Baseball is considered to be the great American past-time, a part of our nation's culture and heritage. Baseball is as much a part of being patriotic as eating apple pie and voting for the president. As an American child, baseball was invariably a part of my childhood experience. From the baseball cap and baseball glove that my father posed me in for my first birthday photo shoot, to the block-baseball team that used my suburban home back-yard as the outfield, to the interrupted regularly-scheduled programming of lengthy televised games in our Not-Fighting living room, to the good and evil dichotomy of coaches that would shape my Middle-School and High-School teams, baseball has been an omnipresent force in my life. It has been there to highlight the great times, as well as emphasize the bad ones, and occasionally, when fate thought kindly of my situation, even brought some comfort and relief when the rest of the world was falling apart. Baseball built my childhood identity for me in many ways, and it also assisted me in defying every expectation when I discovered my new identity.
My father did not sing me lullabies when I was a baby. When Mom told him to tuck me in at night he put on his best Phil-Rizzuto announcer voice and, amidst whisper-crowd cheers and tongue-clicking sound effects, gave me the play-by-play analysis of his baseball fantasy game. Of course, he probably sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" for good measure, but the focus was definitely on the game, not the song. Most of my memories of this event are fuzzy and unclear, but I do clearly recall as a toddler when Mom opened the door to check on us, he suddenly interrupted the bases-loaded play of the night and started singing an off-tune rendition of a Cat Stevens song. Or it might have been Kenny Logans. The point is that baseball-bedtime was our secret, and assumably something Mom would not have thought was healthy. She was always reading Self-Help books about raising the ideal child, and everything from prenatal vitamins to New-Age touch therapy in herbal baths were her way of saying, "I will love you if you will be perfect." Baseball was not part of her vision for me, so my father had to sneak in a little male-bonding when she was not looking.
Mom and my father never fought. They did, however, consistently play a sport I have learned to call "Not-Fighting." This is obviously the name, because when you ask them what they are doing in the midst of the activity, they would answer, "We're NOT fighting." With clenched teeth and fists, they would pitch complaints and blame at each other, always striking out at the other's words with a heavy swing. I think I must have been an unknowing patron of the game, because time with me was often the trophy with which the winner of Not-Fighting walked away. When Mom was victorious, I would be rushed off to go purse and shoe shopping at the mall, with an obligatory stop by the toy store -- where I was not allowed to look at sports gear because it was a symbol of something terrible and horrible about men in our society, or so a therapist I consulted for a single visit later in life extrapolated as my Mom's reasoning for everything. When my father won their game, we went to the park. Or sometimes to a bar -- my father was friends with every single employee at the local sports "pub," and I think with the majority of the sheriff deputies as well, so bringing a kid in was no big deal. Well, that's not entirely true, because it was a big deal to me. I knew it meant I was a part of some secret club for men Mom did not like, and I knew it meant they thought I was special. The only problem was that I felt "special" not because I belonged to the group there, but because I felt like an outcast in a place that it was all right to be one.
The men there talked about the art and skill of baseball, and I was at least intrigued by that. I found an encyclopedia article that states: "Baseball requires skill and athleticism, but also has a depth of strategy and anticipation which often goes unrecognized by those less familiar with the sport. Pitchers develop strategies on how to pitch to the batter by studying the batter's previous plate appearances throughout the year." (Zollman) Mom was definitely a top-hitter for not recognizing the skill involved in things she did not herself enjoy. Everything from baseball to abstract painting was done without talent. However, Mom was not completely off-base when she complained about the sexist and otherwise undesirable aspects of baseball and other sports, especially on television. A recent report found that "The television sports news did focus regularly on women, but rarely on women athletes. More common were portrayals of women as comical targets of the newscasters' jokes and/or as sexual objects (e.g., women spectators in bikinis)." (Duncan et al.) My father said it did a growing boy some good to see what real men were like. I suppose that was part of the major differences between them, but also in some ways what made them so much alike. I did not feel like I was a part of my Mom or father's vision for me.
By the time I was six or seven, there was a group of neighborhood kids that started up their own weekend baseball game. (During the summer, weekend baseball games are played any day it is not raining.) The backyards in our area were all connected and there was a "community rule" intended to beautify our lawns and create a tight-knit community of neighbors which prohibited the use of fences. This meant that the kids had a nice open playing field, once someone agreed to let them play in their yard, of course. Fear of broken windows from stray baseballs and dislike of rowdy boys made most of the yards, even those belonging to the boys' parents, off-limits for play. Fortunately for them, my dad was keen on the idea of having them play in our yard, and the house next to ours was empty every summer. Mom said the boys would be a bad influence on me, and she expressed great concern about rumors she heard at the PTA meetings about one of these boys in particular being "not right in the head" and "too sensitive" for me to hang out with. My father argued all of the benefits of learning to be a part of a team and sportsmanship. Mom said he was wrong, but psychologists say he was right. "Those involved in organized sports reported higher overall self-esteem and were judged by their teachers as more socially skilled and less shy and withdrawn. They also found that 13-year-old boys who had been involved with a sport during the past year were less likely to report having experimented with marijuana than 13-year-old boys who had not played a sport during the prior year." (Partenheimer) In my house, Mom's rules were God's rules, so I had to be contented to watching the boys play from my bedroom window, in my head making all the play-by-play calls.
The scent of fresh-cut grass and newly laid asphalt and pools of sunscreen lotion burning cancer into the skin of sun-bathing Suburban-babes and all the sweet and sickly smells of summertime drifted in with the breeze through my screened second-floor window. I had an oscillating fan in my room -- that's the kind that looks like an alien robot turning his head from side to side preparing to attack when backlit by nightlights -- but in the daylight with a group of seven to ten boys my own age running amuck with bats and balls and leather gloves and shorts and bare feet on the wet baseball-diamond lawn, the fan was an announcer's microphone. When I spoke into it, the turning blades broke apart my voice and made me sound just like a radio broadcast, to my own ears at least. No, sorry, our son can't come out and play, but in reality, they could not stop me, because I was in fact a part of that baseball club. Five days a week, sometimes six, they were there, and they were my friends, even though they didn't know I was watching or listening or learning.
Looking back, I was depressed. Not just mopey about being stuck in my room while the other kids played outside. I was absolutely overcome by hopelessness and helplessness and despair. I did not really want to die, things were not that bad. I just wanted out. My rich fantasy life could only satiate my desire to connect with other children to a small degree. I did not realize I was depressed…