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.