After I finished Little League, I advanced up to Junior Babe Ruth league. I'm one of those people who is neither great nor awful at sports. In baseball, my first year in a given league was marked by extreme mediocrity; my second year by basic ability; and by my third year, I was actually pretty good. Never mind that I was a right fielder because my throwing arm was not particularly good; let's not talk in this post about my one start as a Little League pitcher. Let's talk about my first year in Junior Babe Ruth League, the league for 13 and 14 year olds.
My first year in Babe Ruth was easily my worst year of baseball. I did not get to play very much, which, speaking in my adult voice now, seems to me to be extremely wrong. I now believe in participation above talent, and if Atlas therefore feels he must shrug, then I will do my best to catch the world as it falls.
But this story is not really about me. It's about another kid.
Sean was 13, just as I was. He had moved to our little town from godknowswhere; if I remember correctly, his father may have been in the military, perhaps his parents divorced, perhaps a grandparent was in loco parentis--I don't remember the details. He was one of those hordes of kids with whom I grew up, who seemed to appear at our school for a year or two, live their parts in the great tapestry which was our small town, and then disappear to parts I do not know.
Sean was a very small kid, rather like the fellow in the John Irving novel, one of the bespectacled, essentially decent good-hearted kids who ride the benches of sports teams and play seventh trumpet in marching bands all across the country. As I cast back through my memory, I do not know how I knew this, but I knew in my heart that Sean had heart. Some kids just have heart, you know--they just do.
I ordinarily wouldn't think that Sean's tale was unique--after all, in group activities everywhere, the Seans of the world are legion, not excelling, but always trying. But in addition to his extremely diminutive size, Sean brought another challenge to baseball. In one knee, Sean lacked a kneecap. He walked with a discernible effort, and he had a bit of trouble actually running at all. This is an issue in a sport such as baseball, in which outfielders (and, by the way, all lesser players in juvenile leagues play outfield) run to catch fly balls and whizzing basehit grounders.
There was nothing maudlin or movie of the week about Sean. Nobody stopped and said "that little fellow tries his heart out" or made comments as if they wished to bar Sean from any reindeer games. Sean just hit the field, did his best at practice, and did not get to play in games at all. I do not remember that he ever complained. I do not remember that he ever really fit in. He was there, as I and many others, really, often were, just there.
One game,though, an odd thing happened. Our team was down a bit, but the bases were loaded. Two outs had been made against our team, so one more out and the game was over. All we needed was for someone to get a walk and we would score a run and tie the game.
The coach, a kind-hearted fellow who was nonetheless immune to the idea of letting kids who merely try but don't succeed play, had a brain wave. Sean was so short that he would be nearly impossible to pitch to successfully. The coach put Sean in as a pinch hitter. Sean was going to keep "taking" (i.e., not swinging) at pitches until Sean was walked. The other team would never be able to throw strikes to Sean, whose strike zone was truly small.
The plan began well. The opposing pitcher missed Sean's strike zone--ball one. But then on the second pitch, Sean swung at the pitch. This was not according to plan--the pitch was very high, and should have been a ball. Sean would have been halfway to
his walk. We would have been halfway to the tie. Sean had one ball and one strike. The next pitch was a ball. The plan seemed back on track. But on the very next pitch, contrary to the plan, Sean again swung. Sean swung hard and he hit the ball.
The ball rolled off Sean's bat and dribbled on the ground in the infield. Sean began to run, and the other base runners began to run. It was not close. Sean was thrown out at first base by the opposing infielders. The game was lost.
Nobody blamed Sean. Nobody said anything. The man had gotten only a single at bats. He got to play in exactly one play the entire damn summer. Sean didn't come to our school but for a year or two more. I don't know what happened to him. I don't know where he is now.
I think of Sean, and I feel a pain. I feel a pain for people who try really hard. I feel a pain for people who wish they could fit in, but never do. But most of all, I feel a pain, because on some levels, Sean fit into my idea of life as it could be lived, and the rest of our team did not. Damned game. Damned coach. Damned winning and losing. Damned, damned, all damned. I wonder what became of Sean.