My Short, Unhappy Life As An Athlete
Let’s just put this out there: I am not an athletic guy. Never have been and never will be. How do I know this? Because I proved it for two summers of youth baseball.
As a kid, I had three interests: cars, reading and hanging around with my friends. OK, watching television would be the fourth, but it was a real interest only when Kevin Bordner next door would invite us over to his house to watch Batman on their color TV.
I do not mean to suggest that I was the kind of couch potato that is common among the soft youth of today. No, the hanging around with friends included lots of bicycle riding all around the neighborhood and the early evening games of tag which we called Smear the Queer because it sounded so much more dangerous. It couldn’t possibly had anything to do with sexual orientation because none of us had the slightest idea what a queer was.
But this idyllic world of carefree youth was shattered one Saturday morning when my mother announced to me that she was taking me to signups for Wildcat baseball. “What? Who decided this?!?” was my impassioned response. No way was I signing up to play Wildcat baseball. Until I was. My mother grew up as the daughter of a German farmer and when she made up her mind, all appeals were summarily dismissed.
As an adult, I do not blame her. My parents were divorced and I think Mom saw the need for some adult males in my life, and what young boy wasn’t drawn to sports? In theory, I mean, because I was most certainly not. So it was settled: I was going to play Wildcat baseball because it was good for me.
Everyone knows about Little League baseball where you had to have some, you know, actual talent to play. Wildcat was different. There were no tryouts with the Wildcat league. If you wanted to play then you got to play. It was no different if only your mother wanted you to play.
The one whiff of good news was that my best friend Tim got signed up too. That whiff then evaporated when he was put on a different team. I don’t think Tim was any more athletically inclined than I was and both of us on the same team might not have been good from a management standpoint.
The season was kind of a blur. I remember a few things. Like striking out a lot. And spending a lot of time standing in right field hoping that nobody hit anything my way because then I might have to catch it. Which was impossible. I would also have to throw the ball to someone in the infield. Which was also impossible. Alright, I can hear you thinking “well with some practice you could do that.” Pffffttt! Practice? Good one. Isn’t that why I had to pedal my unhappy butt over to the ball diamonds on those hot summer mornings?
One day the coach told me to play second base. “This” I thought “is not going to end well.” I walked over to second and waited for the inevitable. “Do you normally play that close to second?” asked the coach. I resisted the urge to reply with a “I don’t normally play second, coach” but kept my lip buttoned and walked in the direction of first base until the coach seemed satisfied. After awhile I caught a ball halfway between my mitt and my front teeth. It hurt, but at least I never had to play second base again.
I do recall one at-bat. Nobody had to pitch anything fancy to me because I would swing and miss at anything that came my way. Unless the coach suggested that I shouldn’t swing at everything. So I would not swing the next time and would get called for a strike anyway. Which made absolutely no sense. But then things got interesting when I saw a ball coming way inside. It looked like it was going to hit me, but I knew that this was impossible because anyone allowed to pitch was good at this. And then it actually hit me in the left thigh. I remember two things. First, it hurt a lot. The second thing was the voice of some kid on my team’s bench saying “No attempt to move!” in his very best sportscaster’s play-by-play voice. I headed for the bench while some other kid was sent in as a pinch runner. I have no idea if he scored.
Somehow my team won the season. Which meant extra games. I got a fairly big trophy for being on the winning team but knew that absolutely no part of that victory was due to my contribution.
The next spring, something really strange happened. My best friend Tim said he was signing up again. And I signed up too. Have you ever done something that you knew was a mistake within the first thirty seconds but there was nothing you could do about it?
But there was something I could do about it. I could simply not go. My mother worked during the day and my sister and I were home by ourselves. Our practices and games were all on weekdays and no parents of any kid I knew were ever there. So I stayed home in our air conditioned house and watched Gilligan’s Island or whatever else was on during team events. I forget what I had to do for my sister to buy her silence but she kept up her end of the deal.
Everything was going perfectly until that day when Mom came home and stuck her head in my bedroom door to ask if I had gotten next week’s schedule. I was engrossed in assembling a model car and said “yeah, Tim picked one up for me.” She and I heard what I said at the same instant, though our reactions were different. She yelled “WHAT?” while I muttered something like “shit” under my breath.
After a couple of hours Mom calmed down and it was decided that she would send my cousin Dave to watch me play. Dave was athletic and if he agreed that I was hopeless then it was agreed that I could quit. Dave went to a practice and a game. Dave understood and reported back that although I seemed to be trying, it just wasn’t happening for me. He tried to be diplomatic so as not to hurt my feelings, but I didn’t care. All I cared about was a verdict of “he really sucks” so that I could be done with baseball. He did, I was, and I could not have been happier.
I eventually grew to like baseball. Watching it or listening on the radio, anyway. And when I had children I signed them up for baseball or softball. But there some differences. First, all of their friends were signing up so they wanted to. Also, I took them to every single practice and watched every single game. We played catch in the front yard as often as they wanted to to work on some skills and I helped them to understand the rules. Oh, and I went to a used sporting goods store and bought a fabulously broken-in mitt because my old mitt (which I had kept for some inexplicable reason) was the most worthless thing ever. No wonder I could never catch a baseball.
