Bypassed by America’s pastime

All my life I heard how important it is to know where you belong. I think that’s true, but I also think it’s more important to know where you DON’T belong.

Think about it. Belonging is painless – you know you fit in and all you have to do show up and keep on groovin’.

But what if you don’t belong? Well, if you don’t belong, and you don’t realize it, you’ve got a whole lot of suffering ahead of you as you keep hoping for the best, but keep getting reminded of the worst – that you are the other, an outsider, a shmendrick destined to sit at the feet of the gods but never to dine with them.

I learned this lesson well, and young, thanks to Little League baseball.

In the ’50s, baseball was as vital a part of American life as crew cuts, huge cars, old schoolmarms and sadistic dentists. It truly was The American Pastime. And the players themselves were if not gods, then at least idols. They were larger than life, everyone’s heroes and role models, totally unlike the drugged-up egomaniacs we suffer today. Of course, a lot of them were DRUNKEN egomaniacs, but the media kindly shielded us from that, as they did with all public figures.

So it was only natural I was going to be a “real” baseball player, a Little Leaguer, as opposed to a sandlot ragamuffin. Today, kids’ baseball leagues start practically in utero, but back then all we had was Little League, which started at age 12. This meant I had to wait till the summer after seventh grade to acquit myself admirably on the local diamonds. I did indeed wait but as for acquitting myself admirably? Read on.

A strike out at tryout

Try-out day was on Petrova field, and it was aswarm with what seemed like hundreds of would-be Mickey Mantles, Bobby Richardsons, and Yogi Berras (can you tell, by the way, that I was a Yankees’ fan back then?). We were put through various drills, with the coaches checking out each kid’s performance with eagle eyes.

Most of the kids were pretty good, and some were absolutely amazing. The coaches grinned about the former, and salivated over the latter. In my case, I’m sure they flinched. It was obvious to everyone but me that as a baseball player I was a total flopperoo.

I didn’t lack any specific skill – I lacked them all. I couldn’t hit, catch or throw, plus I was slow. And beyond that, I had no baseball sense. I couldn’t anticipate anything; I had no idea if a ball was hit, where it’d go. On defense, I couldn’t figure out what base to throw to; on offense, I didn’t know you were supposed to hit the ball in a specific direction. Everything was a total blur. It wasn’t as if I was merely hopeless as a ball player – it was as if I’d been doomed by God Almighty Hisself.

But every kid who showed up got chosen and so I ended up on a team. I can’t remember either the team or the coach’s name, but I remember he was a good guy. He also had a good understanding of baseball, but there was nothing he could do for me. I practiced with the team, but got put in only at the end the game, when theoretically it was too late for us to either lose our lead or reverse our loss. In actuality, we never reversed a loss. We also never won a game.

That was fine with me, because truth be told, early on in the season I realized Cooperstown was never going to host Bobby Seidenstein Day, so being on a losing team was no blow to my ego. Plus, having a keen sense of irony even then, I got the sardonic pleasure of telling my peers that my Little League team had a perfect record.

My position was right field because almost no one ever hit to it. So I was out there, ostensibly part of a group but very much on my own, left to my own devices, with a distant view of the action. People knew I was there, but they expected nothing of me. It was the Little League equivalent of hospice.

The big chance

I can recall only one hit that came my way. It was in the bottom of the last inning and we were down something like 48 to 4. The batter swung mightily, I heard a crack, and a pop fly came in my direction. It hung in the air for what seemed like minutes and then slowly floated back to earth. I actually managed to get underneath it, get set, and hold out my glove. Of course where I held my glove was nowhere near where it came down. Instead, it landed behind me. I turned and tore after it.

Twenty steps later, I picked it up and turned back to the diamond, and when I did, I was completely boggled. Their guys were running everywhichway, our guys were waving wildly, and everyone seemed to be screaming at the top of their lungs.

I just stood there, flummoxed. I knew I had to throw the ball but had no idea WHERE. To second base? To third base? To the shortstop? To the scorekeeper? To the old boozer leaning on the fence? Where? Where?

Finally, I wound up and threw so hard I thought I dislocated my shoulder, elbow, and back and at least one of my knees. But I’d no idea where I’d thrown it. For all I knew, I’d thrown it into another dimension. And ultimately that would’ve been fine, since everyone scored.

The way I saw it, though, even if the bases had been loaded, the other team would’ve increased their lead less than 10 percent. Obviously, this was the playing, and thinking, of someone who had no rhyme, reason or right to even BE on a baseball diamond, let alone on a baseball team. And when the season ended, so did my baseball career.

Years later, after a lot of serious running, I realized I could’ve been a formidable base runner. Unfortunately, I also realized it never would’ve happened, since I would’ve first had to reach first base.