The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
—Henry David Thoreau
The Woman: “You football or baseball?”
The Woman: “That’s me too.”
—Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
A few weeks ago, Chris, the varsity baseball coach at our school, came to me during a faculty meeting. “Hey,” he told me. “I have to talk to you about something.” I like Chris, but we’re not particularly close, and the only time we ever have any conversations, it’s about swapping a dorm duty. So when he found me later that morning, the last thing I expected him to say was:
“I want you to throw out the opening pitch at the ballgame on Friday night. We’re celebrating the English department and since you’re the chairman, we want you to throw out the opening pitch.” Chris clearly thought this was an honor I’d relish. Chris clearly doesn’t know me.
Some context here. I have not thrown a baseball in over 30 years. That’s not hyperbole; I really haven’t. Tennis balls to dogs, check. Nerf footballs to my daughters, check.
Later that day, I found my friend, Hank, a colleague and former varsity baseball coach and asked him if he’d mind going down to the baseball field with me at some remote time of day or night when nobody was likely to be lurking about, and show me how to throw a pitch. Trooper that he is, he agreed. My father, a retired Episcopal priest of the first order was a man of many talents, but teaching his son the nuances of the athletic life was not among them. (He did teach me how to pour the perfect Chivas on the rocks, but that’s for another guest post, perhaps).
Preparing dinner that night for my daughters, I told Alex that this Friday she’d have to come with me to a school baseball game since I had something I had to do.
“You don’t have to play, do you,?” she asked.
She cocked her head, raised an eyebrow and, fully the tween, replied, “But Dad, you don’t know how to play. Are you sure you want to do that?”
In truth I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, but at that point it was a done deal and there was no backing away. “Sure. It’ll be fun.” She did not look convinced.
“I’m going to have to wear a hoodie and hide under it,” she told me.
“Well, I’m going to wear a T-shirt that says, ‘I’m Alex’s Dad!’”
I rarely make it through the night without waking up at some point between 3:12 and 4:42, but that night the usual suspects of anxiety—money, kids, the future—gave way to visions of me with a baseball. Ditto for the next three nights. Friends, including BoTG blogger, Bob, emailed my department with news that he’d be bringing a speed gun to clock my throw; another colleague announced that he was bringing an iFlip so he could post the moment on YouTube. Students in the hall began greeting me during the day, patting me on the back and telling me that they couldn’t wait to see me pitch. Bob introduced me to a young man I’ve seen around campus but have never taught: “This is Nolan, he’s one of the most important people in your life right now. He’s your catcher.”
Meanwhile, Hank gave me an early morning pitching lesson on Wednesday. My throws went all over the place, only a few times crossing the plate. Into both dugouts, hopping the dirt, occasionally reaching within Hank’s general proximity so that he didn’t have to sprint to catch the ball. But only occasionally. Throughout it, he assured me that I was doing just fine and I have never appreciated a lie more.
Friday afternoon. Alex and I are throwing the baseball in the empty lot behind the house. I notice that she has a really good throw—straight, hard, infinitely better than her Dad’s. She notices this, too.
“Gee, Dad, you’re not very good at this. I think you might get embarrassed out there. Do you want me to do it for you?” She’s being kind, I think, in offering to spare me the indignity, but she’s also trying to spare herself. When I tell her no, that I want to do this, she seems amazed. I try to explain to her that I know I’m bad at this but that I’m good at lots of other things—cooking, gardening, teaching, being a friend and a dad—and that I don’t need to be good at everything.
“Besides, some of my students are excited that I’m going to do this and if it makes them laugh, that’ll be fun.” She doesn’t seem to understand.
Later that evening, I throw out the pitch. It hops twice in front of home plate, but comes closer than in my dreams I’d imagined it would. Alex didn’t even have to hide under a hoodie. The next week, several people will tell me that at least it was better than Obama’s. One of them is the pitcher, but that’s because he hates the President and is happy to find reason to make a dig at him. The other is a colleague who, like me, likes the President, and sees her remarks as a way of offering solidarity and encouragement.
When you’re ten, one of your main goals in life is to not look foolish in front of your peers, to avoid being caught being bad at something. Working with teenagers for the past 24 years, I think it’s true of them, as well. They’re not really children, they’re not really adults and in that paradoxical space in between, they are at once, self-conscious and guarded, self-forgetful and open. Alex’s words reminded me that this was the first time in the longest time that I could recall trying something that I wasn’t fairly certain I would succeed at. It surprised me a little and disappointed me more than that. Maybe it’s true of adults as well. That’s not how I want to spend the next thirty years of my life on Planet Earth and, thanks to Chris’ invitation, there’s the chance that I won’t.
I don’t know if that’s what Thoreau means by “quiet desperation” but it’s in the ballpark.
The Baseball Project is Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, and R.E.M), along with drummer Linda Pitmon and R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck. They will release a song each month of the baseball season.