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Playing it safe in the Pee Wee League

In the second grade, when I was seven, I joined a baseball team. This was in the spring of 1960, year fifteen, give or take, of the American ascendancy. I was a Brownie. There were Bisons and Lions and Bears in the Pee Wee League, but a Brownie is what I was. Our uniforms were white T-shirts decorated with the brown picture of a diminutive fellow with a turned-up nose, turned-up toes, turned-up tapered fingers, and a turned-down cap festooned with a bell. We were, according to our team song, “the pride of the Pee Wee League.”

The song was sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and it went this way:

Brownies, let’s get a home run,
Brownies, let’s get a run,
Get us a single, you’ll make us shout
Try your best not to get us an out.
For it’s root, root, root for the Brownies
The pride of the Pee Wee League.
And it’s one, two, three cheers we shout for the Brownies team.

This song was composed by Claire Barkosky, the mother of one of my fellow Brownies. To my knowledge, we were the only team in the league with a song.

Illustrations by Katherine Streeter

Illustrations by Katherine Streeter

I took the song seriously enough that more than fifty years later I still remember it. I did indeed try never to get the Brownies an out — and I never did. This was not because I was so great an athlete but because I had a deep fear of screwing up, and that guided my Brownie career.

Try your best not to get us an out: that was my mantra. I did not stand at the plate, I squinched there. I had seen a tiny ballplayer on TV, Luis Aparicio I think it was, give pitchers fits by crouching down like a jackknife until his strike zone was about an inch and a half. I was not tiny by the standards of the Pee Wee League, and I was unable to make my strike zone disappear, not quite. But I was able to shrink it down a long way.

I stood at the plate shivering and shaking (try your best) with my bat cocked far back in a way that I thought might menace the pitcher and perhaps offset my clearly terrified posture (don’t get an out). I batted ninth or tenth or fourteenth or twelfth — you batted whether you were on the field or not — and yet I was the most reliable Pee Wee on the Brownies. I tried with all I had not to get us an out. In church I had learned there were sins of omission and sins of commission: I feared the sins of commission the most. I would not, if there was anything I could do to stop it, get us an out. I would not, in fact, even go so far as to swing the bat.

No bat swinging, no strikes, or at least no strikes that could be blamed on me. (Called strikes were the fault of the umpire.) No bat swinging, no humiliation: or at least none of the dramatic humiliation that comes with struggling your way down the baseline (if you ran the way I did) and getting tossed out at first, or maybe being beaten to the bag by the pitcher or even the second baseman, or simply missing the ball three times straight.

I did not swing the bat, and yet I was perfect. I walked every time. I was nine for nine, or, as the record books would more accurately say, I was zero for zero. A walk does not count in one’s average as a time at bat. But to myself, I was impeccable, sinless. I never did anything wrong.

I played right field when I got into the game at all, and there I followed my baseball philosophy: Try never to do anything wrong, annul yourself, disappear! When a fly ball bounced on one occasion (once!) into right, I somehow pawed it up with my glove. But then facing me was the long throw to the infield. I had a pretty good arm. I actually could wing the ball. But hey, it might not go well. I might end up tossing the ball out of the park and feel the silent boos and jeers come down on me. On a baseball field, and especially in the outfield, there’s nowhere to hide and no tools handy with which to dig a hole in the ground and jump in.

I tossed the ball. I tossed it underhand, and not toward the plate but to the outfielder beside me. “Donny,” I said, clearing my throat and preparing my speech, “I know you have a better arm than I do. Why don’t you throw it in?” I spoke these words with a sort of Shakespearean deliberation, and as I did so, I held the ball in my grasp, staring at it the way Hamlet stares at Yorick’s skull. Donny Lenox averred that he would be pleased enough to get the ball to the infield but indicated, with a brisk nod of his head, that for that to happen he would need the ball. I, concurring, flicked it to him underhand. But the flick was imperfect: the flick seemed to encounter invisible resistance and trailed off in the air. Donny didn’t catch the ball. He had to bend and scoop it from the ground, and by the time he did, he could well have had the throwing prowess of Willie Mays, because any throw would have been in vain: the bases by then were empty.

So I screwed up by trying with all my sinew (small) and baseball wit (also small) not to screw up. But really, from a distance it surely looked like a couple of tiny kids noodling with a ball, and whose fault it was — mine or Donny’s or maybe the ball’s — could not have been clear to anyone. Besides, there was nothing in our theme song about not messing up in the field.

