If gloves could talk…this one wouldn’t have much to say.
“You want me to play softball in a prison?” I asked incredulously.
“I know,” said Brian in a calm tone that resonated with sympathy and reassurance. We both knew that my objection had little to do with the unusual venue, and it was painfully obvious that he was desperate for players. So desperate, in fact, that he was approaching one of the last people you would want to ask if you wanted to forge a decent softball team. My brother tried to bolster his sincerity with a smile, but he could barely suppress a laugh as he tried to entice me by adding, “It’ll be fun!”
“Yeah, fun,” I grumbled. Brian belonged to a service organization that not only did the occasional good thing for the community but also participated in a recreational softball league. Scheduling a game against the inmates of our local minimum-security prison was a way to join the two vocations. Unfortunately, only a handful of members had signed up for the opportunity. Joining Brian in this endeavor would be the noble thing to do, but it would require a complete consumption of my pride. It was akin to taking a willing dive into a pool of embarrassment. “Let me think about it.”
If athletic ability is predestined by our DNA, the sports gene is surely absent from my genetic code. If it is a matter of nurture rather than nature, then I must have been abandoned as a fledgling and raised by charity. Whatever the cause, it has always been painfully evident to everyone that I am far more suited to the role of spectator than that of participant.
Not that I didn’t try. When I was about nine years old, I signed up for Catholic Youth Organization summer softball. Lord knows whose idea it was. Maybe my parents thought it would provide me with exercise and boost my overall confidence. Perhaps I actually suggested it myself on a whim fueled by youthful denial. Somehow I wound up playing softball that summer, clad in my purple team shirt with the CYO logo on its front and an ad for a sponsoring local insurance company on the back. I had an oversize softball glove and an undersized, red-painted, wooden bat. I understood the rules and showed up for every practice. I really did try, but I was inept.
Considering my offensive play alone, I am uniquely qualified to claim ineptitude. Although I was always included in the batting order, if for no other reason than it was mandated by league rules, I struck out every time I stepped up to the plate throughout the regular season. Our coach first advised me to “choke up on the bat,” then to not choke up so much, but however I tried it, all I could do was choke, period. Opposing teams were merciless with their chatter, every one of their mean-spirited utterances ridiculously unnecessary. Instead of taunting me with hey, batter-batter-batter-SWING!, they could have chanted please hit the ball, please hit the ball and it would not have made any difference.
When it came to fielding, I spent more time on the bench than my teammates. Still, I got out there for awhile every game, pragmatically stuck out in right field. I always struck the little leaguer’s pose, lurching forward with my hands planted on my knees and my eyes fixed on the batter. Although my physical attitude might have fooled a passerby into admiring my apparent enthusiasm, inwardly I suffered the angst of a young Les Nessman: Please, God, don’t let them hit it to me. When the odd fly ball did come my way, I would manage to run toward the general vicinity of its descent with my arm outstretched, whereupon the ball would inevitably plunge with a thud into the grass. My frantic throws to the infield could turn a single into a home run.
Thanks to gym class, my lack of athleticism was evident not just during the summer but all year round. Once I attempted to emulate the stance of a sprinter at the starting blocks when it was my turn for speed trials. I was crouched down with all the tension of a coiled spring, and at the starting signal I suddenly catapulted forward and fell on my face. When we were made to run laps around the field, I clutched my cramping sides and cast envious glances toward our asthmatic classmate Billy, who was permitted to walk his circuits. What I would have given to trade places. Maudlin images of juvenile asthma sufferers staring longingly from their bedroom windows as their peers engaged in strenuous physical activities did not arouse my sympathy but instead provoked my jealousy.
Nor did the passage of time lead to much improvement. High school phys ed brought further humiliation, as it was taught by the head basketball coach, and my prowess on the court was even less impressive than my dexterity on the diamond. It could not have surprised him to observe my utter incompetency with layups, the mechanics of which were a true mystery to me. I saw others dribble toward the hoop and toss the ball in with ease, but my own attempts were executed with all the grace of Frankenstein’s monster. Obvious as my lack of talent was, it nevertheless perplexed our teacher when I was unable to complete an obstacle course due to its final element: a successful shot from the free throw line. He watched in disbelief as I missed again and again, unable to sink one until I was allowed to move embarrassingly close to the net.
