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The Sound of Winning
The Sound of Winning
I play baseball.
I play baseball for two reasons. One, to have fun. And two, because baseball is baseball. There is no other sport in the world like it. I don't care what the Europeans have to say about football, the Canadians about ice hockey, the Indians about cricket or any other sport known to man. Baseball is something beautiful. The way the sound of the crack of the bat causes everyone to jump a bit, and the way the dirt never feels moved even after a player slides into second.
But that's not what baseball is really about. Baseball is about strategy and comradery. It's about making sacrifices in order to let your team win. At any time, a player, a game, a team can change dramatically.
Baseball is magnificent, but it's not what most people value in the world. In the real world, or at least mine, one thing matters-- popularity. It's all about getting the guys to like you. It's about getting the guys to notice you and getting the guys to want to chill with you so that you feel like you're wanted—like you're worth something.
So, like any other normal day at the ball field, a beautiful game of baseball was being played, but it went unnoticed. Shadowed like the Mets because Ryan was trying to tell his exciting, totally cool what I did last Saturday that makes me so badass story that was oh, so special.
So for those of you asking what it's like to play on a High School baseball team as an 8th grader, this is exactly what it's like:
“Ya man the cops were so pissed because there was piss all over the sidewalk.” Ryan snickered as the other boys laughed and leaned in even closer. “And I swear they were gonna arrest Cody…” (Max likes to take pauses for dramatics) by now the entire team had stopped whatever they were doing.
“Aww dude that's some pretty messed up stuff.”
“Ya dude, luckily Ryan had his diplomat card with him. Once they figured out he a diplomat they finally chilled out.”
Apparently the dip chewing, big head, alcoholic Ryan is a diplomat? Well, I guess that fits right in with the guy's résumé since the rest of the team does make him out to be the king of the high school jungle. You gotta party hard first, then be an amazing baseball player to claim that title.
“Sick dude,” said one of the guys.
Now I tried to focus on my swing and prepare for the game at hand, instead of just pretending to be interested, like at least half of the other guys were doing.
That was mistake number one.
I had just scored myself an insult or two. Hooray for me.
Fortunately for Cody, he saw the opportunity first and didn't waste a second looking up at me, “no point in swinging the bat man, coach only plays the real players in these games dude.”
As the team laughed I made mistake number two. The sarcastic “ha, ha, ha.”
“But dude these games stats don't even matter. Aren't these just friendlies?” The guy with the “Sick dude” comment decided to speak again.
“ Exactly man…. Exactly.”
It's too bad that time before the game doesn't last longer…. You probably think that a dugout has a fence to keep foul and overthrown balls from hitting the players on the bench. After playing just a couple innings with this team, I honestly believe the fence is there to keep everything that happens in the dugout.
In other words do you know those fifteen gallon Gatorade coolers with the little paper cups? After our first inning people stop drinking the water. By the second their throwing the cups, in the third someones pushed the stack off the cups off table. And if it's one of those particularly unlucky games, well then we get the pleasure of seeing some guy throw the cooler across the dugout.
Do you have any idea what a 15 gallon Gatorade cooler sounds like when it gets thrown across a dugout?
It sounds like a loss. A big ass loss.
“Take a seat, Matt.”
An office of an athletic director can sometimes be intimidating with it's bare white walls. The office style sticks out like pinstripes at an all star game in a school building. I walk in and close the door, just like that I was in an office, not a school. My hands started to sweat and the only thing making noise, a small desk fan, suddenly became very loud.
“You're probably wondering why I called you in.”
No really. “A little,”
“Well It doesn't take a genius to know you're a little bit of a baseball fanatic” The director grinned.
Ohhhhh. I hope I know where this is going. “Is this about this upcoming baseball season?”
“That's exactly what this conversation is about. We really need some new blood on the team this year and I see a major advantage in being able to coach you an extra year.” Mr. Lewis takes a breath as he reads my facial expression. I'm guessing I looked a little nervous. “Now I know you're only an eighth grader but with your social skills and skills on the field, I think you'll be fine. So what do you say you turn up at practice when the season starts in a couple weeks and we'll get you one of those varsity jackets?” The grin only got bigger.
