Professional baseball is awash in chemical corruption and I cannot force myself to care. Those who know me won’t be surprised, as my reputation among the sports fans of El Ocho is that of a non-believer. I got my reasons. In fact, my disdain for the hippodrome began with the boys of summer and - at the risk of losing my Man Card - I’m prepared to explain why. To do so however, you’re gonna have to climb aboard my Way-Back Machine. Settle in, as I set the dial for the painful Summer of 1978...
At age 11, I had too much hair on my head, thick corrective lenses encased in bus-window frames and a host of other issues. By then I’d lived in the crossroad township of Saulston, North Carolina for more than seven years. My mother had moved my older brother and I there when she remarried in 1970. It was no doubt her hope that Richard and I would find friends among our new rural community, for there were many boys our age that also called eastern Wayne County home. Trouble was, the young men of Saulston weren’t looking to import any compatriots - especially some dork in Coke bottle glasses who read encyclopedias for fun. Certainly I didn’t help matters, what with my shocking lack of athleticism and penchant for polysyllables. Factor in an unfortunate stutter and you have yourself a prime candidate for ostracization. I wasn’t the only kid who ever got picked on, but I was acutely aware of my outsider status. In time, I embraced it.
But that self-realization was a good decade away on the afternoon my well-meaning Mother suggested I try out for the church youth baseball league. After all, we lived right beside the baseball diamond and every other boy my age was itchin’ to take the field. Internally, I grimaced at the notion. Donning a polyester uniform wasn’t going to increase my speed, agility or coordination. If anything, it would only make me more of a target for extended ridicule. I knew this to be true, but being eleven and unsure of most everything else, I acquiesced and suited up. It was a wholly miserable experience.
The new team forming behind the church was a source of great excitement among my peers and as I lined up to play, I feigned both enthusiasm for and knowledge of the game. I should have saved my energy, for as soon as someone tossed a ball my way, I proved my incompetence by never coming close to catching it. Meanwhile, the other boys my age made impossible saves, hurled threaded orbs to and fro, and wrung great distance out of aluminum bats. From day one, I knew I was doomed. See, no one had ever really shown me how to hold a bat, throw a ball, or look cool in those doofy socks. What little instruction I received from my new teammates were couched in scorn, laced with guffaws and swaddled in derision. For the most part I could take it; I was already learning how to deflect mockery with humor and the occasional middle finger. What I could not combat however was the highly-targeted taunts of the Coach himself - a tobacco-spitting jackass we’ll call Mr. Mike.
I’m not sure how an insufferable lout like Mr. Mike came to helm the local church’s youth baseball team, but it obviously came with strict orders to take the new team to some mythical state championship. How else do you explain Mr. Mike’s policy of playing only the athletically gifted and haranguing all others who failed to measure up. I became his favorite target. The man fancied himself a wiseacre and never passed up a chance to pinpoint my many weaknesses. When he wasn’t rolling his eyes at me, he’d send me deep into right field during practice and scoff as he hit a few my way. I returned the favor by missing even the simplest of grounders. The burning spurn of this loathsome authority added to my unease and it showed itself as I entertained the troops with my clumsiness. Miss. Suffer. Repeat
But my practice field exile was all the action I ever saw. In the entire season I suffered in uniform, I did not play a single game. Instead, I wore a steady groove at the end of the bench and learned hard and fast how not to care. My teammates saw this castaway status as clear signal to pile on and within their juvenile repudiation, I watched time stand still. I wasn’t the first kid to suffer childhood ridicule, but as I sat there dressed just like the rest of my teammates, I felt totally alone. That feeling of abandonment crested late in the season during another torturous practice - the only time I was allowed to walk on the field. Mr. Mike was at home plate, calling out players names and batting balls to their various positions. Half-joking he called my name and popped a fly ball to wherever I was daydreaming in right field. Sticking up my oversized glove, I somehow managed to catch the damn thing. Instantly, applause broke out as young and old alike pointed and jeered, stricken with mocking awe that Stewart Pittman had actually caught a ball. Standing there with the unfamiliar weight of an actual ball in my glove, the crowd’s cat-calls and laughter washing over me, I made myself a promise: If I could only get off this cursed ball-field, I would never again take part in any organized sport. Tothis day, I've kept my word.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no victim. Nor am I apparently, a born athlete. But the open hostility of the adults in charge of a bunch of eleven year olds never left me. The following season I refused to go anywhere near the team; choosing instead to spend my time lost in cheap paperbacks, fresh episodes of M*A*S*H and my beloved Steve Martin comedy albums. Today, at age forty, I’ve gotten over the summer of ‘78. I’m even a reluctant sports fan at times, faithfully watching my Carolina Panthers every Sunday - even as they insist on stinking up the joint. As for Mr. Mike, I resisted the urge to cut the brake lines on his pick-up truck and soon forgot about him altogether. Until, that is, a decade later - when I spotted my old tormenter in chief at the Emerald Isle Beach Music Festival. I was a young cameraman working weekends. He was a shirtless drunk, harassing a bikini-clad Budweiser girl easily one-third his age. It was with great precision and glee that I hoisted my lens and pointed it his way. That night, his intoxicated buffoonery dominated my coverage of the popular event. I don’t know that he even cared, but I’d like to think in some small way, it caused him some pain. Now, Play Ball!