This is about the pitfalls of a superstar athlete who is trying to remain true to himself.
| Freshman year rolled around and when the time came A.J. chose to tryout for the baseball team instead of the track team. A.J. showed up to the audition in sweatpants, his state champs t-shirt and a Reading Phillies ball cap. He was more excited than scared or was it the other way around – more scared than excited? He wasn’t sure but he planned to give it his best shot.
They started with some stretching and light jogging to loosen up their muscles. After the warm up coach gave split everyone into 2 groups – A and B. Group a took the field first and it consisted of mostly the returning players from last years varsity squad, a few junior varsity guys that coach hoped could make the jump to the next level and a couple of the rookies.
While group A was working on fielding on the main field group B went to the smaller practice field to perform some base running drills. One of the assistant coaches quickly ran through some signs they would use to communicate on the field and then put them to work.
The first guy would start at home plate, waited for the coach to say go and would have to sprint to 1st base. Another coach called you out or safe. If you were called out you went off to the side, do 20 push-ups and 20 sit-ups and then get back in line. If called safe the runner would have to watch for the signs they just learned and try to steal second. Failure brought the same consequences as first base but if you made it you stayed on base and waited for the next runner. When the next runner went you had to look towards the coach standing at 3rd base to see if you needed to advance or hold your position. Again if you were called out or you missed the sign you would head off the field and do twice as many sit-ups and push-ups as before. Sometimes for a change of pace the coach would tell you to go back just when you were almost at the next base. If you didn’t return before he called you out or if you just kept on running then you performed 3 times the exercises and got back in line. Oh and if you were caught trying to take your time doing the extra calisthenics you were also made to run 5 laps around the field.
A.J. found himself at the back of the line which had its good points and bad. He was able to watch the others go before him and get a feel for how things went. He also had more time to learn the sign language the coaches used to talk the players. Unfortunately the extra time also did a number on his digestive system and when it was his turn he walked up to home plate, took his stance and then puked everywhere as the coach yelled,” GO”!
You’re out! Next in line move it.
A.J. felt embarrassed and felt like leaving but instead he completed his penalty exercises, grabbed a small drink of water from the dug out to remove the vomit taste from his mouth and got back in line. As he walked towards home plate for his 2nd chance a boy standing on second yelled, “Try not to puke this time”! All of group B started laughing and this infuriated the coaches. The coach on second grabbed the boy on base and said, “10 laps now and if I hear another word come out of your mouth you’ll hit the showers”. This time when the coach said go A.J. managed to hold down his insides, probably because there was nothing left, and flew down the base path. The coach on first called him safe and slapped him on the rear. A.J. got into the next position and waited for the sign. When he saw it he hesitated briefly and then sprinted towards 2nd base. As he ran A.J. felt like he was in slow motion and was sure he would be called out but in reality he was kicking up dust like a deadly windstorm. He slid into 2nd and the coach called him safe. Everyone watched in wonder each time A.J. got ready to run. He completed the drill 3 more times and seemed to get faster with each sprint.
Next the groups switched places and it was time for A.J. to try his hand at fielding. A.J. had been practicing at home by throwing a ball against the side of the house and fielding it as it rolled back. To simulate pop flies he would simply toss the ball into the air and catch it. For a running catch he would toss the ball up in an arc so that he would have to sprint to get under the ball. Now these things helped a little but not to the extent that having a real batter hit the ball at you on a real field.
The coach gave the boys a five minute break to get a drink of water and then he bellowed, let’s hit the field. At that everyone grabbed there gloves and darted towards their favorite position. There was a brief shoving match over center field but then the boys realized coach was watching and one of the boys quickly took over right field. A.J. paused when the revelation came to him that he didn’t know what position he could play. He started to motion to the coach to gain his attention but then saw that second base was open so he darted towards the bag. The first couple of grounders hit his way he bobbled or missed completely but after a few minutes he was turning double plays like a duck takes to water. He even made one or two diving plays that even had the coaches asking, “How did he catch that”?
The final phase of the marathon day called for both groups to hit batting practice. A.J. was one of the first players up to bat and he was petrified. He had never hit a ball before and he wasn’t exactly sure what to do. His stance was a mixture of things he had picked up while watching different players on TV and at the games he attended. As he dug into the right handed batter’s box he held the bat in his left hand and crossed himself with his right. He thought this might cause a few of the guys to laugh or chuckle a snide remark under their breath but no one said a word. Later in life A.J. would learn that this was because if it’s one thing that a player respects it’s a teammates beliefs and superstitions. After all those faiths is what makes a good player better, a great player a supper star and a mediocre team a championship contender.
A.J. grinded his toes into the dirt, bent his knees slightly and held the bat up on his right shoulder. He nodded that he was ready and the coach threw the pitch. A.J. swung so hard that he not only missed the ball but he also twisted around 360 degrees and landed on his keaster. Now the laughs began to echo from the dugout and someone made the comment,”Who turned the air conditioning on”? Another boy exclaimed, “That was enough wind to fly a kite”!
A.J. was devastated and torn on what to do. Should he stay put on the ground, get up and run away or dust himself off and try again? He was embarrassed at how poorly he had done and was leaning towards fleeing the scene of the crime when he heard a voice call out.
Come on Smith is that all you got? Let’s go A.J. I know you can do better than that!
