Thursday, June 25, 2009

Every Player Counts

Well, it was a good game, but alas, the Longhorns lost in the final game of the College Championship series in Omaha Nebraska last night. For those following along at home, this was a momentary big deal for me because I have been a long time UT basefall fan and this was the year that I finally fulfilled one of my longstanding dreams and actually went to Omaha to see UT play in the first game.

The experience in Omaha was like none other that I've had. I described it as the quintessential American experience for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it was held in the most classic 'old school' style of ball parks, Ronseblatt Stadium, and the day itself was like something out of a movie. Our drive to and from Omaha, as well as our action-packed hours at the stadium are well documented in other posts and the photo gallery that I posted online last week, so what I want to write about today has to do with fathers, sons, baseball and the relationship of the three.

First of all, a good friend forwarded to me a wonderfully well written essay by UT Sports Information Director and one-time voice of the Longhorns, Bill Little. Little writes about all UT sports, and he seems to know the story of every player and certainly every coach in every program in UT athletics. And, though it should go without saying, it always bears repeating: UT has athletes of every kind at the very highest level in the world. Our football, baseball and basketball players get al ot of the recognition, but UT is consistently at a very high level in track and field, swimming and diving, golf and tennis, just to name a few others.

I love sports and watching sports, and that is what this essay is about. Some might find it contradictory for someone like me who is and has never been anything but an academic (and not a particularly distinguished one at that, but that's another story) to be such a big fan of UT athletics. It is quite popular, among academics, to bash the athletics program as too big, too wasteful and disconnected from (at the least) or detrimental to (at the worst) the 'real' mission of the University: to educate and change the lives of young people.

Though I believe that I could actually make a case for the life changing and educating aspects of athletics (and not just for the athletes), the purpose of this essay is not to address that issue. The reason I am moved to write; what is of enough interest to me, and hopefully to one or the other of my Dear Readers, is how I came to be in this unusual position of being a sports fan despite a background that was not supportive of that ambition.

Consider if you will that one of the pastimes at our dinner table was to identify which composer's music was being played on the classical FM station, KMFA, that my father insisted on listening to whenever he was at home, especially during the dinner hour. I always guessed 'Rachmaninoff', because I liked saying his name--still do--and was rewarded occasionally as one who guess the time of a stopped clock. Twice a day you might just get it.

To say that I came from a non-sporting family is a considerable understatement. Without trying to sound as if I was deprived or abused in any manner, nonetheless one of the greatest gaps in my life has to do with the fact that I was never able to, or for that matter, even allowed to play organized sports.

There were several reasons for this, not the least of which was the fact that I was, as you might expect from a geeky kid raised in a bookstore, about as uncoordinated physically as I could get and still manage to walk. There was no question about the whole walking and gum chewing thing. For me, it was one or the other. That's no exaggeration, for the simple reason that I was and still am double jointed. Consequently, my fingers and elbows and knees all move in ways that they are not supposed to, and in some cases those involuntary muscle arrangements result in contradictory actions.

In other words, I sucked.

This would have been ok, I guess, if I had not somehow gotten the crazy idea through my head that I didn't have to suck, at least not forever. For some reason--and here begins the mystery, for it certainly didn't come from home--I had this crazy, irrational thought: if I just played more, I could and would get better.

Now, when I was in elementary school in Abilene, I used to walk to and from from school. Every afternoon after school a bunch of guys would get up a sandlot baseball game in a dusty corner lot not far from the school, and I would tag along.

At first, I just watched. Eventually, when they chose up sides, I lined up too. I didn't get picked because I didn't have a glove and probably couldn't have used it even if I had. I did get to 'umpire', which meant standing in the outfield to retrieve balls that went into the street. Sometimes someone would lend me a glove and play catch with me while we waited for enough guys to show up for a game. The act of throwing and catching a baseball is not hard and is one of the most satisfying feelings I have ever known. So, for that and other reasons still unknown, I had developed the notion that even if I sucked, playing baseball was something I desperately wanted to do.

Somehow, and I don't recall the specifics, I managed to convince my parents to buy me a baseball and a glove. I can recall the glove with almost perfect clarity. It was a light yellow color and already so worn out that the webbing had been repaired in a couple of places with big knots that distorted the arc of the mitt.

While most boys spend weeks rubbing their brand new gloves down with neats foot oil and breaking in their glove with repeated pounding with a ball, mine came already broken in. That is to say, it was used, which doesn't surprise me, knowing how 'frugal' my parents were in those days. Lynda probably picked it up at a garage sale or from a friend or neighbor. I remember putting the ball in the heart of the glove so it would 'get used' to it. That first week or so, I put it under my pillow; waking surprised see that it was still there.

