Probably the one thing people don’t realize about me is that I was a baseball star.
When I was 17, right in the middle of the events of Homeschool Sex Machine, I left the homeschool world and enrolled at a private school with a funny name: Christian High School, which had apparently been named during a fit of minimalist inspiration. Anyway, it was barely a school at all: there weren’t very many kids, plus the school didn’t even have its own building–we met in an old Baptist church in the St. Louis suburbs.
But they DID have a basketball team, and I was the starting center, which sounded like a big deal unless you knew that there was no backup center. I was a gangly 6’7” tornado of elbows and knees who fancied himself the gravest of defensive threats. This was not completely without merit: in our classification of tiny schools it was not unusual to play against teams who had no tall players. I thus collected a great deal of blocked shots when 5’11” post players would pivot and hurl the ball directly into my armpit.
When the hoops season ended I was somewhat baffled by the resounding lack of scholarship offers coming my way. I had calculated, incorrectly, that scores of major programs would be looking for 180lb centers who averaged 9 points a game. Just as I was contemplating dropping out and finishing my schoolwork at home, I was informed that I had to pick a spring sport.
This came as a surprise.
“I don’t know how to play anything but basketball.” I told the athletic director.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied. “You’re a boy and we don’t have enough bodies.”
For reasons that must have seemed important at the time, I chose baseball.
The problem with Christian High School, aside from the confusing name, was that it was very small. When your senior class is 14 students, it makes it hard to pay teachers. My Spanish teacher had a night job delivering take out. Luckily, the school had a plan to attract new students and the plan involved [SPOILER ALERT] totally, like, dominating at sports and stuff.
CHS had apparently seized upon the idea that the one thing standing in the way of an enrollment surge was the lack of a baseball team. Well, that was easy enough to fix. Tryouts were scheduled for the spring and the school immediately began to market the new baseball program to prospective families.
It seemed a small detail that the school had never had a baseball team before. Or maybe they had? There were uniforms, kind of. Not enough for a whole team, and not in our school’s colors, but they had numbers on them. Had there been a previous team? We were told that it didn’t matter. Our questions were swept aside, because there was no time to dwell on the past, because we were about to build a baseball dynasty, because we, like, wanted it more than all those other schools who already had teams. Or something.
On the first day of tryouts I drove over to the local park after school. CHS did not yet have their own diamond, so all of the practices would have to be held at public locations. On that first day, seven boys showed up. There were no coaches to be found. Between us we had six gloves. We milled about on the base paths, kicking at the dirt and talking about girls as the Missouri sun fell across the outfield. Finally, out of boredom, we practiced throwing each other grounders, because that’s what the Cardinals did when they warmed up before games.
You would think that this would have been warning enough. That we would have suspended the team right then and there, then informed the administration that this fool’s errand would not go any further until equipment, coaches, and adequate numbers of players could be found.
But this was 1999. It was Varsity Blues and it was Edwin McCain playing in our heads every time we looked into the mirror. We were the tail end of Generation X, writhing around in fits of earnestness and trying to feel everything at once. There was no time to think, man. There was only time to be epic and stuff.
On the second day of practice we stood around that same infield as the same Missouri sun set over our heads. This time we held a contest to see who was the best at catching line drives barehanded. It looked so much cooler if you didn’t even use your glove.
Eventually we scraped together the minimum number of players for the season. Our squad was a motley group of athletes culled from the other sports teams, plus random boys at the school who happened to own cleats. The outfield typically consisted of myself (I didn’t have cleats, but I could spit pretty well), my best friend Andy (who would come the closest to hitting a home run, because he hit a ball that rolled almost to the fence), and a boy named Brian, who had actual muscles, which was a big deal. We were coached by a carousel of volunteers, mostly fathers from the school who had coached baseball, or played baseball, or had watched baseball at some point. From practice to practice the coaching staff turned over and over. One coach would leave for a week while another would show up for practices but not for games. And then there was another whose sole contribution the entire season was a speech about wearing protective cups.
There was also the small matter of hitting. The school did not have catcher’s gear, so there was no way to practice full speed pitching or hitting at the park. It was okay, though, because someone tracked down a former student who now went to public school. This guy was the key, you see. He owned catcher’s equipment, and the school agreed to pretend he still went to CHS and let him play on the team if he would bring his equipment to practice and be the catcher.
