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The Grand Slam Life of the Shortstop from Georgia
Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today.
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field
A-roundin’ third, headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.
Put Me in Coach by John Fogerty From the album Centerfield (1985)
Ask any guy or gal who has “oiled-up” even one ball glove in their lifetime will tell you shortstop is one of the toughest positions to play in baseball, if not the toughest. Some may argue third base; the legendary “hot corner” is the place where many all-time greats etched their names in the history books. Others will add catcher to the debate. Yes, the catcher has many duties, plus the wear and tear on their body makes young men old before their time. But, the number six position on “America’s Diamond” is where superior athleticism and bulldog tenacity has been showcased since the first two baseball teams took the field in 1846 at Elysian Field in Hoboken, N.J.
The shortstop or SS position, as identified in respectable scorebooks or team rosters, is located in the “alley” between second and third bases. Baseball statistics validate the fact there are considerably more right-handed hitters than those who hit from the left side of the plate. Consequently, all those right-handed batters, and a lot of lefties too, hit more balls in that alley patrolled by the shortstop than any other space on the field.
The velocity and height of the balls hit to the shortstop ranges from the slow dribbler to ones that seem more like a bullet than a baseball. The responsibility of sky-high pop flies to tricky Texas leaguers usually fell at the feet of the shortstop as well. And of course, you can’t have a traditional 6-4-3 doubleplay without an SS.
This is the kind of assorted action that has challenged the professional skills of major leaguers like Phil Rizzuto, PeeWee Reese and Maury Wills for decades. They are the heroes to those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s and believed heaven-on-earth was a semi-level patch of dirt big enough to accommodate a sticky, sweaty band of baseball brothers’ summer, after summer, after summer.
Ernie Hodge can’t recall a time during his growing up years in Warner Robins, Ga., he didn’t play shortstop. Baseball was his first love, but as is the case with almost every red-blooded Georgia boy, football would consume his heart and soul well before the first leaf hit the ground each fall. In the summer months, of course, it was baseball from dawn to dusk for young Hodge and all who were big enough to hop on a bike and wheel their way to an agreed upon location. Everyone was always welcome to come play ball.
On the way to the field, players were tasked with scouting for anything closely resembling a home plate, bases or other items that would add structure to the game. The rag-tag accouterments quietly inspired the boys to abide by the rules, as well as bring a bit of order to the game they adored.
As the adventures of boyhood progressed for Hodge and his buddies, the sandlot games gradually became a lesser part of their summers. More organized games and official leagues were a respected, historical progression eagerly followed by all the boys.
It’s hard to believe, but word-of-mouth communications, and not e-mails, cell phones or text messages, adequately notified the boys in early spring of sign-up locations for Little League. All the anxious youngsters in Warner Robins, got signed-up without delay and without the aid of modern technology.
“Back then you’d never think about asking your mom or dad to drive you to where you’d sign-up for Little League,” Hodge said. “Me and my buddies would get on our bikes or walk to wherever it was we needed to go. We learned to get it done ourselves. It helped build our independence and confidence.”
Hodge had no idea how important those lessons about self reliance and independence he learned as a kid were. These would not only support him, but also save his life in the years to come.His coaches and teammates identified Hodge’s athletic prowess almost the minute his joined his first Little League team, the Giants. He, of course, was their shortstop.
At the ripe old age of 9, Hodge made the “A” team and played with boys three years older. It was the kind of challenge and opportunity Hodge relished. It forced him to always stay on his toes, hone his athletic skills and mature a bit quicker than kids his own age. With each passing year, Hodge’s athletic skills were recognized by everyone in his small Georgia hometown. Stories of his days on the playing field became legendary. Honors and deserved accolades came his way on a regular basis.
“I remember one time when I hit two grand slams in one ball game. Just to be in a situation where you have the opportunity to maybe hit two grand slams is unusual, but to hit two is amazing,” Hodge said.
Yes, Hodge is absolutely right. Hitting two grand slams in one game is amazing. It is just as amazing that 50 years later Hodge was reunited with the player who threw the pitches Hodge launched over the fence for both of his grand slams. The two old adversaries instantly began to reminisce about the moment-in-time that would be treasured forever by both men.
