This is going to be another brief example of how the survival of ancient memories depends, not on the real significance of the remembered events, but on the intensity of the feelings associated with them at the time they took place, a subject I’ve touched on before (Something on Memories). I was fourteen years old on that evening of which some small portions have stuck in my mind. Few, few are the moments that come to memory from that far back.
The occasion was a baseball game. I was on a Pony League team, which in my Texas town near Dallas was the step above Little League, played on a bigger field, but one which I believe was still smaller than a full-sized one. Despite my having come to love baseball (listening to the 1952 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers was the turning point at age ten) a few years before, I had never played in an organized league before the age of thirteen, not having lived any place that had organized youth baseball until I arrived in my new town for the seventh grade. Baseball was a big sport in this town, the Little League all-star team having made it to the State tournament the summer before I arrived to start school in the fall.
Before then, I had done my best to acquire baseball skills without the benefit of organized play or coaching, most of the time without the benefit of a partner to play catch with. I was not that bad at fielding and catching. My arm was weak though, and I had never batted against fast pitching. My hitting skill level was low, and my confidence in it was even lower. In truth, I had been one of those kids that hoped for a walk whenever I was at the plate in a game important enough to have an umpire, such as the sixth versus fifth grade softball game with a teacher umpiring. Yes, I can remember a painful called third strike I took in a crucial situation!
Despite being conscious of my below-average baseball skills, a condition which I still hoped was temporary, I was eager to play at last on a real team, so I had signed up at the first opportunity and had gone to the tryouts, which were conducted on a real field under the lights and open to the public. I don’t remember much about the tryout beyond being nervous, dreading to hear my name called, and then getting ready to field ground balls from one of the league officials, as all the coaches waited to judge my performance. I recall no details of the tryout, just the feeling that went with the knowledge that I had done poorly, worse than I had hoped, and being relieved it was over.
In addition to making the jump to a high-level baseball culture, I had experienced substantial culture shock in this new town and school due to the advanced boy-girl relationships compared to what had known before. There were lots of couples going steady. They danced to “cat music” (more on that some other time). I was not part of this social scene and had slipped into a low status slot, which I was not accustomed to, having the previous year been, in a small school, very popular with the boys and girls alike. I was really quite intimidated by the social scene, and my self-confidence had been battered.
But in that spring of my first year in the new town, I recall that my mere trying out for baseball had evidently impressed one of the fairly high-status girls, who was a baseball enthusiast (perhaps a bit of a baseball groupie). She had approached me with a smile and a glowing face saying she’d heard (I think) that I was playing baseball. Rather than accepting this as a good icebreaker, I had evaded the subject, though I can’t recall the awkward details of how. I felt ashamed of how poorly I had done, and I think I was afraid that she had only heard I had tried out, without getting a performance report, so that it would be better for her not to view me as a “real” baseball player, especially since she valued baseball so highly. I was realizing just how far I was behind the good players in my new league. But for all I know—it would not be surprising—she had been in the stands during the tryouts. Perhaps just being on a team (like playing in a rock band for some) was enough to give me prestige in her eyes. Or maybe she had been wishing for a way to approach me before. Maybe she just relished any chance to talk about her favorite subject. I’ll never know. Though I can picture very well how she looked those many years ago, I can’t recall her name. I do feel a certain tenderness toward her now, though; and retrospective gratitude.
When I started writing this piece I thought that the remembered events I was going to relate had occurred in my first year in Pony League, but on reflection I feel sure they were in the second year. That’s the strong feeling I got from picturing the catcher on my team on the night in question and then remembering who the catcher was on my first team. Catchers are central to the game, so I guess it’s not surprising I can remember them.
Speaking of memories, I might as well relate another that just popped up. It was during an intra-squad game of some sort on that first team, so that half our team was playing the other half. I had just come to the plate to face one of my teammates, a pitcher from the previous year’s all-star team. The catcher was into the game and said to the pitcher the same thing he would have said when an opposing batter came to the plate in a real game: “OK, this guy can’t hit!” Then he must have realized just how true that statement was in my case, and that I might be stung by those words, so he quickly added “Just doubles, triples…” Of course, I understood what had gone on in his mind, and it would have been better for my ego for him to have treated me like anyone else, since the change revealed just how lowly he estimated my batting prowess. It was an attempt at kindness that made things worse, leading me to mutter something in protest of the supposed compliment to show I knew better. Still, I had to appreciate the tough thirteen-year-old catcher’s consideration for my feelings, and I haven’t forgotten it. Thanks, Gary.