Meanwhile, Andy and I had devised a plan to give ourselves an edge.
Our friend’s dad owned a local training facility with batting cages. The man agreed to give us free use of the cages to train for the upcoming season. We spent hours in the slow pitch cages, pinging the giant yellow softballs into the netting and slapping each other on the back afterwards. We had been told that we had great cuts, whatever that meant, and it was fast becoming evident to both of us that we were natural sluggers. The girls at school were going to be amazed at our displays of precision hitting once the season began. At no point did we step into the fastball cages, though, because those were WAY harder to hit.
The season began and our budding dynasty lost its inaugural game by 25 runs. This was okay, though, because the other team was probably stealing our signs. Actually, we didn’t have any signs, but they probably would have stolen them. Suffice to say, they were cheating somehow.
Left field was my chunk of real estate. My primary duties were observing the procession of home run balls sailing over the left field fence and sprinting down behind third base to retrieve the errant throws that came zinging in from all over the infield when our loose-limbed fielders attempted to throw someone out at third base, which was not necessarily contingent on someone being on their way to third base.
It wasn’t until I stepped into the box for my very first at bat that it dawned on me that I had no idea how to hit a baseball. Given our fail-safe preseason training regimen, this realization came as a shock. For one thing, the opposing pitchers threw the ball so danged fast. I would fold my lanky frame into the batter’s box, elbows and knees poking out over the plate at odd angles, and glare at the pitcher, which was really my only strategy. Then came the pitches. I would hold the bat tightly, waggling it back and forth eagerly, and simply watch. Sometimes I struck out. Other times the pitcher could not navigate the maze of limbs of hanging over the plate and I got beaned.
As the season wore on it became evident that something was wrong with our dynasty. It was difficult to pinpoint, but it appeared that our lack of equipment, training, practice facilities, and overall talent was our Achilles’ heel. A game in which we held our opponents under 30 runs was considered a success. As I once valiantly tried to explain, we were what you would call an “up-tempo” team.
At the end of the season we played in an invitational tournament with some other Christian schools from around the Midwest. The first few games went about like all the others: the only real drama was whether we would commit 20 errors before we allowed 20 runs. By this point in the season, the coach who seemed to be more or less in charge had taken to setting our lineups completely randomly. He was a lawyer by day, and his primary goal seemed to be making sure that every player who showed up to the park played equal innings, as if to spread the blame as precisely as possible so no one boy could be held more culpable than the next. During games he never said much. Sometimes he would rub his face and his mouth would move, but words rarely came out.
On the last day of the tournament we played against a school called Tri-County from Kansas City. They were a large team with fancy purple uniforms and new equipment and their own private bus. I guess you could say that we were underdogs by several touchdowns. We were given our random lineup, then a mumbling, rambling speech by our chief counsel, and then shooed out onto the field to face our slaughter.
To this day, I have no idea what was wrong with Tri-County that day. It was like their entire team had just woken up from a nap, hastily thrown on their uniforms, and stumbled onto the diamond. It was like they had no idea they were supposed to play that day. To that point, Tri-County had blown through their entire rotation of pitchers in the previous game and had to scramble to find someone to take the mound against us. They were finally forced to trot out their stocky third baseman, who couldn’t have thrown over the plate if a bathtub full of cheeseburgers was riding on the outcome. The rest of their players seemed sluggish and disinterested, as if they were all hung over.
For one magical spring day, the gears of our dynasty started to creak and turn. Here was up-tempo baseball at its finest: pitchers flinging one four-pitch walk after another with no pause. CHS runners tearing around the base path and slipping clear into the outfield grass because we were wearing spray-painted sneakers instead of cleats. Our second baseman Zach diving in the dirt, trying for all the world to spear grounders with his bare hand.
With the assistance of about 68 walks, we won by 16 runs and promptly disbanded the team for the following season.
It has been 18 years since the glorious run of our one-year dynasty. In the time since, CHS has grown into a wealthy, premier private school. Their sports teams have actual try outs. As far as I know, their teachers no longer have to work second jobs.
As for all my teammates, none of us made the major leagues. We’re all pretty old now, so I doubt it will happen at this point.
No, it’s not 1999 anymore. But if I stare in the mirror long enough, I can still hear Edwin McCain in my head. □