THE OTHER MORNING I WENT TO WATCH MY 9-YEAR-OLD FRIEND Alexander play baseball -- I mean that he is 9 years old, not that I have known him for 9 years (though, come to think of it, I have). The game consisted mostly of walks and wild-swinging strikeouts, with a few long hits sparking sudden flurries of inefficient but eager fielding; yet the kids, though their attention sometimes wandered, seemed to be having fun, enjoying their uniforms and gear and the essential seriousness of the enterprise. Parents cheered, coaches seethed, and I shivered in the warmth of the sun, remembering my own, single season in organ-ized athletics.
There is a photograph of me at about Alexander's age, kitted out in stripy flannels and a baseball cap, down on one knee with bat held upright upon the ground, like a little Knight of the Green Diamond: It is my official Little League portrait. No one who sees this picture, which my dear, beloved wife has affectionately put on display, recognizes it as of me, not only because it's a long time since I looked anywhere near that cute, but because no one who knows me now would ever expect to see me in such a pose, in such a context, in such a costume (or in any costume at all). I can hardly recognize myself, though I remember the day well, that day and the days that followed, oh yes, I remember them all too well -- all except what I was doing there in the first place, never having had much real interest in, or talent for, sports of any kind. It's clear that the picture was taken before the season actually began, for I am smiling.
IT BEGAN AUSPICIOUSLY ENOUGH: MY FIRST TIME at bat -- pitched to by a classmate familiar with my skills, or lack of them, and in whose face I could read the certainty of a quick and easy out -- I hit a double. But this was clearly a fluke, as the rest of the season subsequently proved; I couldn't hit, couldn't get a ball in my mitt, couldn't throw for beans, and what I must at least for an instant have thought would be fun devolved into an unrelenting source of anxiety. A good game was one that provided the fewest opportunities for humiliation; a perfect game would have been one I was too sick to attend. I had the odd luck to be on a champion team, and so wound up with a trophy -- this was before there were trophies for everyone, all the time -- and even though I was proud (I think) to be associated with winning talent, I knew I had little to do with the winning, other than keeping out of the way. The next summer I watched television.
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It was around the same time, under who knows what fever of the brain, that I joined the Cub Scouts. The record shows that I enjoyed this association enough to wear my dark blue uniform, with its yellow kerchief and pack-identifying patches, for my school picture; yet nearly all my memories of what in my case could only euphemistically be called scouting are of boredom, confusion, embarrassment. It was just a sort of costumed daycare: We mostly hung around other kids' back yards, playing with toys, or making models, or building paperweights out of marbles. We also shilled tickets for the Scoutcraft Fair, went bowling, and put on a skit for the other packs that told how baseball -- it all comes 'round in a circle -- was invented by Pilgrims. (It was not.) Why was I there? The unfathomable depth of this mystery impresses me still. If we never went camping or learned how to tie knots, well, I had no great desire to go camping or learn how to tie knots. (As my shoelaces to this day mutely attest.) Something tells me that it was then, as I stood there in my paper Pilgrim hat, participating unenthusiastically in someone else's idea of a Good Thing To Do, that I bade goodbye to participation.
SCOUTING. BALLPLAYING. I IMAGINE THAT I IMAGined that this was what was required of me. As a boy. As an American. As an American boy. As an American boy perhaps a little too eager for approval, though whose approval I could not exactly say. (My father's reaction to my desire to join Little League was "shock.") Before I knew myself better, I traded baseball cards, read box scores in the Times, collected Dodger-related gas-station premiums, as if by such ritual observance I might become a Bud or Opie or Beaver; but I can't remember ever actually caring about any of it. As for Scouting, I suppose I had envisioned a romantic world of Little Rascals clubhouses, of hand-painted "Keep Out" signs with letters written backward, of secret handshakes and soapbox racers and comical two-reel misadventures. Perhaps I was honestly shopping for self -- an acceptable, prefab self, of course, being too young and too fearful to invent my own. But it's hard to be a bohemian at 9.
That was the last time I wore a uniform; I never joined anything again, no church, no guild, no movement. Never played on a team the state of California did not require me to. Was my retreat from Scouting, from sport, a failure to persevere or an early triumph of self-knowledge? I prefer to think the latter, but who knows?
Many years after my Little League season in hell, I was on tour in a rock band (the only sort and size of group in which I'm really comfortable) whose leader had brought along a baseball and bat; others brought mitts. And in the spirit of togetherness, I bought the first mitt I'd owned in a quarter of a century, and discovered belatedly the joy of unorganized sports. We played whenever there was time and a field. I found I could hit, I could catch, I could sort of throw. It felt like a happy ending to a story I'd thought was already, unsatisfactorily, finished. Then our van was broken into, and all the ballplaying gear was stolen. I won't say I took it as a sign, but I never did buy another mitt.