hobart logo

April 27, 2015 | BASEBALL, Nonfiction

I Was Potential

Jesse Donaldson

I Was Potential photo

When I was fifteen, I started receiving letters from Division I baseball coaches about the possibility of joining them on such and such Elysian Field and helping the squad reach its goal, which inevitably involved some form of championship. I was a five-foot-nine, 130-pound second baseman. I was potential. A couple years later, still five-foot-nine and 130-pounds, I was washed up.

This was the mid-nineties—the height of the steroids era in baseball (though I didn’t know it then). I was on a 5,000 calorie-a-day diet that consisted primarily of chocolate shakes, protein powder, and McDonald’s cheeseburgers, which my mother bought in bulk and froze. I ate cheeseburgers like they were saltines.

What coaches and scouts saw in me at fifteen was a certain degree of talent that, had I grown, could have been molded into something useful. Since I did not grow, it merely became the talent of an overachiever—the kid making the most of what God neglected to give him. I don’t mean to overstate my abilities. I was never much hitter despite a pretty left-handed swing. I slapped, bunted, and scrapped to get on base. I was streaky. If I struck out once, it would happen again. And again. My coaches thought I was a head case, which they blamed on my being a “hippie,” which was their way of saying they suspected I did drugs even though I had signed a contract affirming I didn’t (and wouldn’t), which was a lie because I liked to roll joints before Spanish class and hablo espanol. I think my coaches only put up with me because I had a good glove, because I moved with a certain degree of grace on the field.

* * *

I consider fielding a groundball an act of Zen. Various analysts blow smoke about the difficulty of hitting, of swinging a round bat and making contact with a round ball that might curve, drop, screw, or look fast when it is really thrown slow. And I can see how catching that ball with a mitt seems downright pedestrian by comparison, but the analysts don’t comprehend the art of a perfectly fielded baseball, which requires the fielder to possess an innate, almost spiritual bond with the world around him.

Fielding is an art that begins on the rugged fields of youth baseball and is therefore more difficult for the little leaguer or high-schooler than the major leaguer. I worked as a groundkeeper for the Houston Astros; we obsessed over every slight rise, every divot, every imperfection on the field. And this was during the off-season. The baseball fields of Kentucky, where I grew up, were a mixed bag. Some infields were more rock than soil. Some were hilly and full of crabgrass.

My own high school’s field was close-cropped Bermuda with basepaths of red Kentucky clay mixed with sand and topsoil. The field was a testament to the fact that our team was perennially near the top of the state rankings. There was a booster program. Kids were drafted to the pros straight out of high school and given six figure bonuses. They returned in tricked-out trucks and sports cars. This was where dreams were made.

I became intimate with every square inch of that field because a good fielder worships his native soil. Groundballs played slow because the infield didn’t drain well. This was especially true of the basepaths where the heavy clay swallowed a grounder’s velocity. It was common for opposing teams to have the ball skirt beneath their gloves because they were unaccustomed to jabbing them deep into the soft dirt where grounders liked to burrow. I knew that seemingly sure base hits, rockets off the bat, would get caught by this clay and allow me a play, which tricked everyone into thinking I was fast. Cat-like, my coaches said. But I knew the truth. I was deceptively slow.

When we traveled to other fields, I took time before each game to study the terrain around second base. I fingered the dirt to see how far below the surface the hardpack lay. I sifted it in my hands, looking for rocks, measured the sand. I noted bare patches in the grass and walked over them to feel the bumps along the balls of my feet. These bumps portended bad hops, though I don’t really believe in bad hops. The field tells you how it will play. You enter a contract with it.

I was known for obsessively “raking” the dirt before each inning to make a smooth playing surface. I was afraid that any imperfection I had control over might affect a groundball and result in an error. When I found a particularly large rock in the dirt, I tossed if off the field in disgust. Sometimes I found seashells and those I placed in my back pocket for good luck.

