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What if the ball had been fair?

I fell in love with baseball in 1966. I was in the seventh grade, and my best friend David Finlon got me excited about the Pittsburgh Pirates, who made a run for the pennant that year. I could hardly wait until 9th grade to play baseball for the high school team. Unfortunately, the only baseball playing in which I ever participated was with my two younger brothers in the field behind our house. I had no organized experience or coaching whatsoever, so when I joined the team I was infinitely far behind everyone else who had played Little League all their lives. I was nervous as hell about looking foolish, which I did regularly. I chose third base as my position because I knew that statistically I was unlikely to have to make many plays in a typical game. I had a hard time keeping my head down to field grounders hit to me by my coach, and I could barely throw the ball to first. I struck out all the time, especially when hitting against "Iron Mike," the gas-powered pitching machine. My fear of Iron Mike was particularly strong because the very first time I faced the machine it hit me on the outside of my left knee with a 90 mph pitch. The pain and brusing was incredible. Our coach was hardly any help. He was a total hard-ass, expressionless, Marine-like son-of-a-bitch who seemed to have no human feeling except anger or disgust.

I don't think I played in more than 4-5 games over two full JV seasons. I don't remember getting into many games my junior year, either. Despite the lack of evidence for my ability as a baseball player, I believed, deep down, that I could play well if I were just given a chance. I could feel it in me--I felt strong enough to hit the tar out of the ball--I just wasn't getting any chances.

There was one day when it almost happened. I don't remember whether it was 10th or 11th grade, but I had a rare chance to get into the lineup. The pitcher didn't seem too overpowering to me, and I thought I could hit him. He threw a ball over the inside of the plate that seemed like a slow, batting practice pitch to me. I wheeled around on it as hard as I could and clubbed the holy bejesus out of the ball. As it cracked off the bat, everyone from both dugouts emitted an audible "ohh" as the ball sailed at least 400 feet, not just out of the ball diamond but out of the entire recreational area of which the ball field was a part. The only problem was that the ball was foul. After that, I grounded into a fielder's choice or something--I don't remember.

If that ball had stayed fair it would have been the most prodigious home run I saw during the three years I played on the high school team. Yesterday, I considered how my life might have been different if that ball had stayed fair. My confidence might have increased. Maybe I would have been given more time to play and continued to improve. Perhaps athlete would have become part of my identity. My overall self-esteem could have improved, leading to more and more positive things. Who knows?

As it was, we had a very wet spring training my senior year, so we spent most of it in the gym. We got outside once or twice, and I remember one batting practice in which I was smashing the ball out of the field--but the coach hadn't been watching. Toward the end of spring training the coach informed us that the squad was too large and that we would have to cut 3-4 players. The basis for the cuts, on another rainy day, was to face an electric Iron Mike in the gym for ten pitches. If we hit a pitch the coach would try to judge by where it hit the constraining net cage whether it would have been a base hit. I was judged to have hit successfully 6 out of 10 pitches. Most others had at least 7 and I was cut from the team.

What if the ball had been fair?

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
slyfoot
May. 2nd, 2004 05:50 pm (UTC)
I dunno what would've happened if the ball had been fair... but it's possible you wouldn't have turned out to be quite the philosophical sort you are today, in which case I wouldn't have had the pleasure of making your acquaintance!
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