Thirty minutes before game time.
That’s when Coach said to be at the field. I kept looking at the clock. 4:30. First pitch was at six. I did the math in my head. Just one hour to wait. Unlike fractions and long division, this was arithmetic I could believe in.
I was already dressed. Baseball socks pulled up to my knees like an old-school Brooklyn Dodger. I was a member of the Rosedale Little League Yankees. The year before, I was a Rosedale Met. We won two games out of 16. This year, the much-better Yankees were competing for our leagues Major division 11-13 championship.
I had a pre-game soundtrack: the music of Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace. It was the first CD I had ever bought. John Williams does what John Williams does best: inspire Younglings to get ready for trumpet-assisted battles between good and evil.
Obi Wan Kenobi once told a young Skywalker, “A Jedi can feel the force running through him.” I am no different. All 90 pounds of my skinny body shakes with anticipation. I swing my aluminum slugger in the backyard, working as both bat and lightsaber.
There are a lot of great black center fielders: Willie Mays. Torii Hunter. Ken Griffey Jr. And once game time started: me.
It’s a special position. To play it professionally, it requires speed, a strong arm, and most of all, instincts. Of course, that means nothing in Rosedale. I’m in centerfield because I had a 7 percent higher chance of catching a pop fly than the left fielder.
Instead of the historic landscape of the Polo Grounds, I stand in the unmowed grass of Brookfield Park in South Jamaica, Queens. Sometimes, I dodge leftover chicken bones. Sometimes, games are paused by the stray soccer balls hit by the dreadlocked players beside us. Planes fly overhead, in route to JFK airport. Hardly a baseball player’s dream.
Still, once the ball is hit my way, it wouldn’t have mattered if I was playing in the Dominican Republic, Japan or Southern California, I broke the first rule of catching a fly ball: make sure your first step is backwards. I retreat in haste, as it soars over my head.
In the 6 or so years I played organized baseball, I only sat on the bench once. Whoever scheduled the games at the Little League apparently was a not God-fearing person. Or maybe they were Lutheran. Whatever the reason, a game was set for Sunday at 12:30.
My mother said I couldn’t miss church. I went to service with my uniform under a wrinkled pair of dress pants and a polo. I kept my eyes on the clock. Black churches always go longer than they should. Did we have to sing all five verses of Blessed Quietness?
When I got to the field, everyone was happy to see me. Coach promised he’s get me in the lineup. Ronald was in centerfield. Ronald? I felt irrationally insulted.
Baseball is a slow enough game as it is. I was not emotionally or physically mature enough to appreciate this fact. It allows for thought. It allows for contemplation and great anticipation.
But when you are a Jedi, and you are a center fielder, and well, you’re nine, waiting isn’t much of an acceptable option. Do I wear a glove? Do I stand? Do I sit? Had I known the word, “damn” – “damn church” would have been rightfully muttered.
Maybe those schedulers had it right. They were like Annie from Bull Durham: “I believe in the Church of Baseball.” Naturally, I’d never seen Bull Durham. And I know my parents wouldn’t have shown me that movie because of the sex, the idolatry, the Tim Robbins. But I wouldn’t reject a church like that now.
“Real men aren’t scared!” Coach Angelo yelled.
Angelo was a very passionate coach. I’d never played on his team before the teams of Rosedale converged for their summer leagues. I knew from afar that he thought I was soft. And he finally decided to tell me what he thought.
We were playing a team from Far Rockaway. While still technically from Queens, the demographics of their squad were much different than ours. Most of the players were white. More importantly, most of their players were very good. They led the game with an offensive onslaught. To cut down this cliché-comeback story, we came back. And amazingly, I was up with the game-tying runs on base.
I took a first pitch strike. That’s when Angelo called me over. I had been hit the previous at bat. Coach Phelps assumed I was tentative at the plate.
“Real men aren’t scared! Real men aren’t weak!” He repeated, getting in my face.
For Coach Phelps, this game was more than a game. It was a chance to represent our league against better competition. This was his chance to validate the years and years he had spent making Rosedale Little League what it was. And he didn’t want me to embarrass him in front of visitors to our makeshift community league.
Looking back, he really wasn’t wrong about me. I was a timid player and a timid person. I liked Radio Disney and Star Wars. And like so many others, the way I approached my life was how I approached my game. Afraid of being in the moment. Afraid of having all eyes on me. But I loved baseball. It wasn’t his rant that made the difference for me.
