Every kid that plays baseball looks forward to the day when the coach gathers everyone around home plate and cracks open a box to reveal the new and freshly folded uniforms the team would be wearing for the season. I was no exception, even during that terrible season when I was 10, when our team was called The Mets, and our coach was none other than my father…
Let’s begin with the uniforms. For lack of a witty, Shakespearean way of describing them, our uniforms sucked. We played in the Socorro Optimist league, and because our team was late to the party in joining the league, we had to settle for both our team name – this meant that we couldn’t be the Athletics – and team colors. This meant that The Mets would feature an ensemble of a quick-to-fade navy blue with orange sleeves, the latter of which mixed well with sun-burnt arms.
We had no pants. That’s not to say that we didn’t wear any – that would be damn ridiculous – it’s just that the Optimist officials “under-ordered” them, meaning that each member of The Mets would have to incorporate their own pair of faded Old Glory or Levis as part of our official uniform. We looked more like a street gang from Grease rather than a ball club when we showed up for our first game.
And to make matters worse – because what else could go wrong at this point – the fancy cursive lettering that was scribbled across our chest did our team a huge disservice, to put it nicely.
“You guys are called The Wets?” one kid pointed out to me on opening day. And from that point on, playing in a town that was a stone’s throw away from the Rio Grande, kids would call us The Wets, short for wetback, a slur that refers to illegal immigrants that swam to the US across the river. Of course, I didn’t know about that sort of thing at that age, I just thought it meant that our team was comprised of a bunch of bed-wetters.
So our first game was like being the kid in school that showed up in a Halloween costume only to find out that the principal didn’t allow dress-up after all. To say that our team stuck out like a sore thumb would be a giant understatement, which was fitting because we got 10-run ruled by the Giants. For those of you who do not comprehend baseball terminology, we got our asses handed to us.
“Didn’t anybody ever teach your friends how to play baseball?” my father asked incredulously. “I mean, seriously, these guys have all the coordination of a sponge.”
In my father’s defense, he was a last-minute fill-in after the regular coach abruptly quit before the first practice. And in looking at our line-up, it was easy to see that we weren’t an impressive group. I could at least throw and catch but nobody was going to fear a pitcher that stood knee-high to a wastebasket.
Memories like this one flood back to me in waves this time of year, as Major League teams take to the field for Spring Training. I think about the dynamic between young prospects trying to impress coaches enough to take a longer look at them and the old veteran players still trying to hang on long enough to keep playing a kid’s game. Like life, baseball isn’t perfect. Try as me might; we’re still going to make mistakes. The ball will be dropped from time to time and we can’t always knock one out of the park.
My dad tried sprinkling such sports clichés to me and the rest of the team after every loss that terrible season. Unfortunately we had managed to lose every game of the season. I wanted to quit, I wanted my dad to quit. Most of all I wanted the other parents in the stands to quit yelling at him because the mess on the field just wasn’t his fault. He was dealt a bad hand, that’s all. Parents put their kids on our team because they needed a babysitter. But my dad never let me quit, he just kept picking me up.
It was the last game of the season and we were up a run with two out. The Astros had runners on second and third. A base hit by them would cement our perfect no-win season. And when the ball left my hand that final pitch and got crushed by the batter seconds later, it ricocheted off our second baseman’s forehead and shot straight up into the air, only to be caught by our first baseman, a black kid named DeEllis, who hadn’t caught so much as a cold all season.
We celebrated with such enthusiasm that they had to finally drag us off the field (our second baseman needed a stretcher). And the win made me forget about every agonizing loss. My dad wouldn’t be giving me any pick-me-up speeches that day. Instead he literally picked me up and carried me atop his shoulders back to the car.
That day, after that lone win, I recall being overcome with the feeling of not being able to wait for next season and being thankful for my father not allowing me to quit – even when I knew he wanted to. Baseball, now more than ever, represents something exciting and new, something that gives you the promise that even after life’s tough breaks or strikeouts, there’s another game to be played.
I still feel that way.