing out promotional items and keeping the rowdies under control in the stands. Pretty cool stuff, and since I pretty much taught her the game and molded her into a superb center fielder, I stand to benefit with comp tickets.

I informed my brother Mike at dinner on Saturday that while he's always been my favorite sibling, things have changed for mercenary reasons. He took it in stride and asked me to pass the green beans.

Then this morning, I was looking at some old sports photos and saw my old friend Kerry Wilson—Woof Dog—and was reminded of the season of Legion baseball when we waged a Mantle-Maris-like battle to be the leading tackler on the team. Tackles, you say? Yes. You see, Woof was a pretty fair football player, a bruising running back who would have been great if he hadn't been hooked to an invisible two-bottom plow. If he'd been filmed in slow motion, he would have been motionless.

Once he came back to the huddle after a five-yard run that took four minutes off the clock, and yelled at me, “Bender, that was your man that got me!”

“Bull----,” I snapped, “I was holding him!” We got a delay-of-game penalty because we were all laughing too hard. I was a marginal blocker but I had great comedic timing.

I was better at baseball. Woof was an okay first-baseman, not much of a hitter, though, and when he got on base with his two bottom plow, it led to a lot of collisions with infielders waiting for him with the ball. The old-school strategy was to mow them down and jar the ball loose. Woof, all 220 pounds of him, called them tackles.

I had pretty fair wheels and a better bat, and since I was on base more often and a risk-taker, I racked up a fair body-count myself. As the season went on we were neck-and-neck in tackles. If we'd played hockey we would have been the Hanson Brothers.

With the season coming to a close in early August, I was down one tackle. We had the game in hand in Ipswich when I hit a triple into the gap. With a full head of steam coming into third, even with the third base coach and the whole dugout screaming for me to hold up, I turned the corner, bearing down on a rangy catcher who got the ball from a perfect throw with me about halfway there.

He was maybe 165 pounds. A rangy farm boy type. I was a good 185 with a head of steam, and was so confident that I'd knock the ball loose, I didn't even lower my shoulder, I went in standing up face-to-face.

I'm not sure how they managed to plant a corner post behind him, but the kid didn't budge, and even worse, he held onto the damn ball. I folded like an accordion, like Wile. E. Coyote hitting a mountainside, three feet short of the plate. With our dugout hooting along with the the home crowd, I picked myself up and slunk into the darkest corner of the dugout.

We won the game, and a few days later the season ended with Woof Dog still the team's leading tackler and me still sporting three faint red horizontal stripes across my face from the catcher's mask.

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