Published: May 7th 2008May 7th 2008
There is a little boy with straight hair as blond as the sun bleached sand alone in the center of a small, tunnel-like backyard. The faint dusk light sends his shadow arching along the ground behind him. He bends down to the ground and scoops up a muddy gray baseball with the oversized glove his father gave him for Christmas. He stands slowly, tiredly, and faces the black trampoline pitch-back. It glares back at him from the shadows. A white strike zone was once painted onto it but now, after years of abuse, only faint splashes of paint dot the black surface.
The child looks down gravely at the ball in his hand and runs the tips of his pudgy, nine-year-old fingers over its fraying laces. He faces the pitch-back purposefully, steps his left leg back, and kicks it up as he twists to the right. He flings his body forward and launches the ball towards the target. The ball thuds against the surface and flies back in the air. He lurches forward with outstretched glove and catches the ball. He hurls pitch after pitch, each one seen by less light than the last. He practices determinedly, ambitiously, with an almost animal-like ferociousness. This is not about baseball. This is about being the best in the world. This is not about playing. This is about perfection.
"Nate, its dark. Come inside," my mom calls from the kitchen window. Begrudgingly, I put the ball in my glove and walk tiredly to the door, thoughts of the Yankees, ninth inning strike outs and sports stardom still flitting about my mind.
As a child, baseball was not just a passion, it was an obsession. In nearly every way, baseball was the current along which my childhood flowed. To me, it wasn't a game, a pastime, a hobby, or a fancy. It was a chore. It was an obligation. It was work.
This work revolved around a single focus; becoming a professional baseball player. But even that dream was not enough for me; I wanted to be the best shortstop, the best Yankee, the league MVP. And until high school, when my immature shoulder was tattered from overuse, I was fully confident that my exertion would translate into the fulfillment of this vision.
Each summer, at the end of the normal spring season, I was selected to play for Nyack's All-Star team. This team would compete against the other All-Stars from around the district and then, if victorious, would move to Regionals. This culminated in the Little League World Series, now shown on national television.
In fifth grade, against a Ramapo team that was supposed to be especially strong, I threw a no-hitter. It was one of those moments when the dream and the reality collide, or at least come so close that they appear to be one. I really can do this, I really can be a professional athlete, I now thought to myself.
And it wasn't just me who thought like this. My pitching coach Mags, a former MLB pitcher with tight muscles and a shaved head, told me that I was the most gifted kid he had ever coached. He said that I had greater accuracy, a more sinister curveball and a better work ethic than anyone on Dominican College, the college team he coached and whose gym at which we practiced. But it wasn't just he who filled my head with aspirations of glory.
There was standout player about five years older than me who, after going to national baseball showcases, had been rated as one of the five best high school shortstops in the country. His father, a friend of my mom, offered to work with me one on one for free. He disclosed to me that I was better at that age than his son Spencer. I believed him at the time. Maybe he was right; he is now a consultant and scout with the Cincinnati Reds. Though these comments were said to me offhand only a few times, you must understand how they would be taken by someone who, more than anything else in the entire world, dreamed of making it to the big time.
When I think back to my baseball days, it is not the many successes that are conjured up. Neither is it the memory of that fateful All-Star game against Clarkstown in which I felt my shoulder collapse for good. I don’t remember the faces of parents or teammates, the orange dirt of Liberty Field, or the feel of the laces jutting out from smooth leather. Instead, whenever I think back to the time in which I played baseball, I am swamped with an overwhelming loneliness. It is in this loneliness that I spent my youth. Whether alone on the mound, alone at bat or, and this is the strongest memory, alone in my backyard, I felt isolated and underappreciated.
When I was in fourth grade, the spring concert to which I was obligated to go conflicted with a game in which I was scheduled to pitch. Though our team had already qualified for the playoffs, we were still fighting for a top seed. I was pitching, and pitching well. Entering the fourth inning, I had given up only a few hits and no runs. My curve ball, my go-to weapon whose wicked dip was nearly unhittable at the small, Little League lengths, was working to great effect. Then, just as I was mentally preparing to go back out to the mound, my Dad called over to me saying, "Nathan, time to go to the concert. I have your clothes in the car."
