Sunday, October 29, 2006

Baseball Introspection

Baseball’s World Series ended a few hours ago, although I didn’t really watch it other than in fleeting dribs and drabs as a part of my normal channel surfing. I’d forgotten about the game and checked back on it during St. Louis’ post game celebration over hapless Detroit. I feel bad only because I know my family in Michigan is most certainly disappointed. I already explained why I no longer care about the Detroit Tigers in an earlier post called “The Detroit Tigers and Me.” Still, I’ve been meaning to write why baseball was such a huge part of my growing up years and how it continued to affect me.

The other day, when things still seemed hopeful for the Tigers, I was having a Yahoo Instant Messenger conversation with my brother, Kevin. We were talking about our years in little league baseball. During our chat he made a comment that astonished me. He said that I was his hero back then. I must admit his remark shocked me, and as I consider it further it makes me feel ashamed. I had never considered that I might be someone that my “little” brother might have looked up to, I suppose because I was too self-centered to notice. So when I said I was considering a piece on my early baseball playing days he was glad to hear it.

People who haven’t played baseball, or never played it seriously, are prone to sneer at it. The primary criticism—it’s boring. That’s understandable--I feel exactly the same about watching soccer. I played soccer once or twice in high school gym class and it always consisted of the coach dividing the class into two teams, throwing us a ball and whistling us to start kicking. Most of us knew only to kick and not catch the ball, unless you are the goal keeper of course. My one poignant soccer memory—I went up in the air to block a pass with my chest and an opponent pushed me in the back, I suppose hoping not to be seen by Coach Peters. I landed flat on my back, Peters saw it, blew the whistle and I scored the only goal of my life on a penalty kick. I’ve never played a moment of that game since and glad of it. Baseball, now that’s another story all together.

Some of my earliest memories are of playing catch with my dad. Indeed, we probably averaged doing that activity two or three times a week from the time we started when I was 4 or 5 up through my early teens when he retired from the service. We started out with a plastic whiffle ball, and once I learned the mechanics of catching and throwing, we progressed to a hard rubber ball, and finally, to a real baseball. I maintain that it takes lots more to teach a kid to play baseball than almost any other sport—learning the basics of “throw and catch” is only the start.

To a beginner, playing baseball is physically counterintuitive. A new player will usually feel physically threatened, and will more than likely be immediately out of their comfort zone. To the untrained, the glove feels ungainly and the tiny heavy hard ball whistles and seethes alarmingly as it speeds toward you when thrown by any decent player over the age of ten. Catch it wrong in your glove and it hurts, a lot. Misjudge a ground ball and it can bounce into your face or break a finger. I have two broken fingers thanks to mis-catches while trying to field balls on a “short-hop,” where it is either thrown or hit hard at a fielder’s feet.

And then there is batting. What a frightening experience that is to the uninitiated, to force oneself to stand in the batter’s box while a pitcher menacingly throws the ball, seemingly right at you, and often as hard as possible. The ball looks impossibly small as it screams in, and even a pitcher with an average arm can cause a pitched ball to jump and slice right or left through the air. Out of self-preservation, the natural inclination of a first time batter is to “bail out” as the ball whistles in. To accustom new players to the unsettling sight of an incoming pitched ball, a good coach will throw the ball at slow speed and progressively increase the rate. Of course, the first year or two of ball is kids throwing to kids, so it’s not quite so frightening. Thing is, it doesn’t take long for young pitchers to learn how to throw a fastball with some angry speed behind it, but hopefully, by that time the players have become accustomed to it.

If one plays long enough, like maybe a game or two, then getting hit by a pitch WILL happen. Its part of the game and all good players MUST lose their fear of getting hit to become an effective batter, but dang it can hurt! No one in their right mind tries to hit without a helmet; a fastball can kill or cause real damage if it strikes the head. For all you soccer players or others critical of MY game, go to a batting cage and just try standing in while the throwing machine does its thing. You will find it to be completely unnerving. Now, try also hitting the ball—good luck! It’s one of the toughest tasks of ANY sport, trying to hit a round ball with a round bat. Speaking of injuries, my worst "owie" while batting was a pitch that ended hard into my left kidney. I had tried to turn away from a fastball that curved into me so much that I could not get away from it. That night, I urinated blood. What a game, huh?

