The Odd Couple
My 8th grade friend Chad was everything I was not. He was confident, boisterous, profane, and cool. We were the odd couple in our class. Me with my glasses that were two sizes too big for my face and him with his bad-ass attitude.
We formed a friendship earlier that year with the pact that I teach him how to be disciplined with homework and he teach me how to be cool.
I’m not sure there was much success in either department, but we had a lot of fun in the process. Even so, our friendship was not without its challenges.
One..two..three strikes, you’re out!
One Saturday, Chad decided we should visit the batting cages. The way he said this made it seem like going to the batting cages was an activity that people did all the time, like going to the bathroom or checking in on a grandmother.
I had never been to a batting cage before. In fact, I knew almost nothing about baseball, except that my favorite player was Darryl Strawberry. I liked him because his name made my mouth water. Yummm strawberries.
That pretty well sums up my knowledge of baseball.
So, I stepped into the batting cage at the Zuma Fun Center in Knoxville, TN – with Chad cheering me on from outside the fence of the “slow pitch” lane. I put in my tokens, set the oversized batter’s helmet on my head, and shifted the baseball bat into position, just like Darryl Strawberry’s pose on his baseball card.
And then came the “slow” pitch. THWAT! The baseball hit the padded mat behind me. I didn’t even have time to swing yet. I played my fair share of whiffle ball and I knew what a slow pitch was. This was not it.
“That’s OK,” Chad cheered. “You’ll get the next one.”
I stared intently at the pitching machine. This time I saw the ball coming toward me. I swung. THWAT! The ball hit the mat behind me again. But at least I swung that time.
“Anticipate the pitch. Here it comes,” Chad coached. Another pitch. THWAT! Nothing but air.
“Keep your bat higher.” THWAT! Another miss.
“Too high! Lower it a bit!” THWAT!
I began to sweat as I wondered if maybe I was destined to never hit a ball. I heard murmuring nearby and I imagined a small crowd gawking at my inadequacy.
THWAT! I wondered if there was something wrong with the bat.
Chad felt the pressure from the onlookers and began to distance himself from me by laughing. He wanted no part in my humiliation. “Just try to hit something. Any ball will do!” he jeered.
I threw down my bat and helmet and opened the gate just as the next pitch whizzed by my head. “What are you doing? You’re going to get hit!” Chad scolded me. “I’m done,” I said and sat down on a nearby bench.
He slipped into the cage, picked up the metal bat, got into a batter’s stance and…
He drove the ball to the back fence. Great. The bat works just fine. It’s me that can’t hit anything. The whirring of the pitching machine came to a stop. I wished for the bench to swallow me up whole. But it did nothing of the sort. Stupid bench.
For the rest of the day we rode the go-carts and played in the arcade. We never revisited the batting cages nor spoke of what happened.
And I never entered a batting cage again. Until…
Twenty-three Years Later
My wife, baby boy, and myself were visiting family in Santa Barbara when we stopped by a taco stand that caught our eye. We were eating our tacos on an outdoor picnic table when I heard a familiar sound. CLANK!…CLANK!…
Ah yes, nothing like the sound of a metal bat hitting a ball, the sound of my heart being ripped open by shame. There just happened to be a batting cage beside the taco stand.
I looked at my son and something came over me. I didn’t want that memory from twenty years ago to define me. I was tired of the overwhelming shame that rose up within me every time I saw a batting cage. Someday my son was going to have an experience like mine. Maybe it would be in drama class or on the chess team, but he was going to feel embarrassed or humiliated someday. And I wanted to be able to look him in the eye with confidence and tell him…um…tell him…Well that’s the problem. I didn’t know what to tell him.
I bought four tokens, grabbed a bat and helmet, and walked resolutely into the “slow pitch” baseball lane. My wife and son watched from nearby benches. She had just been briefed on the significance of this event.
What I really wanted was to practice hitting baseballs alone in a cave somewhere. Then when I was good I could show off to my wife, my son, and all the bystanders. But somehow I knew that’s not what this fight was about.
I stood in the batter’s stance. The first pitch came. I swung. THWAT! The ball hit the padded mat behind me. Apparently baseballs didn’t get any slower in the last twenty-three years. Good to know. Then came the second. THWAT! I missed. The third came. THWAT!
I began to hear stifled laughs from people eating tacos nearby. (To be clear, the tacos were not laughing at me, nor eating people.)
The fourth pitch came. TINK THWAT! The ball just barely grazed my bat and hit the mat behind me. I hit the ball! More or less.
“Swing harder!” I heard some kid yell, followed by giggles.
Going to the batting cages was as embarrassing as I remembered. But still, I knew I was rewriting history. Or more accurately, rewriting what history had inscribed on my heart.
TINK! I nicked that one too. It went up over my head and landed behind me. THWAT! A miss. TINK! It ricocheted off the fence behind me and spun at my feet. I was really getting the hang of it now! THWAT! Another miss.
I walked out of the “slow pitch” cage and was greeted by the smiles of my wife and son. You would have thought I hit all home runs from their expressions. I gave them a big hug and began to cry as I let go of the lies from my past. There is something healing and spiritual about being loved for who you are and not for what you do.
Looking back on this day I’m fairly certain the Dodgers aren’t going to come calling anytime soon. At least not until I can hit a ball forward. And maybe I won’t be able to teach my son how to hit a home run, but I hope I’ll be able to teach him something infinitely more valuable – how to strike out.
Having accomplished what I set out to do, I returned my bat and helmet to the cashier when a sign caught my eye: “Softball lanes available. Great for beginners.” OK, maybe just one more round…
Wondering what this blog is all about? You can read the idea behind Sacred Badge of Courage here.