Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Strike Three! Ball Four!

When I was a little bot, about eight or so, I guess, my mother became convinced I should play baseball. In truth, I was a bit chubby and could use the exercise and socialization and she was working long hours supporting us while my Dad was off back in the States gallivanting after the American Dream. So, one summer, she signed me up.

I have to hand it to her: she did her best, being of an immigrant mind-set and all, to assimilate us into that somewhat exclusionary society. She understood the value of laying low and blending in. And, though money was tight, she made sure I had my own bat, glove, ball and uniform, sized for my tubbiness, plus real, American-made baseball shoes with cleats and everything. I even got a brand-new baseball.

Now, I have to clarify that the last thing on Earth I wanted to do was play baseball. I didn't follow it, I didn't like it, in fact, I didn't like sports at all and hated gym because my tubby boy-boobs were the subject of much cruel teasing, plus I couldn't climb up that goddamn knotted rope no matter how hard I tried. I was excellent at trading baseball cards, as the were things of value and I had, I know now, some pretty heavy-duty negotiating skills even at that tender age. I had a stack of cards as long as my arm. Too bad I don't have them today, since I'm pretty sure they'd pay my mortgage for the next few months, at least. Anyway, baseball was probably the least desirable sport for a Canadian kid to play since field hockey was the summer sport and ice hockey was definitely preferable, status-wise.

I did like one sport very much - curling. It's a Scottish sport designed to bore the sh*t out of the uninitiated, but for those in the know, it's a high-speed sport of skill, physics, intuition, strategy, psychological pressure, tight team cooperation and gamesmanship. The object of the game is to position - oh, hell, I can't explain it: read this Wikipedia entry on curling instead, but, suffice it to say, there's nothing quite like it. As for summer sports, I loved badminton, and I was a team champ in college with a partner that hated my guts, but, boy, did we kill the competition. By the way, if you're thinking these are some kind of faggoty sports for wankers, note that they are BOTH Olympic sports, thank you very much.

So, I dutifully showed up for baseball practice, though I stalled and complained and attempted to use whatever childish influence I had. The other kids and even the coach looked at me and decided, this kid is a loser. He's fat, so he's gonna be slow. He doesn't know the rules. He's not blond. Crap, he even wears glasses (a definite sign of weakness in the nineteen hundred and sixties.) They stuck me in right field where I was likely, it seemed, to inflict the least amount of damage and be least likely, in the coach's mind, I'm guessing, to result in my receipt of a bloody nose and super-wedgie at the end of each game as a reward for my sportsmanship. Practice lasted about three weeks. At the end, I still had no clue what the rules where but I did know that I was to catch the ball only if it came right at me, otherwise, the centrefielder was to run out and cover me. So, I stood against the fence, reasoning that I was the bastion of last hope for balls lofted by wind or will.

The season began. I wasn't in the batting order for the first game. The team lost by some absurd score, like 36-1 or something like that. Remember that this was before the age of political correctness and losing was actually a bad thing. The coach talked of betrayal and failure, loss and shame. After the tear-streaked faces of my teammates were distributed to their station-wagon wielding parents (one kid, I remember, got a smack on the back of his head by his dad - nice!), I stayed behind and tugged on the coach's sleeve. I do believe I had interrupted a swig of paper-bagged Olde Jim.

"What, Four-Eyes?" he croaked.
"Um, put me in, coach. Next game. Put me in. They'll let me go to first. You'll see." I almost piped "Shane, come back Shane . . . ," but I didn't.
"Where's your mother, eh?" I remember he looked gargantuan in Yankee stripes.
"She takes the bus, sir. I'm to wait for her here," I replied.
"Well, sit in the dugout until she shows up." He stuffed his paper bag into his back pocket, picked up his duffel and wandered off to his old Plymouth. Cream-lime green, it was, without a shiny spot on it, weather dull by the long Alberta winters. My mother arrived about a half-hour later and we took the bus to the other side of town with promises of a box dinner from that new place, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The next game, the coach actually did put me into the batting order. I was as surprised as anyone else. I'd never actually hit a ball. Ever. In practice or at any other time. This was because I could not keep my eyes open when I swung my Louisville Slugger, anticipating that the ball was going to bean me this time for sure and I didn't want to see it happen as feeling and hearing my head cracking open was sufficient, thank you very much. Oh, I forgot - this wasn't some pansy-ass T-ball team with softballs the size of watermelons. This was hardball, regulation, on a regulation-sized field with regulation-sized pain if the Cuban-made ball happened to get you in the ribs. We wore cups, thank goodness, thus, no eunuchs were produced that year, and the coached checked us individually to make sure we had 'em on. And every team seemed to have a savage pitching rotation - except mine.

In the batting rotation I went, lead-off, no less. What was the coach thinking? My own teammates shouted things like, "Hey, Poindexter, step into the plate so the ball hits ya!" and "Hey, Four-Eyes, don't cry!" Well, I wasn't crying. I was thinking. I thought that although this team beat us last week (the teams were so far apart that the selection was slim) they hadn't seen me bat. So, I decided to fuck with them.

I took my time walking to the plate. I furrowed my brow and squinted and pushed my lips into an arch of pure hatred. I stepped up to the plate, then stepped out, knocked my shiny shoes with my bat, a little too hard, since I smashed my ankle, but that revved me up even more. I stepped back in, and swung, hard, practicing my best Hank Aaron, Topps number 111. I peered with what must have been a most psychotic visage at the pitcher since he wound up and then stopped, looked over at the opposing team's coach, tilted his head in my direction and shrugged. The coach then waved his fielders out, further out, no, further. I never changed my face. The opposing team's coach gave the pitcher some kind of signal. The pitcher signaled the catcher. They stepped off, pitched four and walked me. Lead-off walk to first. I chugged to the bag, jiggling all the way, and gave the first baseman a look of pure disgust. He stepped back a foot and I aimed for second.

What I learned that day saved my milk-money from that point forward and rescued me from many potential schoolyard beatdowns. If you're at odds with your skills and there's no one on the team that wants to be associated with you because everyone will confer loserdom by association, then one has to apply one's remaining skills to survive, even if they don't seem to rationally apply. So, I perfected my "I'm a crazy motherf*cker, so don't f*ck with me" skills and managed to survive life at Oliver school and even made quite a few "cool" friends. Go figure.

In short, it seems to be quite true that nice guys finish last, but smart guys are willing to act the part, no matter how nutty, to survive. I was, after all, smarter than they were. I know this since no one ever called my bluff. I would have.