My first friend in Tacoma was Chris Coley. He and his family lived next door to the house my family moved into when I was four years old. He and I were never best friends. It was more like he was the big guy next door who let me hang out, and I was probably a bit like the little brother who he permitted to hang out when older kids were not around.
I was really small as a child. Chris was not only a year older than me, he was also a three-sport varsity athlete. My second friend in town, Todd Grimm, was two years older than me. The three of us created imaginary baseball and basketball leagues that we played with cards and table games. I could compete with them when the game was won by pulling the lever in Basket, or flipping a home run card that came in a pack of baseball cards.
We also really played sports. Though I could never beat Chris or Todd in those games, they still let me play. Todd was a year older than Chris, but Chris was the best athlete of the three of us. He was also the most ferocious of the three of us. We all wanted to win, but Chris hated to lose.
That meant some tough games for Todd and him, but I was never really a threat to win. If I had 17 points in a game of 21, it was because Chris spotted me 15 of them. I actually fared better in the three-way games where I might get a loose ball that I could throw in the general direction of the hoop while they were getting in position for the rebound that would follow five out of every six uncontested shots I took. I might have scored six points in some of those games by hitting a quarter of my shots.
My size prevented me from competing with them in basketball and football, but there were times in whiffle ball that I gave them a bit of a challenge. A typical score in basketball might be 21-2, but a typical score in whiffle ball might be 15-11.
I still lost almost every game, but the differences in our size and athleticism was not such a factor in whiffle ball. A little guy like me could hit a home run by connecting with a pitch, and a big guy like Chris could not use his power or he would swing and miss like all power hitters often do. He still had huge advantages in range and eye-hand coordination, but his abilities to swing and throw harder than me were not big factors in whiffle ball games.
We played a lot as elementary aged children, but Chris's schedule with his sports once he got into junior high school meant the end of our regular playing days. If he wasn't training for one sport, it was because he was training for two sports. He was still like a big brother to me, but it was much more like the big brother who always had other things to do. By that time, Hutch was my best friend and Jack Newhart was his best friend.
Jack was a year older than Chris. He was the starting quarterback at Lincoln High School in his senior year; Chris was the starting quarterback there in his senior year. They were both among the best athletes their ages in the entire city. Unlike me, these guys had reputations to maintain. That didn't mean they wouldn't catch occasional games of whiffle ball against each other; it meant they ditched the bat and ball, and acted as if they happened to be visiting each other from across the yard, if they thought someone from school might see them.
One day in the summer of 1974, there was a rare day. Chris and I ran into each other and talked as usual, but he didn't have anything to do for a while. We decided to drag out the whiffle ball and bat and play a game like in the old days.
The day was rarer than that. The game went nothing like games went in the old days. Mighty Casey was at bat in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes on him, and I had the lead! I was one pitch away from a win! I threw the pitch; he swang and missed!
It was my Rudy moment! I had broken a losing streak that began with our first game, and was by then at about 5,000 consecutive losses! It was like winning the World Series, damn it! I beat Chris Coley in a game of whiffle ball! I beat Chris Coley!
That was likely the thought I had while jumping up and down when the first thud sounded from the plastic bat hitting me. "Not a word of this at school," he said. "Do you understand?" Then he whapped me with the bat again to make sure that I knew he was serious.
I understood, and I also kept that promise throughout the rest of high school. It was also the only time I remember Chris ever being mean to me like that. It was, indeed, the rarest of days when I beat Coley in that one magical game of whiffle ball!
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