Back in Petaluma high school, circa 1972, I finally terminated a long running experiment I did not ever really want to start, but parents and culture and many of the adults in my life encouraged me to explore it and try to develop what surly must be a delayed interest in me compared to many of my peers.
It appeared that to be “normal” I had to be involved somehow in sports – ugh!
Now, I know I can be a real snot now about being driven into something I don’t want to do, I get it and own it. I’ve even developed some diplomatic verbiage to step away from such things without causing heart-rending cries of despair but those years in grammar school up to High School before I learned such tactics were a trial. The expectations of my culture was clear. Big guys like me went out for sports, loved it and excelled at it – often involving balls of diverse shapes and sizes.
Part of the problem was my Dad. I loved him but, when he was in High School, he was a football star and was actually approached by someone about playing with the pros. It didn’t work out because they found out he had some kind of knee condition that screamed “DON’T DO THIS. . .!” He yielded but was bitter about his bum luck for a long time.
Instead, he watched anything on TV that was sports related and that often translated to, as the dad who worked long hard hours to support us, he was entitled to change the channel away from something I was watching to watch (mostly) football games.
I’d sit there and fume. It never matters who wins. I thought. They always just go back, practice more and take another run at one another later, What exactly is anyone actually winning? Someone is paying these guys to smash each other, but what are the fans getting from this endless tournament? What’s the point and why should I care?
So I became passive aggressive about sports. As I grew, my interests went elsewhere and poor Dad, tried to mend fences with me. I was interested in space, reading, electronics and writing all of which he did not understand any better than I understood sports.
I’ll never forget how I used to pelt him with space related questions. I still recall one of my dumbest 4th grade gems as he and I were driving, north on Mountain View Avenue towards South City Market. “Dad, is the moon as big as the distance from home to South City Market?” I recall thinking that Mom had told me that it was about a mile from our home to the market and since I walked it frequently I knew how long a mile was and anything a mile wide would be pretty big so maybe. . .
Dad answered, “No, I think it’s much bigger.”
That was it. No discussion about how far away that little globe was or how big it really was or offer to look it up in our Encyclopaedia Britannica when we got home – nothing.
I sat there thinking if I’d asked him about the size of footballs versus basketballs, I would have triggered a multi-day discussion and research project with visits to the local sporting goods store for research. Great throwers, hitters, bouncers and kickers would have been introduced. TV games would have been analyzed. Balls would have been purchased, dribbled, kicked, thrown and honored to make sure I had a firm grasp on, umm, sorry. What were we talking about? Something sports related — right?
The last time he tried and failed to cause a father and son bonding experience involved a kicking tee. Out of no where he brought one home and invited me away from something I wanted to do to go over to Grant School and learn how to punt. It did not go down well.
By that time, I was fed up with his efforts to drag me into his interest while ignoring mine. Mom tried to explain but I was now passive aggressive about it. “I’ll do as I’m told.” but will make him regret it by being a jerk about it.
My parents were pretty good about exposing us to things for enrichment so one summer I was really looking forward to unplanned fun in the hills around Petaluma, hiking and climbing trees, dodging cows I’d annoyed only to be told by mom and dad that I was to show up at McNear Park on the following Saturday morning to try out for little league. . .
I’d heard of it from my friends but as soon as I understood it was a sports thing, I quit paying any attention to it until they regained their sanity and reengage something legitimately fun. Mom thought it was pathetic that I did not even know which type of ball is used in little league. My arguments against going went nowhere and Saturday morning found me on my bike riding over to the park to find a huge throng of people, all thrilled to be there and even festive about it.
I was probably in fourth grade and, this is key — I’d never taken a swing at a fast thrown pitch and, Dang! They even use a smaller ball!. What am I doing here?
I stood with fingers pressed through the chain link webbing of the backstop watching and trying to figure this process out. The older filed through their turns followed by the younger boys as I dreaded my turn to square off with that small projectile in front of all these people. But despite all my hopes, my turn came and I had to walk out there with a bat and get into position.
My hands were sweating as, the pitcher wound up and threw the ball at me. I had never been on the receiving end of such a pitch and I swung almost blindly. To my horror, the bat flew from my hands and spun down the third base line. . .
I doubt it really happened, but I knew, just knew that the whole of McNear Park was laughing at me as I retrieved the stray bat and resumed my position determined to make a better accounting of myself. The pitcher wound up again and let fly. I needed to make strong contact with that ball and swung with all my might. I both missed and watched in horror again as the bat left my grasp and spiraled along the ground and into the forehead of some poor dad who was lying there to watch his kid.
The sound of the impact was horrible and crowd went wild and converged on the poor guy who was now rolling in pain.
I did learn, at that very moment that often the best direction to go in a crisis was the opposite direction everyone else was running. No one was paying any attention to me, which was good I think, so I turned away from the crowd and walked as invisibly as I could back to my bike and rode home to wait for the news of how I’d killed some kid’s dad.
“You’re home early,” was my mom’s greeting as I walked in the door. “How’d it go?”
I almost shouted back at her. “It was terrible and I’m never, ever going back!” I must have sounded much firmer than the previous day when I tried to avoid this whole crisis and we could have saved that guy’s life to boot, because she made a face that let me know that she was not going to challenge my decision. Good! I thought. I wonder how long it will take for them to track me down for negligent homicide.
So – baseball joined bobcat badminton and wolverine wrestling on the list of things I never wanted to be part of. It never again came up, nor did anyone ever come to the door to arrest me. Somehow, all my neighborhood friends who were IN-TO little league were not present or not paying attention when I launched that bat into the crowd because they never brought it up either. To this day I worry about that poor guy and there is no statue of limitations for simple apologies. In my defense, I was just a scared fourth grader who didn’t want to be there in the first place.
