Wednesday, October 25, 2017

My Glorious Year of Little League by Kevin Dunn

I am fairly certain it wasn’t my idea to try out for Little League baseball that year. I might have been tagging along with a friend, but more than likely I was pushed into it by my parents, looking for a sport at which my eight8-year-old self would excel. Or at the least, not be an embarrassing failure. Fat chance.
I had never really played baseball before and that was painfully apparent at the evening try-outs. When it was finally my turn to approach the plate, I stood ramrod straight and settled the bat onto my right shoulder. Based on my very limited exposure to baseball on TV, that was the stance I thought I was supposed to take. After two pitches and two painfully inept swings -- my first swing was over several seconds before the ball even crossed the plate, while the less said about the second, the better --  some kind father in the stands offered the helpful advice: “Get the gawddamn bat off your shoulder, dipshit! And squat down!”
                After a few more dramatic whiffs, I was told to run to first base. I didn’t realize that this was part of the try-out, to see how fast I was. I slowly sauntered towards first base before I was told to return to home plate to deposit the bat I was still holding (pro-tip: you are supposed to toss your bat to the side after your turn. Who knew?). As I loped down first baseline a second time, the kindly father shouted out: “Jeeesus! Get the gawddamn lead out.”
                It turned out there were more kids applying to play that year than they had established teams. They created a new team and asked all the other teams to donate a couple of players. In classic Bad News Bears fashion, all the teams sent their worst players, so the resulting team was a motley collection of the worst of the worst. I don’t know who originally drafted me, because I was quickly sent to join the castaways.
                We were bad. Epically bad, but without the spunky humor that would make for a good screenplay. They tried everyone out as pitcher in the fruitless hope that one of us would be able to get the ball over the plate with some degree of regularity. None of us could. The kid who eventually got picked to be pitcher, Charlie, would usually either ground the ball out halfway to the plate or, under best circumstances, send a blazing fastball 10-12 feet above the batter’s head.
                I didn’t know what I was doing. In the first game, I managed to connect with a pitch. I ran as fast as I could and slid into first base, where the umpire called me out. I couldn’t believe it. The ball was all the way on the other side of the field. How could I have been out? When I expressed my disbelief upon entering the dugout, my teammates kindly pointed out that I was a butt-brain and it was illegal to slide into first base. I didn’t know that because nobody had ever explained the rules on the assumption that every good American kid would already know them as their patriotic duty.
                I was placed in the outfield where I could do limited damage. The coach rotated the three outfielders around between left, center and right field. Probably to keep the opposing team on their toes.
                I cowered in the outfield, fearing that someone would hit the ball in my direction. During an early practice, when I bent down to get a grounder, the ball popped up and smashed me in the face. I was terrified of the ball from then on.
                We got trounced on a regular basis. I’m fairly certain that there were caps on how many runs a team could get in a single inning, but still we would lose with scores like 14-0 or 20-0. We were in the very basement of the league.
                Until the next-to-last game of the season.
Fortunately my dad was in the stands that afternoon, otherwise I would have no witness.
                We were playing the next-to-worst team in the league. But even then , we weren’t evenly matched. They had actually won games and scored runs. We had never had a single player cross home plate.
                But that afternoon, Charlie was on fire. He was striking people out and the infield was even able to throw out a few runners. As we were heading for the home stretch, the game was a scoreless tie.
                I was in center field when the other team managed to connect with one of Charlie’s pitches. The sound of the ball pinging off the aluminum bat ricocheted around the park. It was a sound that I had grown to dread because it meant that there was a ballistic projectile on the loose, possibly heading for my skull. That was rarely the case, as more often than not the sound accompanied a foul ball. Hearing the reverberating smack of the ball hitting the fencing in front of the fans was always a relief.
                But not this time. There was no follow up fence rattle. This time the ball was going straight up into the air. And straight towards me.
                For weeks afterwards, my dad would speak breathlessly about how high the ball went. How he lost sight of it in the clouds. How he had never seen a ball hit so high.
                I didn’t lose sight of it. Even as it arced its way through the sky, I could tell it was coming for me. I wondered if I should start backing up, maybe drift a little to the right. I remembered enough of my training to shout “I got it” but I doubt I was at risk of anyone running over and knocking me out of the way. The other outfielders were staring dumbstruck at the saga that was unfolding before their eyes.
                Then, as the ball crested and began its speedy descent earthward, I held my glove out in front of me. The ball hit the glove with a resounding thwack. My dad claimed it was like a thunder clap. After a few seconds of stunned disbelief, I looked down to see the ball still cradled in my glove. Miraculously, I didn’t drop it. The crowd of a dozen parents erupted into thunderous applause and cheering. Sally the leftfielder used some profanity to express her delight and astonishment.
                I felt a surge of pride. Too much pride, in fact. Instead of throwing the ball to the shortstop now on second base, I launched the ball back to Charlie on the pitcher’s mound. That was way beyond my skill level, and the resulting throw sent the ball careening over towards third and into the visiting team’s dugout.
It didn’t matter. I was flush with excitement and pride. My ears burned. I waited for another ball to be hit towards me, but none came. After a few more batters, we headed into the dugout with the game tied at the bottom of the last inning.
                I was due to hit second. The kid preceding me struck out trying to connect on several ridiculous pitches. I was feeling my oats and was starting to fantasize about knocking a game-winning homer. The coach must have sensed that, sensing also that the opposing pitcher was running on empty. As I headed to the batter box, the coach told me: “Don’t swing. Whatever he throws, don’t you dare swing at anything.”
I held my bat for the first pitch, which was so wide the catcher couldn’t even reach it. The second pitch looked more doable and I took a swing. I wasn’t even close, but I heard the coach scream “Damnit! I said DON’T swing!!” To my credit, I knew my place. I stood there for several more pitches. One was a strike, but the other two were wide. Full-count. The coach, fearing I might try something stupid again shouted for me not to take a swing. I didn’t. The pitch went wide and I walked to first base.
                The coach convinced the next several batters to stand their ground and not to swing at anything the pitcher was serving up. One of the kids struck out, but two more held their bats. They were walked and I advanced to third base. That was farther than anyone on the team had ever gotten before.
                Bases loadedwith two outs.
                The pressure was too much for the pitcher, who threw four wild pitches. My teammate advanced to first and I walked to home plate. For a run. For the team’s first run. For the team’s first winning run.
                I had scored the winning run by standing still and doing nothing. There was a life lesson in there somewhere.
                At our last game the next weekend, we got slaughtered. The next year I tried out for basketball instead, hoping to capitalize on a minor growth spurt. I’ve never played a baseball game again. 

Kevin Dunn is a professor at a small liberal arts college in western NY. He is the author of  several books, including Global Punk: Resistance and Rebellion in Everyday Life (2016), regularly contributes to Razorcake, and publishes the zine Geneva 13.

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