WAY OUT WHERE THE DAN-DEE-LINES GROW
"I play right field.
It's important, y'know!
Ya gotta know how to catch.
Ya gotta know how to throw.
That's why I'm playin' right field,
Way out where the dan-dee-lines grow."
-Classic Pizza Hut commercial jingle. You remember it.
The orange-brick houses and drying lawns flashed by the truck window as my father drove me to the park. My new uniform hugged my skinny fifth-grade body like cellophane. My pants, stopping just below the knees, were pristine and white, glowing contrastingly below the cheap, black Florida Marlins Imitation T-shirt we had all been assigned. My socks came halfway up my thighs, turquoise and stretchy. My new baseball cleats squeaked like rocking chairs as I flexed them back and forth on the floor of the truck.
My left hand ached happily inside my new mitt. It felt like I had jammed my hand clean through a rock. I'd been wearing the thing for the past three hours in anticipation of the first day of practice on my first little league baseball team ever. I barely had a working knowledge of how the sport worked, but something about playing baseball felt like the natural thing for an American boy to do, like watching Saturday morning cartoons or shooting back pixie sticks. It was so...Rockwellian.
Admittedly, I was terrified. Genetically, I was already a bit doomed to failure. If the world were the Major Leagues, the Wood family would be the Washington Nationals. Our walls are adorned with "Best Sportsmanship" awards, the literal translation of which we all know is "Most Accepting of Non-Active Role on This Team." I remember once, when playing in a basketball game, where I successfully ran the entire 45 minutes without touching the ball. This was really quite the feat, since there were only five kids on our team.
My Dad had done a good job of teaching me to at least catch and throw the ball. I was no Willy Mays in my overall skill level, but, having no other players with which to compare myself but my brothers, I felt a fair comparison could be made between myself and, say, Jose Canseco. I felt fairly confident that I could at worst avoid grossly embarrassing myself.
We pulled up through the parking lot and I hopped out, my cleats clacking out a hollow cadence across the summer night of the asphalt. I walked up apprehensively behind my father, who was easily twice my size. As we crossed the lot, a big, white truck swung in around us and halted snugly inside of two parking spaces. Blaring red in the back window was a sticker of a fastball, aflame, highlighting the words "LIFE'S A PITCH."
The door swung open, and out stepped a Rottweiler of a man in a baggy white Baseball Camp T-Shirt. He wore a pair of light blue, tight-fitting jeans, and a green cap with its half-circle brim pulled down to the tops of his sunglasses. These sunglasses, I would soon learn, never left his face, and covered any trace of eyeballs. His lower jaw jutted out just a hair past his upper one, further marked by the continuous mass destruction of sunflower seeds. His name was Coach Jensen, and he was a man of few words. Most of the ones he did use were motivational references to parts of our anatomies.
His son hopped out after him, a year older than me and already at least eight feet tall. Jeff looked like he was born with his cleats on, casually laying a clutch of bats over his left shoulder while a bucket of balls dangled from his right hand.
Coach and my Dad talked a bit on the way to the mound, and I followed quietly, my stomach starting to boil a bit more fervently. What was I getting myself into? The Coach looked like the son of a Gorilla and Mickey Mantle, and his son was probably already shaving. Jeff asked me a few baseball-related questions, like, "Have you had a lot of infielder's experience?" and "What do you usually squat?" I told him that I didn't think this was something normal people typically measured, and he looked at me like I had a cucumber in my nose.
Halfway through the parking lot, Coach Jensen met up with his assistant, Coach Chavez, and his son, Anthony. They were duplicates, different only in size, both smiling at all times, with long hair down to their shoulders and thin moustaches.
We met up with the other players under the shade of the oak trees behind the dugout. There were five or six kids already there, throwing back and forth with what looked to me like rocket-propelled balls of white, synthetic leather. The burner underneath my stomach raised another fifty degrees. Oh, man, another opportunity to showcase my athletic prowess. I might as well just lean my back up against an oak and pull out a book for the rest of practice.
My Dad watched me retreat into the comfortable cave of myself, and exhorted me loudly and patiently to have fun and start throwing with someone, pointing emphatically back towards the kids. Reluctantly, I walked over and asked a pair of boys already throwing, in a murmured voice audible only to canines, "Hey, uh, I....baseball.... IsitokayifIthrowwithyouguyscoolthanks." My Dad walked off, one eyebrow raised, and told me he'd be back in a couple hours.
I looked back at the two boys welcoming me. One was Darren, our shortstop, who was perfect at everything he did. I knew him vaguely from school, and all I knew about him was that he was a completely likeable guy who we all, for some strange reason, hated. Success trailed in his wake like algae churned up by a sleek yacht. His short, curly hair blossomed out beneath his hat, and he smiled affably at everyone. He was the first one to run up to me and say hi, and willingly accepted me into his throwing duet, and lo, how I hated him. I would learn later on in life that pride-looking-up would be quite the common emotion for me, much worsened when girls entered the picture.
