Baseball Illusions

By Schyler at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13465049

By Schyler at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13465049

I suppose you’ll be surprised at this, Father. Surprised in several ways, actually. I can picture you now, sitting at the table with your black coffee and your Red Sox game on the radio occupying its pedestal atop the shelf above the sink, so you can hear the game when you work in the yard. In front of you lies the sports section, while the rest of the paper remains neatly folded up, the rubber band rewrapped around it. Or the latest Baseball Digest. Or the latest Sports Illustrated, opened to the Major League Baseball section.

Well this story is about baseball too, Father, so I’m sure you’ll have no trouble reading it. But this story is also about you, Father, and me – you, me, and baseball.
My memories read like a list on ESPN’s late late late-night programs, the ones that only insomniacs and baseball nuts like me watch at 4 a.m.; Lou’s Five Greatest Societal Events since 1982 (the year I was born) features Nolan Ryan’s incredible 7th no-hitter in 1991, starring Nolan Ryan and a bunch of hapless Toronto Blue Jay hitters. Ryan walked two hitters and struck out sixteen. The rest are, in order:
2. The Giants’ 1989 pennant race
3. The baseball strike of 1994
4. Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak of playing in 2,130 straight games
5. Mark McGuire not only breaking Gehrig’s home run record, but shattering it with 70 homers.

Here’s another list you’ll like – Lou’s Top Five Greatest Achievements:
1. Getting a baseball scholarship to University of Southern California, one of college baseball’s meccas.
2. Getting selected First Team all-league for four straight years in high school.
3. Making the varsity team as a freshman
4. Striking out 18 batters in one game
5. Hitting over .400 my senior year

These lists are all embedded in my head like separate still-frame pictures, unlike the connected memory most have. It’s as if they were taken by a flash-timed camera – only there are years in between these photos instead of milliseconds. That has been my life up to this point: a handful of baseball photos looking more like they belong in Sports Illustrated rather than in someone’s head.

Here’s another list, Father, one whose elements are familiar but the category might surprise you. Here’s Lou’s Top Five Biggest Mistakes, arranged chronologically, not by damage it has had on my life:
1. Playing catch with you in the backyard as a kid
2. My first baseball game
3. February 24, 1994
4. The first game of my 1999 baseball season
5. Hitting at the batting cage with you

Maybe the title isn’t that surprising to you. I bet you remember every one of these memories; and I bet you remember them as mistakes. I bet you remember exactly how I first threw the ball wrong, before you instructed me on the proper four-seam grip, the proper arm angle, the proper drive with your lower body, making sure you bend your back in the follow-through.

I know you remember my first baseball game. Walking however many I did before the coach took me out, the tears of disappointment and failure. And February 24th you have to remember. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of you in your business suit, whacking groundball after goundball for me to slog after. The last two years of my high school baseball career I bet you remember well, the list of errors – both mental and physical – that you would post in the dining room so I could stare at it every meal and not forget.
Oh yes, you remember all of these memories. However there’s a slight discrepency between our memories, a solitary piece missing from the puzzle: I don’t remember these as my mistakes. I remember them as yours.

1. Playing catch with you in the backyard as a kid
I don’t remember exactly the first time it happened, I was young – so young – but at first it was a voluntary thing. Although was it really though? I wonder. It was the first time you ever offered to do something, anything, with me, so I couldn’t even consider saying no. It’s as if I were some sort of forgotten fruit that you had just noticed had turned ripe – suddenly it was every day, the same ritual: you would come home from work around three, and the slam of the door would cause me to sit up straight in anticipation in front of the television, where I would plop myself every afternoon around 2:45.

It’s as if that door slam, every day, would instantly hone my senses razor-sharp; I could hear your boots echo off the linoleum of our kitchen floor, and you would throw the mail on the table, sometimes pausing if you received anything interesting – the new issue of Beckett or Baseball Weekly for example. Then the boots would continue their journey, over to the refrigerator, where you would grab your long neck Budweiser. Then through the living room, past me without a word, while I played my part in the game and pretended to be absorbed by the television. Up the stairs tramped the boots, then after awhile you would bound down the stairs, your glove and my glove in hand. “Hey sport, how ’bout a little catch?” It’s funny how innocuously the question was phrased – it wasn’t until months later that I noticed every time you asked you were already dressed in your practice clothes, with your cleats already on and a couple of baseballs always in hand.

