Between the ages of five and twenty one, I loved one above all others. I loved my love with a love that was deep and true, which I worked to maintain. Unfortunately, my one love never loved me back nearly as much as I needed in order to feel complete about our relationship. Despite my nurturing and best efforts, we always ended up with different ideas about the next direction in which to go. No matter how hard I worked to take things to the next level, always wanting more, my love fought me every step of the way. Eventually we had to break it off. Relationships of that duration rarely have clean breaks. After the final rejection, I scorned my love and tried to put it out of my head. I moved to another continent to try to find peace of mind. It’s strange though, for that special love, a soft spot remains. While things can never be fully repaired between my former flame and I, after a chance run-in today, the parameters are being redrawn.
If you know me well, you probably have surmised that the only thing I ever loved with that kind of conviction was the game of baseball. I was tireless in my pursuit in all areas of the game. Knowledge of history, present day rosters and statistics, appreciation for former greats, and above all, playing the game I loved. While I was able to wrap my mind around all of the mental aspects with ease, I always struggled against my talent and circumstance when it came time to play between the white lines.
At first I wanted to be a catcher. Playing behind the dish always appealed to me because of the cool pads and gear, the constant action and the opportunity to control every game without being the center of attention. As a squatty slow Jewish boy, it seemed a natural fit. For the longest time I didn’t realize the degree of difficulty involved in playing the position well. Anybody can be a punching bag for poorly thrown pitches, but blocking, calling pitches, and doing things the right way is strenuous on the mental and physical faculties. By the time I realized I was a punching bag and not doing things the right way I was already behind the 8-ball. Ron Jr. Harris was my best friend in elementary school, but by the time we got to high school, he was already a stud catcher with size 13 shoes and a clue. I, on the other hand, was leading the freshman class in tripping up the stairs and armpit sweat. How could I compete?
When baseball season came around for my Junior year of high school, I had finally come to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to have a chance of beating out Ron. Instead, I turned my focus to second base and beating out Jesus Barrios for the starting job. Jesus Barrios? My competition was a guy named Jesus. Could I be more screwed? Fortunately, for my last two years of high school I forced my way onto the field and actually played really well. After a summer in which our team went 1-31, winning the Denver Prep League championship was definitely the crowning achievement. In fact, that instant at Denver South High School, playing first base and catching the final out in the deciding game was as good as baseball would ever be to me. After that, baseball and I stopped growing together. While I still harbored visions of a productive college career followed by a year or two in the minors and eventually moving into my spot at second base for the Yankees and finally a plaque in the Hall of Fame, baseball saw the future unfolding along different lines.
When not a single college knocked down my door, or even knocked on it, I moved on. I went to the University of Arizona, and learned to use the Cat Card. A debit card financed by my parents and accepted at almost any location specializing in delicious fatty greasy grimy grub. I took full advantage of the Cat Card and after one year found myself at a bulgy 215 lbs. and generally unhappy with my life. A change was in order.
I decided to transfer to Colorado State University and immediately got in touch with the club baseball coach, a man named Frank Gonzales. Gonzo told me that in order to be on the team I would need to get back to an acceptable playing weight and work on my game. I starved myself and played basketball religiously. In the span of one summer I went from 215 to 155. While I was looking svelte, I felt awful. Its just was not the right way to go about losing so much weight. Despite the odds, and being pretty thoroughly overmatched throughout tryouts the coach was so impressed with my willingness to play catcher, and my new physique that he kept me on.
I loved being a part of the team. The guys were great, and the parties were even better. Initiation by drinking from one of Gonzo’s old cleats sealed the deal. I was back in the game. But the next two years were a lesson in contradiction. Once again, but even worse than high school, I couldn’t beat anybody out for a spot on the field. The team was unstoppable. We didn’t lose a single game my first year, and although I was relegated to one at-bat a week if I was lucky, I excitedly jumped on the doggy-pile with the rest of the guys on the spring training field in Florida where we won the National Club Baseball Association Championship. The second year was mostly a repeat of the first. I very rarely played in the games, but loved being a part of the team. I sacrificed the vast majority of my weekends to watch baseball games in crap towns like Ogden, Utah or Colby, Kansas, or even worse the sex-change capital of the world Trinidad, Colorado. We won the championship again, but with a couple years of perspective under my belt, I saw more clearly how it was just me hanging on, rather than continuing to progress.
My senior year of college brought a new coach to the CSU Rams. Mike Abernathy, on the recommendation of Gonzo, cut me. Not because I wasn’t good enough, but because he heard I had an attitude problem. If I had to be cut, I would have much preferred it to be because I wasn’t good enough. For Gonzo I worked countless hours catching his pitching lessons for six dollars an hour. I sat through countless games without complaint while we blew out other lesser teams, without so much as a sniff of the field. It was the death stroke to my relationship with baseball. I had maximized my talents and opportunities and finally been rejected by the love of my life. Although the break felt all wrong, it was obvious that it was time for a change. Baseball would move on without me, not even taking the time to wave goodbye in the rearview. I would keep tabs on what was happening in the professional ranks, but my playing days were clearly behind me. I would either be forced to move along, or be relegated to the beer leagues and bellies of slow-pitch softball. A terrifying prospect for a hard-ball lifer like myself.
