Among My Five Most Humiliating Moments in childhood was the day my Little League team was in the championship game. Several years earlier, on “Farm Team,” I had been a star, famous in my own mind—and caught on my Dad’s 8-millimeter movie camera—for stealing home twice in one game, giving us the win. It was my 4.5 minutes of baseball fame. Then came Little League, where the crackerjack players suddenly showed up, and my previous star status dissipated and I dropped down to merely "adequate." Then, due to someone’s absence at that final game—damn that Johnny Pavia—I was suddenly thrust into centerfield, where I had never played, though always wanted to because Willie Mays was essentially my Lord and Savior. Even in my college years, when the Giants came to Wrigley Field in Chicago, I would hop on the EL train from Evanston and go sit in the centerfield field bleachers by myself and scream my head off for Willie, while scarfing down unkosher hotdogs.
I only had one opportunity to field a ball in that ill-fated championship game, and it was what is commonly referred to as “a routine fly ball,” something any reasonably competent outfielder would catch with little effort. Something I would ordinarily catch with little effort. But nerves got the better of me, and the ball flew right over my head, plunging me into unbearable shame. Now here’s the kicker: we won the game. We won the championship. And the whole team went out for ice cream to celebrate, except me. I had nothing to celebrate. Who cared about the team or the championship? I had missed the ball.
Bear in mind, in schoolyard games, I was never the dreaded last guy to be picked, like that poor schmuck Randy Stinko. Teams would reluctantly take Randy when they had no choice and then stuck him in right field and prayed nobody hit the ball anywhere near him. And of course, placed him last in the batting line-up. Thankfully I was never that guy. Nor was I ever that envied first pick. Everyone wanted Big Dave Mareschi, who, in addition to being tall, itself a prized virtue, could hit it out of the park every time at bat. Or Brady Hutchins and and his sidekick Robert Miletti, neither of whom had ever dropped a ball or swung and missed a pitch throughout their illustrious baseball careers at Warren Point School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. I was always dead in the middle. Not one of the best, not one of the uncoordinated, sorry misfits. A solid, dependable, middle of the road guy. A 5 on a scale of 1-10. I even batted fifth. Played first base.
I’ve actually been carrying my lefty first basemen’s glove in my car for the last 30+ years or so, on the off chance I would find someone to “pop the pea with,” which means throw the ball around. It did happen a handful of times with a few friends early on, before all their rotator cuffs gave out. And then there was a 14 year gap until my nephew reached the age of nine and seemingly overnight could suddenly hurl a hardball reminiscent of the speed with which Miletti and Hutchins could throw at their peaks, and I was the only relative available to play catch with him.
So on my bucket list as I approach sixty, is, apart from getting a dog, (preferably a beagle); playing jazz guitar or rock keyboard in a band; and learning to ride and commune with horses, is to play baseball again, on a team. Thus I tracked down the local Senior Softball League and last week I was asked to appear at a practice session in order to be evaluated by four guys with clipboards who all spoke with a Southern accent that I have somehow managed rarely to hear even after six years of living in Richmond, Virginia, mostly because I rarely leave the house, and the guy who delivers our Chinese food doesn’t talk like that. I found myself responding to these guys in their own drawl, to fit in. When a nice gentleman noticed that my 40-year-old mitt still looked like it hadn’t really been used much or properly broken in, he offered to take it home and rub it down with mink oil. I actually heard myself say to him, “Why thank you kindly sir. That’s right nice of you.”
When I arrived for my evaluation, I gathered that I should just wander out onto the field and go wherever I wanted, while people took turns hitting. Instead of heading directly to first base, which already seemed to be covered by two people, I wound up in short left field. Within perhaps seven seconds of my arrival on the scene, or less, a routine fly ball was hit directly at me. And I introduced myself to this new group by not only misjudging and allowing the ball to fly over my head, but doing my famous RIngling Brothers acrobatic clown trick of tripping and falling over backward, doing a reverse somersault in the process, the Kramer of outfielders. Then I promptly boggled the next two hits, also directly hit at me.
What was fascinating is that part of me was instantly 12 years old again, back in Little League, devastated, embarrassed and humiliated, my heart in my stomach, with no interest in ice cream. Yet some other “witnessing” part of me was simultaneously able to notice the feeling of humiliation almost impassively, even see the humor of it, and imagined myself re-telling the story. And sure enough, later that night Shari found it extremely amusing and wished she could have been there to film the episode. Thus I dropped the ball, but enjoyed the wisdom of my senior status to not also drop myself in the process. And therein, friends, lies the principle advantage of accumulating 48 years of life experience and arriving at adulthood. It's no small thing.
Fear not, though, sympathetic reader; I redeemed myself shortly thereafter. It finally dawned on me that I belonged on first base, which I actually do know how to play reasonably well, as long as you throw the ball in my general direction. I do have to invoke a little bit of prayer that I can pull off the famous first-basemen’s “scoop” of those throws that land in a short hop right in front of you, where the amateur’s tendency is to turn your head away so as not to get hit in the face by the ball when you miss the scoop and it bounces right at you and takes out your front teeth. And I did fairly well there, caught everything thrown at me, including one or two very unlikely and lucky scoops.
When it came my turn to hit, despite the fact that the pitcher couldn’t reach the plate, I managed to inch forward and connect sufficiently well that one of the scary clipboard people reassured me afterward that they were well aware that I had been given a bum deal on the pitching, but that they recognized that I had “a good swing.”
Imagine that; I have a “good swing.”
They were scoring us on a 1-10 rating system. Everyone would get on a team, but they wanted to balance the talent across the spectrum. I felt pretty confident as I left the field, aching in places I hadn’t noticed were part of my body in many years, that I probably scored a 5. I wouldn't be the first, nor the last, to be picked. No Big Dave Mareschi was I, and nor was I poor, pitiful Randy Stinko.
In high school, my closest female friend, Lindy, a highly accomplished cellist even then, once wrote a poem in which she said, “To be average is a thousand thousand times worse than to be a total failure.” She essentially wrecked my life in that one line, although at the time I was quite enthusiastic and behind her sentiment one hundred percent. The problem is, as time and life wore on, I became a 5 on the 1-10 scale, not only at softball, but also as a guitar player; a 5 on the piano; a 5 as an artist, or on the stage; an average 5 at practically everything I've ever tried. Possibly a 7 as a writer, to be generous. And I guess a 10 at being myself, but there is no other competition.
I have been a perpetual jack of several trades and master of none, and completely average at all of them. It’s a little hard to bear after growing up certain that I was destined for greatness, or at the very least, to appease Lindy by being a total failure. But I'm a 5. The guy in the middle. Average. Dead center.
Oh, and I was born on August 5th. I’ve requested the number 5 on my softball jersey.