By the time I was eleven years old, I had been playing baseball for four years and I had played every position on the field except pitcher and catcher. I wasn’t opposed to playing catcher - my coaches had just never put me there - but I definitely did not want to pitch. In Little League, being a good pitcher was all about who could throw the hardest. I knew that I didn’t have the best arm, and I was more than happy to keep playing shortstop. My coaches had different ideas.
I was playing catch with one of my teammates to warm up before practice when Coach Landis approached me and asked me if I wanted to pitch that season. I told him that I didn’t want to pitch. He briefly tried to convince me, but he could see that I had made up my mind. Later in the practice, he asked me to practice with the pitchers just to see if I liked it or not. If I didn’t like it then I didn’t have to pitch. As a reasonable eleven-year-old, I agreed and practiced with the pitchers. I didn’t like it. It was clear I didn’t have the strongest arm and I would be one of those pitchers who were easy to hit. I told Coach Landis that I didn’t want to pitch. He told me I didn’t have to, but he would like me to keep practicing with the pitchers, anyway. I didn’t see any harm in it, so I kept practicing.
About halfway through the season, Coach Landis and the other pitchers had convinced me that I might actually be a decent pitcher and I was finally convinced to pitch in an actual game. To be safe, I made Coach Landis promise it would be against the worst team in the league.
At eleven years old, I didn’t have a very good sense of the history of baseball. In fact, I didn’t pay much attention to the Major Leagues or to my batting average or how many doubles I hit or bases I stole or any kind of statistics at all. In fact, I couldn’t have told you what I had to do to be a good pitcher other than throw the ball hard. I didn’t know about ERA or strikeout to walk ratios or no-hitters or anything like that. All I knew was that I was supposed to throw strikes and hope the rest of the team did everything they could to get three outs before the other team scored. Hell, I didn’t even know pitchers had win-loss records - I always assumed the win belonged to the team. I just liked playing baseball and didn’t care about much else besides winning and having fun.
When I took the mound in the bottom of the first inning, Coach Landis said, “Just throw strikes and have fun.” He made it sound so easy. That’s what I did. I knew I wasn’t going to blow it by anyone so I just focused on throwing strikes and I trusted in everyone behind me to make the plays. I did manage a few strikeouts, but mostly guys would hit the ball and someone would make the play. After the first three innings, we were ahead 5-0 and I found myself sitting alone in the dugout. The coaches weren’t talking to me and the players weren’t talking to me. I assumed that I wasn’t doing a very good job and everyone was mad at me. I was waiting for Coach Landis to take me out so that I could say, “I told you so.” He never took me out. I kept pitching. I kept trying to throw strikes and we kept getting guys out. Soon we were ahead 8-0, which wasn’t a big surprise since we were playing the worst team in the league. Still, no one was talking to me. I was waiting to be pulled.
When I walked out to the mound in the bottom of the sixth (the last inning in Little League) I realized that Coach Landis wasn’t going to take me out. He was going to let me pitch the whole game. Maybe I was doing better than I thought. Regardless, I knew I only needed three more outs to end the nightmare. If I got these guys out and we won the game, maybe everyone would start talking to me again. I concentrated on throwing strikes. The first batter hit a hard line-drive directly at the shortstop who snagged it easily. Coach Landis cheered more enthusiastically than he should have for such an easy play. The next batter swung and missed on the first two pitches and dribbled the third right back to me and I threw him out at first. Coach Landis nearly erupted with excitement. I didn’t understand what was going on. Shouldn’t he expect us to beat the worst team in the league? All I wanted to do was end this strange game and go home. Everyone was acting weird. The next batter took the first four pitches I threw and the count was even at 2 balls and 2 strikes. I decided it was time for the game to be over. I reared back and threw the ball has hard as I could right down the middle, he swung and missed. Strike three. Game over. I thought, “Thank God I never have to do this again.”
But it wasn’t over.
The whole team erupted in huge cheers and Coach Landis came charging out to the mound, picked me up and threw me into the air while shouting something about a “no-hitter.” I was confused and started crying. I didn’t understand what I had just done and I didn’t know if he was shouting because he was happy or angry. Everyone stopped. Coach Landis got down on one knee and said, “Jeff, you just threw a no-hitter.”
I said, “Is that good?”
He said, “Yes, that’s the best you can do.”
I said, “I don’t have do this again do I? Everyone hates me when I pitch.”
He said, “No, we don’t hate you. You’re not supposed to talk to the pitcher when he’s throwing a no-hitter.”
I said, “I’m not going to throw a no-hitter again.”
He laughed and said, “I believe you.”