“Your tennis shoes are good enough. It’s just little league,” my father said.
“It’s Pony league, and it says I have to have spikes.” I handed him the registration form and equipment list. He scanned it.
“That’s where they get you. They keep the registration fee low, then they make a deal with the sporting goods store to sell ‘required equipment.’ Your shoes will be fine.”
Little League baseball, at least at that time in that place, ended at sixth grade. Beyond that was Pony League and inevitably the high school teams, but those were far in the future. For now my peers and I were moving up to the Ponies. Try outs, pitching machines at practice, groomed fields, steel spikes. Steel spikes! That was the kicker.
Try outs began with simple drills and lots of running, basic assessments of speed, stamina, and agility. My sneakers slipped in the soft red dirt of the baselines, but I managed okay. After practice the coach called me over.
“Where are your spikes, son?”
“I don’t have them yet, sir.”
“You need them. They’re on the equipment list.”
“I mean, I do have them but my Dad said to hold off using them until after cuts.”
He sat with this for a moment. “I reckon that’s okay. Good hustle out there today.”
Over dinner I sold my bluff to the other interested party: “Coach said I have to have everything on the equipment list.”
“I’m not buying you a goddamned fifty dollar pair of shoes to wear for three months.”
“He said I could wear my tennis shoes to try outs as long as I had spikes. He says a lot of kids just keep them in the box until they make the team, and if they get cut they return them.”
“They’re counting on people to be too lazy to return them,” he said.
What happened next is unknown to me. Maybe the old man’s heart grew three sizes that day. Maybe he was so certain that I would be cut that he was willing to take a fifty dollar gamble. More than likely what happened was that my mother simply took me to buy the shoes fully aware that she would have to deal with him later. Regardless, I now owned the magic spikes.
I had big plans for those shoes. “I’m going to color the swoosh blue with a marker and put in blue shoelaces,” I told Ricky Brent.
“You’re going to have the coolest spikes,” he said, and he should know — he was the equipment manager for the varsity team. They were planning a team trip to Florida for a team tournament and Rick wanted me to come along.
“I can’t make varsity. I’m only in seventh grade.”
“You don’t have to. Just be an equipment manager like me.”
“But you’re already the equipment manager.”
“Just hang out with me and they’ll think you’re an equipment manager, too.”
That lasted for two practices before Coach Poole caught on. “We have an equipment manager. Do you like tennis? Maybe Mr. Gregory needs help with the tennis team.” Mr. Gregory was my math teacher, the Eagles fan who flagged me as a college free dead-ender. No thanks on the tennis.
And so I didn’t get to go on the Florida trip, but I did get to buy a pair of bad ass spikes that weren’t factory rejects. They sat in their box in my closet, waiting to hear whether I made the cut. Coffee is for closers, spikes are for winners. Second place? Set of steak knives.
I couldn’t wait to use them. Even at thirteen I was a non-confrontational guy, but I was a mean bastard on the baseball diamond. On defense I played catcher, and I treated home plate as a birthright. I goaded batters until the umpire was laughing, and I made runners suffer for trying to score. If I had the ball you were going to have to endure some pain to tag home. Kids were usually willing to take the risk the first time around the bases, but not after that.
I remember hearing a parent ask of me “what’s wrong with that kid?” after I laid a runner out flat.
“He tried to score,” I yelled through my mask. The umpire laughed, brushed off the plate and restarted the game with a “Play Ball!”
Full-contact baseball caught up with me during the previous season. I was the force out at second, and the second baseman decided to tag me rather than the base. Hulk smash! The little bastard was standing in the baseline, which made laying him out flat perfectly legal; and if he dropped the ball in the process all the better. I’d be safe at second. I dropped my shoulder and hit him hard. He dropped the ball, but I snapped my wrist when I hit the ground. Battle won and war lost, that was the end of what was shaping up as an all-star season.
But once I made the Pony League team I’d be back on track. I’d have my steel spikes and could come in high like Ty Cobb and take out anyone who dared to tag me.
