August 18

Photo credit to Mike Hudgens Photography

On August 18, 2004, two days after my 30th birthday and two months before the birth of my second daughter, I had surgery on my right knee.

The original injury occurred a month prior while on a mission trip with my church to serve those who worked at the Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. Toward the end of the week, we were cooking dinner for the staff, thanking and celebrating them for their amazing work. Those who weren’t directly involved in meal preparation were invited to play in a basketball game.

The staff of the CAC know how to play basketball, some even played collegiately. I played one year of Boys and Girls Club basketball as a 6th grader. I scored 4 points in my first game, which is the same total I had at season’s end.

Just a few minutes in to the basketball game in East St. Louis, I stole the ball from their point guard and took off in the opposite direction. I could hear one of my teammates behind me and had the thought to create space so I could toss him the ball, hoping he’d get as close to dunking it as he could. I took a crossover step with my right leg and immediately collapsed. I have no idea what happened to the ball or the rest of the play.

I crawled to the sideline and tried to walk it off. My right leg refused to cooperate. I never got back in the game. We lost by more than 40 points. The next day, my knee swelled to the size of a basketball. The next week an MRI confirmed an ACL tear.

“You don’t have to get this repaired,” the surgeon said. “You aren’t a professional athlete and can live a quality life with a torn ACL. It’s a complicated surgery with a hard recovery.”

But I was a dad, soon to be to two girls. I wanted to run around and do things with my daughters. Beaches and Disney World and random serendipitous adventures. I didn’t want to worry about buckled knees or limited mobility. Surgery was scheduled four weeks later.

Three days before surgery, I was home alone, sitting in my recliner watching TV. Out of thoughtless habit, I pushed down the foot of the recliner with my heel. Lightning and fire exploded under the kneecap. I felt the second tear in every fiber of my being and almost threw up. Tears streamed down my face and sweat dripped down my head. Along with the day I broke my ankle, it’s the closest I’ve come to passing out without actually doing so. It took me forever to crawl upstairs and change out of my sweat-soaked clothes.

Surgery was a success, even if I did throw up coming off anesthesia. The day after surgery, I returned to the doctor to get the drain tube removed and receive my post-operation instructions.

“That was one of the worst tears I’ve ever seen,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders in response. “Thanks for fixing it.”

* * * * * * * * * *

On August 18, 2019, two days after turning 45 and moving my oldest daughter, Kaylea, into her dorm room, I woke up, immediately checked the forecast, and took a couple ibuprofen. Fifteen years later, there are still times my knee doesn’t feel right. My instinct is to blame the weather. Cold fronts and storm fronts really do seem to affect my knee. My knee felt stiff, as did my ankle, but that surgery is only three years old.

And then I remembered — I was starting in left field. Coach Nasby sent out the starting lineup on Thursday. I was completely surprised to see my name listed among the starters.

I honestly don’t remember the last time I started a baseball game. I was a relief pitcher and benchwarmer the two years I played in high school. As soon as I remembered, I felt that surge of nervous adrenaline that accompanies any new and (personally) noteworthy experience.

I get nervous easily, a character trait / flaw I passed along to my daughters. I get nervous whenever I have to introduce myself to a group irrespective of its size. I get nervous anytime I’m asked to do a storytelling. I get nervous whenever an editor returns a manuscript or whenever I go to the dentist or whenever I’m in conflict with someone. My nerves are carried in my gut making it impossible to even think about eating.

Why do I do things, pursue things, dream and scheme things, that I know will make me nervous? Why am I not content to just be? Who am I trying to impress? What am I trying to prove?

I want to set an example for my daughters, that they may not give in to the voices of fear and doubt, but press on through the nerves and dare to try new things. Living a good story means finding ways through every kind of obstacle — physical and mental. Living a good story means summoning the courage to take that next step, even with a chorus line of butterflies in the stomach. Even with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of this body, I want to prove to myself that I can do more than write a good baseball poem; I want to live a good baseball story.

Mostly, I was nervous because, along with my first start in left field, I’d get my first at bat in the league.

I do remember my last high school at bat. A fly out at Meador Park in the American Legion championship game. We lost.

