Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dirty Little Secrets: Little (Major) League

Since public humiliation seems to be a recurring theme this month (uhm, wink?), it seems fitting that this month's Dirty Little Secret be my earliest, un-fondest memory. The time frame is sketchy, but I believe I was about eight. I was whatever age one is when Little League first becomes an option. Rest assured, it wasn't my idea; I hadn't yet warmed up to the idea of balls flying at my face.

Regardless, I ended up on the team sponsored by Burger King. If you remember from last month's Dirty Little Secret, I was Sears-Husky chubby, in addition to having little innate athletic ability. I'm convinced to this day, I only agreed to play because I assumed free whoppers, french fries and milk shakes were inevitable, which, in fact, they were.

The memories surrounding my time in Little League are seriously impaired due to the strength and relentlessness of the repression impulse. Piecing the bits together is challenging. I have a vivid memory of going to a sporting goods store and purchasing a baseball mitt and athletic cup. My Dad made a rare weekend appearance for these purchases and it marks the one and only time that the fact that I was in possession of a pair of testicles actually came up between us; it's bittersweet to realize that he stepped up the the plate when their vulnerability and ability to pass on his DNA became an issue. I know for a fact he has never called his or anyone else's testicles "balls" or "nuts;" for him they were, and I assume remain, forever "testicles."

Thus equipped, Little League practices began.

My coach, Arthur Demers was about 4o, with shoulder length black hair that with beginning streaks of gray. He was one hairy Greek guy. Tufts poured out of whatever shirt he had on -- from the sleeves, from around the neck. He had one of those 70's Harley-Davidson mustaches that drooped all the way down to his jawline. If Tom of Finland were casting a 70's gay porn version of the "Bad News Bears," Coach Demers would have been a shoe-in for the Walter Matthau role. He exuded testosterone and could pitch, catch, and hit balls with his eyes closed. If you saw him at The Eagle, you'd be tempted, but a bit concerned about your wallet.

My recollection is that I spent a great deal of time in the outfield; it was either left or right; it was never center. I prayed (out loud and occasionally to the point of tears) that no one would hit it within 100 feet of me. When the inevitable ball did come me way during practice, I made awkward, slow movements in its general directions, secretly courting a spastic infielder or over-zealous center fielder to step in and steal the spotlight. This tactic frequently worked, but Coach Demers was not fooled.

The only moments more tormenting than those spent in the field were those at the plate, facing the pitcher. I could puke thinking about it right now. As my turn to bat would approach, I would beg God's forgiveness as I wished that each of my teammates would make an out. I didn't really have a batter's eye; I swung at balls that were thrown towards third plate and would let balls gently lobbed over home pass by, or swing after it was resting safe in the catcher's mitt. There was no predicting how my ineptness would manifest itself -- swing too soon, too fast, too high; one never knew.

Every practice was torture to be eclipsed only by the games. I suffered silently, sullenly chewing on burgers and soggy fries after the games. We were young enough that my lack of ability was tolerated by the other kids, but I only recall having one friend on the team. All I remember of him is that he had glasses, dark hair and was a skinnier version of me in every other respect.

Amazingly, and dare I say without any of my assistance, our team somehow landed in the finals for the Little League championship. And like a scene straight out of a movie, I ended up facing the pitcher for what would either be the last out or the last chance to get two guys who were on base home. I know for a fact that we were still in a position to win if I was able to get on base -- somehow, anyway.

Walt Disney didn't write the script for this game and I struck out. My parents and brother had come for the game and were in the stands. There was an audible groan as I moved to the plate; it was coming out of my mouth. I know that the ump called one of the pitches I didn't swing at a ball. But I know I swung like the Tasmanian Devil at the others -- too no avail.

The game ended. We lost. Members of my team were throwing their mitts on the dirt and cursing loudly (with parental supervision and permission). Others were crying, clearly devastated. I went to that place -- the shivering spot in your chest that echoes, while your face turns beet red. I didn't cry and my parents' ushered me and my brother, who remained unbelievably silent, to the car. In retrospect, I suspect they may have feared some sort of Yankee redneck lynching; who knows.

Regardless, as we driving home I was stunned right out of numbness to see my parents' pulling into the Burger King parking lot. I literally go blank at that point. Literally. I can't tell you what transpired at that place.

Postscript: I wasn't forced, or even asked, by my parents to play Little League the next year. In fact, we have never discussed it since. After my father left the next year, one of my mother's boyfriends of the week had my brother and I signed up for a basketball league on Saturdays. Bigger balls seemed a better idea, but coordination became even more crucial. My first complaints that I didn't think I was getting it were heard loud and clear and I was spared another harrowing season.

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