Up until 2004, baseball was my identity. I was never a great hitter, or a great fielder, or a great base runner, but I knew how to pitch. As I entered my senior year, I really hit my stride. I could hear a loud hiss each time the ball left my hand, my curve and slider were dancing twice as much as the previous season, and I could paint the corners of the plate with an ease that comes from a decade of practice.
Then just before the season began, it came to an end. And I remember the exact day I killed my shoulder.
During gym class, my teacher and I decided it’d be fun to throw full court shots with a basketball. I did this for nearly an hour, in a not-so-subtle effort to impress one of the girls in the class.
I’d developed bursitis and could no longer throw without feeling a sharp stab of pain. I had multiple rounds of rehab, deep tissue massages, accupunture, electrotherapy, and cortisone shots. Nothing helped. I didn’t tell anyone how I’d hurt my shoulder. The idiocy was humiliating.
I sat out every game my senior year. In an effort to stave off my boredom (baseball is fun to play, not to watch), I started taking pictures and videos of the games with my favorite gadget, the Sony DSC-T1. By the end of the year, I had a bunch of fun photos and footage of the season. I packaged the best shots into a slideshow we played at our final banquet dinner:
It was the beginning of a new hobby that I’d quickly fallen in love with. And while I’d completely ripped off ESPN’S “Images of the Century,” I didn’t care. The days I’d spent making that video were so much fun, and it was incredibly rewarding to see teammates and family members well up with tears when they saw it. I still loved the game, and had found a new way to express it.
I have so, so many memories from those 12 years…I remember my first practice at 4 years old, being outside for 3 hours in the cold wind, and wanting to play catch when I got home. I remember getting hit in the face with a fly ball at the next practice. My coach called my mom to ask how I was, and I kept whispering through swollen lips, “Tell him I quit!”I remember the first time I pitched. I hit a batter in the back, and walked him down to first base to make sure he was okay. (I soon learned to relish drilling any batter that crowded the plate.)I remember being in complete shock during my first pitching lesson, when I was told my form was terrible. It was the first strong criticism I’d ever received for something I thought I was doing perfectly. I took it very personally.I remember my neighbors restraining their rage during my backyard games of homerun derby. The tennis balls would randomly bounce off their rooftops for hours. I vowed to reward their patience if I ever made it to the pros.I remember being slightly terrified my freshmen year in high school, playing against kids who had gone through puberty, who were hitting the ball so hard I thought it’d kill me.I remember the smell of Icy Hot, sunflower seeds, Big League Chew, and Gatorade. I remember the irritating pinch of leather and worn-out sheepskin inside my glove. I remember hating every time I had to use a bat with those stupid graffiti-style decals, and the awful sound metal cleats made on concrete.I remember the greatest feeling was hitting a line drive between left and center field with a wood bat that’d been doused with pine tar. A close second was striking a batter out swinging with a high-inside fastball. The absolute worst feeling was getting struck out looking.I remember getting my front teeth knocked out by a baseball, the 11 shots of Novocain, the root canals, and wearing multiple sets of temporary crowns that looked like Chiclets. I learned to never stand near the catcher in the bullpen.I remember my aunt being most impressed with my ability to catch the ball each time the catcher threw it back to me. I remember my sister yelling at the ump, “We know you’re blind, we’ve seen your wife!”I remember the last inning of a close game, and our third baseman calling to me between batters: “Charlie! A bird just landed on the field!” I was so thrown off by the remark that I completely lost focus, and we lost the game.I remember all the tournaments in Steamboat Springs, Pueblo, Idaho, and Arizona. I remember our team fooling around during one of the games, while the opposing team — and their parents — were taking it very seriously. They were enraged that we seemed to be mocking their efforts. I was called in, and the ball slipped from my hand on the first pitch. It hit the batter square in the head. This was the only time I was more concerned about what would happen in the parking lot than who would win.I remember clearly seeing the results of practicing correctly. Hitting off a tee for hours every day – an insanely boring drill – resulted in some of the best hits I ever had. It established a simple truth: you can get really good at anything with focused repetitions. (“Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”)I remember getting picked off at first base THREE TIMES in one game. I remember how many times the ball went through my legs. I remember how many curve balls I swung at and missed. I remember no one calling for the fly ball, and watching it drop to the ground. I remember making multiple errors in my first game playing up, and all of my older teammates sarcastically clapping as I entered the dugout.I remember so many errors, walks, balks, and strikeouts. I remember winning games we were expected to lose, and losing games we should have won. I remember the frustration that evaporated as quickly as it came. It was just a game…
For 12 years of my life, I practiced throwing, catching, and hitting a ball. Then it stopped, as it does for countless people each year, and I was left to fill the void with something else.
Everyone who plays knows that it comes to an end. Many of the pros get so invested in that one aspect of their life that they’re completely lost when it stops. The question to ask is, where will you go when that day inevitably arrives? How will you reinvent your identity once it’s stripped away?
Baseball taught me that today is preparation for tomorrow, and that the score was never the point. It was my constant reminder that I would never reach mastery; I would always make mistakes, and needed to get comfortable with failing. And when I could no longer play, it was an opportunity to move on and find something else I loved. Above everything else, baseball showed me the importance of resilience. In that sense, it was the perfect game.
My dad was the one who taught me how to play. He coached me for years, took me to the batting cages, paid for lessons, loaded the tee, kept score throughout high school, and footed the bill for my new teeth. Of the several hundred games I played, I remember him missing only a few.
One of his favorite memories (which I do not remember) was of me driving in the winning run when I was 5 years old. Everyone cheered, the coach lifted me up on his shoulders, and I yelled out, “Dad, what did I do?!”
His favorite memory:
Playing catch in the backyard. You never, ever got tired of playing catch. I hope one day you get to experience the feeling that I had whenever I would walk through the door from work and you would hand me my glove and ask me to play. There are few things better for a dad.
A final sad note: One of my high school teammates, Shane Wise, was recently attacked in downtown Denver. He’s been in the hospital for over a month, recovering from severe head injuries — fractures to his face, skull, and bleeding in his brain. He is uninsured, and the bills are mounting.
This awful incident couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, and given that he recently became a father, he and his family are in a very unfortunate position.
If anything I’ve written has ever helped you in some way, please consider this a chance to return the favor:
Take two minutes to help with Shane’s hospital bills.
Even $20 will be $20 less that he’ll have to pay.