Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Most of the other baseball players at the Pacific Coast League tryouts were half my age. Nobody said the league was for guys in their twenties, but that was the deal. Some goofuses showed up in shorts and tennis shoes. Not me, though. I own four different pairs of baseball pants. I didn’t have on cleats, however. I was getting by with turf shoes, because I had not yet earned the exalted status bestowed by cleats. It really makes a difference to have your feet a quarter inch off the ground. Also, the clackety-clack of cleats on concrete is clear confirmation that you are a ballplayer, not a hapless schmo just going through the motions.
I thought it was a sure thing I would be drafted, probably drafted high. Everybody needed a fifty-seven-year-old catcher who hadn’t played in twenty-five years — and who, on the late-August day of tryouts, was still seeing double from brain damage in April. Not severely double right in front of me. I’d been able to teach high-school English up until the AP exam in mid-May and then take medical leave. But double, as in: Isn’t it weird how the walls are intersecting twenty feet down the hallway, and the students and the lockers and the floors are all looking more than a little bit swervy?
The trick, which I learned after going back to playing tennis in early August, was to keep the ball in front of you. If you let the ball get in on you, you (a) lose power and control and (b) have to pick which one of the two balls to hit.
My brain damage was not from a stroke, by the way. It was a “cavernous malformation” that leaked in my brain stem: a blob of blood-vessel cells that never quite form veins nor arteries nor capillaries; a vascular Creature from the Black Lagoon of your brain. You could have one and never know, like I did, until one day a little mutant blood vessel inside my brain stem suddenly oozed some goop. If the brain is like a computer, then this is like spilling coffee on your keyboard. I can’t say what your keyboard feels, but I felt whacked by a two-by-four that didn’t hurt but left me seeing some
from foot to calf. For a while there, the tingling went all the way up my thigh and into my balls, which was alarming, but, still, it could have been much, much worse.
I slept a lot. Deeeeeep sleeeeeeep. My wife was very upset and demonstrated her love in both conventional and unconventional ways. For example, she went two-for-two in passing out during my initial medical exams — first in the emergency room and then again a few days later at the neurologist’s office. If that’s not love . . . well, it is.
She also did not yell at me one single bit when, fitted out with prism glasses, I backed my car out of the driveway and scraped her Volvo up nicely. Not a peep.
It is true that she was very concerned about how mean I was to her during this period. I wrote her two poems explaining that I wasn’t being mean, but she wasn’t buying it. For evidence of my meanness you will have to read her essay, if she ever writes one. What I felt was grateful and eager to recover so she would not feel meanness but rather l-o-v-e.
Over the course of my medical leave and summer vacation the tingling retreated back the way it came, down the quads and the calves and then around the ankle to one last holdout in my left foot, which still sometimes tingles to this day — my own personal memento mori, disconcerting but not enough to keep me sidelined. It’s a reminder, if you will, to do it now, whatever it may be. In my case it was playing baseball — actual hardball, not softball — with seventeen other guys and an ump and uniforms. The real thing.
I thought tryouts went great. I played catcher, just catcher. You may ask, How solid was my receiving with that lingering double vision? Well, I’m happy to report that squatting behind the plate was a miracle cure. I saw completely normal and snagged a whole lot of balls in the dirt. Each time I did, I was like: Looky here, pure gold. That whooshing hardball crashing into the grit, chaos about to explode, but no! My mitt swooped down and snagged it, and a satisfying thunk transmitted deep satisfaction direct from the web of the glove to the left prefrontal cortex.
Of course, plenty of balls also skipped right by me, but these were mainly wild pitches — i.e., the pitcher’s fault, not mine. At least, according to me. I’m not really into whose fault it was. Let’s just say a nontrivial number of pitches had destinies other than being caught. That feels like the truth. I also made no attempt whatsoever to field any pop-ups behind the plate. Too many balls lying around back there; you could break an ankle. In retrospect maybe I should have jumped up, turned around, and flung off my mask before I looked in dismay at the scattered balls and reluctantly abandoned what would have for sure been a dogged, ultimately triumphant pursuit.
To be honest, I cannot recollect ever in my entire life catching a foul pop fly as catcher, but I was in no mood to let such obvious limitations hold me back. There were about a hundred guys who needed to hit and just me and one other, obviously way-better-than-me guy taking turns behind the plate. This guy was Robo-Catcher, but perfectly friendly. He was like, Go ahead, and I was like, No, you go ahead. Me and Robo took turns. He was younger, of course, and I knew if it was just between him and me, he’d get picked first. But I could live with that. On my turn catching I was very encouraging to all the batters: “Whoa, dude, you nailed that one.” One batter, built like a rustic cabin, swatted a ball that dented the outfield fence. Ka-blam! Another guy — jitteriest person I ever saw in my entire life, a downed power line in human form — batted lefty and made plenty of contact. This guy had eye-black all over his cheeks: an impressively deranged look.
