Sunday, October 11, 2015

Taking a Swing

When I was five years old, my father tried to teach me how to hit a baseball.

He was nothing if not frugal. Thus, I’m not sure if the wiffleball and plastic yellow bat were on sale or just inexpensive enough that he thought he could justify their purchase as an investment in my athletic future. Regardless, he bought them new and took me into the backyard so he could pitch me the ball and I could learn to swing.

In his mind, I imagine this might have been the first in a series of lessons. Hitting--the most obvious, fundamental piece of baseball, and the boyhood rite of passage I’d need to master to not to make a fool out of myself in all variety of gym classes and pick up games and birthday parties of the years to follow. Followed by throwing and catching, perhaps upper level teaching to follow on good fielding decisions or pitching.

We never made it past hitting.

To put a finer point on it, try as I might, and despite my father’s increasingly agitated insistence that I keep an eye on the ball I must have struck out enough times for a whole team in multiple whole games, never making more than glancing contact between the bat and the ball. I recall our practice migrating the garage, maybe because he grew conscious of the neighbors hearing him yell at me, maybe to avoid sunburn, maybe because he no longer feared me hitting the ball into a window—because he may have rather replaced a window by then than accept that his son was that instinctively bad at baseball.

We tried once or twice more with few better results. Though he would offer he me his old baseball glove and half-heartedly teach me to catch and throw in the years to follow, he lost any illusions that he might raise a baseball player. With less gusto, he aimed to capitalize on my existing talents in the years that followed. After I won a foot race against the other kindergarteners in my grade school, he had me arbitrarily run from point to point in an unfocused attempt to refine those skills. When I took an interest in basketball in middle school, he played with me a couple times to see if I were objectively skilled in that realm, only to recognize that, despite playing for hours and hours, having been blessed with slightly above average height, and learning the idiosyncrasies of the lopsided blacktop court and tight rims at the local playground well enough to best far better opponents who had trained on regulation hoops and hardwood floors, I nonetheless lacked the natural athletic ability or basketball IQ to ever be of any meaningful value to any organized team.

My limited athletic ability was a sore spot for me growing up. I (rightfully) dreaded getting picked last in gym class, and the times when my absence of athletic ability ruined plays or cost teams games, and the jocks would alternately make fun of me or scold me for sucking so hard. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the sport of baseball where I still dreaded every instance of getting called to bat in PE and in the occasional instances when my high school crew decided they’d rather play baseball than basketball or even football.

The thing was that, in most sports--football, soccer, floor hockey--I was fast enough that I could be of some value on defense, and while I wasn’t particularly skilled, I could more or less get lost in the shuffle and go unnoticed except when the ball actually came to me. In baseball, there was a concrete, unavoidable part of the game that called upon me to become the focal point of everyone’s attention, and it happened to be the part of the game that centered purely on hand-eye coordination and upper body strength--neither of which I had in any discernible quantity.

I struck out for years, before developing a sort of check-swing. I found that if I didn’t follow through but rather concentrated on moving the bat up or down, and nominally forward just to make contact, I could spare myself the embarrassment of striking out altogether (or those God awful situations in which a well-meaning parent of one of the guys insisted on pitching until I hit, because no one would strike out on his watch). Pairing this new skill with my above average speed, I actually managed to get on base a decent percentage of the time--essentially bunting because when I hit a fair ball with this method, it rarely made it more than halfway to the pitcher’s mound.

In adult life--meaning anytime post-high school (and a handful of summers when I let friends talk me into a softball game or two)--I don’t have to hit a baseball. Indeed, the idea of standing at home plate, poised with a bat eels like a distant memory. That is, until I got to reminiscing, and realized the prospect that I might find myself swinging a bat again one day.

As I grow older, it’s not a certainty I’ll ever have children. But I am in a committed relationships, and we’ve more than once talked about the potentialities of parenthood. The values we would want to instill. The experiences we would want to have. The home we would want to provide. The skills we would want to teach.

And I think of baseball.

I imagine teaching my son to hit a baseball. Not to be too gender normative about it--and I recognize that girls are about as apt to play on softball or baseball teams as boys these days--but I most identify with the very particular humiliation that comes with being a boy who can’t hit the ball, and listening to the brand of taunts reserved for un-athletic boys, and wanting to prepare my hypothetical son to be better adjusted, more skilled, and more comfortable than I was.

I don’t necessarily know what I’d say if he couldn’t hit the ball either. I know that I wouldn’t be equipped to teach him any better.

I like to think that perhaps I could be an example to him. That my failures recounted from childhood, and maybe even exhibited for him in real time might reassure him that it’s OK not to be good at everything--that this particular skill may never be his to master, but that doesn’t mean he can’t thrive as a musician or a painter or an actor or an orator a writer or a scientist or a leader or as a good friend, son, and, one day, father himself.

I get ahead of myself, I know. But then I think that if there’s one lesson I might be able to teach my son via baseball, it might have far less to do with sport than with the essence of stepping up to plate. That it doesn’t matter if you strike out or hit a home run. It matters that you fix your gaze, and that you keep swinging.

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