My mother’s program to turn me into a passable kid had led me to the Pee Wee League and the Brownies and Donny Lenox, to right field and the deplorable song. My mother’s aspirations for me were not high. I was simply to herd with other small boys, not use too many big words, get dirty, and take a few more steps toward normalizing myself. She didn’t care if I booted a ball from time to time; she didn’t care if I was zero for zero at the plate; she didn’t care if I was the worst kid on the team. When you put a bunch of seven-year-olds together and ask them to play a high-skill game like baseball, there are too many contenders for the worst-kid-on-the-team distinction to give it away readily. I was a contender, but I was far from having it in a lock. Two brothers whose name, as close as I remember, was the Cooper brothers were on the team: they could not hit, they could not field, they could not find their gloves; when you sent one to left field he went to right, when you sent one to right field he went to left, when you sent one to center he sometimes melted down and went home. Do some sigh with delight when they see room at the top? I often sighed with pleasure, or at least with relief, because there was so much room at the bottom.

Illustrations by Katherine StreeterMy coach, Mr. Lenox, father of my collaborator in muffdom and also of the renowned Danny Lenox, an actual Little League star, was not satisfied with my dwelling contentedly at the bottom of the Brownies order like one of those sea creatures that lies buried in sand, technically alive but showing, day after day, no particular sign of living. Mr. Lenox had a goal for me, and that goal was to get me to swing the bat. He was not pressing me to make contact with the ball, nothing so ambitious. I just had to get the bat off my shoulders and give it a rip, or at least send the bat into one of those rotations that when initiated by a seven-year-old often sends him flying along with the bat like an unbalanced top.

Mr. Lenox, a perpetually tanned face, with sparkling but somehow weary eyes under a torn baseball cap, stood before me in practice and told me to swing, to swing, to swing. But I would not. He got the assistant coach to throw me what he called cantaloupes and cans of corn and marshmallows and grapefruits and all sorts of things that were all the same thing: embarrassingly drifting, embarrassingly hittable lobs. Still, I would not swing.

Nor would I — usually ready with a word and sometimes two or two hundred — say anything in response. I stood mute as a bat and a glove and ball. “Swing the bat,” he said kindly. “Swing the bat,” he said not unkindly. “Swing the bat,” he said in a manner that indicated that if we went on like this for another year or so he might actually become a touch impatient. Finally, he asked me, “Why, O why, O why, do you not swing the bat?”

And I answered, though I did so with reluctance. The answer was clear; the answer was obvious.

“Because I might miss.”

Might miss? Might! The risks of me actually making contact with a ball were about the risks a man takes when he buys a ticket for a million-dollar lottery and in a fit of anger at the gods and fate decides to throw it away before the drawing takes place. I became a team project. I was put up to bat in practice and given double my allotted time. I was told to swing the bat when the ball came in slow motion toward the plate. Eventually I did, sometimes. Of course I was reluctant, and I swung rarely, but I knew that this particular exercise did not count. So I was willing to swing from time to time. It was like committing sins before the age of seven — before first communion. Before the age of seven, you were free to swing and you were free to miss. It didn’t really count. It wasn’t a good idea to lie or snatch extra pie or sneak up when everyone was asleep and watch the test pattern on TV. But it wasn’t going to send you to hell. After a while I would take a few shots at the ball in practice and cut a fair-size invisible road in the air, and this did not matter, or it mattered hardly at all.

But in the games: no thank you. In the games I scrunched up my face, jackknifed my body at the waist, choked way up on the bat so that the pitcher wouldn’t hit it and cause me to dribble the ball to the mound. I stood like a statue and took every pitch. I was like a garden gnome or a lawn jockey or one of the statues on the periphery of the crèche. I did not move. And I was perfect: on base every time. Eight times in a row, nine! And the authorities still wanted me to swing.

My mother had no program for me as a ballplayer other than that I show up. She didn’t care if I swung the bat or scratched my back with it, so long as I put on the T-shirt, showed up at the park, and didn’t end up with the other kids throwing mud and rocks at me. My mother cheered when I got one of my patented no-swing walks; everyone did. I was especially proud and pleased when I took four balls in a row: that was a true victory. Mrs. Barkosky and my mother and all the Brownie moms jumped up and made noise and sometimes they struck up the song. “Brownies, let’s get a home run! / Brownies, let’s get a run!”

