From just about the time I could successfully put one foot in front of the other while chomping on a wad of gum, I had a softball glove on my hand. This early adoption of the sport in no way indicates I was some wunderkind who took to the diamond like a fish does to water. Nope, I was pretty mediocre really. In my first season I was placed at second base. The only reason I can even imagine that I got an infield position is that my dad was the coach and some of the kids, honestly, were way shittier than me. I’m positive that I stopped more balls with the side of my head than my glove.
In an effort to improve my skills and, I assume, make me less afraid of the ball, Dad figured that I had to be immersed in fear and unable to get out of the way of the ball. To that end he would make me stand with my back to our garage door, reminiscent of a prisoner who has reached the end of the line and will now be executed by firing squad, while he hurled zinger after zinger at me. Apparently, I was much more nimble at escaping the pummeling of a 12 inch ball than I was at simply lifting my left arm to intercept it as it screamed toward my head. I think Dad attempted this drill for about a week before he realized that the payoff of my catching one or two balls was far outweighed by the damage that would inveitably be done as I a ducked and dodged my way to safety. The garage door became polka dotted with white markings as the skin of the ball was scraped off every time it came in contact with the brown wooden surface. The cessation of this ineffective and horrifying training technique also probably ended much more prematurely than it otherwise would have due to the ear piercing sound the ball made as it crunched the door over and over again. My mother just couldn’t tolerate it to be honest. As much as she wanted me to be a success, her sanity usually won out over any practice that caused too much noise. I am pretty sure my career as a flautist was squashed because Mom’s nerves couldn’t take me screeching out one more attempt at “Born Free” or “The Entertainer”.
My skittishness about sacrificing my body to stop the ball ended one fateful day during that first season. I was playing for my dad’s team called 40 et 8. We were named for the local bingo parlor in Vancouver, Washington. Our pitcher Carrie was a stud. Even as a 3rd grader, I understood that she was a natural athlete. My dad talked about her with awe in his voice. I envied her. She got to be part of every play and she never jumped out of the way of any ball that came at her. On the day in question, Carrie, as amazing as she was, met her match when an opponent got a hold of one of her pitches and drove it back up the middle with probably less force than my 8 year old memory has conjured up, but, nonetheless, it was enough. Carrie couldn’t get her glove up in time and got hit square in the nose. From my vantage point in the gap between the bags marking 1st and 2nd it looked like pure carnage. Blood squirting all over her glove as she used it cover her face and screams from the crowd drowning out Carrie’s own. My stomache flipped and flopped as my dad and our other coach tended to Carrie and guided her off the field where her parents were ready to take her off to the hospital. My dad then called the 8 of us still left on the field to the damaged pitching circle. Drops of blood that were once bright red, now littered the space, turning a deep burgundy as the air and dust dried them. “Does anyone want to pitch?” my dad asked almost apologetically. No one made eye contact. We all just kept staring at the blood. Some of the little girls were even crying. Dad realized that the blood was probably going to be a major deterrent to getting the answer he needed and wisely used his foot to disperse the evidence of Carrie’s splattered nose. As my heart thumped wildly in my chest, remembering that not only had our kick ass pitcher just been taken down but that I only had about a 10% success rate in stopping staged attempts at my life with my back to the garage door, I inexplicably opened my mouth and uttered “I’ll try Dad”.
And then I did. From that day forward, pitching was my thing and fielding seemed much less terrifying. I practiced for hours, attended pitching clinics, and even begged my dad to barrage me with line drives and ground balls. Something about being in control of the defensive side of the game changed things for me. No one was going to get anything by me. It was my field to protect and I wasn’t going to let it suffer the same fate as that now battered garage door.