Thanks to everyone who responded to my attempt to give away some copies of my latest book. Several people were kind enough to leave some good words about my previous book, Cardboard Gods, on Amazon. If you’re one of the heroic review-posters, please drop me a line if you haven’t done so already so that I can burden you with a copy of Benchwarmer.
A few brave fellows responded to my call for stories to failure. These pleased me to no end, and in hopes that you’ll be able to experience, as I did, the cumulative effect of having multiple stories of losing wash over you, I’m posting excerpts below in the manner of support group anonymity. I like to imagine that we’re all in this together, telling our tales of woe.
The first excerpt below is not a story but strikes me as a perfect opening note to our failures anonymous meeting. The other stories are all in the general vicinity, age-wise, of the picture shown here (me on deck, circa 1979 or thereabouts).
There’s failure, and then there’s failure. People tend to focus more on the latter, the spectacular demonstration that a person’s skills fled at the most inopportune moment, or maybe that the person never really had the required skills in the first place. But the former seems more like the kind you draw a narrative from and that you highlight from your own life. It’s that kind of failure that isn’t going to make any highlight reels, that doesn’t exactly surprise anyone, and that quietly reminds us that we’re all getting older, farther and farther from the days when would could have deluded ourselves into expectations of success, maybe even had the talent to achieve that success. Then there’s the one moment we have to realize it’s slipped away, and we’ve become Uncle Rico.
It was probably my 5th game as a starter, and things went wrong big time. A few balls turned into several more. After walking a couple guys, true panic set in, and each pitch, though aimed with increasing tension and frustration, continued to miss the mark. It slowly turned into the meltdown and end of a future major league strikeout king. After walking something like 7 or 8 batters without a single strike, my father, our coach, mercifully pulled me. The experience was so scarring and terrifying that I never asked to be on the mound again after that; my career as a pitcher was over. I also played catcher and outfield to some small degree of success that season, but mentally I had quit the game. I was just too young and immature to understand that those failures are what make one great and separate; had someone adequately explained that all the best players went through something similar, and with more maturity, I might have surmounted it.
My final game was only a few weeks into the season. I had tripled and was waiting on 3rd with nobody out. The pitcher threw a wild pitch that went to the backstop, so I bolted down the line hoping to score. The catcher raced back to recover the ball, grabbed it, and came up ready to throw to the pitcher covering the plate. So in that instant I decided to drop down into a feet-first slide. However, as I was dropping, the catcher lowered his arm, having decided that there was no chance to throw me out. Therefore, I decided not to slide, and I tried to stop my slide by planting my right foot into the ground and stand back up. My foot got caught, because there was no stopping gravity, and was pulled underneath the full weight of my body, twisting backward and making a loud cracking sound as I “slid” across the plate. I rested there, on the plate, looking up into the eyes of the umpire, who slowly spread his arms wide, signaling that I was, indeed, safe. The look on his face was one of confusion, whereas the look on my face was one of desperation, as I tried to speak to him, to tell him what had just happened, but I was incapable of speech. I sat there for what seemed like a few minutes, until my coach jogged out onto the field and helped me limp into the dugout.
Just as people remember the questions they get wrong on a quiz, not those they answer correctly, I recall only one batter I faced that afternoon. (Should I ever forget, I have the home movie to jog my memory.) The hitter was large, one of those “he can’t possibly be 12 years old” boys who shows up in every kids’ league, though never on your team. Nearly as wide as he was tall, he didn’t have to move forward in the batter’s box to crowd the plate.
Being smarter than I was skilled, I kept my first few pitches outside, missing the plate with a couple, catching the corner with a couple more. Each time, the batter leaned a little further over the plate, until he resembled a pre-teen with lumbago. The thought entered my head that if I could put a fastball on the inside corner, he’d never get around on it.
It was a good idea, but my pitch was less a fastball than a get-there-eventually-ball. It took long enough to arrive that Paul Bunyan had time to size it up, step so far into the bucket that he was practically facing me, and crush the ball to dead center: over the fence, over the dirt road, over the embankment . . . and over all 10 lanes of the freeway. He circled the bases to the delighted shrieks of his teammates, while I stared north, trying to determine how long it would take me to walk as far as he’d just hit the ball, and resisting the temptation to abandon the pitcher’s mound and try it. And my father caught every ignominious moment on film.