Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Striking Out in Tee-Ball

There’s a theory in psychology that all the things you’ve ever learned or seen are still inside your head, but that they’re misfiled. The example I learned in class was that our primary memory of, say, your third birthday party might be the grass you saw outside that day. And how green it was.

Subsequently, your third birthday party gets filed under “green,” and you can never find the thing.

Somewhere around my 35th birthday, I started having what I’ve started labeling as flashbacks. Sudden reminders of things that happened to me when I was younger. Stuff I’d forgotten about, but which my brain now feels compelled to offer up, for reasons that are often a complete mystery for me.

Recently, my five-year-old and I were at a store, and she asked me a buy a plastic bat and ball. Summer is coming, we really need to spend more time outside, and the cost of the bat and ball was all of two dollars. So I bought them.

We went home, opened them up, and started playing. My my brain took a dive down the rabbit hole.

What most surprised me was not how deep the hole was, but how the one big hole led to a dozen other side holes. Things I simply didn’t remember were down there.

The first thing that sprang to mind, much to my surprise, was not the times I spent in my grandfather’s backyard playing with various wiffle balls and bats. In addition to the skinny bat and regulation-sized ball I got for my kid, he also had a larger bat and ball, designed to help the un-athletic kids like myself hit a ball from time to time.

By time to time, I mean, “almost never.” Which was still better than never, I suppose.

But I digress. That was not my first real memory of baseball.

No, my first real memory is playing tee-ball.

What bothers me a lot of the time about the memories that my grey matter dredges up is that they lack almost any context. I grew up in a house that didn’t watch football (the holy sport of Wisconsin) or baseball, so I didn’t, and still don’t, understand why my parents decided to get me involved in an organized sport.

The thing is, I was a fairly compliant kid. Once, I found some of my mom’s old sheet music, and drew a staff, and wrote down some notes, and asked my mom to play them. My only goal was to learn what the black dots on the page meant. From this, my mother decided that I wanted to learn how to play the piano.

This was not the case. I had no real interest in learning how to play. And yet, I took lessons for years, because it never occurred to me to explain to my parents that even after 30 minutes of practice almost every day for seven years, I was a really, really, really mediocre pianist.

Even now, after 25 years of playing, I am a terrible sight reader. My only real ability lies in the fact that I am a decent (not good, not great, but decent) pop pianist.

My memory of getting “the talk” is much the same. I have no recall of asking, or expressing any interest in knowing where babies came from. But my mother, sensing that it was time I had the information, sat me down and read me a book that explained how flowers, chickens, and humans made babies. Today, a vaguely recall a drawing of a rooster mounting a hen, and a second drawing of a man and a woman lying next to each other, blankets up to their shoulders, implying that under the covers, they weren’t wearing anything.

My mom asked if I had questions after we read the book. I told her I didn’t. I did not say that I wasn’t sure why we had just read the book together, which was the actual question I had.

But back to tee-ball.

Ultimately, my big issue was not that I was there at all. My mom had taken me, my only real job was to show up and play. Were there practices? I don’t recall any. Was there coaching? There must have been, but I don’t remember it.

I do remember that I only had one fear: Striking out.

Now, if you don’t know what tee-ball is, you wouldn’t understand how laughable this concept is on its face. Tee-ball is so named because the ball is placed on a tee (just like golf, only the tee is at mid-torso level) and all you have to do is hit the ball off the tee.

The ball is right there, unmoving. There is just about no way that you can miss it. Granted, you can hit it badly, tapping the top or the bottom, or perhaps bashing the tee itself, but you should be able to hit the ball.

More importantly, you should be able to hit it without having to take three swings at it.

Frankly, if you saw a kid in a movie missing that ball more than once, you’d write the scenario off as ludicrous, unless it had been previously established that the kid was blind, or had a major depth perception problem.

Regardless, I was assured that I would not be allowed to strike out.

A cursory glance at some Googled tee-ball rules indicate that this is true. The object of playing tee-ball is not so much to play a game, as it is to teach kids the basics of baseball while encouraging sportsmanship. The object is not to hit the ball well, it is to hit the ball at all. Each inning, every kid gets a chance to bat. Score is not necessarily kept. Games are 4 innings or 1 ½ hours, whichever is shorter.

It is not a game. It is a practice with two opposing teams who are not actually opposing.

And yet?

I have a distinct memory of striking out.

What’s strange is that, though this memory is perfect and clear, I don’t remember what happened after I managed this seemingly impossible feat.

First, I remember sitting on a bench, waiting for my turn to bat. I do not remember caring how well the other kids played, mostly because I don’t remember any of the other kids. I suspect I was there to make friends, but these kids were there because they wanted to play, and I was there because we had arrived and I was expected to do my part. I was at a location, and this was required of me, so I was doing it. The outcome didn’t matter.

When my batting time arrived, I got up, picked up a bat, and walked up to the ball.

