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.