dball

The first memory I have of the game of baseball is when I was probably about 3 years old.  My dad had taken me to a local field in Virginia, where we lived at the time, and he threw me ground balls that I fielded and threw back to him without any problem.  We were not using a baseball, it was some kind of rubber ball, kind of like a lacrosse ball or something.  I had a little black glove, and I just remember getting to the ball and catching it, was something that required very little effort on my part.  The memory is blurry to me, and it’s been about 25 years since it took place. But I still remember the feeling, the feeling like I knew where that ball was going to bounce and exactly where I needed to position myself to catch it.  My dad shares that story with me often and tells me that a group of older kids showed up to the field later and I jumped in their practice routine with them, fielding and throwing just as good as them if not better.

The first baseball team I played on was a tee ball team in Midlothian, Virginia, the Cardinals.  I still had that same black glove, and still had that same gift of tracking balls off the bat into my glove with ease, it had only gotten stronger and more precise.  I had also added the skill of diving, and I began applying that to my defense on my first tee ball team, somewhere around 1995-1996, I think.  That was when I found shortstop, my favorite position, I felt like I belonged there and that’s where I could really showcase my abilities.  However, my greatest memory from that team was when I was actually playing pitcher, which was a defense only position in tee ball, obviously because the kids were hitting off the tee.  A kid from the opposing team hit a line drive off the tee straight in my direction, again I instinctively reacted and moved my glove and myself exactly where I needed to be, snagging the line drive for the out.  The spectators cheered, yelled and clapped in support and awe of my catch, I don’t think many 5 year olds made those kinds of catches.  That was my first experience of being applauded and cheered for an unbelievable catch, it still happens today, but there are a lot of things that happened from then until now.

The game of baseball to me is sacred, it’s like nothing else in the world, from the game itself, to the environment in which it’s played.  It is described as America’s pastime, having been around since the 19th century in the United States, longer than any other professional sport.  Baseball is a spring and summer sport, played in the nicest of weather and under the lights in the most appealing of summer nights.  The only major professional sport in our country that is played on the 4th of July, hot dogs, hamburgers, sunshine, green grass, dirt, chalk, sweat, bubble gum, spikes, tape, sweat drenched hats, leather, wood, sunglasses, sunblock, chewing tobacco, chatter and rituals.

Superstition is very present in baseball, don’t step on the chalked foul lines when running off and on the field.  Step into the batter’s box the same way every time, draw a line in the dirt with your bat, do the same thing before every pitch, where your uniform the same exact way every game, especially if you’re on a streak.  Don’t change ANYTHING if you’re hot, change something if you’re in a slump.  Don’t tell the pitcher he’s throwing a no hitter, you NEVER talk about a perfect game or a no-hitter until after it’s finished.  Don’t mess with rituals in baseball, and don’t scoff at the superstition, people take it very seriously.

I moved a lot as a kid, and didn’t land in one place long term until about 2004, so I played all over the place growing up.  I played in Virginia until about late 1997, moved to Utah for 2nd grade, and played one year there for the Diamondbacks.  By that time I had found my niche on the field, shortstop was my domain, forehand, backhand, charging on choppers and throwing on the run, line drives to either side, pop flies, dying quails in shallow center or shallow left field behind 3rd base.  My uniform was dirty after every game, head to toe brown and clay-stained from the dirt, sweat and eye black.  The infield was my home away from home, each time the ball left the hitter’s bat I knew where to go, I knew exactly where to position myself to make the play, and finish with an accurate throw.

Before I can even remember, my parents got divorced, they were young and looking back on it now I guess I can see why it happened.  However, over the years I found myself in the middle of both of them, the fighting, yelling, arguing, constantly torn back and forth between both houses and not knowing what to think or do.  Responsible for remembering things to take between their houses, uniforms,  schoolbooks, clothes, appointments, practices, games and it all became overwhelming for me.  I was too young to realize what was happening, but it makes sense now, the baseball field became the only environment and place I felt truly free and happy.  Game after game, practice after practice, my skill and gift to play defense grew and grew.  When I stepped over the foul line into my land at shortstop, the rest of the world stopped, I didn’t have to think about anything else except playing the game.  Game saving diving catches and timely base hits gave me praise and glory from teammates and coaches, I played as hard as I could every pitch and I began to learn the game.

