Playing Ball

In honor of the baseball post-season and the fact that my hometown team, the Kansas City Royals, gets the award for most improved in the last few years, here’s a post about baseball. It’s a short memoir piece I wrote a couple of years ago. It originally appeared in Ducts.org.

Kauffman Stadium

Playing Ball

I’m five years old and there’s a baseball game in progress right outside my door. We live at the junction of Thompson and Askew. Our corner serves as home plate. The pitcher stands in the middle of the intersection. Very few cars drive by during a summer day in the neighborhood that Kansas City forgot. If a family owns a car, it means the father has a job, and the car is at work with him.

I watch the action from my front yard. Trudy, a teenager from down the street, invites me into the game. She asks if I’d like to take her turn at bat. She’ll help me. I hustle to the corner and take the unwieldy wooden club. I’m big for my age, but not enough to handle an adult-sized baseball bat. Trudy puts her arms around me, providing extra hands to hold the bat steady. Her long, wavy hair falls over my left shoulder.

A boy is pitching, but I don’t know his name. I’m pretty sure he’s one of Trudy’s many brothers. He lobs a nice, low, slow pitch to make things easy for me, though I won’t realize this until much later. We swing, Trudy and I, contacting the ball, which dribbles along the asphalt. Trudy’s voice tells me to run. I know the goal is to make it around all the bases. I dash to first and keep going, unaware of what anyone else is doing with the baseball or whether it’s relevant to me.

When I reach second base, caddy-corner to my house, someone tells me I can stop running. Trudy thanks me for helping her bat and sends me back to my house. The teams switch places, while I ride a wave of personal glory to my front door to report to my mother what I’ve done.

She’s been watching from the window, and is waiting for me with words of…consolation? She tells me lots of baseball players make outs the same way. I hadn’t known I’d made an out. I’m not sure what it means. I only know I performed the amazing feat of hitting the ball, while being included with the big kids. And I have a new favorite thing in my life: baseball.

**

A few years later I’m watching a Royals’ game on TV with my dad. I chew my lip in anxiety as an injured Paul Schaal leaves the field. I worry what the team will do now for a third-baseman. Paul Schaal is my favorite player – mostly due to his having the coolest name on the team – though Cookie Rojas is pretty close.

Over the next couple of weeks, I can speak of almost nothing but my hopes of a quick recovery for Schaal, for surely nobody can serve as an adequate replacement. I suppose the Royals will have to make do with the rooky they choose as a fill-in. “I guess we’ll see what this Brett kid is made of,” says my dad.

During the next season, I guiltily forget my Schaal loyalty, cheering for George Brett all the way. I spend hours envisioning double plays. I watch every televised game I can. I daydream of being a bat girl, chasing down foul balls and helping the players with warm-up throws.

A bat and ball reside in my house. I think my older brother left them behind when he moved out. The activities of our neighborhood begin to shift away from street ball and toward street crime. Fewer kids want to get together for games. Sometimes, my just-older brother, a couple of cousins and I will go play on a vacant lot, making liberal use of ghost runners. On occasion, I cajole my mother into going out to the back yard to throw a ball back and forth with me.

I spend a good amount of time by myself, tossing a ball into the air and swinging at it with the bat. Or else, throwing the ball high in the air and running to catch it. Then honing my aim by throwing at a tree. I study the infield moves of Brett, Patek and White. In my room, I imitate the fielding motions as best I can, scooping up one imaginary grounder after another, pivoting, throwing the invisible baseball to the phantom first baseman by the closet.

**

By age ten, my daydreams promote me from batgirl to major league player. I possess no map of the road to a career in baseball. I’m vaguely aware of something called Little League, but am under the impression it’s one of those California things, like surfing.

At school, we often play softball at recess. The teacher lets the boys pick teams, on the theory they are the ones who understand sports. Selection order is batting order. Students choose positions as they are selected. The ones at the end take what is left. All of the boys are chosen before a single girl is picked. Even the boys who don’t know about sports, even the boys who duck and flinch when a ball flies nearby. So first the boys, in order of playing ability. Then the girls in order of something. I’m never sure what. Looks? Popularity? I’m never the first girl chosen, but also never the last.

Each softball day I head to the playground with equal parts eagerness and irritation. I’m bursting for a chance to show everyone what I know I can do, for more chances to hit, for a glory position, such as shortstop or third base. I settle for outfielder and the one turn at bat I’ll get before the bell rings sending us all back inside.

One spring day, Miss B announces she’s going to try a different method for choosing softball teams. She’ll draw names. From beneath her desk, she produces a shoebox filled with slips of paper. First-drawn, first at bat and first to choose a position. A third of the class cheers, a third groans, and the others don’t seem to care. I’m in the cheering section. Normally, I play my cards close to the vest, but today I’m bouncing in my seat. This is my chance. It could happen.

Miss B withdraws a slip of paper and reads the name. Tiny Peter Reid is first up. As he walks to the door to head the line, his face is at war with itself. A smile is there before he can stop it, but it disappears under the glares from the bigger boys. I can see him begin to tremble a little as the second name is drawn: Sheila Richards. She and I are usually next to each other two-thirds of the way back in the line-up. She takes her place next to Peter, taller than he by a head, to start the line for the other team. Mitchell Aitkin, who has never not been one of the first two batters on one of the teams, looks murderous. I hope he’s chosen last.

