Baseball & Me

I have often been asked whether I played baseball as a child or in high school. I guess it’s a natural question to ask of someone who loves the game and its intricate nuances so much and professes that love with great frequency. Someone with such passion for the sport had to have played it, right?

Here’s the story: I was a terrible baseball player. I won’t taint the sport by even attempting to put that sentiment into the present or future tenses. My performance as an 11-year-old Little Leaguer was enough for myself, my coaches, my parents, my teammates, and the entire Hunlock Creek Little League Association to know that Heath Williams was not, is not, will never be a baseball player.

I’ll be honest and admit that the realization that I had not been bestowed with the coordination or athleticism necessary to play baseball saddened me up through and including my senior year of high school when I contemplated one last-ditch effort at making the junior varsity team. I decided to save myself the embarrassment. Instead my inglorious Little League career began with tee-ball and ended before I made it beyond Hunlock Creek’s junior league.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why I never made it on the diamond. Three specific moments are permanently etched into my memory of my quick relationship with the game of baseball. All make it painfully obvious that the coordination, finesse, and skill necessary to excel at the game of baseball painfully eluded me. Maybe “elude” gives me too much credit because that word implies an escape. I never had the qualities of a baseball player in me to begin with.

***

I wasn’t such a bad tee-ball player. I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a bad T-ball player. Very little hand-eye coordination is involved when hitting a stationary chest-high fastball right down the middle. All the kids could do that. But after the ball was hit and the art of running the bases became involved, that’s when my ineptitude showed up.

At this young age (I was probably no older than seven), I was fascinated with airplanes. I was particularly fascinated with airplanes’ propellers (I read a lot of nonfiction as a child) and the dynamic physics of the propeller — how without that one spinning fan, the airplane would fall.

During one of my team’s tee-ball games, I was walking up to bat when, what do you know, an airplane flew over the field. My eyes found the propeller. What if humans had a propeller to make them go faster, I thought. And then it hit me. I looked down at my arm holding the bat and the lightbulb turned on. There it was. The human propeller.

At that moment I had never been more eager to hit the ball and begin my journey to first base. I needed to test my finding. Surely I was some mad genius who would, in front of cheering parents and other seven-year-olds who would not understand the magnitude of my science, unveil a groundbreaking discovery in the realms of physics and the human anatomy.

I swung at the ball harder than I ever had before. It sailed into right field, over the head of some kid who had been picking a dandelion (That’s at least a double!). I ran. And as I ran, I swung my human propeller round and round. It was working! I was surely running faster than I ever had before! Faster than any human had ever run before! It was a moment that would be written about in baseball lore and science textbooks for years to come!

My miscalculation of just exactly how swiftly I was rounding the bases made me try for a triple. The right-fielder’s dandelion hands were able to make a great throw and I was out at third. But oh, the glory I would surely taste when I saw the look on everybody’s faces and read the lips of parents in the stands, whispering to each other, “How did he do that?”

Instead, I saw the face of my coach, shaking his head in shame. Hadn’t he seen what I had just done? Sure, I got thrown out at third, but hadn’t he seen my agility?

I can’t remember whether my team won that game or lost it. Such things are trivial in the land of tee-ball. But I do vividly remember what my own parents had to say as we rode along the back country roads in our Dodge minivan. They had two things to say to me:

1. No, Heath, you didn’t run any faster.

2. Yes, Heath, you looked like an idiot.

***

In fifth grade I turned 10 years old. I was reaching the twilight years of my baseball career.

In my class at Lehman-Jackson Elementary School was the star pitcher of our local Little League. Chris had great stuff in the way that nine-year-olds can have great stuff: he threw a very fast fastball that was difficult for unskilled athletes like myself to make contact with.

Chris and I weren’t best friends or anything, but we were close enough that, on my tenth birthday, with a game between my team and his looming that evening, I made a request at the pencil sharpener:

Hey, Chris. Today’s my birthday. Give me some easy pitches to hit tonight.

He looked at me with pity and said “OK.”

I could hardly contain my excitement. I’d finally feel like the baseball star I still somehow thought I would one day become. And on my birthday! Turning 10 would be magnificent.