“Good luck today! Relax. Breathe. Soak it all in! You’re gonna do great. Go get that first base knock!!” Mark texted me.

His text put a smile on my face and also got me thinking about my breathing which became my mantra for the day, “Breathe.” Thinking about my breathing helped push away the doubts and fears. Inhale. Exhale. It’s hard to think about much of anything else when you’re thinking about your breathing.

In the bottom of the first inning, I ran out to left field and breathed with every pitch.

My first at bat occurred with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the second. It came at the same time as Kaylea the college student’s chair auditions for the MSU symphony. I remember telling her to just breathe, too. My first at bat was also at the same time that the pre-game peanut butter and jelly sandwich I ate decided it didn’t want to stay in my stomach.

“If you wanna root for the long shot, if you wanna root for the underdog, this is your man,” Rance introduced me to the online viewing crowd. 

The nerves were compounded by the fact that the pitcher I was facing, Tanner Allen, was throwing the ball faster than anything I’ve ever seen. Upper-70s is the top of the talent I faced as a JV player.  

I took a breath. The first pitch was a ball outside. I took another breath. The next two pitches were strikes and the bat never left my shoulder. Then, somehow, I fouled off the next four pitches. Dory’s modified mantra echoed, “Just keep swinging. Just keep swinging.” The first two foul balls were crazy-late swings shooting the ball toward the opponent’s dugout. I heard Chandler Veit teasing me and couldn’t help but laugh.

“I guarantee you right now, his heart feels like a jackhammer inside of his chest,” Rance said.

A peanut butter and jelly flavored jackhammer. 

The third foul ball chopped up the first base line. The fourth foul ball went behind me toward the third base side of the plate. “Just keep swinging.”

The at bat concluded with a weak grounder to the shortstop who threw me out by a couple of steps to end the scoring threat.

Ryan Wolfe, owner of CY Sports and our first base coach, gave me a fist bump. “Solid at bat. You kept battling. You didn’t strike out. Good work.”

It was my first at bat in a competitive baseball game in 28 years. I am convinced, as Pitching Ninja attests on Twitter every day, that hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. (Simone Biles doesn’t count. No one can do what she does.) I’m not exactly sure how I actually hit the ball. I’m pretty proud that I didn’t throw up. 

My second at bat came two innings later, with runners on the corners and one out.

I took a deep breath and stepped into the box. I saw the first pitch hit the dirt in front of the plate. That image is burned into my memory — the small explosion of turf tire pellets as the ball skipped toward the catcher’s chest. I took another breath and sweat dripped into my eye and pooled inside my glasses.

Sweat dripping in my eyes is the worst part of having alopecia. By game’s end, I saturated two hats and three towels with sweat. I called time, wiped away the excess sweat, and took another breath.

The next pitch was on the outer half of the plate. I took a less-than-beautiful swing, not a swing that would ever end up on a baseball card, not a swing anyone should intentionally imitate, but a perfectly effective swing and blooped the ball toward right field. It dropped just inside the foul line. Fair ball. The runner on third scored.

My first hit came with an RBI, a ribeye as Royals broadcaster Rex Hudler says.

Ryan yelled, “Get on the bag! Stay right here! Now give me a hug!”

I did and was immediately overwhelmed with an adrenaline-filled rush of emotion. The selfish part of me wanted to keep that ball as a small trophy. Scott Weis came in as a pinch runner and I ran back to the dugout.

Coach Nasby walked down from the third base coach’s box and was all smiles giving me a fist bump and congratulating me. “Congrats! Great job.”

I was greeted by high fives and helmet slaps from all of my teammates. I experienced everything good about this game, everything I have missed from decades of not playing ball. I have a team pulling for me, actively cheering for me and helping me be my best. I wish everyone could experience that feeling.   

“Welcome to the GRBL, young man!” Rance said.

I sat on the bench and wiped the sweat off my head, smiling and laughing and breathing.

Tyler Faulk followed my bloop with a blast down the left field line. Scott scored from first on the double and I’m thankful I didn’t have to truly put my knee to the test.

