My most permanent childhood residence, a suburban home in Fredericksburg, Virginia that was the site of bountiful memories growing up, had a perfect backyard. It was trianular-ish, slightly sloped, rocky–quite rocky, had a few random trees, and a lot of spots where grass didn’t grow. It was perfect…for nothing. Except wiffle ball.
From a dirt patch, which became home plate, within striking distance of our roof and a fence, I looked up, bat in hand, at the backdrop of an imaginary backyard paradise. A ball struck at the right angle could majestically fly over the roof and out of sight, resembling a feat of athletic prowess that I rarely approached on an actual baseball field.
Grass never grew where Joe and I dug out a right-handed batter’s box next to that home plate, which was shaped by large rocks we unearthed from the surrounding terrain. Grass also never grew 30 feet away where the pitcher’s mound became a laboratory for strikes that moved more fluidly than pelvises in a Shakira music video.
It was there that Joe and I probably combined for more career dingers than Hank Aaron, more strikeouts than Nolan Ryan, and more unnecessary bat flips than if Jose Bautista played in the Korean League.
So last week, when I heard that Dayton’s campus recreation was hosting an intramural wiffle ball tournament, there was no decision to be made. I had been preparing for this moment–unknowingly–for about a decade.
The one-day tournament began at high noon on Sunday, Sept. 24–exactly 52 weeks after the death of Jose Fernandez, Miami’s ace that could make a baseball look like a wiffle ball with unparalleled wicked movement.
Since apparently most kids did not practice wiffle ball as though it were a real sport, I was the most experienced pitcher of the three players on my team. So in game one I took the ball, eyes fixed on the lawn chair whose fabric was the makeshift strike zone, and fired the most accurate pitch I knew.
Slider after slider found the chair, batters left baffled by their inability to differentiate strikes from balls that ended up 3 feet outside. In fact, the second batter of the first game dented the bat by slamming it into the ground in frustration following his 3-pitch sit-down.
In three innings, eight batters failed to put the ball in play. A ninth legged out a ground ball single, and a tenth grounded out.
The next game only took two innings before the opposing team decided it wasn’t worth it to bake in the sun knowing they’d never hit the ball. One by one, they too failed to make contact on any consistent basis.
Know that many laughs were had and smiles exchanged because we weren’t being poor sports. We were just winning–winning like there was no tomorrow–how Jose once did.
The games bore on as we scored runs and prevented our opponents from doing so. I even mixed up some submarine action akin to Dontrelle Willis at Potbelly to rack up the K’s.
For those fleeting few hours, I felt extraordinary. I felt like a kid…the kid. The kid, whose sliders fell off the table like meatballs in nursery rhymes and who once fought an entire team because he pomped a home run. The kid, whose smile brought energy to every fan in the ballpark and who gave his team the certain confidence of victory, whose blood carried enough joy to run through the veins of each athlete on the field, was now channeled in my veins and in my energy.
It was wiffle ball, albeit, meaningful.
A childhood activity, in which I partook purely for joy, inadvertently became lifelong training that made me look like the Yoda of backyard baseball because my competition’s prior experience with a plastic bat likely did not extend beyond drinking out of it.
It was a long, hot afternoon. The relentless sun shone unhindered upon the open turf field, radiating back up from the thermally-saturated playing surface. My skin got about as bright as Jose’s glove. But I didn’t care. I chose to stay because the Lord’s day is meant to be enjoyed, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than playing recreational rounders with the childlike enthusiasm Jose embodied on a baseball field.
We all make choices in life, countless every day. It’s unfortunate that one’s entire existence can be overshadowed by one bad one.
I’m not talking about a bad choice like playing wiffle ball while my mother slept in a room behind a wall that only I saw as Green Monster-like. No, that bad choice could be remedied by an angry scolding after over-estimation of my accuracy led me to nailing the broad side of our home. But I’m talking about one that can’t be remedied, like a lack of foresight that leads to a decision to hop on a boat at three in the morning after consuming copious quantities of alcohol and cocaine. That, right there, is what puts things in perspective.
That’s why I’m lucky. I’m lucky for having grown up in a stable family with a father who scientifically mixes a comically-shallow repertoire of lighthearted “dad” jokes with repeated, but reasonable, advice like “nothing good happens after midnight”–an adage that echoes between my ears anytime I find myself outside of the house in the wee hours.
I’m lucky for having that backyard, or any backyard, where my brothers and I could revel in the safety and freedom of a great country, where our bad decisions pretty much ended at the left field wall of that imaginary ballpark.
We lost in the semifinals of that tournament–perhaps too soon, perhaps not. I got sunburned, I gave up a pretty big dinger in that last game, we all struck out a few times. It was imperfect. But so was that backyard. So was Jose’s life. And everyone knows so are we.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I would trade any of those experiences back in. They were worth it.