At that point, I had hit the ball before, and been told to run. Of this I am sure.

I aimed, I swung. I missed.

I aimed, and swung, and missed again.

Had it been real baseball, I would have already had two strikes. The adult monitoring the proceedings did not inform me of this. I simply knew that I had two strikes against me.

So I reset my stance, shouldered the bat, and swung again. And I missed.

This much I remember: I looked at the coach, trying to determine what was supposed to happen now. I knew that he wasn’t calling out the word strike, but I now had three, and that was when, in baseball, you have failed and should return to the bench.

It is here that things get fuzzy.

I do remember that the coach waved at me, letting me know it was okay to make another attempt.

I also remember trying to hit the ball. Multiple times. As though the ball and my bat were polar opposites, incapable of meeting.

And then: a blank space. I can envision myself walking back to the bench, shamed, having managed the impossible. Striking out in tee-ball.

But it’s equally probably I finally managed a pathetic hit, and someone caught the ball, or tagged me out, or otherwise prevented me from gaining that first base.

Regardless, I know for a fact that I missed the ball three times. The stationary, seemingly impossible-to-miss ball.

And then there’s another memory bounce. To Cub Scout softball.

Weirdly, my memory elides past this, taking me first into high school. I am a senior, and I am trying to become an Eagle Scout. This must happen before I turn 18, which will occur June 16th. To beat the clock, I am trying to plow through getting 10-12 merit badges in order to reach a certain required number.

With some badges, much effort is required. Others, not so much. Most of my fellow scouts got Basket Weaving because, to get it, you have to weave a basket, and prove that you could weave a chair seat. The latter task takes about two minutes. The former takes a couple of hours over an afternoon.

My birthday is drawing nigh, so I am desperately hunting for badges that have requirements I have already achieved. The Music merit badge is a total gimmie, after 8 years of piano lessons and many years in choir and a year spent learning how to write my own music.

I want to get the Public Speaking merit badge, but this requires that there is a mentor in the local Boy Scout office contacts list, and there is not one. So my mom signs on as a mentor, and I walk her through the requirements I have already fulfilled in various English classes.

If this is ethically dicey, I have no qualms about it. My troop has almost no Eagle Scouts in it. I myself joined with a group of nine boys, all of whom were gone by the time I reached my sophomore year of high school. I have been availed of stories about other troops functioning as virtual Eagle factories, pushing kids through the necessary badges in mass groups.

It is Not My Fault that there is no one else I can go to and explain that I have been forced to give speeches for years, and that I may as well get a badge for it. Still, I get the sense that my mother is reluctant to help me out in this manner.

And then comes the weird one. It is a Sports merit badge. Is it called Sports? Sporting? Sportsmanship? Another Google search takes me to Sports.

I am trying to tear through the earning of these badges, and all that is required is that I prove I was involved in a sport. Reading the current rules, checking against my faulty memory, I find that it is actually two sports. One was Judo, which my parents put me into, once again for reasons I am not clear on.

The other is Cub Scout baseball.

In both instances, I am not spending a season of play carefully monitoring my wins and losses. I am playing detective, trying to put together a list of losses, failures, and last place ribbons with the word participant on them.

Digging through my collection of softball memories, I find very little relating to the actual game.

I remember a practice where I was asked to play catcher. The batter hit the ball almost straight up. A pop fly. I get up off the ground, and move six feet to the left to catch the ball. The batter also moves six feet to the left, and hits the ball again. The batter hits me as well.

I am not hurt badly, just startled, and confused why none of the adults call him out for doing this. Instead, they let him run the bases.

I remember J (I have removed his name, though I suspect it doesn’t matter now), who dropped something on the wrong side of the fence. He decides to climb the four-foot fence to retrieve it. The rest of the kids warn him not to rip his pants. He says he won’t.

He rips his pants.

Later, I will see the pants again. They are sewn back together, not in an artful, professional way, but in the way of someone who needs the pants, and cannot afford new ones, and does not really know how to sew.

This is the same kid who will go to a week-long camp, but forget to bring socks. Instead he washes his socks in a sink every day, and dries them over a fire. I don’t know if anyone ever thought to have him call home, and have some socks mailed.

Another year, this same kid will complain all week of homesickness. His mother finally comes to get him on Friday. The rest of us go home on Saturday.

When he learns his mother is coming, he informs various kids that he can’t wait to go home, to go to the Boys and Girls Club, where, we are told, for a dollar he can play all the video games he wants for the day.

I remember feeling perplexed by this. We are leaving in less than 24 hours. Why is he telling us about the video games? Is it to make us jealous of him? Or is he trying to paper over his cowardice, and make us appear to be the chumps for not wanting to go home and play unlimited video games for a dollar.

As I think about him now, I remember him telling me a number of things that were inappropriate at best, and confusing at worst. There was a filter missing on that kid, who did not seem to realize that there were things you don’t talk about in public.

