"I hope we don't get the Gooden Machine tonight," said a meek voice from the back seat of the car as I drove my nine-year-old son and two teammates to their baseball game. "Me too!" said another. "It throws too fast and the ball makes me nervous."
I had to smile. The boys were about to face an electrical pitching machine at Marshall Field in Kirkwood, Mo., one that fired fastballs right down the middle of the plate at a hittable 55 miles per hour. However, acting as pitcher for both teams, the machine had struck out 34 batters in seven innings the previous week and had been immediately dubbed the Gooden Machine, after Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. (We later learned that the machine was not properly adjusted and was firing the ball at about 65 mph.)
"Dad, do you think we'll get the Gooden Machine?"
"I don't know, boys. But you can hit it. Think positive!" I said, offering typical paternal encouragement against insurmountable odds.
As I spoke, my mind drifted back 30 years to a similar conversation about another pitching machine, not an electrical one, but a living, breathing hard-throwing legend from Barling, Ark., named Tommy (Fishhook) Smith.
"Just remember, boys, he puts his pants on just like you do...one leg at a time," my father said from the driver's seat of our 1954 Pontiac.
"Yeah, Dad, but just look at the legs he's putting in those pants!" I said.
Laughter erupted from the back seat where my brother, David, Joe Stafford and Tommy Shockley nervously pounded their fists into old ball gloves.
Our annual trip to play in the Boys' Club tournament at Lion's Park in Fort Smith, Ark., was the highlight of the summer. Compared to our rocky, dandelion-infested field behind the Greenwood Elementary School, Lion's Park seemed like a miniature replica of a major league ballpark. It had an outfield fence, real dugouts, stands for our parents, plus a manicured grass infield with a real pitcher's mound.
However, our joy on that particular evening was tempered by the knowledge that Tommy (Fishhook) Smith would be on that mound. He was big for his age—a hulking 160 pounds—and he had picked up his nickname not for his intimate knowledge of fishing but rather for his wicked, downward breaking curveball.
To make matters worse, Fishhook's older brother, Hal, was a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, and it was agreed that no mortal could hit the brother of an actual major league catcher. Joe was distantly related to Fishhook, which is to say a solid second cousin by marriage, and he had, the year before, hit a Tommy Smith fastball. No small task. But now Tommy had added a curve, and nobody, not even a second cousin, could touch the hook.
Assuming you were a righthanded batter, the ball started right at your head, a spinning, sizzling, whirring horsehide. The batter's left foot instinctively lurched toward the third base dugout as if an invisible wire were tied to the ankle. Some kids—mercy forbids naming names—completely panicked at the sight of Fishhook's approaching curveball and immediately hit the deck, only to hear the umpire say, almost apologetically, "Uh, strike three, son."
My father, understanding our anxieties, tried to offer hope and coaching. But how could he truly understand. He had been a great hitter in his day. According to legend, on July 4, 1925, he had hit four shots "out in the pecan trees" off a 14-year-old from Lucas, Ark., named Jerome Dean—Dizzy they called him when he won 30 games for the Cardinals in 1934.
And, in 1943, Dad faced Warren Spahn, who won 367 games before he retired in 1965. He was pitching for Fort Chaffee during his three-year hitch in the Army. One Sunday afternoon Fort Chaffee's team drove over and played a Greenwood town team behind the county courthouse. My dad was the Greenwood first baseman. He never said if he got a hit off Spahn or not, but we assumed he did.
Since my father was the high school basketball and football coach, he was accustomed to giving pregame pep talks. "You can do it," he urged, "if you think you can. You've got to believe in yourself!"
We tried valiantly, but Tommy believed in himself, too, and blew us away, something like 16-0. Our assumption was correct: A mere mortal can't hit the brother of a major league catcher.
That was 30 years ago.
We're all grown now. My brother, David, became an all-conference pitcher at Arkansas Tech in 1966 and '67. Joe was the starting catcher for the Arkansas Razorbacks from 1965 to '67. Tommy Shockley went to Vietnam and now works for Merle Haggard.
And Tommy Smith? He signed a pro contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967 and was a first baseman for the Double A Arkansas Travelers. He never made it as far as his brother, Hal, though.
Just then, the conversation behind me brought me back to the present. "If we have to face the Gooden Machine we'll all strike out," said a voice.
"I couldn't see the ball last time," said another. "I just heard it hit the catcher."
When the third kid said, "I think I'll join the band," I had heard enough.
As we stopped at a red light, I turned and practically yelled, "Now listen, guys, you can hit that machine! Just remember, he puts his pants on just like you do.... Oh, never mind."
They were giggling so much I don't think they heard me mumble, "Just be thankful the dang thing can't throw a curveball."
Grady Jim Robinson is a professional after-dinner speaker who lives in St. Louis.