"Glory Days" (1985), Baseball, Baseball Glove, Bruce Springsteen, Darryl Strawberry, Double Play, Dwight Gooden, John Tudor, Lenny Dykstra, Merit, Meritocracy, Modell's Sporting Goods, MVHS, Myths, Naivete, New York Mets, Single-Minded, St. Louis Cardinals, Talent, Varsity Baseball
There are times I wish I could have back the tunnel-vision naiveté I had to have during my Boy @ The Window years. The kind of naiveté in which I believed I could literally do anything, with hard work and talent alone. You know, that great old American myth of a level playing field, a meritocracy. It took me years to give this myth of an ideal up, despite the evidence of the lie all around me.
Three decades ago, I believed in it. I had to. If I hadn’t, I would likely not be here to say anything about merit or any other American falsehood or truth. Where my belief in the meritocracy was strongest was in sports, where literal examples of the level playing field abounded. I was coming off a year of watching my Mets win 98 games while missing the playoffs by three games, yielding the NL East to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was really one game during the next-to-last series of the year, against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Dwight Gooden won a pitcher’s duel against John Tudor while Darryl Strawberry and Lenny Dykstra hit timely or game-winning home runs in the first two games. But we couldn’t win that final game. As unfair as it seemed, the Mets had given me a great season.
So great that it inspired me to try out for baseball that year, out of all the sports I could’ve played. It had become my favorite sport, and knowing I had more of acumen for football and basketball didn’t distract me from my master plan. But first, I needed to learn how to play baseball.
My year slipped a bit in October and November as football and baseball provided distraction, which was why I had to refocus in early December. And not just because I spent my time watching TV. Richard P. — for me an almost unknown person — had invited me to practice with the varsity baseball team. He might’ve been in my gym class or friends with Suzanne. Richard P. was a senior and a star pitcher who’d been clocked throwing a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball — absolutely awesome! Of course I said “Yes” without thinking about my reality at home. I never owned a baseball glove, never played on any Little League team, and had only used a baseball bat during softball and gym class three times between seventh and eleventh grade. I had Jimme take us to Modell’s Sporting Goods store in the city and bought a $55 outfielder’s glove.
I still needed to break it in, which would be even harder with the crooked ring and pinky fingers on my left hand. With Richard P. and the other members of the baseball team, some of the breaking-in happened pretty quickly. I went to three of their practices in October and saw the difference that the years of athletic experience I didn’t have made in the case of the varsity players. Frank dived for a ball at his shortstop position on our indoor Astroturf practice field, caught it, got up, and gunned the ball to first base. His right arm had two purple rug burn marks on it. “There’s no way I’d ever want to dive for a ball like that,” I thought. The next thing I knew I was out there with the team taking grounders at shortstop and catching balls at first base. We were practicing double-plays. One grounder came up on me faster than I expected. I got down for the ball, got it in my glove, but then it popped out as I rose up to throw it to second. The ball popped out and went right to Frank at second, who then threw to first, a real double-play. I got cheered and jeered at the same time!
My first-base experience was less memorable. I caught several Richard P. throws to first in holding-the-runner simulations. Every time I caught one of his balls I wanted to scream from the pain. I needed to get calluses on my left hand fast if I was going to hang with these guys!
If given another year, with lots of practice, I probably could’ve made this baseball team. But to what end? I already had a plan for going to college, on the academic track, after all. “So what if the baseball team was stacked with Italian guys and I was better at basketball? I should be able to play what I want to play.” That’s what I thought at the time, at least.
Merit, even in sports, is never the only consideration. Egos, politics, the expense of playing a specific sport, and of course, race, all play a role in the paths that athletes take and in the decision-making of coaches as well. I was just too naive, too focused on one thing, too stupid at fifteen to allow myself to see that my raw talent was never going to be enough. Five months after that last practice, though, I did see the truth, if only for a moment or two.