In March of 1973, famed Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight made his first journey to the Final Four. The basketball crazy state was in an uproar. At least I imagine it was, given what I have learned from watching Hoosiers. What I do remember, though, is trudging across the hills of Bloomington by foot with my fellow second graders to see the team’s bus depart for some far off locale. I never saw the Hoosiers play. There was no ESPN, and we didn’t have a TV anyway.
The other sporting event I do remember from that year spent in Bloomington (which is also the location for another famous sports movie, Breaking Away) was on the baseball field later that summer. I was able to get my parents to purchase a mitt and sign me up for a T-ball league. I remember spending hours breaking in my mitt. Others would say I did it wrong, that the pocket was in the wrong place. But it felt good. I still have that mitt.
In those days our sports options were about as limited as the number of TV channels. There was no soccer, or gymnastics, or lacrosse, or any other number of sissy sports. There was football, baseball, and basketball. A few odd ducks did swimming or tennis, but overall summer meant baseball. Soccer is a sport much better suited for children. It is friendly and egalitarian. Everyone can run and kick. Indeed, I like to tell my snooty academic friends—the kind who pretend to like soccer or cycling for the same reasons they make condescending comments about Sarah Palin or McDonalds—that soccer is a great children’s game. It is sort of like Hide and Seek or Kick the Can, but with a ball. Everyone can do it. No one cries.
Baseball involves lots of tears. I never broke down and cried on the field, but I remember a few years after my T-ball experience crying in my bed at home. In a strangely precocious and self-aware epiphany (I must have been 11 or so) I realized that I wasn’t ever going to be a professional baseball player. My mother tried to comfort me, though she must have been wondering where I ever got such a notion in the first place. But what did she know? She was European. She thought running and cross-country skiing were sports.
I of course thought everyone wanted to be a professional athlete. That seemed to be the pinnacle of male prestige in our society, at least as I saw it. I had learned to love baseball from books. The book I returned to over and over again was The Boy’s Life Book of Baseball Stories. It told of the heroic exploits on the Little League diamond, about boys who seemed to have an uncanny ability to approximate real baseball. Most real baseball games with children involve throwing the ball around a field where it is seldom hit and seldom caught by anyone. I devoured old books from the local library about baseball legends on the NY Yankees. Since we didn’t have a TV in my early days, I was quite old before I realized that the Dodgers had moved to California decades before. The Giants, too. This seemed wrong. I would follow those great Yankees teams of the 70s. I still remember the thrill of watching Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in one World Series game. I felt somehow vindicated.
I’m sure I could find a few faded photos of that ’73 T-ball team. One of them might even have the whole team in it, including The Boy in the Striped Pants, which was the official name we used for him in my family. He was the shortstop, the big, brash, athletic kid that everyone feared. Our team had t-shirts and caps from some long-forgotten local business sponsoring our team. But we had to come up with our own pants. I’m sure I wore Toughskins jeans from Sears, the kind that lasted extra long because they had “double knees,” a patch that was pre-sewn into the knees to prevent holes. My mom always bought me Toughskins. If I wanted impractical pants, the kind without double knees, I could buy them myself, my mother said. This I eventually did in a moment of fashion despair in the 8th grade, using the paltry earnings from my daily paper route.
The Boy in the Striped Pants did not wear Toughskins. I’m pretty sure they didn’t come in stripes, or bell-bottoms for that matter. He had the long messy hair common for boys in the early 70s, and his face was freckled and usually dirty. Everyone knew the shortstop was the position that the best player got to play (at least in T-ball, where there is no pitching.) I didn’t aspire to play shortstop, but I desperately wanted to play first base. I was gaining confidence in my ability to catch the ball, and the first baseman was the one who made the out, the one who got the job done. The Boy in the Striped Pants would field the ball, I would run to the base, put my right foot on it, and stretch my gloved left hand out as far as possible, just in time to put out the sprinting runner. First base was where the action was.
I didn’t play first base. I was an outfielder, where the ball seldom ventured in T-ball. But one day, our manager came up to me and asked me what position I would like to play that day. This was like manna from heaven, a tender mercy of the Lord to a small, ordinary boy. I was so stunned, I couldn’t believe it. But before I could gather my wits and say “First Base!” the Boy in the Striped Pants pipes in and says, “He wants to play catcher.” My heart fell. In T-ball, no one cares about the catcher. Since there is no pitcher, there is little need for a catcher. The manager, smiling kindly, leaned over and asked me if I really want to play catcher.
As I look back on the past four decades since that moment, I have the normal sorts of regrets, things said and unsaid that I’d like to do over. I have had good moments in sports, including baseball. I was not the kid picked first, nor was I the one picked last. But my skills did not match my aspirations, as is the case for most of us. What I can see now, from my middle-aged perspective, is the outsized role that sports so often plays in society and how profoundly we are shaped by the world we are thrust into and how rarely we strike out on paths that are truly, if ever, self-directed.
Yes, I nodded, I wanted to play catcher.