Thursday, February 2, 2012

My Comical "Career" As An Athlete

You wouldn't know it to look at me now, but I used to play sports. Kind of. Sort of.

I say kind of, because I kind of played the games they way they were intended to be played, only not so well as most people.

I say sort of, because although I was on various teams, I spent more time watching from the sidelines than actually playing. There's a reason for that. I had smart coaches. They knew what they had to work with.

Let me explain.

Until about the age of twelve, I couldn't care less about any sports. I didn't want to watch them on television, and I certainly didn't want to play them. I didn't even like to go outside much when I was a kid.

Then around the time I hit my teenage years, all of a sudden I loved baseball. Loved to watch it on TV, begged my parents to take me to games. (My birthday present when I turned 14 was a family trip to Spring Training games in Florida, where I saw – and was snubbed by, while seeking an autograph – my favorite player, George Brett in person for the first and only time.)

Since I was still only in junior high, there wasn't much chance that I could play baseball on any team at school. We only had a varsity baseball team.

I didn't want to try to play in any city league, because a) I knew I wasn't good enough, and b) that would mean I'd have to meet new people and make new friends, which I was – and still am – horrible at doing.

So I would play in the backyard with my cousins, the neighbors' kids, my dad, or basically whomever would be willing to come out and play. I loved the game with a passion, and thought I could actually play. In backyard baseball, it's easy to look and feel like a star. After all, you only have to hit the ball into the next person's yard to get a homerun. And I could do that with my eyes closed, from both sides of the plate (I'm a switch-hitter). I began to dream, probably naively, that one day I would be a major league baseball player, like my hero, George Brett.

So, once I got to ninth grade, I decided to try out for baseball. That didn't work out so well. First of all, at the time I was skinny, and a very fast runner, but I had no endurance. Whatsoever. I still don't. So when the coach had us run laps around the field, I'd always get off to a blisteringly great start, then poop out by the time I got back around to home plate. And this was the first lap of ten, or twenty, or however many the coach decided to make us run.

At my school, they didn't really make cuts. If you tried out, you made the team. And so I did. But there's a catch to all this. They didn't make cuts, but they did only buy a certain number of uniforms. And how you did at tryouts determined whether you got a uniform, or didn't. I didn't get a uniform.

I wasn't discouraged, however. I figured if I kept coming to practice, kept trying as hard as I possibly could, that maybe – just maybe – they'd either, a) order a few more uniforms, and eventually give me one, or b) someone would get injured or become academically ineligible, and I would be able to take their spot on the team.

Unfortunately, neither of these things happened. I stuck with it, even finished out the season with the team. But I never got a uniform. Never got to play in a single game. Dream: postponed.

In my tenth grade year, I decided to put my ever-so-slightly enhanced stamina to good use and try out for the junior varsity basketball team. I had a basketball hoop at home, and had often played with my cousins, the neighbors' kids, my dad, and etc. I wasn't very good, but I wasn't horrible, so I figured what the heck?

Our basketball coach (a math teacher I had never really liked) liked to make us run sprints, and some other back-and-forth drill that I can't remember the name of, which just killed me. I thought I'd gotten better with my endurance. I was wrong. I would go home from practice with a painful stitch in my side every time. I could barely hack it, but I stuck with it.

I was never any good at shooting, which is sort of the point in basketball. But I was halfway decent at rebounding. Partly because I could jump fairly well from a standing position. I was shorter than most of the guys on the team (and on other teams that we played), but I could hold my own a little bit under the rim. You just couldn't depend on me to put the ball back up for a shot – no, not even right under the rim.

There was one thing I was REALLY good at in basketball, though. And that was fouling. I could foul with the best of them. If the team ever needed somebody to come into the game just to foul somebody, I would have been perfect for the job. But they never seemed to need that. In fact, they never seemed to need me at all. Oh, I was on the team; I even had a uniform. I just didn't see much action in the actual games.