All I'm thinking was varsity…. An 8th grader on a varsity team… wow.
“Yes. Yes, I'll be there.” I stand to leave.
“Well, wait a second. I'm not done yet.”
“Look, I just want to you to understand that you being an 8th grader, it can be… well… it might take some sacrifice.”
“Are you willing to do that?”
Perhaps I should've listened to what he was saying because the last thing I had heard was Varsity followed by Baseball. It made a nice combination for me. “No doubt.”
After a game like last Saturday, where the score was in the double digits for the opposing team and we barely scrapped up a couple runs, a practice will usually get a half or so of the players. Today the numbers we're even lower.
Eight guys were on the field--- that's including the coaches.
Coach Lewis had a frown on his face. Tom the assistant coach, a guy right of college ball didn't say much. His short, black, curly hair was almost always covered by a baseball cap and he kept a straight face most of the time. Here and there he'd laugh at one of the player's jokes.
“Where is everyone?” Lewis asked.
“Ryan and Cody are at Tigers practice,” Mark attempted to save the captains ass by saying they were at club team's practice.
Coach was smarter than that. “They don't have practice on Wednesdays… So is someone going to tell me where they actually are?” His voice started to get lower and his grip on his clipboard tightened, last game obviously didn't make him too happy.
A long moment of silence passed. I looked down to the grass. The sun seemed to be shining even harder.
After staring us down some more, he decided this one wasn't worth it, “Fine, go run a couple laps and get warm.”
Along the way I hear someone mutter the numbers, “four twenty”
“What's four twenty?” I ask to Mark.
He laughs, “National weed day.”
“Oh.” I barely finished my sentence as one of the guys stuck out their foot in front of me. I almost went tumbling but managed to keep my balance and keep up a jog. They obviously knew what I was thinking. What idiots.
I stare out to the bleachers where I see Astrid. Her glasses and frizzy brown hair covers half her face and as usual she's reading a book. I'm still trying to figure out why she shows up to so many of our games. I don't think I've ever met anyone as quirky and weird as Astrid. I think back to our conversation at study hall…
I was trying to finish my math homework and she had decided to sit next to me. Yay me. For the first five minutes she just stared at me. she made it very hard to not look at her with her narrow eyes magnified by giant glasses, especially with her heavy breathing (she gets asthma in the spring.)
Then out of the blue she said, “My parents got in a divorce. The judge asked me who I wanted to live with.”
“Ok?” Who is this girl?
"He asked me if I'd like to live with my mom or dad. I said no, they beat me. Then the judge asked about my grandparents, I told him they beat me the most."
It takes me a second to process what she just said, “What?? That's terrible!”
“Then the judge got upset and asked if there was anyone I wanted to live with."
“Is this true?” I ask. She ignores me.
“You know what I said then?”
“What?” I ask tiredly.
Then she stands up with her giant stack of books and walks over to me and whispers, “the varsity baseball. They don't beat anyone.” Then she smiled at me with the most lopsided grin I've ever seen and snorted.
…God. If she doesn't like our team so much why does she come to all of our practices. As I keep running, all I could think was that's what I've become. A weirdo.
We had a game afterschool a week later with our cross town rivals. The Stallions had our number but we have to win someday. Right?
I learned on that day you never let yourself fall asleep on a bus ride with a high school baseball team. I know, I should've known better but when you're with a group of guys talking about stuff you can't begin to relate to, sleep comes fast.
It was a light sleep so when I started to hear the laughs, I should've jumped awake. I kept my eyes closed until all of the sudden I felt something wet touch the surface of my cheek. It was clumpy and for a second I didn't know what it was, but then it's stench reached my nostrils, and my brain went into action.
My eyes flicked open and I practically jumped in my seat as a big brown clump of chewed tobacco fell to the bus floor. I looked up in anger at the players in the back of the bus laughing louder than before.
