Michael Neal Morris - "A Niche In The Fundamentals"


 

Far back, in my usual place in right field, I watched my father hit a homerun. He was the only one to score in this friendly game between the kids on my baseball team and their fathers. The season was over, and we were at a picnic highlighted by food, games with the parents, and the handing out of trophies.

The team beat the dads something like 13-1, my father’s smash their only run. As I look back, I realize that the adults were probably not trying to win and that my father’s hit might have been the result of a bit of drunken rebellion. I was the worst kid on the team, the sort that knows he is going to be in right field and who will have to be called to come in because he doesn’t know when three outs have been made. When I came in from the field after that inning was over, I was beaming at my father as the other boys stood in what seemed awe.

When the trophies were being handed out, I was quiet and anxious. I was sure I was not going to get one. I had only been on base one time. I tried to think of that one time, and block out of my mind the number of times I made mistakes. Once, a kid hit the ball directly to me and I picked up the grounder remembering what my coach and father had been trying most of the season to teach me about going down on the knee and keeping my body in front of the ball. I was so surprised when I’d actually failed to miss the ball, that as I stood up, I froze and could not recall what to do next. As adults and teammates screamed at me to throw the ball, I just stood looking back and forth as the hitter, giddy at my paralysis, rounded the bases. When the hitter was about three steps away from home, I hurled the ball with all my might. I have no idea where it went.

I struck out each time I batted that first season, except once. We were playing the team from Walnut Hill Elementary in the final game of the season and they were the best in our league. Thus I assumed that their pitcher was the best pitcher. Before I went up to bat, I had made up my mind that if I was going to strike out again, it was not going to be swinging. Almost every time at the plate, before this moment, I was gone in three pitches, flailing away at whatever came. This time, I thought, I’ll just stand there. If he gets me out, fine, but I won’t look like an idiot.

This at bat was perhaps the first lesson I had in patience. The hardest pitches to take were the first and last. On the first, I was struggling against habit. On the last, the count was full and I knew that only one strike separated me from a walk and a season of perfect failure. I flinched a little as the ball came in, but it went in the dirt and soon I found myself on first base.

I cannot call to mind anything my coaches said or did at this point. All I knew was that on the very next pitch, I sped to second. The catcher’s throw was nowhere close, and hardly panting, I was soon feeling the rush that comes from one’s first stolen base. I should add here that besides being lousy at pretty much every skill necessary to baseball, I was also so slow that fat kids made fun of me as I chugged in last for every race during gym class.

On the next pitch, I took third. Gone was the idea that at that age, nearly everyone who reached first could easily steal second, and a little speed and a catcher who bobbled the ball, could get a runner advanced further. I only thought to myself that I was finally good at one thing in baseball. I’m sure my teammates were yelling behind me, as were my parents. But I don’t remember hearing them. I recall a general loudness that was different from the cars usually hastening down Marsh Lane.

Was there a sign, a word from the coach to go home? I don’t know. The pitcher looked nervous as his next pitch went into the ground, seemingly in the same spot where it had been when he walked me. This was the picture in my mind as I stepped on the plate.

Sure there was cheering, but it doesn’t stick out in my mind. I wish I could remember more. My dad was there, I’m pretty sure, grinning the way he always did when I had done something surprising or different. I’m not sure I want to remember the moment any other way, true as any other version might be.

A little success can have many positive results, as any decent coach of children should know. From that moment on, I believed myself to be fast, and certainly in the next few years I played baseball, I was rarely caught stealing. I began to imagine the possibility that despite constant failure, I could be, was becoming, good at the game. When my parents divorced the following year, the sport became my passion, the desire in my heart to play made more painful by the fact that my mother, siblings, and I had to move and I could not play on a team until Mom remarried and we had a permanent house in Irving.

But I carried the glove my father had gotten me for that season wherever I could find a couple guys to play. I “practiced” by throwing the ball in the air or against the house until my new step-father convinced me that using a tennis ball would be better for learning to field and would keep my good baseballs lasting longer.

