I have been thinking about why I'm not playing in the major leagues or in the NBA. It has something to do with my physique, of course, with the talent I wasn't born with, with the dedication I didn't have—all those things. But I prefer to think it has most to do with the faith I have in ideals.
Like most children who play ball games, I held aspirations to greatness and had to have them drummed out of me before I'd give them up. (I was born with two fingers missing on one of my hands, but I believed that made me remarkable as an athlete.) It was only recently, though, that I knew how valuable it was for me, first to have those dreams and then to have them frustrated. How else would I have gotten so clear a view of the difference between what I have and what I want? How else would I have learned so thoroughly what a rugged path it is to the right way to do things?
My father used to say something to me when I was playing Little League baseball. "You don't strike out because you won't strike out." I was scrappy, according to him, and I played like Eddie Stanky. He admired my style. "Smart and sneaky, Stanky," my father said. I heard all about Stanky's tactic of sliding hard and kicking the ball out of a fielder's glove.
I remember our team, a bunch of raggedy kids who liked winning. We wore green hats with the peaks creased fashionably, just so. We had more coaches—nine—than any Little League team; they included the fathers of two of our players and a gnarled little man and his six grown sons. All of them seemed to think alike about baseball. During practices we listened to lectures on aggressiveness. We had a drill in which the biggest guy on the team—the Bomb, we called him—put on the catcher's equipment and stood at home plate with the ball. One at a time the rest of us tried to score from third by zooming in and attempting to knock the ball from his hands. "Run the big guy down," we were counseled. The Bomb deflected us in various directions. We represented our sponsor, the town's sanitation department, well. On the bench we talked about cleaning up the league, as if that were really our business and not just a joke. Two-thirds of the way through the season we were undefeated.
We had a big game scheduled against the team in second place, a team that had lost only to us. All day in school I watched the clouds gather and wondered if it would rain before we could play that night. The evening darkened early, and as our fathers wandered to the field after work, they carried their umbrellas. Standing at my position, second base, I saw my father drive by, and I knew he would park around the corner.
The game was close. A big fellow named Hans pitched for the other team. He was incredibly gangly, and he could really throw. In the third inning, though, the Bomb plastered one and ended up on second. Then another guy singled and the rightfielder threw to the plate. The Bomb came careening in and ran over the catcher, who'd been waiting for him with the ball. He was a little guy, the catcher. When he squatted to catch, his chest protector tickled the ground. The Bomb blasted him, and the little guy landed a good distance away, still holding the ball. Our coaches were yelling, "Way to go, Bomb."
In the next inning I singled. Then I stole second. The little catcher's throw went wild, and I left for third. The throw from center had me beat, but I slid and kicked the ball out of the third baseman's glove.
The opposing bench was along the third-base line. Their coach—Mr. Lipkin, as I shall call him—came off the bench and walked toward the base. "Don't worry about it, Richie," he said to the third baseman. "Don't worry about it. They're a dirty team."
I didn't score because the Bomb struck out. Between innings the rain started, and it came down so hard and fast that everyone knew the game was over, a tie.
My father and I tried to stuff my bicycle in the trunk of his car, but it wouldn't fit all the way. We left the handlebars hanging out and tied the trunk roof down over it. We got soaked. When my father backed the car up to pull away from the curb, the handlebars of the bike went through the grillwork of the car parked behind us. My father said something unsportsmanlike and got out of the car. Then he got back in, wrote a note on a piece of paper he pulled from the glove compartment and got out again.
Back in the car my father said, "I hope the rain doesn't wash out the message." It was pouring. "Too bad. It was a good game. I'm sorry you didn't win."
"Dad," I said. "Do you think we're a dirty team?"
"For the most part, no," he said.
"Am I a dirty player?"
"You figure it out," he said.
Later, while I was doing my homework, the doorbell rang. I heard my father talking about the car. I went downstairs. Mr. Lipkin was there, and my father was giving him a check.
"Thank you," Mr. Lipkin said, and then he saw me. "Hello, son," he said.
"Hello," I said. "What makes us a dirty team?"
Mr. Lipkin looked startled, but he relaxed. "You care too much," he said. "You try too hard." He turned to my father to say good-night. "I appreciate your honesty," Mr. Lipkin said to him. And then he left.
We heard his footsteps in the rain. "Dad," I said. "He isn't right, is he?"
"You figure it out," my father said.
When I was in college and still thought I had something going for me athletically, I would go alone to a suburban park to practice my jump shot. There I once met a small black kid who told me he was 16, but he looked to be no older than nine or 10. He had the struggling grace of a teenager, but he wasn't more than 4½ feet tall. He was shooting baskets, smoothly using all his strength to get the ball to reach the hoop and saying "Wham!" when the ball rattled in the chain nets. He said his name was Wes, and we played some halfhearted one-on-one.
Some bigger guys arrived, a few of them as tall as I was, and they slapped palms with Wes, calling him by name or "Honey." We chose sides and played an energetic, amiable game. They called me Big Man because I have long arms and blocked some shots. When the game was over, Wes tapped me on the arm.
"Hey, Big Man," he said. "You only got three fingers."
I was uncomfortable. "Yeah," I said "I know."
"Did you amputate 'em?"
"No, I was born that way."
"Damn!" he said.
A tall boy shouted, "Come at me, Wes. Drive to the hoop." Wes took off, dribbled between his legs and had his shot blocked, and the two boys laughed.
"You see that dude, Tony?" I heard Wes say. "He only got three fingers, and he's still out here playing."