What just happened?I look left and right, scanning the guys to see who had done it. Then I find myself staring at Ryan. He smirks. Take one for the team Matt… One for the team.
There it was—sacrifice number one.
The luminous fireball beats down on our caps. The mosquito's looked for their early dinner. And the sound of the bat hitting ball was wild.
“C'mon Max, your pitch is coming!” shouted the coach from third base.
Man on first and third. 2 outs. I hear a loud beat. It's my heart. I'm swinging a bat on deck.
The tall pitcher begins to wind up and whips the ball to home. Low and outside.
You wanna win? You gotta support them. “Wait for your pitch Max…” sputters out. One minute later the counts 3-0. I stare at the little dirt on my pants, if he walks, I'll be up.
“You gotta go for it!” shouts one of our players. Apparently they know I'll be up too.
I walk up to the plate and stare into the pitcher's eyes, he's nervous – but I'm more nervous. It is that moment that separates baseball from the rest of sports. When you step into the batter's box, the game falls on your shoulders—not the man before or after you, it's on you. Baseball comes down to this split second because those who succeed in the game are the ones that know how to make use of the pressure. They eat it up.
I stared across the ball field, past the dirt, past the grass, and let myself believe, I can do this. The pitcher begins to wind up and as soon as the ball releases his hand, I manage to glimpse out at the dugout.
Today, I couldn't eat.
As I turn away from the box and hear the echo of the ump calling “Strike 3…” I see the players jog back in. No words come from their mouths—not now. The moment of exhilaration had arrived not long ago and quicker than it had come, it left us.
We've only had a couple games. 3 to be exact—problem is, we're still waiting to erase the zero in the wins column.
The way I see it is, if we start winning, we'll all forget about conflict, about me being a weirdo. What worries me is that I've played enough sports to know that in order to win, we've got to stop the conflict.
The sun set behind the gray clouds. The crickets began to croak. And the bat stopped hitting ball whimpishly.
The boys began packing up their equipment. They took off their uniforms and threw them in their bags harshly. Today was a better day to be a person than a ballplayer. The score had proven that.
Then comes the denial. The jokes and a cigarette or two.
I watch them as I pull a clean shirt on. Max and Cody smoke a cigarette and laugh at a racist joke Sam makes. I can tell some of the other boys don't like it but that's not my business. They laugh anyway.
As I walk out of the dugout and to the trolley stop, one thought crosses my mind. High schoolers have got to be the craziest, stupidest people ever.
I wish this was to be my last memorable thought now, but it wasn't. Perhaps if I hadn't bothered to find the source of the sound I heard behind the dumpster, this story would have a somewhat different ending. Perhaps if Cody and Max weren't smoking I would've not avoided them and headed a different way to the bus and not heard the sound all together—it makes no difference because I did hear the sound and I did track it.
I walked over scanning the area and then I heard a laugh, more of a giggle actually. Who is that? Then it hit me. No, it can't be. My walk became tip-toeing. But what would she be doing here and what is she laughing at?
Then I hear a much lower laugh and I stop right in front of the trashcans. I recognized that voice. I'd recognize that voice a mile away. But what are they doing??I get down into a crouch so they wouldn't to see me and peer around the garbage dumpsters and then I freeze.
I don't know why I looked. I had a fair idea of what I would see behind the dumpster. I'm not a creep or anything. I guess it was the fact that what I heard was so far-fetched I had to see with my own eyes to believe.
There, sitting on the asphalt, behind a dumpster was Astrid and Ryan. They were expressing their passion for each other. Their incredibly intimate passion, I might add.
Woah. An Eighth grader with a junior! You've got to be kidding me.
What on earth happens to these guys when they get to high school? Do they just grow on the outside but never outgrow their feelings for middle school girls?? Is the only difference between a weirdo 8th grader into a girl like Astrid, and 12th grade Ryan his chest hair??
I was mystified at best. This was too much for me. I turned as my mind blazed with thoughts about the two lovers. How long had this been going on? Did anyone else know about this? What would happen if they did? No, I think. If this team is to have any chance at all, then I can't tell anyone—no matter how hard it is.
