This is the sixth message in a series on the artifacts that symbolize the spiritual importance of events, gifts and people of importance in our lives. Some of you may have read part of this before as it includes part of one of the most popular messages that I’ve ever sent out (6 years ago). That portion is also is a chapter in my first book.
the boy not chosen
lends me his glove. *
first warm day
fitting my fingers into the mitt
pounding the pocket.
in the outfield’s
late afternoon shadows
the coolness of my glove.
(Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura ed., Baseball Haiku [New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2007], pp.12, 23,106)
When I think of it now, my mind’s eye sees the rich, tan leather dangling from the handle bar of my red Schwinn Stingray bike as I peddle up the hill on Capitola Road. It is a Wilson Sporting Good’s Willie Mays model fielder’s glove. I had admired it for months in the sporting good’s section of the DISCO Department Store. One day, I emptied my bank of coins and dollar bills and took the three-mile, one-way ride to the store and after donning the glove and popping my fist into it several times, I bought it for $15.95 in 1967 dollars plus tax which was a major purchase for me.
I had come late to baseball, or rather softball, which is what we mostly played at my school. I was a klutzy kid, inept at sports, and often teased for being uncoordinated. I was indifferent to sports because I loved to read and liked to roam the hills and woods around my home. Besides, my face had some painful collisions with balls that I failed to catch and I was loathe to risk more of the same.
There were times that I couldn’t avoid having to play like PE class or school and church picnics. At those times I would try to avoid attention and humiliation in the deepest recesses of right field.
You remember right field. That’s the place where no one hit the ball. That’s where you were banished if you were a klutzy kid without motor control but the teacher made them pick you anyway– just to be fair.
I was the prototype of that kid. My eyes were crossed. My feet were big. I was truly afraid of the ball.
That was too bad because softball was the sport of choice at Samuel Eizenfelt Memorial Junior Academy, the pink-tinged block walled fortress of religious virtue where I attended elementary school. It was there that my cringing awkwardness led my classmates to call me “Spazo”(for “spastic”) and “Cordo” (for “uncoordinated”). So what if I could play the piano, read more books than any other kid in the County Public Library’s summer reading contest three years in a row, and owned my very own pony. I was a certainty to drop the ball and lose the game.
It did not help that my older brother Terry, a truly gifted athlete, had attended the school before me. He could catch, throw and hit with aplomb and set the standard for play of which I was the inglorious exception.
We would line up at recess or PE class to pick sides. The best players would be the captains. They would pick their teams by calling out their choices who would leave the line and walk over to stand beside the captain who had chosen them. Good players went first, mediocre players next, and then I would find myself standing alone, except for Paulie Swenson who had a congenital eye problem that allowed him only to see well in the dark and required him to squint in daylight. Paulie would actually be chosen before me.
There was an uncomfortable silence while both teams stared at me standing alone at the edge of the grass. Finally the teacher would clear his throat and one of the captains would mutter, “I’ll take Kent, but you have to let us be the home team.”
The next words I would hear were inevitable. “Kent, you take right field.” I would trudge out to the graveled wasteland behind first base where I was exiled in the hope that no ball would be hit to me and maybe I’d daydream and forget to come in to bat.
The major factor in our softball games was Mr. Jenkins, our rather-odd home-room teacher. He was an intense young man who glared at us through horned-rimmed glasses. Bow ties bobbed off his adam’s apple. His most remarkable feature was the shocking references to human anatomy and sexual relations which frequently broke through his monotone lectures. These always left us embarrassed and quiet and appalled our parents who were locked in a perpetual argument with the principal about his fitness for employment.
Looking back, with the benefit of 40 years, I realize that Jenkins was complicated and lonely and I feel sorry for him. But there was no getting around it then; Jenkins could be a mean, sarcastic man. He would call us names and disparage our intelligence. When I would muff a ball in four-square, fall down chasing a fly ball, or strike out to the chant of “Cordo” or “Spazo,” he would smirk and laugh. This was mild. His favorite targets were shy, awkward girls just coming into the full bloom of their puberty. These he would tease unmercifully about their looks and their clothes forcing them to red-faced, tearful silence.