I can also recall the mockery of the other boys whose gloves were either new or hardly in such a state of disrepair. Believe it or not, this was not especially daunting to me, however, because once I had a glove, I could actually line up to get chosen for a team.

I needed more than a glove and desire, though. Skill comes into play in the game, and very early. Boys just know. Well, at least most of them did, I did not. Invariably, I was chosen last and put in the outfield where it was determined that I could do the least harm. The strategy didn't necessarily work to the advantage of our team, however, as I can only recall dropping fly balls and running to retrieve ground balls that either bounced over my head or went between my legs. There was nothing surprising about this, when you think about it, because I had never actually practiced.

The reason I never practiced had much to do with my home life. Bill was simply uninterested in sports of any kind, and had no desire to get outside in the Texas heat and throws baseballs with his son. To his credit, he was always willing to read to me, tried to teach me how to play guitar and was never critical of my desire to play baseball. He just wasn't into it, as we would say today. I can recall only one time that he came outside to throw the ball around, but because he didn't have a mitt, he just threw some balls into the air for me to catch and allowed me to roll them back to his feet. Even this was so thrilling that I begged him to do it many times after, but he always had some excuse for not doing it.

Eventually, I got the message and took to practicing by myself. I spent hours tossing the ball up into the air to practice catching fly balls and bouncing it off the back fence to practice ground balls. As for batting, forget it. I would have to have had a bat for that.

Despite the lack of equipment and the poor practice facilities, I had a goal in mind.

One of my friends at school was a guy named Charlie Taylor, and he was in Little League. One day he brought a flyer to school inviting boys to sign up, and I took it home to my parents. Now, to their credit, they didn't tell me no (which they did a few years later when I asked if I could play football) but made it plain that if I was interested in doing this, I would have to work out the details on my own. I kept the flyer and practiced like mad in the back yard for a couple of weeks.

When it came time for the tryouts, I convinced Bill to take me.

When we arrived at the school grounds, there must have been a hundred boys there with their dads. Most had uniforms already and belonged to a team. They hung out in tight knots, playing catch, laughing and chasing one another around the base paths. I was electrified with desire to play, and even thought for a moment that I actually had a chance.

I chose to try out for Charlie's team, the Dodgers, but it was apparent that I was out of my league already, and this was just Little League! I recall doing very poorly but was, for whatever reason, not convinced by my failure that I couldn't play. All I needed, I thought, was to get on a team, watch, learn and soon I'd be playing. When the coach came to tell us that I hadn't made it, he saw the disappointment on my face. He told me that there was a team who would take anyone: The Yellow Jackets.

The Yellow Jackets did indeed take anyone, and that meant me too. I was thrilled, but looking back I realize that my parents were less so. For one thing, it meant shelling out money for a uniform. No special shoes or a new glove, though, at least until I had proved to them that I was going to go through with it. For another, it meant taking me to practices and to games. They took turns doing this, waiting in the car for me to finish. They didn't have a lot it common with the other parents, I'm guessing.

So, with their modest help and my foolish passion, go through with it I did. Well, one season, anyway. I actually played a whole season with the Yellow Jackets. Though I never started a game, I did get to play. Though we had a losing season, we did win a game. It was one of the best and one of the worst times of my life. Three things happened that I can recall.

First, I got hit in the eye with a baseball. I was sent in to play third base, and when a throw from second came in head of the runner, I dropped my glove to keep an eye on the ball. I kept my eye on it all the way in, busting open a gash below it (I still can feel the scar) and knocking me out of the game.

Second, though obviously not in the same game, I was allowed--for still unknown reasons--to come up to bat and promptly got hit in the chest by the very first pitch. All I can remember was getting up and choking out "Do I get to take my base?" I did. That was the only time I was ever on base.

Finally, and most importantly, I can recall celebrating with my teammates after we won our first and only game of the season. It came late in the season, a night game against the Dodgers--Charlie's team. Though I didn't actually get to play in the game, I proudly wore the uniform and was there at the end when we cheered and dogpiled at the pitchers mound. Now whenever I see that ridiculous scene on TV, I can't help but recall that moment when I did that too. I was part of a team. It's kinda fun.

Every player counts.


d2 said...

Almost made me feel sorry for you... I was good at the "guess the composer" game - probably the only time I did anything better than you!

Including now, watching you mature as a wonderful writer.

bc said...

Picture sitting on Dorothy's porch, looking at the corner of 11th & Washington. Home plate was east of intersection facing Kollen Park; bases were corner curbs on west side. I don't think we had 2nd base. I was a pretty good hitter. Yes, someone hit a ball thru the neighbor's window (-:

bc said...

"Guess the composer"
When we 3 girls were doing dishes, Joan would sing a song and we would have to guess what she was singing.