The Hamilton Park Giants
By James Heiberg
Hamilton Park is a flat, ordinary park in Brooklyn Park, which is a flat, ordinary suburb north and west of Minneapolis. Brooklyn, Hamilton, Park...they are common names. There's nothing special about Hamilton Park. It's a forgettable place.
In 1969, the city parents bought a pig corn field from the Widow Hamilton and gave birth to Hamilton Park. It couldn't have been more modest: a small playground, two skating rinks with a woodsy warming house, and a baseball diamond with no pitching rubber, no bleachers, and no outfield fence. The dirt was rock-hard and the wind whipped wherever it wanted.
In the 1970s, Hamilton Park served as a second home for a bunch of natural athletes. The new residential development on the edge of the northern plains had a lot of young families, and they produced a wealth of talent when it came to sports: Ross, Shane, Jay and Doug were in the same grade, and they created a sports nucleus of unusual skill.
Hamilton Park was their staging ground. Jay squeezed as much fun out of that park as he could, dogged by a nagging suspicion about his fate. One time at the park Doug said he was going to knock the next one down the pitcher's throat and then he did it, regrettably underestimating his own phenomenal talents. Shane heated up and cooled off at the park, fighting off, and giving in to, a powerfully competitive nature.
Ross' young dog Brandy died at the park when she chased a rock thrown by Ross and ran headlong into a baseball bench. Ross never recovered from that. He preferred relentless humor to seriousness, the latter being useless.
Ross liked to tease and deflate. One time a local Dad was going on and on to Ross and Jay about how great this local basketball player was, very effusive about it at length, and when he was done Ross looked up at him sincerely and said, "Is he good?" To the delight of Ross and Jay, the guy started up again, "Oh, he's unbelievable, he's just amazing..."
Ross was whip-smart, but he took pains to hide it. He produced his homework from his back pocket and smoothed the folded papers on the teacher's desk. When Harmon Killebrew came to the plate and the announcer said he was Mormon, Ross would say, "I didn't know Harmon could sing." Some adult would then explain that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was different from the religion itself, and Ross would furrow his brow, nod, and shoot a grin at Jay.
They were all from middle-income families, at best. To call them privileged would have been wrong. They were just average, ordinary kids with no spending cash, no media coverage and no empowering social movements. They were pretty much on their own.
Kid-level sports weren't news in the 1970s. You could win a game and keep it a secret. There would be nothing about it on the TV or radio, and no mention in the newspaper -- just quiet houses and unseen parents the next day.
The boys' talents were obvious, but not always. They all tried out for the honor of playing on the traveling baseball team, and for two straight years, the traveling team coach made a mistake. When they were 13 years old, Shane didn't make it, and at 14, Ross was overlooked. Shane and Ross toiled for the Hamilton Park Giants those years while Jay played with strangers.
When they turned 15 they made a pact: nobody would try out for the traveling team. They would play for the park team, and they would win. High school was just weeks away, and that would change everything. After ten years of made-up games like Slow Motion Goal Line Stand and Whiffle Ball Off the House and Tennis Ball In the Park (which allowed for 400-foot home runs), after playing more sports together than time would seem to allow, the end was near. Doug sat out -- he was preparing for high school football -- but Ross, Shane and Jay donned the uniform of the local nine for the last time in summer of 1978.
For as good as they were, none of them had ever been on a great team. They were circus clowns: more concerned with bunting between their legs and throwing behind their backs than devising ways to win. Championship teams were foreign to them. They just wanted to have fun and to look good doing it, but that last summer was different. They were out to win.
The Giants put together an impressive ensemble cast. Shane commandeered centerfield, and with his blazing speed he caught everything above sea level. On the mound, Ross had a heavy, nightmarish fastball and Jay put on a medicine show: curves and sinkers delivered every which way.
Tom was an omnibus athlete who kept the team loose with slapstick. Beef worked the cerebral comedy from third base, and his older brother Ted, a quiet smart-aleck, backed him up in left. They acquired a few pals from across Brooklyn Boulevard, including Kenny, who was keen at tennis, which translated to great bat control; Nommer, who moonlighted as the rarely used relief pitcher; and Jack, a guy who could've played any position but who, to the relief of everyone, chose catcher. The Giants had 13 players, minus the odd vacation or dental appointment: a formidable crew of hulking, wiry 14-16-year-olds with too much hair puffing out from their caps.
The Giants racked up win after win. Ross terrified hitters and Jay confused them. Jay pitched a couple no-hitters, but he had to tell his mates about one of them because there had been so many walks, errors, hit batsmen, and runs. "Really? That was a no-hitter?"