Unlike every other father/son game of catch, ours began with 15 minutes of stretching, followed by tedious throwing drills. I actually wasn’t even allowed to throw the ball the first few sessions – they were spent watching you with eyes as large as baseballs as you expounded on the pros and cons of the two-seam grip versus the four-seam grip, the kinematics of a pitcher’s body necessary to get all his weight behind each pitch, and the basic concepts behind gravity, momentum, and angular and rotational velocity, all the while my mind stumbling just trying to grasp the names of these otherworldly concepts.

Then I finally was allowed to throw the ball. However it was not a significant relief for me, since before every throw I’d have to focus on:

  • Pointing the shoulder to the target (C’mon Lou, it’s the most basic thing to throwing)
  • Picking up my left knee smoothly and parallel to my right leg (Stay balanced! How you gonna pitch falling over like that?)
  • Pushing off hard with my right foot (Don’t just step forward! Drive with your leg like you mean it!)
  • Dropping down my right arm (Lou, you throw like a damn girl. Drop down your arm to gain more arm action and speed on your throw)
  • Placing my foot properly (Whaddya doing!? Trying to hit our house? For chrissakes, point your foot toward me when you land)
  • Pivoting my hips and whipping my arm around to throw the ball (Jesus, Lou! C’mon sport, snap your wrist instead of stiff-arming it like that)
  • Bending my back and swinging my leg around during my follow-through (Whaddya, think you’re a model or something, posing like that? Bend your damn back!

And if somehow I managed to do all these correctly (it wasn’t often at first),
along with the ball I’d receive a grudging compliment thrown back to me. I don’t think there ever was a game of catch in the history of baseball more analyzed than ours. In retrospect, it seemed like some sort of weird permutation of Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment; only for his dogs it was ring the bell ding!, salivate, get food – for me it was catch the ball ding!, throw the ball back correctly, get my father’s affection.

2. My first baseball game
Finally. The culmination of all those hours of work in the backyard until my arm was so tired I could barely lift it. I didn’t sleep for a week before the game, not in nervous anticipation, but in nervous fear of forgetting to bend my back. Or snap my wrist. Or use the proper grip. Or place my foot properly. Or pivot my hips.

Gameday, and my heart is hammering in my chest so loudly I can feel every heartbeat. My hands are sweaty and I gulp nervously – yet I stand up straight, as tall as I can on the mound, and armed with the confidence gained from countless hours of practice, visions of the baseball gods dance in my head – then meld seamlessly into my arm. Nolan Ryan’s knee-buckling curve, Roger Clemen’s blazing fastball, Orel Hershiser’s pinpoint control – I possessed control of all of them, along with a rudimentary knowledge of the finer aspects of the mental part of pitching, garnered from soaking up every word from the broadcasters in every televised baseball game I could possibly watch. Sages such as Harry Caray and Ted Robinson imparted to my eager young mind the countless strategies of how to psychologically dominate your opponents.

The first batter stepped in the batter’s box. Suddenly everything seemed to come into focus, and my mind checked off the long list of mechanics and mental tactics necessary to think of before every pitch. There was probably no other seven-year-old on earth more prepared than I was.

I immediately gave the batter my game-face stare, which I had been practicing in the mirror for weeks. I set my mouth in a permanent sneer, a lá Hershiser’s intense stare, then bugged my eyes like Eckersley. I could see the look of confusion on the batter’s face, and misinterpreting that for the fear I was looking for, I quickly pitched the ball. However, as I was concentrating on maintaining my highly effective, intimidating game-face, my first pitch bounced 10 feet in front of home plate.

Hmm, I thought. Not exactly what you were shooting for, was it? But that’s okay, I consoled myself. Now he thinks you’re wild, that’s another psychological trick, he’ll be scared you’re going to hit him. Now’s the time to bust him inside, he’ll either be too surprised to swing or he’ll get jammed and hit a weak ground ball.

My move figured out, I wound up and rocketed an inside heater toward the plate – then watched as it sailed above the batter and catcher to the backstop. Okay, I thought. I don’t remember Roger Clemens’ fastball doing that.I then tried to nip the corner of the plate with my wicked cut fastball. Oops, just a little high. Then my tantalizing four-seamer. Shoot, got away from me. My devilish curve. Dang it. Nothing.

With my first four pitches nowhere near the plate, I figured the other hitters would be plenty intimidated now – having been presented with the deadly combination of my scowl and my wildness. However they seemed unable to realize they were supposed to be scared of me, and the next hitter coolly watched four more pitches sail past, nowhere near the strike zone. Not understanding where I went wrong, I tried readjusting my scowl, figuring that was the problem.

