My first attempt at sports left a bad taste in my mouth. The briny taste of tears, in fact. I was five or six and was “encouraged” to sign up for little league baseball like all the other little boys were eagerly doing–probably of their own volition. My parents–along with my Old World Polish grandpa–took me to the town ball park to sign up one Saturday afternoon. It was probably around the bicentennial (1976 for those of you too young to remember) because my dad had bought me a vinyl red, white and blue baseball mitt. I was wearing it as I stood in line with other boys, fidgeting. When it was my turn to sign up with the coach things went awry. Standing at home plate, I began to cry hysterically. That mitt came in handy to cover my face as I was ushered off the infield by my presumably humiliated parents. It was the perfect use for it. And the only use it ever got.
I grew up in a small, rural Indiana town. It was a town full of farmers and fresh air. My best friend was a girl my age named Carol who lived down the street. Blond, like her four siblings, she was loud, funny and imaginative. I can still remember her phone number–one I’ve probably dialed more than anyone since. We spent all the years through elementary school enraptured in our imaginations, pretending we were all different kinds of people in all kinds of interesting places. It’s one of the purest memories of joy from my childhood. Just me and Carol–sometimes joined by nearby kids or visiting relatives–calling the shots and playing and laughing, boundless and zany.
Meanwhile, most boys my age were playing sports while I was playing down the street with Carol until dusk, then entranced by the television after that until bedtime. Until sixth grade. It was the beginning of middle school and somehow a time when the divide between boys and girls emerged from subtle to gaping. Carol and I saw less and less of each other. It happened gradually–naturally, even. It seems sad in retrospect like it was a quintessential end of innocence.
During the same period of time I began growth spurts that involved actual physical growing pains. I remember my legs aching off and on for several years as I rocketed toward six feet. My height was revealing itself to others to mean one thing: basketball. (It was Indiana, after all.) There came talk of “basketball camp” in the summer. I couldn’t figure out how tents and basketball fit together. Did they play in giant tents? I was curious. But not curious enough to actually attend despite numerous attempts to sign me up.
At some point I was “persuaded” to join the sixth grade basketball team. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I’d never watched sports or cared about them. When my dad proudly presented me with my first jock strap, I asked if it went over or under my underwear. The answer perplexed me and left me a little disgruntled.
The drudgery of basketball practice confirmed my disinterest in the sport. Besides missing the second half of “General Hospital” I wasn’t unaware that I was completely out of my element. I was “apart”–different. On the court, I couldn’t get rid of the ball fast enough. I prayed no one would pass it to me, and that I could run around aimlessly for the duration of the game and just get credit for showing up. I didn’t understand the rules, or didn’t care enough to remember them. I “traveled” a lot. Running with the ball was easier if you just held it tight. I was often unwittingly out-of-bounds–literally and figuratively. And though I wanted to quit, I wasn’t allowed to. (To this day, quitting something gives me a great delayed sense of satisfaction tied back to this very event.) So I managed to finish the season, and I was never happier to have it over.
But there was more humiliation yet to come off the court. During American History, the season’s stats were passed out to those of us who were on the team. Every column after my name was zero. Zero rebounds. Zero points. Zero other stuff that I didn’t understand then or now. Except for the last column. “Effort – 200%”. In retrospect it feels like it was added just for my benefit. And it was incorrect. I don’t think I could have given less effort. Or could I have been that good of an actor? Doubtful. Regardless, the embarrassment was searing, and fortified my resolve that basketball was over. Forever.
Skip ahead two years to eighth grade track season. No one in the history of humanity had longer legs than I did. Built for running. Or so I was led to believe. I mean, I’d certainly used them to run. During unstructured, non-competitive play. As someone who has always been “apart” from the group, I’m not sure why I relented and joined the track team. Unless I was forced to. Which was highly likely. “Apart” children probably make parents nervous.
The best thing about track was that even though it was sort of a team sport, when I was running I got to be alone. The worst part about it–one of the worst things–was the high jump set up my hard-working dad proudly created for me in our back yard. Our wide-open back yard. A moldy mattress resting on a granite bed of hay bails. He’d driven two poles into the ground and notched them with nails every inch so the bar could be raised (or lowered.) The bar that traversed the two poles was triangular in shape so no matter how I landed each time the sharp edge of it tried to sever my spinal cord.
I didn’t break any records–or vertebrae–that year, but I finished out the season once again. When the stats were distributed I didn’t have any zeros, but I had paid my dues and I swore to myself that my impending high school years were going to be sports-less–no matter how much pressure was applied. Instead, I focused my considerable talents on introspection, moodiness and solitude.
No zeros in those categories either.