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In my hometown in southern Mississippi, young boys like me were raised on a steady diet of church, fried catfish, and great American sports. So when my time came to begin my athletic career at six years old, my parents didn’t skip a beat in handing over a glove and a bat as if it were my birthright.
Day after day, my dad took me out to the backyard to teach me how to be a competent baseball player. He carefully explained each of the field positions, demonstrated proper swing form, and spent the next six months preparing me for my debut as a star athlete.
Along with learning from my dad, I sought help from my fifteen year-old brother, who had sports dreams of his own. One day, he took me out back to help him practice his signature fastball. He handed me his bulky catcher’s mitt and I complained about its weight.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, then walked to the other end of the yard and yelled, “Ready?”
“Okay!” I said. And then I woke up in the emergency room.
Here’s what my brother told my mom: he’d thrown a career-defining fastball at me, one he’d practiced for weeks by throwing it against our chain link fence and leaving irreparable impressions. Fifty feet away and unprepared for the fireball headed in my direction, I lifted the heavy glove and made it up to my chin before the ball clocked me in the forehead and I toppled over onto the grass.
The doctor called it a mild concussion. Years later, I thought: you hit a six year-old in the head with your fastest pitch, and all you could muster was a mild concussion? That must have been disappointing.
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That next summer, I made the Little League Baseball team as a first baseman. We kids didn’t have to try out for that league; we were too young to be considered good or bad on any athletic scale. Some kids would just squat in the outfield and eat grass. There was this one kid on our team named Cody who tried to hit each pitch by swinging downward. Straight down. Our coach didn’t bother to correct this. When the day finally came that Cody hit the ball, it bounced off his shoe and rolled into play towards first base. Cody, dumbfounded, dropped his bat and sprinted towards third base. When he arrived, he stopped, shrugged, then ran back to our dugout and cried. Cody was useless.
Since none of us seven year-old boys had the dexterity to throw a reliable pitch, a mechanical pitching machine was added to the mound. Lucky for me, I quickly realized that the pitching machine followed the same wind-up pattern and target radius for every pitch. It also had a reliable click-shwoop sound that tipped me off on when to swing. That summer, I held a perfect batting average and all the other kids were impressed. I thought I was cheating, but told no one about my strategy. I became the kid who never struck out. Even still, we lost most of our games. We blamed Cody. I remember climbing into the car after each game and my parents telling me, “Well, at least you didn’t strike out!”
We finished the season with a photo shoot for our very own baseball card and my dream of athletic stardom was realized. Sports were easy, I thought. But that next summer, I graduated out of Little League and found myself facing down living, breathing pitchers with a thirst for blood. I took one look at the fastballs being thrown by those good ol’ boys, thought back to the mishap with my brother, then went home and timidly explained to my parents that maybe I wasn’t interested in baseball anymore. I remember my parents looking at me warmly and saying, “No big deal. Do you want to play something else?” It’s possible they knew baseball wasn’t going to work out for me in the end, but I remember feeling very relieved and happy to be the proud owner of my parents.
And, as a matter of fact, I did have my next sport in mind. “Dad,” I said. “Will you set up a basketball goal in the driveway for me?”
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To be continued…