The second boy was named Jimmy, and the sight of him buoyed up my spirits like a warm, gooey chocolate cake. I glanced around quickly, counting the boys on my team. One, two, three.....ten. Ten total. I knew enough about baseball to know that nine boys played on the field at one time, and there was absolutely NO way in heck that Jimmy was going to beat me out for a spot in right field.
He was three-foot-nothing, 60 lbs. at most, and wearing light-up Beauty and the Beast sneakers. His curly blond hair cascaded down the back of his neck, though the hair was buzzed short at the sides of his head. His inch-thick glasses were at least as large as our coach's, and were connected in back by a long, fluorscent purple string that might not even have been short enough to save his glasses from shattering in the event that they did spill off of his nearly nonexistent nose.
As I tossed him the ball, I chuckled silently in evil hilarity as he simultaneously brought up his mitt (which was the size of his torso) and turned his head backwards, his eyes closed shut, while his throwing arm shielded his face and his left leg left the ground, scrunching his body into a standing, half-fetal position resembling a flamingo with a disease of the nervous system.
I felt a little bit wrong for exploiting his athletic ineptitudes, but not as bad as I would feel from sitting around behind a chain-link fence for an entire season. I was going to stand out in right field, the lowest-risk position in modern sports, and be the best inconsequential outfielder there ever was, gosh-dang-it.
Our coach worked us through the first day of practice, and we soon became aware of the abilities of those around us. Jeff and Anthony were pitcher and catcher, respectively, and none of us could even touch the cheese Jeff was slinging. Many a kid on many a team has complained about the coach's son gettting the most playing time, but the reality of the situation is that, usually, the coach's son is the best kid on the team. Indira Ghandi didn't grow up to be a ballerina. Anyhow, during our batting practice, these two boys traded off knocking inside-the-park-home runs past those of us unfortunate enough to be manning the outfield.
I learned then that, while I was functional at catching a ball, I could not for the life of me manage to accurately get that ball from me to anywhere else. I would rear back and throw towards second base with all of my might, and would watch as the ball soared majestically skyward, then plummet down, blisteringly, to land a full 15 paces from where I stood. Darren, the cut-off man looked at me with an understanding smile, and said, "Great try, Kory!" Then, he sprinted up, grabbed the ball, and rocketed it off to home to stop Anthony from scoring again. I seethed with rage at myself and at his dumb curly hair and perfect stupid bionic arm.
Hitting was even worse. While I was on deck, awaiting my chance to effectively humiliate myself, Jimmy was up to bat, and on the very first pitch, the ball dinged off the handle of the bat, ricocheting straight down onto Jimmy's toes, dropping Jimmy instantly into a rolling, swearing ball of pain.
Thus terrified, I approached the batter's box in wretched anticipation of my first batting opportunity. Standing on the mound and grinning, Coach Chavez bellowed heartily, "Ok, joo don't worry, man, I just going to throw one across the plate reeeeel slow and easy for joo." I nodded, trembling, the gargantuan bat getting heavier and heavier on my nearly-absent shoulder. Coach pulled back and threw one across the plate.
Suddenly, I was in war-torn Eastern Europe, and a surface-to-air missile was streaking directly towards my person, shrieking like a banshee, hell-bent on my annihilation. In perhaps the greatest athletic moment of my life up to that point, I leaped backwards a full ninety feet, sweat cascading from me like a popped water balloon. I landed just in time to see the ball drift lazily across the plate.
The catcher snickered under his breath. Darren smiled lovingly. Jimmy whimpered in pain from where he lay, stretched out on the bench. I gripped the handle, rotating my hands against the harsh friction of the rubber, vowing never to look the blatant sissy again.
Back up to the plate I came, still trembling, but with the glint of recklessness in my eye. Coach Jensen yelled through his sunflower seeds, "Alright, Wood, no matter what it looks like, I want you to just swing and tear the hide off the ball, you got me?" Coach Chavez, holding back some wicked chuckles, said, "Ok, joo don't need to worry, really, this one will be slower, ok, chief? Just keep jore eye on de ball. Pretend it's the face of jore little brother, or somethin'." He pulled back and lobbed it, free-throw like, down towards home plate.
I watched as the face of my little brother floated merrily towards me, mocking. Suddenly, the ball changed to Jimmy's face, his eyes bulging in terror behind the translucent glasses. Than, it was Darren, nodding encouragingly. Then, it was just a ball weaing coach's sunglasses, zig-zagging back and forth, chanting, "Back-up right field......back-up right field......back-up right field......"
Blinking back tears of anger, I swung as hard as my twiggy arms could turn.
PHOOMP, into the catcher's mitt.
"Eh heh heh heh heh...Try opening jore eyes when joo swing, bud!" said Coach Chavez. The catcher grunted in malicious glee, and Darren yelled something about a good hustle.
The rest of practice progressed in a similar manner. I rode home, and entered my room in a youthful depression. Dropped flies and whiffing bats filled my dreams.