Miss B selects four more names, none of them Mitchell’s or mine. Mitchell stomps his foot. “I can’t believe this,’ he mutters. I remain silent, focusing all of my energy on silent entreaties to God. Please, if there’s any justice in the universe at all, please let my name be next. I’ve worked harder than anyone. I’m good; I only need the chance to prove it.

“Jerry Simms,” calls Miss B. He tends to bat right behind Mitchell. I cut my glance in Mitchell’s direction. Is he blinking back tears? “Lynn Dearborn” looks dazed as she steps into place. She has a nose-picking habit and has never not been last selected. Mitchell clenches his fists. PLEASE! I beg in my head.

Next slip: “Mitchell Aitkin.” He stomps his way over to stand behind Jerry, saying “Great. It’ll be forever before I get to bat.” Miss B calls more names. I remain in my seat, slouching lower and lower. At last, only two names remain. Veronica Putnam and I look at and then away from one another as the teacher calls her name.

We file out to the playground, Mitchell lurching, me shuffling. Peter should be taking his place at the plate, but he looks frozen in place, bat in hand, several feet away. It’s as if Mitchell has a super-power paralyzer stare. His eyes are locked on Peter and Peter can’t move. Only when kids start yelling, “C’mon, start the game!” and “Batter up already!” does Peter break free of the spell. He extends the bat toward Mitchell, saying, “You want to trade places? You can bat in my place.” Mitchell doesn’t thank him as he grabs the bat.

Already I’m writing the chapter of my autobiography in my head. The autobiography titled My Road to the Big Leagues. This chapter will be called What Nobody Realized Then, or maybe Overcoming Tribulations.

I go home and watch the Royals game that night with more focus than usual, determined to step up my solo training regimen. I Knew I’d Show Them All Some Day. Perhaps this would be a good chapter title.

**

I’m in seventh grade, in the big junior high building. We don’t have recess, but we have gender-segregated P.E. We play softball a lot in P.E. when it’s warm enough. Miss H, the gym teacher, says we’ll take turns picking teams, rotating through every girl in class by the end of the year.

No mystery surrounds the selection process. Girls are chosen for the line-up in order of popularity. I’m not popular. Even the gym teacher doesn’t like me, because I come with disruptive religious issues. I wear a track suit, instead of the regulation unitard shorts uniform. I’m chosen last or nearly so every time.

I suspect I’m the only one in class who knows the stats for every single Royals player, the only one to know about the infield fly rule, the only one who practices on her own. But none of it helps. If anything, it hurts my chances. I’m seen as weird. Everyone else in the locker room chats about make-up, pierced ears, Gene Simmons’s tongue, and some TV show I’m not allowed to watch, called Saturday Night Live. My two interests have been baseball and reading. What I know to talk about are the Kansas City Royals and Charles Dickens.

I find one bright spot. Many of the girls shy away from the positions where they’re likely to see a lot of action. Vicki Espinoza may be first chosen, but she’s not going to risk breaking a nail. Sometimes I get to play third base, my favorite position. And I make some decent plays. It’s not my imagination when I see myself as one of the better players in the class. Admittedly, the competition is not stiff. On the rare occasion I get to bat before gym class ends, I nearly always get a hit. It’s too bad nobody else seems to care much about playing well. The important part is over and done with before we ever take the field.

My turn to choose a team never seems to roll around. Near the end of the year, I ask Miss H. about it. She says she thinks I was absent the day it was my turn. I begin to admit to myself that a path to the Majors may not be opening itself for me.

I struggle through my teen years, in fits, starts and spirals, as most people do. By this time, I’m much too self-conscious to be seen outside pitching a ball to myself, though I still occasionally sit on my bed making gentle little tosses and catches. And I still follow the Royals with a devotion bordering on obsession. After ninth grade, I no longer have P.E.  My exploits are reduced to the occasional family reunion or church outing game.

**

I’m a young adult in the work force when the Royals win the World Series. My boyfriend, one of my brothers and I jump from the couch, hugging and screaming at the moment of victory.

Days later, there will be a victory parade passing only a couple of blocks from my place of employment. Several of us take a long lunch break and walk over. Members of the team roll by in convertibles, accompanied by family members, as confetti rains down from office windows. Unbelievable amounts of confetti. A blizzard. You’d think a paper mill had blown up. The shredded paper piles up under and around the crawling vehicles. In front of me, one of the cars begins to smoke before it stops completely. A little girl in the back seat screams, overcome by it all. The next thing I know, I’m being shoved aside by outfielder Willy Wilson, carrying his crying daughter out and away from the mayhem. Years later, after my own children are born, I will recall this scene, and think of him as a good father first, a good ballplayer second. He will retroactively rise in my list of favorite baseball players.