In the fourth grade, I found myself on a team called the Cheetahs. They were coached by well meaning, but poor role model named Mr. Gonzalez. He was nice enough, but his main concern seems, in retrospect, to have been getting his son to play. It was during this time that although I began to blossom as a player, I also had one of the worst moments of my short, undistinguished, athletic life.

Most of the season, I played shortstop. I had gotten good enough as a fielder to be trusted with the position, and my batting had improved significantly. That year I managed to build upon my one brush with patience and learned to swing level, so that I got on base much more often than not. Against at team called the Cyclones, I even managed to hit two home runs.

Some time during the middle of the season our pitcher got sick, the flu or mono or something. I only remember it kept him out for several weeks. This surprising development caused our catcher to become the pitcher. I suppose because I actually had proven that I could catch a ball (unlike most of my teammates who were still learning the finer points of closing a glove after the ball was in the webbing), or perhaps because I knew which base to throw to when necessary, I got moved to catcher.

And a shoddier catcher would have been hard to find. I couldn’t squeeze the mitt when the ball came in, and I had a tendency to blink when the batter swung. Consequently, I missed nearly every pitch thrown to me. The glove so bothered me that I begged the coach to let me catch with my regular mitt. Sometimes my teammates would not even make a throw home when a runner was coming fearing I’d just miss the ball and other runners would advance. I didn’t know about the snap throw catchers usually use, and my coach didn’t teach me; I tended to throw the ball back to the pitcher either the same way a shortstop would throw the first base or I’d lob it about halfway. So every pitch was an adventure.

The problem, of course, was that everything was new again. It was as if I had to relearn the game I’d spent two years dreaming I’d mastered. It wasn’t until a friend’s father, the following year, took over the reins of the team that I had someone actually take me aside to show me fundamentals.

The best team in the league for several years had been the Horned Frogs. They won for two reasons: their coach stressed fundamental skills and a pitcher named Sean Fenema, who threw the ball straight and so fast that sometimes our coach told us to start swinging as soon as the ball left his hand. This was the first non-pro team I ever watched whose batters could successfully bunt and whose fielders could turn a double play. Watching them would have been like a clinic had I not been so dumbfounded by our own lack of success.

The embarrassment of my second grade freeze in right field was well in the back of my mind until one evening when a couple popular television commercials, my bad temper, and a lack of coaching conspired to get me kicked out of a game.

I suppose my team would have had a chance had I not been the catcher. I’d played the position for a couple games and while I seemed to get better, my performance was laughable. We played most innings in the pattern of events where base runners on the other team got so used to me missing pitches, they automatically stole bases, assuming I would not retrieve the ball fast enough to get them out.

To make matters worse, the players on the other team heard one of my teammates or the coach call me by my last name, Morris. At the time, the most famous cat in America was the supposedly finicky Morris the cat, whose cute commercials helped to sell Nine Lives cat food. There was also the well known Life cereal adds where kids are surprised that the little boy, Mikey, would eat the bowl full of stuff that was “good for you.” Opposing players began teasing me with their variations on the commercials: “He won’t catch it. He misses everything” and “Don’t be finicky, Morris.”

As I missed ball after ball, the taunts seemed to grow louder and louder. My coach said nothing. The umpire did nothing. For the only time in my life playing sports, I wanted to just go home.

The bases were clear for a tall boy who managed to get on first pretty easily. The next two pitches went through my legs, and he stole second and third as if that was what one was supposed to after the pitcher threw the ball grinning wildly as his teammates jeered at me. On the third pitch, however, something miraculous happened: I caught the ball. Okay, this had happened before, but I caught it exactly as I was supposed to, with my right hand covering the opening so that it couldn’t fall out, and so I could quickly throw wherever I needed to.

