My Athletic Career

For someone who was never much of an athlete, some of my most distinct memories come from athletic events. Some are pretty bad memories, but not all of them.

Like most boy who grew up in the 50s and early 60s baseball was The Thing. I lived pretty far from town, so most of the baseball I played was endless session of "catch" with one or another kid from down the street. We'd play regular catch, we'd take turns being pitcher and catcher, we'd play long distance catch, out in the fields, throwng the ball just as far as we could. We'd throw each other grounders, fly balls. I still have crisp memories of the simple dance-like joy of winding up and throwing the ball, the whole body taking part in each throw. And catching the ball was the other half of the dance. Depending on where the ball came to you, you would either casually and coolly lift your glove and snag the throw like it was no big deal. But you were damn careful to make sure you caught the ball in the part of the glove where the thick leather took the punishment, not your hand. Every so often you would misjudge the throw and you would catch the ball right on your palm, which hurt like the blazes. 

If the ball came to you low, you lowered the mitt and caught it underhand. If it came to the left side, and you threw righty, you would reach to the left, rotate your wrist, and catch the ball backhand. If the ball came to the right, you would catch it forehand. Every muscle in your shoulder, arm, and wrist were needed to get the mitt into the right place to catch the ball, not drop it, and not hurt the hell out of your glove hand by catching it, again, right on your palm.

If the ball was way above you, or falling behind you, you had to run back, maybe leap, and turn the best way. It required total comittment and coordination of the whole body to make leaping or diving catches. And the satisfaction of the ball popping into the mitt never lost its edge for me.

When there are just two country kids playing catch, you play for hours. You get into an hypnotic rhythm. You commit to the throw, and your throwing arm continues in a big arc after you release the ball. Your whole body rotates along with the arm. But then you have to turn back, straighten up and get ready to catch the ball. After a while you get into a dance where the motion of catching merges right into the throwing motion, so the whole process is constant movement. Most of it is slow and graceful, just the actual throw is fast, while the windup and follow through are graceful. Hours and hours of catch, with the thunck sound of the catch providing a slow beat.

When my father worked at home the slow rhythm of our endless games of catch drove him crazy. 

Our farm was to hilly for much real baseball even if we had more than two of us. So it was mostly just catch. Long distance catch, pitcher-catcher catch, and just catch catch. 

Sometimes we'd play flies up, which is a game for 4 or 5 kids, so it was sketchy for just the two of us. And the fields around the house were generally tall grass, so you could hardly run around and if you didn't catch a fly ball it might get lost for a solid half hour. Or forever. I wonder if the baseballs I lost our there in 1959 have become one with the soil, or if there might be a few threads and some horsehide still in the weeds.

All of the baseball games I played in were schoolboy games at recess. We'd organize ourselves into two teams, more or less. Often a team had to supply their own catcher, or even pitcher. We threw underhand with rubber balls that were baseball sized. You could pitch to your own team because the idea was that everybody hit the ball. Strikeouts are boring. Every batter had a chance to get a hit, there was a constant stream of grounders and fly balls. 

Starting in first grade, I was One of the Guys, just about as good a player as anyone else. I wasn't one of the bigger kids, but I held my own, both on and off the field. But from first grade onward toward 12th, my athletic status followed just about a straight line from about average to irrelevant. 

Walter Funk was our pitcher. He had stayed back a year, and was bigger than the rest of us, and the leader on the field. One day I was catching the game while Walter pitched. It was kind of a big game for us: our 5th grade team againt the 6th graders. Teachers might have been involved, because there was some sort of organization about it.

At a critical point in the game the batter popped up the ball in the infield, right between me and Walter Funk. I rushed out to catch the popup as Walter rushed in to catch it. I ran into him at full speed. He was taller, so I hit him in the chest — with my face. My front teeth went through my upper lip, and there was a bunch of blood. They took me down to the nurses office, where I suppose she probably washed off the blood and put ice on my mouth. I don't remember that. What I do remember is that I caught the ball, and didn't drop it, even as I fell in the dirt, bleeding. Even today I can feel the thick scars inside my lips where my teeth cut into them. 

Little League
I have few memories of little league, none of them good.

The day my mother drove me there and was trying to figure out how to sign me up, I was staring off into the field, where other kids who knew what was what were already hanging out with their teams. I had no idea what this was all about. This was nothing like the two person catch I was used to, or the schoolboy games where I was a regular. My mother saw me staring off into the distance, worrying and dreaming about what might happen. She then told me I should be paying attention to signing up, not "staring off and being a dreamer, just like your father."

