Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Rite of Errors

I've never been an athlete.

Let me rephrase that. I've never been a gifted athlete. If I ever join a church around here, let me be the first to say I'll scoot down low in the pew when the pastor's looking for volunteers for the church softball team.

That reluctance stems back to my preteen years. I played little league baseball for a few years. When I say "play", I mean that in the academic sense of the word. I didn't play well. I occasionally hit the ball and even scored a few runs.

At age fifty-three I can remember vividly the first time I went up to bat. "I'm going to hit the ball like Babe Ruth", I imparted to my teammates, most of whom had to prop themselves up, weak from the laughter at that arrogant comment of mine. Their giddiness was validated by two awkward words, which seemed amplified by a factor of ten: "Strike three!

Returning to the bench, I vowed to redeem myself. "Serves me right", I mused, determined to get on base.

That almost payed off the next time I was at bat. My giddy teammates were on the edge of the bench, eager with anticipation the next time I was up. What they didn't realize was that I had armed myself with deductive reasoning. Observing that the right-handed players lined up on the left side of the plate prior to heading to first base, and being left-handed myself, I was about to show them that I was smart enough to redeem my earlier goof.

Didn't happen.

I took the right side of the plate, and having gotten a piece of the ball, promptly ran to third. "Go to first!" seemed to be the collective mantra of my teammates, the parents, and even some of the opposing team members as I corrected my direction and short-cutted directly across the pitcher's mound to be met with "you're out!" by another umpire, who by now was probably wondering what was wrong with me, and could he get a refund for his officiating uniform? By now, my teammates were already planning for futures as financial planners, calculating how much money they'd need to spend on Kleenex to keep their eyes dry while I Don Quixote'd my way around the diamond.

Over time, I began to figure out how to get to get on base. "Keep your eye on the ball!" was sage advice for accomplishing exactly that. Turns out that it was also keen wisdom for anyone playing infield. I learned that while playing first base. On a beautiful Saturday summer afternoon, I happened to have my left foot on the bag with my glove out and palm face up. Daydreaming about the model car kit which was waiting for me on that idyllic day, and how I'd get to stay up and watch the late movie that night, I didn't see the ball which was apparently heading my way. To this day I have no idea how it happened; either one of my teammates assisted me or it was a one-in-ten-thousand shot, but my reverie was promptly interrupted by the ball suddenly appearing in my glove (accompanied by "you're out!" by the same umpire who was by now no doubt questioning his civic duty as a little league official). Someone later told me that I caught a fly ball which seemed targeted for my glove. I'm not sure about that.

My coach (aka, my dad, which was the only reason I actually made the cut) decided to put me out in left field in future games since I was already there anyway, so to speak.

Lo and behold.

Everyone is good at something. In my case, it was standing further away from opposing batters and trying my best to "talk it up" in an attempt to unnerve them and to distract them from focusing on hitting the ball. In a storybook finish to one game, we were ahead by one run with the opposing team at bat and two outs against them. At the bottom of the ninth, the winner of the game would go on to the All Star game. The kid at bat swung, desperately.

And connected.

To me.

Things went quickly. The ball was sailing. I was backpedalling, equally desperate not to let the ball get behind me. The ball was outpacing my "husky" body. I had no choice except to turn my back and beat feet in an effort to turn in time to catch it. When the ball came down, it came down into my glove. My teammates stormed out of the dugout, racing to me. I actually thought, for a moment, that I had screwed up again. "Why are they running at me? Why do they want to beat me up? Wasn't I supposed to catch the ball" I asked myself as "way to go!" was echoed by guys who became future classmates and friends.

The whole thing ended with my dad sending me and my brother to Illinois for a week, ostensibly, to visit my aunt, cousins, and grandmother. I suspect that he was afraid I'd get eaten alive by guys who really knew what they were doing on the field. As it was, I had a great summer. The model car was built, with me hiding in the basement during its assembly, when I got back home. We lost the All Star game, as it happened. Even so, the summer of '72 was a learning curve for all of us. I learned that I wasn't the reincarnation of Babe Ruth. My teammates learned to be patient with my non-athletic prowess.

And we all endured a rite of passage.


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