I remember one game I played, because they couldn't not play me in this one. We were playing this really small school from some podunk town. Their junior varsity team – which should have been peopled with middle schoolers and lower-grade high schoolers at the least – appeared to consist of a bunch of ten-year-olds. I was a head or two taller than the tallest kid on their team – and remember, I was short! Needless to say, we blew these kids out of the water. It was merciless. I think the score was something like 86 to 6. And I played in that game. I even scored two points. It took me about three shots to make that one, but I made it! Only two points I ever scored. Ever.

By the end of basketball season, I knew that wasn't the sport for me. I would continue to play pickup games – after school, with kids in the neighborhood, with my cousins, etc. – over the years, but I would never again attempt to be a part of any organized team. And that was fine by me.

After my unsuccessful attempt at basketball, I decided to give baseball another try in my tenth grade year. Once again, I worked hard, showed up at all the practices early on, but didn't make the team. Well, I didn't get a uniform. But I was on the team. For a while at least. About halfway through the season, I got pretty sick of working my butt off in practice, knowing I had zero chance to ever play in an actual game, while some of the starting players would miss practice sporadically, often without an excuse, and were never penalized for their actions. I quit the team. Yes, I was a quitter.

Disheartened by my second failed season as a "baseball player" (I can't use that term without quotation marks just yet), I decided I would give soccer a try in my eleventh grade year. I had never really liked the sport, never played it with friends or cousins or my dad. I didn't even understand the game very well. But some of my closest friends were playing, and they loved it, so I figured I'd give it a whirl. Bad idea.

If I thought there was lots of running in baseball, and even more in basketball, I was in for quite a surprise when I started playing soccer. I must have caught them in an off year, because somehow, without having a clue what I was doing, I made the team. That still baffles me. They could have easily made up a "not enough uniforms" excuse, and I would have bought it hook, line, and sinker. But they didn't, and I was on the team.

As I mentioned before, I had very little stamina or endurance at the time. So the thought of me ever playing any offensive position was utterly ludicrous. The few times that the coach let me into the game – usually when we were annihilating the competition, or being annihilated – I played defense. I don't even remember the name of the position I played. I just remember them telling me, when people come toward the goal area attempting to score, go after them and try to kick the ball away from them. I wasn't exactly sure where I was supposed to kick it, or even remotely confident in my ability to make the ball go where I wanted it to, but I was pretty good at following directions, and that's what I did. If I'm not mistaken, when you kick the ball away from a player, it's called a "clear". If that term is correct, then "clearing" is the only thing I was ever any good at in soccer.

Well, that and penalty kicks. We had a really good goalie on our team – probably the best one in our league, among the various teams we played regularly. But every now and then, and sometimes more often than my teammates, I could score on him with penalty kicks. Of course, this was in practice, never in actual games. I always wanted to be called upon to attempt a penalty kick in an actual game. I think I could have excelled in that area. But it never happened.

Only one game in my one-and-only year playing soccer really stands out in my mind. We were playing another team from a podunk town, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Well, this school was working on fixing up their current soccer field, and it wasn't ready yet by the time we were playing them in this game. So we played the game, literally, in a corn field. Some farmer had cleared out this area in the middle of a corn field, fashioned it into some semblance of a soccer field, and that was where we would play the game. Keep in mind, this is a corn field, with stalks up to seven feet or higher.

Unfortunately for the other team, my coach decided to play me extensively in this game. And inexplicably, the guy with the ball kept coming my way. And inexplicably, I kept clearing the ball away from him. Which is what I was supposed to do, but the fact that I was succeeding at it was a refreshing surprise for all involved. Only problem was, with the corn stalks so high and close together as they were, I ended up losing  about four of the other team's soccer balls forever. Fortunately, they (or we) brought enough soccer balls to continue playing the game, but I'm sure the other school's athletic director was more than a little miffed at my "clearing" half of their soccer balls into oblivion. Oh well!

That was the only year I ever attempted to play soccer. Needless to say, they didn't want me back the next year, and I didn't want to go back. But there was always baseball, right? Sort of.

I did try out for baseball in my eleventh grade year, went through the motions of showing up for all the practices, working my butt off, etc. and fully expected the same results as the past two years. Not this time. Not only did I get a uniform, but I actually got to play on a regular basis.

