“When I was eleven I pitched a shutout against the Yankees and lived to tell about it.”
When I was ten years old I cried all the way home from the Little League ball park. It was my first game as a pitcher and I had been shelled by the Yanks and I was in shock. I can’t remember the final score, but it had definitely been a loss and a big one at that. I was hooked during the first inning having retired a total of zero batters. Zilch. Nada. No one. And to top it off a kid named Benji Tavares, a kid that picked on me constantly, replaced me in relief.
I held myself together through the rest of the game, but as soon as I collapsed into the back seat of our Jeep Wagoneer the snot and tears came unabated. I swore I would never, ever, play baseball again. I was supposed to be the phenom, the best to ever have played. I had been a bat boy, a ball boy, I had worn the uniform since I was five, I had practiced hard, and here I was, at ten and my career was over. I even thought about switching to soccer (well, not really – I didn’t even know what soccer was at that time and even though I was desperate, I would not have been THAT desperate).
NB: Soccer was tried in Ketchikan my 8th grade year. The new teacher from California tried to introduce this “world” sport to us and after about sixty seconds of him yelling at us to stay in position, it quickly turned into a classic game of smear the “guy with the ball” (that’s not actually what we called it, but political correctness will not permit me to use the term Q***r) and we never got to play it again.
After that first game my ego had taken a line shot to the nuggets and I laid in the back seat with my stomach aching, wondering how I was going to ever face the world again. I wanted nothing more than to kick my uniform down the stairs, eat a bowl of Captain Crunch and sit on my beanbag in my dark closet (Yes, I actually did this. It’s quite comforting really). For a full year I burned with self loathing and hatred towards the Yankees – the team that saw fit to make a mockery of what was supposed to be my coming out as the next Nolan Ryan. Revenge, as they say, would be sweet.
When summer rolled around to my second year of Little League I had grown from a flaccid boy of 4’8″ to a flaccid boy of 5’1″ and those 5 inches seemed to make all the difference in my little world. When I took the mound against the hated “Yanks” that first game, I was no longer the kid crying in the back seat. I was the phenom, oozing in unknown confidence, and I was in top form because I had practiced every single day for six months straight. What I learned from that game has stuck with me my entire life (even though I have tried to beat it out with a shovel). That day I realized that I truly WAS as awesome as I thought I was.
“First Game I Won Ever (Yanks).” That’s how I inscribed the ball on the wall plaque that I made my dad. A picture of myself with my beaming, bug-eyed face floating behind five balls, from my five wins that year, pasted below it.
NB: When I see pictures of myself at that age, I am always surprised that my mother didn’t smother me in my sleep or make me wear a paper bag over my head. It wasn’t until later in life did I understand why people screamed and ran away from us whenever we went out as a family.
The Tongass Traders went undefeated and won the championship that year. I still have the newspaper articles that my mom cut out and dutifully underlined every instance of my name being mentioned (who really wanted to read that other stuff about other kids anyway and this saved me from having to search the article for mentions of ME). She was an ardent fan and the strongest (at least when it came to love for her kids), yet meekest woman I have ever known.
In retrospect, I should have given that first game plaque to her because she probably had more to do with my wins that year than my dad (a wave of guilt just washed over me as I wrote that last sentence). My baseball relationship with her probably illustrates more than anything exactly what was wrong with my dad and explains why everyone who ever met my mother considered her a saint.
Dude (Yes, everyone really called her Dude though her name was Gertrude. Ask Kelly sometime about having to call her future mother-in-law “Dude.”) was 37 when she had me and I’m sure she had no idea after pushing out her 12 pound son that eleven years later, at the age of 48, she would have to kneel behind home plate and catch his pitches because her husband demanded that she do it.
“Dude! Get out there and catch John. He needs to practice!”
He always used the term “catch John” as if I was running away from him and mom needed to chase after me to drag me home. Come to think of it, he used to use the same basic words with our errant dog too. “Catch Dusty!” he would scream as the dog sprinted his way out the open door to freedom. I’m sure there is some Freudian meaning behind this which I’m not smart enough to unwind.
I can still hear her exasperated, feeble attempts at non-compliance, but my dad was such a force of nature that no one ever really said no to him. It breaks my heart that it seemed so normal to me at the time to have my overweight mother, a woman with knees so bad that she had a hard time getting out of a chair, kneel down behind the plate and dig my errant pitches out of the dirt and that my dad wanted me to throw fast ball after fast ball at her so that I would be really, really good at something so meaningless (In truth, I never really threw as hard as I could. I was an idiot, but not completely heartless).
She was a woman who was afraid of the water and couldn’t swim, was a timid driver, slaved for my father and me, and was a pack animal who carried our coats and hats when we got too warm and our packages when our arms got too tired. Yet, because of her great love for her family (or maybe Stockholm syndrome) she seemed to not mind any of it (even catching). “Greater love hath no mother than this.” In short, she was a saint and we were, well, let’s just say less than saints. God has a special place in heaven reserved just for her.
It’s interesting to me that so many of my best games were against the Yanks and almost all of the balls I pulled out of the storage box were in some way related to that team. I went on to play baseball through junior high and high school, Babe Ruth, Senior League and American Legion. I played in Ketchikan, Anchorage, Fall River Mills, Redding, and Lewiston and in many other towns both far and away. I even played a bit of small time college ball. I played close to fifteen years total, and never, in any of the years after that 2nd year of Little League did I ever put the name of the pitcher I hit a home-run off of on the ball, but my hatred of that team ran so deep that it seemed fitting to forever brand those two guys for no other reason than that they played for the Yankees.
NB: If you are wondering if anything good ever came of my time on the mound, I would say yes. God used my time in baseball to open my eyes to Him – but that’s another story.
This box of balls has been with me for almost 40 years and now it’s time to let them go. These baseballs are not me. Christian and Allison have taken a few. I asked Wesley if he wanted any and he replied in a text “I do not.” and Molly just wrinkled her nose and said something like “Eww.” The rest of them are going to the dog… literally.