The end of my (three year Little League) baseball career
With the way things have been going lately for the Mets, a lot of fans are throwing in the towel and looking forward to next year. While that’s understandable, there are still a few dozen games left to play and the team can’t just forfeit them all. Even the Astros, with nearly twice as many losses as wins, have to pull it together and try to scrape out a win day after day, knowing full well that what few wins they are able to come up with won’t get them any closer to a trip to the World Series than a Visa card would. Things look almost as bleak right now for the Mets, but it’s not really that bad. And this is how things felt for me when I walked away from baseball more than twenty years ago.
I should start by stressing that I was not a good baseball player. Even for my age, I was painfully below average at throwing a baseball, catching a baseball, hitting a baseball, or even just being in the same room as a baseball. Little League tryouts (meant to ensure that good, mediocre, and bad players were evenly distributed across all teams) were always embarrassing for me as they showed just what I wasn’t capable of doing (which, as I said, was everything). Inevitably, each season would start and end with a mediocre performance around a prolonged slump in the middle. I was terrible and my team always sucked (one may have had something to do with the other).
Or at least that’s how it seemed at the time. I very rarely spent an inning without playing in the field, which must have put me ahead of the players who only fielded for half of the game. My teams never had a losing record, going 8-8 in my first season and, as I recall, improving in each of the two following seasons, which would put us at 10-5 going into the final game of my final season. We must have been doing something right to be winning two thirds of our games, but it still felt like we weren’t good enough because there were teams that almost never lost. It was always the best teams that we measured ourselves against and we always came up short.
Never was that more apparent than in a game against the Twins. Inning after inning, run after run, we were so completely outmatched that we were putting anyone who could get a ball to the plate on the mound in the hopes of getting one out closer to going home. I stood useless in right field contemplating sitting down or taking a nap. By the time the final out was recorded, the scoreboard read 35 to 5. We should have been crushed. We should have walked away from the sport right there. We should have been ashamed to set foot on a baseball field ever again. But we brushed it off and went into practice as usual, the only change being an emphasis on expanding our pitching capabilities. We lost by 30 runs and the only result was a mandatory pitching evaluation for the everyone on the team.
With that experience behind us, we went into our final game of the season against the dreaded A’s. While the Twins were good, the A’s were on a whole other level. Everything about that team just screamed that they were better than we were and the result was a foregone conclusion. Eight and a half innings later, our loss was all but assured. I don’t remember the score, but we were down by several runs, something on the order of 8 to 4 – not a shutout, not a blowout, but still well out of reach by the bottom of the ninth. I had an at-bat coming up, now well clear of my annual mid-season slump. I knew that I couldn’t win the game. I knew that we probably wouldn’t win the game. But I also knew that I had to try to start something to give us a chance. We had been down worse before without giving up, we could still make these three outs count.
I was standing on second base. I’m not sure how I got there. I remember someone telling me to choke up, but I don’t think I knew what that meant at the time. Maybe it was a double or maybe it was a single and a passed ball (those were a given at that level), but I was standing in scoring position in a game we had no business winning. A lot more would have to go right even if I managed to score, but we weren’t done yet. And then the ball got past the catcher.
In the movie version, this is where the throw to third bounces into the outfield and I head home to start the rally that wins the game. In my version, this is where the low light, my mediocre vision, and the poor view from second base combine to make me uncertain of what to do. I started toward third, looked at the third base coach, and stopped when there was no sign. No run, no stop, so acknowledgement that there was even a game going on. Just a guy standing on the grass minding his own business. Was it a given that I shouldn’t be running here? Was it obvious that I could make it to third easily? I couldn’t see what was happening with the ball behind the plate, but by now I had probably wasted too much time for it to matter, I had to commit to an action. So I ran.
It wasn’t even close. I watched the ball go into the glove and dove headfirst into the bag. Out. I got up, uniform dirty and hands bloody, and walked back to the dugout. I don’t know what out it was, but it didn’t matter; the game was over for me. I was upset, I was angry, not at the outcome but at how it happened. Why did I hesitate? Why didn’t the third base coach do anything? I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I just wanted to go home. I had failed, but at least I tried. When I needed help, it wasn’t there. Was I wrong to expect that help? Should I have been expected to be able to do everything myself? I wanted to blame the third base coach for everything, but maybe I just wasn’t willing to take the blame myself. Either way, this wasn’t the game I wanted to play. I may have played the game poorly, but I did everything I could to help the team until the final out. I had thought that’s how everyone felt, but now I wasn’t sure.
As I walked back to the parking lot in a daze, I passed the A’s celebrating their season at some picnic tables on the side of the path. Their manager was reading off the players’ batting averages and other stats and everyone was cheering. Batting average? Our team didn’t keep track of such things, probably for the best. I really didn’t need to know if I was batting .095, though I would guess that the actual number could be even lower. It had never even occurred to me that any of us could have stats that were good, and there was a team filled with them. I was clearly in the wrong place, I didn’t belong here.
The uniform was washed and returned, the wounds on my hands healed. When summer came around again, I didn’t have any games or practices on my schedule. Whenever anyone asked why I didn’t play anymore, I just said that I wasn’t any good at it. My reasons went deeper than that, but it was too much trouble explaining how I couldn’t trust anyone else to be treating the games seriously. And maybe that part was my fault anyway. I wasn’t any good so I just stopped playing, that was the story I stuck with.
I would like to say that at least I had my memories of three years of Little League, but I remember so little from those years. From my first two years in Instructional League (good players advance after one year, bad players stay for two and are bumped up by default afterward), I remember my first hit (which came to rest about a foot in front of me and only wasn’t an out because the catcher was slow to react), I remember taking so many pitches that I wore out the pitcher (there were no called balls or strikes and the pitchers were all adults), and I remember wearing catching equipment and being terrible at catching the ball (I’m not sure how I wound up as a catcher that year). From my one season in Minor League, I remember the above and little else. I was hit by a pitch once or twice (it hurt) and I played half a game in the infield twice (once at second and once at third) but remember nothing from the games themselves. Maybe it’s for the best that I walked away.
So what does this have to do with the Mets? Nothing really, except we’ve entered the phase of the season where everything seems hopeless. But is it really? We tend to be most critical of things we follow the most closely. The Mets have a losing record, wasting a great start. The bullpen still sucks and the starting rotation is breaking down. Duda is slumming it in AAA, Nickeas has only just been demoted, and Batista has only just been released. Even bright spots are easy to dismiss as mirages; Harvey looked great in his first start, but will he still be dominant once teams have seen him a few times? The long season is growing shorter and the postseason doesn’t look to be in the Mets’ future.
That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what’s left and hope for things to turn around. They probably won’t. The end could be embarrassing. But if things break just right, or even only a little bit right, it could be interesting. This team has seen all sorts of highs and lows so far this season and keeps on playing hard. And that’s all I can ask of them.