I learned to field in the backyard of our suburban home. My father owned buckets of baseballs. He hit one fungo after another at me, rarely waiting to see if I had fielded the previous. I flipped the balls behind my back, moving left, right, running forward and back, short-hopping, diving, never pausing, never resting. The backyard had large holes from the previous owner’s vegetable garden. There was an awkwardly placed concrete sidewalk I was careful not to dive on. Most people would have planted trees to fill the yard’s open space, but we played baseball. When my father finished one bucket, another was waiting. Between the ages of four and eighteen, I must have fielded nearly a hundred thousand groundballs in that backyard. And I loved every minute of it.

I was an awkward, wispy kid. I felt most like myself with an eleven and a quarter inch mitt on my hand. I loved my glove. I conditioned it with shaving cream because oil would make it heavy. Sometimes I added aloe because I wanted my glove to be pampered. And I set a baseball in it each night because I wanted it to remember its purpose. I suppose I was superstitious. Most ballplayers are. During the season if a penny fell on the ground face down, I refused to pick it up. To this day I kick face down pennies under the rug. And on game days I searched for heads up pennies. When I was younger, it had been four-leaf clovers. Good fielders want every advantage.

My teammates were, for the most part, less idiosyncratic. They didn’t care about the infield dirt or the weeds in the grass. They threw their gloves like car keys onto the bench after each inning and cracked jokes about dicks and farts. I envied their nonchalance. I didn’t consider my obsessions a benefit but neither could I let them go. Sometimes you act out a behavior so often it becomes a part of you, a definition of sorts.

My coaches berated me for thinking too much, and though I wanted to tell them they were wrong, that intense study could never harm a ballplayer, I’m no longer so convinced. I was the best pure fielder on my team, and yet I made errors. And if I made one error, there was a good chance I’d make a second. When I made mistakes, they came in waves. My confidence was shaken. I convinced myself something was off. My vision was compromised. The lights had a glare. The field was playing wrong. The elements—the basic physics of the world—had shifted, and I was the only one who realized it. It ruined me. Sometimes a ball would roll slowly between my legs (an error no great fielder makes) and whatever faith I had in how perfect I could be, meant nothing.

Eventually I wilted under the pressure. When I quit playing a few years into college, my father and I learned to talk about something other than baseball. It was difficult at first. Our entire lives had been built around this artifice, but it was doomed to end badly. In high school I developed our family’s genetic tendency towards crossed eyes. When I told my father I saw two baseballs and had to guess where they would come together to field, he told me I was lying and left it at that. I wanted so badly to believe him. I practiced controlling my lazy eye (years later I’d get surgery). I held pencil erasers before my face and followed them in and out. I stopped watching television or looking at computer screens on game days. I learned to follow the left ball and ignore the right. I made due.

* * *

Fathers and sons. Baseball. The clichés are so numerous I hesitate to go on. But that cliché is largely the story of my life between t-ball and the end of high school. We’d built a batting cage in the backyard. There was a company “representing” me by sending my statistics to colleges. I even had a highlight video. Until he quit smoking, my father would light one after the other along the right field line, sometimes so nervous he was unable to watch the game. After he quit smoking, he paced back-and-forth, back-and-forth, wearing paths along the fence line. It was love that made him do it. I don’t think he ever expected me to become a major leaguer or to even to earn a scholarship. He just loved watching me field. At times it went too far—we went too far. Everyone in the family would cop to that now. My sisters used to call me the “chosen one.” I was the last kid—the boy who stole my father’s attention, if not his affection—but neither of my sisters would have traded places, would have welcomed the pressure. One time, when I was just a kid, maybe ten, my father started asking me questions about a particularly bad game. He said, “Why didn’t you—” but I cut him off. I said, “I’ll never answer any question that begins with why didn’t you.” I suppose I didn’t want to be held accountable for all those possibilities, didn’t want to pour over each and every occasion that I could have been better.

As my high school career started to plateau, the coaches became frustrated. They said I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t spend enough time in the weight room. I should try taking supplements. Other kids on the team were taking Creatine and some took Human Growth Hormone, which has since been banned by baseball. Mark McGwire used HGH, along with steroids, to help him hit seventy home runs in 1998 and shatter Roger Maris’ single season record. Baseball was changing. Ozzie Smith was at the end of his career. Omar Vizquel was hitting over .300 and occasionally smashing one over the fence.

