I was at the end of the bench.
My classmates sat along the metallic board that stretched along the sides of the gym. Each of them had been ordered in terms of wiffleball skill. I think there were about 40 people in my gym section. I was the 40th. I was the least talented, as judged by the scientifically accurate self-assigned seating order of impetuous middle schoolers.
In a thirty-five minute game of indoor Warwick Valley gym wiffleball, you get two at bats when you’re the last person on the bench. Innings are long, the offensive environment is impossibly run-heavy, and the pitching is Bud Norris-esque. Everyone is supposed to have fun.
I was not having fun. At least in kickball I could make contact. At least I could hit a grounder and sprint to first. At least I had enough soccer experience to occasionally rip a double into the gap. In kickball, there was hope and salvation. In wiffleball, softball, cricket, jai-alai…the list goes on…there was only embarrassment and failure.
When the kid in front of me got out, I stood up and prepared to hit. There was some laughter. Everyone was smiling. It was sixth grade; this is what qualified as high comedy. I was a nerdy Asian kid with glasses and I had no idea how to hit a ball with a stick.
When Bartolo Colón bats, I think I understand him on a psychological level. When you’re facing the pitcher, you can’t physically see everyone smirking behind you or the thousands of eyes on the television screens are laughing. But you know it’s happening. You know that you are probably going to make an out. You know the people laughing don’t dislike you. They aren’t bullying you. They are just sitting there and enjoying the spectacle and the full glory of the ironic sight. Many people see Bartolo as the everyman who performs about as well as an ordinary person. I think this is a misleading conception. Bartolo is still probably a better hitter than a majority of the population. He hit a homer off a 90 MPH fastball, after all. I see Bartolo for what he is–one of the least qualified hitters in baseball. And because I am one of the least qualified hitters in the general population, I share his burden.
The first pitch was outside. My nada baseball experience was still good enough to recognize that they were trying to get me to swing at something ridiculous. I took the pitch. They say pride is always a bad thing, that it’s one of the seven deadly sins and should be eradicated. In the immortal words of Marsellus Wallace, “fuck pride”.
They’re wrong. Pride let me take that first pitch. Remember, Marsellus Wallace couldn’t convince Butch to let go of his pride in Pulp Fiction either. Pride may be terrible in most circumstances, but it does keep us from total embarrassment in the worst of times.
I fouled off the second pitch. I swung and missed at the third pitch.
“That’s pride fucking with you,” says the disembodied and fictional Marsellus that whispers its sarcastic commentary in my memories.
The next pitch was high. The last pitch was a meatball. It was one of those whiffleball pitches most competent people can drive into left field because every good whiffleball player can pull the ball. I made contact. For a split second, I thought something amazing could happen. Perhaps there was something redeeming about this game after all.
The ball went five feet in the air and was caught by the catcher.
Why do I even like baseball?
When I was six, my family won a free week at the local Frozen Ropes baseball camp in the annual “Baskets for Broken Dreams” raffle, or whatever they called it (it’s “baskets for broken dreams” to me now). I had never been interested in baseball to that point. I don’t have any stories of my dad playing catch when I was young. I was too busy reading books and occasionally playing soccer, and my dad was too busy commuting two hours round-trip to Old Tappan, New Jersey. My burgeoning sports career had no baseball. We never even really considered it as an option.
But the Frozen Ropes camp was free, and my parents had little else for me to do in that summer, so before second grade I spent a week playing baseball at Frozen Ropes. I remember almost nothing about this experience, except that it was miserable. I have a fuzzy memory of getting to play first base for an inning and just dropping every single ball that was thrown to me. Every single one. They moved me to the Outer Rim of the outfield on the next day. I never went back.
I remember that summer pretty well, but Frozen Ropes has been mostly
eliminated from my brain. I think it was so universally terrible that I have erased it from my mind. My baseball ineptitude was that traumatic.The only other thing I remember was going to Modell’s to buy a glove for the first time. I vividly remember asking my dad why I had to put my glove on my left hand instead of my right.
