Friday, June 3, 2011

Softball: A memoir chapter 1 "Before the Beginning"

I was never a baseball player. I played baseball. I was good at baseball. I started with tee-ball and was a relative standout until the last year of little league when I was twelve. I was capable. I was a defensive machine. I was never a great hitter. I could get by. I was something special but that something wore off by the time it started to matter.
The last baseball I played was eighth grade for coach Ken McAlpine. Ken McAlpine was a miserable man and a worse coach. He was snotty, ugly and a terrible motivator. He valued hustle more than ability. He did not know baseball. He did not know how to deal with thirteen and fourteen year old kids. He benched his own son out of spite and his son was one of the best players on the team.
I do not blame Ken McAlpine for making me not bad at baseball. I blame a pair of black socks that I wore one game when my girlfriend Iris was coming. I busted my ass the week before in practice to earn a starting spot on third base. Game day came and my socks were dirty, so I wore a different pair and only lasted a couple nerve wracking innings on the hot corner before Ken mercifully moved me out to left field. That was the only coaching decision of his I ever approved of. I don’t remember stats, I think they’re useless, but remembering this game still brings shame to me. I have never failed so miserably at anything than I did at playing third base that day in those socks.
That was my chance to prove that despite my lackluster attitude in practice, I was still a capable ball player; but like I said, I wasn’t much of a ball player at that point. I spent the rest of the season as a utility guy. I got a lot of Chuck Knoblauch comments from guys I had played with for years who couldn’t understand what happened to my game. It was a mental block. Shortstop was still easy, and first base and left field were no problem, but I didn’t get to choose my position anymore after those socks. The season fizzled out. We were a losing club. We had the players, but our management was such trash that it was almost bad on purpose. It was not a good end to my career as a little leaguer. I was slipping, slumping and hadn’t left on a good note. I was not done playing baseball.
I rolled up to high school, a band nerd, fat-ish and getting fatter but still wanted to play baseball. I loved baseball. It was just a slump. I didn’t have fun because the coach was terrible. We didn’t win because the coach was terrible. I still loved baseball. I loved baseball more than anything else that I loved at the time and I didn’t want to play football. I sought out the baseball team at Claremont High School, they weren’t hard to find; they never are. I was allowed to join the fall practice.
How boring is fall practice? Long toss for an hour after school then a bit of infield and then maintenance. Two weeks after I started, I think, it could have been shorter, but I think it was two weeks because two weeks is about how long my patience was at the time, I walked up to the coach and said “I’m going to try out for comedy sports, I’ll see you in the spring,” and walked away before he could think “what the fuck is comedy sports, you faggot?” and say “what the fuck is comedy sports?” Which is what I’m sure is what happened, but I walked away before he could respond and I will never know.
Comedy Sports is high school improv. Each high school in the area has a team and they have weekly matches in the theaters at lunch or at night and it’s basically just a comedy show. I had a couple friends in theater, but they didn’t say anything. What happened was, the older kids, my friend Mike’s older brother and his friends, who were all on the Comedy Sports team told me I was funny and that I had to try out and there was no way I wouldn’t make the team.
I respected these guys because they were older and funny, hence cooler and deserving of my respect. I wanted them to accept me. Why their approval was more important to me than the older guys from the baseball team who I had respected and admired for much longer is not clear to me, but it is a fact indeed. I walked into that theater and fuckin nailed the audition. I didn’t make the team. I’m not bitter anymore, but either way let’s move on and back to baseball.
Spring came and I didn’t go back to the baseball field. I hardly even talked to the guys that had been my friends for the past ten years that stuck with it. Nobody really noticed I was gone. Nobody missed me. That’s when I knew I was nothing special at baseball. Had I had potential, surely someone would have knocked on my door or broken into one of my over the line games with an offer or something to entice me to come play for their squad. It never happened. I walked away from the game to fail at something else.
Thinking back, perhaps I subconsciously knew that I was nothing special and so instead of trying to do something I had a demonstrated skill at and realizing through failure that I had an inflated view of my skill, I went for the long shot and missed and was not as let down because long shots rarely hit and whattayagonnado? But at the time I still thought myself a more than capable ball player. I was a monster at over the line – a slow pitch mix of RPG and baseball that you can play with as little as three people on half a soccer field – and I still had a cannon for an arm. I was underdeveloped, that’s why I wasn’t great. I have more excuses too. I quit without quitting, something that I would perfect over the years.