It soon became apparent that wasn’t the problem. I tried to work the corners like Hershiser. I tried blowing them away with my stuff like Ryan. I even walked off the mound and subtly worked some saliva on the ball to try the spitter, like Stan Coveleski did back in the early 1900s. Nothing. Finally coach yanked me, and as I walked off the mound toward the dugout, I looked at you in the stands and saw a pained and tearful expression on your face.I was more confused than sad, and as my bewildered blue eyes met your soulfully sorry brown ones, our apparent role reversals served only to confuse me even more.

3. February 24, 1996

What’s so special about February 24, 1996? It’s right in the middle of the doldrums of the baseball world – past the off-season when the dreams of the upcoming season are as thick as a Louisville Slugger, but far enough away from the start of the regular season where the players despair of ever making it out of spring training.

What was I thinking? I don’t know. I have several guesses, but I still remember the feeling I had at that time; a sort of surreal awareness, as if I were looking at myself from the stands, along with the indisputable knowledge that I wasn’t supposed to do anything.

My favorite theory is that it was my subconscious wanting me to fail, since before you had never allowed me to fail. How’s that for irony? All the work you put into making me a winner caused the desire, no the need, for me to lose.

The scene: a completely meaningless Little League scrimmage game  (yes, I can hear you saying, “No game is meaningless”), me on the mound with a 1-0 lead. Chris Toller came to bat and I hit him, because I didn’t like facing him and I was pretty sure I could get Jake Kline, who hit after Chris, to ground into a double play. (My use of psychological tactics had progressed as my arm developed enough to actually throw a fastball and off-speed pitches.)

However, Jake managed to draw a walk off me. I could practically feel you tense up in the stands, two rows up on the right side, where you always sat. How did you do it? I never understood, but it was as if we had some sort of connection, a bond in which I could feel your displeasure seep out of you and crawl against my skin. I began to get nervous.

Several wild pitches later, the bases were full and Steve Crest stood between me and the end of the game. After every pitch I threw a pleading glance your way, yet your countenance just grew darker and darker. After the first ball, you took several menacing steps toward the fence and I swear to god I thought you were going to run out onto the field after me. I even backed several steps off the mound.

I always wondered what was going through your head at that point. Was it 1: Rage, 2: Disbelief, or 3: Fear? At that point I was pretty sure it was option one, and to say the least it distracted me quite a bit. Steve Crest watched three more balls zip past him nowhere near the strike zone and Chris Toller trotted home to tie the score.

By then you were right up against the fence, clutching the chain links with white-knuckled fists. I knew I shouldn’t look at you, that you were just distracting me, but I couldn’t help it. The horrible pull in my neck, the itch in my brain to look was like the feeling you get driving by a car accident. You instructively slow down to see what happened, even though the smashed glass and dented, mangled car tells you that you’re pretty sure you don’t want to know.

Many major-league pitchers talk about tunnel vision – a visual technique they use to envision a tunnel leading to wherever they want to throw the ball. Some pitchers focus so hard they can see the actual details of the tunnel, whether it’s made of brick or not, that sort of thing. Well it felt as if YOU were using tunnel vision on me, focusing on my weaknesses and how to eradicate them before the next game.

Just one more out, my mind pleaded with my arm. Flinching under your penetrating gaze, I wound up and blindly threw the ball toward the plate, just wanting this game to be over, one way or another. The batter swung and dribbled a grounder right at me. Reflexively, I snapped it up then stood still. Time, myself, the world, the universe seemed to suddenly click into slow motion. I saw Jake heading for home plate, his arms and legs sluggishly churning. I saw the batter creep toward first base, his cleats kicking up clumps of dirt with every step. I saw all the parents in the stands, yelling at me, their faces contorted with emotion. I saw you, standing still at the fence, your brown eyes recording my every move. Then I looked back and saw the winning run score right in front of me.

What caused me to do this? It’s hard to explain, Father. When I picked up that ball I felt something holding me back, some sort of morbid curiosity. What would happen if I lost this game? I thought. How far will the depths of my father’s anger reach? There was some part of me, a spark buried under the cold, impassive layers of conditioning which screamed at me to throw the ball, some part which patiently explained to the rest of me that there was another option.

For the first time in my life I took that option, and I purposefully avoided your gaze as I walked off the field and then trudged to the locker room with the rest of the team. I was about halfway toward the comforting safety of the changing room when I felt your heavy hand with its iron grip fall on my shoulder, and you spun me around to face your infuriated eyes.“You don’t change yet,” you hissed through clenched teeth. I could see the vein popping out of the side of your neck. “We have some drills to do.”

