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Letter to the Editor: A Remarkable Baseball Story
I was once taught a lesson of such significance that I have reflected on it throughout my life and continue to find new inspiration and meaning from it. I say that I was taught this lesson, but by that I only mean that a remarkable person conveyed it to me, not that I have achieved any measure of mastery in applying it in my own life. Although simple and seemingly effortless to that individual, implementing the lesson has proved difficult for me. As I continue to strive toward that end, sharing this story seems an integral part of the process.
I grew up the youngest of three children with an older brother and sister. I was small and scrappy, and obsessed with baseball. Some of my earliest memories were playing catch in the backyard with my brother and dad, and playing tee ball over at the Akron park. We call it the old Akron park nowadays, but back then there was only one, replete with beautiful wooden grandstands and all. I remember that field and those days vividly. I can still feel the dust from the infield tickle my nose and remember the thrill of a sharply hit ball rolling under the fence in left field and out onto Broad Street. That park was an indelible part of my childhood as I spent virtually every day of every summer for several years there playing knock-hockey in the grandstands, and baseball on the field. It was also the site of one of the most exciting days of my young life, which happened when I was 8. It was the day we had tryouts for the local little league.
There were two teams in Akron — the perennial winners, the Akron Lions, and the perennial losers, the Akron Cubs. The tryouts consisted of some catching, throwing and hitting. They culminated with a draft that I will never forget. All of the kids gathered and coaches for each team stood with clipboards in hand. They took turns drafting kids to their teams. I was ecstatic as I was drafted first overall ahead of Barry Ravegum, who was much bigger than me.
Of course, the Cubs had a much worse record the year before and received first pick, so I joined their coach along the third base line. The draft continued with the coaches alternating picks. It did not last very long, however, because each team only needed a handful of kids to fill out their rosters to replace their departing 12-year-olds.
Now you might guess that the lesson I learned was one of humility. That I joined the Cubs, and they were atrocious. That we used to get slushies at Turkey Hill if we lost by less than 10 runs while the Lions would get them only when they won (these two events occurring with roughly the same frequency). That we did not win a single game for two years until, miraculously, we won our first game in the post-season of my second year. But the thing is, you’d be wrong. Those lessons certainly shaped my character over time. I learned how to compete and to give everything I had without an expectation of a team win. I learned how to lose graciously and win even more so. But as important as those lessons were, there was something far more important going on during that time, because I was not at those tryouts alone and I was not the only person they had an impact on.
My parents accompanied me to the tryouts and shared in my excitement. But my dad was wired differently than most people. As I have gotten older, I have begun to appreciate the magnitude of this difference. His primary reaction was not one of pride or centered on my achievement as his son. It was not focused on me, him, or our family at all. Instead, he saw the dismay on the faces of the kids that were not selected. He saw how callously such matters were handled back then. He saw how kids sat and waited, hoping they would get picked just to be able to participate. Then he saw how those hopes were dashed when the draft was abruptly terminated and all of the remaining kids were thanked for coming out and told to come back again next year. And that was it. A whole year to wait. No baseball, no team, no opportunity to practice and play, no opportunity to improve.
I cannot say sitting here today I felt empathy for those kids that day or thought about them at all. I may have, but I do not specifically remember. But I know it was the overwhelming feeling that my dad experienced. And whatever my feelings that day, I came to understand my dad’s perspective very quickly. Another important aspect of my dad’s personality was that his compassion was invariably matched with action. He did not simply empathize, he sought to change circumstances to better the situation of others. And that is precisely what he did in response to that day, to those tryouts, and his response was swift.
He immediately set out to start a team that would deny no one, that would allow any kid that wanted the opportunity to play baseball the chance to play baseball. My dad would single-handedly insure that for the foreseeable future, no kid in Akron would feel that sting of rejection that those kids felt. He named this team the Akron Bears.
My dad invested an enormous amount of his time and his money in the Bears. He bought all of the equipment, found a “B” league of teams from surrounding communities to play in, ran practices, and shuttled kids to and from games. He did this without any direct benefit to our family. It could have even been perceived as a detriment, as it took time away from him being at my practices, or my games or being at home with us. But that was all part of the lesson, because the Bears was more than a baseball team, for them and us. By taking every kid, regardless of skill level, my dad was providing some of them their only opportunity to a part of something greater, something inclusive and welcoming. There was a camaraderie on that team unlike any team I was on in my life. And from my family’s perspective, the Bears were part of us, as well. We all pitched in and helped out. In improving others’ situations, my dad had enriched our lives. This was the lesson, that I continue to seek to understand. But these events were not just a life lesson, this story has a twist like something out of a movie.