Baseball requires a lot of awareness and thought.  I began to learn this as the level I played at became more competitive.  Lead offs, steals, curve balls, change-ups, relays from the outfield, double plays, bunts, hit and runs, taking pitches and much more.  With all of this came signs, the coach had to signal to his players what he wanted them to do without the other team knowing the strategy.  Step up to the plate for your at bat, leave your back foot in the box, and put your front foot out of the box, look down at your 3rd base coach.  If he touches the bill of his hat don’t swing, if he swipes down his arm bunt, if you’re on first and he swipes down his leg you’re stealing.  Don’t ever miss a sign, coaches hate that.

Defense is a whole other world of readiness, awareness and preparation.  I began to learn this especially as I got older, and the rules of the levels I played at changed.  As a shortstop, you are the captain of the infield, you’ve got to know where you are going if the ball is hit to you, you command the relays from the outfielders back into whichever base the throw needs to go.  My knowledge of the game blossomed in my experience playing shortstop year after year, how to turn a double play, both throwing and receiving the ball, how to cover second on a steal, double play depth, communicating with my second baseman and pitcher, how many outs determined where the ball was going when it was hit, knowing the score and if we could give up a run for an out at first, when to play in and prevent the runner on 3rd from scoring, what was a force play and what was a tag out, how to navigate a rundown or a “pickle”, how to align myself for a relay from the outfield and listening for where to throw the ball without having to turn to see where the runner was and so much more.  I played and practiced, and I learned and applied the knowledge on the field in the game.  After some time, I’d say around the age of 12, I had developed a mental awareness of what the game of baseball was, and how I needed to play it.

There were a set of fields at Curry Middle School in Tustin, CA that I played at from probably ages 8-10.  This is where I can remember starting to connect the environment of baseball with the game itself, and really began to feel the magic that is within that.  The fields were all dirt infields and the outfield grass was average, some smooth spots but mostly clover patches and potholes.  There was always a smell of cotton candy in the air mixed with grass and then sunblock coming from my own face.  These fields were where I first felt intimidated in an at-bat, stepping in the box against a couple of kids who threw hard, striking out but always battling.  I remember the first time I saw a field prepped for a championship game, it was an image I’ll never forget, perfectly watered and dragged dirt, a bright white chalked batter’s box and foul lines, that was my stage and I was always ready to perform.  As an infielder you come to be very aware of the dirt your’e playing on, if it’s rocky and undragged you have a bit of fear that a hard ground ball will pop up off a pebble and catch you in the teeth.  You come to be extremely grateful for nice infields, especially watered and dragged.

These years were my first experiences playing on the All-Star teams for whatever age division I was in that year.  It was fun, traveling to a different city with a group of kids you had played against all year now all on one team, given a jersey that says “Tustin Pony All-Stars” on it, as opposed to the usual Marlins or Cardinals regular season jersey you would wear.  These games are my first memories of really feeling nervous on the field, like wow, now we are really playing for something, being a part of a walk-off hit or late inning comebacks by your team is one of the greatest things a baseball player can experience.

As my skill and playing of the game progressed, my home life seemed to get worse, which pulled me into worlds of fantasy through books, movies and most importantly professional athletes.  Kids have favorite players growing up, but the athletes I idolized were more than my favorites, they were my dreams of escaping the stress of my life and I got lost in what they meant to me.  Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Derek Jeter, Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez, Jim Edmonds they were all like movie stars to me, and without them I would have been hopeless.  My dad started taking me to Dodger Stadium and I got to see Gary Sheffield, Mike Piazza and something about Dodger Stadium in those times left an imprint on me.  Thus began my love for the Dodgers, and still today, loving Chavez Ravine.  I was also going to Angel Stadium a lot, and I got to see those great Angel teams with Tim Salmon, Darrin Erstad, David Eckstein, Garret Anderson and Adam Kennedy.

When I finally landed in Corona Pony around 2001, I stayed.  I played baseball out of Corona for the next 9 years, and my early years there I was apart of some amazing teams.  I want to say I was 10 or 11 when I played for the Angels and we had an undefeated season, we went on to play all stars and made a decent little run before being knocked out by a team from San Diego.  That year we played at the Corona Civic Center field, which had an old school feel and a grass infield.  It’s weird when I think about myself and my development as a player, I never bragged or talked smack, being on the field and playing was just something I did, and I was good at it.  It wouldn’t be until I made an acrobatic diving play and got huge amounts of cheers and positive affirmations that I had little glimpses of how skilled I really was.  I never thought I was the shit, I just showed up and played, that spoke for itself.