They busted down the fences at the nicer parks where they played their games. Jack barked out orders and blocked dirty pitches like a real catcher, and the infield was hermetically sealed. Shane and Ted made eye-popping catches and Tom made a diving stab to save Jay's cleanest no-hitter. The Giants were undefeated in the regular season and in August they reached the championship game, to be played across Regent Avenue at glamorous Central Park.
The game was just a formality, a good time to be had by them. Tom was in fine absurdist form, playing every low-functioning character he could muster. Beef and Ted were chewing gum and doling out choice sarcasm and Ross, who had just started smoking grass, was having laughing fits. This loosened Shane, who always needed it. Jay strutted to the mound, figuring he just had to get the ball over the plate.
"Wrong," to quote a local English teacher. The other team touched up Jay in the first inning and the Giants fell behind. Jay was stunned, but upon further review -- for which he had plenty of time -- it figured; after all, the other team had reached the championship game, too. There had to be a reason for that.
Reason was they were good hitters. They were waiting on Jay's curves and jumping on his fastballs. Pitchers hate long innings -- they prefer the one-two-three variety -- and Jay stood out there longer than he ever had. By the time Nommer relieved him in the sixth inning, Jay was red-faced and humiliated. The score was 7-5. The Hamilton Park Giants were losing.
Jay slumped on the bench, confronting that familiar feeling of doom. He had pitched poorly, his team was going to lose, and that's the way it would be until the end of time.
The Giants were retired in order in the bottom of the sixth. Shane's anger was kicking in, Ross' buzz was wearing off, and Jay was staring at his cleats. Nommer held them in the top, and here it came: bottom of the seventh, last inning, and the Giants were down by two.
Ross led off and took a called strike. Jay winced under his lowered cap. The other team had their relief pitcher in, and he was a flame-thrower. Ross was a left-handed home run-hitter, and he had the purest, strongest swing on the team, but like most power hitters, he was prone to strike-outs. He had to get his bat on the ball.
The next pitch was fast, but it was a groove. Ross smashed it deep into right-center and waddled off in fast-motion, his stiff-legged sprint carrying his heft to second base. Next up was Kenny, who jumped on the first pitch and punched a seeing-eye grounder into right field.
Ross stopped at third, Kenny held at first, and up stomped Shane. Jay's posture improved, but still, there was no way. The other team was capable of turning double plays, even on lightning like Shane. They weren't going to give up three runs in the last inning.
Shane was good, but even the best hitters fail twice in every three trips to the plate. Every baseball fan knows that a hit, walk, or error is a bad bet: you're going to lose more than half the time. Shane didn't have time for those calculations. He snarled at the first pitch -- letter-high -- muscled it over the centerfielder's head, and tore off like he was racing a tortoise.
Jay didn't stand up right away. There was a fence to stop the ball's roll; surely the centerfielder would get to it in time. Ross had already scored, and Kenny was in the process. The centerfielder hit the relay man as Shane rounded third.
The Giants leaned toward home plate, shouting and waving. Jay stood up from the bench, not believing it. Ross' eyes went wide as he signaled for Shane to slide, as Shane flew down the third base line into a big dust-up and local lore.
Shane allowed himself a smile as the Giants patted his helmet down over his face. Ross grabbed and shook everyone, sporting his gap-toothed grin and gurgling happy sounds. Jay suddenly didn't care about being rocked; he jumped around with his mates. The Hamilton Park Giants were champions. They all went to A & W for root beers, coach's treat, as was the custom.
The next day was just another day in just another suburb, one of those quiet days in late summer where your friend's Mom yells something from some other room when she hears the front door open. There were no trophies -- the economy, or something like that -- and there were no interviews. High school came and went and they carried on, more apart than together.
Shane and Jay crossed paths now and then, and they were always happy to see each other, but the vagaries of life kept them apart. Jay visited Ross a couple times on the North Side, where Ross was trying to make ends meet with his wife and two kids.
Ross always denied that Jay had thrown any no-hitters, let alone two. Jay's protests were cut off by Ross' gurgles, the kind where he delights in your anguish until you realize he's just kidding. Jay and Ross were glad to break bread together, even if eight years had passed.
Shane eventually lowered his temperature by meditating and fasting with Buddhists in Tibet. Jay was right about that row he had to hoe, but to his occasional dismay he managed to stay alive.
Ross took his own life when he was 35. He died alone on a Monday morning in December of 1997. There isn't a single word about Ross on the Internet: nothing about his cheeky wit or his great hitting, nothing about his dog Brandy. Just a bare, official record of his passing on a governmental website.
Jay always thought that the season should not be forgotten: not because it was the glory days, not because it was important, but because it was poignant. Minnesota's Hamilton Park Giants, age 14-16, won the Brooklyn Park Athletic Association baseball championship in the summer of 1978. It was a trifle then, and it's less than that now, but in the championship game Ross did start their comeback with a double, and that's worth remembering.