That was my baseball career. Maybe I peaked too soon. I hit two homeruns in my last winter ball season. I still have the first one in a box. It was Kenny Chouinard’s weak ass curveball that I taught him and that he telegraphed to me when I was up in the late part of a game. He said, “You think you can hit this?” and smiled before throwing what was basically a lob with some topspin; no snap at all, just like my weak ass curve ball. I nailed it dead center. Owen Wolfe and Reed Robertson carried me off the field. I would never be carried off any field again. That should have been my last game. Someone should have stepped up and mentioned how to go out on top instead of letting my skill and interest wane into disassociative delusions of grandeur and wasted talent.
But I made it through the rest of high school, all the way up to three hundred pounds paraphrasing a movie I’d never seen, “I coulda been somebody.” Who knows? Had I stuck with it perhaps I could be bangin around the southeast in a bus full of self-entitled square-jawed douche bags playing for dozens of fans in each city, making whatever minor leaguers make, juicing, boozing and telling dumb barflies that I was a professional baseball player to trick them into sucking my dick. In retrospect again, I’m okay with quitting when I did. I never would have been a big leaguer. I probably may not have even made a college or junior college team. I was never a ball player anyway.
Over the years, though, I had developed a shit ton of essential skills for baseball. I could field ground balls with a piece of cardboard instead of a glove. I could hit fastballs and bad junk pitches. When a line drive was hit, I froze. When a pop fly was hit, my first step was back. My glove never left the dirt. I had the crow’s hop, the sidearm sling, the twelve to six and the glove point. I was a capable baseball player, even when I was a fat slob. It was impressive for others to see such a big boy who could make baseball moves the way I did. I was smooth, polished - for a fat dude. I was better than most who didn’t play, which was enough for me because none of my friends played, so I was the best among the people I cared about most.
As my interest in playing the game waned, and I got my competition fix from golf and marching band, my interest in other areas of baseball faded. I stopped watching the games on television, stopped keeping track of daily stats in the newspapers and stopped collecting baseball cards. For a non-ball-player, I spent a lot of time around the game, but once I started getting away from it, I never quite stuck with any part of it. Soon I wouldn’t know the rotation of the dodgers, or the backup middle infielder. I still well up when I see Kirk Gibson’s home run, just so that’s clear. I still love the game, but my interest in it was definitely slowing to a passive one at best - a memory.
My fondest memories of childhood revolve around baseball. I remember my best friend Tom Littlejohn’s blonde infielder’s mitt. I remember how soft the leather was. The best birthday present I have ever received – to this day – is a black leather Mizuno first basemen’s glove. I didn’t even play first base at the time, but I hated playing catcher and between Mark McGwire and Will Clark who didn’t want to play first base?! I remember hitting red lava rocks over my house into the Simonson’s yard and lying about it. I remember my Aunt Catherine got me a red bat for one birthday. It wasn’t the best bat, but I used it because it was mine, even after I outgrew it I still kept it around because I loved it because it was mine and I loved baseball.
I never went fishing with my Dad. Ever. Not one time. But I couldn’t count the hours I spent out in my front yard tossing a baseball with him. He had one of those old timey mitts from the forties when he was a kid. It was really stiff leather and had four fingers like a Mexican Mickey Mouse hand. I remember the slap when he would catch it in the palm and the face he would make because I was throwing so much heat. My dad and I had baseball. My sister was the oldest, my brother got my dad’s name, but I had baseball. I earned baseball. He would have loved me no matter what, but the choices I made along with my performance pleased him and those were both baseball and I loved baseball because it made him proud of me too.
When I left baseball nothing changed between he and I. Had he wanted me to play or hoped I would continue my career our relationship would have changed, but as a testament to baseball being just an objective correlative for our relationship, its absence had no effect. He has always been and will always be a bastion of support and love. But the first fourteen years of my life the most support and love I got from him had to do with baseball, so it gets the nod. Not to shortchange my mother, either. I remember once in Oxnard, while my dad was trying to light a BBQ on a windy beach, she put on a glove and surprised us all.
