At this moment, you are reading words written by the worst player ever to wear a glove in Little League Baseball history. I know that many people have laid claim to the title, but I am the one you’re looking for.
As evidence, I submit: I was so bad that when I was 8 years old—and had already been chosen by Coach Hawkins to play on the 3A Malvern Hills Pharmacy team in West Asheville, NC back in 1971—I ended up being designated the batboy when the Coach deemed that my awkwardness was too much of a health insurance hazard.
I hardly believe this story myself, but I’ve been assured again of its veracity. So, it’s not just that I played right field and only played in the last two innings of the game—that’s the normal routine for a bad player—it’s that for one year, I wasn’t allowed to play at all. It is as the world’s worst Little League player that I offer this brief anecdote to you today, both as a tribute to the maligned sport of baseball and to a long forgotten Assistant Coach for the Dial Finance Franchise of 4A baseball in West Asheville in 1973.
In Asheville back in the 70s, Little League baseball was a big deal. Heck, as a result of Cal Ripken, Sr. coaching the local Double A Orioles team in Asheville (now the Asheville Tourists), I actually played Little League baseball against teams featuring both Cal Ripken, Jr. (an All-Star even then) and his younger brother Billy (no ball player back then was Billy). There were multiple teams, multiple fields and two divisions in each of two different leagues. Kids from 8 to 12 years of age played in either 3A or 4A teams. I don’t know what 1A or 2A signified, but I know we didn’t have teams in Asheville with those designations. In my small town imagination, I figured that was because we were just too damned good to have digits that small.
Anyway, each year, every player—even the Coach’s kids--had to go to try-outs where you took swings at about 10 pitches and then fielded a few balls in whatever position you wanted to play. The coaches would then hold a secret cabal and, from what I understood as a kid, each one had a certain number of imaginary points that they could use to bid on different players.
The coach of Malvern Hills, the 3A team on which I began my career, squandered most of his points every year bidding on my older brother Larry, a remarkable ball player at that level and a player who should have been playing at the more skilled 4A level, save the fact that Coach Hawkins kept him as a franchise player. Ultimately, however, it was a dumb strategy in that Coach Hawkins repeatedly fielded one of the worst teams every season. Yes, he had the remarkable Larry Sloop out on the field, and a few other kids who developed during the season, but he also had a number of us who were more interested in picking grass than catching fly balls. Obviously, given that he wanted to have my brother on the team, he spent the point or two it took to also secure my services in right field for the last two innings of every game.
My story, as I noted above, however, took place on the 4A team, Dial Finance, rather than the 3A Malvern Hills. How, you might wonder, was I playing on a 4A team if it was the “better” league, and I’m continuing to claim to be the worst Little Leaguer player of all time? Well, that’s a side story in itself, and it’s short enough that I can tell it here without diverting far from my larger story.
Here it is: when I was 10, I showed up at try-outs and decided, after showing my birth certificate and signing in, that I didn’t want to play baseball that season. I was tired of the humiliation, tired of disappointing my family and team each week. So, I just walked away. I wandered the streets for about an hour, until my mother showed up to pick me up, and I went home, knowing that I had another week to break the news that I wasn’t playing baseball anymore.
A week later, as I was trying to figure out how to break this news to my parents and brother, the phone rang at our house. I answered it, and a gruff voice on the other end of the phone asked for me. When I acknowledged that I was in fact John Sloop, the voice announced that it was Coach Thomas of the 4A team Dial Finance and that he had drafted me onto his team. Being the disinterested youth that I was, I honest to God asked him, “Coach Thomas, why did you draft me? I didn’t even try out.” To which, he laughed: “Hell, kid, we’ve probably mixed you up with someone who can play. Practice is at 11 Saturday at the Vance School Field” and hung up.
That call changed things. I wouldn’t disappoint my family by being the worst player on a lousy 3A team that only chose me because of my brother; I would make them proud by being the newly discovered star on a 4A team. When I announced to my family that I had been drafted at the 4A level at dinner that evening, I noticed both the excitement of my mother and the utter suspicion and disbelief of my father. On my face, one would have seen the look of hope, a look that said that this was the year I would finally become a ball player.
Reality hit at practice that week. As I dropped 6 of 10 fly balls out in right field and only managed to hit a few slow rollers down the first base line, the Coach knew that he had wasted the points he had spent on me, and my teammates were clearly confused as to how I had ended up at the 4A level. Nothing changed as practices went through three-a-weeks and then into the scrimmage season. If anything, the confirmation that I was as bad as they imagined, and maybe worse, only made my teammates like me less.
It was a tough season for me. While I was used to being relegated to playing only the final two innings (teams were required to play every player for a minimum of two innings), I was not accustomed to a dugout where I was genuinely disliked for being so unskilled. In the old Malvern Hills dugout, Coach Hawkins and the team were genuinely friendly to me, despite knowing that I was the worst Little League Player in recorded history. Here, with no familial ties, everyone looked at me and thought about the opportunity cost I represented—I could almost hear them saying, “If Coach hadn’t bid on him, we could have had Robbie Gilchrist.” In addition, I still had to leave the field each night to parents who wondered how their youngest son was such a strange unskilled parallel to his older brother.
