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Why I Never Played Ball

by Cecilia Tan

You know what has never made sense to me? Baseball is for boys and softball is for girls. This doesn't make sense because boys have much, much bigger hands than girls. I have such tiny hands that I have trouble keeping a softball in my hand. A baseball, on the other hand, fits just right. I can even juggle three baseballs.

But I didn't play baseball or softball as a kid, and here's why.

I started to go to games at Yankee Stadium with my dad when I was, what, about five? But I didn't begin to appreciate the rules of the game until I was nine or ten, and started keeping a scorecard. Part of the reason I got so hot to learn the rules that summer was when I was nine years old, we moved from Englewood, New Jersey to Clark, New Jersey, where the physical education curriculum was quite different from what I had been used to.

Englewood had a very progressive school system in the '70s, racially mixed, with African American, Asian, Latino, and white kids, poor, lower middle class and upper middle class all jumbled together. My own family was a mixed-race family, with my Chinese father and Irish mother. Smarter kids were given advanced instruction, slower kids were given special attention. Even gym class was progressive. All the physical education classes below fourth grade were "skills building" classes. No competitiveness other than three-legged races and other funky games. A lot of track and field, but no team sports.

So when I started fourth grade, nine years old, in Clark, I was in for a shock. Not only was everyone in the entire school system white and solidly middle class (the all-whiteness of Clark having since been reported in the news as a conspiracy of the town fathers and the real estate agents)...when a black family finally moved in, a burning cross appeared on the lawn), the kids already knew how to play real games like soccer and football and basketball. I was at a distinct disadvantage.

Now, soccer is easy to fake your way through. You run up and down the field, kicking the ball, and try to get it in the goal. If you're not anywhere near the ball, you don't have much to worry about.

But baseball. I suppose you could say I had a classic childhood experience in being picked last for the team. I was a popular kid, but seen as a "Brainiac" and as the "new kid" as well; no one knew if I could play. The gym teacher at this school was the drill sergeant type, too, real gruff, who never seemed to explain anything and basically yelled a lot. He favored two junior jocks in the class, who I think he coached in a kiddie baseball league anyway. He'd make these two kids captains, and then they would take turns picking people to divide the class into two teams -- this process would take about ten to fifteen minutes as it was, and the gym period was an hour at most.

Then the game would begin, and we'd sit on the bench in the order we were picked. I seem to recall that I never had to field, because only kids who had brought their own gloves were sent out to the field. And usually the game would take long enough that most days, I never got up to bat, because we'd run out of time before making it to the bottom of the order.

But then there was that day when I did get up there. I realized I didn't know if I was left-handed or right-handed. I decided to bat lefty since then I'd be at least two feet closer to first base, and increase my chances of making it there. I remember very clearly the moment of stepping up to the plate, the sun hot, the lawn mowers buzzing in the background, and everyone looking at me.

I swung at the first pitch, cracked it into the grass and then stood there stunned for a moment. I'm not sure if I forgot I was supposed to run, or if I was just so surprised I had hit it that I was stunned. Then the team captain started screaming to run, so I ran toward first.

Fortunately, I was out. Because I really wouldn't have known what to do after that.

I got up one more time that spring, before we switched to basketball because it was getting too hot to go outside every day, and that time I batted righty. Same exact result, only I didn't stand there quite as long before trying to run.

It occurs to me now, turning the memory over in my mind, that the coach probably pitched a little slower and easier for me (he pitched for both sides), and maybe that's why I was able to connect with the first pitch both times. Other kids struck out. If so, it was the one kind thing he did for me. Or maybe, just maybe, I didn't completely suck, or I wouldn't have, if anyone had shown me what to do or encouraged me in any way.

That summer, my family moved again, at least partly to escape the strange, silent racism of that all-white town...and I sat down to learn the real rules of baseball. I remember dragging my dad to Herman's Sporting Goods in the Woodbridge Mall to pick out a glove. I never knew how many kinds of gloves there were, or what the difference was. Come to think of it, I still don't know all the distinctions. In the end I think I bought an infielder's glove because all my favorite players were infielders (Bucky Dent, Graig Nettles) -- in fact, I'm pretty sure it was the signature glove of someone on the Yankees, but I don't remember now, who.

My father grew up in the Philippines during World War II. They didn't have baseball gloves; they didn't go out and play catch in the evenings. In fact, to hear him tell it, their main sport was riding a pig bareback through the house (until the Japanese soldiers killed it for bacon) and picking the leeches off their legs from wading through swamps. So Dad couldn't mentor me in baseball. Besides, in those days no one had any expectation that a father and daughter would go out and play catch on summer nights before dinner. Not even me.

What my father did know, though, was that to soften up a glove you should put neatsfoot oil on it. Dad is a world class spectator -- he knows the intricate ins and outs of the game, but always from the perspective of the recliner in the TV room. So the most use I got out of my glove was rubbing neatsfoot oil into it while sitting in front of the television watching games with him, and bringing it to Yankee Stadium on the lookout for the occasional foul or home run ball. Never even came near one, but the glove was nice to beat a fist into while cheering.

I wonder whatever happened to that glove? My parents recently retired to Florida and cleaned out the old place. My brother and I hunted for it, but the only glove we could find was a right-handed glove he had bought back when he was thinking he should try catching with his right hand, because he wasn't any good with his left. (My brother didn't really grow into a baseball prodigy, either...)