The next morning, I took my brother, Casey, outside with me and made him sit there while I threw baseballs at him. This went on for a couple of hours, progressing to the point of actually throwing some within his reach, though he frequently would dive crazily to the side, screaming, in order to avoid those balls thrown with extra velocity. (In one instance, a ball hurtled past a dodging Casey and crashed through a basement window, causing a tumultuous session of hurled blame, which was followed by a vigorous seeking of refuge from our parents, and ended with a brain-storming session to think of ways to blame Nick, the next brother, for the broken window, but this is all irrelevant).
Feeling satisfactorily prepared, I arrived at my first game, trotting jauntily out to right field, taking my spot amidst the bald spots of dirt and the discarded tootsie roll wrappers and the dandelions.
PHEW-EET!, whistled Coach Jensen. "Hey, Wood! You're on the bench for the first inning, bud. Jimmy, get your tail out there."
I stared, open-mouthed, then looked to center field to see if maybe my neighboring outfielder shared a common surname. Alas, he was of Tongan descent. No luck there.
My shoulders slackened and I sulked back to the bench, the weight of my mitt dragging me down as it bounced again and again off my knee.
I was worse than Jimmy.
I felt my innards go stiff as Jimmy walked dazedly past me, out to his starting spot in right field, his mother yelling from the stands, "Don't git caught pickin' yer nose out there, baby!" Darren met me at the opening to the dugout, a hand warmly extended in the ultimate put-down, the high five. "Alright, man! See you out there in a couple of innings!"
I summoned all the strenght left in my 5th-grade frame, raising up my arm to limply press my palm against his, and as he yelled, "Alright! Go, Marlins!" and ran past, my arm dropped back down to its original position like a wet rope. I assumed my familiar position on the bench and watched, dejectedly, as Jeff smoked fastballs past the unbelieving Dodgers.
A few innings passed with similar results. Our team was up 13-0, and I had not been up to bat yet. My mood was improved by our success, though, and I stood, leaning against the fence, enjoying my time learning bilingual baseball chatter with Coach Chavez.
In the fifth inning, Coach Jensen called me over and said I would be going in for Jimmy, who, by this time, looked like the tragic victim of a vampire attack. I sprinted out to right field and stoically took my crucial back-up place in defense of our narrow 18-1 lead. Nothing would get past me today. Nothing!
I only dropped two fly balls, and only missed the cut-off man twice. Ok, so, they only hit the ball to right field twice, and that was after a mortified Jimmy subbed in at pitcher for Jeff, who was reclining on the bench with his 18-yr. old girlfriend. I messed up enough times, though, that if dandelions could talk, the right field dandelions would have a fairly wide vocabulary of fifth-grade profanities.
Hitting in the games went along the same lines. I was largely unsuccesful in my role as back-up back-up back-up back-up back-up clean-up hitter. I did, however, make it to first base quite often. I found suprisingly great success that season by being completely paralyzed at the plate. I would only be struck out half the time if I never swung and shrank my strike zone down to near-nothingness by scrunching up my body in anticipation.
The rest of the season progressed in a similar manner. Our team (Mighty Jeff and the Marlins) destroyed everyone by at least 10 runs, and we won the championship easily, mainly from my important combined contributions of not messing up the plays I wasn't involved in, and sitting on the bench and developing an intense rating scale for the different Airhead flavors sold at the concessions' stand.
In one of the most exciting nights of my life, I got to play third base once when the third baseman's uncle died, and even got to second base in a rare instance of my bat actually making contact with the ball. It was not even my fault if I benefited from the distraction caused by Jimmy being knocked out by the third baseman on that play.
The highlight of my statistical season was one at-bat where I decided I was going to swing at every single pitch, thus resulting in a hitting streak of eight (yes, eight, count 'em, eight) foul balls hit in a row. My team cheered wildly at my newfound courage, and was especially entertained when one of those foul balls careened helter-skelter into the opposing team's dug-out and stuck fast into the chain-link fence right above their pitcher's head. My team rejoiced racously at this attempted assassination, and I enjoyed a secret happiness every time I came back up to hit after that, watching the opposing team duck down and hold the tops of their heads in fright.
As I drove back home after our last game of the season, my "Best Sportsmanship" award cradled between my knees, I realized that, all-in-all, baseball was more fun than not. I wish I had played more, but then, I might have actually impacted the games, which could have been a terrible thing. I did learn quite a bit from the experience, anyway.
I learned that sometimes, it is completely acceptable to not only ride the success of those surrounding you to victory, but to enjoy that success.
I learned that, sometimes, Jimmy gets the start.
I learned that perfectly nice guys like Darren with straight teeth would plague me for the rest of my life.
I learned the exact length to which an Airhead can be stretched before snapping.
I learned that dandelions don't like cussing.
I learned how to effectively communicate the term "belly-itcher" in Spanish.
I learned that the sun can be blamed for nearly any error.
And I learned that, truly, life can be a pitch.