Gan-gan started training me to play baseball as soon as he could. He’d only had daughters and really wanted a son, so I was it. He knew the basics and was deadly serious. Crooked fingers on his left hand from having played catcher before real gloves were available proved it. “I also wiped my ass with corncobs,” he said.
We practiced every day. Gan-gan wouldn’t even let me go swimming, because he thought it would deplete my energy for baseball. (I never did learn to swim.) In grade school, he told me not to play softball, because it would throw off my timing for baseball (Eventually, I persuaded him to let me play softball.)
Shortly before I turned seven, I joined my first Little League team. Opposing pitchers almost always walked me. I was so small they had trouble throwing me a strike. So the manager used me strategically as a pinch-hitter and put me in right field, the least demanding position. Once I actually caught a fly ball. Everyone was thrilled, none more so than I was.
After we moved to Dallas, I became a Little League super star, partly due to my speed. In the fifth grade, there was only one student in my class faster than me, John Elliott, and he was barely faster. During recess, my class would play a game called “it.” First, one person would be “it” and run after others. When he managed to tag another boy, the two of them would try to tag others, and so on. John and I would usually be the last ones untagged. Often I’d be the very last.
I soon graduated to shortstop in Little League, my favorite position. One year we were playing on live television. The commentator was a pro on the Dallas minor-league team. On a ball hit to my left, I ran, caught the ball, whirled, threw to first, and managed to nip the runner on a close play. When I came home, Mother told me the commentator had remarked, “That kid’s going to be a big leaguer.”
That comment reinforced my already firm conviction. I was not only going to make it to the majors; I would be first-string shortstop for the New York Yankees.
But Gan-gan never had me do strengthening exercises. That was not the norm back then, and I wasn’t naturally muscular (though my legs were from running so much). I also wasn’t very limber, which you have to be to excel as a batter. The upshot was that I hit poorly, and hardly ever for extra bases. In high school I even failed President Kennedy’s physical fitness test, though I played all sports well.
In baseball, my forte as a batter was bunting. I would sometimes drag a bunt and use my speed to beat out a hit. When I was at the plate with a runner on third and less than two out, the manager would often call for a “suicide squeeze.” This strategy calls for the runner to head for home before the pitch is thrown; if the batter misses the bunt, the runner is tagged out at the plate. With my skills as a bunter, I almost always got the bunt down and the run would score. Those instances remain in my memory as the most exciting moments of my Little League career.
During the summer following fifth grade, my Little League baseball team practiced on my grade school’s field. After practice we’d run to the gym to drink refrigerated water, and, since I was the fastest runner, I usually got there first. One day I found that our normal portal of entry, a window, was locked. So I reached through a broken pane to unlock it and cut my arm severely. I looked down and saw a canyon of white skin that quickly filled with blood. I jogged back to the parking lot and was taken to a doctor, who stitched up my wound. Since the cut was only a half inch from an artery, I consider that incident to be my second close encounter with Death.
When we played softball in grade school, I was always a captain charged with picking players for one of the teams. I was very intense, serious, and hyper-competitive.
Another side of me, however, was quiet and timid. Perhaps for that reason, my baseball hero was Ty Cobb. In addition to being a great hitter, Cobb was a terror on the base paths, very fast and aggressive. He was notorious for his willingness to gash opposing infielders by sliding into them with his cleats high. This gave him a huge edge as a base runner, since it caused the infielders to shy away and made it easy for him to safely take the base.
One spring while playing with my junior-high team, the first baseman from another school irritated me and I decided I’d take my revenge when we played them again. My intent was to get on first, take a long lead, slide back into first like Ty Cobb, and cut his legs. I practiced this plan for fifteen minutes or so and planned to follow through with it. But when game time came, I soon realized it wasn’t practical.
When we moved to South Oak Cliff, I switched Little League teams. My new manager was Buddy Nix, whose hero may also have been Ty Cobb. He was a small, pugnacious, high-strung individual, a manifestation of the worst aspects of youth athletics. The film Bad News Bears captured his personality perfectly.
Every summer, our team would go to Houston to play a game. The fathers who drove raced each other, passing other drivers against the yellow line while going uphill. Their recklessness scared me, though they never had an accident. When we got to Houston, things got even worse. In the humid heat, Nix insisted we wear our complete uniform, including long-sleeve cotton jerseys and wool pants and shirts. I’ve hated Houston ever since.
One summer, playing shortstop in a very important game, I made an error in the final inning that caused us to lose. I was devastated, and cried as I walked to the car. Nix walked up to me and said, “Stop crying like a baby. Take it like a man.”
In Little League baseball, adults often told us, “It’s not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game.” But they did not practice what they preached. More often coaches taught me that “winning is everything.”
By the eighth grade, I was no longer an outstanding player. My peers had caught up with my early training and, in general, their bodies were maturing earlier than mine. I was no longer among the fastest runners. The upshot was that, when three players in my class were selected to play on the ninth-grade team, I wasn’t one of them. That disturbed me greatly, and my confidence was shaken. Maybe I wasn’t going to be first-string shortstop for the Yankees after all.
