By Mark Cote
My mother told me that when we were young, my sister had a way of finding wounded animals; birds that couldn’t fly, rabbits that couldn’t jump, stray cats with twisted tails, bringing them home and playing nurse maid, feeding and caring for them until they could once again be set free into the world from which they came.
I had a way of finding the kids no one wanted to be friends with; the outcasts, the quirky ones, the rebellious ones that never fit in anywhere. The broken ones left on the sidelines. I’m not sure that it was a conscious thing on my part. I didn’t go looking for them, rather, we kind of just found each other. They were more interesting somehow, not easily defined. Like me.
I never played sports; they were never a part of my upbringing. I didn’t know the rules and never understood the attraction. Didn’t care to. I don’t remember ever seeing a sporting event on the TV in our living room. My father was an artist and we spent weekends at one museum or another learning about art and famous painters, sometimes attending his showings at a local gallery. Growing up with no interest in sports further alienated me from the rest of the boys whose lives seemed to hang on every game. They knew the names of all the players of every team; knew the stats, collected playing cards and traded them like they were precious gems to be worshipped. The one time I went to a Red Sox game with my grandfather (I was eight) an elderly woman sitting in front of us had her head split open by a foul ball during batting practice. I remember the sight of her face covered in blood, soaking her clothes and her husbands hands holding her as she was carried onto a stretcher, taken away in an ambulance, sirens blaring. The game hadn’t even started yet. I always wondered if she’d survived.
The summer I turned ten, I reluctantly gave in to pressure from the neighborhood kids and signed up for Little League try-outs. Waiting in line for my turn, the knot in my stomach tightening, I could feel the eyes of my parents watching through the fence surrounded by all the other parents yelling encouragement as their kid stepped to the plate, one by one connecting with the ball; the cracking of the bat echoing through the hot summer air is it found its target.
It wasn’t clear to me how to hold the bat, or which side of home base to stand on. Being left-handed didn’t help the situation. Sensing hesitation when my turn came the coach wrapped his hairy arms around my shoulders in a sort of bear hug, placing his catchers mitt sized hands over mine while positioning them on the bat, telling me where to place my feet, instructing me to turn at the knees and face the pitcher. I could feel his hot breath on the back of my neck, could smell the funk of one too many beers from the night before adding to the nausea swirling around my gut.
The pitcher leaned forward, his dark eyes glaring at me from under the brim of his cap, one hand tucked into his glove. His left cheek jutted from the side of his face making him look like a squirrel with a mouth full of nuts. Slowly he turned his head to the side and spit into the dirt at his feet. This was it. All eyes were on me. I could hear my mothers words of encouragement from the night before. “Just keep your eyes on the ball and you’ll be fine”.
In what felt like a dream I watched as he wound up; right had reaching behind almost touching the mound, left leg lifted off the ground counter balancing his weight. He swung his arm around, the ball leaving his hand seemingly in slow motion as it tumbled through the hot summer air. I could feel my heartbeat in my neck, my eyes locked on the ball coming closer and closer. At the last minute I stepped to the plate, closed my eyes and swung the bat with everything I had, missing completely. The ball slammed into my stomach at what felt like a hundred miles and hour, knocking the breath out of me. The pain was instant and overwhelming, reaching from my gut to my balls, both of which retreated into the sack between my legs out of the way of danger.
Dropping the bat I leaned forward, bent at the waist and threw up all over the new sneakers my mother had bought just the day before. Horrified and embarrassed I ran from the park, not stopping until I reached the safety of my bedroom where I crawled under the covers and cried myself to sleep.