Things between my parents got worse and worse, and I was right in the middle of it.  Always uncomfortable after games because sometimes they would both be there, and both made sure I knew that they didn’t like each other.  I always wanted to go to my teammates houses and spend the night after games, I never wanted to be at home.  When the game was over and we had to start walking back to the car to leave I hated it so much, if I could’ve lived in the dugout I would have, I never wanted the game to be over.

As I grew older, I started playing what they called “travel ball”, basically, the more talented kids would travel and play in tournaments on the weekends.  I stopped playing Pony ball and just played travel ball.  I was okay with that because the travel ball was fun, it was intense, and I got to consistently play at a competitive level.  I made some really close friends on those teams through that time, we had a lot of fun and I played shortstop every inning of every game, every tournament.  We played in Las Vegas, San Diego, Colorado, Arizona and all up and down California.  They had created these parks called “Big League Dreams” that were replicas of Major League stadiums and they had one in Chino Hills and one in Jurupa.  For the kid that idolized big leaguers and athletes the way I did, stepping onto a Fenway park replica to play a game of my own was a dream come true.  We had little rivalries with different teams like the Monterey Park Angels, Rancho Quakes, Santa Clarita Express, HB Vikings and Chino Hills Storm.  One of those years I got hit by a high inside fastball right in the elbow during a chilly morning game, and broke a bone in my elbow.  I ended up playing the rest of that game and the following game because we only had 9 players that day, I couldn’t bend my arm, I played right field and tried to bunt every at bat.  I was in a bent cast all summer and missed the USSSA World Series at Big League Dreams.  The following summer I played a World Series tournament in Longmont, CO and traveled with another team to Steamboat Springs, CO directly from there, they had recruited me to play shortstop for them for that tournament.

By the team I reached high school, I had spent all of my time outside of baseball, skateboarding and going to punk rock shows, and developed a passion for that as well.  I identified with the music (see my other entry “A Life Altering Substance”) and all of my friends were skateboarders, we all went to shows together.  I made the freshmen baseball team without any issues at all, but baseball was no longer my priority.  I had dyed black hair and wore tight pants, went to shows at the local venue and hung out with a crowd of kids at school that were not anything like my teammates.  I had played so much effing baseball before high school, once I got there I was already tired, and with that came the loss of motivation to get better, I didn’t want to lift weights or do anything outside of the bare minimum required to be on the team.  I remember feeling like baseball wasn’t fun anymore, my parents and people in that community talked so much about size, weight, velocity, who knew who, transfers, politics and a whole bunch of other bullshit that I didn’t want any part of.  They were all right though, that stuff was the reality of advancing to the next level.  I didn’t hate the game, I never did and never will, but I disliked the people involved and everything that came with them.  Mix that with an extreme amount of stress and fear from the dynamic of my home life, and I needed relief, and I found it.  I found it in alcohol.

Alcohol turned to weed, weed to pills, pills to cocaine and ecstasy on to meth, and eventually what I had really been searching for, heroin.  Throughout high school I tried to balance and live in two different worlds, punk rock shows and everything that entailed, and baseball, because I could still play, I was gifted with natural abilities to play the game. However,  my work ethic in the baseball program was non-existent, I did absolutely nothing to improve my self physically outside of practice.  In fact, I was harming my body with all of the drugs and alcohol, but I still played and I maintained good grades.

I still loved being on the field, I still loved playing the game, I remember playing in a tournament on spring break during my sophomore year and the weather was beautiful, I’ll never forget that spring break.  Sophomore year was some of the best baseball I ever played, I hit around .375 and only struck out once, and only made one error on defense all season, I played every inning of every game.  Junior year rolled around and my antics and behavior off the field had crossed into my reputation as a baseball player, I wasn’t getting called up to play varsity because the coach knew I drank and did drugs.  I still hit over .300 and played lights out defense, but I wasn’t getting stronger or faster and looking back on it now I probably had an air about me like I didn’t give a fuck, because I didn’t.

I started showing up to games stoned, and was high at school every single day, by the time practice came, I was hating just being awake, let alone running poles and sprints.  I smoked about 5 or 6 huge gravity bong rips one time before a game against Corona high toward the end of my junior year, showed up to that game and hit a line drive RBI single up the middle in my first at bat, went on to go 2-3 with 2 RBIs. I had played perfect defense too,  until the last play of the game. 2 outs and we were up by 1, runners on 2nd and 3rd and I fielded an easy ground ball that should have ended the game and got us the W.  A spike on my right cleat caught the loop on my left shoelace and I fell to the ground like a tree that had just been chopped down, both runs scored and we lost the game.