Earlier that day, I had been practicing hitting virtually. Before there was Wii or Kinect, there was a device that connected with your television called Radica Play TV Baseball. A plastic and foam bat with a sensor over a plastic home plate. A graphic pitched baseballs. Batters hit accordingly. It was realistic enough. All afternoon, I practiced hitting the ball “the opposite way.” Meaning, as a right-handed batter, I wanted to hit a fastball directly over second base. Typically, this is accomplished by swinging later than usual and very level.
And in that moment, after I went back to home plate, I did just those two things. If the second baseman was taller he probably would have caught it. But he wasn’t and it was as solid a single as someone could ask for. A few batters later, I was the winning run.
He said I made him proud. But it wasn’t really his play.
Standing at home didn’t depend on a motivational speech or a catchy slogan from a sports movie. Being at home is about being ready for the moments. And delivering when they come.
You are a pest –- the speedy runner on first base. The scrappy type pitchers and coaches fear. There is no question. You are going to steal second base.
You take your lead, inching father away from safety. Everyone knows you are going to run. The pitcher, who is still mentally chewing himself out for walking the other team’s fastest player, avoids glaring directly at you. He lingers behind pitching rubber. You stifle a smile, loving the non-attention he’s giving you.
You begin to crouch down, rocking on your knees, back and forth. You look towards your third base coach, a fat Italian man who is flashing signs which only state the obvious. You’re going to run.
You run. Head down, knees up. Coach always told you not to look back at the catcher, not to look back at anything. Just run. It’s a freeing of the mind, it’s a freeing of the body. Stealing is a sin, which makes it more appealing. Both teams knew you were going to run, which is what makes knowing you’ll swap that base even more satisfying. You take pride in your legs, which are moving like an express train. Ichiro. Reyes. Jeter. All names flashing through your mind. You go down to slide before your thoughts are broken by the sound of a hit.
Foul Ball. You have to start over again. Foul ball. You walk back to first, dusting off some of the dirt in your uniform. Life does that. You’re ready to get a little dirty and take a chance and make things happen and you get stopped by a foul ball. It happens. You trot back to first with a slight smile. Ready to do it all over again.
I suspect no parent wants to be “that parent.” That overzealous type that overloads their child’s duffel bag with orange slices, and Capri-Suns, and other energy boosting snacks. Or that parent, who curses out the skinny 15-year-old umpire trying to make some extra cash over the summer because of an otherwise irrelevant play at first base. But somehow, these parents just keep popping up.
From second base, you can see it all. Fights with coaches, fights with the umpires, fights with each other. Smoking, drinking from bottles poorly covered in small brown paper bags. You have families that watch from their cars with their music playing.
Their frustrations, granted, are understandable. Little League baseball can be brutal. So many walks. So many errors. So many other mishaps that make them question if the 80 dollar entrance fee could have been better utilized elsewhere.
It is apparent: The Rosedale Yankees are not the New York Yankees.
Ninety feet away. It doesn’t matter how good of a baseball player you are. How fast, how strong, how well you wear your skin-tight pants, someone has to bring you home to score. Sure, you can steal home. But that is a once-in-a-decade event. Once you get that close, there is nothing more you can do about it.
It’s almost un-American. Here, we can do anything. Try, try, try. And then you will succeed, it is said. But not so in baseball. You can try your hardest. But you need someone else to drive you in. Or to sacrifice. Or whatever it takes. But you can’t do it alone.
I stumbled upon loving baseball. I couldn’t have planned that I would have been born in Washington state, right when a young center fielder named Ken Griffey Jr. would take a crack at being not only just the best player of his era, but the best player of all time.
I couldn’t have planned that my parents would feel the “call of God” and start a church across the country in the baseball-obsessed city of New York. I couldn’t have planned they would be too cheap to pay for cable, insuring my love for radio that exists to this day.
It is like a finding a best friend the first day of high school simply because they sat next to you. Some things fit because they just do, without thought or intention.
So after my games, I’d fall asleep unaware of a life that I stumbled upon – a city I stumbled upon, a passion I stumbled upon, a sport I stumbled upon.
I’d fall asleep dreaming about why I couldn’t play an easier position than centerfield. Maybe first base. Preferably shortstop.