Issue: 39


Outside the Box with Beta Nu

                                                       by Bill Hudson


For the past few months, I've been painting with my 14-year-old granddaughter Lauren Cox who is very talented in both art (see her recent painting on the left) and sports .... particularly fast pitch softball. I often think how much we have in common. The other day Lauren asked, "Grandpop, how should I paint this?" I told her that watercolor and softball are similar. You practice, you develop skills, and you approach each game or painting with a plan and expectations. But you can't completely control the outcome of either. And as we were talking, I began laughing to myself as I recalled "the softball game" that quickly departed from everyone's plans and expectations .......


I was a brother of Beta Nu fraternity when I studied engineering at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) in Philadelphia back in 1962 - 1967. At that time there was no Men's Dorm. Instead, all non-commuting freshmen lived in fraternity houses which numbered about fifteen. Consequently, the Greek community was large and well established, and inter-fraternity sports had significance. Beta Nu was recognized far more for its athleticism than for its academic achievements and for us ...... well, we could accept flunking a class or two, but not losing a football game.  


I enjoyed all of the fraternity sports ... basketball, football, softball, ping-pong, and track. But, it was softball that I worked particularly hard at. That was because our league was fast pitch and Beta Nu no longer had a bona fide fast pitcher. That, of course, required a unique, well-developed, unnatural skill. Unfortunately, our main rivals, Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE), had a great pitcher. So I took it upon myself to keep us competitive and learn the mechanics of fast pitching.


When I was home on engineering work assignment I began throwing every day into a crude backstop that I put up in my backyard. When I went back to Drexel, I started pitching to our catcher, Joe Pustizzi, on the side yard of the fraternity house during the daylight hours, and down our third floor hallway at night. I was a tall skinny kid at 6'3'', 180 pounds, and while lunging forward with my long right arm going full-circle and gaining maximum velocity at the precise moment the ball was released, I realized I had a natural gift. I had amazing speed. Did I have control? Not even close! Pustizzi would just laugh as pitches sailed over the next door, 3-story, girl's Panhellenic House that we used as our backstop. At night, when throwing to Pustizzi in the hallway, I bounced balls off of two, sometimes three walls before breaking the exit signs. I put a lot of effort into learning this style of pitching and I finally settled on two conclusions. I was exceptionally fast. And I was incredibly wild. And they were the two pitches that I eventually took into the championship game against the TKE's.


We had a great team on the field that day. One of the best and most competitive athletes that I ever knew was Joe Lentz. Lentz was our shortstop. As captain of the team, Lentz did not accept defeat well. Oh, and one other thing ... Lentz actually hated TKE's! The game started and proceeded predictably. Their pitcher was good and we only managed a few hits and maybe one or two runs. I was throwing fast and nobody hit the ball. But then again they didn't have to. I'd walk 3 or 4 every inning.


The game was about even for the first few innings. And as frustrating as I was for my own team, they knew I was doing my best and they kept supporting me with infield chatter. But the TKE's were growing more and more obnoxious from their dugout on the third base side. They kept jeering me, shouting how wild I was, and just kept up a repugnant, relentless noise. It was getting to Joe Lentz more than me and I could tell it when he started yelling profanities back at their bench from shortstop. And that was right in front of all their girlfriends. This scene was getting worse and worse, and I think the TKE's had gone up by a run. So with the bases loaded, TKE up by one run, and maybe one out, a furious Lentz called, "Time" and came walking up to me on the mound. It was like I was being approached by the burning bush. Anger had totally consumed him, and I thought he was going to take it out on me. But as pissed off as Lentz was, and as much as he wanted to beat the damn TKE's, he calmly put his glove up to his mouth and quietly commanded, "Hit em all! Every f-----g one of em!" Without another word, Lentz left the mound and went back to short.


Now standing alone on the mound, it took me a few seconds to digest this completely new approach to our national pastime. It was a brilliant strategy in its simplicity, but it had some obvious shortfalls. Before I threw the next pitch, I thought about how the game was about to change and, like any young engineer would, I wondered, "How can this possibly end?" But Lentz was, without challenge, the captain of the team. It was up to me to follow his orders and we would all find out the answer to that question shortly.


On the very next pitch I pegged this guy in the ribs. He went down and there was a groan from the TKE's. He got up slowly and headed to first base as another run trotted home. The TKE's began yelling again. Lentz instinctively responded with more obscenities. I wound up, threw another pitch to the next batter and actually missed the guy by a couple of feet too high. More yells. The second pitch hit the dirt at his feet and he jumped over it for ball two. But the third pitch was near perfect. It was a kidney shot and he was hurt. I looked toward third as the runner started to come home. I got a glimpse of Lentz who was now smiling. The TKE's cheered for the run, but they had to put in a substitute runner on first. The next batter I nailed on the very first pitch. The TKE's weren't cheering now. In fact, I looked at the on-deck circle and actually saw fear in the eyes of their pitcher who was due up next. I had gained an appreciation for the "Lentz Plan." And after the 5th guy that I had hit in a row, I discovered a new calm in my pitching approach. My accuracy had really improved when I was aiming for the bigger, life-size, shaking targets. If a pitch "got away" from me for a called strike, it was purely by accident. Pustizzi, our catcher, was now "all in" with our tactics and his glove was carefully positioned waist-high in the middle of the batter's box for my target. By this time, my entire team had caught on and were cheering in wonder with each pitch.


But the game was becoming a travesty. Any other umpire would have quickly figured out what was going on and thrown me out of the game. But on this day, our umpire was a Lambda Chi who also hated TKE's. That became even more obvious when I hit their big first basemen with the second pitch in the meat of his thigh. He knew it was coming, but wanted to show how tough he was by holding his ground and just taking it. As he limped down to first, our umpire yelled, "Ball two." The batter stopped running. You could hear "What the ____?" from the TKE bench. Lentz responded with, "Hey, let's play ball you chicken ____s!" and the umpire clarified his call by saying, "The batter made no attempt to avoid the pitch." That batter was hurting as he came back to the box. And you could see he was thinking. If he successfully avoided the next pitch, it too would be called a ball, but he would just have to do it again or be hit again. So he opted to bunt at the ball even though it was coming right at him. It was self-defense and it partially worked. He did bunt; we fielded it, stepped on home for the force out and threw to first for the double play.


Now the rest of the TKE team saw some merit in this response to the "Lentz Offensive", especially since each had been hit at least once and were coming up for round 2. And thus, the game quickly changed that sunny day in Philly. Rather than get nailed, the TKE's began to bunt at everything. My strike zone had suddenly increased by 300%. Instead of every hit batsman hobbling to first base ... we had plays. The game resumed like no other game has ever been played. Every pitch was aimed straight at the batter and every TKE just tried to protect themselves with the bat to avoid being hit again and again. It was like a reverse Whack-A-Mole.


I do know we eventually lost that game, but both teams had learned a lot. And after all, isn't that what sports are all about? Even though we gave up a lot of runs as I hit every man the first time through the order, we began to catch up in the later innings when they resorted to the "bunt defense." Had we initiated the "Lentz Offensive" in the first inning, I believe we could have won. But no calm, sane man could have devised such a plan. No ... it took 3 innings to get Lentz enraged to the point of activating brain centers that are used only in the fog of war. And it required an umpire who also hated TKE's to allow it to proceed.


So how does this story relate to art? Well, a lot of life's lessons can be learned quickly from sports. And a lot of those lessons are applicable to art. On this particular day in Philadelphia, I learned something that has stayed with me for fifty years now. And that is:


 Sometimes if we think or act "outside the box", and the conditions are right,

amazing things can happen.





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