Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Unnatural

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So at the time I’m writing this, the Boston Red Sox are down two games in their series against the Oakland A’s. Things are looking very grim indeed, baseball fans. I know a little bit about losing games in the postseason myself, being a former Little Leaguer. I was famous for my losing.

Think back to the summer of 1984. I was a pathologically shy, 7-year-old mouse of a kid whose hobbies included rereading our Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia set morning, noon and night. Despite all my best efforts at memorization, my memory is spotty at best. For instance, I can probably name every country in Europe — yes, including the little ones like San Marino, Monaco, Andorra and Luxembourg — but not every capital in Europe.

So being an appalling nerd, I was pathetic at team sports, and was invariably picked last, even after young bowlegged girls with chronic asthma. I was also short for my age, with little legs. I’ve since sprouted. Given a foot-high stepladder, I now stand a towering six-foot-six.

My parents sought to rectify this situation. My dad asked me one day if I wanted to join Little League.

“You want to be on a baseball team?” he asked. “It’ll be fun.”

“Um-mumml,” I said. My mouth was full of Froot Loops at the time.

Days later, I found myself a member of the Columbus Park League. This seemed fairly exciting — I figured correctly that I’d have to end up on one of the teams. And so I did: The Jets!

Correction: the fast, exciting Jets! A team capable of supersonic speed, perhaps! Supersonic speed being, naturally, 1,087 feet per second, according to Funk & Wagnalls.

The coaches gave me a uniform, pipsqueak size. I was thrilled when I came home and unwrapped it. The Jet colors were blue and gold — not yellow, but gold! More important was my jersey number, which cruel fate had seen fit to give me: No. 1.

So I had a team and a uniform. The next thing I needed was some concept of how to play baseball.

I had no idea how to play the game, and the Funk & Wagnalls was mercilessly vague.

My dad watched his share of Red Sox games, and so did I, but being Portuguese his game was soccer. One thing we both knew was that it was bad form to kick the baseball, and bouncing it off your head was not likely to work.

My coaches, whose names I forget, drilled us Jets for what seemed like days. Ah, the camaraderie! It was like boot camp — the drills drew us Jets closer, and the coaches became a common enemy to both revere and rebel against. I can hear my teammates’ little voices now, calling through a sea of years: “You stink, kid!”

We played many games against teams like the Bombers, the Comets, and other sky-related terminology. I played two positions: deep, deep, deep left field, where no toddler could possibly hit a ball, and designated hitter, where I could sit sullenly on the bench and not harm anyone.

I discovered early on in my career that I couldn’t possibly hit my way on base. I swung early. I swung minutes too late. Only after several games did I figure out that not swinging could count as a strike. My coaches had the patience of angels.

But since I couldn’t hit the ball, I could get on first base if I was hit with the ball. What a discovery! I soon grew excellent at leaning into pitches, and my left side became bruised to a pulp. When my ribs became sore, I threw my left arm into the ball instead.

After winning games, us Jets went for ice cream, piled in the bed of one of the coaches’ pickup truck. I sulked quietly. My hat once flew off on Hanover Street. We circled the block to retrieve it. It had been run over several times, but still serviceable.

During a game at Ruggles Park, I sat in the dugout, keeping the bench from running away. Behind me were two older kids — real compulsive-drooler, sloping-cranium types.

“That number 1 kid sucks,” one said, right into my ear.

“I don’t know why they even let him play,” the other said.

I didn’t know, either. I began to cry, ready to crawl into a hole. One of them, or possibly both, poked me through the fence. My coach told them both to scram, and I worshipped him for it.

After one game, I overheard from some of the other Jets that we were going to be in the championship against The Comets. The Jets had made the postseason. I was mystified. I thought we stunk.

My parents and older sister came to the game at Ruggles Park. They were excited for me. I wanted it over with. I missed my encyclopedias, and all the practice time was taking me away from the television.

After a few innings riding the pine, my turn at bat came. My coach stuck an enormous helmet on my head, over this mop of my hair, and I strode to home plate.

The Comet pitcher was tall and cross-eyed. Already working on his psychological techniques in middle school, he stared me down in the triangular crossfire of his vision. I wondered if that made him pitch better somehow, and looked for my family in the crowd. My helmet was sinking onto my head, so I held my bat with one hand while I adjusted it.

And before I knew it, a pitch flew at me at lightning speed. It made contact with my outstretched bat — a hit! — and bounced harmlessly foul. Stee-rike one!

It was the one and only time my bat made contact with a ball all season.

The rest of the game was a blur — The Jets lost due to a bad call, somebody said, but what could you expect when the home-plate umpire was the father of that cross-eyed pitcher? I went home, ready to bury my uniform in the back yard and never speak of that summer again. But I’ll never forget all those memories.

Believe me — I’ve tried.

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