Baseball at Sunland Park: This is the way I remember it...
Not that it matters, but most of this is true.
When I was six years old, I set foot onto on a T-ball diamond for the first time.
I was skinny, awkward and unsure of myself - basically a smaller version of the teenager I'd eventually become - and I didn't have very good coordination, but my dad loved baseball, and I knew that if my dad loved it, I loved it too, because that's the way things work when you're six.
It was the spring of 1978, when smog alerts were as common as reality shows are today, and hazy, reddish gold sunlight shone down on the field at Sunland Park. The sounds of other kids playing on the swings and in the giant rocket ship at the playground mingled with the smell of barbecue smoke as I stepped up to the plate to take my first practice swings.
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My first swing connected with the middle of the tee. The baseball - in those days of gas lines and national malaise, we didn't have the soft RIF balls my kids got to play with - fell off and landed in the batter's box on the other side of the plate. The other kids giggled while the coach clapped his hands and shouted encouraging words to me as I picked the ball up and put it back on the tee.
I looked up and saw my father's expectant face through the chainlink fence near the dugout. I slowly and deliberately lifted my bat, held it out at arm's length, and aimed at the top of the tee with one eye closed. I stuck out my tongue and furrowed my brow. I tasted sweat on the corners of my mouth, and felt my heart beat in my ears.
The bat touched the ball, and it fell off again. The kids giggled again. The coach clapped again. I replaced the ball on the tee again.
"Come on, Willow," my dad said. "You can do it!"
I took a deep breath, held the bat as tightly as I could, and swung for the fences.
The ball sailed off the tee toward right field. I watched it go, absolutely astonished that it was in the air, just like a real baseball player.
"Run to first, Wil! Run fast!"
It was my dad, excitedly hollering at me through the fence, joy in his voice.
I dropped the bat and ran to first as fast as I could, my Traxx shoes kicking up small puffs of rust-colored dust the whole way.
"That was great, Wil!" The coach said. "Okay, who's next?"
I went back to the dugout, and watched the other kids bat around. Most of them were more successful than I was, except for one kid named Brian who had glasses, perpetual bed head, and a nose that only stopped running when he jammed his fingers into it, which was often.
Brian was last. He hit a grounder to short, and the coach gathered us together at home plate, where he told us to take a knee.
I looked around uncertainly, until the kid next to me kneeled down. "Ah. 'Take a knee.' I get it. Neat!"
I took a knee and looked up at him. He had the kind of beard and sunglasses you'd expect to see on a suburban little league coach in 1978. He wore a dirty baseball jersey with yellow sleeves.
"That was great, everyone," he said. "Now we're going to hit some balls without the tee."
"Wait. What?" The thought of a ball being thrown at me filled me with dread. Wasn't avoiding that the whole point of T-ball? I looked for my dad as I walked back to home plate. We made eye contact, and he must have seen how terrified I was.
"You'll be fine, Willow," he said. He smiled. He was proud of me. He believed in me.
I stepped into the batter's box and picked up my bat. I held it high, pointing up to the sky, just like my dad had shown me in our front yard. I looked at the pitcher's mound, where the coach's son, a big kid named Kenny, got ready to deliver the ball.
Kenny was a year older than me, and probably outweighed me by fifteen pounds. He had shaggy long hair, and kind of looked like a male version of Tatum O'Neil in The Bad News Bears. He began his windup, and I lost my nerve. I looked up at my father.
"Dad, I'm sc -"
The ball hit me in the side of the face, just above my left cheek, with a soft smack that sounded like a gunshot inside my head. There was a collective groan from the other kids, and a few gasps from the adults. I fell to the ground and burst into tears.
My dad ran out onto the field, helped me up, and inspected my face. There wasn't any blood, and it didn't even look like it was going to bruise. Like most childhood injuries, the fear was worse than the actual wound.
The coach asked me if I wanted to try again. I'm sure there were kids who would have bravely stood up and tried again, but I wasn't one of them. I shook my head, and hugged my dad.
Kenny had joined us. "I'm really sorry," he said.
"'sokay," I mumbled.
"I think I'm going to take him home," my dad told the coach.
"Okay," he said. "See you next week."
When we got into the car, my dad took a closer look at my face.
"You're going to be okay," he said. "We'll put some ice on it when we get home."
Two miles, one stop light, and three stop signs separated the park from our house. By the time we got to the second stop sign, I was completely under control. My face stung a little bit, but that was it.
My dad put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, kindly, "You just took your eye off the ball. Next time -"
Next time? The whole thing flooded back to me: Kenny's windup, the ball speeding at me, the sound it made when it crashed into my face. I burst into tears.
"I duh-duh-don't want to play buh-buh-baseball any muh-mh-more," I cried.
I'm sure my dad was disappointed. He'd played baseball from grade school all the way to college. Baseball - Dodger baseball, specifically - was more than a game in our family; it was religion.
"Okay," he said, gently. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. Maybe you can try again next year."
I didn't try again the following year, or ever. I wasn't good at baseball, and I wasn't going to be good at baseball, but that was okay, because my dad accepted me as the cerebral, geeky kid who just wasn't that good at or interested in sports. He respected that I wasn't competitive, and that I was happier pretending to be an Elven Wizard leading a group of adventurers into a dungeon to fight Beholders, than a kid nobody wanted on their team, standing on a baseball field, hoping the ball didn't ever come anywhere near me.
The most important tool a writer has is his imagination, and it's pretty important for actors, as well. Seeing as how I support my family by doing both, I'm grateful that, as a child, I was encouraged to embrace the things I loved that also happened to helped my imagination develop... because in my imagination, I am one hell of a baseball player.
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