Hold your horses! This still doesn't end well, believe me. We had a rule in our league that whenever the pitcher or the catcher got on base, you could pinch-run for him, and the pitcher or catcher could then return to the game in the next inning. The pinch-runner could come in any number of times and run for the pitcher or catcher, and often did.

Well, as I said before, I was no long-distance runner, but I was pretty fast for short distances. Like first to second, or second to third, or third to home. So the coach began to use me as a pinch-runner. I did pretty well at it. It was no glamor job, but it was a somewhat important role, and I was all too happy to have it. I even made it up to bat a couple of times that year – struck out both times. Such is life.

We had a good season, though – we might have even won our state championship, though memory fails me as to whether that was in my junior or senior year.

I returned to baseball for my senior year, and landed pretty much in the same role as the year before. I had become a pinch-runner extraordinaire – if there is any such thing as that. If you counted advancing to the next base on a passed ball as a stolen base – and we did – I stole 10 bases my senior year. They'd actually sometimes pinch-run me just to steal a base. It was pretty incredible!

My "shining" moment of my senior year, though, came when one of our starting outfielders was temporarily suspended from the team for academic ineligibility. We were playing an away game, and we were short an outfielder, and for some strange reason, the coach decided to start me in the game to replace him. This could be my big chance – the one that I've been waiting for. Yeah, right! My eternal ineptitude was about to rear its ugly head one final time.

Our team had a great first inning – everybody was hitting. I don't know exactly where I was in the lineup, but I'm pretty sure it was near, if not at, the bottom. But somehow or another, I got up to bat in the first inning. Time to shine. I watched the first ball go by me for a strike. Then I swung half-heartedly at the second pitch, and missed. This was it – two strikes. I figured I would get a good pitch, because the pitcher thought I was overmatched. My goal was to swing as hard as I could, and kill it! Swing hard, I did. Kill it, I did not. I missed the pitch, big-time, and in so doing, strained or pulled a muscle in ribcage. I injured myself striking out – there's something to tell your grandkids.

I was in excruciating pain. But I walked back to the dugout to get my glove – mine was the final out in our monster first inning – and put on my poker face. No way I was going to miss this game because of an injury – this was my big chance! I trotted out to right field gingerly, every now and then grabbing my side to try and convince the pain to go away. It didn't.

Somehow or another, the other team picked up on the fact that I was hurt quicker than my own team did. Because the first batter up hit the ball in my direction. I ran for it as best I could, which wouldn't normally be a problem for me. But I was hurt, and I didn't make the catch. The ball fell in front of me, and I stopped it with my glove. I had to take my glove off and throw the ball in left-handed because my right side – I throw right-handed normally – was throbbing with pain. But my teammates didn't seem to notice.

The next batter up – also in on the fact that there was damaged goods out in right field – hit a screaming line drive down the right field line. I ran as far as I could, then dove to try to stop the ball. I missed it. The ball skittered away a good distance behind me, and the center fielder had to come over and pick the ball up and throw it back in. I'm pretty sure the hitter got a double or triple on the play, and the other runner scored. But I couldn't tell you that for sure. I was in a heap on the ground – finished.

The coaches knew something wasn't right. I was a bad baseball player, but nobody's that bad. I must be hurt. And they took me out of the game. So much for my big chance.

We had a good season that year, too – as I said, that may or may not have been the year we won the state championship. It doesn't really matter anymore.

That was the last time I ever attempted to play baseball. Dream: crushed.

Over the next few years, mostly after I'd already graduated from college (of course I didn't play any sports there), I played softball on our church league team, and did okay at it. I ought to – there's absolutely no excuse for not being able to hit a ball the size of a child's head that's coming at you at around four miles per hour.

Ironically, I became a catcher. Nobody had to run for me, but I wasn't nearly as fast as I had been in my high school days. I hit really well some years, and other years I was just average. But I enjoyed the game again. Even though softball is a weak facsimile of the real thing, I felt like a player again. And maybe for the first time.

I don't play sports much anymore. For one thing, I'm quite overweight, and for another, I'm quite out of shape. But I'm working on both of those problems. Maybe I'll give church softball another go this year. It's been a few years now since I played. But I still feel like a kid at heart. And maybe that's enough.

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