The Story Behind the 21 Strikeouts

Fred Tomasello Jr.
Guest Contributor

This is the story behind the story. 

As a 14-year-old baseball player in 1958, this game turned out, some 63 years later, to be my pinnacle achievement. While other kids continued to grow in size, strength and speed, my 5’9” 120-pound body stayed the same — skinny as hell! So skinny my nickname was “biddy” named after the brightly colored baby chicks that used to be popular during Easter time.

Everyone could see what was happening to each other’s bodies, and in the spirit of competitiveness that defined our young masculinity, we did whatever we could to remain “in the game.”

It was not unusual for me and my friends to have two or three baseball uniforms in our closets at the same time. In Florida, baseball weather was year round. The county parks had a Junior and Senior league as well as the Boys Club, so that was three uniforms. Pony League came along so that year I had four baseball uniforms in my closet.

On the morning of that “record setting” game, MacFarlane Park had a Senior League game and I was the pitcher. In Senior League, we played on major-league sized fields where the pitching mound was 60 feet 6” from home plate. In Pony League, we pitched from 54 feet to the plate. So I threw an entire 9-inning baseball game that morning. We won but I don’t remember any details.

In Little League, which ended for us after 12 years of age, I learned how to compensate for my small size in a variety of ways that kept me on the mound in later years. My “fast ball” was never overpoweringly fast so I had to improvise.

First came the curve ball. Gripping the baseball in such a way that the four largest seams spun against the wind greatly increased the size of the curve. 

Fear was also a factor. Against right-handed batters, I threw my curve right at their heads triggering their “get my face out of here” response. While they were backing up and out of the batter’s box, my curve ball would dip down and across the plate for a strike. For left-handed batters, my curve ball would start off as so far away from the plate that the batter would relax, assuming the umpire would call the pitch a ball. When the ball dipped over the plate for a strike, it was too late for the batter to do anything about it. 

For my “fast” ball, which wasn’t that fast at all, I learned how to make the ball move slightly by using the four long seams and using a side-arm motion instead of straight overhand. 

For left-handed batters, I aimed my fast ball right at their testicles, triggering their “get my balls out of here” response only for them to watch the pitch trail away from them and over the plate for a strike.

As players who have been struck by a baseball in their younger years, especially in the face or the “nuts,” overcoming that natural protective reaction takes years of practice. In later years, like high school, more and more players began to hit my “junk” curves and side-arm fastballs so I included a knuckle-ball to my repertoire. 

Getting back to that eventful day, I threw a complete game in the morning from Major League distance and another complete game in the afternoon from Pony League distance. A breeze was blowing against me, my arm was loose, the curve balls were breaking wickedly big and and the side-arm “fast” balls were moving more than usual.

Striking out 21 batters in 7 innings was the highlight of my baseball career.

As my friends and teammates continued to grow bigger, stronger and faster, I improvised and struggled to keep up, but many moved on to greater glory as paid professional baseball players in both the Major and Minor Leagues, and one teammate has even been enshrined in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame (Tony LaRussa).

In a nutshell, this one game in this episode of competitive sports has been a prelude and a forecast of my entire career and my struggle to remain meaningful in this game of life.

When times get rough, I open my “scrap book” and look at ways I’ve succeeded through hard work and improvisation. And it’s at this time, I realize there’s enough proof in my past to shed a bright light on my future.

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