My coaches didn’t know what to make of me because there weren’t any major league analogues, not any more. Second basemen, even small ones like Chuck Knoblauch, were bulky—built more like fullbacks than ballplayers. It became a position where they stuck wood-gloved sluggers who would knock the ball down and toss it to first base with short-armed, feminine throws. I played second base because I had a 90-foot arm. I could turn a quick double play but put me on the left side of the diamond and my throws became down downright parabolic. My high coach would sometimes practice me at short and then aim the fungo bat like a shotgun at my long, arcing tosses before shooting them down. “Bang,” he’d yell, reeling from the shotgun’s recoil. “Dead Duck!”

* * *

I can orientate myself on a baseball field with my eyes closed. I understand its geometry deep in my subconscious. As soon as a ball is popped up in the air, a good fielder can turn his back and run to the spot where it will land. Once it is hit, the path of the ball can be predicted using basic Newtonian physics (force, mass, acceleration, action, reaction—that stuff); and, in some ways, the fielder who responds well to a ball off the bat is simply doing some form of calculus in his head and reacting. Developing that skill will take a player far, but it will never make him great because great fielders start running in the right direction before the ball even touches the bat. Great fielders act on faith.

One of the reasons I excelled with the glove was that I moved before contact. I didn’t wait for the physics of the batted ball to tell me where to go; I acted on the hypothetical. Baseball coaches christen this “getting a jump on the ball.” They do this to explain why some players—while not technically faster than their counterparts and oftentimes slower—can makes plays their fellow players can’t. Certain aspects of getting a jump on the ball are scientific. I studied the swing of the opposing player, knew the pitch that was being thrown, the habits of the pitcher throwing it. A good curveball thrown by a right-hander to a lefty is often pounded straight into the ground; the second baseman will need to be charge to get the short hop. On a good change-up from that same pitcher, the batter will stick his butt out and push the ball towards third or pop it foul down the line. These are not hard and fast rules, but they are trends. The catch is the pitcher doesn’t always throw a good curveball and sometimes the player who is late on the fastball, catches up. The calculus involved in getting a jump is too hypothetical to produce accurate results and so the fielder acts on some other impulse that is hard to define. I suppose it involves being centered in the moment, on feeling the energies of the game at play and then acting on instinct. I think it is something one is born with.

If you’d watched me play, you would have noticed that I was the only fielder on my team who moved when a batter swung and missed. Other players stood flat-footed. I dashed left or right based on the batter’s swing, the angle, and when he missed, I returned to my spot in the field. I broke on hundreds of potential plays during the course of a game only to have about two or three come my way. Babe Ruth once said, “Gee, its lonesome in the outfield. It's hard to keep awake with nothing to do.” Many ballplayers feel the same. There’s a good deal of standing around in baseball, but the moment you lose focus is the moment a ball comes your way. Over time I developed a series of rituals to guide my wandering mind. Before every pitch, I took a step forward, bounced on the balls of my feet, patted my glove twice, and mouthed the catcher’s sign aloud (“curveball”). I broke on every swing of the bat, and if there wasn’t a swing, I raked the dirt with my cleats, searching for even the smallest stone that might send a ball askew and make me look the fool.

In the end, the fielder is only trying not to look like a fool. People cheer for home runs. A run saved is rarely as exciting as a run scored. The occasional great play gets attention, but the temporary glory of a diving catch or perfectly turned double play, complete with a graceful leap over the barreling runner, is not worth the disgrace of a ball that skips beneath the glove. People notice errors. When a player strikes out there is disappointment but strikeouts are expected. Even the best hitters are only successful three times out of ten. But an error? What other sport counts your mistakes? Basketball players are statistically gauged on their ability to put the ball in the basket. Hockey goalies are judged by saves, not goals allowed. And unlike basketball or football or hockey, where play resumes immediately and you can run up and down and up and down and forget about your mistake, errors haunt you in baseball. Another ball might not come your way. All anyone will remember is the one that got by. The pitcher will curse you as he ices his arm. The fans will think about that damn second basemen and why didn’t he just…. The coaches will consider benching you because you are a gloveman and if you can’t make every play, if you can’t be perfect, what use are you? You are five-foot-nine, 130 pounds. All you ever hit is singles. You bunt too much. You’ve been known to strikeout with runners on base. And really, any idiot can play second base. You just knock the fucking ball down and throw it to first. And really the only reason they keep playing you is that occasionally there are moments of perfection that border on the divine.