Many of the Bears players were not great, as you might expect. There were a few kids that were just overlooked in the draft that were decent, but the roster also included some kids that were severely lacking in baseball skills, to put it mildly. But among the Bears players were two Mennonite brothers, Jeff and Jon Buch, who lived in town on 10th street. We knew them from the neighborhood and in particular from sledding down the street past their house. They were both exceptional athletes and baseball players. The Buch’s parents were not interested in their kids playing for the Lions or Cubs.
At the time, I recall thinking they did not appreciate the competitive emphasis of that league. As I have matured and reflected, I have come to believe that the Buchs saw something in my father that it took me decades to understand. They saw his kindness and generosity of spirit, which I now know to be exceedingly rare. Whatever the case, they allowed both of their sons to play on the Bears and in doing so, ultimately set the stage for the most remarkable part of this story.
I faced a lot of great pitchers in my baseball career, including a handful that pitched in the Major Leagues. I can say with little hesitation that the toughest to hit was Jeff Buch pitching from a Little League mound. Jeff was tall and wiry. He was not particularly imposing. He did not strike you as an athlete, perhaps in part because he never wore any sort of athletic clothing other than game day in the Bear’s uniform. I can only provide my honest recollection of what it was like to hit against Jeff, even though it sounds incredible. The ball seemingly hit the catcher’s mitt simultaneously with him releasing it from his hand. If, by some chance, you caught a glimpse of it in flight, it danced vertically and horizontally, like a knuckleball, all while traveling the equivalent of a 100 mph fastball from a Major League mound. Now perhaps that imagery has grown fantastically in my mind with the passage of time, but one thing is for certain, Jeff Buch was the best little league pitcher in Akron.
So one day it came to pass, through circumstances I no longer recall, that a scrimmage was arranged between the mighty Akron Lions and the Akron Bears, the team composed of kids that would not even be playing baseball were it not for my dad. I would love to have a roster of that game. The Lions were dominant and either won or challenged for their league’s title every year during that time. They had a murderer’s row — Lintz, Myer, Styer, each amazing athletes in their own right who would end up as stars in various sports through high school and beyond. The Bears, on the other hand, consisted primarily of kids whose entire athletic careers involved their participation on the Bears. It was a colossal mismatch except for one thing — the Bears had the Buchs. In particular, the Bears had Jeff Buch, who pitched that game. I sat in the stands at Akron park that day and watched. Of course, I had my own resentments against the Lions and was hoping for a good showing by the Bears. I thought Jeff was good enough to give them a chance but my expectations were low, because the Lions were stacked with talent.
That game was really the only time I got to witness Jeff Buch’s talent on full display. I do not know if maybe Jeff had some extra motivation that day. It’s certainly possible that deep down inside Jeff wanted to play in the competitive league, to play with the best players. = So maybe this was his chance to show them. Or maybe, he was just that good. Whatever the case, that day the Akron Lions might as well have been facing Sandy Koufax pitching from a little league mound. Jeff Buch was untouchable. His stuff was magical that day and Lion after Lion came up and Lion after Lion went down. I know that Jeff pitched a shutout and I know that the Bears won 1-0. I suspect he may have pitched a perfect game but those specifics have left me long ago. I also no longer recall how the Bears got a run, but I suspect it was Jeff and Jon that were largely responsible.
I would often reminisce about that game and think the Bears were something out of a Hollywood script. In the last couple years I have begun to see it as more than a great story, and instead in the proper context as a lesson taught to me by my father. The win over the Lions was merely symbolic of the triumph of compassion and selflessness. There was nothing inherently wrong with a competitive league and the kids striving to excel within that framework, but there was something inherently wrong with eight-year-olds being turned away and being told to go home, that they were not good enough to play baseball on any team. My dad, Donald Snyder, spent his life identifying the needs of others and then taking action and he had a very special place in his heart for kids. The Bears were not the exceptional example, they were just the most memorable for me from his life dedicated to others.
I don’t know that my dad ever received proper recognition for all the he did for youth sports in Akron, which included not just starting the Bears but another baseball team and several soccer teams. I do know that such recognitions were of no consequence to him. There was always someone else to help, another way to fill a need. I tell this story because it is true and it needs no embellishment. The most sensational part of this story was that there existed a man who put the needs of others ahead of his own throughout his entire life, never asking for a thing in return, and that I was fortunate enough that the man happened to be my father.
Steve Snyder Charlotte, N.C.
About Steve Snyder
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