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May 3, 2016 | BASEBALL, Nonfiction

Ripped Red Stitches

Dustin M. Hoffman

Ripped Red Stitches photo

When I lived in Michigan, I ruined baseball. I recorded every Detroit Tigers game only to fast-forward between pitches, so I could get back to stacks of paper grading, so I could be as productive and prolific as my writer friends on Facebook. My watching habits rushed the glacial Zen pace that exemplifies baseball. The pitcher’s twitching introspection on the mound, the batter toeing in and out of the box, readjusting his cup, announcer Rod Allen’s musings about eating real sushi when he played ball in Japan—I scrambled all of that into a clipped frenzy that made the art of baseball resemble a drunken stop-motion highlight reel.

Baseball was never meant to be a sprint. But I had a DVR and little time. I was trapped between my hunger for the next bat crack and my anxiety over piles of paper.

When my daughter was a newborn, before her neck muscles were strong enough to balance her massive infant noggin, we’d watch together. No fast-forwarding. The emerald greens and sky blues smearing the screen soothed us both. The lull of the crowd, Mario’s nasally play-by-play, they cooed us to sleep. There is no greater nap to be had than falling asleep in the third inning cradling your daughter and waking up with a lead in the eighth.

* * *

Baseball is one of my greatest loves, but I am an inadequate lover. I consume selfishly, opportunistically, efficiently. When busy, I hasten my sport to get to the point, devour only her numbers. Box scores and league leaders and stat lines tell stories more economically than any micro fiction, better than Hem’s six-word novel: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” versus “Tigers win 3 – 0” or “Miguel Cabrera’s .330 AVG / 44 HR / 139 RBIs” or “Hank Aaron’s 755” or “Nolan Ryan’s 7 no-nos.”

I swig anecdotal anomalies: Bid McPhee, the last shortstop to start wearing a glove, never seeing the need for bulky leather when he had his own battered skin. Or Honus Wagner creating million-dollar scraps of cardboard by recalling his tobacco cards in 1902 because he didn’t want kids buying cigarettes. Or Randy Johnson exploding a seagull with a ninety-nine-mile-per-hour fastball.

But as far as appreciating the game as it should be, in full glory of every baking summer second, from the first pitch to the final out, my fandom is a failure of patience. Perhaps I could blame my lack of discipline in spectating on my technological age of lopped attention spans and sensory overload. More likely, my abridged, bastardized version of baseball stems from my childhood career as a player.

* * *

I forsook baseball hard around puberty, would’ve burned every baseball card I owned to touch a real girl’s bra. Toward the end goal of bra-touching, being a broody teen had more potential than being a baseball nerd, it seemed. Nirvana became my life. I played my cassette of Nevermind so many times the tape snapped right across “On a Plain.” My dad taught me how to resplice, and I Scotch-taped it back together. I grew my hair long and scrounged Goodwill and Salvation Army stores for the filthiest vintage clothes I could buy. I strung my bedroom with Christmas lights and contemplated how one could be so lonely that they’d shave their head. By the time Kurt killed himself, my broody act had become too real. I locked myself in my room and cried for three days, Christmas lights in full glow, candles burning everywhere. Somewhere in there getting girls got as gone as baseball.

Baseball seemed especially trivial next to rock star suicide. Baseball was for stereotypical boys, not complicated guys like me and Kurt. Baseball couldn’t handle the soul-surge of angst that raged out the elbow tears in my flannel shirts and holey-kneed jeans. I wish I could claim this embarrassingly tortured alterna-maturity is why I stopped playing baseball as a kid, but that’s not it. The truth: I quit because I sucked.

I’d been suspecting this might be the case after two years of little league, which allowed a range of age groups from around ten to what seemed like twenty. I watched D.J. McCarthy pitch curveballs and sixty-mile-per-hour fastballs that looked like light speed. D.J. also hit it over the fence, cracked the windshields of naïve parents. I played on the Krebs brothers’ team, and I witnessed five-tool players trained from toddling. For two years I watched the coach award a player of the game. You’d get a certificate emblazoned with cursive script, as well as a coupon for a personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut. I was never player of the game. Not once. In two years, the coach never pushed that resume-quality paper stock into my gravel-grubby hands.

So I suspected a below-average talent level. But even though the coach exiled me to the outfield, pointed me into shifts that would keep the ball miles from my glove, I had moments. I was fast. My father overheard the older Krebs brother saying, “Hoffman runs like a horse.” I stretched outfield bloops into doubles, ignored base coaches stop signs, once even hustled an inside-the-park homerun. My dad still claims I hit that homerun over the fence. He keeps a scuffed game ball in a curio cabinet containing our family’s greatest treasures: fake gold-plated flatware, wood-carved funicular music box, painted eggs, and a dingy baseball. I know I didn’t hit that ball over the fence. I legged out that home run and still didn’t get a personal pan pizza. 

My B-level speed and enthusiastic father tricked me into false hope. I won’t blame Dad, though. I can’t. One of the greatest mercies anyone ever bestowed on me was when my dad let me quit football the summer before my freshman year of high school, even after my parents had paid to sign me up and bought cleats. My stomach knotted at telling my dad I wanted to quit, but as soon as I did, he told me he didn’t care. Sports didn’t matter to him as much as I did.

But I cared. I thought I was decent at baseball, and I was a perfect target when the traveling league rolled into our tiny Midwestern town. They were holding tryouts for a little league all-star team. I connived my parents into paying the fifteen-dollar entry fee. I strained that last thread of hope, fantasized getting noticed. Finally, real coaches from Elysian metropolises would notice what everyone else had mistaken for outfield mediocrity.