Our softball games provided the canvas for the full portrait of Mr. Jenkins as bully. It is no challenge for a 30 year-old man to drive a ball over the heads of 13 year-old boys and girls. That is exactly what he would do game after game, at-bat after at-bat. Playing with children allowed him his fantasy to be Babe Ruth. Attempts to walk him were met with his withering rancor about the courage of the pitcher. It was better to give in and let him hit and watch him laugh around the bases while the outfielders would give chase to the rolling ball over our fenceless diamond.
Macho hitters always pull the ball. My one relief was that right-handed Jenkin’s inflated sense of manhood wouldn’t allow him to swing late and hit the ball to right field.
So it went day after day until. . . .
Karen Sykes was a classmate who lived on the school grounds with her parents who were school employees. We were all invited to her birthday party on Sunday afternoon. We played a softball game before the cake and ice-cream were served.
Karen was my friend and she did a wonderful thing. She asked me to be a captain for the first time ever. I envied the good players and I picked them now. Mr. Jenkins always expected to be selected first. On principle, I did not choose him to his surprise and irritation. He pursed his lips and smirked. The other captain called his name.
We were the home team because I had picked first. Heady with my captainship, I put myself in left field, another first. This was met with the ill-disguised dismay of my teammates.
I prayed the prayer that I have said often in my life– “Dear God, help me not to mess up here. Protect me in spite of myself.”
Jenkins, batting third, hit a two run homer in the first inning over the head of our center fielder. We scrambled back. Our games always had high scores.
Then came the third inning and my destiny. Jenkins came to bat with one out and one on.
He looked at me out in left field. I was playing as deep as I possibly could to avoid the humiliation of the ball being hit over my head. I tell you truthfully that I had never caught a fly ball in the outfield in a game, ever! Jenkins knew this. I had no illusions. I gamely popped my big brother’s black glove a few times with my fist and crouched like I knew what I was doing.
There are moments for each of us that live forever suspended in time. For me these include my first kiss, winning a talent program, notification of my first published short story, the shame of almost being expelled my junior year of high school, Patricia saying “yes,” making law review, passing the bar, and standing in the law firm lobby, saying “Come to Daddy,” while watching my grinning eighteen-month old son toddle to me. And there is this third inning with one on and one out.
On a 2-0 count, Jenkins swung and the ball arced high in the sunny, blue sky down the left-field line. I began to run toward the spot where I guessed the ball would come down. There is a sound-track for my memory: gravel crunches beneath my thudding feet; my teammates’ shouts of encouragement are like cries of wheeling sea gulls; the wind rushes past my ears; my breath compresses and whooshes out.
I closed my eyes and stretched out my glove hand as far as my hurtling body would allow. The ball fell into my glove and stuck. I pulled up and stopped in foul territory.
My teammates erupted into screams. They had witnessed a miracle. “Did you see that? Kent caught Jenkin’s fly.” It happened when my eyes were closed. Skill had nothing to do with it. But I felt great!
Mr. Jenkins stood halfway between home plate and first base still holding his bat. He hurled away the bat in disgust. He glared at me. Then he walked away from the field and sat on a picnic table. He did not come out to the field in the bottom of the inning. He quit playing. He sat by himself the rest of the party. Karen’s mom had to bring him his cake and talk him in to eating it.
The possibilities unlocked for me by the catch seemed limitless. That night, I slipped the glove under my pillow. I lay in the dark, grinning at the ceiling, reliving every microsecond. The belief began to grow in me that I might be able to do this again.
My classmates quickly forgot about the catch but I couldn’t forget. I began to talk anyone that I could into playing “three flys up” with me before and after school and at recess. I chased fly balls until my legs ached. In the summer, I wore out all the neighbor kids by playing up to six hours a day. The remembered grace of the miracle catch breathed life into my practice.
It was finally time to step out from my brother’s shadow and forge my own identity so I put down his glove, rode my bike to the store and bought my own. It felt good on my hand, not too tight and not too loose, with the right weight.
Now, for the uninitiated, one does not simply purchase a new ball glove and immediately start making dazzling plays with it. The glove must be broken in so it has a pocket to cradle the ball like a velvet lined case for a diamond.
