The Unforgiven

11 01 2010

I was talking with Dear Old Dad on Saturday and in the course of our conversation he made mention of the time that I went to try out for the local Park District baseball team (I was 8 or 9) and the coach wouldn’t let me try out because “all of the other kids ha[d] been playing since they were four.” Dad thought that was a blessing of sorts, as he believed that playing on a team as a rookie with seasoned veterans would have put me off baseball, if not team sports, forever.

“I have never forgiven that coach to this day,” I replied.

Some blessings in disguise are more obvious than others. We know that we’re punching above our weight, or trying too hard too soon, and thank God we say, with much relief, that the “yes” we hoped to receive (and thus lead to catastrophe) was a kind (in retrospect) “no”.

However, in this instance, I have nothing but spite for that coach. I don’t remember his name. I don’t know if he is alive today or if I ever told this story to him now, if he would even remember me or what happened.

I remember that day. I remember what happened.

Back in my youth, when I lived in Illinois, if you wanted to play team sports through a Park District you had to sign up for the DYC (Darien Youth Club). Willowbrook wasn’t officially where me and my friends lived, to the point that we had to borrow either Hinsdale’s or Clarendon Hills’s zip code to send and receive mail. I don’t know what all the politics were in ultimately deciding that Tennessee Drive was Willowbrook property, but in the 1970’s Darien was where it was at for school and municipal goings-on.

DYC wasn’t exactly the Cubs or the White Sox, but generally it was agreed that if you played a sport for DYC you were officially part of that organization. Enough so that picking teams might come with the built-in justification of “I pick Jim… he plays for DYC.” Being a gangly, awkward kid with oily hair and big glasses, being on DYC would have provided valuable Cool Points. But my primary motivation was, I wanted to be on a team.

I didn’t grow up loving baseball per se. I had good grades and got a pair of free tickets every year to go see the Sox lose to Baltimore or Kansas City. 1983 was the last of the “caring about the Sox” years for me, when they went to the playoffs and little else. As an aside, I was happy to see that they finally won a pennant after years of famine, and I’m mellow enough now to be happy for the Cubs if they finally win the Big One. Tangent over.

Our apartment complex had a long strip of grass in front of three of the buildings, which allowed for bat ‘n ball games like “500” as it required hitting outward in a straight line and not into the apartment windows. Football was a no-brainer too, with lots of north-south running and passing. Winter was for snowball fights. And every once in a great while, the neighbors would gawk as my grandparents were in town and we set up the croquet course. (That’s a story for another time.)

The point is, I was no stranger to team sports, except none of these activities carried the credibility and discipline of DYC. Wearing a DYC jersey or hat was the de facto “good at sports” merit badge. I liked sports, liked playing sports either on the front lawn or at school (gym class, recess), and thought that playing organized team baseball would not only improve my skills, but provide an environment where no matter how the game went, there would never be the threat of someone taking the ball and going home.

Being that DYC was a Park District undertaking, the catalog explained that what really mattered was ponying up the fees to participate in the activity. Sports required a physical and a tryout, but it was understood that tryouts were more about gauging where to put you on the team than on discovering the next Sammy Sosa or Nolan Ryan.

My Dad took me to the tryouts, and the coach intercepted us away from the team asking why we were there. Dad explained that I was there to try out, and he took one look at me and spoke exclusively to Dad, barely looking at me the entire time, explaining that tryouts were a bad idea because all of the other kids had been playing organized team ball for longer. Apparently, Dad was satisfied with the explanation. I resented the shit out of it.

From that day on, every time I connected bat to baseball (or even softball), it was an “eff you” to that coach. I could hit, dammit. The nuances about when to throw to third base when runners are at first and second on a Tuesday during duck hunting season in Nevada could be learned. When I did play organized ball I preferred the outfield as it was generally cut and dried: If the ball goes that deep, stop the home run, and throw to either second base or home plate. I would have been a terrible short stop, and I knew my limitations. But designated hitter? I coulda been a contender.

Years later, as an adult, I got roped in to hitting some balls at the batting cages. My work partner was the captain of a softball team and I really, really didn’t want him to know I was any good, or else he’d nag me to death about joining the team. I saw enough of him at work, and while we had good days and some laughs, really, I had my limits. I couldn’t simply stand there with my hands in my pockets while he practiced, partly because we were on the clock (justifying it as part of our earlier lunch hour) and he wanted the security of knowing we were both bad, not just him. I grudgingly obliged.

I should have feigned incompetence, but that coach is burned into my brain. His words are etched on an “on demand” voice track. I stepped into the cage and hit .800 while Mister Softball gawked.

“Eeeeeeth! You have GOT to be on my team, buddy!”

I had other plans, always. But yeah, I had a fresh eyewitness who could attest that if nothing else, I could swing a mean bat.

Years later, I discovered Cricket as the local club played down the street. I got mixed up with that crazy crowd for a short time, and the Cricketers told me over and over that Cricket is not baseball and you can’t approach the game that way. There was a guy that talked boatloads of smack and I was aching to get a hit off of him. The bowlers (and batsmen) moved in a rotation so you’d take some deliveries (as opposed to pitches) from different bowlers before stepping aside for the next batsman. Smack Man kept getting the ball past me, and finishing the delivery with more insults. I didn’t care how I fared against anyone else, I wasn’t leaving until I got a hit off of him.

“But you have not gotten hits off of all of those other bowlers,” one Cricketer admonished when I called Smack Man out.

Finally, paydirt. I hit him for 6 points and am told that I used the incorrect “baseball” swing, but Smack Man was going down. He nodded, smiled, and stepped aside for the next bowler who sent the ball racing past me. Who cares. Eff you to that coach, and eff you to his henchman Smack Man.

Years after that, along came the Nintendo Wii, which included Wii Sports, which included shortened baseball games. The emphasis was on pitching and batting.

The genius of the Wii was creating a controller that allows the user to mimic the movement of say, the baseball bat to simulate real baseball action. I found myself looking down and kicking at the fake dirt (as in, my living room floor) when the computer team lit me up for a home run.

I stepped over to the left of my TV, held the controller like a bat handle, and awaited the pitch.

Fast ball, center of the plate.

Eff you, DYC coach.

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