Each day’s practice became more specific: hitting, base running, fielding. After a few days we finally got to position-specific try outs.
There were three catchers trying out. I don’t remember anything about the other guys, I simply remember the enormous pressure to excel after missing a season. This wasn’t some lark tryout for the school basketball team, this was baseball. I knew the sport, knew my position, knew how to win. I wasn’t a pitcher but I could be the Johnny O’Donnell of my position. I could make The Kid proud. I could make my father proud.
So I treated every practice like life and death. I went after every batting practice foul as if it was the third out in the bottom of the ninth in game seven. I’d rip off my mask like Johnny Bench and tear after anything close to me. I could do this.
I made the first cut. We were down to enough guys for a scrimmage now. I strapped on my gear and took my spot behind the plate.
First pitch and the batter hit a looping foul midway between home and first. I ripped off my mask and took off after it, diving like Pete Rose in a last-ditch effort to cover the distance. It landed inches from my outstretched glove, which I immediately threw at the dugout and walked off the field.
I was maybe halfway to the parking lot when I heard the coaching calling “Hey! Hey!” He grabbed my triceps. “Where you going, son?”
The stress and the pressure met the kind word “son” at hurricane velocity. I tried not to turn. I didn’t want him to see the tears plowing furrows in the red dirt on my cheeks, but he pulled my arm harder.
“You’re going to cut me.”
“I ain’t cutting nobody. That was a good hustle play. Nobody goes after it like that in practice. Now quit your crying and come on back to practice, son.” The second ‘son’ brought the hurricane up to category five. I nodded and coach headed back to the field.
When I got home that night I marched straight through the living room. “What the hell is wrong with you?” my father yelled just before I disappeared into my bedroom.
“I don’t want to play baseball anymore.”
“Well then you and your mother can take those fifty dollar shoes back to the sporting goods store.” No “what’s bothering you” or “buck up champ,” just an ultimatum.
If Kurosawa had the time and interest he could have shown me the many Rashomon outcomes of this moment, but that wasn’t an option so I blurted: “Cool. I’ll ask her to take me to the mall tomorrow.”
“Goddamnit, you are keeping those goddamned spikes and you are going to practice tomorrow, you little smart ass.”
Now if I want to pretty myself up in this story I’d end it here, John Bender-style with my defiant fist in the air and Simple Minds blasting while we fade to black. But the truth is that I went to practice the next night rather than risk an ass whipping. I wore the KISS Dynasty World Tour tee that I picked up at Record Bar to complete the implicit charade Ricky Brent began by giving me a KISS ticket stub he scooped off of the floor after a recent show.
Coach opened practice by sending us all into shallow left field to shag some fungoes. Eighteen boys in the grass between second and third. A nice line drive came clean off his bat directly to me. At the last second a kid named Frizz barked “I got it!” and jumped maybe three feet in front of me. The ball tipped off his glove and smacked me between the eyes. I leaned forward, hands on knees, and quietly tried to collect myself.
“He missed it.”
“No he didn’t, Frizz did.”
“You okay, son?”
“Whatever, he still got hit in the face.”
“Is he bleeding?”
“No, it’s just snot.” These were the magic words. My nasal heavens opened and Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter were drenched in blood.
Two broken bones in two seasons. I wasn’t Johnny O’Donnell, I was done. The following weekend my mother took me to the mall to return my beloved spikes. Afterward I stopped at Camelot Music and asked about the Ted Nugent State of Shock promotional poster hanging in the back of the store — not a very good album but a great album cover, and the poster was huge.
“What do you do wid da posters whed you take deb dowd?”
“Why are you talking like that?”
“I broke by dose.”
“We give them away if nobody here wants them. Do you want me to write your name on the back?”
They got to take home the posters? Forget baseball. My new goal was to someday work at a record store.
The whole affair marked a breakdown in diplomacy between my father and me. I was never going to be the son that he wanted. My baseball career was over, and I never got to come in high and take out somebody blocking my chance to score. Then again, maybe I did.