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Sports

Fly ball

One writer learns the power of the baseball diamond

MT Illustration: Justin Rose
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WDET interviews Brian Smith about this story (MP3)
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Published 4/7/2010

I love how the baseball diamond is basically a vagina. An aerial view of a major ball field clearly shows how it is as anatomically correct as man-carved acreage can be. 

Not even "bat" and "ball" metaphors and schoolyard schemes of getting to first, second and third base, and nailing a home run, can compete with the image.

 The diamond's been used beautifully in lit — Beth Nugent's airy City of Boys comes to mind — to play out as a symbol of sexual entrapment or subtext a passage of testosterone-ripe obliviousness. 

You wonder how baseball-obsessive domestic abusers and woman-haters would react if they looked at the game as one played out over an inescapably decisive symbol of a female universe? 


If you were
in sixth grade in the late '70s, hated baseball but loved the Ramones, you were a pussy.

A ton of kids called me that, in fact, but when even girls begin laughing at you, you learn early how to keep your trap shut, and how to reinterpret the exact meaning of the term pussy. But mostly it was these four dudes, these schoolyard baseball heroes who'd already begun developing thumb-shaped heads, and who successfully pounded me into the ground a couple times in the desert beyond the schoolyard. Four against one ... slap, snap, bap and crack. 

Nice. 

They were implausibly watchful and fixated on me, and had discovered all this personal shit. I'd offended them, mortally, with zero instigation. There was no pretense: They saw a skinny punk rock idiot who despised baseball and couldn't see the profound expressiveness in wearing a uniform and standing still on a ball field, for hours, breaking occasionally to sit on a bench or chase or hit a little ball.

The four dudes were Little League superstars in new clothes and expensive kicks, but they weren't exactly bullies in the traditional sense. They didn't go around beating up just any kid. Besides, why would they do anything to jeopardize the Golden Child standing bestowed upon them by the phys ed coach and male teachers? Even if I was a snitch, my level of insignificance at Gale Elementary School was such that there was nothing I could say that could sway any opinion of them with whatever fact that "may or may not be true." 

They were the untouchables. Two of them, Steve and Matt, would likely own high school by 10th grade, the chicks and the baseball team. Their parents would partake in their lives, encourage them to be their best, cheer them on, reward them, and all that. Then later they'd probably go pro, buy too-big stucco-sprayed houses in gated communities, vote Republican. They would become nice conservatives with trophy tart wives. Safe, unquestioningly safe, and immaculate, just like the homes they live in now. Safe and immaculate is something to be. You could almost hear the narcissism blooming inside their soft white frames. 

But it didn't matter ... I wanted to be those guys. They looked happy, fairly well bred and normal. Girls began to want them, and they weren't depressed. They appeared to be gifted, in charge. And they looked older than the others, taller with adult features. Why aren't they in high school? Confidence can do that to a kid.

My insides couldn't measure up to their happy outer shells, and I'd suffocate on longing to be anything and anyone else. At night I'd dream of hitting home runs, pulling a team of adulators out of last place into first, and walking tall through school hallways, the hero. 

So to be Steve and Matt, I'd have to prove I wasn't no pussy. I was 11, in need of deliverance, and to find it, as every other kid who lived near Pantano Park knew well, we had the Wildcats Little League baseball teams for direction. How hard can the stupid game be if all these kids can do it? 

It's insane to attach so much significance and potential emotional payoff to a little leather ball stitched together with evil red thread. The baseball rises and falls, gets hit and caught, bounces, stops and soon unravels. I knew I wanted the baseball to stay up and off the ground, forever. I wanted self-belief. I didn't want the sport to be the foreign language spoken fluently and daily by everyone but me. 

Aside from scenes in The Bad News Bears, I'd never watched a baseball game. Nor had I ever played it, except for softball with the school losers who never got picked to play any other playground sports. We were the leftovers, fending for peer relevance, an island of misfit something or other. 


Saturday afternoon
at my scheduled tryout time and Stan stood on home plate. He wore red shorts, wrist-wrap U.S.A. sweat bands, an Oakland A's visor and a beer gut, and had large and oily pores around his nose. What's up with those pores, dude? Stan coached the Wildcat team for my age group. 

