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12

the pep talk

I was never a natural athlete. Whatever gifts of hand-to-eye coordination, strength or speed that were ladled out to my peers via DNA somehow gave me a miss. Nowhere was this more on display than when I participated in youth baseball.

I don’t want to get all Wonder Years on you but somehow it seems unavoidable. That little wave of nostalgia that washes over me when I think about grabbing the ol’ bat and ball and heading out to the ballpark has me longing for a simpler time when all I wanted was a root beer and a corn dog.

And a girl to touch my penis.

Sorry. No need for that. Penis-touching aside, there was nothing about my baseball experience that would help me convince any girl that my penis was something to aspire to touching. That last sentence proving once again that try as you might to put penis-touching aside, you simply cannot. Truth is, at the age I was during this story, penis-touching probably wasn’t even on the menu but that’s yet another example of how I have a nasty habit of working penis-touching into stories even when it’s not relevant. With a hyphen no less. The hyphen is where I feel I really crossed the line.

Back to the story with the usual apologies.

I was the complete package … I could neither pitch, hit nor catch. I couldn’t even figure out the point of the brim on my hat. Sure it kept the sun out of your eyes when you were looking forwards but as soon as you lifted your head to try and see a fly ball the sun immediately overwhelmed your retina and had you covering up your head and backpedaling away from the site where the small leather meteor was plummeting to Earth with ill intent.

It wasn’t as if my father hadn’t done his best to prepare me for baseball. Just before my first practice, he dragged me to a local pizza place that had a few batting cages out back to work on my swing. He quickly bypassed the 30 mph and the 50 mph options and threw a few coins into the 70 mph machine. Having done that, he grabbed a bat and a helmet- safety first in the ol’ Manion household- and strode confidently to the plate.

He looked me right in the eye. “You can’t have fear in your heart when you approach the plate so let’s get this over with right now.” I heard the pitching machine growling away in the background as he leaned forward into danger zone and I knew at once he meant to get intentionally hit by the ball to drive home whatever lesson he was cooking up in his head. “There are worse things than pain. For instance … a restless heart.” Before I could ask him what he meant by that, the ball came hurtling forward and fractured his humerus. Despite the name of this bone, there is nothing funny about damaging it. I concluded this as I, and all the families gathered at the pizza place, listened to a smorgasbord of profanity that would have had a longshoreman covering his ears.

My dad was in a cast for the first six weeks of my season. A grim reminder of the suffering that can be inflicted by even the smallest of objects.

During the first practice it became clear that the coach would be assigning positions based on the size of the truck each child arrived in. Until that time I was completely unaware of the thriving lumberjack community our town must have been harboring. A few of them appeared to have paid extra just to have the vehicle unnecessarily belch black fumes into the air upon command. By the time our station wagon roared down the dirt road there was barely room enough for my mom to park between the collection of phallic-mobiles.

Being keenly aware of the subtleties of language, I quickly noticed that while my coached instructed the other players to “play” second base or “play” centerfield, I was always asked to “go out” to left field. I quickly vowed that I would “go out” there to the best of my ability so as not to disappoint him.

The wooden bat that I had purchased with my own money was sneered at by my peers so I scooped up one of the aluminum ones, or whatever space-age material it was made of, to take batting practice only to find that this space-age material was scientifically designed to transfer the energy from the pitch to your hands, should you be unlucky enough to make even the slightest contact with a pitched ball. The results would have your hands burning with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.

For the record, listening to some of the parents doing their best Tom Hanks “There’s no crying in baseball” impersonations every time I fouled one off did little by way of making me appreciate the movie A League of Their Own.

I remember the events leading up to my little pep talk like they happened yesterday. It was during a practice when I was having particular difficulties doing anything right. Any ball headed in my general direction did so with the complete certitude that it was in no danger of being caught. Each grounder and pop up had an almost palpable arrogance to them, as if they knew that they were going to reach their intended destination with no meddling from my glove.

It was after a tenth ball in a row had seemed to defy physics and make its way through my glove and into the vast expanses behind me when the coach seemed to feel the need to pull everybody together and address the team.

“I want everyone to take a look at Lance. Here is a kid that can’t catch a ball to save his life. His fielding skill seems to defy all laws of probability; a bystander would assume that if enough balls came his way that at least one would make its way into his glove … and yet none do. In fact, the only thing worse than his fielding is his hitting.

“Why do I point this out? Because he still makes every practice and he still shows up to every game. He doesn’t let the fact that every one of his teammates and every one of their parents and every coach, including myself, secretly hopes he’ll miss one deter him. Just one.”

He paused and got a far-away look in his eyes before continuing.

“But he never does. Ever. Every friggin’ game I’m forced to find a spot for him on the field and every game we can look forward to him striking out three or four times. Sometimes during critical at-bats. But does he quit? Nope.

“Why do I point this out? I’m not sure. It’s just watching him play the game of baseball makes me so angry at the universe that I simply couldn’t stand by and not say something.”

Practice then resumed.

The next game, fueled by this inspirational pep talk, I decided to take one for the team and get hit by a pitch. Years later I would understand more fully what my dad meant about a restless heart but, as I lay there in a pool of my own blood with two of my teeth knocked clean out of my head, I would briefly question his conclusion vis-à-vis getting hit with a pitch.

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