All sports can cause injuries, and baseball is definitely no exception. If you think about it, getting hurt while playing a sport is a kind of right of passage for a young boy, and these days, for young girls as well. I suppose all you soccer players mostly get hurt when you inevitably kick the crap out of each other or run into one another, usually by “accident.” Learning how to dramatize even the smallest “tackle” seems to be part of that game, but I digress. No matter the sport, learning to overcome the fear of getting hurt can be THE most important part of the game. In baseball, fear of the ball coming at you, either pitched, thrown, or hit, is the toughest part of baseball for a young kid. My dad did his part in inuring me to this fear by practicing with me almost everyday and constantly reminding me to watch the ball all the way into my mitt, especially when it arrives on the ground when the natural reaction is to turn the head away to spare the face. I put pressure on myself to overcome this overpowering instinct, to NOT turn my head as I put down my glove when catching hard grounders and short-hops. When I was finally able to do this continuously, I felt like I had become a man. There is that right of passage thing again.

I wonder how a person who has never played a sport can possibly get along in the world. The lessons I learned playing ball and other sports were crucial. I developed physical self-confidence. I learned the concept of practice to develop muscle memory, strength and endurance. I learned how to win and lose with grace. I learned to push my body to continue even long after the point of exhaustion. I learned that pain is inevitable and that fear of injury must be overcome to prevent paralysis of action. I learned that competition is good and to yearn for it, especially when it is stiff and pushes you to do your best.

My brother’s comments have caused me uneasy introspection concerning my ball playing days, both as a kid and as an adult. I’m not sure why he saw me as heroic back when I played as a little leaguer all those decades ago. As a player, I was perhaps just better than average, but my success probably wasn’t that big a factor for him anyway. I was 4 years older, and that was significant when I was 11 and he was 7. I was on one team that went on to win a championship with me playing third base and pitcher. I played my positions well enough and started every game, but never made any all-star teams. I’m sure the excitement of watching me play was impressive enough for him.

Thinking back on those days, I hope I played enough catch with him and didn’t ignore him too much, but I probably did. As a matter of fact, I barely remember watching him play HIS games, so I MUST have been remiss. Even as a dad I didn’t measure up well compared to my dad’s efforts with me. I played catch with my son when he was growing up not nearly as much as my dad did with me, and evidently not enough to inspire him to play ball competitively. I can think of lots of excuses why this is so, but none of them cuts it. On the positive side, I did set a fairly good example by competing on the field as an adult all the way into my mid-30s, whereas my father never played any ball. Still, compared to him, I must admit that he was the better dad when it came to teaching his progeny the basics of the game. If I could go back in time, there is a lot I would do differently, and playing more baseball with my brother and with my son are well up on the list.

1 comment:

Amadeo said...


I suppose those of us who never really played baseball seriously from little league on up cannot fully appreciate the mystique of the game and thus fully grasp the profundity of your thoughts here.

We were introduced to it, or more appropriately, to softball, (and basketball too, as well as track and field)) by the American Jesuits at secondary school there in PI. But more just on the basics.

Funny, one of those inspiring mentors was a scholastic named Andrew Dittrich from Detroit, Michigan. While in Michigan (Waterford and Detroit) and seeing the name Dittrich in some businesses (car dealership for one), I had asked my brother if somehow he knows if the owners were related to that Jesuit priest.

BTW, my brother called right after the thrashing of the Tigers by the Cards and I had to remind him of this. It must be a big letdown for the entire state, especially because the Tigers were greatly favored to win it all. Though no sweep was forecasted, a number of local sports pundits had the series at 5 games favor Tigers.