The moment I realized that I was bad at sports was also the moment I realized that The World was out to get me.
My father’s innate desire for me to be a “real son”—one who played sports, chased girls and didn’t write poems in his daily third-grade journal—was cause for him to sign me up for the third-grade baseball team. I was not opposed to being a part of the team—just opposed to what my classmates would think of my inability to do anything even remotely athletic.
At age nine, I had already begun to develop deep insecurities about my ability to do almost anything. Nine was the age in which I had to have prove that the world was a good place. My life was not terrible, per se: my parents were (and still are) happily married; my sisters were not too terrible of an influence on me (although I still had occasions of being their doll); I was one of the smart kids in my class (most of my reassurance of this was my classmates’ collective attitude of calling me “The Smart Kid,” and I did not complain for good reason).
But gym class and the sports field were two domains that I could never conquer. My father insisted that I join the baseball team, much to my dismay.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary on puberty and learned that most pre-pubescent males tend to be clumsy and physically awkward because their bodies are growing at a rate that their minds cannot adjust to. I instantly thought that I had been going through puberty since I was four years old (and continue to do so).
When I think about it, I find that baseball is the worst sport for kids to play: Give a small, uncoordinated child a ball and encourage him to throw it as hard as he can (remember: the best pitchers in the world can get that ball up to speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour); have another uncoordinated child hold a giant metal stick and swing it to try and hit the tiny ball flying at the speed of a diving peregrine falcon; if the kid is lucky and hits the ball (rather than the unlucky punk standing behind him trying to catch the leather meteorite mid-air), it goes flying through the air where seven other uncoordinated kids try and catch it while wearing nothing but mittens. Plus, baseball is boring—how can you teach kids about athleticism while they’re standing out in left field (where the ball never, ever goes) waiting for something to come their way?
Whoever decided to let children play baseball is either a sadistic human being or was attacked by a peregrine falcon and is looking for some sick, morbid, and symbolic revenge.
However, my father’s attempt to get his own slice of Americana in his household led to him filling out the permission slip. I was stuck on the team, and my father did me one better by signing up to be my coach.
I didn’t know if he was merely trying to get closer to his son or if he was hoping that having himself there would somehow ease my embarrassment—all I knew was that I was in deep now and there was no way that I could get out of it.
The third grade was big enough so that we could have two teams: the Green Team and the Blue Team. I was a proud Bluer along with some of my good friends.
Through a few days of practices, I found that I actually was not that bad at baseball: I managed to actually hit the ball almost every time I stepped up to the plate and was a pretty good second-baseman. I—of course—had my faults: my depth perception was not the best and I missed a few pop flies here-and-there, but, for the most part, I could hold my own on the field.
Finally, the day of the first game was upon us. We gathered at the field just behind the school playground early one Saturday morning. The sky was grey and the wind was high; the grass was slightly damp from a brief misting the night before. We all showed up in our white baseball pants (although some of the less-prepared kids managed to play in their jeans) and our either over- or under-sized gloves. We remained clearly separated as we warmed up on the field—a Bluer dared not cross into the Greeners’ territory, and vice-versa.
The game started and nothing of note occurred. A few quick outs for the Greeners meant it was our turn at bat. My dad called out the line up—and I was to lead off.
Through my week of practice, I learned something about myself: I was okay with being okay. I didn’t need to be a great baseball player—I just had to survive. If I at least hit the damn ball, I would at least avoid the shame of striking out (or worse: being hit by the ball). I put on my helmet, grabbed my bat, took a few practice swings, and approached the plate.
I surveyed the field. Rory, the class athlete, was on the mound; Angie, whose dad was the coach of the Greeners, was on first; a few kids from some other classes filled up the rest of the infield; and my good friends Craig and Jacob took right and center field, respectively.
In left field stood Derek, a good friend of mine.
After years of pondering and contemplation, I have determined that there is no nice or politically correct way to write what I am about to write. I have tried and tried because Derek really was one of my best friends back then (I cannot speak enough to his kindness and great attitude) but one cannot hide from the truth.
Derek was the fat kid.
Rumors floated about that Derek reached the 100-pound mark by second grade. He loved to play sports and, like me, had his strong points: no one could break one of Derek’s blocks in recess football, and he was tall enough to block most shots from the key in blacktop basketball. However, most of these “skills” came from a very simple set of instructions from those on Derek’s teams:
“Just stand still.”
Derek was really good at standing still, and it worked well for him because he was not the fastest runner or highest jumper—in fact, he was the opposite of both of those things.
As I got into my batting stance, I didn’t think about Derek or any of that—I just had to hit the damn ball.
My mother sat clapping frantically in the stands. My teammates yelled for my in the dugout.
“Come on! Knock it over their heads!”
“You’ve got this!”
I tuned it all out and looked over at my father in the dugout. He looked at me, nodded his head and yelled, “You can do it, Buddy.”
I gripped my bat tightly and looked Rory in the eye.
He wound up frantically and threw one just to my right.
“Good eye! Good eye!”
The clapping from my mother (and others) became louder and louder. My teammate’s cheering now roared over the entire playground.
Rory wound up.
Right over the plate—crossing my chest.
I swung and missed.
The crowed boomed. Both teams were now on their feet, pounding the dirt with their cleats.
He wound up.
I saw it leave his hand and fly right over the plate. I remembered that I just had to hit it, and took a giant swing.
The ball flew over everyone’s heads. Rory watched it zoom into left field.
Everyone went silent
I watched the ball fly as I shuffled to first base—I couldn’t take my eyes off the ball because I couldn’t believe it was flying that far.
Derek perked up from his stance and ran as fast as he could (which was equal to my slow shuffle). The ball headed toward the back fence, just along the third base line. I could not believe what I was seeing: I was about to get a home run at my first ever at-bat.
I rounded first and headed to second. My eye was still on Derek, who still shuffled to the fence. I knew that I had the home run—it was mine.
Finally, Derek reached the end of the fence as I headed to third. The ball was just out of his grasp and was about the drop past the chain link. The crowd began to cheer again, and my mother yelled frantically with excitement. I heard my father yelling from the dugout.
“Good hit, Buddy! Good hit!”
Then, the unthinkable happened: Derek jumped.
I had known Derek since first grade, and I had never seen him jump in my life. Derek’s strength was that he could stand still—not move. He wasn’t supposed to jump; he couldn’t jump.
Almost in slow motion, his feet left the ground and seemed to hover in the air, just six inches above the ground.
It was just enough.
The ball landed in his glove with a soft thud and he hit the ground.
The cheering stopped—except for the Greeners’.
My first home run was ruined by the one person who was not supposed to ruin it.
The umpired called “Out!” as my foot hit third base.
I staggered back to the dugout and my dad patted me on the back.
“Good try, Bud.”
I didn’t even look at him.
I plopped down on the bench, took off my helmet, and came to my realization:
The World was out to get me.