“Congrats on the hit!” Mark texted. I later watched him pitch a 1-2-3 inning in the 6:00 game. Our teams don’t face off until Week 6. Maybe I’ll have my nerves under control by then.

I doubt it.

The game went to extra innings. The GRBL has a fascinating extra-inning policy. Each half inning starts with the bases loaded and two outs. We lost in the bottom of the 10th on a blast to center by Gerad Fox. Even though the last two seasons of Royals baseball has trained me how to accept losing, I’m still not a fan of it.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains,” said Nuke LaLoosh.

I was resting at home, savoring a very cold Dr Pepper, when Kaylea texted me.

“I definitely messed up and it wasn’t great but oh well.”

“Sounds like my game.”

“But you played! You did it! And so did I.”

She earned her place as sixth chair for the second violinists in the MSU symphony. Her first concert is in September. Maybe I’ll invite all of my teammates so they can cheer her on, too.

My knee was wrong; it never did rain.

45 Things I’ve Learned: The Movie Quote Edition

1. “Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage.” We Bought a Zoo

2. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring

3. “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” LOTR: The Two Towers

4. “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?” LOTR: Return of the King

5. “Just keep swimming.” Finding Nemo

6. “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Gladiator

7. “Someone I once knew wrote that we walk away from our dreams afraid that we may fail or worse yet, afraid we may succeed.” Finding Forrester

8. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” Dead Poets Society

9. “Wanna have a catch?” Field of Dreams

10. “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.” Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

11. “Adventure is out there.” Up

12. “There’s no place like home.” The Wizard of Oz

13. “You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” The Princess Bride

14. “From failure you learn, from success not so much.” Meet the Robinsons

15. “You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Bull Durham

16. “Going in one more round when you don’t think you can – that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” Rocky IV

17. “Smiling is my favorite.” Elf

18. “I don’t know, Margo.” National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

19. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

20. “My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Forrest Gump

21. “Scary monsters do not have plaque!” Monsters Inc.

22. “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!” The Incredibles

23. “Family means nobody gets left behind.” Lilo and Stitch

24. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man

25. “You are my greatest adventure.” The Incredibles

26. “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” The Truman Show

27. “Man thinks they are each alone in this world. It is not true. You are all connected. One act can one day affect all.” Lady in the Water

28. “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift, that is why it’s called the present.” Kung Fu Panda

29. “Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.” Serenity

30. “I think we would all like this victory to go out to all the other guys, and I’m talking about the people in this city who are super good at their jobs but never get any credit. Like the lady in the DMV – that’s a rough job.” Mystery Men

31. “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” V for Vendetta

32. “Don’t forget to breathe, very important.” The Karate Kid

33. “Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squish just like grape.” The Karate Kid

34. “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.” Wonder

35. “Auggie can’t change how he looks. Maybe we should change how we see.” Wonder

36. “Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.” Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

37. “We must face tomorrow, whatever it may hold, with determination, joy and bravery.” Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

38. “Unlikely adventures require unlikely tools.” Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

39. “Don’t you see the family resemblance? That’s my brother.” Remember the Titans

40. “Attitude reflects leadership, captain.” Remember the Titans

41. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.” A League of Their Own

42.  “Extraordinary things happen to extraordinary people.” The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

43. “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.” Kung Fu Panda

44. “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.” Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

45. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Mexican Cornbread

It is the week of my birthday. Family members ask me what I want for gifts and my answers are rather ridiculous.

I’d love to custom design my own Wilson glove.

I’d love to hit a ringing double when I step up to the plate on Sunday.

I’d like to eat a few dozen St. George’s donuts and drink a couple liters of Dr Pepper and not have it impact my physique whatsoever.

I’d love a new Royals hat that isn’t permanently sweat-stained and fits “just right” and to play catch with Bo Jackson and Alex Gordon.

I’d love to find a publisher for the Catch 365 book and to connect with Sean Astin to talk about the novella I’ve been working on.

I have been greatly blessed from my family, my friends, and my lot in life. To celebrate my birthday, I want to pass along a gift to anyone who wants it.

My favorite meal is Mexican Cornbread. I don’t remember when I first tried it. I last ate it about two weeks ago. It is fantastic with, of course, a Dr Pepper, fruit salad on the side, and Andy’s chocolate custard for dessert.

