There are two types of people in the world—athletes, and non-athletes. The first group is broken into two categories—the natural athletes, and those with athletic abilities that need to work at it if they ever want to be great.
The natural athletes are the ones who score 35 points in the championship game, catch the winning touchdown, or crank a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, then give all of the credit for their performance to God. Being amazing at their particular sport has always come so naturally to them, that they believe their abilities were simply given to them by a higher power.
The second group that has natural abilities, but need to work at it, can also fall into two categories—those that work hard and become amazing athletes, and those that don’t. The ones that work hard may also win a huge game, but they always credit their performance to hard work and thank their coaches for helping them to become a better player. I belong to the latter of this group, which resulted in years of playing a handful of downs in football, and a childhood of picking daisies in the outfield.
Baseball was by far my least favorite sport growing up. I was forced to play by my parents and I loathed practicing in the 90-degree, 90 percent humidity, Michigan summers. Top that off with a dusty field, and I swore I was in hell. I know that baseball is America’s great past time, but I’ll never understand why.
For me, baseball is just too slow, the polyester uniforms too uncomfortable, and the rules too devastating. That’s right, I said devastating. When I was in middle school, the rules of baseball ruined my life. I’m of course speaking of the five-run-limit placed on all innings, but the ninth, of little league baseball.
The five run limit was placed to prevent one team, usually stacked with the future varsity pitcher, quarterback and point guard, from crushing the teams composed of kids like me. Every time a team scored five runs, the inning was over; regardless of how many outs the team did or did not have stacked against them.
The only part of baseball I was ever good at was shit talking batters from behind a catcher’s mask. I was so good at this particular part of the game that I made the fat kid in the movie the Sand Lot look like a charming Boy Scout. But when it came time for me to step up to the plate, I rarely did—I couldn’t hit worth a shit.
Batting was stressful for me. I feared getting hit by the ball just a bit less than I did striking out. Whenever I got the sign from the third-base coach to watch the first pitch, and not swing, I thanked the same God the naturally gifted players thanked, then cursed him for not making me one of the naturally gifted players. Later in the dug out, after I struck out from watching the next several pitches sail perfectly over the plate, I would swear the umpire was blind, and those pitches were not strikes, but in fact balls. Then I would pledge to my teammates that the first pitch was the only one worth swinging at.
The sign for “swing away” sent panic attacks pulsing through my body. Football was simple; call a play, run a play. You knew exactly what to expect. Well, most kids on the team knew what to expect; I never paid attention in practice and would routinely get in the way of the running back I was supposed to be blocking for. But baseball wasn’t so simple, I had to stand at the plate, by myself, and determine whether a pitch was worth swinging at, or not. Did I mention I’m absolutely horrible at making decisions?
I would stand at the plate and watch two perfect pitches sail by me, straight into the catcher’s mitt. Then, as the pitcher wound up for the next pitch, I’d psych myself up to swing, convince myself I had to, and then, I would, regardless of the fact that the third pitch was usually above my head or below my ankles—a decoy for suckers like me.
But on one occasion, I had an unbelievable swing that connected with a pitch and resulted in an incredible hit. Every kid dreams of hitting a home run, or better yet, a grand slam. I was no exception. During this one at bat, I stood at the plate with bases loaded, dug my cleats in, and swung at the first pitch. You’re never supposed to swing at the first pitch, but I did, and I connected, sending the ball over the heads of the outfielders.
I rounded first base as I heard the crowd cheer with the score of the first runner. Glancing into the outfield, I saw the opposing team still running down the ball. I rounded second and heard the crowd roar once again, the outfielders still hadn’t reached the ball. I had nearly reached third base when I thought to myself, “I’m going to hit a grand slam!” But as I touched third, I heard the umpire call out, “That’s five runs, the inning is over.”
The play stopped dead. The catcher, who had been eagerly awaiting the ball in the hopes of a play at the plate, bent over and picked up his mask and headed for the dug out. My all-out sprint slowed to a run, and then a trot, then a defeated walk towards the dugout.
By the time I reached the dugout, kicking dirt with every step, my teammates had already taken the field for the start of the next inning. There were no high-fives, no, “Dude, you hit a grand slam!” I had been denied my moment of glory, robbed of my childhood dream.
In the end I was credited with a stand-up triple and three RBIs. I never hit another grand slam, never cranked a homerun, never even hit another triple… In the end, there were just more swings and misses.