            All the above serves to demonstrate that I was not some maladjusted ex-ball player when I got to college, or some has been trying to relive his salad years through a lesser medium. I was just a dude who was better than most for a while, then fell out of it for whatever reason. I still loved the idea of baseball when I got to college. I packed my glove when I moved to the residence halls, having seen tons of movies about college and the housing facility’s ample outside space, I knew was sure to have a catch with someone on a lazy Saturday. I never planned on playing organized baseball again, or any derivatives such as softball.
            Softball, to me, was a pussy sport. For chicks. Fat ones. Not that I wasn’t fat at the time I carried around this opinion, which I was. But I also hated myself deep down because of my weight and the negative repercussions thereof. I knew that I would never be happy as a fat man because of the way it limited my choices. This is not a fat memoir. I was a snob. I was a baseball snob. Baseball was bigger, faster and more hardcore than softball was. Softball was for old people with knee braces. Softball was not even on my radar. I was too fat to play baseball; too slow and out of practice for too long to have maintained any hope for success on the diamond and the only diamonds that existed to me at the time had to do with baseball and Neil, thanks to Saving Silverman – a great film.
            So when my RA’s boss came to our hall meeting and asked if anyone wanted to get onto his softball team, I half laughed to myself. But he was older than I was, and from Chicago, hence, cooler, so I signed up. One night per week I would head a couple blocks over to the intramural fields and play co-ed softball. At the very least, I’d be able to interact with women in an environment I had been comfortable in for as long as I could remember, which was important for me with all the foreignness of college. I was reaching back to stay comfortable in the face of the greatest challenge of my life. Softball would be my touchstone, my safety blanket. No matter what happened in class, on campus, in the dining hall, or the residence halls, I still had something to hold onto and belong to.
            I hated the way I looked. I hated the way girls I wanted to be next to looked at me. Lectures were so impersonal. I didn’t mean anything to anyone but me in class because they were too big to demonstrate my intelligence without being “that guy,” which I did not want at all, so nobody wanted anything from me there; plus I rarely prepared myself for lectures so I didn’t even have relevant demonstrable intelligence. The discussion sections, or labs were more of the same; except I was the comedian, not the guy who knew his shit and could help you study late at night when things inevitably lead to other things.       The dorms, or residence halls were more of the same. I was funny. I was the pre party, the setup guy. I’d hang around and entertain and get everyone around me in the mood to party, then we’d go and I’d either be left out or set up with the fat girl, which I hated because they looked like me and I hated the way I looked.
            But on Jason Maslanka’s softball team “Algo,” I was a standout. My baseball skills were still strong and after the rust came off, I was the guy. It was a relief to play softball. On that sixty foot tilted dirt square I not only fit in, I was admired. After spending six days as the lovable loser, I could put on my old cleats and shorts and go be a star for six innings. People looked to me for acceptance on the softball field. I was in control. I was desired. I was coveted. I mattered. It felt good to be far away from home around a bunch of strangers for once.
            That’s when I started coming out of my shell. The confidence I gained by being good at something I had always been good at, but in a different place spilled over into the rest of my life. I still hated the way I looked, but I had a positive to fixate on and distract me. I didn’t improve my grades, or parlay my near flawless batting and fielding averages into anything worthwhile for a college freshman – I mean pussy – but I sure as hell stopped hating myself so goddamn much and that’s better than pussy.
            And then a strange thing happened: we won. We were the best co-ed team in the league and had t-shirts to prove it. There were about 17,000 people at UC Riverside at the time and to be one of the best of the twelve best at something was incredible. Softball, the pansy sport for fat chicks and old dudes with knee braces, had made me special.
            I used to watch the pretender on CBS. Every episode, Jared would get really into something and use it somehow to get one step closer to his ultimate goal of finding his parents or where he grew up or something. I liked that show a lot. I identify with Jared. While my end goal was not as clear as his was, at the time, that still did not prevent me from diving head first into things in the hopes that they would serve the final purpose, or at least a temporary one until my end game was identified. I think doctors refer to this as an addictive personality, but addictions without consequences are passions, and addictions with purpose are holy quests. Softball became my crusade.

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