Happy birthday!

Game #1 – Naturals vs. Cyclones

Photo courtesy of Mike Hudgens Photography.

The game was a blur.

Supposedly, the game was about two and a half hours long.

In two and a half hours, I can watch a movie (unless it’s Marvel). In two and a half hours, I can drive almost all the way to KC. In two and a half hours, I can take an epic nap.

I know how two and a half hours feels. We played nine innings in about 14 minutes.

One hour before first pitch, I drove to the stadium, parked the car, and pulled up the driver’s side window in case it rained. The skies were completely gray cloud covered which, thankfully, blocked the sun. Chances for rain hovered around fifty percent throughout the morning hours but it never materialized. 

By the time I walked in to the stadium from the car, I was soaked. My red jersey was plastered to my back and shoulders. My hat was minutes away from a steady stream of sweat dripping off the bill. August humidity was in full force on Opening Day of the GRBL.

I sat on the end of the bench and traded my P.F. Flyers — “Those would make Benny ‘The Jet’ proud,” one teammate said — for my cleats and felt something like Mr. Rogers.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

The only names I knew in my new neighborhood were my coaches. I had a lot of new names to learn. I started putting names to faces, hearing stories of baseball seasons past, throughout the game while cheering them on.

Skylar. Jake. RJ. Rob. Jared. Nick. Tyler. Scott. Brandon. Justin. Layn. Loren. Zachery.

These are your CY Cyclones!

Stretches, catch with Scott and Jake, a few sprints, and then it was time for player introductions and the national anthem.

Play ball!

I warmed up the right fielder a couple times and practiced timing pitchers while we were up to bat. I learned as I listened to Scott and Ryan process the game and passed out quarters to kids returning foul balls to the first base dugout. The quarter redemption program is just one of Tony’s brilliant ideas in the league and is a good way to interact with young fans. Lots of smiles and high fives.

In the bottom of the third, Rob singled to right and I was inserted as a pinch runner. My first game action. Grant Ledbetter, a righty who used to pitch for the Kansas City T-Bones, was on the mound for the Naturals. I took a conservative lead, determined not to draw any throws.

Photo courtesy of Mike Hudgens Photography

Standing on first, I had flash backs of playing the game for the filming of The First Boys of Spring. After drawing a walk, I was picked off on a set play by the catcher and first baseman.

A couple pitches later, no pick off attempts thrown, I took off for second on a pop-up to the catcher, which ended the inning.  

Dad braved the humidity, sitting directly behind the dugout. He tipped his hat and applauded as I ran off the field, grinning from ear to ear.

Three minutes later and it was the eighth inning. Rob had driven in a run, cut the deficit to two, and I was back on base as a pinch runner with one out and a chance to truly stretch my legs. Coach Nasby kept me focused, talking through the situation in between every pitch.

“Scott Nasby having a very careful word with his runner,” Rance said on the broadcast as I returned to first after running out a foul grounder.

Two strikeouts ended our brief rally. On to the ninth.

I ran out to left field, a late inning defensive replacement, fully aware of the mantra Denny Matthews espouses, “The ball will always find the new guy.”

It did.

The inning started with a lead-off walk, followed by a solid single to left. I fielded it cleanly and threw it back in. Two hitters later, with runners on second and third, I got my first fly ball. Grateful for the help from center judging its depth, I made the catch and stupidly airmailed the cutoff man for a possible play at the plate.

The rookie mistake allowed a run to score.

Two hitters later, I got my second fly ball.

“A can of corn grab,” Rance described it.

It did not feel like a can of corn. With every pitch, my heart was hammering and my mind was fully and completely engaged, thinking through possible scenarios. It was incredible, pure adrenaline and joy.

Another minute passed and the game ended. We were unsuccessful in mounting a last-at-bat rally. I was in the hole when the final out was made.

The Naturals won 6 – 2.

I am a pretty competitive person. I don’t even like losing at rock-paper-scissors to my wife. (I don’t know why we play. She always wins.) Losing the first game was frustrating, but I really like this team. These Cyclones have a lot of grit and heart and are great teammates. Now that the loss is out of the way, maybe we can just win the rest the games.  

