Maybe the beginnings of things are forgotten because there’s so much that comes after. My tooth was chipped in first grade when I accidentally walked into a guard rail, but this only happened because at the beginning I wasn’t paying attention. The not-paying-attention part of it is something I have forgotten and something that many people never knew, but what is left is a lifetime of people asking me how I chipped my tooth.
No one ever asked me what it was like to be born, which is also a beginning. I suppose I’d have to ask my folks. Chances are they wouldn’t remember, considering my ma’ was in labor and my father was probably smoking a cigarette in the waiting room. Maybe he remembers the brand of cigarette he was smoking, when I was born.
I was supposed to be a girl, or, my father wanted me to be a girl. He told me this once, in the car, on the way to baseball practice, I think. I can’t remember.
I was not good at baseball. I liked being out there in the grass, but I couldn’t hit the ball, and after a few years I started to take it personally. I thought my parents were trying to get a message across. Like it was their way of saying find something you’re good at or keep doing this. Still, it was my choice, to sign up every year, bat last, and play right field.
There were other things I was good at but it didn’t matter though because I still had to endure several years of being the 9th batter. I can’t remember ever batting first, or fourth. The field we practiced on was a few miles from our house, so my father would drive me there in his grey Honda. Getting out of the car was a relief, I remember, it having been ten tense minutes of air-conditioning, country music and wordlessness. My father tended to speak when necessary, or when he thought something was funny, but I can’t seem to remember the things he thought were funny. Maybe it was me who thought things were funny and I just never said them.
I’d get out of the car with my mitt and hat, and walk to the diamond. I don’t remember running to it. I was the kind of kid who didn’t work up a sweat before anything was accomplished. I was always afraid of sweating, even though, come to think of it, I’m not sure if I ever did sweat. All the other kids were so good. They could hit the ball and throw it hard. There was a sense that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I felt unneeded, like the team would have done just fine, or better without me. I don’t know if any of that is true, but I remember having that feeling, or maybe it’s just that I don’t remember feeling like I was supposed to be there.
But there I was, learning to swing a bat, and field ground balls, worrying about sweating, getting dusty and dirty. Practice was on Tuesdays and Thursdays, two days that for the rest of my life seemed to demand something from me. So, twice a week I’d get dropped off and flounder around on a dusty field. I was more concerned with how I looked than how I played the game.
The coaches couldn’t teach me anything. I know this now because I don’t remember anything about how to play baseball. I spent my allowance on those flip-up sunglasses outfielders wear, and a wooden bat, because that’s what the pros used. I knew this because I collected baseball cards, for some reason. In bantam, the coaches called me Hollywood because of my sunglasses. This nickname was flat and without purpose. It might have been a way for the coaches to feel as if they liked me, or to give me a sense of belonging. I always thought people with nicknames belonged somewhere.
The games were worse. I’d show up in my tight white pants, stirrups, shirt and hat. I must’ve looked confused, because I was. Sometimes I hoped the catcher would get hurt, so the coach would have to put me in at catcher, and then I could show everyone how unable I was to play the game by missing every pitch, and calling the wrong pitches. I spent a couple years trying to play poorly, for this reason.
By the time I was 11, playing baseball was something I got used to, even though I never got better, never had a hit, and dropped several pop-flys. By this point it felt obligatory, to show up, to strikeout, to drop fly balls, but even so, something grew in me, the urge to hit the ball. I began wanting to get a base hit. I forced myself to stay in the batter’s box, to watch the ball closely as it came across home plate, to focus, but still, I’d strikeout each time. I remember hearing other kids’ parents sighing, some laughing, some yelling at the coach, some clapping and cheering me on my way back to the dugout. None of it seemed to matter. I was there and that was it.
Our team won the first ten games of the season, the year I was 11. Our team sponsor was Fisher-Lighting, and we had cobalt-blue uniforms that said FISHER on the front. The coach was a nice man with blonde hair and a lisp. The assistant coach was a mean man with thick glasses and hands that felt like sand paper. He might have been doing community service. If one of the kids didn’t have a partner to play catch with, he’d play catch with that kid, with his bare hands. We won those first ten games because we had a pitcher who was stronger and bigger than the rest of us. He struck all the other teams’ batters out. He never hit a batter. Our backup pitcher was also bigger and stronger than the rest of us, so we kept winning.
It was the eleventh game of the season that I had my first and last base-hit. I was playing right-field and batting 9th. It didn’t matter. All I had to do was strikeout. There were two on, and two out. I remember how I hated batting with two out, and how the lead-off fat kid would take his helmet and gloves off and sit down in the dugout if I was batting with two-out, knowing that I would strikeout, that the inning was already over. I went to the plate, adjusted my gloves with one foot in the box, and touched my helmet. Even if I was going to strikeout, I was going to look good doing it.
The first three pitches were balls, leaving me with a good hitters count. Even though I had a good count, I felt worse because I knew I would strike out, and striking out after going 3-0 is worse than just striking out. The pitcher looked like he wanted to cry, or like he had just pooped his pants. He didn’t look right, up there on the mound. Something was wrong with him. The parents cheering turned into a static hum, the scoreboard said Garber 0, Fisher 0. The pitcher shoed the rubber for a second, stepped off, shoed the rubber again and took his stance on the mound.
I don’t remember what the ball looked like as it came across the plate, or if it was even a strike, but I swung, and it flew off my bat into center field. Everything stopped. The parents gasped, the assistant coach stepped out of the dugout and took off his hat, and in two seconds that seemed to last quite a while, I watched the ball soar over the center fielder’s head (they played me shallow) and come to a rolling stop at the fence. The cosmos were inching around us. The assistant coach said, ‘Run!”
This is where the practice paid off. I remembered, at least, how to run the bases. So I ran to first base, rounded it, ran for second, and two runners scored. I made it to second safely. The parents seemed confused and distraught, as if there were a solar eclipse happening, as if I should have struck out in the dust. Something about the sight of me standing on second base made no sense to any of the spectators or players. It was like lightning just struck the middle of the field. This is something I wish I remembered more of, that hit.
For some reason, twenty years later, I can’t get enough baseball. I’ll watch any game, any time. I’ll spend a whole evening looking at historical stats, watching old videos, listening to Ernie Harwell call classic games on Youtube. I don’t believe my love for the game has anything to do with that two-run double. I can’t remember hitting the ball again, after that.
The beginning wasn’t important. What’s important is that I was out there, and after a couple years of not trying, I learned what it meant to really try and hit the ball. To this day, it’s still one of the more vivid moments of my life.
Later in that season, our team won the championship. I remember I was in the dugout, our pitcher was on the mound, and when he struck out the last kid, we all ran out to the mound to celebrate. But, I slowed up on my way out there, a lump grew in my throat, and I started to cry. I looked around me, and none of the other kids were crying, so I did my best to hold it back.
A couple of years ago, I looked back on that moment, and realized it was then I knew I wasn’t cut out for sports. Emotions always get the best of me. I can’t sit through Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto without weeping. I can’t look at a sculpture of Rodin without registering everything he must have poured into it. And, when the Tigers lose, I bury it deep inside.
When the Tigers were swept out of the World Series, this October, I buried that as well. I only occasionally revisit that devastation, but it hurts too much, and I put it right back inside.
Baseball does that to you, if you let it.