In time, I got a reputation around the league as the kid who didn’t swing. The opposing coaches knew it, the pitchers knew it, everyone knew it. The players would holler to their pitcher: “Just chuck it over the plate. He’ll never even take the bat off his shoulders.” This was not so. I often checked my swing to make the pitcher nervous. And as time went on I went further with my intimidation technique and began incorporating tiny dance maneuvers into my at-bats. I’d wiggle and wriggle and crouch and rise. But mostly I scowled. I gave those tiny pitchers looks that would break glass. And it worked. Even though they knew I was not going to swing, I walked nonetheless. And the mothers clapped.

My father? My father was pleased enough that I played the game, I’m sure, but the idea of showing up to watch me play or practice was simply not one that was available to him. My father was working two jobs at the time. As my uncle told me not long ago, my father always worked two jobs: one to cover his bills and one to cover his gambling debts. While I was shagging balls in right field and refusing to swing the bat, my father was off playing cards with his buddies from the National Guard. He wasn’t a bad cardplayer, or so I was told.

But he did have a weakness. He could not walk away. When other guys were ahead and a respectable amount of time had passed and a respectable number of beers had been consumed and snacks crunched and cracked, they could get up with their winnings and head for the door. When my father was ahead and disposed to go, his buddies would beseech him. “C’mon, Wright. Let us win our money back!” They begged. They pleaded. They virtually hit their knees, as my uncle tells it. And my father, who had too soft a heart, always gave in. He never quit while he was ahead. He never walked away carrying a thick roll. He quit while he was behind and then went off to job number two to solve the problem.

My father was too good-hearted to be a cardplayer. Maybe he wanted the approval of those other guys, maybe he couldn’t take their displeasure at losing; maybe he was willing to assume their places in the loser’s ring to save them the trouble. I don’t know. But I think overall he was simply kind. (I may have inherited this: I like to win games, but unless I’m heavily provoked, I do not like it that someone else has to lose. I feel bad for the losers and sometimes, no doubt, contrive to put myself in the loser’s sad space to save them the suffering.) My father seemed to me very strong, even fierce, when I was a small boy. The smell of his cigarettes, the bark of his voice, the way he hoisted me up on his shoulders as though I were a bear cub and easy to toss around: all this made him formidable in my mind. He only grew irritable when his debts started to crowd him, as they did years later. But then there was still something boyish and light about my father.

At night he told me stories about his battles with the Southwest Indians and how he had fought Geronimo during a long-standing feud. He had been captured by the Apache chief and he had been tortured. But then he had broken free and made it to Malden, Massachusetts, in time to meet my mother at a high-school dance and take her out to dinner and ride her around Malden in his often-breaking-down convertible. I didn’t believe the Geronimo stories — well, most of the time I didn’t. But I loved them, and I saw that my father’s need to tell them was at least as great as mine to hear. He, too, needed a break from reality. He needed to leave the world of work and debts and his own softhearted failure to take the food money of other families at poker and give them our own. He wished to be a child, like me.

I suppose you could say that he had never had the opportunity. My father’s own mother died when he was a baby, and he was quickly shuttled off to the homes of his brother and various sisters. He had his first job at ten and was working full-time, as well as going to high school (occasionally), at fifteen. He needed to tell some Geronimo stories. He’d needed someone to tell him a few.

For a while I was allowed to be a child. No one made me go to pre-preschool. No one wanted me to skin my knees, tear the buttons off my shirt, and frolic with the kids. I was allowed to be free with television and books and bread and butter and sugar.

But this could not go on forever. So my mother, who really had little natural aptitude for the job, effectively became my father. She made sure I was on a Pee Wee squad. She laundered my T-shirt (which was probably no big deal, since I was scrupulous not to stain it with grass or dirt); she showed up at the games; she sang the song, though in a soft voice. She clapped when I stepped to the plate, and clapped more emphatically when I got another walk. My mom was my baseball dad.

The season continued and still I would not swing the bat. The Brownies had won their division (of four teams) and now we were entering the play-offs, and still the tiny integer called Edmundson, who played Deep Deference in Right Field, did not swing. He wished to be unknown, anonymous, and invisible. He wanted no sins to be scored on his small white soul, which he imagined to be similar in form to a piece of white-shirt cardboard or to home plate when it had been whisk-broomed of dust by the umpire. He wanted to be ready for heaven, or baseball heaven, at the drop of a coach’s hat. And still he would not swing.