The ballpark that evening was a magical place. It was one of those late-spring nights that fools you into thinking summer and all of its wonders has finally come. I could be very mistaken about the details, but I vividly remember the bleachers overflowing and a few Major League scouts in attendance to see what young talent they could begin grooming to be a future Hall of Famer.

I came up to bat in the third inning and gave Chris a not-so-subtle wink as I walked into the batter’s box. I mouthed to him, Remember, EASY pitches! He gave me a half-nod. Our deal was still on!

Pitch one whizzed by me and I swung about three seconds too late.

Chris must not want it to be TOO obvious that he’s serving me a home run on a platter, I thought.

Pitch two, same story.

What’s going on? I thought he was going to give me something to hit! I looked at Chris with pleading eyes. He looked right back with a look that said, What else do you want me to do?

Here came pitch three. Same as the first two. I just didn’t have the bat speed to make contact. Strike three, I’m out. On my birthday. On the day I was supposed to become a star. The scouts packed up their bags and went back to their big-league ballparks to report that they didn’t find any talent today. The bleachers began to slowly empty. The coach pulled me from the game the next inning.

I moped all the way home and all through the night and all through reading and science the next day until Chris and I met again at the pencil sharpener.

“You were supposed to give me easy pitches to hit.”

“I did,” Chris replied. “That’s the slowest I’ve ever thrown in my life. You gotta practice that swing.”

Dejected, I went back to my seat and scribbled into my composition book: The age of nine has come and gone. And I still can’t play baseball.

***

Later that same season, my final season, I was in a slump. The slump began when the season began and didn’t appear as if it would end any time soon.

By this time school had let out for the summer and our Little League games were an excuse to get together and catch up on the nothingness that was happening in each of our homes each hot and hazy day.

I didn’t start this particular game and spent most of it watching my team get clobbered. Losing is much easier when none of the blame can be pinned on you because you were just a spectator.

By the seventh inning my team was down by double digits so my coach decided the game was out of reach which meant it was safe to put me in. There really was no other situation in which I would feasibly be brought on as a pinch-hitter.

The other team had sensed their victory and replaced all of its starters, too. I was facing a kid I didn’t know from an elementary school a couple of towns over. I hadn’t even heard of him which meant he, like myself, would stay here in the junior league next season. I made a quick cut at his first pitch and, mercy, made contact! The ball skittered foul down the third-base line.

I looked at my bat in amazement. I could hit this guy! Just a little faster with my Louisville Slugger and I just might get a hit and break out of this slump, at least for today.

I firmly planted my feet in the batter’s box and glared at the pitcher with the best game face an unskilled nine-year-old can muster. Here came pitch two, identical to the first, and I brought Louis around faster this time and CRACK! the ball went sailing, not unlike my post-propeller-discovery hit from my tee-ball glory days.

I ran like the wind (no circular motions with my arms this time). The first base coach was motioning me on to second base. I made a quick glance to the outfield and the right fielder still didn’t have the ball. On my approach to second, I knew the throw must be coming soon. I didn’t want to spoil my moment of glory and be thrown out so I slid. SAFE! I was safe on second with a double. What a moment!

I slowly stood up and looked to the stands to find my parents. My father had his hands on his head in disbelief. Was it really that much of a shock that I got a hit? Other parents began to groan and stand as well. I looked over at my teammates who were filing out of the dugout, screaming for my attention. What do they want? Did I skip a base? Did the ball go foul?

I looked over to the third-base coach. My stomach dropped. He was motioning me to third. The play wasn’t over yet. I slid prematurely. I took off in a sprint that would have easily won me the fifty-yard dash at Field Day. This time my slide did arrive at the same time as the throw. But I just beat it. Safe again.

A triple! I hit a triple! But it quickly began to dawn on me that even though I just rounded as many bases with one hit as I had all season, I just made the biggest blunder many of the spectators had ever seen at a Little League game. In my premature celebration of a double, I had given up that rarest of Little League feats — the inside-the-park-home-run.

Of course it would happen that way. This poor soul who just wanted to play baseball but couldn’t find the right grip on his bat or the right traction with his cleats or the right relationship with his glove had just experienced glory only to have it overshadowed by embarrassment and shame.

The next three batters struck out and I didn’t get to score a run.

My coach’s disbelieving glare pierced through me as I returned to the dugout. Suddenly, I understood.

“I quit,” I said.

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