The score was tied, the bases were loaded and nobody was out. It was the fourth inning of a World Series game. On the mound for the hometown team was a 13-year-old who appeared a half-foot smaller than the 5 feet 2 listed in the program.
At the plate was Arkansas' cleanup batter, another 13-year-old just a few square meals short of 6 feet. His first time up he had hit a ball over the center field fence 310 feet away.
The Frederick crowd was chanting its own name, letter by letter. The folks from Arkansas, and it might have been half the state, were stomping their feet and "calling the hogs" with one "soo-ee" after another. On the other side of the left field fence people were sitting in their front yards on lawn chairs under a hot, summer night sky, watching baseball for free.
"This is good baseball," said Dorothy Pirone, the 62-year-old daughter of Babe Ruth who spent last weekend watching 13-year-olds play for the national championship of a league named after her father. "I like the game and I love the kids."
The Babe Ruth World Series for 13-year-olds, their coaches, parents and large-lunged friends rolled into this city from nine states last weekend like a calliope. It will end Saturday. It began with a parade through downtown Frederick Saturday morning. Monday the show went to Washington for a White House tour. Between the baby-kissing by politicians and the flag-waving by everyone else, there even has been some baseball played.
Except for the Frederick team, which was automatically invited as host team, the other eight teams advanced here by winning league, division, state and regional tournaments. The players may be just 13, but they have all the major league moves down.
They have nicknames like Spike, Flash and Dr. Long Ball. They all wear their baseball caps at a perfect tilt, recite the time-worn infield chatter and slide into second base cleats high. Ask how many plan to some day play in the major leagues, and every hand reaches for the sky.
What makes these 13-year-old all-star games so great to watch is their unpredictability. In one inning you can see a great diving catch, a throw from short center field over the backstop and a double steal, from first and third. In an entire game you get as many baseball situations as you'd see in a year of watching the pros.
"All these players have to be very good to get this far," said Al Kahl, the father of a player for the Appleton, Wis., team. "But they're still 13-year-olds. Anything can happen."
While the Afton team flew to Frederick, the parents, grandparents and fledgling girlfriends drove 18 hours to get here. They all wear matching blue and white shirts with their names printed on the back. And they form a cheering section that rivals the Arkansas crowd.
"It may not help the team, but the screaming sure helps us to relax," said Kahl. "All the parents get together to hold hands and not feel nervous."
The Afton crowd claims its farming city of 60,000, between Milwaukee and Green Bay, is as baseball crazy as American towns ever get. Don't worry about the soccer craze, in the heartland of cheese country the grand old game has not lost any appeal.
Frederick is not exactly blase about its baseball. There is Little League and Pony League, Babe Ruth League, American Legion and semipro ball, all of it supported by a city of only 30,000 people. During the summer at least two and sometimes three games a day are played at the downtown ballpark that seats 5,000 people and has just been refurbished at a cost of more than $100,000. Frederick is exactly the kind of city that youth ball depends upon.
"We favor a smaller community for our World Series," said Ron Tellefsen, the president of Babe Ruth baseball, which claims that more than 300,000 people are involved in leagues in every state but Alaska. "We have a captive audience."
The audience this weekend for the first two days of the eight-day tournament saw more baseball than they had any right to expect. Sunday, from 1 in the afternoon until after midnight, teams from California, Tennessee, Brooklyn, South Boston and Missouri kept the hits and errors coming. All the players are competing on fields with major league dimensions for the first time. That tends to put excitement back into the routine grounder to third.
"It's almost impossible for a 13-year-old catcher to throw somebody out at second," said Larry Ahalt, the 43-year-old coach of the Frederick team who has been in Babe Ruth ranks for 17 years. Ahalt said that to provide the contrast to his own catcher, Shawn Putman, who threw out three runners at second and one at third during the first 1 1/2 games. Putman also batted .500 and drove in two runs. So naturally, when the Arkansas team came back Sunday to threaten Frederick's lead, Putman was called upon to be the hero.
With the right fielder in to catch, Putman took off his pads and relieved the pitcher. One walk and one bloop single later, the score was tied, the bases were loaded and Ray Pulling was at the plate looking for his second home run of the night.
He got it. The grand slam put Arkansas up, 9-5, with just three innings to play. But Frederick came back to tie in the top of the sixth. In the bottom of that inning, Arkansas went up another two runs. Again Frederick tied with daring base running and the help of a few errors.
"This game deserves extra innings," said one of the Babe Ruth officials watching from a glass box above the field. But in last half of the seventh and last inning, with two out and only an easy infield grounder to field, Frederick buckled under the pressure with a hard throw and a bad catch, and lost, 12-11.