My Turn At Bat

Nov 26, 2013 by

 

I played my final season of organized baseball at the age of thirteen.  The word “play” might be a tad ambitious.  Maybe “participated” is better suited for a season that would be my last.  My family moved from the Northeast to the middle of a cornfield in 1986.  I had just completed a year of Catholic middle school in Southern Indiana.   The warm humid days were fast approaching, so it was time for my brother and me to set out for a summer of baseball in our town’s respective leagues.  My brother enlisted in Little League, while I was destined to play my first year of Babe Ruth.

My parents had learned during the sign up process for Babe Ruth that all 13-year-old kids had to try out.  My confidence in my athletic ability was soundly grounded in two sports – tennis and basketball.  Baseball, on the other hand, was much different.  I fell more in line with the nerdy bookworm kid1[i]in the original Bad News Bears film.  I understood the nuances of the game, could calculate on a whim any metric used in baseball to evaluate and analyze players, and I enjoyed watching a baseball game for all levels of play.  However, when it came to my performance on the field, Mario Mendoza would be considered borderline Hall-of-Fame compared to my production at the plate.  I would have been perfectly content on the bench, keeping score and running stats on the opposition.  So when I found out I had to tryout, I knew right then I would go undrafted, and my playing days were coming to an end.

It was a late May Saturday morning when my Dad drove into the parking lot of the only dedicated Babe Ruth league field in our town.  I stood shoulder to shoulder down the third base line with thirty or so other adolescent males.  The head coaches for each of the league’s teams stood before us with clipboards, each dressed in those ridiculously god-awful late 80’s coaching shorts.[ii]   One of the coaches addressed the group of players to explain how the tryout would operate.  We would each take a turn shagging fly balls from left field, field a few grounders from third, and take swings at approximately ten pitches.

I remember standing there with the other players as I took a long look at the dimensions of the field.  I noticed how far the outfield fence appeared from where we stood.  I read the sign posted on the outfield fence, which was located right below the left field foul pole.  It read 315 feet.  I was certain no one trying out today would come remotely close to knocking one out.  That’s when it dawned on me, I had never played on a regulation sized baseball field.  My only playing experience was on Little League fields with sixty foot distances from base to base, and a rather condensed outfield.  Now, with the extra 30 feet added to the base paths, and an outfield that resembled a 100 acre cow pasture, I instantly felt physically inadequate.  I wondered if this lanky, skinny right arm could manage a throw without multiple hops from third to first, and how far the shortstop would have to come into the outfield on any of my throws to the cutoff man.

I adjusted my helmet and choked up a few inches on the aluminum bat as I dug in to take my ten swings.   I assume the coach pitching to us grooved 60 mile-per-hour pitches, but from my perspective the speed was clocking in at 80 – 85 miles per hour.  So I took the first pitch.  Not to demonstrate my plate discipline, but because by the time I thought to swing, the ball was already thumping sound into the catcher’s glove.   I then proceeded to take my cuts on the next eight pitches.  On four of those pitches I swung and missed, I fouled back three pitches, and managed to put one ball in play – a slow rolling grounder towards the pitcher.  I was instructed on my final pitch to lay down a bunt.  I adjusted my body in the box, readying myself to lay one down.  The pitch was fired my way.  I moved my hands into a bunting position, only to see the ball slightly nick the bat on its way to the catcher’s glove.  “Next up!”  I heard a coach yell from the first base side dugout.

I trotted out to left field, positioning myself directly behind where a shortstop would normally be, about 200 feet or so from home plate.  The outfield segment of the tryout consisted of three balls hit to left.  I managed to catch both high lofting balls hit my way and field a one-hop line drive before throwing it over to a coach standing on the second base bag.  I was well aware of my ability to catch fly balls, which came easily, however, I knew my lousy stint at the plate more or less assured that I would not make anyone’s team.  By this point, I was perfectly content not playing baseball this coming summer or anytime thereafter.  I knew my future playing organized sports would not involve a playing environment made of grass and dirt.   The sport of baseball in my near future would be played in my back yard with a yellow plastic bat and a white ball marked with holes.  Not that I wasn’t going to give my best out there on this day, but I knew my limits.  If I were a coach, I would have passed on selecting a 13-year-old, weak-hitting Matt Ankerson.

The final exercise of the tryout came at third base.  Same deal as the outfield, we were to field three balls hit our way.  I had never played the position, all my Little League experience was on the opposite side of the infield.  I had always played first base, mostly because I was tall and slow.  I lacked the ability to field any position requiring even a six foot range, I did not have a particularly strong throwing arm, I could barely even bend down to field a ground ball.  These inefficiencies made first base the only logical place for my past coaches to put me.

