Had the pitcher noticed my right foot twitching nervously on the bag he would have easily surmised my criminal intent. Sweat soaked the upper portion of my uniform, the back of which proclaimed the virtues of Brown's Hardware. Two batters had come and gone, fastball victims now reposing in the statistical morgue of the official scorekeeper. But still I remained anchored after my lead-off single.
So long had I been on first base that it had become like a second home to me. I was getting mail there. Social Security checks would be arriving soon. Yet no sign from Mr. Barclay in the third-base coach's box. Second base, the promised land, was sixty feet away, but I may as well have been standing on Alcatraz.
Maybe it was the heat. It must have been ninety-five degrees that day and the sweltering valley sun surely extracted all reason from my brain. Perhaps it was boredom. A fellow can go stir crazy waiting around for a jailbreak. It might have been a rare polar event as the magnetic pull between myself and that square-shaped flour sack could not have been stronger. Does it really matter why? Looking back, I see I had no choice. I was as helpless as a sailor succumbing to the call of the Sirens.
History records that on the first pitch to the inning's fourth batter, as the baseball hit the center of the catcher's glove, the sound of horsehide kissing cowhide conspired to simulate a starter's pistol. At least this is how I remember it. I do know it was an electrifying sound that startled me into action. Never mind that I had gotten a late jump. Never mind I had no plan. I bolted for my destination like a turkey being chased on Thanksgiving.
Surely the well-known fact that I was the league's slowest runner would only shock and fluster the catcher into stupefying inaction. Surely as my quest was noble and my heart was true the ball would sail over the shortstop's reach into center field. Surely I had not counted on a quick release and the straight throw that was awaiting me as I reached the midway point of my incredible journey.
My eyes grew wide. I had not considered this possibility. I was about to feel the sting of baseball mortality. In an instant I experienced the entire spectrum of Dr. Kübler-Ross's five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. As I strolled into second with the force of a train half an hour after the coal is depleted, I felt a dysfunctional obligation to slide, though it was merely a formality. Denial had decided to step back into the box and take some extra cuts.
To my discredit and lasting embarrassment, I tried a last-minute trick slide, which led me to dance out of the base path and into shallow centerfield where, from my opponent's flank, I then threw my body at the base in a final desperate, twisted, flailing motion that nearly inspired spectators to throw a telethon on my behalf.
The umpire was generous. He could have made one of those huge arm-motion calls that looks like a pitcher winding up and throwing the ball straight into the ground with raw, brutal force. For indeed, I had been shot down from Austin to Dallas and deserved as much. Instead, he looked at me with compassion, clenched his meaty fist gently and muttered, "Yer out, Son."
The shame of it all. Oh, the humanity! I laid on my back wondering, What should I do now? If a game show had somehow magically broken out right there on the diamond, the final Jeopardy question would have been, "What is get up, dust yourself off and look as good as you can jogging back to the dugout?" Instead I panicked and chose a regrettable course.
I started crying.
I had been found guilty of hubris and was sentenced to the spectacle of public humiliation. If tears could have melted me as the bucket of water did Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz, I would have been grateful for the escape.
Instead, I was led off the field by Mr. Barclay, bawling my eyes out. But, hey, I was ten years old that day. Nobody had ever warned me about the taboo I had broken, nor the cardinal rule I would be encouraged to follow the rest of my days.
My moment of searing clarity came, as so many universal moments do, in the movies. The film was A League of Their Own, the true story of the women's baseball league that entertained Americans during World War II. In one scene, a blond young woman had just made an egregious fielding error. Approaching the dugout after the inning, her manager, played by Tom Hanks, gave her a scathing earful of advice on the merits of hitting the cutoff girl. In an instant, she was reduced to tears. Hanks was stunned. He, a veteran manager and grizzled former major leaguer, had, apparently, never witnessed such an event on a ball field.
"Are you crying?" he inquired, dumbfounded. "There's no crying. There's no crying in baseball!"
No crying in baseball?
Sez who? Tom Hanks? My dad? Mr. Barclay? I want to know. Who fed us this line of propaganda?
Baseball not only brings out, but encourages, the humanity in us. The game is a festival of emotional excess. When so much in life tells us to keep our feelings close to the vest, baseball has always been a signed permission slip to let go of whatever needs releasing. You name it, baseball invites it. Joy, pity, anger, regret, envy, jubilation, despair, euphoria, amazement, hatred, respect, laughter — all these emotions are played out on the field and in the stands, inning after inning, game after game, season after season.
Sometimes when I go back to my hometown, I retrace those ill-fated steps taken on the diamond of my youth. I remember a 10-year-old boy in a baseball uniform. Maybe he wasn't looking for that extra base. Maybe his mind was really on home — the warmth, the safety — and he just couldn't wait to get there. Maybe he just wanted someone to say, "Well done . . . well done, good and faithful Little Leaguer."
I think about him laying there in the dust as I stand at the exact spot some thirty-five years later. I want to reach down and tell him everything will be OK, that one day he will be safe at home, that there will be no more tears, no more embarrassing moments, and I know the way if only he will follow. But the years are a one-way mirror. I can see him, but he cannot communicate with me. So he's going to have to learn his lessons through trials of fire and journeys of joy.
How clearly I see him wiping the dirt from his uniform, preparing for that looooonnngg walk back to the dugout. There is so much life, so much joy, so many tears before him. And despite all the well-intentioned advice and sound training I have received through the years, when I picture him walking back from second base with that affected limp, I cry.
This story is from Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul © 2001 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.
Cover image via Shutterstock