The one thing I learned from my own kids’ baseball and softball experiences was that it isn’t always about natural ability. With some teaching, practice, encouragement and a decent attitude, most kids can become reasonably good at the game. Those things, which had all been missing in my own brief baseball career, made all the difference.
So much of this was highly identifiable, except the actually being on an organized team part. Such experiences on my part revolved around creative ways of not participating in physical education in junior and, especially, high school. Whoever in the State of Illinois thought four years of PE was a good idea must have been the child of a German farmer, also.
I had to run a mile in high school gym class. As I finished, the teacher seemed pleased with himself for guessing that I had never done it before. It was actually really apparent given how long it took.
Great story, which rings quite true in my life. Not for me, country children of immigrants in the 70’s got zero sports exposure, which was fine with me, I ran, rode my bike and built car models same as you.
When our son was 8 we signed him up for local little league, like all his friends in school. It was hopeless, but at that young age most of the kids were hopeless so it didn’t matter much. At least you could strike out JP, our boy learned to NOT swing, because he could always get a walk on bad pitching.
The next year was different, all the other boys had gotten better but ours was still hopeless. He struck out every time without swinging. We offered him $5 to swing, didn’t matter if he connected or not. You can make $30 a night by striking out! He wouldn’t swing. The coaches recognized his amazing talents and had nothing to do with him (thanks for nothing, coaches).
We wound up hiring a private baseball tutor to assist him, which helped a bit but not enough.
The next year was even worse, so after two straight years of left field and bottom of the batting order we got the message and didn’t come back.
All was not lost, our son has turned out to be a pretty good water polo goalie.
$30 a night? As your son I could have gone pro. My eldest actually got pretty good, with a CYO team coach telling me that he could probably make a high school team. This was the kid who early on proudly announced to the coach that he figured out his problem hitting: “I keep closing my eyes!”
Mine never played actual little league but in a couple of leagues with strong parent coaches who all did a great job, which made a big difference.
Our Little League is the same as your Wildcat, no tryouts. Country cultural difference there, sports are not taken nearly as seriously, except maybe for hockey which we avoided for that reason.
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This rings true. I never liked team sports, and hated gym class, except for swimming. Interestingly, after high school, I began weight training and eventually worked my way into running and “spin” cycling. As a result, at my most recent high school class reunion, I was in considerably better shape that virtually all of the former jocks in my class, including the class football hero. My eldest daughter is in softball, and is doing okay, but she seems to like running better. She also likes swimming. My youngest daughter likes both running and swimming. And, like you, I now make sure that I attend as many games and practices as possible.
It’s good to be part of sports the kids do. I find that I miss it now that we are past that stage.
I’m not just unathletic, I’m anti-athletic. I hate sports. But much like you, I was compelled to run one season of track and three seasons of an organized bowling league. At least there were video games and pinball at the bowling alley.
At Ball State there was a requirement for 6 credit hours of PE. It was a point of pride with me that I completed all 6 without ever having donned a pair of gym shorts. Pocket billiards, bowling, archery, casting & angling and a golf class that counted for 2 hours. I took them all as pass/fail.
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“With some teaching, practice, encouragement and a decent attitude, most kids can become reasonably good at the game.” Same goes for life, doesn’t it, J. P.? 🙂 Thank you for an enjoyable read. I’m very glad your sons have fared better — and it sounds like you’ve gained a new appreciation for the sport through their experience, too.
Yes, it’s funny to look at my childhood experience through a parent’s eyes. I could have been a middling player had some things been different. I know this because I watched both of my boys start at my skill level and progress to where they were moderately valuable to their teams. I’m sure my early experience helped me to help them.
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Very enjoyable and relatable read. My experience with baseball was similar. I played the sport every spring from pre-school to eight grade (minus one year when I was about 8 or 9 when my Dad let me make the decision not to play); but I never had much success with it. Mostly I think it boiled down to my inability to ever quite figure out where a ball in mid air was going to be based on where it currently was. That, in conjunction with a general lack of hand-eye coordination, always made hitting and catching a challenge. My luck with basketball as a kid was similar. In high school, I found a moderate level of success with cross country and track — if only because relative success in those sports doesn’t require any balls or large amounts of coordination. These days I am generally resigned to the “watch and don’t play” philosophy of sports. I do look back fondly on parts of my sports past though; and I do miss the opportunity to ride in your Cadillac when you used to take your son and I to and from practice 😉
Ha, it was always fun picking up new bits of wisdom by listening to young boys in the back seat. 🙂
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Great story! I remember a similar feeling in softball. I would stand in the outfield saying to myself…. why the hell am I here right now? When you’re that age you do as you’re told! 🙂
My daughter did one year of softball. I was probably more involved with that team than any other of any of my kids. But after that one year, she was done.
It was so different from my experience of weekday games where you hardly ever saw parents.
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Times have definitely changed. My kids do music instead of sports… but it seems like the parents of sports kids are out 5 nights a week and sometimes all weekend!
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