“Tristan, you have to throw with your right hand.”
“But how am I going to catch anything with my left hand? I can only catch with my right hand!”
The conversation went something along those lines. I have never played an inning of Little League. I number of times I have thrown a real baseball is in the dozens. I can’t hit. I can’t catch. I was unbelievably uncoordinated, and all the kids who were athletic surpassed me within a few years.
And yet the allure of baseball was too powerful. I watched Mets games in the pre-2006 days, when I wasn’t a fan, and I wanted to be a baseball player. I would stage mini baseball games in my living room with pillows for bases and pretend to play baseball. Like many young boys, I dreamed of hitting that walk-off grand-slam in the final game of the World Series. My obsession with baseball statistics entered its nascent phase, as I wrote down scores and players and numbers for fantastical moments of baseball that existed only in my imagination.
That’s the special (and infuriating) part of baseball. There’s something about the game that always drags me back. Sometimes when I watch on television, I forget about my fandom and just watch the elaborate dance. Every play is beautiful in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity. The season is an indefatigable behemoth that churns every day, every second, every waking hour of the summers that feel endless, the summers that embrace the game of baseball like a dog embraces an old chew toy.
Yes, I like baseball, despite the fact it has given me nothing of note. The Mets have not won the World Series since I’ve been alive, and they have only made the playoffs twice since I turned five. I’m nineteen now. Not like my rooting interests have given me a good ROI. How many hours have I wasted on fantasy baseball, watching baseball, and watching baseball? What could I have done if I had those hours back?
I turned around and I heard laughter. But don’t feel bad, I was in good spirits too. There was nothing I could do about my ineptitude, so I had to embrace the joke myself. I smiled and gave a hearty chuckle. We won the game. I made two outs and struck out the second time.
When I talk to my friends, they rarely have anything bad to say about playing baseball as a kid. For them, it was a gratifying experience. Part of loving baseball, for them, is memory of playing the game.
For me, baseball was always a sign that I was physically inadequate. As an awkward and shy kid with little connection to his peers (mostly my fault), the fact that I was terrible at baseball, couldn’t make a free throw and couldn’t throw a spiral combined to leave me dissatisfied. During middle school, I convinced myself that I was never going to be athletic. I sat around, drank sodas and played computer games for about three years. I watched a lot of bad Mets teams (shout-out to John Maine!). I resigned myself to being out of shape and lazy. My parents didn’t really believe in me either. My mother recently admitted to me that she wasn’t surprised when I got cut from my middle school soccer team. My folks also never pushed me to travel or any outside soccer program to make me better.
“I always knew you were never going to be good enough,” she explained.
“But I was good! I scored like, 11 goals in rec soccer in fifth grade!”
“No you weren’t.”
Korean parents don’t mince words. They are also correct more often than not.
But our middle school selves are wrong about everything. Because I couldn’t do anything else, I decided to try running cross-country, which will probably go down as the best decision I have made in the last five years. That has turned out pretty well. It turns out I’m actually very athletic, but that athleticism is only limited to things that do not require hand-eye coordination. I ran a 1:23 half marathon last week. If you told me six years ago that I could even finish a half marathon, I would think you were joking. Because after all, I couldn’t make contact in wiffle ball, so what was the point?
So in a confusing and tenuous way, baseball and being bad at sports have made me a better person simply because of my incompetence. It forced me to run and to keep running because I really didn’t have anything to fall back on.
I really think it has made me a better baseball fan as well. I learned to appreciate the game from afar, rather than from within. The statistics and analysis comes easily to me because I don’t have any biases. I just listen to what smarter and more experienced people tell me because I have never been able to experience it myself. It has its shortcomings. For example, I recently just realized that there are no left-handed catchers in professional baseball. I also can’t read pitches very well and I have a hard time discerning between fly balls and home runs because “I ain’t ever played the game”.
I take that as a compliment now. I ain’t ever played, but I take some pride in that. That’s the path life has given me.