23 Seconds

23 Seconds

Today, I want to tell you about baseball.  Not baseball really, but how 23 seconds on a baseball field changed my life forever. It might help you understand why I am the way I am about certain things. Turns out it does not take very long to change a life.

First, let me tell you about Koser Field

Mechanicsburg had two fields for Teener League baseball: Koser and Northside. Northside had a manicured grass infield and a perfectly semi-circled home run fence with padded top rail, so no one would get hurt crashing into it while heroically catching a fly ball. 

Koser Field was another matter entirely.  No manicured lawns or perfectly shaped home-run fences here. No, the 10’ chain-link home-run fence at Koser ran at straight angles. From the left-field foul pole to center field was a straight line so the home-run distance never changed. Between centerfield and the right field foul pole the fence ran at such an obtuse angle so that right field was actually further away from home plate than center.  A ridiculous design, a ridiculous field. 

The infield at Koser was no picnic either. It was dirt. All dirt. And rocks.  From the backstop behind home plate to the edge of the outfield grass nothing but dirt.  Did I mention rocks?

Sliding meant scabs and playing defense in the infield meant every ground ball was an adventure in cat-like reflexes just to make a play.  In order to make sure you fielded the ball cleanly you had to square-up to the ball and, more times than not, that meant taking a hit in the chest or face because the ball took unexpected bounces.

One day my team, PTS – named after our sponsor, Power Tool Supply located down on Allen Street – was practicing at Koser.  Typical day. We were taking infield practice, which consisted of Coach Nye hitting ground balls to us at our positions and us throwing to first or practicing turning a double-play or the imaginary force play at third. I played shortstop in those days. I was pretty good, but Koser Field had a way of humbling anyone at any time.  

So, Coach Nye hit the ball to me and the ball went past me into the outfield. An error. E6 in the scorebook. “E” for error; 6 is the number of the shortstop position. I turned aside when the ball took a weird bounce, so I would not get hit in the face. I cursed Koser field. Out loud. Without restraint. With expletives.  My teammates sympathized. The field was, in fact, rocky and miserable to play on. What happened next changed my life.

Coach Nye laid the bat at home plate and ran out to meet me where I was standing. Still cursing in the infield. He breathed his fatherly breath into my face and for all to hear demanded I say three words: “I fucked up.”

I replied instead with, “But the ball hit a rock and this field sucks.” The ball did, in fact, hit a rock.  

“I fucked up” he repeated except now he was three inches from my face. His fatherly breath smelled like coffee and commitment.  He said it quickly this time. Again loud enough for all to hear. I was 14. I was scared. But I had no intention of saying those words; the field DID suck and why should I take the blame for something so clearly not my fault? I got angry and yelled about the fact that this field had no grass. I said those words instead. 

Coach Nye took a half step closer to me and looked me dead in my eye and with a calm voice repeated each word as if each one had its own personal wrapper. He unwrapped them and never averted his gaze from my eyes.  There was something other than anger in that man’s voice. Not having a father and not being used to hearing what love from a man sounded like, I did not know then what it was. But I do now. I know exactly what was in his tone.

I repeated his words. “I. Fucked. Up.” 

I hated myself for saying it but I didn’t need to. That lesson is for another day; till then, read “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

Coach Nye turned around and headed back to home plate, picked up his bat and called out to the infield, “turn two” and hit the ball to the second-baseman.

I rushed over to cover second base and we “turned two.” Not another word was spoken about that 23 seconds, but it shaped the man I was to become, gave me a value that I carry to this day.

Even though the job is tough, T, and the circumstances are not fair, you still have to square up and take the hit, do your job. No excuses. And if you fail, don’t make excuses. Say the words and move on.  Everyone fucks up, not everyone admits it. And whether or not you do will make all the difference.

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