Just like that, another sacrifice had been made.
It got worse as the practices and games continued. I couldn't hit in games because I couldn't concentrate and my throw was beginning to acquire a catapult motion that was making it very hard to throw accurately.
Granted, there is a lot about high school and this team I don't understand. What gets me the most though, is that when they're not making jokes about me, or smoking a cigarette, the rest of the guys let Ryan, Cody or some other popular guy make fun of them. And they just go along with it. They don't say anything no matter what Ryan or Cody says. And then the guy who's made fun of laughs at the next guy who's picked.
They try and act like it doesn't bother them at all but I know it does. I watched some of the guys real close, and I've got no doubt it bothers them. You can tell just by the way they flinch sometimes.
I even tried to talking to Charlie about it, one of the sophomores and he was like, “what are you talking about man? Ryan's chill. Totally swag.”
They just ignore it. No one dares to question the Jungle's Lions because they know that will just make them prey.
Another game had passed. Another loss. Waiting for the trolley, I took a seat on the bench and closed my eyes. I was tired but more than that I was deprived of a hit, of success, of a win.
The trolley was taking too long so I decided to cut across the ball field to the bus. After every game I felt the same thing: a mixture of anger followed by disappointment.
Emotion was swelling up inside me, getting stronger, stronger and stronger!—I couldn't hold it inside me anymore. I did what I do on rare occasions.
For ten seconds, my raw emotions had complete control. I punched the fence, over and over again. With every hit, highlights of our ball game flashed through my mind. Highlights of failure. I grabbed the fence with great strength and thrusted it back and forth.
Why can't we win? Why? Why?? Why?! My mind screamed. Not a soul was listening.
Then it's time was up. Emotion surrendered and sanity returned to its dominating role. I let go of the fence and slid to the ground.
I had never wanted to win more than I did right at that moment. Wait and our time will come I thought.
Every game was the same. I tried so hard to make it work—to ignore the comments and focus, but it was hard. It got lonely after a while.
So I just try and support the team when it comes to baseball. I try for a while so hard, even praying, to just win once . . . one win could go so far. . .
But the weeks kept coming; losing slowly became inevitable. The system doesn't change. Our chances and hope were slowly fading.
And for the record, what the hell does chill and swag even mean?
Baseball continued its course for quite some time. The season would soon be closing, and my dreams of our team coming together were becoming slim. I found myself mystified on how much I'd managed to dread playing a game that I'd loved since I was a kid.
When I got to the dugout, Ryan had already arrived. That's unusual. “Hey Matt, ready for some ball?”
“Just hit us a homer today and we'll slam this one.” said Ryan with a smile on his face.
“Ya…” I had never known Ryan to encourage me, unless it was some kind of joke. What was happening?
“You allright Matt?” asked Cody. “You seem a little out of it.”
“Matt?” asked Cody again.
“Ya. Ya. I'm fine.”
A half hour later the wind whistled the dirt up into the air, making it hard to see. I sat on the bench and shielded my eyes. I was batting fifth today so I had some time. I grabbed some sunflower seeds and popped the bunch in my mouth.
I stared around to make sure this wasn't some type of prank. All I could see was a bunch of guys getting around remarkably well—or so I thought. I jumped up immediately as I saw Ryan pick up my bat. I knew it was too good to be true.
“Don't!” I said.
He looked up, “What??”
“Put it back.”
“Chill dude. I was just bringing it back to the on deck circle to help you out. That way you won't have to search for it like you always do before you go up.”
“I was just trying to help you out man.” He added. I was still suspicious and he knew it. Then something odd happened, he looked left, then right, to see if was anyone was watching and pulled me aside. “Look, I know it's been hard on you this season, and the guys and I haven't been so friendly. Just trying to make it up to you. I'm just trying to help you out. I care man.” Then he patted me on the back and walked away. Woah.
