Saturday, April 1, 2017

Spring Training

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for April is called "Dilettantes." This song will get into your head, and creepily watch you sleep (from the inside.)

Baseball brings fathers and sons together. The smell of freshly cut grass. The crack of the bat. Some other stuff, probably. It's a language that we all speak. There is no wound deep enough that it can't be healed by a quick game of catch with your ghost dad.

Malcolm and I learned these lessons from Field of Dreams. Since we watched it together a few months ago, he couldn't wait for Spring so he could join Little League.

His first practice was this week, and when I came to pick him up, Coach Andy was timing each of the players as they ran the bases. I showed up just as Malcolm was finishing his sprint.

"17.3 seconds," the coach announced.

A few minutes later, practice broke up, and Malcolm ran over to the fence to put his glove into his baseball bag. I asked if he had fun.

"Yep!" he said brightly, accepting my high five through the fence. Then, after a pause, "Guess what... I'm the slowest player on the team!"

I didn't know if 17.3 seconds was a good time, but I suspected it might not be.  Only one other player ran after Malcolm, and when that kid found out that he clocked in at 16.3 seconds, he ripped off his hat, threw it on the ground, and let out a primal cry of despair.

Okay, then. I don't know baseball statistics, but I'm quite facile with the Transitive Property: If A < B and B = C, then A < C. In other words, if Malcolm is slower then Unstable Kid, and Unstable Kid is slow enough to throw a tantrum about it, Malcolm is slow enough to throw a tantrum about it.

But he didn't even seem disappointed. To him, it was just a conversation point.

"Really?" I said. "Well, I'm glad you had fun."

And I was really glad. My own childhood was a mosaic of athletic bankruptcy. I spent three years as a Little League benchwarmer, and I couldn't even do that well. When I went up to bat, it was not unusual for another player to sit down in the space I had vacated and complain about how cold the bench was. "Come on, London! You had one job!"

I had another job, and that was right fielder. In The Minors, hardly anybody could hit the ball anywhere near right field. Unfortunately, when a ball did come my way, I wasn't quite strong enough to throw it to second or third base to prevent the runners from advancing. When Coach Blumenfeld became aware of this, he tried me out in left field, but a lot more balls came my way, and that wasn't good either.

In my three years of baseball, I only got to play a different position once, and that was for one inning. I couldn't believe my luck when the coach sent me out to second base, until I realized what was missing. Dandelions. The dandelions were in bloom in the outfield, and here there was nothing but dirt to engage me. But I wasn't going to let that stop me. I was so good at being distracted that I found a way to pay attention to the dirt rather than the game.

And so it was back to right field.

Batting always felt unnatural.  It was easier if I just closed my eyes.  Not the whole time, but just at the moment the ball left the pitcher's hand. This removed any correlation between the trajectory of the ball and the likelihood that I would swing. With that, my best chance of getting on base was if I was lucky enough to get hit by the ball.

Little known fact: If you get hit by a pitch, and swing anyway, it counts as a strike. This comes up so rarely in baseball that none of the Little League umpires knew of the rule. They were just confused by the fact that some kid would swing at a pitch that had already beaned him in the butt, and they would send me to first base out of sympathy.

By time I got to sixth grade, all of my friends were in The Majors. My parents encouraged me to join them, but that would have necessitated a try-out, and I was pretty sure how that would go. Ultimately, I decided that the pitchers in The Majors would be too accurate, and that would deprive me of opportunities to get hit by wild balls.

No thanks. I wanted to be able to help my team.

In my final year of Little League, the only other sixth grader on my team was Marty Oxman. What Marty lacked in skills, he made up for in pro swagger. Before every swing, he would step back from the plate, adjust his helmet, spit, and inspect his bat. Then he would sweep home plate with his foot to clear off some of the dirt, tap the plate with the end of his bat, spit again, get into a deep crouch, and whiff at the ball three times in a row. My mom was impressed, and encouraged me to emulate him.

"That Marty Oxman looks really good striking out. You should try that," she said. "Or maybe try keeping your eyes open when you're batting."

All of these memories came trickling back as I was driving Malcolm home from his first practice. And when he cheerfully told me he was the slowest kid on the team, I felt genuinely proud.

And as we drove by a cornfield, I though I heard a mysterious deep voice say something.

"Sucking at baseball brings fathers and sons together, too." 

With warmest regards,