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For Opening Day

(This is from last year.)

Somewhere it is written that boys must join Little League where they will learn about physical fitness and teamwork and self reliance and the other manly virtues. Introducing boys to baseball is an ideal way to develop them into young men. This benefit is now extended to little girls so that virtue no longer belongs to men alone, but the premise is the same: Baseball is good for America. Little League is viewed as wholesome and American and baseball as nothing less than preparation for the rest of life.

The seasonal nature of baseball and school compresses the Little League season into a few months in the spring. Everything, from organizing to training to competition, is jammed between about St. Patrick’s Day and the last day of school. This is probably appropriate for nine-year olds whose concepts of time are, at best, no wider than a week or so. Entering into a Little League season with its calendar of practices and games is a long term commitment.

For the nine year old, Little League baseball is the only path to social standing and personal identity. That spring, I happily brought home the note announcing the tryout session for Saturday. Come the appointed morning, I rode my bike to the play field, looking for baseball heaven. I found nothing but two kids playing catch. I had missed the tryouts. Everyone else in my class was going to be in Little League except me. I had been left behind. Little League was gone.

I pedaled home in tears. Closer examination of the note by my mother showed that I was a week early. Enthusiasm had warped time and I had gotten the wrong Saturday.

On the correct Saturday, hundreds of nine year-olds crowded the field. At registration tables for each age group we submitted forms and fees in exchange for a large card bearing a number. Volunteer moms pinned the cards to our shirts and shuttled us into lines. Young players slammed fists or balls into gloves trying to get the pocket just right. Moms and dads hovered at the edge of the crowd while disinterested siblings scampered about. Men with clipboards commanded lines of placarded boys to move to the different stations. I was thrilled just being there.

The first tryout was fielding. An older boy hit fly balls to about ten of us at a time. Somebody else always caught the ball.

We reported to a backstop for the next station. Each boy had three chances to demonstrate his batting skill. Arrayed to one side sat a row of men with sunglasses on lawn chairs, holding pencils poised over clipboards. Suddenly, there I was, at the plate, all alone. Everyone, the boys in line, the pitcher, the catcher, the fielders and, worst of all, the seated men, all watched ME. A seventh grader smiled malevolently from the mound.

Pitch, swing. Pitch, swing. Pitch, swing. The men in the chairs wrote on their clipboards. Although I missed every pitch, I have no recollection of any feeling of failure though. My sense of baseball then was less about catching and hitting than it was about belonging to baseball.

A week later, boys at school announced that they had been assigned teams and I worried because I had not heard from anyone. One evening, I received a telephone call from a strange man. He who told me that I had been selected for his team. I was so excited that ran to tell my mother and I didn’t think to remember his name or to ask when or where I was to report for practice. My mother had to make several phone calls to reconstruct things.

I was in! I was on a team! A sports writer once proclaimed that baseball is all about coming home, and when I reported my assignment to my classmates, I was home, a member of the Brown House (for the sponsoring department store) Miracles. After that first practice, team mates wore the same caps to school and hung around together. The world split between those who on a Little League team and those not, then subdivided by colored cap.

The euphoria of being on a team soon began to fade. Just as marriage can dissolve into bills and diapers and a new job can become just another Monday, my career crashed into one harsh reality: I had no talent for baseball. Not only did I not know the rules (which were never taught), but I couldn’t catch, I couldn’t hit, and I couldn’t run. At first, I attributed these shortcomings to equipment. But new shoes and a new mitt and my own bat did not compensate for being afraid of the ball and for a serious lack of athletic aptitude. I was a klutz.

Little League policy entitled each kid to play a minimum number of innings. This guaranteed opportunities for me to strike out and stand around in right field. Even when a ball made it all the all the way out to me, I could only run after it (if I didn’t trip) and throw it in the direction of home plate. All I can remember is people yelling at me. At bat I struck out. Once, just once, I was thrown out at first base. But I usually just struck out. Only in my very last game in my second season, did I actually score a hit.

This lack of baseball skill resulted in an immediate rift between me and the more accomplished athletes. They hit regularly and they competently pitched and caught and threw to the adulation of parents. They could play baseball and they saw that I could not. Not only did I not help win, I contributed to losing.

The coaches, dads just doing the best that they could, were all very patient, and I cannot recall a single critical remark from any adult. However, the sneers and insults and complaints from teammates all blend now into one bad memory.

That was it for sports and me. The jocks went their way and I went mine. Naturally, it did not help that I developed an asthma condition or that I was a little overweight. The next athletic competition I entered was at age 30 when I got sucked up by the running craze and did a fun run with some other cops. But this wasn’t really a competition and running is not a team sport.

This early separation from the group formed my social development: I became a bit of a bookworm and joined other, non-athletic clubs like the school paper, if I joined a club at all. I did not date in high school and I married just once. Although I have always managed to be employed by institutions, my work remained solitary in nature. The awards in my personnel folder cite “independent action” and “initiative.” Like the time I arrested that rapist when a dozen other officers searched for him blocks away. Or one night when two of us commandeered a Coast Guard cutter and rammed a drug smuggler. One thing that made me a good Scoutmaster was not being the least bit concerned how I looked to other adults while wearing a brown uniform and relating to twelve year-olds. I couldn’t teach them to bat, but I showed them how to saddle a horse and how to right a canoe.

Today I do not read the sports pages and I do not watch games on TV. The only good part about baseball on TV is holding hands with my wife, but I can’t even do that for nine innings. She explains the game to me and I wonder how a girl learned all that and I did not. I think I am still afraid of the ball.

In any event, I haven’t missed the athletes and I suspect that they haven’t missed me either. Being unable to catch or hit meant that I could not belong to baseball, so I had to belong to myself. Although I have valued being a member of a good team, I never needed a team to do what I wanted or to succeed.

I guess they were right; baseball is preparation for the rest of life.

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