I remember where I was with an exactitude that only adheres to the lining of a skull if the moment is among those that will pass before our eyes when we close them for the last time. Awareness of our mortality seeps into our bones like water through the faintest cracks in the pavement and we may not even notice until we look away for a time.
This particular time, the one I’m remembering now, I was heading west on Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove, California. I was sitting at a red light at Trask Avenue and I looked to my right. In an elementary school field several Little League teams were practicing. I recognized every single thing they did, every movement. Although I could not hear anything the coaches were saying, I knew every word. I watched them, breathing their air, feeling their new season soreness, wondering their new season thoughts. I could feel the baseball glove resting on my hip and my face trying to look unconcerned with anything at all, imitating a professional baseball player’s blunt affect as they field the ball and swing the bat. I could taste the bubble gum.
I was 29 and nearly as far from playing baseball as I am now from that moment. But even so, as I watched, I had a hard thought, a thought that for no earthly reason should have been difficult at all but for every unearthly reason was. I realized I would never play professional baseball.
My first baseball glove was a hand-me-down, a loaner actually, from my father. It was roughly the same size as my entire upper body but it served me well my first year in Little League. I played right field and could have done my homework out on the field for all the action I saw. Occasionally a ground ball would reach me or a fly ball landed close enough that I was the first one to reach it and pick it up. I would then dutifully, no matter how close he was, throw it to my cut-off, the second baseman.
The best day was the day the aluminum bat pinged out my name and I realized a fly ball was coming my way. It wasn’t going to drop behind the first baseman. It wasn’t going to fly over my head. It was going to come close enough that I could catch it, if I could remember to move my legs. I started running forward with my giant baseball glove outstretched until I reached the tipping point. My forward momentum combined with the weight of the glove and I tipped headlong, my feet leaving the earth and my baseball mitt hitting the ground, just before the baseball did and in the very same spot.
Even before I came out of the somersault that followed, the ball in my glove, I could hear the umpire yell, “Out,” and the crowd went wild, all 23 of them. From the stands, my battle with the laws of physics, something just shy of an outright trip, had looked like a heroic dive, like skill, like athleticism beyond my years. My diving catch became the stuff of legend for a whole week. “Remember when you flew like 5 feet… like 10 feet… like 20 feet, no kidding, to catch that ball?” I remembered. I remember. That was a good day.
I played baseball for a few years, moving from right field to second base where I mostly stayed. I still think of myself as a second baseman. On the rare occasion I am asked to play softball, I play second base. If someone else on the team wants to play second base, the tension is palpable. Something about the age we are when our bodies are taught certain things fools our muscles and bones into believing they will always need to do whatever it is they are doing and they commit it to memory. I still know how to move at second base, where to move and when and why. The tiny, efficient movements that were etched into the joints at my ankles and knees, in my wrists and my hips, remain there, which is different than saying they can still act on the knowledge my limbs swallowed down so long ago. But I am… I am a second baseman.
Between my first and second season as a baseball player, my dad bought me my own baseball glove. I’m going to tell you about this baseball glove because it was the greatest baseball glove that ever lived. My father’s baseball mitt was so big on my hand I could not get my forefinger out of it to avoid the sting of a ball hitting the pocket. So someone suggested I put two fingers in the small finger slot, leaving the forefinger slot empty. This worked great as far as the stinging went, but it left an already floppy mitt even floppier without the extra support of a finger near the web. This was neatly solved with my new and very own baseball glove, the best baseball glove that ever lived, because the glove was entirely closed behind the back of the hand. It didn’t even have a hole where you could your stick your finger out. It didn’t matter because I was sneaking two fingers into the pinky spot.
Which brings me to the first reason why it was the best baseball glove that ever lived. Nobody else could use it. Putting two fingers in the small finger slot was certainly not unheard of but it was rare enough in my neighborhood and my Little League that I never met anyone else who did it. A kid would ask to use my glove, I’d say sure, and he’d have it on for just a few seconds before his forefinger would get claustrophobia and he’d rip the glove off and look at it like it was a torture device. And all the extra leather behind my hand not only made up for any lost support due to the absence of a forefinger, it actually provided extra support against my wrist being bent back.
The second reason my baseball glove was the best baseball glove that ever lived was how my dad and I worked it in during the off season. After finding a baseball mitt that was, apparently, designed just for me, my dad put a baseball into the pocket of the glove, wrapped it up with a long leather shoelace, and dropped it in the bathtub where it soaked. I don’t remember how long it sat underwater but it was at least a day. I don’t remember every detail after we removed it from the water, but it involved alternating between allowing the glove to dry and rubbing it with oil or saddle soap and working it like a bad masseuse. We oiled and oiled and oiled that mitt. What I do remember is showing up for tryouts and there were a lot of new baseball mitts sitting wide open like bowls on the benches. My glove closed flat when I put it down on a bench. It looked new and acted old, which suited me just fine.
I think it was that glove that got me to second base because if I got anywhere near the ball it was going in my glove almost every time. I loved playing second base. I loved taking the field. I loved the moment the ball left the pitcher’s hand and anything, anything at all, could happen and I loved feeling ready for anything to happen. I loved the feeling, a fraction of a second after the bat made contact with the ball, of my body acting without thinking, just moving in the right direction, to the right spot on the chessboard field, my mind catching up like a rubber band snapping back, wherever I arrived.
But I couldn’t hit, could never get the hang of standing there while someone threw something at me. And the older you get the harder they throw. No matter how well I played, or imagined I played, second base I couldn’t pile up enough walks to make a contribution on offense. I did well enough in a batting cage no matter how fast the balls were coming but it was the human element I couldn’t handle. Somewhere out there was a pitcher with a ball that had my name on it and that ball was going to kill me.
The chaff. The wheat.
I couldn’t hit and I also didn’t know how to turn my love of the game from the field into being a fan. I’m not much of a consumer of professional sports and in most cases I can explain why except for baseball. I don’t have a good excuse. But I have my guess.
A friend of mine calls attending a live Red Sox game, “going to church.” In this, he is very religious. I was fortunate enough to attend church with him once, in Boston, the holiest of cathedrals. It was in this place that my suspicions were confirmed, a place where by the simple and pure alchemy of being surrounded by love for the team one can spontaneously combust into being a fan.
I was enjoying the atmosphere and the company but I was keenly aware of what was happening on the field. Over and over again, the ball would leave the pitcher’s hand and I would feel a small spark of counterfeit excitement, a morsel set apart for the observer. At the sound of the ball on the bat, my body wouldn’t move, although there was a small rebel muscle far away in the arches of my feet that twitched so very slightly to remind me that not everything fades, not until everything does.
Those Little Leaguers I watched on a field at the corner of Brookhurst and Trask have all had their own red light realization by now and even if one or two of them got to play professional baseball, odds are they no longer do. Inside the odd arithmetic of aging they are only fifteen years behind me now, as they were then, but somehow not. We have so much more in common now than we did then, know so many more of the same things.
The end of our life visits the middles of our life. It comes quietly and empties a pause with its quiet and quiet is what it leaves behind. I think it could be sour if I let it be, or overwhelmed and flushed away if no more than a drop of regret is applied, or anger or fear. But what I think, what I want to believe about the many times I have suddenly, without any of the common protections including danger, understood that my life will end is that I should not disturb those times. Do not disturb them. And that, maybe, is one reason I don’t really talk baseball.