A Sporting Life Part I

When I was a kid I went through cycles of growth and stasis. I would be thick and pudgy for a year, and then would stretch out and become tall and skinny for a year or two. I leaned hard toward skinniness for an extended period from the fifth grade till I turned 35.
My father had been bone thin as a boy and teenager, and only started to fill out when he got drafted into the army. He did not have to compete with four brothers and four sisters for his share of the food when he sat at an army mess hall table, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. I expected to follow in his footsteps, but instead took after my great uncles on the Kramer side of the family. My maternal grandmother’s brothers were tall and lean.
After one growth spurt in the seventh grade I had the distinct sensation that my bones were too long for my muscles, and sometimes felt unsteady when I walked or stood still. I would lurch to the left at random moments when walking in slow processions at church, and would slowly sway from side to side when waiting in a line. To make matters worse, I was slow footed and weak. My father had shown me how to play sports, and I had a decent amount of hand-eye coordination, but I couldn’t hold my own when fighting for a rebound, stealing a base, or tackling a runner.
My grade in my Catholic parochial school was short on talent, however, and I was a starter on the baseball and basketball teams in the seventh and eighth grades. We lost at a relentless pace in both sports, and we counted our near successes as triumphs once we got over the shock of coming close to victory.
I played shortstop and pitcher in the seventh grade. I could throw a ball hard but got wild when under duress. I remember trying to warm up on the mound before the first pitch of a game and feeling uncomfortable with the rubber, the ball, the sun in my eyes, the sweat rolling down my armpits. The jeers from the opposing team’s bench didn’t help. A batter settled into the box and I went into my wind up. As I continued my pitching motion I self-consciously attempted to synchronize the movements of my arms and legs, entertained a few doubts as I stepped into the throw about whether I had untangled myself properly, and hoped against hope as I released the ball that I would throw a strike past the batter.
Success happened every so often, but I rarely played in the groove, and hardly ever felt like I was performing in a comfortable, natural way. I liked being involved in every play when I pitched, but never got used to the pressure of the spotlight of attention that was focused on the pitching mound. A self-conscious pitcher is an unhappy pitcher.
I racked up a lot of losses in my two year career. One sticks out in memory…Nine of our players showed up for a game, so the line up was chosen according to guidelines based on desperate necessity. I believe my catcher had never played the position before. I was fairly wild the first three innings and gave up five runs. I decided in the fourth inning to shorten up my delivery and I started throwing strikes. I lost a lot of speed on my fastball, however, and the other team started to put the ball in play. Our fielders were good at daydreaming and defensively protecting themselves from flying projectiles such as baseballs, and thus were ineffective at playing defense. I did my best, but the bases began to fill up once again from errors and misplayed fly balls instead of walks.
Our first baseman, a red haired boy named Fernando, got beaned by a pitch in the second inning at his first at-bat. He probably got a concussion and should have been taken to an ER. He was woozy and had trouble standing, walking, and thinking clearly. This was the early 1970s and blows to the head tended to be taken nonchalantly as long as there was no blood present. Our coach realized that we would forfeit the game if we could only field eight players and came up with the following solution: when we were on the field Fernando was escorted to the right base line in the outfield and was told to sit down; Jack, our chunky second baseman who had a fielding range of one foot in any direction, was told to cover both second base and right field. The other team figured out the gaping flaw in that plan and started to push the ball to the right side of the diamond, and soon the game got out of control.
When the score reached 15-2 in the fifth inning the umpire, a man of decency, common sense and compassion, ended the game and we were finally put out of our misery. Our wounded first baseman went home still dazed and confused. We asked (whined to)our coach to take us out for ice cream in hopes of salving our bruised egos with frozen milk, chocolate and sugar, but he declined our request. A six pack in his refrigerator at home probably had his name on it, and he put his needs ahead of ours.
Fernando suffered no permanent consequences from the blow to his head, and went on to become a doctor. He didn’t know it at the time, but when the rubber-coated baseball bounced off his temple and sat him on the ground, he was taking one for the team. The score would have been nearly the same even if he had been able to duck, and his sacrifice made our suffering end an inning earlier.


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