Saturday, July 21, 2012

Baseball 1981: Thrill of victory, agony of defeat

My first post in this series talked about the success of the Astros in Oriole Park Peewee baseball in 1981. I was enjoying similar success, at least for most of the season.

The season before, my first in kid pitch, I was nervous about getting hit by pitches, to the point I'd take a mini-step away from the plate on every pitch. At some point in my second year, I stopped backing off the plate, and when I did, I started hitting for average. At 4-foot-8 (that might be an overestimation) and about 70 pounds, I was never going to be a power hitter, but at least I was getting on base regularly.

I played left field all season that year. We had better infielders than I was, and outfield would prove less stressful (and by the next year, I would become pretty decent in center field). I didn't mind. One thing I did want to try was pitching. I almost got my chance one Saturday, when we had a doubleheader (due to a rescheduled game) and my friend Chris, our best pitcher, already having reached the league-imposed limit on innings. I warmed up with several pitches thrown to Coach, who I guess wasn't impressed, because I didn't pitch that day, or any day after that in my baseball career. I'm sure that being so skinny, I wasn't throwing with any sort of velocity necessary for 9-year-olds not to crush every pitch I delivered.

No matter -- that doubleheader day turned out to be my best statistical day of baseball ever (the grand slam, or more accurately, single and two errors with the bases loaded I hit playing softball at age 28 might have been second). I hit the ball so well in the first game that Coach had me leading off the nightcap, in which I went 4-for-4. I thought I was getting a little power that game as well after I crushed a foul ball past the Diamond 5 right-field light pole (which, after looking at Oriole Park on Google Maps, really wasn't that far ...). Coach, with his fatherly smile, gave me the game ball after our victory. Everything was great.

My season came crashing down soon after. We were playing a big game against the A's and losing going into the last inning. With the bases loaded and two outs, I came up to bat. The pressure was too much for the skittish 10-year-old I was, and I struck out to end the game. I went back to the dugout and cried. Frankie, one of my teammates who always seemed cheerful, told me with a smile it was OK, but I didn't want to believe it. I was so crushed.

I brought up the story of the strikeout to my father, who remembered the game and remembered the whiff. He wasn't mad or upset, but it must have been torture for him to watch me on that last at-bat -- not because he was worried that he would be disappointed in me, but because he must have been sharing my stress. How do parents who want their children to succeed so badly -- to be the hero -- not be just as wounded as the kids when they don't succeed. I've watched Michael and Ben at bat this season and wished, prayed in my mind "Get a hit, get a hit, please get a hit." And that wasn't because the game wasn't on the line (it usually wasn't), but more just for their confidence, for them to be happy. I felt it with Michael, even though he batted at least .700 this season (meaning, he was getting hits aplenty). I really felt it with Ben, who tried so hard every game and was so enthusiastic but just couldn't hit the ball. When he got a hit the last game (his third of the season) and celebrated even after he got to first, I was dancing too. Surprisingly, I feel this way with kids I coach to some extent. When the last kid on Ben's soccer team scored, or when the last kid to get a basket on Michael's basketball team finally got a bucket, or when three kids in Ben's last hoop game (including Ben) scored on the last game of the season, I was celebrating as well. But none of those situations was with the game at stake. There I was. Ten years old. The game on the line. And I failed. If that ever happens with one of my kids, I'll hug him, say I'm proud of them, tell him to keep his heads up. But inside, I'll be hurting as much as he will.

The strikeout killed my confidence for the remaining few games. I kept striking out and wouldn't reach base again until the last game of the season at Thillens. I was a non-factor going into our big showdown rematch against the Giants, a game we needed to win the make the championship game.

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