After my daughters left for church, it occurred to me why the game felt so short.

When you completely lose track of time doing something, you are playing.

Playing keeps you young, even if you’re the oldest player on the team.

Playing embodies hope, which was so needed after a week of dealing with multiple car issues.

Playing puts a smile on your face, even if your team loses.

Next Sunday is Back to School Day. All elementary, middle school, and high school students, teachers, and faculty can attend the games for free. There will be games for the students and specials for teachers, encouraging all at the start of another school year.

Education is the answer.

The Cyclones will face the Yogis in another noon game which means I will be trying to figure out how to wear a frozen hat and jersey.

Red

I wore red on my first baseball team. Red pants and red stirrups pulled tight and a hat with a red bill that was nowhere near flat. This was the team where everyone wanted to try on the catcher’s gear and there was a breakout of lice. Being bald was a blessing.

In 2015, I wore red as a role player in Larry Foley’s baseball documentary The First Boys of Spring. A white wool uniform, a tan hat, and red tall socks. That same pair of socks will be part of my uniform on Sunday.

For years, I owned no red clothes. My wardrobe was all shades of blue. I never had to worry about anything matching. I could discern which t-shirt was which simply from the shade of blue on the sleeve.

The head coach of the CY Cyclones is the head coach of Drury University’s baseball team. Drury’s colors are red (scarlet) and gray. It makes sense, then, that the Cyclones would be red.

I was fortunate to not only be drafted by the head coach of Drury, but to find a sponsor — The Hamels Foundation. Created by Heidi and Cole Hamels, the Hamels Foundation “is dedicated to enriching the lives of children through the power of education by giving them the tools they need to achieve their goals.” For ten years now, The Hamels Foundation has provided financial support to schools in the United States and in Malawi, Africa.

On Day #348 of Catch 365, I watched The Hamels Foundation donate new cleats to the softball and baseball teams of Conway High School just before Christmas. I have no practical use for metal cleats and still found myself drooling over the gift.

I visited with Kathy, the COO of the foundation, and heard so many stories. Stories of building a primary school and breaking the cycle of poverty. Stories of collegiate scholarships and after-school programs and playground equipment. And one story of Delaware Elementary, the school where I grew up, the school where Jamie teaches, providing sensory room supplies and gardening equipment. The support of The Hamels Foundation has directly impacted my wife’s calling, too.

I contacted Kathy and told her of my desire to try out for the Grip ‘N’ Rip league.

“The Hamels Foundation would be honored to sponsor you!” she replied almost immediately.

Along with the sponsorship, Kathy sent me a new red t-shirt — “Education is the answer.”

I will proudly wear red on Sunday.

To learn more about The Hamels Foundation, click here.

Group Texting

The first text came through while I was standing in the shop at All-Pro Automotive. Rick was being as gentle as he could telling me all the reasons my car didn’t pass its annual inspection. Thankfully, Rick has a good sense of humor and made me laugh as he relayed the bad news.

I am not a fan of cars. Those seven words could be etched on my gravestone. Or maybe I should just get a tattoo of that phrase.  

Jamie and I have been married 22 years. We’ve had 16 cars during that span. Soon to be 17, I guess. My first desire after hearing Rick’s news was to take a bat to the vehicle. But my bat was at home. And I’d be more worried about the car doing damage to the bat than vice versa.

Then I remembered the text.

I am not usually a fan of group texts. I still have a flip phone. There have been times in the past when group texts have completely overwhelmed my phone and shut it down. But this phone only cost me $25. Which frees me to spend more money on car repairs. Life is funny like that.

The text.

Coach Nasby relayed the information for this season’s first game.

Sunday, August 11, Noon.

The Cyclones will kick off the fourth season of the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League against the Naturals.

(Season tickets can be purchased here!)

A couple of my teammates chimed in and, for just a few moments, I completely forgot my car woes. I had no idea who the names or faces were behind the numbers, but I knew that they were teammates. Everyone was excited simply for the chance to play baseball again.

This is one of the beautiful parts of the game of baseball. Teammates pick up the guys who are struggling.  