As senior year loomed, everyone of my acquaintance knew better than to rely on me to help lead a sports team to victory. This was something of a relief, as it meant that I was generally left alone to fulfill my non-athletic destiny without suffering humiliating interludes of awkwardness. You wouldn’t waste your time trying to train the family dog to take pinochle tricks, right? Some efforts are simply unnatural and, consequently, fruitless.
However, I occasionally found myself once again a bumbler among the graceful. During a co-ed summer leadership camp, I watched nervously as girls were assigned to the outfield for a friendly afternoon of softball. The sexist assumption of the team captains was that boys would make the best infielders. Having ascertained that I was a male, they put me at third base. No one but I knew what a dreadful mistake they were making.
I can still see the mischievous smile of my new friend, Mark, as he strode to the plate and cockily pointed the bat at me, telegraphing his intentions. Sure enough, he sent the first pitch hopping just inside the third base line. I remembered from my CYO days that fielders are supposed to get down in front of ground balls to stop them, even if it meant taking a bad hop to the face. I tried to do just that, but the ball zipped underneath me and continued deep into the outfield. The girl playing left field intercepted the ball and sidearmed it back toward me with an athleticism ten times greater than my own. Really, her arm was strong and bulls-eye accurate. The ball landed a mere foot in front of me, and though I ordered myself to get down there like I was taught to do, it once again hopped beneath me and followed the foul line to home plate. Mark jogged onto third base and laughed at his good fortune. Two between-the-legs errors on one play by the same player is, I feel safe to say, statistically rare.
Not long after that notorious incident, I distinguished myself on the tennis court during a game of mixed doubles when I served into the back of my partner’s head. Such an action is pathetic under any circumstances, but being a guy and clobbering a girl in the noggin with an overhead smash is just mortifying. She took it in good humor after recovering from the shock, having neither seen nor expected the offending projectile. Still, I played the net after that.
These and other personal bloopers ran through my mind as I considered Brian’s request to join him for some prison softball. Ultimately, I agreed, succumbing to sibling pressure while harboring a kernel of hope that I might somehow find redemption for my past errors. When we arrived at the correction facility, the dismal results of Brian’s recruiting efforts became coldly apparent to me, as we didn’t even have enough guys to field a team. Playing against prisoners didn’t sound too bad to me, because if I made some dumb mistakes, it would only benefit them. But this meant that we would be playing with some inmates as well. I wondered how they would take having a misfit like me on their team, and the thought turned my stomach.
We passed through security and were escorted to a rectangular courtyard surrounded by high brick walls. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly intimidating about the guys who had been permitted to play, and I was pleasantly surprised to find my inmate teammates treating me with good-natured camaraderie. For the first time in my life, I was asked to play left field, and the gray clouds of my third-base fiasco began to threaten my optimism. But when the opposing team stepped up to the plate, I realized that every single batter was pulling for right field. This was because the dimensions of the courtyard made the right field wall much closer than the left field fence. It was conceivable that a ball might possibly clear the courtyard wall for a home run, but at the very least, the right fielder was going to face a difficult rebound off the bricks.
I managed to avoid total embarrassment at home plate, flying out and grounding out rather than striking out. And once, incredibly, I got a double. Out in quiet left field, I watched with gratitude as ball after ball bounced off the right field wall. Then someone who either swung too soon or decided to take advantage of my milquetoast game sent a high fly ball into my territory. Like the terrifying interval between skidding tires and crashing cars, time slowed down to the accompaniment of my thundering heartbeat. I followed the arc of the ball and tried to visualize the end of its trajectory. I held my oversize glove open and kept my right hand ready to trap the ball. There was a sudden thwack in my mitt, and I willed myself to react with nonchalance. It was by no means a tough play to make, and I couldn’t expect to be taken seriously if I sank to my knees in ecstasy.
“You know,” I said giddily to Brian during the drive home, “I actually did have fun. And I can’t believe how nice our teammates were. I really thought they’d give me a hard time, but they couldn’t have been nicer.”
“Mmm,” Brian nodded, and we traveled on happily. Redemption at last.
Years later, when I recalled the extraordinary cordiality of our hometown’s minimum-security prison inmates, Brian cleared his throat and added an asterisk to our experience.
“Yeah, well…they were nice. I didn’t think it was necessary to tell you at the time, but…”
“Well, I told them that you had never played baseball before.”
I looked at Brian in open-mouthed astonishment, and just as suddenly it dawned on me how great a brother’s love can be. He had been looking out for me, and I hadn’t even suspected it. We started to laugh, and we didn’t stop for quite awhile.