The tall boy, supposing I was going to miss the ball again, had jogged halfway to home before he realized that I had not missed the ball and was standing in his path. His eyes opened wide in shock, but he soon recovered and began to grin again, perhaps readying some remark about one of my nine lives being spared. He started back to third and I pulled my arm back to throw.

The problem was that my coach had never taught me to step a little out of the base path before launching the ball to get a runner out. Remember I knew only two ways to throw the ball, and I was not about to lob it to the third baseman. I fired the sphere as if unloading my shame.

Had his long body not been in the way, I’m sure the ball would have made it to the base as it should have. Unfortunately, it hit the kid squarely in the back.

The next thing I knew, I was on the bench taking off my gear. The umpire believed I had hit the boy on purpose and tossed me out to the delight of parents and teammates on the other side. I think a few of my friends were glad as well.

I was ten years old.

Alone on the bench, I pitched such a tantrum that not only did I take off the mask, chest protector, and shin guards, but my shoes and socks as well. I was about to take off my jersey, perhaps in some sort of symbolic gesture that I was leaving baseball forever, when the coach’s wife tapped on my shoulder, told me to get up, and walked me away from the field. Making the kind of cooing noises one makes with an infant one is trying to put to sleep, she helped me to go from screaming about how unfair people were – the mean kids on the other team, the umpire who thought I’d hurt the kid on purpose, even her husband for making me play catcher – to sobbing quietly, and listening to her to try to convince me that I had not reached the end of life, that I’d live to play again.

This lady did her best, but what I wanted was my father. My mother wasn’t there, nor my stepfather. With as many children as we had at home, it was nearly impossible for my parents to keep an eye on them and cheer me on. I don’t know if it would have mattered. Dad was who I needed. Despite his own failings, whenever I felt this badly, only he could put an arm around my shoulders and squeeze out pain, could with a word speak shame into nothingness. By then, my father lived in Florida, so I never expected him at my games, and rarely gave his absence a thought. But I sensed even at that early age that this game would have been different had he been in the stands.

As one does, I got over this setback and began to apply myself to the game of baseball with the sort of ferocious concentration only one striding toward puberty can muster, and by the sixth grade the only reason I did not make the all star team was because I had played so many different positions (even catcher) for my team that I could not stand out at a single one. I know I wasn’t the best athlete on the team, but I loved the game and let desire drive me to learn and build on basics and successes.

At the time of this writing, two of my children play soccer. Alexandria has been playing since the first grade. Michaela played for two seasons with her twin sister when they were about the same age, but her experience didn’t go as well as her older sister’s. Alex was not as skilled as most of her teammates, but had good coaches who stressed learning all the positions and mastering fundamentals of the game. Michaela had coaches who barely spoke to her.

Alex played defender most of the time, but her coach believed that at their young age, all the girls should play a little bit of each position. He ran the girls through what Alex felt were dull exercises to build skills in dribbling, trapping, passing, and shooting. He wanted to win, but one of his goals for the each season was to have each of the girls score or assist on a goal.

Alex stumbled around quite a bit that first season, and I’m grateful that the parents for her team were generous with praise when she did things well. I am ashamed that I was a bit embarrassed when she missed a kick or made a mistake that cost her team a goal. But Coach John and Coach Bob always encouraged her. Her teammates liked her and invited them to their parties.

Alex came close to scoring as the third season moved along, and I could see her skills improving. She did, however, feel deeply every mistake. Even if her team lost by a wide margin, she would complain during the drive home that she was the reason for defeat. Then during one game she took a ball on a short volley and booted it neatly past the opposing goalkeeper. I wasn’t the only parent shouting at the top of my lungs. After play resumed, I was patted on the back as if I had made the shot myself, everyone proud that my girl had finally done it. A few minutes later, a teammate was subbed in for her, and she ran off the field to see everyone on our small, full bleacher standing and applauding. Her smile was so bright that day it could have knocked over Despair itself.

From that moment on, Alex played a little harder, seemed to devote herself to improving at this game that she suddenly believed she was good at. She actually looked forward to practice. Always encouraging of her teammates, she began to try to help them learn what skills she was beginning to master.

