From the ages of nine to ten I played Little League baseball; the three following years organised soccer. I never really understood my reasons for the switch. It was painful. I regretted it. But, in my mind, it was too late to change: by forfeiting even one year of Little League I’d forfeited all of them. I stuck to my decision with the bizarre loyalty we can sometimes have for our mistakes, even the obvious ones. Soccer was not my game, but baseball definitely was.
I dreaded going to the soccer field and avoided it if I could, though usually I couldn’t. Once I put off a book report until the very last moment, then feigned surprise, so I could get out of practice via the necessary and desperate last-minute reading of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. My mother was wise to me: she drove me to the field anyway so I could apologise to the coach for my absence in person. Standing there in front of the whole team in my street clothes, kicking grass idly with my sneakers, I felt like a chump. It wasn’t that my parents wanted me to play soccer, really they didn’t care either way. They just wanted me out of the house and exercising two or three times a week.
I had to beg to get to that point. It took over a year, maybe longer, to get my mother to enroll me in baseball, and by then it was almost too late. There’s a great deal of sense in keeping your seven year old out of the meaningless spectacle that is t-ball, especially if you’ve got a one year old son and two young children in between them. But when I finally started it was the first year without the tether and I was playing with children who’d learned the intricate rhythms and systems of baseball right out of their diapers. I knew how to play baseball, of course, I could hit and field, and hit a home run once in gym class–but I’d never played seriously. I’d watched a few games on television, but I didn’t have the kind of father who was ever going to sit me down and patiently explain all of the rules and techniques in detail. Who was I compared to these endlessly wise, knowing children who seemed to understand everything?
None of my coaches–in either sport–ever explained the rules, even the more involved ones. I guessed until I did something embarrassing and was mocked or yelled at, with incredulity, by my coaches and teammates. In soccer, for example, opposing players frequently told me that I was ‘offside’ (whether I was or not). ‘Offside’ was a term I only fully understood sometime well into my second season.
“Oh, I’m offside? What does that mean? Does that mean I’m not allowed to go over here? What would make me not offside?”
Dangerous questions to ask your opponents, but eventually I received a straight answer. It never occurred to me to ask a coach or a teammate; I’m not exactly sure why. As a soccer player, I was timid. I joined at the age of eleven, which seems young, but was light-years behind my teammates. The rules I knew came from a playground game that was infinitely more passionate, barbarous, and thrilling. You kick the ball into the net; everything else goes. One memorable day we played in biting hail, and for several weeks knee-deep in snow, like lead-footed gladiators. Teams were classes and became nations, our opponents our bitter and cruel enemies. My specialty was taking the ball and sprinting to the other end–lungs burning, at that age the field seemed endless–scoring before anyone on the other team could catch up to me and get in goal.
The new, organised, system was slow, rigid, and unfathomable. I shrunk from it like a wilting flower. My teammates weren’t my classmates, but creatures from a parallel culture with whom I had no previous dealings. Somehow, they all seemed to know one other. They settled into their defined roles very quickly. I was “Midfield? Defence too, I guess.” Before my first year of organised soccer I didn’t know the position ‘midfield’ even existed. I wandered the pitch like a confused and aimless ghost. Whatever glory the cocky forwards on the team shared, I had none. Victories and defeats meant nothing beyond the simple fact that I could finally go home.
Except for the same painful learning curve, this was very different from the two years I spent playing baseball. Baseball is the most democratic sport. Each player is given the same chance of succeeding. Your teammates can’t take away your playing time, at least not when you’re at-bat or on the field. If Johnny makes a spectacular catch at first that doesn’t mean he goes into the outfield and gets to play your position too.
I got the chance to play, but I was by no means dominant. I watched the other players and the entire system silently, as if I could become a better player simply through observation. I played the outfield, and it’s possible I could have succeeded in other positions, but it was a challenge I never wanted. I was content to watch and wait, as if at some miraculous point in the future I’d suddenly become fully-developed. There was a piece for me, somewhere, but it was deferred and it would come when the time came, which it never did. The good players, I realise only now, took. They don’t wait. Whatever their motivations–pressure from their parents, an unquenchable ego, naivety–they snap to the prestigious positions like alligators, clenching their jaws tight in a hold they will never relent. The other children, including me, shrug and let it happen.
“You want to be pitcher? Hey man, that’s fine. I don’t watch the pressure. Where’s left field, again? That’s where I’m going. Try not to send too many balls my way, ha-ha. I’m going to spend a lot of time adjusting the brim of my hat and testing whether I can look at the sun safely through the holes in my glove.”
It’s a kind of tragedy that the decisions formed out of the laziness and ignorance of boys can have a significant bearing on their futures. The body I grew into was one that would have excelled at baseball. It is almost the quintessential baseball figure: over six-feet tall; strong, fast, athletic; made for short bursts, not sprints; slightly overweight; once, above-average vision; sideburns. Of course the world of baseball can never be entirely closed to me, as it isn’t closed to anyone but the infirm; I could work at it every day if I really wanted to, quit my job, try out for the local semi-pros in the Inter-County League, send my wife postcards and call her at home on the nights we don’t have games… but that kind of dedication to childhood whim is borderline insane. Even when I was young it seemed pointless; my efforts would be wasted. After all, what was a baseball player? Did baseball players change the world? What hall-of-famer had been elected president, achieved peace in the middle east, or cured Spanish Influenza? Baseball players were famous for living big (Babe Ruth), flashes of lightning (Joe Carter), or dying (Lou Gehrig). There was always Moe Berg, multi-lingual shortstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers and member of the forerunner to the CIA, but who knew anything about Moe Berg?
And so I held out for something bigger, and in the meantime accomplished very little. At least as a baseball player, I could, by now (at the age of 22), lay claim to a kind of everyday, physical poetry, achieved on a level that few ever reach. We all have our memories: our soccer games in hail, our days of smacking baseballs back-and-forth in high arcs over an empty field, a specific, game-winning slap-shot in street hockey. But these moments are brief, isolated; flashes over the course of decades. Dedicated to sport, by the age of eighteen my poetic vocabulary would be highly developed. There is no doubt that the instances worth remembering would become richer and more frequent. By the age of forty, if I was good enough, if I was lucky to play that long, I would know enough to make up for several lifetimes and be only halfway through my own.
Some say that those kinds of lives are unsatisfying, that the comedown from early, unparalled successes must be depressing, even humiliating. Why is that so? Where is it written that a life lived well, one of acting on dreams and satisfied goals, means an end once the most obvious ones are achieved and time has rendered our bodies useless for the persuit of those goals ad infinitum, until our deaths or even the end of time? With what we have, we do our best. We work to make the most of our brief moments of lucidity and to come to a greater understanding of the world in general. Having to act within a specific window renders these goals, and acts, more poignant and meaningful. It brings a modicum of sanity to the proceedings. Without the limits of mortality, what end is there? Do we stop only when the Universe crawls to an end due to limits enforced by the physical laws governing energy? Do we travel the world on foot, challenging every man, woman, and child, to a pick-up game of basketball for bragging rights? Is there a Hall of Fame for eternal domination? Are you inducted at the One Moment, the beginning and end of time, by a foam-finger waving Odin in Pepsi-cola Presents The Valhalla Dome?