And yet. And yet he wanted to pitch. At night before I went to sleep I dreamed about taking the mound and mowing down batters as though they were blades of grass. I sent balls by them like bullets. I burned them in. I set the plate ablaze with my fastball and foxed them all with my curve. Yes, Paul Barkosky, the son of the jingle-writing Claire, could get the ball over the plate — a rare power in Pee Wees that we had ridden to the top of our division. But having watched the Red Sox on TV, I saw that Paul lacked the smoking fastball and the sneaking slider that I was reasonably certain I had up my sleeve.

Paul’s windup was simple. He pitched from what’s called a stretch: start with feet spread and ball at crotch; bring feet together and gather ball at chest; lean back, kick forward; shoot or waft. Paul mainly wafted, but it went over the plate. My windup was superb. It combined a dance called the mambo with a Rockette-style kick and a sidearm delivery positively serpentine in its guile. At the end there was a tiny triumphal leap, a bit balletic. I rehearsed this move and ample variations in front of my TV, watching the Red Sox Bill Monbouquette, a pitcher whose danceable name evoked the sort of windup and delivery that I tried to cultivate. (He had a pretty grand windup himself.) I already had a splendid baseball scowl, having worked it up for my batting performances. So yes, I wanted to pitch.

Nor did I keep my ambition to myself. When my mother saw me practicing my moves in the living room, she asked me what was up, and I told her. I wanted to pitch! I knew that Barkosky was good; the fact was that I might be better. The play-offs were coming and the Brownies were going to need to show their best stuff to win it all. I was, I surmised to my mother, the height of that best stuff. I had never thrown to a batter. I had never been on the mound. I always made it a point not to touch the mound as I went out to right field, for the same reason, I suppose, that a serf doesn’t touch a throne. I still would not swing the bat. Yet I was ready to pitch.

My mother didn’t know what to tell me. She thought and mulled, mulled and thought. And finally she said: Ask your coach if you can pitch. Ask Mr. Lenox.

And I did. I asked him on the sidelines. I asked him before practice. I asked him when he was driving me home after practice, because my father, who was supposed to stop by the field, had not stopped by the field. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Mr. Lenox, how about trying me at pitcher?”

And what did he say? How did he reply to a kid who could not pick up a baseball without the risk of falling and whose glove was constantly disappearing under the bleachers and who on top of that probably had a slightly larger vocabulary than he did? He did not reply at all. He gave me a look of priestly benignity, puffed once on his cigarette (coaches then smoked; everyone, it seemed, smoked), and turned away.

He had, perhaps, not heard me. He was maybe preoccupied. So at the next practice I asked him again, and at the next and the next. He simply never replied. This made me think that he was turning the prospect over in his keen managerial mind, that he was holding the possibility open. Then I thought that sometime during the play-offs, when Barkosky wearied, Coach Lenox might summon me off the bench and to the mound and let me go to work. I kept my windup in tune. I wore invisible holes in the living-room rug with my imaginary cleats. I developed an awareness of what they call the rubber, the shaft of white at the top of the mound, and learned to toe the nonexistent rubber with a certain muted élan.

I shall study and get ready and perhaps my chance shall come, said Abraham Lincoln. I was doing all that, and I truly did believe that my opportunity was coming. Pitching was not all that hard, from what I could see. It was all in the windup. And who, pray tell, had a windup like mine?

Was I able to see the absurdity of my situation? I think I was, though not quite in its most obvious form. It was absurd for someone who couldn’t pitch and had never and probably would never to expect that he could vault into the mini–World Series and with his wicked windup win the day. This folly I glimpsed, at least from time to time. The one I did not see, I think, was the one that involved my character, as much as it existed then. I wanted to be a star. I wanted to be grand. I wanted to be a Pee Wee deity. I wanted to pitch. But at the same time, I wanted to be invisible. I never wanted to swing the bat. I wanted to disappear, but I wanted to be the star.

Years later I read a revealing line by Andy Warhol about (oddly enough) Andy Warhol. Warhol said that from early on he knew he was going to be faced with a difficult life. He was murderously shy: that was a given. When he went outside he wanted to shrink himself down and hide inside his shoes. (I paraphrase freely.) He, like me, wanted to disappear. But he also learned in time that shy, slightly nunlike Andy Warhol required a lot of attention. The flower that was his spirit wilted pretty quickly without being watered with the ichor of, if not adulation, then at least notice, and better still notoriety.

So me: I wanted to turn to invisible wind; I wanted to pitch. Which was it? Of course it was both.