Once, while still in the eighth grade, I was stationed at second base as we practiced making double plays. Our third baseman would lean back, wind up, and throw the ball to me as hard as he could. In practicing the double play, he should have used a quick-release sidearm throw to get the ball to me as quickly as possible. The manager should have told him to make the throw properly, but he didn’t, and I was nervous about it.
On another day, I was again at second base as we practiced the double play. This time, as the throw from third headed my way, I stepped on top of the bag and raised my body relative to my glove, and the third baseman’s very hard throw, which failed to sink in its trajectory as much as most balls thrown by eighth graders do, hit me squarely in the mouth. After oral surgery, my teeth appeared normal. But down deep, I was terribly embarrassed, and my dreams of playing pro ball faded even further. (Years later, I woke up in the middle of the night with my face swollen like a balloon from an abscessed tooth and even later had to get a bridge.)
Shortly thereafter, our team played a game attended by the school principal, who was a hard-driving sports enthusiast. At pep rallies he’d go on and on about “intestinal fortitude.” The phrase was unfamiliar to me, but I assumed he meant “guts.”
Early in the game, I managed to get to first base. I took a big lead from the bag as usual, hoping the coach would give me the steal sign. The pitcher repeatedly threw to first to try to pick me off, but each time I dived back to the bag head-first safely. When the pitcher realized he couldn’t pick me off, he threw the ball over to first with much less velocity, just to keep me cautious about taking big leads. Even so, I still wanted to take as big a lead as possible while minimizing any chance of getting picked off. So I kept diving back head-first.
From his perch, the principal yelled at me, “There’s no need to do that, son.” His comment prompted Gan-gan (who was at every game) to stand up and shout to the principal, “Don’t you tell my grandson how to play baseball.”
A short while later, maybe 30 minutes, Gan-gan collapsed from a stroke and was taken to the hospital. When I arrived home, Uncle George took me to a game involving the Dallas minor-league team (a rare treat). The next morning, I was told that Gan-gan was dead. I assumed I was responsible, because he had gotten so angry at the principal who was irritated with me.
I was in shock. The anchor in my life, the source of my meaning, was suddenly gone. But Nix had taught me his lesson. I did not cry. No one else cried either, so far as I knew. We didn’t discuss Gan-gan’s death or how we felt about it. We just went on with our lives. But there was a big void in my world.
Years later, as a sophomore in college, I went to the mental health clinic to talk about sex. After I entered his office, the psychiatrist never spoke. I don’t think he even said hello. So I just sat there, not saying a word for almost the entire hour. Then I started talking about my grandfather’s death and my feeling that I was responsible for it. The psychiatrist immediately told me there was no possibility I was to blame. With that verdict, an enormous, almost orgasmic, sense of relief swept over my entire body. Nevertheless, to this day I still wonder whether I may have contributed to my grandfather’s death.
Even without Gan-gan’s encouragement, I continued to play on my junior-high and high school baseball teams, and in college I proudly wore the letter jacket that I’d earned my senior year in high school. Yet, in truth, I stuck with baseball largely out of habit. The passion was gone. The dream of making it to the Yankees had evaporated and I’d become more interested in chess and books.
In high school, my homeroom was assigned the last row at the back of the auditorium for mandatory assemblies and pep rallies. Even though the baseball coach stood right behind us with the other coaches, I sat down during the school song to protest being forced to go to these events. I feared the coach would punish me for my rebellion, but I don’t believe he did. I wasn’t good enough to win a starting position until my senior year, and even then the coach may only have given me the spot as a reward for my persistence.
I never became friends with any of my teammates, who probably viewed me as an oddball. Once I had a confrontation with Karl Sweetan, who later became a pro football quarterback. While still in high school, Sweetan had reportedly hit someone over the head with a pool stick in a fight at a pool hall. He was our starting second baseman and, following practices, was supposed to bring the second base bag into the locker room. One day, carrying the bag after practice, he threw it at me, hitting me in the chest, and told me to bring it into the locker room. I left it on the ground, though I worried he would beat me up for refusing. But he didn’t and got into trouble with the coach for flouting his duties.
That’s pretty much all I remember about my high school baseball career. Not too much excitement there.
Mostly out of curiosity, I went to a baseball workout my freshman year at Cal, thinking I might try out. But I soon realized it was pointless.
I was through with baseball, but I did enjoy playing intramural softball at Cal. My student co-op, Ridge House, organized a team and I was the coach. One year the fields were so wet from rain that they couldn’t be used for practice. But a nearby parking garage, still under construction, provided our team a convenient dry place to get our act together. So we practiced incessantly, gaining on the competition who couldn’t practice.