One day I noticed the coaches notebook on the bench. He had the names of all the players listed with their positions. But below that there was another group labeled"subs", with my name on it. I was stunned to see that I was offically recorded as second rate. In all the schoolboy games I was a player, never a sub. But now I was. It was a terrible, shameful thing to see. One of those growing up moments where your understanding of your place in the world is altered, for the worse.

We never practiced that I remember. I never had batting practice. The coach never taught us anything.

I got up once in a game and hit a long, long ball, but foul. I never made contact again. Somehow I got up one other time in a critical, and the other kids begged me to let them, pinch-hit, but I refused. I struck out, which clinched the loss, and my teammates blamed me for the loss. The next morning as my brother and I were walking into school I heard a kid say to my older brother, "Yay, Sachs, loses the game." Seems my brother Dan and I had both gone down in flames the night before on the little league field.

I never went back after that first summer. My descent into athletic irrelevence had begun. I wasn't going to get my mother to drive me five miles, or walk it, to participate in something as unpleasent as little league. I loved baseball. Fuck little league.

The Shuttle Run
When JFK became president the whole country went fitness nuts. Somebody somewhere came up with a bunch of skill tests for us youths. Odd little activities invented to measure our fitness. I can only remember one: The Shuttle Run. They put some chalkboard erasers about 20 feet apart, and you had to shuttle between them and see how many times you could run back and forth, switching erasers in a fixed amount of time. Other kids ran straight back and forth, but I could see that they were wasting way too much time trying to change direction. So when my turn came, I shuttled sideways, facing the same direction the whole time. I was right: it was faster. I scored the highest on the shuttle run. They put the winners names on a board on the wall of the gym. We never did those exercizes again. The board stayed up for years. Once during college I came back and checked, and my name was still there on the old dusty board. This would have to be one the highlights of My Athletic Career.

Cross Country
I did go out for cross-country for a year or two, recruited by a coach that was desperate for bodies. There is no feeling quite like the feeling you get when you are so deeply out of breath that your chest just aches and throbs and you think you might die.  Running is joyful, but cross country the way I experienced it was hellish.

Field Goals
One day the gym coaches decided to see who among us could kick field goals through the goalposts of the football field. We all took turns. My first kick went right through the middle of the posts. The coaches notices. My second kick was identical, perfect. The two coaches turned to watch, perhaps thinking that they had a new kicker for the Mahopac Indians. When my third kick went wide and missed, both coaches turned away, ending my football career on the spot. I have no doubt that had I made that third kick, they would have recruited my for the varsity, where I would have set records, been recruited by major football colleges, and then had a solid career in the NFL. 

Picked First
We played lot of touch football in gym class. One day the captain of our team, a year older, noticed that I could run the ball and avoid being caught. So the next class he picked me first for his team. There is a great mythology about being picked last in gym class, which crystalizes ones athletic worthlessness. So being picked first was good, even if it only happened that once.

I signed up for fencing in college because I knew that without a sport I was probably never take a shower. And fencing was kind of cool. I had long since realized that baseball, football, and basketball as played by other males my age were utterly beyond me. I probably could have wrestled in some lighter weight class, but fencing had way more cool and a lot less sweat. I was a mediocre fencer. Others who started fencing in college like me were about the same, some worse. The kids who had fenced in fancy high schools were way better. Guy, the kid from France was way, way better.

One year we went to the Easterns, the match where major fencing powers such as NYU, Columbia, Harvard, and others gathered for a massive day of swordfighting. I was one of three foil fencers (there are three kinds of fencing, saber, which is too fast to even see what happens, epee, which is generally too slow to watch, and foil which is about right. My last bought for the day was against a Navy fencer. This was during the height of the Vietnam war, so I took this bought as a political statement. Can this long-haired hippie looking kid (me) defeat this uptight, militaristic Navy robot? I was extemely aggressive and took a 4-0 lead. One more touch against him and I would have won the biggest bout of my life. After I got my 4th touch against him, his couch came out and talked to him. I immediately changed my style to a defensive approach. With the result that he scored 5 touches in a row, and beat me 5-4. I was so stunned that I didn't sleep that night. For a few weeks I slept only fitfully. It probably took 6 months before I started to recover. It went around and around in my head: how could I have lost? I had him down 4-0. It was years before the memory of it stopped giving me the willies. Actually, it still does.