He tried to locate the owner but there were just too many faces and he wasn’t convinced that the voice wasn’t a figment of his imagination. Then he looked up at the sky and wondered if GOD was a baseball fan? Maybe he was watching from above and wanted to see A.J. knock one out of the park? Anything was possible at this point so he got up, brushed himself off, crossed himself just like before and this time he planted his feet into the batter’s box.
As he took his stance he heard the unknown voice again. Get a hit A.J.! I believe in you! And then several players joined in on the sentiment and began clapping and cheering A.J. on. The pitch was out over the middle of the plate and A.J. swung as if there was no tomorrow. The aluminum bat made contact with the ball with a loud metallic clang and the ball sailed off towards the outfield. A.J. stood there as the ball’s trajectory continued towards the outfield wall and sure enough it cleared it. Out of the park! A homerun! A.J. couldn’t believe it and he crossed himself again just as he had before the at bat. While he admired the unthinkable feat a stout young man jogged out of the dugout towards home plate. The boy had dark brown hair, a solid frame with tree trunks for arms and a small pudge of a belly. The closer this mystery boy got A.J. could see a smile that reminded him of jolly old Saint Nick and then his jawed dropped open! It suddenly struck him like a ray of sunshine breaking through on a cloudy day. There was only one person he knew that was that vocal and all around positive spirited. And sure enough as the boy stepped in front of him A.J. was certain who his motivator had been – Teddy Eugene Wilcox!
I knew you could do it. Am I the smartest guy you know or what?
But how did you…when did you move?
Later, we have plenty of time to catch up. Now lets see you hit another homer.
A.J. was flustered at seeing his old friend after all these years but he somehow managed to focus. He stepped back into the batter’s box and got ready for the next pitch. This time he drove the ball to left centerfield but it did not clear the wall. However the hit would have been good enough for a double in a real game. A.J. saw about 2 dozen more pitches and although he didn’t hit all of them, in fact some of them he missed by a mile, he did make contact with some consistency. Now he didn’t always drive the ball out of the park but for his first time hitting A.J. should have been very pleased. And if he thought about it for a moment he would be but the only thing on his mind right now was Teddy.
After his last swing A.J. walked back to the dugout and Teddy scampered up to home plate for his turn at hitting. Teddy had an aura of success about him while at the plate. He showed no signs of fear or hesitation as he dug in for the first pitch. This certainly wasn’t Teddy’s first plate appearance and it was obvious when you watched him wield the bat. Teddy took an enormous powerful swing at each and every pitch. He missed some but when he made contact it showed as ball after ball was driven to the deepest part of the field and more than a few went sailing over the fence.
When batting practice finished coach made all the prospective players run ten laps around the field before hitting the showers. The locker room was alive and festive with boys bragging about how well they performed despite each one of them being utterly exhausted. Silence slowly crept around the room as the coach made his way to the cork bulletin board. He grabbed a thumbtack and posted a list of the players who made the team. Then he walked back to his office with the same nonchalant attitude he had walked in with. As the office door closed, boys trampled one another in various stages of undress to get a look at the list. The scene looked like a bad ice capades show with boys slipping and sliding across the wet tiles.
Both Teddy and A.J. made the junior varsity team. Teddy was penciled in at first base and A.J. was listed at 2nd base/utility player. A.J. couldn’t believe his karma. Not only had he made the team, which he thought was a long shot, but he was also reunited with his best friend. When Teddy moved the boys swore to stay it touch but as the years passed they drifted apart as most people do. The buddies finished changing and walked out together. They started walking home and realized that they were headed in the same direction. The boys looked oddly at each other as they discovered that their houses were only about 10 minutes apart.
As they walked along the neighborhood sidewalks they took turns rehashing the years past since that sad July night when Teddy moved away. Teddy talked about how hard it was for him because every time his family settled in one place his dad would get reassigned at work and they would move again. A.J. relived his adventures and didn’t leave out even the smallest detail. When his story was complete, the boys looked up and to their surprise they were standing in front of A.J’s house.
Can you come inside for a few minutes? I know my mom would love to say hi!
Sure, maybe I can call my mom and ask if I can hang out for a little while.
A.J. flung the door open so hard that the door knob put a small mark on the wall.
"Hey watch the door son. What’s your hurry"?
"Mom you won’t believe what happened today"!!!!
"Did you make the team? Congratulations, I knew you could do it".
"Oh yeah! I did make the team but that’s not all! Guess who else made the team"?
"Well I’m not sure? Who"?
"Teddy Wilcox!" And with that the older larger version of A.J.’s little friend stepped through the doorway and into the living room.
"Hey Ms. Smith. It is good to see you again".
"Little Teddy Wilcox how is your mom doing"?
"She’s good. In fact may I borrow your phone to call her and let her know where I am"?
"Don’t forget to ask your mom if you can stay for dinner! Oh is it okay if he stays mom"?
"Of course. It’s good to see you again. You have grown into a handsome young man since the last time I saw you".
"Thank you Ms. Smith".
When A.J.’s dad got home from work the Smiths and the Wilcoxs went to dinner to celebrate this joyous day. After dinner the families went back to their respective homes but not before Teddy and A.J. made plans to meet in the morning and ride their bikes to school together. Because A.J. was in the accelerated program he didn’t have any classes with Teddy but they did have the same lunch period.