As his stellar high school days began to wind down, Hodge began to plot and play the next chapter of his life—college. With the comfort of knowing he’d been accepted to Georgia Tech, Hodge set out to secure a good summer job. His first job that summer was digging ditches, but with only three weeks remaining before he was to leave for college Hodge switched jobs. Now, instead of having his feet firmly planted on the ground digging ditches, he’d be up high helping reroof dilapidated old buildings on the Robins Air Force Base. He went from earning $1.25 per hour maneuvering a shovel, to $2.50 working on a roof, but his financial upgrade would be short lived.
Hodge climbed the ladder to the rooftop, ready to put in an honest day’s work when the roof collapsed underneath him. In an instant, he hit the hard ground below. The fall knocked him out. He awoke in the hospital operating room to the distinct sounds of a drill rumbling in his ears.
“I was lying on a cold operating room table and my head was vibrating from the drilling. My whole body was tingling. I didn’t know exactly what had happened, I just knew it must be bad,” Hodge said.
Despite all the commotion in the operating room, Hodge mustered up the courage to ask the doctor what had happened. His answer was direct and to the point. He told Hodge he had fallen through the roof and broken his neck. The result was paralysis from his chest down.
In the blink-of-an-eye, the young, dynamic 18-year-old Georgia boy who could run faster and jump higher than his peers would never walk again. The joy of turning toward home, after hitting a grand slam was taken away from Hodge—forever.
Like so many others before him, Hodge believed everything would be OK, and he would soon be walking again. Yet, at the end of his seven weeks in the hospital, he was still living his new life in his wheelchair. Now he was headed to Warm Springs Rehabilitation Facility, made famous by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“In my mind I was sure the water at Warm Springs would get me going, and I’d regain movement in my body, but a guy who had been in a wheelchair for 10 years set me straight,” Hodge said.
Hodge had a reality check delivered by a new friend he had made at Warm Springs. It was chilling. He told Hodge people with spinal cord injuries like his, didn’t go in the water because it wouldn’t help. Instead, they were going to teach him how to live his new life in a wheelchair. It was at that moment Hodge painfully accepted the fact he would never walk again. It was also at that moment he reached back and grabbed hold of those simple, yet powerful lessons of strength, independence and self-reliance he had learned as a boy back on the ball field in Warner Robins.
While still at Warm Springs, Hodge’s spirits were lifted by scores he had made on aptitude tests administered by a staff psychologist. The scores were very high and confirmed he should continue his pursuit of a college education. Unfortunately, the campus of Georgia Tech was less than friendly to students with disabilities. With that in mind, it was recommended he apply to the University of Illinois, and he did. There was one catch: Hodge could not attend classes until he could prove his ability to take care of himself in the dorm and on campus. Up to this point, in his new life, he had relied on others to help him get ready for the day. He had never dressed himself, by himself.
In a few short weeks after rolling on the bed wrestling with socks, shoes, shirts and pants, Hodge had mastered the art of dressing himself. His hard work paid off and he passed a rigorous test administered by Chuck Elmer, the University of Illinois physical therapist. Hodge was tasked with getting dressed without any help and then getting to the campus bus stop by 8 a.m. Hodge did it, and Mr. Elmer gave him the green light to move into a dorm and start his freshman year. In 1972, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering. The year before his graduation, Hodge and his wife, Mary Pat, were married in his hometown. Both are graduates of the University of Illinois, and both are disabled. Due to polio, Mary Pat has used a wheelchair since age 7.
After graduating, the happy couple moved to Gainesville, Fla., where Hodge earned a master's degree from the University of Florida. His career then took him and Mary Pat to a variety of locations across the United States. Eventually, they returned to Florida and then made a decision, which would hopefully add another element of joy to their life, and it did. They began the process of adoption. Two years later, they gave the name Melissa to a healthy, three-week-old baby girl. Today, Melissa is 25, married and going to nursing school with hopes of someday working at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga., with injured spinal cord patients like her dad.
If only Hodge had just stuck with the job of digging ditches in August of 1966, his life might be a lot different today—but he didn’t. Fortunately, after his accident he put his bulldog tenacity and athletic attitude ingrained in every shortstop who ever played the game to work in all aspects of his life. He has turned, what could have been a life as rough as a makeshift ball field into his own field of dreams. Like the song says, Hodge chose to live his life in “a special place where you can be born again and there is always new grass on the field.”
Thank you, Ernie Hodge, for showing us how to make life a grand slam!
Ernie may be reached at email@example.com.