One day while hitting infield practice, I knocked the ball over the fence and across the street into the backyard of the Chancellor’s mansion. I went to retrieve the ball, knocking on the front door and being let in by the Chancellor himself. I walked through his house with my wet shoes, retrieved the ball from the backyard, and went back to practicing. The Chancellor seemed unfazed.
Even though the softball we played was fast-pitch, and we didn’t have a very good pitcher, we almost won the championship that year.
Professional baseball, however, fell off my radar that year. The San Francisco Giants competed in the World Series in 1962, but I was immersed in my academic and other activities at Berkeley, and obsessed with sex, and hardly noticed. In the late 1980s, however, I again became a passionate major-league baseball fan. I was inspired by Roger Craig and his “Hmm Baby” Giants, especially by their proclivity to steal home, the most daring play in baseball.
In 2002 I went to my first World Series game, the Giants against the Angels. My sister, Mary, had purchased a share of two season tickets in the left field bleachers and took me to a game at the Giants new, beautiful downtown park. Unfortunately, however, two large, tall Angels’ fans, bikers, sat in front of us. I didn’t know there were bikers in Anaheim! But these guys fit the stereotype: loud and obnoxious. Worse yet, they were very witty and quickly put down anyone who engaged them in trash talk. And when the Angels started scoring many runs, they would stand up and block my view. The Angels won the game handily. Not the best introduction to the World Series.
I finally had my ultimate World Series experience in 2010. The Giants had won the National League Championship and captured the town’s love with an endearing “band of misfits” that perfectly reflected San Francisco. The players included Tim Lincecum, who had been busted for marijuana possession, Brian Wilson, the notorious performance artist with a YouTube video featuring a “neighbor” in S-and-M garb that went viral and elicited praise from Governor Arnold Swarzenegger, and Aubrey Huff, known for his red “rally thong” that he wore throughout the post-season and displayed at the victory parade and rally.
Prior to the Series, the Giants first offered tickets to their season ticket holders. I initially assumed they would all sell out and that tickets on the secondary market would be too expensive for me. But one day I was home in the afternoon and received a bulk email from the Giants announcing that a few tickets were still available at regular prices. I jumped at the opportunity and got a seat in the first row of the upper deck right behind home plate. It was arguably the best seat in the house, and I got to see Lincecum win the first game!
The Giants then went to Dallas-Fort Worth, where they eventually won the Series. For me, the victory was especially sweet because George Bush, the war-monger, had a clear view of his Rangers’ defeat from the very first row next to the field. Beating Texas added to the joy. I joined in the celebration of the Giants’ victory in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco. On the day of the parade to City Hall, I took a folding chair and got a front row seat. More jubilation! The first ever World Series victory in San Francisco!
Baseball is still my favorite sport. The pace of the game appeals to me. There is no clock imposing an artificial deadline, and even at the last minute, the losing team can still win. Violence is minimal. Many different skills are involved, and even very small players can be successful. The moment-by-moment tactical decisions are intriguing. The critical subtleties of team dynamics are a challenge. Confidence and fearlessness are fundamental to success. And, at every game, fans see something they’ve never seen before.
In addition, baseball has a spiritual dimension. Playing it well requires a delicate balance between action and a meditative state, between being forceful and being relaxed, not getting too high or too low, maintaining an even keel. Staying “in the zone” is key, and too much thinking gets in the way. “See ball, hit ball” is the rule, and, for this, concentration is fundamental. Some players report not even being aware of the crowd noise. Wes Krukow, a very successful professional dancer who is the son of the former big league pitcher Mike Krukow (currently an announcer for the San Francisco Giants), has reported that one baseball lesson he’s trying to absorb from his father is: “As a professional, you have to find a balance and moderation in all of it. The thing I’ve been able to get from [him] is to ground yourself, be humble. You’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never as good as you think you are.”
Perhaps baseball’s most attractive trait is that it demands a primary commitment to the team, rather than to individual self-interest. In recent years I’ve been hearing more and more stories about how players have dedicated themselves to the well-being of their teammates. Such camaraderie is especially important in baseball, because players are with one another almost every day for eight months. But nurturing team spirit is tricky. The manager has to have a careful touch, and veterans on the team must set a good example. The Giants found their chemistry only after the departure of Barry Bonds, the ultimate prima donna who undermined team unity. Even as an adult, I continue to learn new aspects of the game that apply to life in general and offer clues for how to live.
Finally, baseball is great for the sense of community it generates among its fans. In San Francisco, complete strangers will talk with fellow fans on the streets who are wearing Giants’ gear. The gear serves as a “uniform” that signifies common membership in a community. That same sense of community prevails at games, where differences in socio-economic status are no barrier. Everyone is a member of the same family. I know this community is shallow. But it does bring fun and enjoyment to life. In a world characterized by increasing isolation, I’ll take any sense of community I can get.
For all these reasons, I wait each winter for the baseball season to begin. I know the boys of summer will take the field as soon as it stops snowing, and keep playing until it starts snowing again. Play ball! A metaphor for life.