All through the play-offs I kept expecting the call to come. I even thought that I would soon be promoted in the batting order. It started out the same way every time, and I recall it verbatim many years later: Parrazo, LeBlanc, O’Brien. Jimmy Parrazo — he was small, with Tartar-like features — led off. He swung the bat. He whipped it like an angry elf. And he hit the damned thing sometimes too. About LeBlanc and O’Brien I can tell you far less: only that O’Brien had a black baseball glove and played first base, where you really did need to catch the ball, and that LeBlanc was the third force in the Brownies batting triumvirate. But why not Edmundson? Edmundson, unlike the triumvirs, did not make outs. Nor did he hit the ball, which they sometimes did. Edmundson simply got on base. He had compiled a number of R.B.I.’s as well, by walking in guys when the bases were loaded. He had looked it up — when you walked in a run you got an R.B.I. I batted late enough in the order that I often came up with the bases plugged (as we habitués of the diamond put it then), and I went to work. I believe that by the end of the regular season I was batting .000 with four runs batted (or bored) in.

Yet I wanted to pitch, and I wanted to bat among the first three: after Jimmy Parrazo, second in the lineup — that was my primary choice. And I also wanted to be faultless and to be invisible and to be able to disappear, as Warhol wished, deep inside my shoes when I was so disposed.

As we approached the play-offs, my seven-year-old Brownie self actually became angry that he could not have his cake and eat it too, star as a pitcher without ever having to learn to pitch. All I wanted was everything, and I was quite put out that everything did not come my way. I went around composing internal monologues at the expense of the kind coach who did not put me in and the players who had eclipsed me to become part of the Brownie pantheon. I even developed a grudge against the star pitcher, Paul B, whose home life was not easy and who could use every bit of upwardship he could get. But he was in the way.

During the last game I was so angry that I did something rash. I had decided that nothing meant anything, that life was a sham, and that if I could not be among the first in heaven I would become a bit of a hellion. So I did. Last game of the Pee Wee city series: we are losing and it’s all but over. I’m up. Here comes the ball. Take that, rat-shit coach. Take that, rat-shit team. Take that, rat-shit little song. I swing. (I had learned the word “shit” from Paul Rizzo, my first friend, when I was six.) I swing and I make contact: not a crack exactly but a vibrant plinking sound. And off goes the ball, skipping past the pitcher and on into center field. I’m so surprised that I stand there and watch it for a while, though I know I have to run.

But running is wrong. If I run I won’t be able to see the ball and watch it scurry its clever way into the outfield. It’s as though I’ve painted a masterpiece but am not allowed to look at it and admire what I’ve achieved. I no longer want to disappear into my shoes; I want to doff my cap the way Ted Williams was supposed to do and never did. My mother is yelling, Mr. Lenox has his hands cupped to his mouth (where’s his cigarette?), and the whole Brownie bench is having a Pee Wee bacchanal. Run! Run! Run! It occurs to me that not running might create more of a sensation than actually taking off and going down the line.

But in time — the ball has cleverly scampered past the outfielders and I have lots of time — I give in and make my deliberate way down the first-base line. I am half-disposed to cut a caper as I move along the chalk — to zigzag or maybe pirouette, to shine in my shoes rather than disappear into them. You see, you see, you see! I could do it all the time. Too bad it’s too late to put me on the mound; too bad it’d be too late to bat me after that scroungy little Jimmy P. I’m on my own now, everybody. Look at me.

And really I’m most happy. I’ve managed to be invisible all season long and then, at the last moment, to flash like a tiny comet. Perfect. I’ve been anonymous and I’ve been in the forefront — my tiny Warholian dream has come true for a moment. I’m having it both ways.

And isn’t that what writing is all about, being absent and gobbling up attention at the same time? By the time you’ve written the essay or the book and it’s in the reader’s hand, you’re long gone. You can’t be seen, but you are, to at least that one reader, all in all. You take over his or her consciousness. My pattern was set early, I suppose. I was the tiny baseball player who wanted to be gone but preeminently present too. I never figured out how to do it with a bat and a glove, but with a pencil or a cursor, well, I seem to have made it happen from time to time.

I’m on first base. The season is about to end with me batting a thousand. I lead the league! I’m a hero. We lose the game and we lose the championship, and the season’s over. But me? I have pulled it off. I am perfect. I am safe!

’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Poetry Slam,” appeared in the July 2013 issue. He teaches English at the University of Virginia. He is at work on a book entitled Being Small, a memoir of childhood.

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