When my parents dropped me off the morning of tryouts at the high school gym, I was stunned by the chirping mass of capped boys. I expected the familiar faces of my friends. Instead, a hundreds-strong swarm of multi-colored jerseys and gloves and even some kids flashing stirrups had invaded from the neighboring farm towns, all aching to shell out their fifteen bucks for a sure shot at sports stardom.

The pop-up fielding was the final torture of that day. Every kid in Gratiot County waited their turn and watched from the bleachers. I watched too. On one side of me sat a hick wearing a frayed Carhart cap, cutoffs, and eye-black under one eye, and on the other side Oakleys and Adidas cleats, a licensed Cecil Fielder Tigers jersey tucked into pristine white baseball pants. His crisp Tigers cap matched his jersey. Both of them wore caps. Everyone wore a cap. I was just starting to grow my hair out like Kurt Cobain’s, had finally made it just past the tips of my ears. Now, though, my scalp burned in the gym lights for cover, for anything, even the sweat-stained Carhart atop my left-flanking neighbor.

We watched a dozen kids catch almost everything. It looked so easy. When a kid missed, the hundreds of boys snickered in unison, tsked, punched gloves and shook heads at each other. I wanted to run for the cover of Christmas lights and Nirvana posters, light some candles and forever swear that sports were for idiot jocks.

They called my name. A sea of jersey-clad shoulders parted. I bumbled down the bleachers to the front of the gym. One of the few adults in this ocean of adolescent athletes pointed me to stand across from him. The blankness of space felt oppressive after a day of shoulder-to-shouldering. My cleats seemed to melt into the floor’s lacquer. The coach flicked the ball upward. A ceiling was never as high as that of the Alma High School gymnasium, fluorescent lights never as bright and blinding. No kid ever burned to catch a ball as bad as me.

I missed.

I missed the first fucking pop-up. The red-seamed leather thudded like the dead cow skin it was. I tried like hell to ignore the millions of boys giggling. My ears rang. I must’ve been as red as my shag carpet back in my bedroom where my Nirvana cassettes waited.

I probably caught one of the pop-ups. Maybe. I think I remember the coach spitting encouragement, “Nice hustle. Good toss.” Perhaps in that moment he rethought his occupation of swindling farm boys out of tryout fees for the reward of public embarrassment. It was enough to scare the puberty out of you. Obviously I could never play baseball again.

* * *

I hunched into corners at school and scribbled in notebooks with nub-worn pencils. I was deep and volatile and brimming with depression, and I would show the world. For the next three years this was my sport. I was good at it. I grew my hair to my shoulders, died it blue and green and red and blue again, let it greasily frame my complicated expressions. Some girls took notice, made out with me after I wrote them convoluted, nonsensical poetry. Some guys noticed, and I became the frontman for the grungiest band in town. Other guys noticed and called me a hippie, a fag, beat the shit out of me. My parents noticed, and just tried their best to not let me know they noticed so I’d just get done with this phase I wanted everyone to notice.

I don’t regret brooding. That’s when I started reading Hemingway, and I probably wouldn’t have become a writer if I didn’t become obsessed with words. I do, however, feel cheated on the baseball front. I deserved at least a few more innings.

* * *

What I wish for my daughter is a world without pop-ups. There’s so much pressure in the floating white dot that turns black against the sun and seems like it’s never coming back down and your heart breaks for its confusion about gravity. And then it remembers the grass below your glove all too quickly.

The outfield is anxiety and doom. I always preferred catcher. I played the position a bit in little league, and exclusively throughout pitching machine.

If you don’t know about pitching machine, it succeeded Tee-ball in some towns, a bridge between live pitching and swatting at a stationary ball. The machines were something like you’d find at a batting cage. The coach would lug out the behemoth blue beast perched atop three impossibly thin legs. Two massive white rubber wheels spun on top and spit out baseballs right down the center of the plate most of the time. Not much need for a pitcher, but the catcher was essential.

I loved the catcher’s gear, all the straps and clips that clacked together in a sound like responsibility and danger all in one. Stray balls split my toenails a few times. Bruises covered my limbs. Best of all, as a catcher I stayed busy the entire game. Lesser boys—soon to be me in the coming years—picked dandelions and itched ass cracks in the outfield. But every single pitch required my effort. Now, with no base stealing and very few plays at the plate, my job as pitching machine catcher was basically a glorified mattress. No put-outs or assists or third-strike foul tips for me.

What I did was catch each ball and lob it back to the coach. Then he’d shoot it back to me through a machine. Then I’d throw it back to him. We’d keep this up for two hours, only broken when some kid made a lucky swing and connected, or when I’d break to sit on the bench and wait for my turn in the lineup.

I found great pleasure playing this game of catch with a machine. It was so far from the misguided hope for recognition I was seeking in the all-star team tryouts. Or the recognition I would get from flamboyant depression. This was the joy of the work. The joy of rhythm. The slap of white leather and red seams against mitt. The pound into my palm. The ache in the knees from a two-hour crouch. The burn in my shoulder with those late-inning mound tosses. Everything outside the chain-link fence faded: my dad rooting me on, my grandpa with his wallet full of dollars he paid for every base hit, the other kids’ parents, the dugouts full of teammates and the kids from school and the girls in the bleachers and the cars in the parking lot and personal pan pizzas and baseball cards and allowances and Slurpees and first erections and mad minutes and bike rides. My body was protected in gear, my face disguised in mask. I was perfectly unrecognizable behind my uniform of metal and dusty orange padding.

Through the grates of my mask, a chalk line darted to the left, another shooting to the right. A curve of yellow dirt arced and melted into bright green. Bright green gave way to blue skies and bleached cloud. The pitching machine whomped and my glove thwacked. It went on like it would never end. 

 

image: Aaron Burch


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