Pride of the Crankies

Family lore maintains that the ball hit me on the head. And I’ll concede that getting walloped thus by a baseball could cloud one’s memory, but I still insist this is not what happened. The ball bounced off my glove. And this was because at that tender age, catching a speeding baseball with my fragile, preschool hands was somewhat painful. And I had learned to avoid pain.

In fact, I’m fairly certain that it was my parents who emphasized the importance of avoiding pain, warning me against running on the stairs, embracing hot stovetops, and other gateways to infant mortality. And yet, here they were again, insisting that I court crippling injury by sending me into a crowd of five-year-old's with baseball bats (the same sort of bats that I knew even at that young age were routinely used to encourage Tony to pay back the money he owed Uncle Vito).

There on the baseball diamond, my parents, who had lectured me on the dangers of an untied shoe only hours before, now suggested that I risk fractured ribs by sliding, head-first, into third base. And not on a refreshing, summertime waterslide, mind you, but on the ground. The same ground that broke Clay Duncan’s shinbone when he tried out his Evel Kneivel ditch jump. The same ground that snapped my sister’s ulna in half when she fell off the skateboard.That ground.It didn’t seem reasonable.

As far as I was concerned, tee-ball practice was a battlefield eager to claim the lives of innocent toddlers. But my parents were growing increasingly desperate to promote this ritualized violence, lest their youngest son develop an interest in interior design or, god forbid, ABBA. I was already causing great consternation in my father with my hilarious routine where I walked around in my mother’shigh-heeled shoes (comedy gold, I tell you). From his perspective, a disinterest in sports was the slippery slope that lead to show tunes and antiquing. So, despite my protestations against the idea of Little League, swimming lessons, skeet shooting, or anything that involved getting off the couch, my parents continued to dress me in miniature sporting gear and drag me to the playground.

I would fake a pulled hamstring, Crohn’s disease, hysterical blindness – anything that might allow me to skip physical exertion - but I could see this was of grave concern to my father. Trouble was I just couldn’t see the point in all this running around, this maniacal obsession with the location of balls. There was too much math involved, for one thing. Bottom of the ninth, third quarter, twelve seconds on the clock, 234 RBI’s to the tenth power, six-yard penalty. How is it that sports fans can confidently master such complex number systems, yet they still buy lottery tickets? It was certainly too taxing for my uneducated cranium. How was a kid supposed to concentrate on scores and averages while protecting his crotch at the same time?

And what did you win for all this exhaustion and headache? My father tried to entice me with the living room display of trophies my older brother - and yes, even my more strapping and athletic sister - had won for their bunts and touchdowns. Wouldn’t I like to win some trophies of my own, he wondered. I suggested that the quickest route to a shelf full of trophies was to simply build them ourselves. That sounded like a really great afternoon craft project to me. I just didn’t get it.

But my father wouldn’t give up. He felt he wasn’t doing his duty as a man if he didn’t take his son outside and instruct him to “choke up on the bat.” Such recommendations were probably even in Dr. Spock’s book (citation needed). It’s just what a father was supposed to do. But my mind wandered, wishing the bat was Zorro’s sword or visualizing what great stuff might be on TV. One after the other, my poor father pitched underhanded sure-things towards my distracted head. Occasionally, when I wasn’t too busy wondering what Spider-Man was up to, I’d take a swing at one. That I was clearly disinterested in any of this did not deter my father from his mission. My manhood was at stake.

And so, hysterical blindness or not, I was instructed to stand there in the outfield, where I gazed absent-mindedly into the distance. At least I was far away from home plate, I thought. I could momentarily feel that I was part of the team without much fear that I’d be called upon to do anything. What were the odds that one of these runts could actually hit? They were clearly not sultans of swat. In fact, the only part of this game that I actually enjoyed was yelling insults at the batter, which was encouraged in the general spirit of hostility that fuels the Great American Pastime. I never understood why this wasn’t allowed in other sports, like golf. But despite these catcalls, one of the peewee’s clipped the ball off the tee straight into the outfield, where it either bounced off my glove or my noggin, depending on whose spiteful distortions of history you want to believe. I was hopeless. And I was happy to be hopeless.

“Can we go home now?” I cheerfully inquired.

All and all, I would rather have been at the movies, eating Milk Duds in the air-conditioned darkness rather than sweating in the sun. And knowing this, my parents hatched one last scheme. They would ignite my aspirations to athleticism through the use of motion picture propaganda - a baseball film. Something stirring like “The Pride of St. Louis” or “The Kid from Left Field” would surely inspire me to risk broken teeth and clavicles sliding into homerun glory. Best of all, the film they chose was the first PG-rated film I was to see, back when a PG rating was a guarantee of material wholly inappropriate for children.

The film was called “The Bad News Bears,” and it was a spectacular cornucopia of crotch jokes, ethnic slurs, and incredibly foul language, all emitted from the mouths of disgruntled juvenile delinquents. I loved it. My father, however, felt the choice of film had been a mistake. He quickly turned to me as the credits rolled.

“Real baseball’s not like that, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said with disappointment.

Still hopeful, my father asked, “You think you’d want to be on a Little League team?”

“Sure,” I said. “Just like Tatum O’Neal!”

My parents finally gave up and allowed me to take drama classes, where Pat Shealy swung a microphone like Roger Daltry and hit me square in the forehead.

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