There were a handful of other kids there, cool and confident, standing behind the high-rise fence, directly behind home plate. They were waiting for a shot to prove some manhood. It was my turn.

The scene was a breeding ground for humiliation and defeat, with an audience. I could feel nervous piss.

Screw that. I'm on a mission. 

Besides, I felt like a man with my newly acquired baseball glove and shoes.

"Run out to the outfield and catch a fly ball," Coach barked. He eschewed all eye contact. He talked around you, not to you.

I trotted out beyond the base path to the outfield, which ended at a chain-link fence that separated the field from the park. Two boys with red faces and backward baseball caps sat cross-legged in the grass, on the other side of the fence, watching. One of them had fingers curled around fence links, like he longed to get over to our side. 

I turned, faced Coach about 40 yards away. He nodded. I nodded back. That's what ballplayers do. He gripped the ball, pulled his arm back and heaved that thing straight up into the sunny blue. It soared and nearly disappeared. I'd never seen anyone throw a baseball like that; so high, so far. That's self-assurance, man, bigger than his beer gut. I felt my confidence lift in direct proportion to the rise of that baseball. What strange, unfamiliar beauty.

I am the man! Yes I Am. The Man!

The ball hit its peak altitude and then curved forward as if in slow motion — and in that very moment everything stopped, the squeaking birds, the chirping kids, the distant cars, the symphony of lawnmowers from nearby neighborhoods ... there was nothing but the sound of air. The ball began to slowly bow into a graceful arch, an arch as perfect as a half-moon on a suburban midnight. I lifted my glove up above my head in front of me and aimed it at that orb in the sky. As it began to dive, I stepped left, and then right, never taking my eye off the baseball. 

But baseball was, as it is now, made up of painfully slow gestures defined by specific skill sets that can't be faked, skills that require at least a practiced attempt at perfection. 

As it got closer it picked up speed as if the sheer velocity of its descent hastened its clip. Suddenly, in a flash: panic. The inner poise — that fleeting moment of pure, glorious manhood — began to decrease in direct proportion to the ball's fall. 

Shit.

I heard the whizzing before the whack, a kind of airy sizzle like a launching model rocket on film played backwards. 

Was the ball meant to maim? Is that the overriding point of baseball: to successfully avoid getting maimed? 

Baaaaaappp! An interior wail, an eerie flat roar, loud as falling factories, deafened. 

Is that me?

And then ... darkness. 


I came to ...
and the world had tipped sideways, its outer edges crimped and dizzy, far from focused and stained in a hazy hue of old pennies. Blood splayed out on the grass in front of my nose, looked like the crimson candles along the pulpit and scaffolds at church, and I could taste its dull brassiness, warm and wet. 

It was like oi boys in steel-toed boots had soccer-kicked my skull inside out, and the sun and the throbbing guaranteed there was little else to consider. 

There was a flutter of bird wings, and blocks away a car's engine kept trying to turn over, its driver unable to get it started ... I rolled onto my back and saw Stan's expressionless face and ugly pores staring down at me. He was just standing there with his hands on his knees, mouth agape, the sun a halo around his head.


My right eye
stayed swollen shut for a couple weeks and required stitches, couldn't see shit out of it for a few months. It watered and hurt like hell too. The wretched Spalding left a quarter-inch imprint of its stitched seam underneath my eye, for life. That ball nearly shattered my head. 

Once the eye's sight returned, life had truly shifted. Colors sprang up and head puzzles got solved, breathing began and it was so obvious I was no ballplayer. Even the four hallway heroes stepped clear. 

I saw how the baseball diamond works: It was like some feminine entelechy; it had force, real power to change, to alter grand gestures and whole human existences, misdirected or otherwise. It spoke of life, like how a single winning play could get a city of factory workers through weeks of miserable work days. It could shift a kid's life too. Just some kid, you know, one of a trillion mother's sons. 

Baseball rules.

Brian Smith plays softball with his cigarette attached. Write to bsmith@metrotimes.com.

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