There are far too few parts of “real life” that encourage the positive aspect of the teammate mentality. Social media makes it so easy to divide and cut down other people rather than tap into the power of encouragement. Being negative is easy. It takes guts and work to choose hope every single day. Teammates — friends — are those incredible people in your life who help you keep your chin up and rise above the circumstances, walking with you through whatever storms life brings.

I have no idea what vehicle I’ll be driving on Sunday morning, but I’m looking forward to spending time back on the field with a bunch of guys who love and respect the game like I do. Those couple hours are going to help keep me sane moving forward into car-shopping territory.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dad tells stories with videos like I try to tell stories with words. He documented my efforts on Sunday and created this story. Though it’s quite humbling and embarrassing to see high school junior varsity skills on a 44-year old frame, it’s pretty neat to see how he pieced it together.

Of course, pretty much every baseball video is better with the Field of Dreams soundtrack as accompaniment.

Tryouts

It started with a whisper I couldn’t ignore.

Almost immediately, Rance volunteered to cover the cost of my tryout promptly eliminating my first excuse.

Mark and I started working out the day after the Royals Opening Day victory.

Four months later, tryouts were here.

I didn’t sleep well at all the night before. At 6 AM, I rolled out of bed and got dressed because I was tired of pretending I was sleeping.

I entered the stadium gates of The U.S. Baseball Park at 7:30 AM. The last pitch of batting practice was thrown at 12:25 PM. Five hours of adrenaline and nerves and all those uninvited voices in my head. Voices of fear and doubt and reasons to quit. Voices telling me to play it safe and not risk injury. I keep thinking that, one of these days, those voices will leave me alone.

Those voices listed all of those reasons several times over throughout the day.

Even at 7:30 AM, a time I’m fairly certain belongs to coffee and donuts and prayers to make it through the day, a time when the best baseball is not being played, the registration line was long. I was intimidated simply by others’ appearances. Their top-dollar gloves and bats and bat-packs. I waited impatiently to check in so I could start stretching out. The line moved quickly and I joked with those near me so I wouldn’t chicken out.

I signed a release form and a friendly young woman handed me my number written on a yellow sticky note.

92.

Walking away from the table, I heard numbers 117 and 119 check in. It took me about three seconds to do the math of 6 teams and 14 players per team — 84 players will make the cut.

The voices shouted a little louder, “You can walk away. You don’t have to stay. Go surprise your family at church. Get donuts. Give Rance his money back and leave. There is a reason the vast majority of baseball players retire before they reach your age.”

By the time I walked in to the third base dugout, the left field foul line was full of people playing catch. I put on my cleats and started stretching, waiting for Mark to work through the registration process. Mark and I were running in right field when I spotted Dad waving his hat. I had invited him to watch, but feared the day was going to be long and boring and hot. He took pictures to document the effort.

I decided to try out as a second baseman and outfielder. It’s possible I could pitch an inning with a little movement. I could represent the Stevie Wilkerson school of pitching. It’s also possible my arm might fall off at the elbow.

Tony, the league commissioner, opened the tryouts with a quick welcome and sent everyone to work. Pitchers and catchers reported to the bullpen. I had about an hour to practice grounders, getting better acclimated to the speedy turf field.

I stood in line with about 15 other middle infielders. When it was my turn at the front of the line, I signaled my readiness by showing my glove to the man swinging the fungo bat and bounced on my toes. The very first ground ball hit to me was a rocket shot, screaming just inches off the ground. It bounced less than a foot in front of me and skimmed off the turf, like a skipping stone across a still lake, where it seemed to pick up speed, glanced off my cup — Thanks be to God for the Nutty Buddy — and shot straight through my legs and into the kneecap of the young man standing behind me.

I felt like an idiot. I apologized to the young man profusely.

In between turns, I kept an eye out on the pitchers so I could watch and cheer Mark. He threw a short bullpen session the last time we practiced. His slider was nasty. I was glad I was catching it and not trying to hit it.

The bullpen sessions were impressive. Pitches cut and dropped and zipped to the plate at velocities exceeding anything I’ve driven any motor vehicle. I witnessed one lefty knuckleballer throwing pitches that would have made Bugs Bunny proud.