As the season began and went through its first seven games, it became clear that I wasn’t the only thing about this team that didn’t work. We were 1 and 6 and weren’t getting close in most of the games. Our eighth game was against the formidable B & B Pharmacy (where, oddly enough, I ended up working as a delivery boy for years and where my brother continues to work in a variety of capacities). They were undefeated and seemed untouchable. Our coach basically told us that, while he expected that we would lose, he wanted to see us score a few runs. All in all, the game didn’t begin as badly as expected. While we hadn’t scored in the first four innings, we had held B&B to only 8 runs. We weren’t going to win, but it wasn’t that embarrassing, either.
Given that we were the “home” team on the schedule, I moved on out to right field in top of the fifth, terrified that I would drop a number of fly balls, thus allowing B&B to begin a score onslaught. The stars, however, were aligned for me that night when, after an infield pop fly got the first batter, the second and third outs came on a double play after the second batter had hit a single to center field. The inning was over, and the worst baseball player in Little League history didn’t have to touch the ball.
In the bottom of the fifth, our left fielder, a kid whose name or face I cannot remember, got up to bat in the eighth position while I went into the on-deck circle and loaded my bat with doughnuts to take a few practice swings. Before I could get warmed up, the batter ahead of me hit a line drive back to the pitcher, who deftly caught it for the first out. I took the weights off the bat and stepped into the batter’s box. Amongst the immediate shouts of “Easy out! This kid can’t hit,” I watched the familiar scene of both the infield and the outfield moving in, knowing that I wouldn’t hit the ball far if I hit it at all.
This wasn’t a movie, so there was very little drama and no background music to smooth things over. I held the bat up, the pitcher threw what I assume was a fast ball, and I swung awkwardly and the ump yelled, “Strike!” There was nothing new here, and we were so far behind, that I didn’t feel a sense of drama or a sense of fear.
As a result, and I remember this very clearly, I immediately imagined that I could hit the ball precisely because no one expected me to. Not only that, I could hit the ball because I felt no fear about what would happen if I missed. It was one of those moments we have all had where we realize that the pressures we’ve put on ourselves are imaginary and silly. If I struck out, I did what was expected. So, why worry? It was one of the most liberating emotions I had ever experienced. As a result, when the next pitch almost hit my face and was called a ball, I was almost angry. That was going to be my hit, I thought.
I put the bat back on my shoulder. Again, while there was nothing unusual about the way the other players were acting (there was the basic chatter about what an awful player I was but nothing beyond that) and nothing different about the talk in the stands (bored parents were talking about lawns and mortgages) I knew something was different. I could feel it. This time when the pitcher released the ball, I could see with a clarity that I had never imagined before, and I understood what it meant to say that a ball was “hanging.” There it was—fat and high on the outside corner—and I swung with all my might, only feeling any self doubt at the last second.
The sound was loud. The ball went hard and high right over the left fielders head. Let me be clear: if he hadn’t been so far in because I was an “easy out,” he would have caught the ball—I simply wasn’t that strong of a batter. But given his expectation and my sudden understanding, I had a solid and very real hit.
Dropping the bat, I ran, and I ran hard, and I ran because the coaches were telling me to run. Hell, I ran so hard that I had a difficult time stopping at third base when I was told to stay low. There I was, the worst player in Little League history, standing on third base with a triple against B&B Pharmacy. I honestly don’t remember anyone’s reactions at that point but my own. I was electrified. If you had dared touch me, you would have paid for it. When the next batter got a bloop single, I scored a run for Dial Finance and went to the dugout as if it was something I did everyday. The kid had a new swagger.
As you might guess, however, my teammates weren’t quite as impressed with me as I was. “Lucky hit, Sloop.” “I can’t believe you got that.” “Your eyes were closed.” These are the lines I remember greeting me in the dugout. Let me tell you, precisely at the moment that I was about to feel deflated, precisely at the moment when my new swagger was about to be taken away, an Assistant Coach, with whom I rarely spoke or interacted . . . Coach Johnson was his name . . .turned to the bench and said, “Shit, boys. That wasn’t luck. He smacked the hell out of that ball.” That was it. The dugout was silent.
I’ve thought about that moment for years. Coach Johnson didn’t know all the weird and complicated boy psychology he was delving into that day. Coach Johnson didn’t know that I had felt a moment of clarity standing in the batter’s box. All Coach Johnson knew was that I hit the hell out of that ball. And in saying it, he made it real.
So, while I never became a star ball player after that night, while I never really rose above being the worst player in Little League history, that night made me know that I could develop, that I could be otherwise. So, as my body developed and I became a decent amateur athlete and a fairly good distance runner, I often think about the confidence I gained that day, and the help I was given by an assistant coach that I can hardly remember.
On this opening day of Major League Baseball, then, the Worst Player Ever in Little League history would like to raise a toast to a forgotten Assistant Coach, and to all the other forgotten Coaches who do and say the right thing at the right time.
Thank you, Coach.