An original memoir written in CW 352: Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010
Mom dropped us off. Have fun, she told us; then, she drove away.
It was a cool evening—not atypical for late May in the Midwest. No need for water or Gatorade, not that we brought that option with us. All the kids gathered at Field #10, nowhere near Field #9 or Field #11, but in its own remote section—the far side of the park immediately preceding the sledding hill. It wasn’t really a field in the sense of what a baseball field customarily comprises, but more so just grass. Random patches of dirt took away from even this simplicity. Pine trees played the role of boundaries more than anything and the short wooden fences seemingly made Field #10 a picnic area. Cars irreverently rolled onto the grass and chairs were lined up on the edges. Nonetheless, it was where my first ever Little League practice would be conducted.
All the kids wore newly laced, leather gloves and were punching them as if they’d been here before, as if they knew what they were doing. They were putting these red weights (I would later find out are termed “donuts”) on their bats and taking practice hacks at the air, simultaneously pretending they were Ruth or Aaron. My brother Mike and I didn’t have a bat and probably for that didn’t know what the red thing was. I got my glove—one which I had to re-tie after ten or so catches— from our older brother, who bought it at a garage sale down the road from our house. The same went for Mike.
The other kids had cleats; Mike and I wore raggedy generic brand tennis shoes that we’d gotten half-priced at Payless. They all wore baseball pants, the kind you can roll up for the high-socks look, looking like real baseball players; we wore hand-me-down sweats. They chattered; we epitomized silence. They looked so carefree and at ease, almost like they knew exactly what to expect; we just watched.
We were 9 year-old twins. Dad had just passed away from the brain tumor that tortured him for a year and a half, and I was still indignant toward that truth. Essentially, this was the first unknown we had traveled without his presence; at least, without knowing that we could talk about it later. Today, I feel from situations like this, the unknown is my biggest fear. I had many as a kid: my dad’s initial seizure; who he became for that year and a half; what we would do after his death; and now, this practice. You would think I knew how to deal with it, but there is a reason it is fittingly labeled the unknown—there’s never certainty in dealing with it.
The first kid who caught my eye was Marty, the biggest of all the kids. While all the others were throwing the ball around or talking to each other, he was taking practice swings with his black batting gloves and trotting around the bases, waving his right fist as if he’d just hit a game-winning home-run. “See ya!” he yelled to the imaginary ball. “All day, baby! Move over Hank, Marty’s coming through!” Hot-shot ringleader was my youthful first impression. Looking back, he was just confident and comfortable. The other kids loved it. The parents loved it. I was confused. I was uncomfortable. I was reserved.
“All right, and what’s your name?” a mustached man asked, providing me a momentary respite from the overwhelming blank stares I was exhibiting.
“Ben. This is my brother Mike.”
“Hey fellas, I’m Coach Greg. Welcome to the Mariners. We’re excited to have you guys.” Everything he said was scripted, told to us for the 10th time within a span of 15 minutes. We were mere indistinctive property—no different from any of the other guys—to which he could continue to test his opening words. “Go ahead and throw around with the guys.”
The guys? I didn’t know any of them. I knew Mike, and that was it. This was the first time I’d joined a team (aside from soccer…with my Dad as assistant coach); my “guys” consisted of friends from school and friends from the neighborhood. These guys were none of them. Their loud-mouthed clamoring and effortlessly emanated conceit (as I deemed it at the time) were ubiquitous, as if they had known each other for years and Mike and I were raining on their parade. I felt like the new kid, desperately attempting to acclimate to the unknown. Whereas they were unabashed to the new team, I was disconcerted.
See, there was a strikingly clear commonality that existed among the other teammates, a commonality that subconsciously elucidated their behavior—every kid’s dad was present. Every kid’s dad was showing him how to hold the bat or throw the ball, joking with him about the play he just made. Effectively, every kid was in his comfort zone, a smile illuminating from his face. It was everyone’s first practice, but only Mike and I seemed to suggest that. The dads knew what to expect and could relay that to their sons and theirs sons subsequently endured that guidance, exhibiting comfort and poise, knowledge and certainty. They coalesced into one team, with each dad representing part of the overall lurking variable.
Our dad had been a baseball player. I recall my aunt telling me a story of Dad when he was our age. His family had inconveniently scheduled a family vacation at the same time as his Little League championship game. He was the team’s ace pitcher. He couldn’t miss it, but his family had already booked his flight. Knowing how vital my dad was to that team, his coach offered to pay for his plane ticket if his parents let him stay and win that game. He stayed. They won. Coach bought him a plane ticket.
He loved the game with such immense passion, had he been here, that field would have been wholly innocent kids throwing the ball around—excited about his new journey in which they were traveling. Instead, without speaking for my brother, one was scared.
Coach told me to go play shortstop. “What’s that?” “It’s in the infield. Between 2nd and 3rd base.” “Oh,” I muttered back. Dad could have told me that. Mike was put in the outfield. Left field. He started jogging towards right; not that he couldn’t discern right from left, he just didn’t know in which perspective you were supposed to reference the positions (looking as the batter). Dad could have told him that.