Side note: I honestly don’t know how anyone ever hits a baseball.

When the pitchers and catchers finished, all outfielders were sent to right field. A pitching machine was set up near home plate and dialed in to launch line drives. Prospective outfielders were to field four balls on one or two hops, and then make two throws to third base and two throws home.

Standing in right field, third base is forever away.

The gray metal siding of the U.S. Ballpark offices and the gray bleachers camouflaged the ball quite well. There were more than a couple times I had difficulty picking the ball up out of the machine.

Being number 92 was like having a last name that started with X. I wasn’t quite last, but close enough. I watched players make throws that would have made Oakland A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano proud.

I had enough time to think and doubt and worry. My arm is not a throw-through-the-cutoff-guy kind of arm. My arm is a thank-God-Almighty-there-is-a-cutoff-guy arm. I was slow to field my first line drive simply because I lost it in the buildings. Four relatively accurate throws bounced half a dozen times on the way to their destinations.

Waiting my turn in the outfield, at second base, before batting practice I could not help but notice how much talent there was on the field. I talked to several of the other baseball hopefuls and heard their stories and again I felt ridiculous when I compared my relatively limited baseball experiences to theirs.

“You are very good at writing baseball stories,” the voices said. “You could really help the league by writing about the teams and the players.”

The pitching machine was re-aimed at the ground to deliver consistent grounders for all of the infield positions. I cleanly fielded my three ground balls, no cup checks, made accurate throws to first, and then waited my turn for batting practice.

There were two rounds of batting practice. Five swings the first round; four swings the second. While I waited, I tried to time the pitcher who seemed to be standing about two feet in front of the plate.

I walked into the cage affectionately called the “turtle,” and don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know if I held my breath or closed my eyes or what. Most likely, I swung at every pitch whether or not if it was a strike. I don’t think I missed any. I honestly don’t know.

I returned to the outfield to shag fly balls while batting practice finished and then tryouts were over and it was time to wait.

I drove home, treated the black turf-tire-sliding stains on my white pants, and laundered all of my sweat-saturated clothing while I waited. I guzzled a couple glasses of water and watched the Twins dominate the Royals. I emptied my baseball backpack, noticed that it is hanging together by mere threads, and considered throwing it away. I played ball with my dog and cleaned dishes and waited.

Three hours later, Mark and Rance texted almost simultaneously.

“Congrats! But we’re on separate teams,” Mark said.

“Your uniform is going to be red. Congratulations!” Rance said.

I was drafted by Scott Nasby, the head coach for the Drury University Panthers, and by Ryan Wolfe, the owner at CY Sports and sponsor for the team — the CY Cyclones.

Dad and I drove back to the ballpark for the opening banquet catered by Mexican Villa. I was inspired by the passionate speeches Tony and Rance and Scott delivered. I was still a little stunned believing that I belonged. I met my teammates, signed a contract, received my first payday** as a “professional ballplayer,” and got my jersey.

I will be wearing number 10.

Like Andre Dawson.

Like Lefty Grove.

Like Chipper Jones and Ron Santo.

Like Dick Howser.

Like Mark. Now we’ll look like twins, I’m positive.

(He’s the one with the beard. I’m the bald guy.)

“Congrats today. It took courage,” Tony told me after the banquet.

At no point during the entire tryout process did the word “courage” ever cross my brain.

Maybe courage in real life isn’t bold and brash and brave as seen in Marvel movies and Firefly and Braveheart and Finding Nemo.

Maybe courage is just daring to believe that first whisper a little more than the voices that tell you to quit, to give up, to play it safe.

Maybe courage is believing in yourself just enough to try and climb that first hill, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

It takes courage to try new things, to meet new friends, to set oneself up for rejection whether on the field, in the batter’s box, or shopping publishers for your latest manuscript.

The presence of Rance, Mark, and Dad helped me believe in myself enough not to quit.

Your presence may give someone else the courage they need to face whatever whispers are on their hearts.

**Tony gave every ballplayer a $1 bill so we could all be considered professional baseball players, being paid for our skills. I am having mine framed.