In the spring of my ninth year, an unfortunate milestone had been reached. I was old enough to play Little League baseball, as my two older brothers had done before me. Because I was a boy, living in a rural valley in the 70s, there was really no question about it.
By then, I had already felt different than other boys. I spent much of my childhood making uncomfortable choices that I deduced would protect me from accusations of being a sissy. I would don a mitt, batter’s helmet and cup to protect myself from injury, both physical and mental.
Unlike my brothers, I had somehow failed to learn any of the essential skills of the game. I was terrified of catching a fly ball, I couldn’t hit, and I couldn’t throw worth a damn: a triple non-threat.
But Little League doesn’t cut players that are hopelessly inept—It lets them stay on the team for a whole season to extend and amplify the humiliation.
Given my complete lack of any skill associated with the game, I was assigned right field where I could do the least damage.
For anyone not familiar with Little League baseball, here are the basics: A baseball is a sphere of tightly wound materials, wrapped in leather, giving it a durable, hard surface, suitable for inflicting great harm on any person in its way. Appropriately, this object is referred to as a hard ball.
Girls play a similar sport, but their ball is a soft ball. This is clearly because parents love their daughters more than their sons. The soft ball is larger, easier to catch, and less likely to cause permanent brain damage when it is deliberately thrown and hit in all directions toward young, innocent children.
The baseball used in Little League is no different than the one used in the Major Leagues. The logic here is that this is the type of ball all boys will need to be able to play with when they enter the Major Leagues later in life.
This hard ball is frequently hit high into the sky, toward innocent children, who have never studied parabolic geometry. They are expected to run under its exact landing spot, rather than to flee, like a sane person. Due to my lack of faith, God took no mercy on me and allowed many balls to fly toward my station in deep right field.
Whenever this occurred, I would stay clear, while looking skyward to give the illusion that I was trying to follow the ball’s trajectory. To the spectator, it might have looked as if I’d been blinded by the sun, but my performance was the same regardless of whether we were playing a night or day game.
I’d thrust my mitt in the air and squint my eyelids nearly shut, hoping that if that rock-hard projectile were to hit me in the face, at least my eyelids would offer some protection to my eyeballs.
As the season wore on, my batting average remained at .000, and I began to fear I’d end the entire season with a perfectly imperfect record. No one spoke of this, in the same way baseball etiquette forbids talking about a no hitter in progress.
And then it happened. I finally made contact with a beaming fast ball. Unfortunately, the contact was between the ball and my face.
The fast ball, hurled by an oversized sixth grader, came in high and inside. My reflexes were cat-like, if a cat was splayed across a sun-drenched window sill, in a deep slumber. I didn’t move out of harm’s way one inch before that ball smacked me hard, right in my left eye. I was down for the count.
Concerned that I might have a serious concussion, my parents rushed me to the local health clinic. The doctor concluded that I had escaped a concussion, but I sported an impressive shiner for two weeks.
My first thought after this incident was that I was finally relieved of the obligation to play any more baseball--ever. The pretense was over. I was on the injured reserve list. I could slink away without anyone questioning my masculinity and spend the rest of the summer without another worry.
But, that was not to be. My parents concluded that I had better get back out there and play again right away, lest I live my entire life fearing baseballs and any other dangerous missiles aimed at my head. Besides, we are not quitters. There was much adult discussion of my need to get back on the horse that bucked me.
It’s a shame my parents didn’t take that adage another direction and sign me up for horseback riding lessons instead. We must have had four or five games left in the season, and I was forced to play in all of them.
My outfielding became even more tentative. When I was at bat, I developed a reflex to jump back away from the plate on every pitch, regardless of where it was heading.
Even though pitchers took to tossing me slow balls right across the plate, my reflex kept me from even swinging the bat. Finally, the season came to a close and my batting average remained steady at .000.
Fortunately, some unwritten parental handbook allowed that I should not be forced to play again the following spring. Having suffered through the entire, humbling season, I made it through without being branded a quitter or a sissy, even though every game was torturous.
Were my parents wise in forcing me to play out the season? It certainly did not allay my fears of getting hit by a ball. To this day, when any stone-like object is flying toward my face with enough momentum to fracture bone, I flinch.
Failing at baseball didn’t relieve me of the need to maintain the facade that I was a normal boy. I continued to try other sports. The following spring, I discovered a sport with a softer ball, no requirement for good hand-eye coordination and a mix of boys and girls in the same league. It turned out I wasn’t awful at playing soccer. And as further motivation, my teammates looked great in those shorts.
Author Notes: I wrote this as a writing exercise, inspired by tweets from comedian Gary Gulman.