We played one more game, a close one, and after the last basket most of the players sauntered off to buy orange drink. Wes stood aside, leaning on the fence, running a hand across his forehead. He had removed his shirt, and I was surprised to see a tuft of hair under his arm. His torso was tiny but handsome. Tony was doing push-ups, and I asked him if he and Wes were brothers.
"Naw," Tony said, standing. "We're in the same class up at the high school."
"He's a good athlete," I said. Tony smiled.
"Honey can play," he said. He gathered his stuff. The other players had gone.
"Good game, man," I said.
"Yeah." We slapped palms.
"Hey, man," Tony said. "You can play pretty good." He looked sheepish and ducked his head.
We stood around for a minute. "I got to go, Honey," Tony called. He slung a jacket over his shoulder and walked off, his head bobbing.
"Be cool," said Wes. He picked up a ball and spun it on his forefinger. He lost it and began dribbling. "Archibald drives," he said. I moved over to play defense. Wes stopped in front of me and leaped, and for a moment we were eye to eye. He hurled his jump shot at the basket. It banged in the hoop, dropped and held for a second in the nets.
"Wham!" said Wes.
My Softball team, the Idle Minds, is made up primarily of lawyers and admen. Two years ago we won a league championship and ventured into an intricate playoff system. I had a bad year, though; I couldn't find the sweet spot on the bat. I'm a slap hitter usually, and what I'd intended to be line drives, ropes between fielders, became lazy flies and high hoppers. All season long I held on to the memory of a throw I'd made from center-field in the opening game, a perfect low strike that nipped a guy at third. The play was so close that the third baseman had his glove hand spiked.
In one regular-season game I took out my frustration over my hitting on the umpire. It's true that in lowly amateur sports, the quality of the umpiring is often even worse than the quality of the play. It's as unfair to yell at a crummy umpire as it is to yell at a teammate who pops up in the clutch or who makes a crucial error. All of it has to do with ability. No one is out to offend you. Nonetheless, in one important game we had a fellow who was the worst possible umpire, and admonishing myself to keep still did no good. He had his own strike zone that began at the neck and went up. We Idle Minds argued about him among ourselves on the bench. "Look, at least he's consistent," someone said. "He calls them bad for both teams."
Eye-level pitches were strikes, so everyone was uppercutting. I had plenty to do in the outfield, jogging back and forth to track down flies one after the other; nothing much was falling in. The game was silly, I thought. On the bench I made a speech.
"This isn't softball," I said. "It's something else. How can it be softball if we're not playing by the rules of softball? What if the diamond had five bases? Would that be softball? What if we played with two balls at once? Would that be softball? What he's doing is the same thing. This is some game of the umpire's devising."
"Shut up," someone said.
I batted that inning and took two strikes over my head and then flied to right. Instead of going back to the bench, I jogged over to the umpire and began railing at him: "What's the matter with you? Are you too short to see the high pitches?" He was pretty short. "Take my word for it, they're too high."
In the next inning, with one out and runners on first and third, their batter slapped one to second. We have guys who can turn a nifty double play, and I thought this would be one. The shortstop took the flip and tried evading the runner and slinging the ball over to first, but the runner was waving his arms over his head and the throw hit him in the wrist. A run scored.
I asked our shortstop, "Was he waving his arms?" Then I went to the umpire. "He was waving his arms. That's interference," I said.
"No, he wasn't," the ump said.
"Was he waving his arms?" I asked the shortstop.
"Yes, he was," the shortstop said.
"He was waving his arms. He's not allowed to wave his arms. How can you see a strike above somebody's head and not see someone waving his arms above his head?"
We were shut out in that game. I had a chance to drive in some runs when a real strike floated across the letters with men on base, but I dribbled one down to first.
A few weeks later, we were taking infield practice before our first playoff game when our opponents arrived, all of them bearing molls on the backs of their motorcycles. It was an eerie way to begin. Neither team had anything to say to the other. No one said hello. They parked their bikes along the leftfield line, and we started right up.
In the sixth inning we were behind by only a run, but things were grim; we were, in effect, losing much worse than that. I had the feeling that we could never beat them, but that they could smash us. And we'd had the benefit of a few close calls. Their first batter of the inning fouled off a pitch. Then suddenly the umpire was pointing and shouting, "Hey, that's my car!" as this vehicle was screeching out of the lot next to the field. "That's my damn car!" the umpire said.
Our fielders stood stock-still. But our opponents left their girl friends on the bench, leapt on their motorcycles and took off to pursue the umpire's stolen car.
They came back with it 20 minutes later. The guy who drove the car needed a lift back to where he'd left his motorcycle. While we waited for him, we heard the story. As I remember it, the car thief saw the flock of motorcycles behind him and abandoned the car at an intersection, and three of our opponents roared through a vacant lot and surrounded him. Then they brought him to a cop.
The umpire shook hands with the guys on both teams and thanked everyone. I could sense that all of a sudden we felt more amiable toward our opponents, as if they were much better guys than we'd thought. At last the game resumed and they immediately started lacing the ball and scored six runs.
I made the last out of the game. I wasn't troubled by it; it all seemed, in the end, just. Besides, I couldn't get away from this daydream I was having: During the rally that iced the game for our opponents, I'd had a chance to throw a guy out at the plate. The throw had sailed wide. I now saw the throw the way it should have been, a true throw, having little arc, bending slightly like a clothesline in a breeze and zeroing in on the grateful catcher.