When I read about the Martin High School baseball team losing in the state 5A semifinals for the second straight year, it brought back a lot of memories. Memories of 1969, when I played in the state baseball playoffs and was almost the hero.Jerry Seinfield does a funny bit about the guy who finishes second in the Olympics: “Of all the losers, you came in first!” That’s sort of how I feel.I was a junior at Midland Lee, and my ambition was just to make the team, which I did as the backup third baseman. I expected I’d be on the bench that year and get my chance to start as a senior. Our team had gone to the playoffs the year before, and we had two excellent pitchers returning.But our third baseman began the year in a hitting slump, and when we made a trip to Lubbock right before district play started, coach Ernie Johnson put me in against Monterey, which still holds the record for most trips to the state finals (13, with four championships). Their legendary coach, Bobby Moegle, won 1,115 games in his career, second-most in the country.Somehow, despite being more of a defensive specialist, I managed to hit over .300 the rest of the year and keep my job as a starter right up until we made the playoffs. That’s when our left fielder slumped at the plate and things got a lot more interesting for me.Although I had played baseball nearly my entire life — from age 5 — I never played outfield. Nevertheless, the regular third baseman returned to the lineup, and I was now starting in the outfield. After a few practices, it was clear we were in trouble. This was before the “designated hitter” was invented or that would have been me.Instead, the coach dreamed up a strategy that was clever, but embarrassing. If a right-handed batter came to the plate, I would play right field on the theory that I was less likely to get the ball hit to me. When a left-hander batted, we would call time and I would move over to left and the left fielder would play right.Not exactly confidence-inspiring, but it worked.We beat Monterey in the first round, El Paso Ysleta in the second and Haltom in the third. That was played at the old Turnpike Stadium, which later became the first home of the Texas Rangers. I didn’t have a single ball hit to me during those seven games.That changed in the state semifinal game against San Antonio Sam Houston. By then, we had abandoned the “Witt shift,” and I was permanently in right field. That game, I caught nine fly balls for outs! In the state final against Houston Lamar, we were behind 1-0 in the fouirth inning when I came to the plate with a man on.I had struck out the first time and had an 0-2 count. I was just praying not to strike out again when I somehow hit a ball that was headed over the left-field wall.Steve Mohnke — pronounced monkey — climbed the wall like — well, like a monkey — and robbed me of everlasting glory. We lost 1-0. I’m sure Sam Kaskovich knows just how I feel. Sam is the son of one of the Star-Telegram’s editors and was a star pitcher and senior this year at Colleyville Heritage, which lost to Bell in the playoffs 5-2 with him on the mound.Now he’s headed for the University of Texas, where he’ll find there are other things to conquer in life besides baseball.
Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7704 Twitter: @jimelvis