A short piece of non-fiction.
My brother and I ditched day camp the afternoon we were supposed to be playing “fast-pitch” baseball with the rest of the kids in our age group. I was nine and he was eleven and we were both afraid of being killed by a wayward pitch. The source of our fear came from a story about a boy who suffered a fatal injury when he was struck in the chest with a baseball during a little league game. Having never handled a baseball before, my brother and I had no idea how dangerous it really was, but we weren’t taking any chances. For all we knew, it could explode if it came in contact with the bat at the wrong angle, reducing us to armless, legless trunks that could neither see nor hear but only scream in agony for the remainder of our long lives.
We spent the day in the clubhouse our father built for us. Considering all the exposed, rusty nails that poked out at aggressive angles, it was probably more dangerous than standing at home plate with a helmet and a bat and facing a near-sighted twelve year old on the mound.
When my brother was too old for day camp and I had to go by myself, I was forced to play. I was picked last. In fact, they stopped picking when I was the only one left to be chosen. The team captains were flipping a quarter to see who would be first to bat when I was somehow absorbed. I just followed the team onto the field. I would have stayed in the outfield for both teams if I could. I didn’t want to have that ball thrown at me.
At the bottom of the first inning, the team I had joined started walking towards home plate. I tried to stay out among the dandelions, but I was noticed and called in. I prayed that we would get three outs before my turn at bat. We didn’t and I was handed a bat and a helmet and shown to the plate.
My strategy was to swing at the first three pitches and strike out. The first two went according to plan. I heard “whiffer” muttered behind me, but I didn’t care. I would live to ditch another day. The third pitch was different. It was fast and straight and I caught it somehow and sent it up in a high arch into right field. I held onto the bat after I hit the ball, but I let it go when I realized I had accomplished something amazing. I let it go too early and the bat connected with the head of one of my teammates. I didn’t realize it until my fly ball had been caught and I was walking back to the dugout.
We didn’t finish that game. The kid I brained had a name—something like Mike Manil. In my memory he lives as Mike Manhole, the kid I brained. He had a crew cut, beady eyes and a pointy nose. He looked like a mole. I could almost see him with two little hands protruding from the sides of his neck to help him burrow. He was a lot bigger than me. I thought it would be my turn to get brained when we got back to the locker room. Either I hit the right spot of his skull and erased the memory of my assault, or he knew it was only an accident because he didn’t kill me. I have no memory of him even looking at me.
Afterwards, I didn’t run to my father and demand that he teach me how to play baseball. I didn’t know if he even knew what a baseball was or how to throw one. The only sport he seemed interested in was “Watch me hide in the garage.” It was a one player sport and the only way he could win was if he spent every free minute of every weekend in the garage working on someone’s car for no charge. It was a time-consuming sport and he was a dedicated participant. However, he was allowed some time in the house, usually during the winter, but there was one condition: he couldn’t speak to his wife or kids unless it was to ask for iced tea (he drank it all year round).
Usually when he was inside drinking iced tea, he was smoking and watching professional wrestling. I would sit on the floor next to his chair, free to breathe in as much second-hand smoke as I wanted. My eyes would water out of my face as they absorbed floating tar and nicotine and Nature Boy Ric Flair cutting his forehead open between commercials for Empire Carpet and Harry Schmerler, my singing Ford dealer.
Being an avid player, my father would not acknowledge my presence no matter how much he wanted to break the rule of his game. By watching television with my quiet Dad and braving emphesema, I learned a lot about Hulk Hogan and Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Road Warriors and while they threw a lot of things—chairs, megaphones, each other—they never threw a baseball. I would have to learn some other way.
When I was twelve, my Uncle Tommy took me to my first baseball game at Comiskey Park. We arrived early, while the players were practicing, because another uncle of mine was working security. Tommy set me up with a pen and a baseball and put me on the field next to the Sox dugout. I was standing on the same ground as these accomplished athletes and no one was telling me to get lost. No one was telling me I didn’t belong there. I stayed where I was placed not knowing any of these local heroes; not knowing what name to yell for an autograph. I stood there until the players were called off the field. I returned to my uncle with a clean ball.
The easy task of “fan” being lost on me, I decided to leave baseball alone. Just to be safe I ignored football, basketball, soccer, hockey, tennis, rugby, and track. I turned my back on these sports and all their fans and players and rules. I didn’t expect the cure to be worse than the disease. I didn’t forsee the hardships waiting for me; the alienation from my male peers, the disapproval of adult men for my alternative lifestyle, the confusion I saw on the faces of guys when I told them I didn’t follow the Sox or Cubs or Bulls or Bears. They wondered what kind of boy I was.
“You don’t watch baseball or football? What’s wrong with you? Do you play with dolls or something?” I’d get this a lot.
My response would flow something like: “I just don’t enjoy watching large men in tight pants bend over and pass balls between their legs to other men and then watch yet more men try to hug the guy with the ball and drag him down to the ground and lay on top of him.”
I had variations of this reply for all the sports I was badgered about. They didn’t like my answer, usually. And after answering the same question once for every guy I met, I didn’t get asked and I was allowed to drift further away from the jocks. They were happy to let me go.
When I was eighteen, my father talked to me long enough to let me know I could have a job working with him on South Water Market. It was a physically demanding job dominated by stupid men. I knew everything there was to know, so going to college would have been a waste of time. I told him I would take the job and he asked me to pour him a glass of iced tea.
A new group of men would have to hear about my athletic indifference. I reminded myself that I was there to make money, not friends and got ready for the quizzical looks. I got lucky. Since my brother had been working there for two years, they already knew we weren’t a sports family and I didn’t have to explain anything. The paychecks rolled in.
It didn’t take long before I made friends with a man who had three wives and five kids. His name was Lou. Lou played racquetball and he asked me one day if I’d like to give it a try. He had an extra racquet and plenty of patience. At first I refused, but after a while I changed my mind and I surprised him by going. I fell around like a deer on ice. I threw my arm behind the racquet and slammed my body into the walls and took hits to the legs and head because I was too slow getting out of the way. I played with Louie, Mike and Harry, and they each knew where the ball was going before it got there. They knew how to get ahead of the ball and bury it where it couldn’t be recovered. I had no idea what I was doing. I ran and stumbled and wore their patience thin.
I kept going. I think it was in part because no one expected me to follow racquetball like they did with baseball or football. There were no teams or heroes for me to fail. No one was watching except Louie, Mike and Harry, and those were the safest six eyes. I played because they let me play. They let me learn. And they taught me their tricks. Racquetball was mine and that is why I kept it.
I’ve been playing for ten years now. Louie left his fourth wife, went on disability and doesn’t play anymore. Harry got married for the first time at the tender age of forty-one, bought a house and doesn’t play anymore. Mike keeps coming. We play twice a week at 105th and Central Ave. I can beat him and he can beat me and racquetball is still mine. It’s a fast game and getting hit anywhere other than the back of the head hurts like hell. It’s a small game that no one watches. It’s a game that let me sneak by and didn’t kick me out before I could get good.