Back to the field we went, and you hit me ground ball after ground ball after ground ball. After the first hour it began to rain; large, cold, wet drops that chilled to the bone. You simply rolled up the pantlegs on your suit and kept whacking away. I slogged my way through the soupy field, often getting mud in my mouth after diving for particularly difficult ground balls; after two hours the ground balls and the rain showed no signs of abating — both kept coming at me in torrents. At some point past three hours I finally became the machine you wanted me to be — I stumbled lifelessly through the routine: run to the ball, grab it, heave it towards the net set up at first base. The only evidence of life was my tears, which mixed with the rain running down my face and fell unnoticed to the absorbing ground.

4. The first game of my 1999 baseball season

My 1999 baseball season began exactly like the previous years: New Year’s day, in the week between the end of winter league and the beginning of conditioning for my school team, you gave me the same annual “Go get ’em” speech you give every year, the only difference being the year (This is 1999, Lou), my age (You’re 17 years old now), and what I need to work on (You need to have a breakout year Lou, this is the year you need to make scouts notice you). This year was different in another way though, a way that you never knew. This was the year I almost quit baseball.

It wasn’t the grueling two-a-days during conditioning, in which the team met at six in the morning in the gym for calisthenics and to run suicides, then went to class and met again at the track after school for endurance training before weight lifting. It wasn’t the hours of video analysis with you in the darkened living room as you broke down, step by step, my batting and pitching mechanics. It wasn’t the verbal lashing you gave me after discovering I had tried out for the school band.

It all began during the first game of the season. Or actually, after the first game of the season. I had just struck out 12 hitters, gone three-for-four, and scored all of my teams’ runs. The season was brand new and had limitless possibilities, and after accepting the handshakes, high fives, and praise from my teammates and coach, all I received from you was a gruff “Your changeup needs a little work”. That’s it. Three months of conditioning, weight lifting and practice, and those were the six words I received from the person who it was all for.

That night, after a silent car ride home, you introduced the list. THE list. The list. The square piece of butcher paper that I grew to despise over the next two years. That night it greeted me as I sat down in my usual spot to eat dinner. “What the hell is that?” I asked.

“That,” you said, with a long drawn-out pause that I could tell you enjoyed, “is so you don’t forget.”  On the paper, in big red letters, was “IMPROVE CHANGEUP”.

I hated that list. I used to block it out with a wall of rage, as I sat there chewing my food right next to you. I would envision a swirling, angry red mist, mold it into a blood-red brick, and slowly build a wall until I couldn’t see the list anymore. That’s all I would do during dinner: sit there, chew my food, and build my wall. You sat two feet away from me yet I don’t remember us hardly ever exchanging words during dinner. You could have been building your own wall for all I knew. The list steadily grew longer as the season progressed – after every game there was at least one thing you added to the list. Often it was two or three things.

Once I questioned the list. It was after a particularly bad game (I only struck out 7 hitters) and you carefully wrote five things on the list, evenly spacing each one and making sure they were parallel to each other. “Dad why do you have to do that?” I asked. “I know I fucked up, I know where I went wrong. You don’t have to put it up there for the world to see.”

You glanced over at me. “Lou,” you said, with great deliberation and emphasis, and with that solitary word I instantly regretted asking and knew what was coming. “Lou,” you said again. “Look at yourself. You’re a two-time First Team selection. You led the league in ERA and strikeouts as a freshman. You have played on state championship Little League teams. You…”

“I know, dad” I said, cutting you off in mid-breath. “So doesn’t that mean you can give me a break on a couple of these?” You sucked in the rest of the breath I had cut off, and seemed to grow bigger as your chest expanded to accommodate the extra air in the lungs. “How the fuck do you think you got as far as you have!” You yelled, thrusting your head a few inches from mine. “Because of me! Because of the hard work I’ve put into you! You’d be nothing if it weren’t for me!”

I opened my mouth. I was ready to tell you, ready to tell you everything; that I hated baseball, that I was miserable, that I wanted nothing more than to get out of this stupid sport. But I couldn’t. I stood there with my mouth open and tried to imagine myself without baseball in my life. Baseball was a part of me, it defined me, as well as you, and our relationship with each other. If I lost baseball, I’d lose all three.

5. Hitting at the batting cage with you

Senior year was the year I began this letter to you. Senior year was when I opened my eyes, and looked past the façade you wrapped yourself around with. It was the first time I looked at you critically, instead of myself. New Year’s Day rolled around again, and for once I actually listened closely to your yearly speech: “This is the year 2000, Lou. It’s time to shape up and play up to your full potential.”