I suppose I should emphasize he never told me anything that was illegal, or perhaps should have spoken to an adult about. It was just uncomfortable.

Back to softball.

My first year, we lost all of our games except for two, both times defeating the same team.

In all the other games, it isn’t even close. We are slaughtered every time. In theory, because softball isn’t timed, even if the winning team is 100 runs ahead of the losing team, there is no reason not to continue. The opposite team could make up all those points in the next inning.

But on our field, if one team gets a certain number of runs ahead, the game is ended.

There are no ribbons and no celebration. One of the adults tells me that we were “put into the wrong division.” I take this to mean we were playing older boys, but I don’t know this for certain, even now. Perhaps we just sucked.

That year, I live in right field, which is where you put your worst player in order to decrease the damage he can do to the team. Even as a right fielder, I am terrible. Balls bounce past me, or roll between my legs.

My coaches tell me to keep my glove on the ground, but I can’t do that. The ground is covered with rocks and acorns, and I am concerned the ball will bounce and hit me in the face.

I am told this can’t happen. It does. At least twice. Both times, I am hit directly in the nose, and if anyone sees this happen they offer no comfort or apology for being wrong, even as I hold my aching face.

(I am reminded of something else. I am in Elementary school, and a large, doughy kid named M asks me to play soccer. Not because I am good, but because one of the other players is out sick. I pass on this.

(I am asked why I don’t want to play. I do not have the words to explain that I am bad at sports, and view playing as another opportunity to be humiliated at something I have no skills in. Instead, I say I don’t want to get hit in the face.

(M assures me that no one ever gets hit in the face. I pass anyway.

(Minutes later, M is hit in the face, hard. I feel vindicated.)

My second year playing softball, efforts are made to give everyone more time at different positions. I still spend much of the first few practices in right field, but I’m given a chance to be a catcher, to try other field positions, and to attempt to hold my own on second and third base.

Oddly, it is discovered that I do have one position I am okay at. Not good, nor great, but okay. Shortstop.

Shortstop is, in many ways, the perfect position for someone whose interest in the game is minimal. In right field, there is almost no action, and your mind wanders. As a shortstop, there’s a strong chance a ball is going to come your way, and soon.

More importantly, you have a lot of coverage. The second and third basemen are nearby, ready to pick up misjudged catches. And if the ball has some heat on it, the guys in the outfield are also there as backup.

The year I am upgraded to shortstop, two things happen that are memorable.

The first is, one year after being in second-to-last place, we end the season in second place. I can take little or no credit for this. We had a number of athletes who carried the team, while guys like me stayed out of their way.

Still, it is second place, and part of me is disappointed when games, and the season, don’t end the way they do in books and movies. In pop culture, good games end in pizza parties, or ice cream sundaes. A great season ends with a big party. None of this happens to me.

My other memory is the time I have exactly one super-amazing catch.

I am standing in my spot as shortstop. The ball is hit. It’s angled up, little more than a line drive, but high enough that it should be an outfielder’s job.

On a whim, I lift my arm as high up as it will go, and the ball claps into my mitt. The batter is out.

Given 100 chances to perform this trick, I would never be able to replicate it.

There is nothing to mention about my third year. After the spectacular comeback from second to last to second place, we drop to fourth or fifth. Good, but nothing amazing. Most of us move from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. Within two years, only I remain.

And then four years have gone by, and in my mind I am back with my mentor, talking before school starts, hashing out whether or not I deserve a merit badge.

The mentor explains that I should really be in some kind of “new” sport, so that I can report back to him. I explain that there will be no new sports. I do not have the time. He can sign the papers or not.

In the end, he signs the papers. I am not sure why.

My life in organized sports ends there.

In college, I play one ill-advised basketball game against a friend. He slaughters me, though I am trying very hard and it is clear to me that he’s barely working up a sweat. He finally admits that I am not a very good opponent. I grin, and say, “Toldya.”

During one long January in college, I learn that some of my friends have gotten very into racquetball. I join them for several games, and we have fun, and I consider buying a racket. But I know once college is back in full session (we are in Winter Term, with just one class per day) I won’t have time to dedicate to suiting up and coming down and finding someone to play with, and playing.

After I get married, my wife and I take some tennis rackets and tennis balls my parents have stored on their porch and try playing tennis to get some exercise. We spend more time chasing the ball and trying to remember the rules than we spend hitting the ball back and forth. It is the rare time we actually manage a volley that lasts more than two hits.

And then I am back on my lawn, throwing a wiffle ball at my little one. The bat is huge in relation to her, and hard to swing. I am bad at aiming my pitches. And yet, more than once, she smacks the ball past me. This is her cue, untaught by me, to yell, “Home run!” and go racing around the house.

For one moment, I see my grandfather’s old house, and remember that I used to do the exact same thing.

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