The first ball came screaming from the coach’s bat.  I reacted in the only way I knew.  I closed my eyes, turned my head to the right; my legs stayed straight and motionless as I extended my left arm in the direction of the ball.  I’m sure this is what a giraffe would look like if it took infield practice.  When I opened my eyes, I saw that the ball had made its way into my glove.  A few “ooh’s and ah’s” were overheard from parents watching in the bleachers.  I picked the ball out of my glove and whipped it over to first.  I don’t recall the other two balls I fielded that day.

Tryouts were over.  I picked up my glove, kicked the dirt off my cleats and walked off the field to the parking lot.  I sat in the front passenger seat of our station wagon.  Dad started up the engine and drove me home.  I was happy that hour was now behind me.  When we got home I changed out the cleats for a pair of basketball shoes and shot hoops in my driveway.

A few days later my father received a call from one of the head coaches at the Babe Ruth tryout, who notified him his son was chosen for the team.  Practice would be held on Wednesday at the same field at 4:00 PM.  I’m not sure what my Dad’s reaction was to this news.  He attended the tryout, so he had witnessed my piss-poor hitting display and lucky grab at third.  I expect that, like me, my Dad was certain I would not be selected.  Either way, he notified me that I had indeed made a team and my first practice would be in two days.  The news of actually making a team was disheartening to me.

It’s still a mystery why I was chosen to play Babe Ruth baseball.  I’m sure roster spots had to be filled; somebody had to be picked.   My last name begins with A, maybe the coach lazily selected the first name on the list of shitty players not chosen.   I dreaded every second of my inaugural practice.  I sat on the bench, during the first game, with the only other first year player as the rest of the team ran out on the field for the top of the first.  There was no rule requiring everyone play a set amount of innings, or even play at all for that matter.   Therefore, I spent the majority of my time sitting on a wooden bench alongside the other 13-year-old player, Cole.  Cole was as uninterested as I in playing baseball.   His parents made him play.  During each game, Cole and I took our seats at the far end of the bench, away from the rest of the players, chewing sunflower seeds, pissing and moaning about being there.  Misery indeed loves company.

If Cole was chosen for a late inning at bat, we were well behind in, he would roll his eyes and begin his slow-paced walk toward the on-deck circle.  He would often strike out, happy to return to his seat on the bench next me.

My season at the plate could have been easily predicted by anyone who witnessed my tryout at bats.  In 15 league games, I batted 13 times and never managed a base hit.  I might have walked once but I honestly cannot recall standing on first base for any moment of the season.  I never got comfortable at the plate that year.  It was quite apparent I was out of my league, every at bat.  I couldn’t catch up with any pitcher’s fastball, and forget about the breaking stuff thrown my way.  I did make an outfield assist from left field, throwing a player out at home.  It was the highlight of arguably the worst season anyone wearing a baseball uniform has ever had.

We wore yellow uniforms sponsored by a now-defunct local restaurant.  Not Pittsburgh Pirate yellow, more like the San Diego Chicken yellow.  We lost every game.  I told my parents I would not play next season.  Retirement was the easiest decision I ever made.  My baseball playing career was finished.   I didn’t get any pushback from either parent.  I ran into Cole a few summers later at basketball camp; he told me of a similar conversation he had with his parents that summer.  Cole never played organized baseball either after our year together on the pine.

Flash forward 26 years later……

I am pacing back in forth across my living room; watching a playoff game between the Detroit Tigers and my team, the Boston Red Sox.  I told myself before the start of the playoffs that I would calmly enjoy watching my team without the feelings of anxiety or stress that so many baseball fans endure.  The Sox had won two World Series trophies since 2004, forever expunging the harsh past plagued by soul crushing October defeats.   Now that the past is the past, I can sit back and savor some playoff baseball.  That lasted all of two innings during game one of the opening round of the Tampa Boston series.  This game of baseball is notorious for unleashing a month’s worth of nerves that age me like a United Sates President upon completion of a four-year term.

As I watch one Sox batter after another swing and miss on pitches from game two starter Max Scherzer, I reminisce about my Babe Ruth tryout and my inability to even make solid contact, let alone knock a ball into the outfield.  I can finally relate to a Major League hitter on some level, or at least a good amount of Stephen Drew’s woeful playoff at bats.



[i] Alfred Ogilvie was well ahead of his time.  He was the original sabermetrics guru, well before Bill James made his impact on the game of baseball.

[ii]  baseball-shorts

 

 

 

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