In the three plus years since I stopped playing I have found new pursuits to keep me interested. I have traveled a great deal, penned a book, read a lot of other books, and taken a great deal of satisfaction from recreational basketball. In general, since the end of my active career, life has been less stressful, less disappointing and more fulfilling. Perspective about how baseball treated me over the years, coupled with they myriad scandals in the big leagues really turned me off from the sport. It is tough to love something that is so abusive not only to me, but also to itself. Just as I thought I was putting the game behind me permanently, I have new reasons to keep the flame alive.
Besides a fabulous summer coaching a hapless and hopeless group of nine year olds, today made me remember why I had fallen head over heals in the first place.
In the U.S. baseball is almost exclusively an organized sport. Good luck trying to get nine guys together for a pickup game of baseball. The gear is too expensive, field permits are generally required, and its just not a part of the culture anymore to just pick up a bat and ball and play. One of the mental images I always kept in my head, was a dusty field carved out of the jungle with little latin boys, some with hats and gloves, some without, playing impromptu baseball every day the sun shined.
While not exactly matching my mental image, today was so pure and fun that I was able to see where baseball came from, and what it has always supposed to be. After waking up early and lacing up my ankle braces for basketball I walked over to the athletic facilities at the University of Costa Rica. The hoops looked pretty pathetic, so I just kept walking. After a while, I stumbled across a baseball field and a group of guys my age and a bit older getting warm. I asked if I could play and they greeted me with open arms and an old school glove with plenty of character.
We started out by just warming up and taking infield. I wasn’t exactly nervous, but after a long layoff I was certainly rusty. With that being the case the first ground ball hit at me went directly through the wickets. Oops. Quickly though I found the rhythm again. The familiar steps came back in a rush, as though I were Fester Addams dancing the Mamushka. I was absorbed in what I was doing second to second, but baseball is a game that gives you a chance to take seconds for thought, to compose yourself and take stock of your surroundings. As I turned around and placed myself in the world, it was incredible to be on a baseball field carved out of the jungle in Latin America. Some players had adequate gear, but I was certainly not the only one borrowing a glove or a bat. All of the balls looked well worn and covered with grass stains, some of the balls were just tightly wrapped tape. The other players whooped and bounced and shouted with the latin flair I loved watching in Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel.
After warming up and gathering enough players for a game we got started. There weren’t enough guys for two whole teams so I played the first six outs at second base. Rounding out the infield with me were Lotaro at third, Alex at short, Alvin on the bump and Cisco at first. My Spanish is still pretty atrocious, but we talked and joked and were baseball players together. Once we got started I had a hard line drive pop out of my glove, but I made outs on two routine plays. Not quite back in the saddle again, but not entirely foreign either.
Once it was my turn to hit the butterflies attacked. Hitting was never the strong point of my game. I looked bad on my first two strikes, but then after a couple of foul tips I put a hard ground ball into the stomach of the shortstop; reaching first after it caromed away from him. One at bat was all it took to get the timing back. For the rest of the game I sprayed line drives, pop flies and hard grounders all over the field. I reached on two errors including the first at-bat, but had four legitimate hits. Not that anybody was keeping count, but that was more hits than I had in an entire semester of college ball.
In addition to playing second base I was asked if I could pitch for a bit. I said I wasn’t much of a pitcher, but would be happy to give it a shot. Drenched in humid sweat I toed the rubber. My first three pitches all were high and the fourth was laced to first base where Cisco made a good play keeping the ball in front of him and recording the out. I pitched for both teams. I faced eleven men, retiring nine and striking out four, without giving up a single run. I am not a pitcher by training or trade, but that felt so good I couldn’t help smiling and glowing the rest of the morning.
The teams regularly switched players, and the players regularly switched positions. We played a bunch of innings; who knows how many? After more baseball in one day than I had “played” in two years of college ball, I had to step away from the field, exhausted. The other guys were still going strong and might still be there. They asked me incessantly to come back next week to play ball again. It was exactly how baseball was meant to be played, for fun on a dusty field carved out of the jungle in Latin America. No pressure. No varsity. No club. No drinking out of cleats.
I don’t know if I am ready to let baseball back into my heart again. Too many times I have been hurt by investing my soul in a game which did not love me back. I have to make a decision. Should I take this sparkling memory, fresh in my mind and now down on paper and leave the table while I am ahead? Or should I push my luck and go for a second date with destiny next Saturday? Love is now a choice made Saturday to Saturday.