Michaela’s experience has, so far, been different. The first coach she had didn’t really know much about soccer, but she loved the girls and kept saying nice things to them when they played. She let a couple of fathers take over some of the practices near the end of the first season because she was planning to move and needed someone to take over the team. These fathers had the best players on the team and by the second season had nothing to say to my twins, both of whom are hearing impaired.

I worked two jobs, so though I managed to get to almost every practice and game, I didn’t work with the girls much at home. When I tried, I was usually met with resistance. There was a playground in front of our apartment, and my daughters preferred swinging and sliding. But I couldn’t understand why their coach wouldn’t even spend a few minutes in practice directing them. My girls followed the team in the drills, but it was obvious they were lost. They could hear directions from the coach, but when they messed up, he just pointed to where he wanted them to go next. I would shout from the sidelines, but all my “help” managed to do was make them think I was angry with them. During games, parents of their teammates grew silent when the ball came near one of them, as if acknowledging their disability by ignoring their presence. The girls could hear fine wearing their hearing aids, but this fact merely got in the way of the obvious loathing for my daughters because their lack of skills hurt the team’s chances of winning. One parent actually called us, anonymously of course, to inform us that the league only allowed each team to have a certain number of handicapped players, a lie intended, I’m sure, to get us to quit ruining their Saturday mornings with our “defective” children.

When their second season was over, the twins didn’t want to play anymore, and I said okay. The rule at our house is that every child must be involved in something, and once a commitment is made, one must see it through to the end. I was positive that my twins lost a chance to grow through sports altogether, and I hoped that they would not give up on group activities altogether.

Christina went on to take art lessons, something that seems in keeping with her individualistic nature. I worry a bit, but she tells others that being an artist is her job, that it is who she is. She’s confident about herself.

We moved last year and Alex had to join a new soccer team, one that I have helped coach. To my great surprise, Michaela asked last spring if she could join the team.

I was concerned. Alex had improved her own skills quite a bit and most of the girls on her team were much more serious about the game. I feared Michaela would get lost in the shuffle. And her playing has not been without its difficulties. She compares herself to her sister and sometimes has meltdowns during practice, long periods where she won’t listen to anyone and eventually refuses to do anything. On the other hand, she is often the one who takes a ball in the backyard to practice dribbling and shooting. Perhaps she wants to beat her sister at something. Perhaps she wants to impress her father, someone who attend every game he can and will always come sober.

Lately, Alex has found that she is a pretty good goalie. She was put there as a kind of experiment by her coach because she is taller than her teammates and has the strongest leg on the team. She seems to be what in sports we often call a natural because she played pretty well even before she had received much instruction on how to do things that are specific to the position. She flies unafraid and dives for balls that should be well out of her reach, amazing us all every game. The mistakes she makes come from mental errors I suspect will go away when she has learned more. Fortunately, she is open to instruction.

Michaela has yet to find her niche, but I think that will come with time. She tries hard, and I’d rather have a team full of kids like her who want to learn despite lacking a few innate abilities than “naturals” who treat a coach’s direction as annoying suggestions. One life lesson that I believe sports should teach us is that everything we wish to excel in requires a combination of encouragement, success, and practice of the fundamentals. All these need to be built upon so that one does not rest on one’s laurels, to use the cliché, but becomes better than before. Only when we get this do we begin to find our place whether on the diamond or digging for diamonds in the adult world. We have to work and learn and work at learning before we can shine.

 

Michael Neal Morris has published short stories, poems, and essays in a number of print and online venues. His most recent books are naked and Recital Notes, Volume I. Collections of his work are listed at Smashwords and Amazon. He lives with his family just outside the Dallas area and teaches at Eastfield College.

This Blue Monk: http://bluemonkwrites.tumblr.com/

At Times...Wrestling: https://mnm44.wordpress.com/

Monk Notes: http://mnmwrite.blogspot.com/