Last Sunday I drove though my hometown (which isn’t far from where I live) and stopped off at the Little League park at which I was first introduced to baseball. It was late afternoon and rain had drawned large portions of the diamonds and grass. Nobody was there and I sat in the bleachers of the Majors field for a few minutes and snapped some photos of the waterlogged terf. After a few minutes of sitting, I ventured over the gravel parking lot and through the vacant concessions area over to the Intermediate field, where I have the most vivid memories of Little League. Not good experiences, either. And at the risk of sounding like a person who whines about bygone days I’ll say it was a bit weird to look out nearly twenty years later on a field where I had so little fun.
I was in the fourth grade and played for second base and leftfield. If memory serves me, we wore a blue uniform and I managed no hits for the entire season, which was probably about 10-12 games. I was a laughing stock on the team, I believe, petrified of stepping into the batters box for fear of getting plunked. It’s very normal for batterds to get beaned in Little League and Babe Ruth as pitchers lack the accuracy. Few kids could ever really be hurt by a pitched ball, although it is possible – particularly with the use of extremely light weight bats – that a linedrive could cause some damage.
I can’t account for how many times I was hit during my at-bats that year. It must have been enough to really freak me out because when I would get up, my strategy was to draw a walk rather than risk getting whacked on the forearm, elbow or shoulders. In Little League, a pitcher can only walk so many batters before the umpires force the hitter to strike out or put the ball in play.
I remember one Friday night we were just such a situation in which the pitcher couldn’t issue anymore walks and so I stood in the batters box with fright, diving backward with every pitch, all of which danced out of the strike zone, prolonging the at-bat and making me look foolish. My father was on one of the small bleachers watching. My teammates were shouting to me to swing. A coach was as well. Dad has always been a mild-mannered person and so he was about the only person who probably who wasn’t pushing me along to swing.
The intermediate Little League field where I embarassed myself in the spring of 1990!
Eventually the umpire told me I had to take some cuts and I did, closing my eyes and flailing the bat through the strikezone three times. I was down on strikes, relieved to be out of the dreaded batters box but ashamed at having been shown up by my cowardice. I was ten at the time and until then was pretty assured of my baseball abilities and enthusiasm. After that, it took several years for me to have any interest in the game. My father, while driving me home from the park, told me there wasn’t much point in my playing Little League if I wasn’t going to even bother batting. The whole situation was humiliating, really.
Finally, on the last day of the season, batting lefthanded, I bunted the ball back to the pitcher and was called out, but I suppose it was better that I’d risked getting plunked. I can’t remember if my father was there for the game. All I know I was happy when it was done.
Nevertheless, the shame of the whole thing, of being neutered in a way in front of my Dad was awful. That summer I began playing hockey at a summer camp where I began to turn that shame into something more agressive. Over the next few years – and especially after I started playing at a level that permitted contact – I would go out of my way to get into the action (whether it helped or not) and play the body. My father watched a lot of those early morning games and I suppose I felt I had to show him that like one of my older brothers who also played hockey, I was not scared of getting knocked down, even if indeed I wasn’t looking forward to it. For youth hockey, I became something of a decent player, actually. I ended up scoring goals even and skating well.
When I finally did decide to take another crack at baseball, it was because of my undying interest in the game. It was seventh grade and I played Babe Ruth. I wasn’t much of a hitter, I suppose, because it took me about five or six games to finally get a hit, but when I stepped into the box I wasn’t so afraid of getting plunked because I felt my father’s eyes on me whether or not he was there. There had to be some manhood and bravery to show him. I couldn’t whine and cry about getting my hand bruised or a welt on my back from an errant pitch. I was never a good baseball player, per se, but the three years I played in Babe Ruth were fun and the fear of getting wailed was nonexistent, particularly after I learned how to lean towards the catcher instead of diving out of the box.
It’s strange that I should be thinking a lot about that 45-foot from home-to-first diamond, but I suppose it is because recently I have been visiting some of the bad thinking habits I’ve developed over the years and I see that some of them are indeed rooted in events and mental misconceptions from childhood. As I said, my Dad was never heavy handed. He was sweet actually and though at times I have felt very weak in his presence because of how stoic he his, he is a good friend. In hindsight, I know my Dad was never the type of screaming loon sports father that some kids had and that when he told me I should quit Little League it was more because it was a waste of my time and his time than anything else.
Still, over the years, I suppose I’ve never totally shaken a feeling that I don’t live up to unemotive person that my father can be at times; the man who rarely complains, who seems to take discomfort in stride and succeeds at so many things. The man who went to a great college, earned two masters degrees and risked his life in Vietnam as a young man. I’m not sure if this is all fair to my father, either. He’s quiet, but he’s loving and certainly has supported and encouraged his children. It’s really strange how for years I could have these thoughts and yet unlike some of my friends, my father never called me a fuck up, never struck me and even at times put his arm around me during hard times, trying his best to provide some support.
I realize it’s a meme of sorts (if that’s the right word). Or maybe it’s a cognitive distortion that Dad is dissapointed in me, that I don’t live up to his expectations. It’s slightly self-centered really. After all, the man has three other sons and a daughter. I guess it all comes down to him appearing the strong silent type and me being more vocal about things that are going on in my head. I suppose as I kid I transformed my father into something he isn’t and recently as I watched him bury my beloved grandfather, I started to understand just how human this man really is, flawed even, to the point that I feel I love him even more.
Whether it was striking out in Little League, getting bad grades through most of school, having health problems in college or being laid off from my first serious job, Dad’s always been there. The strong silent type, sure but someone who truly does care about his family, whether they make it big or not.