27 June 2014

The Longest Two Innings of My Life

My official player photo.
I played just one season of Little League, back in 1990. I had only really gotten into baseball at all in 1988. I wasn't really confident enough to play - athletic things were always outside my comfort zone - but my brother was old enough to play Tee Ball in '90 and so it just sort of seemed obligatory that I should give it a go that season.

In those days, pitchers were restricted by innings, rather than pitches. We had two pitchers, but it happened that one was suspended for a not-relevant-here incident at the same time the other had hit his innings pitched limit for the week. We needed someone to take the ball. And so I did what no one else seemed willing to do: I volunteered.

Mind you, I had no illusions that I was going to be a phenom. That wasn't the point. The point was, someone had to take the mound and throw the ball. I've never had any problem putting myself out there, whether to be helpful or amusing. My ego has enough sense of humor that I don't embarrass easily.

So anyway, I was the starting pitcher in this one game. One of the restrictions in Little League at that time (perhaps still; I don't know) was that no matter how many outs were recorded, a team could only send ten batters to the plate per inning. When you're batting, you hate that rule because it automatically caps your offensive capabilities. When you're on defense, you're less against that rule because it assures your wait to bat again won't be too long. When you're pitching and you're struggling, you know that rule was written to preserve your ability to live with yourself.

I was, frankly, terrible.

I threw for two innings, before being relieved by another teammate. I'm not sure I recorded a single out, and I am sure that if not for that ten-batter limit, I might still be out there struggling. Everyone managed to either get a hit off me, or drew a walk. I hit at least two batters. I felt embarrassed when I hit the first, and furious with myself when I hit the second. I don't really remember much from the second inning, except pure dread.

None of my teammates spoke to me between innings, or even throughout the rest of that game. Not as I recall, anyway. In fairness, I had retreated so far inward by the end of the first inning that my recollection on this point can't be trusted. I can only say that I felt completely alone. I didn't mind so much that I looked bad out there; I had never pitched a game in my life. I knew only a little about grips and less about technique.I was responsible for setting the tone for the game, and I had done a dismal job of it. Worse, I'd put us behind by allowing in however many runs I'd coughed up. They say it's lonely at the top, and let me tell you something: the pitching mound is only a few inches elevated above the rest of the field, but it's the loneliest place on the entire diamond.

Our manager had actually been absent for a week or so at this time, but reappeared some time by the end of that first inning. One of my former teammates insists otherwise, but I know without a doubt that it was during this game that he reappeared because I had never been more relieved or hopeful to see him - or any other human being - in my life. The other coaches had kept things going in his absence, but he was the one responsible for the team. His responsibility was greater than mine, and I was desperate that he would find a solution. He sent me back out to pitch the second, saying he hadn't really had a chance to see much of the first. I took the ball and went back out there. Mercifully, when I returned to the dugout after that inning, he took me out of the game. I sat and sulked in the dugout for all of the third and probably the fourth, as well.

All these years later, two of my friends who were on that team still enjoy busting my chops over how awful a pitcher I was. One of them was the ace pitcher whose spot I had taken because he was suspended. I wasn't in competition with him or anyone else when I volunteered to pitch. I knew I was a sacrificial lamb. I honestly thought I'd do better than I did, of course, but there was no time for anyone to work with me about pitching before the game. It was just one of those things where you had to do something and hoped for the best, knowing that at its worst, it was still better than forfeiting a game outright. You can't stage a comeback in a forfeit, after all. Better to be defeated on the field of play than to not even try.

I learned a lot from just that one season of Little League, and in particular my two innings pitched. Just because I enjoy or want to do something doesn't mean I can, or should. Sometimes I wonder if I haven't internalized that lesson too strongly and allowed it to become a glass ceiling for myself. Maybe I've abandoned things too quickly at times over the years. That's a little life lesson that's sort of been on my mind lately, for various reasons.

But another thing I can attribute to that outing was that it's a whole lot easier to watch someone else struggle and sling barbs at them than it is to put yourself out there and take the risk. I have never once regretted that I volunteered to eat up a few innings of pitching when my team needed someone to do it. The only part I have ever regretted was that I was so far in over my head.

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