I used to be one of the fastest runners in my Grant school second and third grades but as we moved up in grades, I got taller and bigger and all too soon, those smaller guys were outrunning me – so, when I agreed to try soccer – I was quickly given the goalie position – a task I hated because it was deadly dull. Oddly enough at one game when the opposite team caught me not paying attention and easily scored against my team (who let the ball get too close to begin with) I was suddenly the bad guy which killed any remaining interest I had to stick with the game. I finally decided it would be better for everyone if I became sick for every practice and game, thus forcing the coach to give the job to someone who cared about the game, so everyone was happier and we didn’t have to cave-in anyone’s forehead this time.
At Petaluma Junior High, we had real PE classes that forced us to play team sports and I did learn that basketball was really futile. It must have been designed by someone who really just wanted a way to get kids to run back and forth for what felt like weeks on end.
When our PE coaches tried (US) football, I learned that if I just took the job of a blocker or rusher and avoided getting near the ball, I could do my time knocking other kids down (I was still bigger than most) while not caring about winning or loosing. Somehow, this is valuable to our development so (THUMP!) down you go mate!
At Petaluma High School, things got more serious. Our PE coaches were also coaches for real teams and they did not like not being taken seriously. I did my best to stay off of their radar but one coach, the baseball coach, realized that I wasn’t understanding how important this all was and when I deflected his efforts to make me care, he just gave up and got angry with me in class. Just doing the minimum required was not good enough for him. He wanted my passion, my devotion my most religious effort at knocking the ball far away and running the bases in all kinds of weather. The more he pushed, the more resistant I became and soon we both knew that we hated the other. Okay, lets just finish the semester and be done with this, but no. He found he needed one more foot soldier for his real baseball team so he approached me outside of class, Big breach of protocol bud! Out here I owe you nada! His appeal was as if he had a personality transplant. Yesterday he hated me and my whole family tree for not loving baseball but today, he wants to sweet talk me into letting him squeeze me into a slot designed for someone who cares about the difference in mitt types and has the psychotic drive to run laps everyday after school. I knew the transplant had failed because when I gave him my firm “sorry – no interest” answer, he quickly found his way back to hating me and my whole family tree.
What took me over the wall finally on sports was when a good friend talked me into joining the Petaluma High School wrestling team with him. Hmm, I do like wrestling in the abstract sense and there is no ball involved, just man-on-man (at least in those days – sigh) and it’s not really a team sport. You win or lose your own matches and the rest of the team does the same. “Okay, let’s do this..”
So away we went, reasonable practice and healthy eating guidelines. legal and illegal ways to pin your opponent to the ground and win, clear weight classes so most of the time you weren’t wrestling someone twice your size because that could, and did, hurt a lot. I even liked the coach. He was a reasonable guy with a sense of humor and was fun to be around. He seemed to get that we were doing this for both sport and fun.
We had matches with other schools so got some local travel in to other high schools where I met this one guy who I learned to both loved and hate. He was a guy with nearly identical skills to my own. When we met on the mat, I could count on neither of us pinning the other and instead we would fight our way through the full match time and one of us would win on points. You could easily think we were taking turns at winning – but we weren’t. We were just working our best at winning against each other. When the buzzer sounded we would all but crawl back to our sides and await the call on who won by points and shrug with whatever it was because it was always a great match that left us both exhausted and sweaty messes.
I thought all was going well up to the day maybe three quarters of the way through the season, when our coach lined us up after one practice and changed the tone of what we were about. He wanted more wins. Okay, nothing wrong with that, but now instead of practice a few times a week, we were changing to every day with matches or practices also on Saturdays. Really? His final blow was a mistake in my opinion. “And if anyone misses even one practice, yes, even one, you are off the team.”
I stood there in silence with my peers and wondered, did I hear that right? But a few hands went up with questions and coach clarified that yes, I’d heard him correctly. He went on to say some things like it was time to get serious about the team and our results, etc. etc. So, much of what I liked about this sport had just been taken away. Okay. He made this simple for me at least.
When I got home that evening, Mom and Dad let me know that we needed to do something after school the next day – right when we were to start wrestling version 2.0. Well that was well timed I thought. The next day after school, I walked into the boys gym and into coaches office. Recall that this was less than 24 hours after he changed to rules of engagement and told him (for the first time) that I had to miss a practice because we had to take our dog to the vet.
He looked at me with a face I’d never seen before and he silently sized me up before answering, “You know what this means?”
“Yes. Here is my uniform.”
He took it without comment. and I left. I was not included in the final team photo or named in the yearbook, nor did I get some kind of letter or something for having been part of the team. We just quit the relationship and I never cared or looked back. It was no longer a sport I cared about enough to put the rest of my life on hold. My parents were a bit mystified until I told them that coach had changed things and it no longer fit me. They shrugged and never mentioned it again.
To this day, I try to be polite about sports unless I sense that whoever is involved with the conversation has something resembling a sense of humor. Some don’t understand how anyone could not like sports. So it’s now common for some big game or match to be coming up and everyone at work (back in the days when we actually went to work) would be chatting about the game and I’d try to politely not say much until I got home to ask my wife, who at least knows about such things, “What big game is coming up?”
She knows the drill and answers something meaningless like, “Oh, it’s the Reno Redeyes versus the Rockchester Rockettes,”
She then sets back to enjoy my continued sense of being lost but rarely makes me ask the final question to clarify things, “Okay, but what shape is the ball?”