My experience as an educator has led me to believe that 8th grade boys are the most repulsive things on the planet.
They are gangly looking creatures that smell like wet dreams. They grow out of clothes quicker than you can say “skinny jeans” and they eat a weeks’ worth of food for dinner and never put on weight. Most 8th grade boys are narcissistic assholes for the sole reason that they have coasted up Middle School Mountain and feel that they have earned the right to piss on the heads of everyone. Unbeknownst to them, they have made no contribution to the goodness of man which should prohibit their right to be a narcissist or an asshole for that matter.
As an eighth grader I was 5 foot 4, 90 pounds. I hadn’t hit puberty or kissed a girl. While it seemed most of my classmates spent their weekends dry-humping, I spent Saturday nights engaged in Nerf battles with my friend Dan and a few other undeveloped tadpoles. I learned about high school things from the kids of 90210. Aaron Spelling’s weekly yarn made me believe that all high school fellas had goatees and muscles and drove convertibles and had unprotected sex with their pouty-lipped girlfriends in the Peach Pit bathroom. So naturally I spent most of eighth grade scared to death.
I watched boys mutate into men. Like Mogwais cannonballing into toilets, they convulsed into these strange looking Gremlins with crackling voices and random patches of facial hair. To my amazement, I watched girl after girl give herself up to these alien things. 8th grade girls wanted to make out with men. They wanted their virgin cheeks rugged by sharp facial stubble. They didn’t want to kiss their little brother. Unfortunately at 14, that’s what I looked like. America’s favorite little brother. Parted hair. Freckles. High pitch little boy voice. And more insecurities then pubic hair.
The one equalizer was my athletic ability. Though I was small and weak I was fast and agile. Sports earned me a thread of respectability. But I knew soon I would be sharing high school halls with Dylan McKay and Brandon Walsh and I would be pulverized into a pile of pubescent dust.
Then this happened.
A May evening. A sinking sun. A gold sky that stretched like lion’s fleece. Under the tutelage of my dad and his best friend Coach Tammaro the St.Ephrem’s varsity baseball team found ourselves in a precarious position. We bullied our way through the regular season and were one game away from an undefeated record. However on this night, in the CYO Region 19 championship game, we suddenly found ourselves tied 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh to the cross-town rivals, Queen of the Universe.
I was due to lead off the bottom of the 7th inning (which, under CYO regulations, was equivalent to the bottom of the 9th). Now because of my lack of size and strength batting was a problem. My weapon of choice was the same thin barreled bat I used in 6th grade, not for bat speed, but because my twigs couldn’t handle anything else. And for you baseball purest out there who are thinking, “Why not bunt the kid?”
- Most teams brought the infield in on my sheer lack of size
- My bat barrel was so thin that the margin for error was so small
- I had an absolute fear of getting my fat little sausage fingers crushed by a fastball.
Please don’t think I was on the team because dad was the coach. I may be selling myself a bit short on my baseball abilities since my game had some redeeming qualities. I was an above average fielder, with a solid baseball IQ and because of my foot speed I could be a little terror on the base path. However, my biggest caveat was that I simply could not hit. At the time, I blamed this on my smallness but frankly as a 14 year old I had an acute case of pussyitis.
The scouting report on my approach at the plate went in this order:
- Looks to get walked
- Gets hit by a pitch
- Prays and swings
I stood on the edge of the infield grass, scared out of my Nikes, watching the pitcher rear back and throw a few warm-up pitches. He looked like most of the kids I feared- tall and lanky with a spotty goatee, a square jaw and side burns. Stalking the mound with the confidence of a man that spent his weekends dry-humping the pleated skirts of suburban school girls.
Eighth grade was difficult for me because only three years ago, in 5th grade, I ran with the “in” crowd. Before the puberty epidemic, which I seemed immune too, life was good. In fact I was one half of the first “relationship” in my grade. Her name was Courtney. She had brown spiral hair. We never got beyond holding hands at the CYO skating parties and passing notes in class but I established in fifth grade that I could pull tail without really doing anything. This is how our relationship began:
Courtney’s friend Jen: Courtney likes you. Do you want to go out with her?
Jen: Congratulations. You’re a couple.
And two months later this is how the relationship ended:
Jen: Courtney doesn’t want to go out with you.
Jen: Sorry. You’re not a couple anymore.
But that was three years ago. And as a mopey 14 year old I would sit by my father’s record player, listening to Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and wonder where it all went wrong. Why was I suddenly lonely and dispassionate and wrestling with the notion that my best days were behind me? My 14 year old mind theorize I peeked too early. Like Vanilla Ice. I was the best athlete in the fifth grade, had a girlfriend and was sitting with the “cool” kids at lunch. I was on the Steve Sanders track. Then puberty came in like a beast. And without warning everything changed. Girls hips widened, their breast swelled. Boys sweated all the time and smelled like forgotten deli meat. Kids stole cigarettes from their parents and bought Noxzema in industrial sized buckets. There were new words too. While most kids learned about ovulation and menstruation and masturbation and ejaculation I sank slowly into alienation and isolation. To top it all, R Kelly was teaching us suburban catholic kids how to “Bump n’ Grind” and I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Things seemed to change overnight and I became the Shannon Doherty of the St. Ephrem’s class of 1994. Forgotten and angry.
The umpire barked, “Batter up!”
I crossed home plate and eyed down the third base line to Coach Tammaro. Coach Tammaro was married to a professional cheerleader and the closest thing I knew to chain smoking pirate. He walked with a limp and sported a seafaring scowl that would make a sailor’s asshole pucker.