I was kicked out of the baseball program at the end of my junior year and honestly, I was relieved, nobody would have ever known that, but I just wanted to hang out with my friends and party.  Over the next year I played for a travel team, and actually played in some incredible tournaments.  We played in Atlanta, Nebraska, San Diego and Peoria, AZ a couple of times at the MLB spring training complexes.  I always played well, nobody ever doubted that, the plays I made and the effort I put in was commendable, but it was nowhere near my full potential.  However, I was always off trying to buy weed in those cities, plotting and scheming how to party and get high whenever I could.  The summer of 2009 was the last time I played competitively, in a tournament at Grossmont college in San Diego, my cell phone was blowing up in the dugout the entire time because I was selling weed.  I remember telling my teammate, “I don’t know why I’m even here, I could be making so much money right now!”.  That was it, that was the final straw, wasted talent, a lost child in the depths of addiction, I didn’t care if I ever saw the field again.

By the end of 2009 I was completely addicted to Oxycontin, drinking and smoking weed everyday, basically escaping reality through substances in any form I could get.  It’s crazy because I remember being asked to fill in on a hardball beer league team, and I was actually homeless living in my car at the time.  I somehow managed to get some gear together and the morning I was supposed to play I was actually dopesick(Detoxing Heroin) and realized I couldn’t play in that condition so I took some Suboxone, showed up to the field and hit a triple in the right center gap my first AB.  That would be the last time I set foot on a baseball field for 6 years.

I was homeless, living on the streets, addicted to heroin and so far gone and disconnected from reality that I had completely forgot I ever played baseball, or even knew how to play baseball for that matter.  The power in that statement is truly heartbreaking.

I ended up in rehab in 2015 and finally got my life together, I was like 30 days sober and was asked if I wanted to play catch by another resident in the program, I said sure why not, I didn’t have anything better to do.  The first ball he threw to me was a short hop, I knew it was going to be short and that I would need to pick it before it even came close to hitting the ground, so I scooped it up and smoothly threw the ball back to him with a fluid motion.  I realized in that moment that I knew exactly what I was doing, I remembered that I knew how to play the game.  I called my mom the next day and she sent me my brother’s old A2000 infield glove. I began playing catch with various residents in the program, we used to ride bikes to the SBCC field at night and hit each other ground balls and play long toss.  My friend Cody was a ball player just like me who had a heroin problem and landed in program with me, we connected, we played long toss, it was awesome.

With about 8 months of recovery I met a guy at a meeting and by chance, he was trying to put together a sober softball team.  He said he was holding a little practice on the Sunday of that weekend and that I should come out.  Again, I was in rehab, I didn’t have anything better to do, and now I had the A2000 which my brother had formed and broken in perfectly, so I rode my bike to the practice.  Within 5 minutes of taking ground balls at shortstop they knew I could play, I had never played softball before, but to me it’s the same thing, I read the ball the same.  They told me I should probably get a bigger glove, no way, I was sticking with 11.5 inch Wilson, I still use it today.

I played in my first sober softball game in April of 2016, I loved it, I dove all over the place, I made plays all over the field, I hit, and I remember feeling like I had found my 5 year old self again.  I am forever grateful to Rory Slikker for that, I would’ve never ignited my gift again if it wasn’t for him, thanks Slik.  I have remained sober since then and played in tournaments up and down the coast, we even went to the “Big League Dreams” replica park in Palm Springs where I played as a kid, and won the Clean and Sober Softball World Series there last Fall.  I played on an all turf infield Dodger Stadium replica in Vegas in March, I probably made 25 defensive plays in 3 games on that field.  Back came that praise and glory from spectators as I acrobat-ted and slid across the turf making spectacular plays at shortstop, I had found it again.  My family has been able to see me get back on the field and do what I used to do. During so many tournaments I cross that foul line and jog to my domain, shortstop, smelling sunblock and grass, uniform covered in dirt, and forgetting about everything in my life off of that field.

The game of baseball is a part of me, it makes up part of the way my human condition is composed.  Baseball stadiums have been described as cathedrals, I see them as that, beautiful works of art setting the stage for the game that only certain individuals can appreciate.  I know life is full of losses, but I hope I never lose baseball again, tell them I’m never through, for love of the game…

 

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