**

I’m in my forties. I haven’t lived in Kansas City for more than a decade. I’ve spent more than half my life married to the boyfriend with whom I watched the World Series. In all that time, we’ve never owned a television. Over the years, I’ve lost track of Major League Baseball. I don’t know the names of the current players, or even what teams exist. I stopped keeping track when I became disillusioned at the steroids scandals, and when it was no longer easy to catch a game broadcast. I know enough to realize the Royals have become basement dwellers. I can’t remember the last time I held a bat in my hands.

I’ve done some sports things. I spent years involved in the footbag (Hacky Sack) scene, and also played volleyball on a league for a couple of seasons. But the batting of balls and the running of bases, those things have slipped from my life. Only once, while staying in a hotel, do my kids see the lost part of me. I flip through the channels on the TV, stopping when I spot a Royals uniform. The kids both give me a “who is this person” look as I cheer, groan and comment on the game.

I’m in my forties, working at a public library. One day, I open my email to discover a couple of coworkers are putting together a coed softball team, if enough staff members are interested. My fingers type the words “Sign me up!” and hit “send” before my brain can ask if it’s really a good idea.

It’s D-League softball, Sunday evenings, in the fall. Anticipation and dread fight for the upper hand in my psyche. I haven’t played softball in years and years; it will be so fun! I haven’t played softball in years and years; I’ll be terrible. What if I’m the oldest and blindest player on the team? What if I strike out every time and let balls roll through my legs out on the field?

I keep re-reading the initial email for comfort. The guys say skill level doesn’t matter, only the desire to try and have fun. I hope they mean it, and even more I hope they don’t have to mean it, at least where my ability is concerned. I hope I still have it in me somewhere.

The first game is scheduled for late August. The team gathers for a practice beforehand, to figure out positions. Except I can’t make it due to family obligations. I think to myself I’ll probably end up with whatever’s left over. Fourth outfielder, probably. And I’m okay with that. I’ll take what I can get. I only want a chance to play a few games again before I die.

The team captain speaks to me later, asking if I have a preference for what position I want. I tell him I’ll take whatever’s left, unless it’s pitcher. He says we need someone at third base. Will I play third? YES! Um, yeah, I’ll give it a try, I tell him. Third base! I’ll be playing third base! George Brett, I’ll try not to let you down.

The beginning of the season is delayed by rain, and delayed, and delayed. It’s an unusually rainy year. The week we’re finally supposed to begin, I have a family wedding to attend.  Damned family, keeping me from softball again! Through these weeks of waiting, I have time to worry even more about how I will perform. I feel an urgency to practice. My husband is kind enough to take up my mother’s old assignment: get me to stop whining by throwing a ball with me out in the yard. My best friend is game for hitting the batting cages with me. I develop a fierce blister on my left hand and realize I’ll have to take off my wedding ring when I’m playing.

The Sunday after the wedding, I tell the butterflies in my stomach to hush and I take my glove out to the softball fields, only to discover the games are called due to wet fields. It has rained the day before. One more week then. This is starting to feel a lot like being picked last in P.E.

In late September, a full month later than anticipated, I finally get to play a game. We lose spectacularly, but I don’t humiliate myself. I even make it onto base once, meeting my goal of not striking out, by dribbling the ball out onto the infield halfway between the pitcher and the catcher and running hard to first base before either of them can get to it and make a throw. The next batter up hits one to the deep outfield and I charge around the bases from first to home, scoring a run. The next day, my quadriceps inform me I should have been running to get in shape, in addition to my throwing and batting practices.

For the first couple of games, very few balls come my way at third base. D League is not populated with power hitters. The right-handers are hitting toward right field, not left. The few times I am called into action, I don’t flub too badly. I take a throw once from the shortstop and actually catch it. Another time, a ball bounces off my wrist, directly to the same shortstop, who then throws out the runner at second. Only once do I truly embarrass myself, not keeping my head. Taking a throw for a forced out at third, I miss the bag with my foot, and the runner contacts it before I do. Too late I realize I could have tagged her as she ran up.

We lose most of our games in a Bad News Bears kind of way, often ending early due to the mercy rule, which allows the umpire to call the game if one team is a ridiculous number of runs ahead. In fact, we will end the season with a record of 1-7. But I keep up with my personal aspirations to mediocrity, with no strikeouts and no balls through the legs. I get a couple of walks, and otherwise hit the ball somewhere on the ground in the infield. I get thrown out at first a lot, but sometimes not. Eye on the ball, glove on the ground, eye on the ball, glove on the ground…my silent mantra.  Not that I’m having many glove on the ground moments.

It’s the last game of the season. We’re behind, as usual. I’m at third base. The other team has runners on first and second, with two outs. “Remember, force at third,” the short stop reminds me. I nod. The batter swings. A fast grounder shoots toward left field. Glove on the ground.  I scoop up the ball, and in one smooth motion, pivot and run the three steps to third base, not missing the bag with my foot this time.  The runner is out! The inning ends on an unassisted play by the third basewoman: me.

We lose the game by a score of 21 to 7, but this hardly matters. Okay, it probably matters to everyone else. But for me, the one play is enough to send me home on a wave of glory, equal to the one I rode to my front door and my waiting mother all those years ago.

The end

Note: I have changed the names of my classmates, but the events are recorded as I remember them.

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