In my own at-bats I got some hits, nothing Ruthian but nevertheless undisputed line drives to the outfield. I had no regrets. I did what I’d set out to do. Solid contact — that’s my brand. When you need a line drive up the middle, call me.
After everyone had hit, it was time for the managers to pick, which was done playground style — brutal, merciless, fair: pick the best guys first, then the middle guys, and then we’ll just have to see. Everybody needs a catcher who can hit, I thought. This is going to be redemptive. Watch me now.
And yet when the picking started, the coaches didn’t pick me, and they didn’t pick me, and they didn’t pick me. Time slowed. My heartbeat amplified. All these other guys were getting picked, but not me. At first it was humbling, and then it was alarming. What if I didn’t get picked at all? I had told all my students I was trying out. What would I say to them? It was too harrowing a thought to consider. The possibility of not getting picked blotted out everything except the green, green grass while I contemplated the question of whether to stand up straight, or lean against the fence, or gradually disappear.
I became full of mercy for the outcasts of the world. In the future I would treat them with compassion, show an interest, listen to their stories. In particular when kids failed in my classroom, I wouldn’t secretly roll my eyes in exasperation: No! Never again. I couldn’t go back and change the past, but from now on I could and would be kinder to the not-good-enough.
Then I got picked.
This tall, sad-eyed guy, who a couple of months later would hit two grand-slam home runs in the same game, approached me unnoticed (so preoccupied was I with how to stand) and said, with what in retrospect sounds like a note of apology for the long wait, “Hey, do you want to play with us?”
Whatever I actually said, what I felt was: Whoop whoop! I shed all trepidation like a snakeskin as I followed my new manager back to the chosen circle, leaving behind the remaining half dozen or so not-yet-and-maybe-never-picked players. One guy, as old as I am if not older, kept tossing the ball into his mitt: thump, thump.
I wonder even now what I would tell that guy, if I could tell him something encouraging but real. I keep thinking about that guy, who could so easily have been me; who, let’s face it, is me in the alternative universe we all know is right there waiting for us whenever we don’t catch a lucky break.
Among my instantly beloved teammates I recognized the cabin-sized guy who had hit the mightiest clout of tryouts, and the hyper guy with eye-black spread all over his cheeks. A guy with a long black beard told me there was a pitcher on our team who could throw ninety-plus miles per hour, and I should get ready for my hand to hurt.
This was the best news I’d ever heard, although it turned out not to be true. That guy maxed out in the high seventies. Also I was our team’s fourth-string catcher, which is really not a thing unless you make it one, which you must do if you are to be true to your inner game. So I hung on to that role and played maybe twenty-something innings over a fourteen-game season. I could see where things were headed early on and floated a complaint about it to my wife, who said, “As long as they let you play sometimes and you have fun, it’s OK,” so I went with that. I did not see a ton of action, but I also did not see none, and furthermore I made a contribution. From the dugout with the other subs I did a lot of hooraying for our side and also talked some pretty vicious trash about the other team. Everyone plays a role.
We went undefeated and won the championship by a wide margin in a game in which I did not play at all. Yet there was one midseason game where none of the other three catchers could make it. So, yeah, I caught all nine innings, ending with us up 3-2. When you win 3-2, you know the catcher had to have been doing something right, and that was me, with a hand on the ground behind home plate so I wouldn’t keel over but rather maintain a steady squat. If this is where I go from a malformed blood vessel, then bury me right here. That was my exact thought. It kept me going through innings seven, eight, and nine.
I am not going to tell you that I was a stellar catcher. Gritty, sure. Gritty all day long. But now I know: Those balls that get by you in practice? They also get by you in a game, and while a couple of passed balls here and there is OK, more than a couple is not. I got taken out of one game, mid-inning. With the bases loaded we got the runner out at third, and the throw home was there in my mitt, then gone. That was a real gut-clencher.
I told my students about it the next day. What’s the point of failure if you don’t make use of it? We share personal news at the start of each class, to get off on a human note before I tell them to put their headphones away. So I told them about being taken out in the middle of the inning, and nobody said anything. The room was still. The moment lingered.
This was the one game where my wife was watching. The games were way out in the wilds of the San Fernando Valley, but my wife came to this game on a sunny Sunday morning with sunglasses and dimples glinting, and you know what she said?
That I looked like a ballplayer.
I think that’s what I would tell that unpicked guy thumping the ball into his mitt back at tryouts. I would tell him he’s a ballplayer for sure.