The Professor and the Strikeout King
It was nothing but a white blur. Larry took a desperate swing. He would have had better luck waving his bat at a darting mosquito. The ball hissed by, sinking deeply into the catcher’s mitt with a crack.
“Strike three!” the umpire said.
For the third time that night, Larry slumped back to the bench. Three at-bats and three strikeouts; each time with runners in scoring position; this time with the tying and winning runs on. He pulled off his cleats and shoved them and his glove into his bag as the Yankees gathered at home plate, celebrating their win with the traditional ode to the defeated: “Two-four-six-eight, Who do we appreciate? Cubs!”
Children dream many dreams. Larry’s one and only dream was to become a major league baseball player. But his first year in Little League had been a dismal failure. He had struck out more times and dropped more fly balls than anyone else in the league. Toward season’s end, his teammates had abandoned their encouragement. Too many games lost because of him. They had begun to groan when he went to bat or each time a fly ball headed into right field. He had hoped to redeem some of the disappointment in this last game of the season. But he sat on the bench, utterly defeated, utterly alone.
He waited until he left the park to cry. He knew he wasn’t a bad athlete.
He was among the fastest runners in his fourth-grade class and had proved himself time and again a very
good kickball player. A few weeks before he had overheard one of his classmates say to another: “How can
Larry be so good at kickball and suck so much at baseball?” There was a sting in the remark, but there was also
truth. This truth mystified him. He thought hard about it on his walk home, ultimately resolving to practice even harder.
While the other kids in the neighborhood spent that summer at the swimming pool or playing video games, Larry checked out books from the library, dedicating himself to studying the masters of fielding, hitting and pitching. He drew a target on a wall outside his house and spent hot days throwing a rubber ball at it, practicing his fielding as it returned. One of the books showed him how to throw a curve ball. He threw and threw until he could get the rubber ball to bend perfectly into the target. He split pitching and fielding practice with batting practice, holding his bat in one hand while tossing the ball up in front of him with the other, then swinging with both hands on the bat until he could hit the target almost as frequently as when he pitched.
Shortly after school began that fall, Larry’s fifth-grade teacher sent a letter home with him notifying his parents that the county would be conducting eye tests at the school. They consented and, to Larry’s great surprise, it was determined that he needed eyeglasses. He got his new glasses a short time later. He wore them home from the eye doctor and was astonished – no, amazed! – at what he could see. The trees were not merely green blobs as he had thought his entire life. The outlines of their leaves and branches could be seen clearly from the road! The faces of people in their cars and yards were not really soft fleshy blurs. They had eyes and noses and mouths that could be identified from a great distance. He could clearly see whether they were smiling, frowning, talking or looking in his direction. It occurred to him that this was how you were supposed to see. He rejoiced in this. But his exultation did not last very long.
The Coke-bottle thickness of the lenses and the bulky black plastic frames hadn’t really bothered him at first.
(His parents said they were sturdy and durable and that they would stand up to the abuse that a boy would provide.)
For the first time in his life, he could really see. Exchanging the awkwardness of their clunky appearance for
the remarkable new vision they provided seemed to him a bargain. He quickly learned that bargains can
come with unforeseen costs.
He wore them to school the next day. He heard chuckles, but soldiered on. By mid-morning recess, some classmates had taken to calling him “The Professor,” not in a particularly complimentary way. By lunch recess, kids he didn’t know were laughing at “The Professor.” It rattled him severely. So much so that he couldn’t concentrate on his kickball game. At one point, while chasing down a fly ball, his glasses slipped down on his nose. He tripped on the foot of another and was sent sprawling to the ground, his new glasses hurtling off his head. It seemed every kid on the playground was laughing at him when he got up. His parents had been right about the glasses. They survived without a scratch. Larry, however, was wounded beyond the cut on his knee.
In that moment, his vision didn’t seem as important as it had been just a day before. It occurred to him that he could not think of a single pro baseball player who wore glasses. He left the playground in disgrace. Back in class, he put the glasses in their case and shoved them into his backpack. He began to wear them only in the presence of his parents.
That spring he began his second year of Little League, picking up right where he left off. He struck out all six times in his first two games, the last time with the tying run on third, ending the game with yet another loss to his credit. Opposing players had given him another nickname by this time: “Strikeout King.”
