As I walked along the brick ballpark fence, my maroon jacket slung over my shoulder, fans leaned over with their arms extended. It was early in the season and the stadium buzzed with excitement. Turning a tinge of orange, the sun had just decided that it would, in fact, set.
Some days, I’d slap as many hands as were placed in front of me. This day, I stared vacantly ahead as I listened to two salty old baseball fans talk loudly about…me.
“Who we got pitching for us today?” The old coot asked his companion.
“This righthander. Man, he’s really been throwing well. 92–94 with a curveball from hell. It’s going to be a good day for us!”
“I bet that other team is shaking in their boots! He’s only given up a single run in — what does that say?” [he grabbed the program to get a closer look] 20 innings? Man! He’s really chuckin’ it!”
I hung on their words as I carefully descended the steep concrete dugout steps. The two men where still jabbering about my opponents’ impending doom as I tossed back a tiny wax paper cup full of water.
So I got up.
Time to prove the old men right.
Who Are All of These Me’s
Over the years, I manufactured all sorts of realities in my head. They’d distort the real one, warping it back into the *almost proper shape that it once was.
When I was a kid, baseball was easy, care-free and fun. I hit the ball and ran, smiling as I inhaled powdery baseline dirt en route to first.
As a grown man, it was an equal dose of passion and desperation. My personality was split — part carefree, confident kid excited for tomorrow’s game; part drill sergeant, bullying the rest of me into working harder than the day before; and part cowardly, doubting, yellow-bellied wimp.
All of us athletes manage these alter-egos, these splits psyches. I believe now that they’re all essential in their own unique way, helping us bend reality to the proper shape.
“You gonna die if you do 10 more?”
“Really can’t take one more step?”
“Gonna finish that 12th rep?”
Coaches skim off impurities, file down rough edges and gusset us up so we can withstand the storm ahead.
A lot of it’s tough love that keeps us going, that shows us the standard we’ll be required to meet tomorrow, if not today.
So I said “yes, sir.” Time to go do what he asked.
Maybe it Won’t Be Me
“We might score. Then, I won’t have to go in.”
“Shut. Up. Why do you always say you don’t wanna go in?”
“I dunno. I just do.”
“It’s your job to pitch. It’s your job to go in. If you don’t want to pitch just go home.”
“Just not tonight. If we score it won’t be my situation, anyway. Then I’ll get another day of rest.”
“You’re rested. You don’t need another day. This whole idea of yours — of being safe for another day — it’s trash. Get it out of your head. Go out there and do what you know how to do.”
“You’re right. You’re right.”
Come on. You’re the guy they want out there. Let’s do this.
As I stood there in the bullpen with the same, familiar cold sweat lathering my calloused hands, I knew he was right. Why did I let myself think those things?
So I gathered up my remaining courage and ran out. Time to prove myself wrong.
As Real As We Make Them
There were no old men in the stands.
There was no coach that day in the weight room.
There was no teammate in the bullpen.
It was always just me; it’s always just them.
As I walked from the bullpen to make my start in Evansville, Indiana, I could feel the eyes on me. The pressure of being the team’s #1 forced my cleats deeper into the green grass. I made up those old men to convince myself that what they were saying might just be true.
I forced myself to listen, to balance out the other voices in my head that were sure I’d get embarrassed in front of a big home crowd. But that wasn’t really the truth.
The old men are right, I said.
I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t bully and guilt myself to do more. Maybe it’ the only way anyone does anything of importance. I wanted to watch Netflix like everyone else. To be more social like everyone else. To not keep running as my legs burned, like everyone else. But the voice said no.
You’re right, I said.
It didn’t matter how many times I’d done it. It didn’t matter how many good hitters I’d sent back to the dugout, bat in hand. It didn’t matter that I was — in fact — someone others felt secure about as I jogged out to the mound. I was good; I’d do the job and compete.
Yet, til the last day, I hoped my name would be scratched at the last minute. We’d score. I’d get to sit down. It wouldn’t be me. I’d be safe. If I pitched, I could get hit, get hurt, get sent home. I could lose it all. If I sat back down, I’d still have a locker the next day.
But you’re going out there anyway — just like you always have, I said.
So I did.
So we all do.