* * *

I can remember a handful of plays I made on blind faith. There were pop-ups deep into foul ground that I never saw before catching; I just turned my back, ran like Willie Mays to the spot I thought the ball would land, and it fell into my glove. There were double plays on high chops over the pitcher that I started with a glove flip between my legs to the shortstop. There were plays that brought people to their feet and made them speechless. Home runs can’t do that. Home runs bring cheers. Great plays bring silence. They bring awe.

After my playing days ended during college, the memories of those baseball years dwindled away. We gave the buckets of baseballs to local little leagues. Our batting cage was disassembled, passed down to another father and son. Trophies and accolades were boxed and shoved in the attic. I still have a glove, a beautiful Wilson A2000 that I keep in a closet somewhere. It sits bereft of a ball. Occasionally someone wants to play toss and I take the glove out. It only makes me sad. My shoulder creaks. I’m less sure-handed. At some point I tried playing adult baseball, but I only lasted a few games. I didn’t feel comfortable on the field. Ground balls seemed unnatural, dangerous. I played tentative. It depressed me. On the surface I fielded well enough, but no one understood how lost I felt standing out there at second base. A stranger.

I suppose that’s the rub. I spent the better part of my formative years trying to achieve perfection as a fielder and to a large degree I succeeded. But there were always going to be errors and so the pursuit was doomed to fail. And it is hard to determine what it was all for now that I am older. I know how to field a baseball better than I know how to do just about anything else in this world. The difficult part for me is figuring out what exactly that means. I wouldn’t go back and change the past and fielding a baseball I suppose has analogues to the rest of life, has some educational value outside the diamond, but it also seems silly, expending so much energy on a game.

* * *

We still have two videos of me playing ball. One is from high school and it shows a news highlight from a game against our rival. With our team up 2-1 in a pitcher’s battle, I saved two runs when the opposing team’s best player, a kid who pursued a career hitting .220 in the majors, grounded a ball hard to my left. The newsreel doesn’t capture the play from above, but if it did, you would see me moving before contact. The pitch was an outside fastball and the batter’s hands were inside the ball so that the bat caught it deep in the zone. Baseball purists marvel at the batter’s ability to make minute adjustments in a matter of milliseconds, adjustments that mean the difference between a ball struck on the barrel or the handle, but I marvel at the infielder’s ability to make that same recognition from a hundred and fifty feet away, at their ability to predict the future. I ran far into right field. My only chance to make the play was to buy more time. The ball was hit too hard. I couldn’t have dived and gotten up in time to throw the runner out, so I ran a step deeper, reached far to my left as the ball tried to slip past me, gloved it, and spun as I transferred the ball to my throwing hand. I didn’t look at first base. I torqued my body and released the ball towards where I sensed it would be. I never saw the end of that play until I watched the video. I’d twisted so violently I’d done a 360 and ended up on my belly looking into the emptiness beyond the right field fence. The throw was an act of blind faith. A runner was rounding third, one was already home. There were two outs. The video attests to the fact that the throw is a bullet propelled by all the power my reedy body could muster and right at the bag. Stretching there, almost in a full split, is the first baseman. The ball smacks his glove right before the runner hits the bag. There is a moment of silence.

In the other video I am about ten years old and standing in the backyard. My mother is filming me moving back and forth in the dwindling sunlight as my dad peppers one ball after another. I keep asking for one more. One more. At some point the light gets so dim you can’t make out the ball. I become a gray blur moving across more grayness. My father keeps saying let’s go inside, and I keep asking to stay a bit longer. And my mom keeps filming, though I can’t imagine why. It’s dark. Surely there are things to do. Dinners to be cooked. Homework to be done. Bills to be paid. But we stay. We field in the dark.

 

image:


SHARE