Diamond Scars

1.

In 1999, the person I’d just started dating (I married her two years later) commented in an e-mail that every time she read the Stephen King essay about baseball (published in The New Yorker and his collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes), she knew what it felt like to be one of those little leaguers, even though she (at the time) knew little of baseball and less of little league.

I was struck immediately: It’s not how I felt in little league. As evocative as the piece is, I didn’t think it captured what it felt like for most of us — the boys who filled the bottom of the batting order, the ones relegated to the outfield. This is understandable, though; King’s essay is about an all-star team on a quest to make it to the Little League World Series. I never played on one of those teams. I played for Landmark, a team that was at best mediocre and often very bad. We lost to Houston Plumbing, in its garish maroon and gold uniforms, 48-1 in one of my farm seasons. Mike Shannon scored the only run for my team. He was walked in.

I played baseball for five years, at North Newark Little League in Newark (“Nerk”), Ohio (“Ahia”). Three years farm, two years varsity. Several years I attended Tom Venditelli’s All-Star Baseball Camp in nearby Granville. Gene Woodling was the star attraction on the hitting side; Jim O’Toole was the pitching star. (Both were one-time All-Stars.) One year I remember learning to bunt properly, and I left camp to play a game. I was given the sign to bunt. I squared. The pitch went off my hand. Strike.

I remember, vaguely, my tryout at North Newark. I remember fouling off a few pitches. I remember fielding a few grounders fairly well. I was eight years old.

But two memories dominate: the specific game in which I got two or three hits and a few RBI off Rodney Conant, and the intense fear and dread I felt every time I stepped to the plate. I’m pretty sure I was among the league leaders in at-bats during which I never swung at a pitch.

The intensity of these memories — even if the details are cloudy, the emotions and visual pictures are vivid and close — suggested to me that Little League was key to my life. It might well have been crucial to the development of anxieties I still have, and at the very least it was their first clear manifestation. And, not to be too negative, the joy of hitting Rodney Conant — a big boy, compared to me — represented my first triumph over expectations. To this day, my greatest satisfaction comes from doing something I thought was beyond me.

2.

On my 15th birthday, in 1986, Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners in a nine-inning game, a record. I didn’t watch the game; I didn’t hear the game; I didn’t see the feat in the paper the next morning.

I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated in a doctor’s office a few weeks later. I read the story, saw the date, and made the connection. I can’t say if the full bond was immediate, but then and there it began.

By the fall of 1986, I was a Red Sox fan. I didn’t have the history: I had never heard of the Curse of the Bambino, didn’t know of the heartbreaks of many near-miss seasons. I had The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, and I had the Apple IIe computer game Strategic Baseball, through which I came to adore the 1962 Giants. But the Red Sox became my love.

In the American League Championship Series that year, the California Angels had a three-games-to-one lead and took a 5-2 lead into the ninth inning of game five. The Red Sox rallied for two runs, and with two outs, Dave Henderson came to the plate with a man on. His homer was the difference in the game, and Boston handily won games six and seven to advance to the World Series against the Mets.

That triumph, of course, didn’t last. It was past midnight, October 25 became October 26, and I was pounding the footstool of my father’s leather chair. The infamous grounder went through Bill Buckner’s legs. The Mets won game six to even the World Series.

I watched Game Seven, or some of it at least. I wasn’t alone in skipping out early. As Dan Riley writes in the epilogue to The Red Sox Reader, “I just didn’t have the emotional stamina to do it.” Implicit: The series was already lost. And even I — no history, no heartbreak, too young — knew it. Somehow.

“Trash Can” Boyd — as my father and I called him, instead of the proper nickname “Oil Can” — pitched for Boston in game seven. Did the label — obvious, but surely adopted by many Sox fans who had no confidence in the erratic pitcher — doom him?

3.

In the summer of 1986, while taking phys. ed. in summer school to avoid having to take it during my sophomore year of high school, we played slow-pitch softball. One or two games, probably, at the high-school baseball field.

In my first at-bat, I struck out swinging, which is pretty embarrassing in slow-pitch softball. In my second at bat, I hit a home run, a pull over the leftfield fence, a shot that in another time would have sailed over my head.

I’d never claim that it exorcised the ghosts of Little League, but, even being cautious, it was my crowning moment as a non-athlete. Truer still, it was probably the first time I felt genuine pride in the healthy sense — that great fuck-you to everybody who doubted me.

In subsequent summers, I umpired at North Newark. In the field (during both varsity and farm games), I never felt comfortable. For some reason, I always feared screwing up the force-out call, that split second when the umpire must watch the ball go into the glove while seeing when the foot hits the bag. I dreaded even the easy calls. I was never even sure where I should be positioned.

Behind the plate (farm games only), I was more comfortable. There was, of course, the anonymity the mask afforded. And the coaches weren’t so harsh in farm. The kids, too, were more innocent, many forced into this rite of passage. Scared.

And as the man behind the catcher, wearing a facemask and a chest protector, I had no problem punching them out on strike three, although I never found a convincing, authoritative, or distinctive strikeout routine.

4.

On September 7, 1998 — my dead father’s birthday — I visited Fenway Park for the first time. On that day, Mark McGwire hit his 61st home run to tie Roger Maris’ longstanding single-season record. My mother fretted — often and out loud — that rain would postpone the game, and the real reason of our New England vacation would not happen.

It was a three-game series with the first-place Yankees, with the Red Sox well out of contention for the division title and comfortably leading the wild-card race, but stumbling after a bad series with Toronto. It was Labor Day.

Our tickets were in the right-field bleachers, among thousands of Yankee fans chanting “Red Sox suck!” as New York built a 3-0 lead. In the bottom of the seventh, the Red Sox scored three to tie the game against David Wells. In the bottom of the eighth, John Valentin hit a controversial home run to center to give the BoSox the 4-3 lead. I stood when the ball left the bat, and we all watched the kid in the stands snatch a ball that might have otherwise bounced off the wall. My mother had a big smile on her face, looking at me, not because of the result, but because I was happy. Tom Gordon pitched a perfect ninth with two strikeouts for the save. The New Yorkers were subdued on subway ride home, drowned out by a chant: “Yankeess suck! Yankees suck!”

Boston lost the final two games of the series, and lost to Cleveland in the playoffs. I caught the tail end of the third game at a bar, on a gloomy Friday evening, and fell asleep during the final game on my girlfriend’s bed.

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