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May 17, 2010

When I Too Played the Game


I only played ball once, one night of my life. I went 3 for 4, and my team won the championship with my contribution. I was not myself, however. I was another guy.

Staying down in Tulare with my brother, Don, one summer, and someone, his wife I seem to remember, suggested an afternoon snack of cold milk and warm cinnamon rolls from Costco. If you don’t know what these are, they are the best tasting, partially baked globs of sugar, butter, flour, dense cinnamon swirl, sugar and butter, with white frosting half an inch thick, that exist in the modern world, and they are as big as first base. Finishing one was a challenge that I met. I triumphed. I poured fifty pounds of sweet cement into my belly.

Then we went over to the softball park for the big game. All the teachers from Don’s school had a team, and they’d got to the finals of their town championship. The last game of the World Series in miniature. I drowsily sat on the flimsy wooden bleachers and waited for the boys to take the field. My stomach was churning like the cement mixer of my worst acid dreams. Never again give in to temptation, ugh.

So I read a paperback waiting for the mythical shout (PLAYBALL!), around 5, when Don called me down from the splinter repository.
“Hey dude, you got to do us a favor.”
“Uh.”
“You got to be Greg Mendez.”
“What?”
“Yeah. We’re one guy short. If we don’t have Greg we forfeit. It’s the finals, man. Come on.”
“But I’ve never played softball before in my life.”
“On the job training.”
"And I look like a Greg Mendez to you? I don't even speak Spanish."
"You don't speak English either."

I went out to center field, with my gut full of wallpaper paste bobbling up and down, and Don explained the game to me.
“You don’t have to do anything. Don’t try to actually catch the ball, just don’t let it get past you (there was no back fence). Then always throw it in the general direction of second base.”
“And when I have to bat?”
“Just take some hacks. We’ll do the rest. And … thanks Greg.”

We gathered in the wire enclosure that was a sort of dugout, a monkey cage. I thought I might be arrested for impersonating a softball player. Then Don went up to the ump and introduced me as Greg Mendez. He also introduced me to his teammates,
“Guys, this is not my brother. This is Greg Mendez, our friend. He just looks a little different today. Like my brother.”

All the guys said ‘Hi Greg’ and the game started. I got through the first half inning just standing in center field. Wow, I thought, lucky nothing came my way!

Then we were up. When I stood at the plate, nervously holding the bat as tightly as I could, my teammates (none of whose names I knew) were yelling, ‘Go Greg Mendez! You’re the man!’ and other sarcastic encouragements. The slow pitch came in respecting its arc, falling to my doom. But as it got square in front of me I blanked out a second or got natural inspiration or let all dull care go, anyway I got a solid hit—donk—over the short stop. As I ran towards first, I thought ‘drop the bat, drop the bat’ and I did. And made it safe, without even a throw. Fooled everyone on the field and in the stands. They thought I was a ringer.

Or maybe Greg Mendez. Except that his wife, Betty, and young kids, Garth and Chelsea, were there watching. I met them after the game and almost wished I really was Greg Mendez. Earth calling Martin, come back down.

The next inning a ball came to me on the roll, and I scooped it up and tossed it weakly towards second base. I was 40 at the time and Don was 30. I wasn’t sure I could raise my arm over my head to throw a baseball, but I did. Some people in the stands, I heard later, thought that Don and I were twins because we both had the same short beards. That was a nice compliment. Twins ten years apart, they called us afterwards.

At the plate I got two more hits into the outfield, one past the moved-in fielders for a two-bagger (actually I got to first and stopped but my whole team yelled at me to keep going). In later innings I caught two balls, watching them arc up and get closer and following them with intense concentration into my glove with both hands. Almost the first baseball glove I’d ever worn. Greg's glove, that is. I've never owned a glove myself. Anyway, it worked. I tried very hard, and didn’t make a fool of myself.

You know why we all love pro baseball so much, don't you? Because sitting in the stands with your official MLB uniform on and glove in hand, you hope and wish they'd call you down. Hey Martin, Pablo Sandoval's not feeling too good, can you fill in today? Sure, be right there. No other sport makes something so hard seem so easy. In our fantasy lives we're all baseball heroes.

The P.E. teachers on our team were real softball studs and hit the big home runs into Kern county, driving us all in. It was a high scoring game. I came across the plate all three times that I got on base. It was 19-10 in the last inning, with two outs.

I stepped up to the plate and nodded once again to the umpire. I peered out at the pitcher swinging his arm like bowling for … a strike. Gripping the bat with white knuckles, here it comes, wait wait, now, swing! Strike one, whoof, I nearly threw out my shoulder. Why did I miss? Swing too soon, too late, too high, too low? I should have just whacked it like I had before. Nope. Hmm.

Second pitch coming. Whoosh, whiff, strike two! What? I’m losing my touch. Shouts from the dugout: Come on Greg, knock it hard! Go yard, Greg! They were giggling, mocking me.

Then the pitcher lost his timing and threw three clear balls in a row, two not even getting to the plate. Full count, here it comes, stay calm, WHOOF again, strike three. Out. Game over.

I’d lost my own timing and badly let down the boys. Guilty of pride. Even though we won, I watched dejectedly as we were given the big trophy for the school. I still can’t figure out what happened, trying too hard I guess. Like old Matt Williams in the 90’s when every swing should have been a homer, but most just moved some air, inspiring the Candlestick winds. And he bit his shirt collar and cussed himself until he got traded to Arizona with a buck-and-change average. Might Casey …

Well folks, my batting average was and still is a respectable 750. Three runs made, two catches made, one embarrassing strike out made. We won. Couldn’t have done it without you, Greg. Hey, everybody out for Chinese food!

I excused myself and walked six blocks home alone, hoping to settle my stomach still churning that sugar goo from three hours before. I felt even worse once I arrived in the bathroom and spent a good long session praying to the god of porcelain, with disappointing results. Your brain knows it’s better if you hurl, but you can’t force mother nature or Costco.

Then I stretched out flat on the floor in the dark, swooning. Don and the partiers came home, and eventually I fell asleep. The next morning my belly still hurt, not to mention my shoulders, arms, legs, neck, butt and hands, but I also went to the breakfast table for coffee and grapefruit knowing I had played the game and not badly.

Happy trials, Martin


Mutt: Ahhh. She was only the moonshiner's daughter, but I loved her still!
Jeff: Was that a shotgun wedding, Mutt? As in: wife or death?
Mutt: Marriage, my friend, is the mourning after the knot before.
Jeff: Let’s see: aisle, altar, hymn ... thought the bride as she entered the church.
Mutt: And please allow me to express myself in poetry.
Jeff: Be my guest, sir.
Mutt: An ode to marriage:
He goes to adore
He rings the belle
He gives his name to a maid.
And He's taken in.
Jeff: A gem, a gem, you’re a true artist, a true artist. Now can I tell a conjugal story?
Mutt: By all means do.
Jeff: A man and his wife were on vacation on a remote Caribbean island. The man was lying under a palm tree relaxing in the shade when his wife walked over. "Honey," she said, "let's go snorkeling now. There are many fascinating sea creatures for us to see." To this he replied, "With fronds like these, who needs anemones?"
Mutt: Oowah!

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