Coach Tammaro’s meaty left hand tugged at the bill of his cap while his right hand ran down his thigh signaling that I was to ‘take’ the first pitch. I stepped into the batter box, screwing my back foot into the dirt.
The first pitch sizzled in – a belt high fastball that popped into the catcher’s mitt.
I stepped out of the batter’s box and looked down the third baseline. Coach Tammaro put his hands on his hips and drilled holes through me. I knew that look well. He was telling me that I should pray and swing but he was secretly hoping I’d take a fastball in the ribs. I turned toward batter’s box. I felt dad looming in foul territory by the first base bag some 90 feet away. In that moment I felt embarrassed for dad. Here was the coach’s son scared to swing. Scared to embrace the moment.
I stepped in the batter’s box. I wrung the bat handle. A second belt high fastball whistled in.
The Queen players erupted. “One more!” “He’s afraid to swing!”
I stepped out of the batter’s box and looked down at Coach Tammaro. There were two strikes. Bottom of the 7th. Tie game. There was no signal for “Stop being a pussy and swing the fucking bat.”
So he spread his arms out, palms face up in disgust. The reaction a pirate would give when questioned by an IRS agent regarding taxable pillaged loot.
I must have looked foolish to Coach Tammaro. A little boy in a baseball uniform just circling the drain of life. Before I stepped back into the batter’s box I looked down at dad standing in foul territory, patrolling first base.
Unlike Coach Tammaro, Dad was a modest man. Always calm. Never swept up by emotions or the magnitude of the moment. At 14 and now at 34 dad still is the Zeus in my mythology. He is all powerful. All knowing. In a good way. Not in that prickish– I’m your father, the ruler of the universe, and you will do as I command or I’ll send a lightning bolt up your ass –way.
Dad had quiet determination. He graduated high school and immediately went to work as a welder. He later went on to open his own glamorous pallet business where he repaired and sold pallets. Dad was always better than his work. But you could never tell him that. He was born blue-collar and raised the same. He taught me to never cut corners and not to be afraid of hard work. When we moved from Philadelphia into Bucks County we found ourselves a nice half-acre yard. Dad knew one day he would want to build a shed with electricity, so that he could install spotlights, so his boys could play ball at night. What he did, something that my pamper college educated ass would never even consider doing-he dug a three foot wide , three foot deep trench from the back of the house across the length of the yard- a 40 yard trench to run an electric wire with nothing but a shovel and copious amounts of testicular fortitude. This was not to tunnel refugees or to escape from Pelican Bay. But simply because one day he wanted to install lights in the backyard so his boys could play ball at night. That’s the kind of man dad is.
At the height of the evening’s drama, dad looked down the first base line and into my soul. The sun sank behind the tree line. Crickets hummed. Fingers crossed. All those eyes locked on me– the players, the crowd, the entire cast of 90210. A swirl of voices screaming at me “C’mon Jay” and “You ain’t nothing”.
I felt myself collapsing under the weight of my own adolescences. Failing at 14, on this stage, would be cataclysmic and undoubtedly afford my parents years of monthly psychiatrist co-pays.
Dad knelt and ran his hand across the points of grass. Then, as subtle as the advent of the moon and as natural as the setting sun he winked at me.
I climbed back into the batter’s box, choked up on the bat and shortened my stance. Just like dad had taught.
The pitcher reared back.
The ball tinkled off the bat and rolled toward the dead space between the pitcher’s mound and first base.
I dropped the bat and tore down the first base line. The first baseman retreated to the base. The pitcher leapt off the mound.
Dad was still kneeling. The sun at his back. Helplessly watching his son struggle in a world full of giants.
The evening sky erupted in a collective burst of cheers and moans.
Dad moved in behind me and put his hand on the small of my back and calmly said, “Check your signs.”
I looked across the infield. The pirate ran his right hand down his left sleeve. Steal.
On the next pitch I took off for second.
On the next pitch the best hitter on our team, Brian, a 7th grader who had hit puberty ripped the next pitch out to right-center.
I sprinted toward third. The Pirate hopping up and down waving me home.
Things were quiet in the car.
Every so often dad and I would look at each other and smile. Still speaking in signals.
As we rounded the corner and headed home I asked,
“Dad, why did you wink at me?”
I felt the weight of the championship trophy in my hands. The sky shifted into deep purple. Single suburban houses with yellow porch lights flicked by.
Dad looked across the car and said, “Because I believe in you.”
We slid into the driveway. Safe from the scrutiny of the world. Dad and I sat sharing the silence. Smiling at life.
Dad cut the engine. I looked up at him. His eyes moved toward mine.
And then somehow it becomes 2014.
For 20 years I carried that story around in my head. When I was 14 I thought I was the star of a Hollywood movie. In fact, the fame inspired me to become narcissistic asshole. Little did I know that life was just beginning. That I would go on to star in few more movies of triumph and many more of failure.
There were many nights when I convinced myself Write on Fight on would never happen. When I would fall into myself and teeter on the edge of failure. When I thought it would not be worth the work. When my kids pined for attention or when I couldn’t muster the energy to find a single word that satisfied me. When the blank Word document was as menacing as a strapping pitcher with facial hair and a propensity for destroying twerps like me.
Sometimes I failed. Sometimes I didn’t swing.
Then sometimes I see a baby-faced 14 year old boy in baggy blue baseball pants standing in the on-deck circle. His head rattling in an oversized helmet. Scared out of his skull. Scared of everything. And I see my father- a young man, strong and proud. He genuflects in the sweet green grass with the sun behind him and he winks at me and admires me the way fathers secretly admire their sons.
Then the pitch comes.
And I’m scared.
But I swing.