From the start I wanted to be a pitcher. I wanted to stand tall on the summit of the baseball diamond–at the center of it all–working the laces on the rawhide and setting the game in motion at my will. A slight nod, a stream of spit, and I’d fire something high and tight on the 0-2 count just to keep the batter guessing, because “pitching is the art of instilling fear.” Sandy Koufax said that. He also won the Cy Young Award three times and pitched four no-hitters and a perfect game, so how could he be wrong?
Thing was, every time I tried to throw a pitch–like, in a real game–I only ever managed to frighten the backstop. Like, the actual backstop. Not the catcher. I could make perfect throws to any base from any position on the field, but once you stood me up there on the mound I couldn’t hit the strike zone with a beach ball.
My father, a hardcore, o-g of the left-handed rights movement, once joked, “It’s not your fault you were born right-handed.” His remarks may or may not have come after watching me walk an entire conga line around the bases in two-thirds of an inning. But I always thought there was some truth to his statement even if he’d only said it to lighten the mood on a silent drive home from the game. All the greats were left-handed. Like Koufax. And Warren Spahn. Steve Carlton and Whitey Ford. Randy Johnson. Even Babe Ruth was an ace lefty pitcher before he became the greatest left-handed hitter of all time. There’s just something about southpaws and baseball. There’s no denying it. They can’t use scissors properly and they smudge their way across every written page, but damn! A lefty sure knows how to throw a fastball.
Joke or not, I was determined not to let my God-given handedness define my role on the baseball diamond, so I enlisted my father once again–this time for some South Philly style pitching lessons (always on asphalt and someone’s probably getting hurt). These sessions never went well. If Pops told me I needed to “get more flex in my knees” or to “come over the top more”, I’d always shoot back with an “it’s just because I’m tired” or “the sun’s in my eyes” kind of response. If he told me I was “off balance” or I needed to “follow through”, I’d tell him my balance was fine or that the street was too flat or the sky was too blue. We had that kind of dynamic. If we spent an hour out there each day you could bet it would break down as follows: thirty-seven minutes arguing semantics; nineteen minutes chasing rogue baseballs and/or waiting for Dad to recover from an ill-fated short hop; four minutes pitching.
And, after all of this “effort,” would you be shocked if I told you I never developed into a Koufax or a Randy Johnson or even a junked-up knuckleballer like Stan Coveleski? In fact, if I had a pitcher’s patronus it would have to be Jose Canseco, who once came literally “out of right field” to pitch an inning of relief for the Texas Rangers back in 1993. He gave up three quick runs and promptly reported for Tommy John surgery in the morning. That’s about how far I made it as a pitcher. My final appearance on the mound, as a twelve-year-old Little Leaguer, was an emphatic reminder to leave the pitching to the left-handers. I will never forget it.
It was the top of the first and I threw Ball One–way high and outside. It clanged off an iron post meant to hold up the backstop (there’s that word again). Then I threw Ball Two. Then three, four, five, and twelve–tying a dubious world record of walking the bases loaded in the fewest number of pitches. My coach called for time and marched out to meet me on the mound. He said, “Next kid is a slugger. I don’t care if you walk him, but don’t throw him a strike. I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” I nodded. Then I threw a belt-high fastball right down Broadway. That baseball is now in orbit somewhere over New Jersey along with my dream of becoming a staff ace.
Of course the great thing about baseball, and life, is that as soon as one dream fades another is born. I’m a bit more stubborn than most, so I needed a bit of force-feeding to help me see it. It happened, ironically, during one of my father’s street side pitching clinics, where I had been the sole (unwilling) customer for months. A friend of mine, a kid who always used the green-handled scissors at school, just happened to ride his bike through the neighborhood at the exact time Dad and I started in on a particularly hostile Abbott and Costello routine–maybe something about the inner workings of “the stretch” or the psychological details of the pickoff move. My friend sat on the bumper of a neighbor’s car and took it all in, no doubt cursing the merits of his timing and stewing in the awkwardness of the moment. That’s when I handed him the ball. Figured I’d take the heat off of me if I let him try his hand at my father’s little carnival game.
Every time Pops told his prized new subject–a lefty–to “drive more with the hips” or to “kick the leg higher in the windup” or to “keep the elbow square to the shoulder”, you know what my friend said in response?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
He’d just fire strike after strike after strike. And the only thing I could think to say to my father after what was easily our most successful pitching session to date was also one of the smartest things I’d ever said about baseball in general: “We gotta get this kid on our team.” And we did. And almost thirty years later that same lanky lefty still has a stranglehold on the pitching records at Rowan University.
As for me, my new dream started the very next day when I asked my father to buy me a slick, new infielder’s mitt. See I, like many before me who have since faded into the tapestry of the middle infield, chose the curse of the glove. No glory. All responsibility. But someone has to do the dirty work. We can’t all be southpaws.
Frank Morelli is a writer, an educator, and a beer league extraordinaire. His fiction and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Jersey Devil Press, Cobalt Review, and Indiana Voice Journal, among others. His story “In the Pen” was shortlisted for the 2015 Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Prize. He has a debut novel, No Sad Songs, forthcoming from Fish Out of Water Books.
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