I was a pretty good baseball player when I was a kid. I could hit and catch and run. For my 9th birthday, I got a genuine leather mitt, one like the big league players used. My dad and I rubbed that mitt with oil and wrapped it up with a ball in the pocket. I sat in my bedroom, in my lime green beanbag chair and spent hours tossing the regulation hardball into the mitt’s pocket. I loved the solid thwap it made when it hit the webbing.
We lived in the boondocks, so there wasn’t really anyone to play catch with, but I threw that ball in the air as high as I could so I could catch it. I tried valiantly and in vain to teach my little brother how to throw. Poor kid—he was only five when he had to endure my berating his terrible arm and aim. Somehow the two of us and the occasional neighbor kid (I use the term neighbor loosely as no one lived within a mile of us) spent hours in the field behind the house playing the best version of the game we could muster amongst ourselves. Mostly our time consisted of shagging overthrown or underthrown balls or wild pitches.
I don’t know where I even learned about the game—we didn’t have television when I was growing up and neither of my parents was much for sports. I have vague recollections of watching the occasional baseball game on tv when I’d visit my grandparents, but the overarching memory there is one of sheer boredom. Nothing seemed to move more slowly than a baseball game on tv. I don’t remember anyone schooling me on the fine points of the game until I was well into my 20s, but somehow I knew the rules.
We played during recess at school. Once our 7th grade teacher let us all out to play on a beautiful spring day. I remember because I made a miraculous diving catch, snagging a rocketed line drive and my teacher Ms. Allen lavished me with praise, a moment that crystallized in my memory and probably contributed to my lifelong affinity for the game. I adored Ms. Allen and would have gone to the ends of the earth to recreate that moment in time (this proclivity has created all sorts of issues for me, but that’s another blog).
I only tried out once for a baseball team though, in spite of my deep desire to play. Back in the day (way back, people, before Title IX), we had only Little League, and everyone knew that only boys got to play Little League baseball. But I had no alternatives. There were no other places to play, at least not in our little logging town—no girls’ softball through parks and rec and certainly no girls’ sports at the local junior high school I attended.
I didn’t know of any other girls who wanted to try out for Little League, but Billie Jean King had recently defeated Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes and obviously a seed had been planted in me. Remember try-outs? Remember the days when not everyone who showed up got a ribbon and a place on the team? I showed up for Little League try-outs in Sultan, Washington in 1975. I ran bases with the boys. I fielded grounders and caught fly balls. And I hit line drives out of the infield.
I still remember the ping of the ball flying off the bat the first time I took a swing in the batter’s box, but more than the ping, I remember the collective intake of breath from the onlookers. The shock that a girl could actually hit a pitch, a hard ball, a boys’ baseball, not some looping fat softball pitch (not to disparage my lesbian sisters who played softball). I made it to first.
I made it to first, but I didn’t make the team because an obstacle larger and more unbeatable than Bobby Riggs stood between me and my baseball dreams: Larry Stucker. Larry Stucker was the stuff of legends in our little town, known to all of the kids anyway as Stucker the Trucker, the Mean Old Fucker. He drove his own logging truck and his wife was the nicest, meekest woman who taught Sunday school at our church. I was in class with his kid, Shawn, a scrawny, big-nosed, big-eared kid who looked just like his old man and couldn’t play baseball worth a damn. Larry Stucker coached the Little League team I would have been on had he taken me on my merits but Stucker the Trucker wasn’t about to have any girls on his team.
I still have my mitt—and I still use it when I have occasion to play catch or a pick up game of softball. When Taylor was in elementary school, she had a great sense for the game, and we played often in the back yard. I bought her a mitt, and a bat, and a ball, but sports never really interested her the way that they pulled at me when I was that age. Sometimes I wonder if we just always want most the things that we can’t have.