Five seconds later I heard a very, very loud pop. The kind've pop you hear when you know a ball is gone! Cody had just hit a home run! Shock evaded slowly and a rush of adrenaline passed through us. Cody's homerun had just given us a lead.
Maybe we did have a chance.
He tagged home and I reached out to give him a high five. He slapped all our hands, and smiled, “C'mon guys, let's do this!”
This was our chance. We could do it! I knew it had to be. I had seen plenty of sports movies to know that this was our moment. Our time.
My time was coming. I was in the hole. Now it would be my moment. This was it, this would be the moment that defined and turned our season around. I knew exactly what I was going to do when I would walk into the batter's box. I went out to grab my bat.
And then, quicker than I could have ever imagined, all happy and hopeful emotions vanished.
My bat was covered in dog crap—smelly, disgusting dog crap. I looked over to the guys who were laughing hysterically and finally my eyes set on Ryan. He just sat there smiling—smiling and mouthing the words, “I care man.”
I stood there frozen for a moment. Not knowing how to react. What was wrong with these guys?
Then it all came back to me. I could hear the umpire call strike three over and over again, I could smell the Gatorade pouring out of the container, I felt the wet tobacco sliding down my face and I saw Ryan and the team smirking at me. The loneliness crept back inside me.
Now I understood why we couldn't win.
Winning's not all that worth it.
Then I turned around with security and confidence the players had never seen before, and looked straight into the eyes of Ryan. I'm tired of this crap.
That was enough to get the whole team's attention and I said what no one had ever, ever, dared to say.“You must have some balls to be hooking up with Astrid huh?”
Mike choked on the water he was sipping, the assistant coach dropped his clipboard and for a split second everyone stared at me until their glances fell upon Ryan. Lion Man.
“What'd you say?” asked Ryan in a low voice.
“You heard me.” The confidence just kept on coming.
“Are you serious dude?” asked Mike.
“Yea, I caught them behind the dumpsters the other night. Why do you think she's always at our practices?” I asked.
“You're full of it Matt!” Accused Ryan
“You mean that little 8th grader, with the scruffy hair? The one who always has a book in her face?”
“What a joke.”
“Is he serious?”
“Dude that's messed up”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
I looked at Ryan right in the eye and said, “joke's on you.”
I didn't bother to say anything else but instead picked up my bat and went back out on the field. I stood with my bat on my shoulders waiting for the guilt to take me, but it didn't come. Instead, I practiced my swing repetitively over and over again. I didn't look right or left but focused straight ahead. My mind was on baseball—baseball alone.
My focus was clear, Ryan's was not. He shouted at me from the dugout, “You think this makes you cool?! You think you're cool because you can spread lies?!”
I didn't even bother to acknowledge him as I dug my cleats into the batter's box. “HEY! I'M TALKING TO YOU! YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING! YOU HAVE NO FRIENDS! YOU SUCK AT BASEBALL! YOU LOSER! DAMN IT, LOOK AT ME!” I can hear the team mates finally tell him to cut it, but they didn't stand a chance. He pushed them away.
I took a deep breath, signaled to the umpire for time and stepped out of the box and turned to him. I had nothing to say, so I just stared at him. For the first time, I could see fear in his eyes. Fear and anger.
I shook my head and returned to the game I love so much.
I struck out in four pitches-- I made no difference.
Our game fell apart. Ryan couldn't make an easy throw to me at first and the hitting couldn't get anyone past second. The few spectators left, and the feeling on the field was back to where it had started just two months ago.
It's too bad that time before the game doesn't last longer…. You probably think that a dugout has a fence to keep foul and overthrown balls from hitting the players on the bench. After playing a season with this team, I know the fence is there to keep everything that happens in the dugout.
It didn't make a difference who or how we were playing as long as the guys couldn't leave their popularity at the locker room, as long as people pretended to like each other and most of all as long as we believed in something that simply couldn't happen without some sacrifice.
And it wasn't just them. But at least I tried.
Do you have any idea what a team sounds like when they're lead by false leaders, false friendships and false hope?
Like a losing one. The Gatorade cooler hit the wall with a bang.