And when I started in my new school system, a more racially diverse, but also much more racially divided school than Clark, I found out they didn't play baseball or football there. They played kickball on the blacktop playground -- all the rules of baseball except you can bean the runner with the ball instead of tagging him/her out. This was not a joy in a class where the black kids and white kids were often at war with each other, and where I was the only Asian kid (OK, half-Asian), the new kid again, and not "fitting in". I looked forward to kickball about as much as a trip to the dentist.

We played a lot of other "rubber ball" games, like dodgeball (a kind of missile war played indoors with about twenty balls), and weird combo games like baseball-basketball-volleyball: this one is really hilarious. One team is in the "field" of the basketball court, where there are bases set up. The "batter" takes a volleyball, and volleys it into the field and then starts running the bases. The fielder nearest the ball grabs it, and then runs to the nearest basketball hoop, and starts shooting until he or she makes a basket. If the runner makes it all the way home before the basket is made, that's one run. If I remember it right, the runner could actually lap the bases several times before getting called out, and accrue a point for each lap...

High school came a few years later, where we were allowed to pick which gym class we wanted to take: volleyball, Ultimate Frisbee, archery, basketball, deck this time I had begun to fit in, and also to discover my own competitiveness in sports. When choosing my class, I always picked what looked like would be the toughest group of competitors. If a bunch of black girls were all going to do basketball that marking period, I went with them. If a bunch of popular white, upper class boys where going to play deck hockey, I went with them. I didn't go with my friends. I wanted to do what was tough.

Ultimately, though, where I found my niche was in individual, not team, sports. I had started running track in junior high at the urging of a friend, and was terrible at it. I just wasn't fast, not like the top sprinters who could do the hundred meters in under 11 seconds. (I think I did it in more like 14.5...) In high school I changed to distance running, which was even worse in a lot of ways -- nothing compares to finishing twenty whole minutes behind the rest of your team -- but I persevered. Four years I pushed through cross country track, even though I and my best friend Bonnie were always the two slowest on the team. When Bonnie sprained her ankle and was on crutches, we earned the nicknames "Hop-a-long" and "Droop-a-long" from our teammates. But it was a fun team, quite a group of misfits -- the "star" athletes didn't go out for cross country. It was not a glamor sport. They made us wear the cast-off uniforms from the basketball team. Mine looked like a dress. Why did I do it?

It took me until my very last race, when I was a senior, to learn the lesson I had been trying to learn for four years. It was an away meet, in a park we didn't know. So I had no familiar landmarks to tell me how I was doing, or how far I had left to go in the race. I was never near the pack, because they always ran so much faster than I did. I felt terrible as I ran, like I was going to die. I was certain that I was doing poorly. I couldn't bear the thought that on my last race I was going to badly, and yet I was ready to keel over.

When I crossed the finish line my coach stared at his watch in disbelief. I had lopped a huge portion off my personal best. I had gone from running the five kilometer at a true snail's pace (35 minutes when I was a freshman) to something like 24 minutes. (I wish I remembered the exact time, now, and for many years I did, like a lucky number...). He couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it, and he said to me, as angry as he was pleased, "Why weren't you running like that all along!"

Epiphany. I had been operating under a fallacy all along. In the back of my mind I had believed that if you felt good about what you were doing, you were doing well, and if you felt bad about what you were doing, you were doing poorly. Running, more than any other sport, is about pure effort -- not strategy, not skills, not luck -- pure effort. Which means that the worse you feel, the better you are probably doing, because you are pushing yourself to your limit, or beyond it. Wow.

That winter I started skiing professionally, as a ski instructor at a Pennsylvania ski mountain. And I learned to push myself in a lot of ways. To jump from heights I never would have considered before. To go faster than I'd ever gone before. To do some of the craziest-ass shit I'd ever heard of, just in friendly competition among the instructors. Just to see if we could. Skiing, it turned out, I was naturally good at, and that made pushing myself a pleasure.

Once I started college, I started tae kwon do. And the kid who was afraid to get hit with the kickball started doing full contact tournaments. I've never looked back. I received my black belt in 1996 and I am still kicking ass today. My excellence has always come in the individual sports, not the team sports.

But things might have been different. I think if that Clark, New Jersey gym teacher had encouraged everybody to play, if he'd actually coached us instead of just letting the already-good jock kids have their way, or if my next school hadn't been so full of fight and spite that came out in the games, or if that junior high friend hadn't dragged me to track practice and had taken me to field hockey -- or softball -- might things have turned out? I think about the things I did -- running cross country, which was a "boys" sport at my school. Sitting at home with that unused baseball glove. Could I have been one of those girls who insisted on a Little League roster spot? Or who played for my school because I was better than the boys at what they did?

I find myself wondering if there's a sandlot around somewhere where I might jump into some games this summer. There are some Japanese ex-pats, sushi-chefs mostly, who get together on Sundays for hardball. There's a gay community softball league. There's even a nationally competitive women's baseball team. Hmmm...

But I'll have to buy a glove first.

©2002 by Cecilia Tan

Cecilia Tan writes about her many passions (baseball included) from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has been a contributor to
Yankees Magazine, Isaac Asmiov's Science Fiction Magazine, Ms., Penthouse, and Best American Erotica, among others. See more of her work at her Web site.

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