My dad gave me some stinky neets foot oil and I rubbed it into the leather over and over until it softened. I placed a softball in the pocket, tied the glove tight around the ball. Then I placed the glove between the mattress and box springs and slept on it for many nights. It was like a boy’s version of the story of “The Princess and the Pea”–only I could feel good catches being manufactured by the lump in my back. I would take it out each day to check progress, reoil it, and retie it.
I still wasn’t a “natural”–an athlete of lightning fast reflexes and physical intuition, but the hours of practice and the new glove gave me a confidence that showed to be justified when the school year started for my freshman year and we played ball on the sunny days of late summer and early fall.
The tapes that played the humiliating “Spazo” and “Cordo” over and over in my head began to fade. When it came time to play, I quickly moved the few feet between the ignominy of right field and the glory of the wide-open spaces of center field.
No longer was I picked dead-last and sent to right field when sides were chosen. I wasn’t the first choice either but made it to a respectable second or third pick.
I discovered a whole new world of fellowship and camaraderie in teamwork. Sportsmanship became a consideration–could you “prove” your point on the field through good play or just whine about the bad breaks? Were you a “gamer”– some one to be relied upon to give their best even with the inevitable cuts, scrapes, bruises, blisters and insults?
My brother Terry married an exceptional first baseman named Anita and they lived in our town for a summer while he worked for my dad. We organized a church league. I developed a closer relationship with my older brother during that season.
Before I was through, I captained three championship fast-pitch softball teams in high school and college even though I was far from the best player. Other captains typically picked their friends to play, I learned to review the available players, position by position, and select the best starting with a pitcher and moving to shortstop right on down the roster. It taught me valuable lessons for managing a law firm and a legal team. Without my glove work, though, the coaches who selected the captains would not have given me a second look.
The laces on my glove wore out during my junior year of college. My girlfriend took the glove and completely re-laced it for me. This was an arduous task and it had to be love for her to undertake it. Thirty-five years later those laces still hold as does our marriage after thirty-three of those years.
Our son wore the glove when he learned to catch the ball from me and he used it in grade-school.
My arthritic knee will no longer allow me to do the running necessary to play. I finished in middle-age as a right fielder again on a church league team.
Now the glove sits on the shelf, catching only memories. I frankly cannot imagine the life that I’ve lived thus far without the experience that it brought me.
The story of David and Goliath has universal meaning (1 Sam. 17). David was pegged as too young and too small. He found that he couldn’t move in the armor plating that was put on him by a leader who modeled self-preservation as the highest virtue. He refused the temptation of meeting strength with strength, relying in faith on God’s transformation of the skills and equipment that God had given him while he had labored despised and forgotten by even his family in the wilderness (1 Sam. 16:1-13; 17:28-37).
We always have a choice. Our choices are the raw facts from which the Lord writes his story of grace.
If David had run away from Goliath that day with sling in hand instead of towardr him, there would have been no story (1 Sam. 17:49). If I had not run toward Jenkin’s fly ball that day instead of away from it, my life story would have been different.
This much I’ve learned, though there is constant pressure and temptation to ignore the lesson, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecc. 9:11). But if that Scripture only were the end of the story there wouldn’t be hope, only luck, and we might as well go to the racetrack and play the lottery.
There is more to the lesson: Time and chance do happen to everyone and everything, but God is sovereign over our time and our chances and that truth levels the battlefields and playing fields of our lives. David prayed,
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies
and from my persecutors.
Make your face to shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
O Lord, let me not be put to shame
for I call upon you. . . .”
Whether it is David’s statement to Goliath that “The Lord saves not with sword or spear for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (1 Sam. 17:47), or my far less heroic appeal to mercy, “Dear God, help me not to mess up here,” it is in the spirit of surrendered trust to the God who holds our times in his hands that we must confront the giants who would deny us life and freedom.
It is only an old, battered ball glove, but every stain and scuff represents a lesson in grace to me that in my best efforts and lowest moments, God loves me, helps me and makes the difference that only he can make. The battle is the Lord’s, indeed!
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,