Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Beginning Of The End (Fiction)

The last meaningful baseball game I played was back in 2003. I was an 11-year old third baseman for my team, the Rangers, which compiled a 14-2-2 record throughout the regular season and cruised into the playoffs. After a dramatic semifinal victory over the Angels, we played against the Rockies in the championship game for my city's Little League organization. Had all gone according to plan, this game would've been the beginning of a bright future in baseball for me. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end.

I was set to play the game of my life, but I couldn't even last a single inning. In my first at bat, I hit a screaming line drive over the center fielder's head for an easy stand-up double. As I was rounding first base, I twisted my right ankle. I hobbled back to first base after making the turn, even though the center fielder hadn't reached the ball. The pain was too much. Fortunately, I was stranded on first base when the top half of that inning ended, and I was swiftly replaced in the lineup.

For the rest of that game, I helplessly watched from the dugout as my team valiantly competed. Here I was, the team's best hitter, sitting on a wooden bench with an ice pack around my right ankle. Adrenaline helped to dull the pain, but I couldn't walk without limping, much less run. Still, I cheered my teammates on, knowing that it was all I could do. I stopped cheering in the final inning, when a teammate threw a wild pitch to score the winning run for the opposing team. Watching them celebrate and donning championship gear was like a dagger through my heart. I was able to keep my composure long enough to join in a post-game hand shake, but I bawled my eyes out when I got to my parents. When I returned home, I vowed never to like anything related to the Rockies, and I cried myself to sleep.

If I were a spectator watching that game, with a close eye on my younger self, I'd see a pudgy boy who inadvertently matured in front of a group of strangers. He initially was in over his head, trying to do too much in a game where team effort wins out in the end. Watching him at first base with his head down and hands on his knees, wincing in pain, served as an unfortunate reminder that the mind and the body don't always operate in synchronicity. But my perception of him would change as the game wore on. He didn't sulk, he didn't pout, and he didn't shut up. He encouraged his teammates to fight on, even when all hope seemed lost near the end. In a way, it's better than he lost because he showed a lot of character in a time of adversity. That deserves more recognition than any postseason banner.

As for the game itself, it was just a game my younger self believed was life or death. What I should've realized is that sports, much like life, can be real humbling real quick. The following year, I played my final season of Little League baseball. It was an ignominious ending as my team, the Cardinals, went a paltry 3-15. I converted into a pitcher, went 2-7 as the staff ace, and the only reason I had any success on the mound was because I intimidated most of the kids on the opposing teams with my size. My hitting statistics dropped substantially and, after a year of bench warming in junior varsity baseball as a high school freshman, I gave up my aspiration to be a professional athlete. That was in 2006, and the following year, I found myself cheering for the upstart Colorado Rockies in the World Series. It's been an interesting turnaround since that championship game, but looking back, I'm glad me and my team lost. It refocused my priorities, reminded me to be meek, and put others before self. Those principles I learned on that diamond many years ago have proven more valuable in my life than any natural diamond on Earth.

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