Shape up? My three all-league selections not good enough for you? What is my “full potential” according to you? Perfection?

“I’m tired of being disappointed by you. You’re 18 years old, you should be old enough to motivate yourself but I keep on having to do all the work for you.”

Well, dad, I’m so very, very tired of disappointing you. But what about all the times you’ve disappointed me? What about all the pain you’ve caused me? You’ve been doing all the work, huh? Is it you who spends seven hours a day on the field? Do you go through the rigorous conditioning – the weight lifting, the endless sprints until you puke, the calisthenics, the endurance training?

“I’m not going to let you fail. A great season this year can land you a full ride into college, maybe even a pro contract out of high school. Don’t screw things up okay?”

How can I fail or screw things up if ‘you’re the one doing all the work’? Wouldn’t that make YOU the failure?

You were true to your word, and you worked me twice as hard that year, as if trying to break me down as much as possible before I went away to college. One day, when coach gave the team the day off, you came home and found me asleep on the sofa. You prodded me awake, and before I had completely shaken the grogginess of sleep from my eyes, we were in the car, headed toward school.

After a two-mile run, we went to the batting cages and I hit. And hit. And hit. And hit. After awhile blisters started forming on my hands. Still, I kept hitting. Every hit sent little earthquakes of pain vibrating down the bat barrel into the angry red ball of pain my palms had become. Eventually the blisters broke and started bleeding, making it hard for me to hold the bat. Finally I couldn’t take the pain any more and I threw the bat down. I sucked on my stinging palms and eyed you between the bridge of my thumb and pointer finger.

You were breathing hard yourself, and your shoulder had to have hurt after throwing three hours of batting practice.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“No.”
“But dad, I can’t hit anymore, my palms…”
“Get back in the box.”
“Dad…”
“Get back in the box now.”

I took a deep breath. My instinct pulled me back towards the batter’s box while my brain worked overtime to prove to me I had the option to not do it. Why do you want me to continue when my hands are bleeding? I thought resentfully. What possible logic could explain your insistence to continue despite my obvious incapability? Why are you transferring your hatred onto me?

All these thoughts rampaged through my head. I was confused – was this some sort of test? All I wanted was for you to stop hating me, to be proud of me for just once. Just tell him off!! My mind screamed. Tell him you need to go home and get your hands bandaged, that you can’t hit anymore, that he’s an idiot who’s obviously wrong!!

I stood there motionless for a minute while those words reverberated in my head. Do you know how long a minute is when you’re not doing anything? It seems like forever, as the seconds tick away slowly in your head, only to disappear in the vast depths of your mind.

Finally, I broke. I walked back and picked up the bat with my stinging hands, mainly because I knew you thought I wouldn’t do it. I held the bat gingerly, rotating it so it didn’t chafe against the raw parts of my hands. I swung half-heartedly at the first few, trying to keep from wincing during contact, although small, involuntary whimpers would occasionally escape me.
“Stop swinging like a girl.”

I saw the swirling red mist take over my vision, and I growled away the painful price it cost to clench the bat and whacked away as hard as I could at the next three. You threw five more for good measure, then gave me the sign to pack it up. The car ride home was even more silent then our usual car rides, and I sat with my hands wrapped in a towel and stared out the window watching the streets whiz by. I wondered if you even knew that it was my birthday.
Well, there it is, Father. All laid out for you. Did you have any idea at all? Were you completely oblivious, or was there some inkling – a little nibble in the corner of your brain whispering maybe it wasn’t supposed to be like this. All I ever wanted to do was to make you happy, to earn the ultimate goal, worth more than any trophy or award: your respect. Your support. Your love. Hell, just one lousy compliment would’ve been nice.

But instead you used me. You rode my desire for your affection for 18 years, you conditioned me to throw, to catch; to obey like any master would teach his dog. Your efforts in making me a baseball star were self-centered. You weren’t involving yourself in my baseball career, you were trying to make up for your own lack of one.

I don’t really know why I’m telling you all this. You know what you’ve done. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re still oblivious, still lost in your own world in which you are sacrificing everything for your son. I would’ve liked to have lived in that world with you Father, but I was stuck in the real world, in which there exists more than just baseball.

But you see, in a way you did succeed. You spent my entire life trying to make baseball the most important thing in my life, and for 18 years it was. However, to be completely accurate, my life didn’t revolve around baseball, it revolved around you. I only played for you, Father, and without you baseball meant nothing to me, as I quickly learned in college. Yet it was also the catalyst for the discovery of myself.

I quit USC’s baseball team last week. You had your 18 years, Father. The rest are mine.

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