Marty got to pitch. That looked fun. But of course I didn’t ask coach if I could pitch. Asking that question required confidence; confidence came with having Dad. Dad wasn’t there.
All the other positions were respectively filled, and the remaining players lined up to bat. I don’t remember who the first batter was, but I remember the way he approached the frightening idea of standing in the box with a baseball targeting you. He started to stretch, using the bat as a facilitator. Then he ran up, tapped his bat (actually his bat) around home plate a few times, circled it in the air a few times, and got in his stance, patiently waiting as Marty chucked the ball. He wasn’t remotely nervous. He was comfortable.
“What was that?” a cross-armed man in khakis and loafers innocuously barked, whom I presumed to be Marty’s dad. “A changeup?” He proceeded to sway his 6’2 frame, nudging the dad standing next to him, as if he were hinting that his joke was indeed a good one. It worked. Everyone laughed, including all the other kids.
Marty laughed and frivolously shook his head. “No, haha! That was my fastball.”
Meanwhile, I was lost. What’s a changeup? Is that where the ball changes directions mid-air? Or, maybe it’s when the pitcher pretends like he’s doing something else, gets the batter in a state of lull, and then hurls the ball. I figured the mid-air direction change was the most plausible explanation, and went with that. I was in awe that someone could do that.
No. That’s not what a changeup is. Dad could have told me that.
See, Marty knew what a changeup was. He probably watched TV with his dad. His dad probably explained all the different pitch types to him, told him the names of all the positions and their respective responsibilities. He probably took him to games to get first-hand experience. His dad could joke with him and emit from him a sense of confidence and fun.
Dad never did that with me; he never had time to.
It was my turn to bat. I didn’t know which one to use. Coach let me borrow his. Thank God I knew how to hold one. I blindly stepped to the plate and stood there. Though I knew how to hold the bat, I didn’t know how to stand, didn’t know how to do the pre-bat ritualistic tapping that the first batter did. I didn’t know much and, on top of that, I was scared shitless that Marty was going to throw a “changeup” at me, wherein it starts right down the middle, then alters course and clocks me in the head (as my ignorant aforementioned beliefs suggested). Anyone could tell.
Marty the out-spoken informed me that he was going to give me the ‘heater.’ I didn’t need an explanation for that one. I was too preoccupied with the potential pain he could inflict on me that I failed to smile at the harmless remark. Dads were hollering at their sons, telling them to be ready, get in good position and make a play. Marty wound up. I quivered. Before the ball could reach the plate, I had already scurried a foot outside the box in an unnecessary attempt to avoid the ball. Marty’s dad hollered, “Good pitch!” Our coach advised me, “OK Ben, just stay in there.” I got the hang of staying in there, but the recurrence of Marty’s dad guiding him while the coach guided me was overwhelming, disappointing and, frankly, unfair. Coach shouldn’t have guided me. Dad should have guided me.
We took a five minute break. For me, physically it was a break, but mentally it was anything but— my mind raced through so many thoughts. All the kids went to Dad and got advice; got a hand rubbed on their shoulder; they laughed while sipping their Gatorade that Dad bought; they made plans for after practice to go to McDonald’s, Dad’s treat. Mike and I just stood stagnant. I crossed my arms, clenching my glove to my chest, and simply watched. Aimlessly. We had nothing to do, nothing to say. My feeling was a muddle of envy and emptiness. I was in a whirlwind of perpetual thoughts and wishes. Everything seemed like a bad dream. The worst part about it? Everything was an irreversible reality.
Practice continued without my Dad much like life had. And it continued. And continued. Like a bad date it never seemed to end. The sky never seemed to get dark. The other kids never seemed to lose interest. The dads never seemed to stop encouraging. I never seemed to fit in. Cones and bases, whistles and laughs, gloves and bats…they all commingled with the rest of the kids. Not with me. The terms and players and rules and fundamentals were clearly understood by my teammates. Not by me.
I don’t even know that the knowledge of the game is what I needed. I didn’t need to know—at least, at that point—to keep my glove on the ground, to keep my eye on the ball or what that crazy changeup thing was. I didn’t need my own bat, my own cleats, or a sufficient glove that wasn’t always falling apart. But I needed Dad. I was alone, surrounded by kids who weren’t.
I ended up being the best player for that team. I became the team’s ace, ironically somewhere around the same time my mom told me another story about my dad. In high school, he had a perfect game going into the last inning. A ground ball was hit to his short stop. He muffed it and my dad lost the perfect game…the one thing that every young pitcher dreams of.
Not only is it from situations like this that I fear the unknown, but it’s from situations like this—the bigger picture, having an indelible void of no father—that I’d matured quicker than most of those kids. I ended up being the same pretentious, carefree player that they all were, but I was able to do that without that one person constantly by my side. I was able to do that without that one person who fueled my emanation of the typical nine-year-old baseball player. I was able to do that without Dad.
—by Benjamin Wessel