Again, he wept as he walked the streets home. Despair overtook him. His only dream grew dark as the alleys of the night. He cried as he had never cried before, managing to control the sobs just enough to avoid the attention of the occasional passing motorist. Then he heard the buzz of an intermittent streetlight as it flashed on above. The world had gone silent, except for the light. Then something like a voice spoke within him. You can be The Professor, or the Strikeout King. You have a choice. He considered this deeply. Neither appealed to him, of course, but it occurred to him that at least The Professor could see. He knew what he had to do. And with this knowledge, a calm washed over him, ridding him of any doubt that could muddy his resolve.
The next day was a Saturday. That morning he took his allowance and walked to a general merchandise store. He purchased a strap for his glasses that would keep them on his head and spent the rest of the day practicing while wearing them. Never before had he worn them while pursuing his dream. He was astounded how clear the wall target had become.
The next game he took the field with his bulky eyeglasses strapped to his head. He knew
he looked funny, but he no longer cared. Someone said, “Hit it to right, The Professor can’t catch a cold.” The opposing team erupted with laughter. But Larry’s confidence began to grow as soon as the first pitch was thrown. For the first time in his life he could actually see the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand. He was able to track it all the way into the catcher’s glove. He thought about the horrible past, when he could see only the movement of the pitcher’s arm and the swing of the bat. The ball was invisible. He would have to look around at the other players to see where it was going. In that moment he began to understand why he had sucked at baseball.
But the first test was yet to come. Larry’s insides fluttered with nerves. The first batter went down on strikes. The second batter grounded out. The third batter, their best, walloped the second pitch high into the night, just barely visible above the lights. Larry’s feet moved instinctively back, back, back, his right hand feeling for the fence, his eyes keenly focused on the tiny white spot. He didn’t take his eyes off it as it made its return to the lighted earth. Larry located the fence, watching the ball grow bigger and bigger until it dropped squarely into his mitt. His teammates erupted in jubilant disbelief. He could not keep the smile off his face as they high-fived and backslapped him as he hustled into the dugout.
The next test came an inning later. Larry entered the batter’s box. His jangly nerves subsided with the first pitch. The ball was no longer a blurry mosquito. It seemed as big as a kickball. Larry could even make out the seams on it. It was too low and he let it go.
The next pitch came right down the middle. Larry watched the ball explode off the sweet spot of the bat, sending a line-drive bullet into left for a single. He had another single and another catch that night. His confidence swelled over the next two games as he hit and fielded like never before. Then, during practice one afternoon, his coach asked him if he would like to take a shot on the mound. His hours with the rubber ball paid off. Larry threw strikes. And it took him only few pitches to refine his curveball.
He started his first game as a pitcher two games later. And he won. His studies paid off there. He had read that every pitcher must have a formula and an “out” pitch. His formula was simple, but devastating: Throw two fastballs for strikes, preferably low and on the outside corner. Then come with his “out” pitch. He would start his curveball at the batter’s head. Few were able to stand in and take the pitch, thinking that they were surely about to get clocked. Hardly any were able to touch it. Most ended up on their back, watching the ball swoop wickedly down and in for a called third strike. Larry quickly became one the league’s best pitchers. Some players began to call him “Strikeout King.” This time it was a welcome nickname. His teammates began offering him rides home after each game.
In the last game of the season, Larry took the mound against the Yankees. The Cubs were tied with them for the league lead. But Larry had much more to prove than a league championship. He wanted to show everyone, including himself, that he was a different player than the year before. He pitched his best game ever that night, racking up twelve strikeouts and hitting his first homerun. Toward the end of the game, after striking out the Yankees’ best hitter, Larry heard him as he entered the dugout: “Man. The Professor is good.”
He declined a ride home that night, preferring to walk home. Crickets chirped along the way. Larry let himself fancy it as applause. The streets no longer seemed so dark. A cool breeze stroked the night. Larry felt so light that he imagined it lifting him to the stars. His dream remained. How strange, he thought, that The Professor and the Strikeout King had become a welcome part of that dream. In that moment, he felt the warm calm wash over him again. And again, something like a voice within him spoke: Why settle for only one dream?