In my singular concentration on pitching I had completely forgotten about the concert. Now it loomed over me like impending death. And with strength appropriate to a struggle against death, I fought against my Dad. First, I refused to leave the dugout. He went around the chain link fence, entered the dugout, and picked me up forcefully in his arms. I screamed, kicked, punched, all with the intention of embarrassing him. I made life no easier on the car ride and when we got to the school, although I had changed out of my little dusty White Sox uniform, my dad still had to carry me. As my dad lugged me down the empty hallway, I grabbed onto every doorframe, corner and windowbox that came within reach.
When we entered the auditorium, my class was lining up to go to the stage. I joined them, but only to further humiliate my father. Standing in the middle of the second row among a sea of shining, singing little faces, I cried, hidden behind the child next to me. I must have imagined this scene, because I have a clear mental picture of the gap that I created, and the wicked, enraged look on my face. My parents were humiliated. The ride back home was suffocated by a smothering silence. They don't care about baseball, I told myself sitting alone in the backseat, really meaning, they don't care about me.
Although I still smoldered with the ambition of becoming a professional baseball player for years after this event, not once did I tell them about my true dreams. They knew I loved baseball greatly, but I doubt that they understood the true purpose of the hours I spent alone in the backyard pitching until my shoulder was depleted. They must have guessed that I was thinking about Little League games or the All-stars. They couldn’t have known of the fierce seriousness with which I strived after sports stardom.
I am not sure whether the concert catastrophe prevented me from sharing with them or if it served to highlight the limit of their understanding for my obsession. It must have been a mix of the both, but there is simply no getting around the fact that they were not sports people. My father, a botanist turned engineer, and my mother, a musician, valued sports as a worthwhile pastime and even encouraged my siblings to participate in them. Yet at the same time they stressed, as I plan to mimic when I have children, the importance of being well-rounded. Even now, I am not sure what would have been the correct action for them to have taken. On one hand, it is important to emphasize the importance of following through with one's obligations, but on the other hand, a singularly determined child would inevitably be greatly hurt.
As a child, my parents forced me (and I say forced because I always refused) to take up an instrument, go to concerts, see plays, read books, and visit museums. All of this conflicted with baseball. If it wasn’t my own game that I was missing, then it would be a Yankee game. Sometime in the May of my twelfth year, my aunt gave my whole family tickets to a Yankees game. However, my father insisted that the family come to Family Day at Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company at which he worked. I sat outside of his building enraged, listening to the Yankee game I was missing. The game turned out to be one of the most memorable of Yankee history. In this game, to which I had been expecting to go since Christmas when my aunt had given us the tickets, David Wells pitched a perfect game. My excitement was tempered by animosity towards my father who cared more about his stupid job than the Yankees.
Yet contrary to what my young, bitter eyes saw, my parents, who had almost never played a single athletic game, supported me to the full extent of their abilities. They took me to games, signed me up for summer leagues and even paid for me to go to a weekly pitching coach. Even though there were three other children occupying their cramped time, they gave me all that they had, even if they would be so tired at the end of the day that within hours of getting home my dad would be asleep on the couch and my mom would dose off in my bed with a book in her lap.
Looking back, I see that as much as they cared, they simply couldn’t have provided me what I would have needed to have achieved my dream. There is a limit to how often one can pitch, especially for a fragile developing arm. Those hours that I spent throwing against the pitch-back are ultimately what lead to the destruction of my shoulder and the end of an, up until then, life-long dream. They didn’t know better and neither did I.
When I was younger, I often thought about what life would have been like if I had been born to parents who emphasized sports. I imagined myself as an exceptional baseball player with a father who pushed me and drove me long distances to practices. I pictured spending all of those hours that I spent alone playing catch with a father. I saw myself sitting with my imaginary father in our reserved seats in Yankee Stadium.
But now, almost ten years older, I look at what life would have been like with that imaginary father and I cringe. I probably would have been a better athlete, true. But I know that if I had had any other parents, I would have been a less exceptional human being, the ultimate goal of all parenting.