My parents tried everything they could to assist me in being a normal kid. That was more or less a hopeless endeavor but try they did.
For most young boys, participating in sports is the ticket to fitting in and making friends at school. As an only child, I needed to do both…desperately. But there were limits. My Dad forbade me from playing football and with good reason. Why tempt fate by sending a complete klutz on to a football field with bigger, stronger and faster guys? That would be like dropping a bleeding fat kid into a shark tank.
Football wasn’t the only team sport. In the 1960’s, baseball was still in its heyday. Kids traded baseball cards, oiled their mitts and dreamed of seeing their heroes in person at the house that Ruth built. It was a terrific sport because just about anybody could catch a ball or swing a bat. And, best of all, nobody ever got hurt playing baseball. Everybody knew that. That was a classic sports truism. And as with every other truism, it wasn’t true at all.
What Dad failed to realize is how uttering ill-equipped I was for sports…any sport for that matter. Yes, my vision had improved from my Clark Kent/Superman adventure days. My optometrist decided to try something new. He prescribed eye exercises. I was told to watch half of my favorite TV show with an eyepatch over my left eye and then switch the patch to the right eye for the second half of the show. Apparently using the eye patch was the height of innovation in optometry in 1963. And it worked. I was still a short, nerdy looking kid, but my glasses no longer looked like a prop from a Jerry Lewis movie. The left eye improved to twenty-twenty but the right lagged far behind. The brain, being highly adaptive, even inside an accident prone skull, simply ignored the right eye most of the time. The result was little to no depth perception.
You can’t be good at sports without depth perception. In fact, you’re lucky to walk without tripping over your feet. Very lucky. I wasn’t always that lucky. Since I had no brothers or sisters, I needed an activity to keep me out of my mother’s hair. Dad enrolled me in a baseball league.
I was marched off to Little League to take my place in the great tradition of ball, bat and glove. I’m not exactly sure why my father thought that was a good idea. When he was young, I don’t think he ever participated in any kind of sport, including baseball. If he did, he kept those stories to himself. And if the ability to excel at sports is in any way hereditary, he had good reason to do so.
Here’s a clue. When the only position you get to play is deep right field and by some quirk of fate you never, ever, get up to bat…something is definitely up. My teammates rarely spoke to me and often looked the other way when I walked by. They were delighted when I quit the team…and so was I.
That wasn’t the end of my history with the Great American Pastime. A few years later, I learned why they called it hardball. It was a beautiful summer day. My buddy Billy and I were hanging out at my house. Today’s electronic diversions, computers, ipads and cell phones did not exist. We only had one TV and Mom was watching the Yankees play their arch rival, the Red Sox. The game was tied up. She was nervously puffing an L&M cigarette and slugging back black coffee.
That’s when Billy came up with a great idea, “Hey, why don’t we play baseball?”
“Over at my house. I’ve got a bat and ball.”
“Okay, sure.” It sounded good to me. It was only the two of us. With those numbers, I might get a chance at bat.
So, I rummaged through my closet and found my largely unused glove.
“I’m going over to Billy’s,” I said as I headed out the door.
“Okay, good,” Mom replied. There was one on, two out and Mantle was at the plate. There was no talking to her now.
Billy’s house was just up the street from me. Choosing this location for a game of baseball was incredibly idiotic. The lots in our neighborhood were small, and the homes were close together. Billy took the batter’s position in the back yard between the houses. There were windows everywhere. A foul ball guaranteed broken glass.
The window had nothing to worry about.
I threw the first pitch and Billy hit a line drive…straight into my eye…my left eye…the good one. As I remember it, I heard the crack of the bat, raised my glove and saw the ball clear the webbing. Then there was a very loud explosion in my head. I woke up on my back, blinking hard at the sky with Billy standing over me.
“Hey, are you okay?”
I shook the cobwebs out of my head, and we walked back to my house. My mother was a regular at medical offices on my behalf. Years of calamities had hardened her. She didn’t scream, she didn’t faint, she did look me over.
“I got hit in the eye with the ball.”
She looked at the ball in my hand and turned a cold eye to Billy.
“It wasn’t my fault. We were just playing ball and and I…” My mother held up her hand and Billy stopped talking.
She turned back to me, “Can you see out of that eye?”
“Yeah, I’ll be alright.” The eye was closing rapidly from the swelling. I wasn’t going to complain about the pain. Why bother?
“What day is it?”
Mom nodded, walked into the kitchen and returned with a bag of ice cubes. She pointed to my eye and went back to making dinner.
And that’s the ball game!