After I had been in town for a while and gotten to know more neighborhood kids, I started playing baseball with some of them in a vacant lot practically every day. I enjoyed that a lot more than the organized baseball. I got plenty of batting practice in those games, but our rule was not to throw full speed. We could only try to get people out with pitch location. Other than that it was like batting practice. I’m sure my batting eye and swing improved over time. I was comfortable hitting in those pickup games. Of course a real game with fast pitching and game pressure was something else.
Anyway, the Pony League game I’m going to talk about was one of those in which the other team only had eight players show up. As a coach, I’ve always hated those games and tried to make sure the game just got rescheduled before teams showed up at the field. That only works for anticipated absences though. Once the players, coaches, and umpires have arrived at the field, possibly for a night game which requires a lot of electricity for the lighting, it’s hard to just leave and reschedule. No, if one team is short and the other has more than it needs to field nine, the frequent solution is for the team with a surplus to lend a player to the other team for the night. On this night, I was that player. As a coach, I made it a point not to choose the worst player on the team as the automatic substitute for the other team, but that’s not the way it usually goes.
On this night long ago I was certainly being offered as a substitute because I was deemed by my coach (whose name and face even are lost to me, though I can remember those of my first-year coach) as the worst on our team. It was embarrassing, of course, to have that distinction, even though I imagine I was asked to volunteer and probably thanked for agreeing to. I was performing a service and I would definitely get to play the whole game this way. I can’t remember any details about the team switch; just the fact that it happened and that it was embarrassing. Nor can I remember anything about the game until the first time I came to bat.
So here I was on this night facing a pitcher named Bud, who was wearing the same uniform as I. I can’t be sure if I only remember one pitch or if it was in fact the first pitch I was thrown (as it seems) which I lined into right field for a clean single. I do remember it was very satisfying to be standing at first base, especially under the circumstances. I remember the coach of my temporary team saying “He wasn’t supposed to do that, was he?” to my regular coach.
The next thing that I remember distinctly is being on third base after that hit. I can’t recall the exact details of how I got from first to third base: some forgotten sequence of events drawn from the possibilities of hit, walk, error, and wild pitch. I just remember being on third when the batter took ball four to bring me home: yet another contribution I was about to make to this my adopted team-for-the-night.
As I proceed in my trot toward the plate, the catcher (my “real” team’s catcher) evidently decides to start playing psychological games with me. Or is he just having a little fun with a teammate? But he looks serious and irritated, as though I were rubbing it in that I was helping the other team. It’s not my fault. I’m just playing the game! He’s glaring at me and faking throws to third base. What’s the point of that?
Soon, but not soon enough to escape the terrible destiny Fate had prepared for me, I realized my situation. The bases had not been loaded! I could not walk home. The throw was made to the third baseman. I was tagged out. Shame and ignominy fell on me like heavy shrouds! The Earth did not open up to let me escape through an underground passageway, so I must have trotted to the dugout, but I have no memory of anything beyond the realization of my mistake, not of the tag nor of who was playing third. Did anyone on either team or any coach say anything to me? Did I bat again that night? Did I make any plays in the field? Who won the game? All of these details have been wiped clean from my memory.
All that remains is the humiliation of being the player given to the other team, the brief glow of satisfaction from my clean hit, and the anguish of comprehending my boneheaded mistake. Was there no third base coach? I suppose not. Did anyone suspect that I had deliberately made an out to help my real team? I would probably have preferred that to the felt certainty that everyone had clearly seen my mistake, one that a “real” player would never have made, so that in the commission of it I had thereby amply justified my selection as the giveaway player, my blunder having effaced that beautiful single. I don’t remember anything about the rest of the season, before or after that game. Just those few moments have survived. Such is the way of memory.