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Early Years with a Disability - Part 4

Sports and My Baseball Fiasco

I did not make any real friends among my classmates in the first four years of grade school. My chief playmates were my brother Jack – almost two years younger than me – and my sister Sherry – five years younger than me. The three of us were close chums, and continuously played very well together, including especially make-believe and pretending. We amused ourselves with all sorts of games and puzzles together. Jack and I readily gravitated toward competitive sports. In stereotypic Indiana fashion, Dad nailed a basketball rim, without a backboard, on a tree in a corner of the tiny backyard. It made a pretty pathetic basketball goal, but there I learned to shoot a basketball one-handed with passable proficiency. In the same undersized backyard, Jack and I learned to play baseball, with unique rules adapted to the small playing field – and to the big trouble we would get into if we hit the ball over the garage where it would smash into the house of our touchy across-the-alley neighbor Mrs. Crabtree; over the garage was an out, while hitting the ball into the dog’s hole cut into the side of the garage was a home run.

My right arm limitations made it somewhat difficult for me to play baseball. Since I could only throw the ball with my left arm, I could not put the baseball glove on that hand. Years later, a one-armed pitcher named Jim Abbott would manage to have a ten-year major league career (he even pitched a no-hitter), while fielding and throwing with his left arm, by slipping his baseball glove on and off, either to catch the ball or make throws, but I never tried or even envisioned doing it that way. Like a typical lefthander, I put the glove on my right hand, which was capable of opening and closing it. The problem was that I had no ability to move the right arm to get the hand and glove to where they needed to be to catch the ball. I addressed that problem by having my left hand grasp my right arm between the wrist and elbow and using it to move the right one around, hopefully to position it to where the ball was coming. At first, the only baseball mitt I could get a hold of was an old right-hander’s glove that had belonged to my dad. So I took a glove intended to go on the player’s left hand and wore it backwards on my right hand which was being maneuvered around by my left arm. The result was not too spectacular. Eventually, the family was able to scrape together enough money to get Jack and me cheap, but real, baseball gloves, which I think we received as Christmas gifts. With this improvement, I decided that I was ready to try out for Little League (“Minor League Division”) in the spring.

It happened that the Little League team in our neighborhood was being coached that year by my Uncle Donnie, my mother’s brother. His son, my cousin Ronny, who was eight years old – a year older than me – was trying out for the team, and I thought it would be a good idea for me to try too since I had reached the seven-years minimum age for a try-out. So on the first try-out day, I walked to the Little League ballpark at Garvins Park – that happened to be the public park also containing the swimming pool where my mother thought (most likely erroneously) I may have contracted polio). I was a half-way decent hitter, since I could grasp the bat with both hands, use my right hand at the bottom as a bit of an anchor, and propel my swing with my what-had-become-by-then reasonably strong left arm and shoulder.

Fielding was a whole different ballgame (play on words recognized if not initially intended). Fielding grounders, with their unreliable bounces, by moving my right arm back and forth near the ground with my left, was more easily imagined than done. Most grounders would either get past me or, if I was lucky, be blocked in front of me. Few of them wound up in my mitt. Even more unpredictable were my efforts to catch fly balls. Picture a pop-up in the air and trying, not just to get a bead on it and judge its trajectory, but to anticipate exactly where and when the ball is going to come down sufficiently in advance to permit you to use your opposite arm to position your catching hand to get there in time to catch the ball and close your mitt. Timing all of this with sufficient accuracy and precision is a precarious undertaking, one that more times than not I failed to accomplish successfully. On the second day of team tryouts, my uncle was hitting fly balls to the fielders. When it was my turn, he hit a high fly quite near to me. I got under it and tried to maneuver my arm and glove in anticipation of catching it. I misjudged the ball only a teeny bit but could not make the proper adjustment in the last split second. The ball overshot my glove and hit me solidly on the nose. I was instantly in quite a lot of pain, but somehow my nose was not broken.

When this incident occurred, my Uncle Don felt responsible for my mishap and acted both concerned and embarrassed. As I realized later, my trying out for the team had faced him with quite a dilemma. He had to choose whether to keep me on the team with my clear ineptitude that would weaken the team and risk my possibly getting injured, perhaps seriously, or at least being sorely embarrassed; or to let down his young, eager nephew by cutting him for underperforming from the team he coached. He and his co-coaches came up with a Solomonic solution to the quandary. After tryouts ended that day, he announced that the coaches had decided that, because of the large number of boys who had come to try out, they were not going to retain any of the seven-year-olds that season. This rationale salved my disappointment over not making the team to some extent, and left me with no reason to hold a grudge against my uncle for the outcome. I only realized much later that my inability to catch pop flies had caused all the other seven-year-olds not to make the team that season, though I do not think any of them were ever aware of it.

Continue to Part 5: Boyhood Fights