Every athlete or performer, no matter their level of skill, has an experience or challenge that was memorable. My moment came at Whitman baseball park in Camden New Jersey. I did not hit a winning home run; I did not pitch a no-hitter; my challenge was much more personal than athletic.
My father died suddenly about three months before. I saw my parents headed out the door late night to attend a Valentine’s Day party. The next morning, I awoke to find my house crowded with somber faces of family and neighbors. An uncle gently informed me that my father had passed away. I later found out that my father had experienced chest pains, went to the hospital but died in the waiting room. My uncle now told me that I was “the man of the house.” Pretty heavy message for a 7 year old boy! My grandfather who had lived in the house had died the year before. I now lived with a grandmother who spoke very little English, a mother who did not drive and did not work and a three-year-old sister.
Fast forward about three months and you found this shy, skinny and small boy playing shortstop in PACC minor league baseball. I had promised my father the previous year that I would go out and play Little League baseball. Even at age 7, I wanted to live and play as normally as possible. I learned one thing from my father. Don’t run away from challenges. He once saw me run from a kid who was looking for a fight. I thought I made it safely to my fenced backyard. However my father told me that I had to face the kid or face his belt. I faced the kid. I think our “fight” was a draw.
My baseball coach announced that he wanted to see our parents and families at the next game. My mother had no interest in sports and though I saw my uncles, aunts and cousins on occasion, I did not extend them an invite to the game. I was getting used to doing things on my own.
I don’t remember a lot about the game itself. I do remember that we had a much bigger crowd watching us play and that the coach was very happy to see how his players were being supported by their families. My mother did not drive and was not interested in sports. I was not particularly troubled that no one came out to see me. I was just happy being on the field with the opportunity to play.
In between innings, my coach asked me if anyone was here to see me play. I shook my head no. The coach knew my father and was aware of his passing. The coach and I had never really had a conversation about my father’s death. He had seen me walk home alone at times and offered to drive me home.
I don’t remember what inning it was or the score but I saw the coach speaking with the umpire and then strolling to the mound speaking to our pitcher and taking the baseball from him. He gestured for me to come to the pitcher’s mound. I figured that he was going to provide me some strategy or where I should be positioned. Instead, he placed the baseball in my glove and told me i was going to pitch.
I was both confused and panicked. I had never pitched before. “ Why are you asking me to pitch?”I stammered. I was perfectly content to avoid the spotlight and continue to play shortstop. The coach rested his hand on my shoulder and said “I knew your dad” and looking up at the sky, “I know he is watching and I want him to see you pitch.” I hated when anyone made a fuss about me about my father’s death. I did not want anyone’s pity and I did not want any special favors.
The coach walked back to the bench and I stood alone on the pitcher’s mound. The umpire asked if I wanted some warm up throws and I nodded nervously yes. I can’t remember how close my warm-up throws work to home plate. The distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate seemed like the distance between two goal posts on a football field.
The crowd of parents along the fence became silent. Normally there is chatter by teammates to encourage the pitcher. My teammates were silent adding to my discomfort. As I finished my warm-up, I did hear one woman whisper from the crowd, “That’s the boy whose father just died.”
I felt like running away again. I did not have to worry about getting hit by my father’s belt. I yanked my baseball cap down to cover my eyes. I felt alone. I felt the same pressure when I went back to my second grade class after my father was buried. Trying not to look scared, trying not to show emotion, trying not to cry…
A batter came up. I took a deep breath, toed the rubber, and tossed the ball towards home plate. I don’t remember how well or badly I pitched. I just remembered that I did not run away and that if my father could see me, he would be proud that I overcame my fears and that part of him was standing on that pitcher’s mound.