Saturday, July 21, 2012

Getting to First Base

Growing up, I was terrible at sports. Just awful.

I don't know if it was my bad coordination. Or my poor eyesight, which wasn't corrected until I was 11 and, thanks to the alphabetical order that ruled Catholic schools, was sat in the back as a W and, for the first time in my academic career, struggled to see the board accurately. 

Or maybe it was the bronchitis that felled me continually as a kid. Running became difficult, so sports like basketball were clearly beyond me. And soccer wasn't even a term I could define back in those days.

It's rather ironic that I was so bad at sports, having been raised in a sports-oriented family. My elder brothers played a variety of sports: baseball, basketball, football, swimming. As the youngest sibling, I would be bundled off to see their games and meets, which bored me to tears.

Ah, the curse of the youngest child.

Both Mom and Dad were ardent Philadelphia Eagles fans, camping out in front of the set each Sunday afternoon and yelling at the screen. How clearly I recall being in my room and doing homework while they bellowed: "Go-GO-GOOOO!" or "Get 'em-GET 'EM-GET 'EM!!"

It all went by in my periphery, football. I didn't really understand the game (these guys bash those guys; and then those guys bash these guys). So I rebelled, declaring it all stupid and annoying and not worthy of my attention.

It took me to adulthood to back off from that stance, and now, Eileen and I sit in front of the set each Sunday afternoon and yell at the screen, while our girls do homework. Somewhere in the cosmos, my dad is shaking his head at the irony of all this.

But as a kid, I did try my hand at Little League. Mostly because that was what was "done" in those days; if you were a boy between the ages of 10 and, say, 15, you played Little League. And partly to emulate my older brothers. They played and won the respect of peers and gained the value of team-participation and even took home a trophy or two (back in the day when trophies weren't awarded just for showing up), so I would attempt to do the same.

So each spring, I'd get the mitt out of the basement, blow off the cobwebs, moisten the leather with generous amounts of smelly Neatsfoot Oil, rub it in thoroughly with an old rag, and repeatedly pound the palm with a baseball, to create a good "pocket" that would assuredly help me field grounders and fly balls.

I was on the Tigers, with its white and blue uniforms.

And, truth be told, I sucked.

I was assigned to the no-man's-land of the outfield. Right Field, as I recall. Where I could presumably do the least damage defensively.

What that usually meant was long, long, stretches of doing absolutely nothing. Until the crack of a bat would send a pop-up fly my way. At which time, I would track it, running in circles trying to get underneath it, and promptly watch as it thudded at my feet.

Or a grounder would come hopping toward me at lightning speed. And as I was taught to do, I'd crouch down on one knee in front of the ball and prep my glove to scoop it up... Only to watch it dribble three feet to my left.

All the while, my teammates were screaming instructions. All of which went over my head. As did the ball. Usually.

I wasn't the only stumble-bum in the outfield of the Tigers, however. Danny Abrams, who was assigned to the outer reaches of Center Field, would become so bored and distracted that he would take off his glove and fill the pocket with yellow dandelions as the inning crawled along. You should have heard the din when a ball was shot his way.

I wonder what became of Danny Abrams. I imagine he's an attorney now, out-earning every single member of the old Tigers, watching MLB from a personal skybox somewhere.

He who laughs last, Danny. He who laughs last....

But as bad as I was at fielding, I was even worse at batting.

Here's my recollection of each time at the plate: Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Yer out.

The pressure would be enormous. Especially if we were behind. The coaches--including my Dad, who volunteered to help out with the Tigers, and Mr. Farrell, our head coach--always offered encouragement. But the outcome was always the same: Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Yer out.

I also had to endure the humiliation of "Sink-in!"

Sink-in! was an ironic (and insulting) spin on the fielders' phrase "Sink-out." Sink-out was reserved for heavy-hitters, those batters who could be relied on to send the ball soaring toward the fence each time, so the guys in the field would trot a step or three backward, in hopeful anticipation of being able to shag something outright or at least field a screamer more quickly.

Sink-in sent the opposite message: This loser is an easy strike out. Or if massive doses of luck are with him, he'll dribble something as far as the pitcher's mound.

But in either case, move in, fellas. Might as well position yourself closer to the dugout so that when he's either handily tagged at first or whiffs three in a row and the inning is over, it's a shorter jog to the dugout.

I was the very embodiment of Sink-in.

Except one time. There was one instance where a hit actually enabled me to advance to first base.

Well, sort-of a hit.

I had gone through my first Whoosh, and when the second whoosh followed, the umpire, nearsighted Mr. Beaumont, barked out loudly, "Take your base."


Take your base? Wasn't that ruling for batters who'd been hit by a wild pitch?

To the best of my knowledge, I hadn't been hit by a wild pitch.

Had I?

I wasn't really sure, but I wasn't going to let the technicality keep me from my first toe on a bag ever.

So I tossed the bat and trotted to first.

At which time the opposing coach exploded.

"What are you doing? He wasn't hit! I didn't see him hit!"

Mr. Beaumont looked a little puzzled, put his hands together in a capital T, and called "Time."

He then started down the first base line toward me.

Mr. Farrell jumped off the bench; "Dan! Dan! Don't say a word. Tell him you want your attorney. No questioning the accused without the presence of counsel! DO. NOT. SAY. A. THING!"

I froze.

A minor confab then developed at first base, with each coach arguing his side of the dispute.

Dad stood by the sidelines, holding his palms up to me comfortingly, telling me just to hang in there and no nothing for the moment.

We never reached the point of kicking dust on Mr. Beaumont's shoes, thankfully, but to settle it all, he point-blank asked me: "Were you hit?"

I didn't know what to do. So I let honesty be the best policy.

"I don't think so."

More conversation erupted, and after a moment or two of mayhem, Mr. Beaumont raised his hand and silenced both sides. He looked right at me and announced: "For being honest, I'm giving you first base."

My side of the bullpen cheered in response. Everyone returned to their assigned positions, coaches included, and the game continued.

I cannot remember the ultimate outcome of that game. My suspicion is that I died on first.


But perhaps my integrity survived.

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