Part Two of a Three-Part Series (for Part One of this Series, Please Click Here).
"Hey pitcher, you suck!"
The little sh*t was right.
I faced only five guys, and they all reached base before I pulled myself from the game. There were two walks, a hit batter, a single and someone less than half my age taking me very, very deep over the right field wall. Our Brooklyn Indians were down by too many runs when I came on in the 5th anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But when you're 48 years old and the oldest player (albeit unconfirmed) in Brooklyn's semi-pro league, you're looking for that incident that sends you home, tells you to knock it off, act your age and stick to coaching. Maybe tonight was the night.
My excuse for such a poor outing? The young studs who'd used the mound all night had created a hole in the landing spot that was so deep, it hid your spikes and socks from those in the dugout. So when I pitched, I literally fell into a ditch, having released the ball far later then expected, causing it to tail outside to right-handed hitters and inside on lefties.
Internally, I felt composed, not frustrated, doing everything I was supposed to do. I breathed, focused and played detective so as to both find and make the right adjustments (such as a mid-air, earlier release, which is when I drilled someone). I talked to myself: This is what you've told all the pitchers you've coached, right? That pitching is about what you do when you DON'T have your best stuff. Able to talk the talk but not walk the walk, my modifications weren't working. Starting from the farthest sides of the rubber, extending my front leg (until it hurt) so that my foot landed past the hole... didn't work. The dirt being so loose, filling up the hole didn't work either. Pitches still tailed out, or hung in the air so as to light up the batter's eyes like those of a butcher's dog. Those prior pitchers had thrown a few strikes with this hole in the mound: Why couldn't I?
My 17-year-old son, C.C., on a night off from his travel team, was helping out in our dugout that night, and so was watching his father's worst-ever performance on a mound. And somewhere during this nightmare, one of the few onlookers in the stands yelled this article's opening line.
Now, none of my teammates know that I (or C.C.) have Asperger's Syndrome (AS). I never lie, but as the autism/Asperger world is a small pond, so too is baseball when it's not covered by ESPN. And this equally-communal village of Brooklyn baseball rarely asks what I do for a living, or sees the book with my picture splashed on the cover. Brooklyn baseball has been an escape, a place where everyone knew me as "Mike," or "Coach Mike," and not my professional nom de plume of "Michael John." It's an atmosphere where I'm allowed to discuss something other than Asperger's Syndrome, transitioning, sexuality, disclosure; and where -- unlike the ugly politics of the autism world -- any disagreements are resolved either under long-established rules of competition or via hot-headedness (which in a positive surprise, nullifies the potential for lingering bitterness). Granted, as can perhaps be deduced by my ability to blend in; my functional ability -- or my place on the vast autism spectrum -- allows me the choice of whether or not to hide my diagnosis, much less play at a decent level of baseball. I wasn't born with the challenges of a Temple Grandin, or a non-verbal individual, but I also didn't always have this choice of whether or not to tell others about my diagnosis. Once, my wiring was a very easy read to the enlightened. So, to get this place of navigation, there's been some hard work too; effort that I won't let others invalidate just so that they feel better about themselves.
But secret life or not, Brooklyn baseball is not a place for me to pretend that I'm "just like everybody else" either, for even as a concept I don't believe in that. I have learned the ways of others (who don't have autism spectrum diagnoses) perhaps, but this does not change where I come from. One learning fluent French doesn't turn you into a French native, or rewrite the history of which country you grew up in. To deny such origin, and pretend you are somebody you're not, has deep, negative, psychological consequences (even if it makes the people around you -- again -- feel better about themselves). I share if need be, and an occasional parent of one of my players will spot something on the Internet, and that's fine. But that need to disclose rarely exists here. Instead, I am looked at in judgment for my character, game knowledge and motivational ability without the filter of context, or of relative terms. The bloodline of this game is the binding requirement herein -- not neurological origin.
For just a moment during this awful outing, I snuck a glance at C.C. in the dugout. I was relieved that he was leaning over the rail, talking with one of my teammates, and not hiding. His body angled towards "Big John," and not away from him, shows he is listening to John, and not retreating in shame from his father's performance.
When school was miserable for me, I developed a habit of throwing a ball off a wall by myself for hours on end, which I did for years, hypnotically ironing out the frustrations of a rough day, until not only was my head more clear, but many motor skills issues had also miraculously disappeared; and wow, did I now have an arm. In my playing years, whatever social differences existed between I and my teammates were mitigated by our collective desire to win, and it was a good ride... until it wasn't (see Part I).
But knowing now what made me tick, baseball, in comparison to other sports, was a natural attraction. (1) People on the autism spectrum grow up with high levels of anxiety, yet in baseball there's no clock -- no rush. And (2) when the world is more confusing to you, you desire control. And in pitching, you hold the ball -- the action doesn't start until you say it does, until you're ready. And (3) the person that finds peace on a mountaintop with a yoga mat has my respect: Bless them. Go. Be free. But the man or woman that can find peace on that little hill of dirt, while everyone is yelling at you, and you have to throw a strike? That's the person we should all be interested in. Kind of like C.C.
Four years after he and I were jointly diagnosed with AS in 2000, C.C.'s desire for the game went into overdrive. Though an overhand pitcher (I'm an antiquated side-armer), he had the arm strength and natural accuracy that I too was blessed with. And when he started playing, I started coaching (after I let it slip I'd been a pitching coach for a non-descript college team in the early '90s). But unnoticed by most was the added and frightening pressure coming from a well-behaved, smart, 8 year-old boy -- who was suddenly communicating that if I did not teach him everything I could about pitching, that he would never forgive me. Stunner moment for a father, but what could I do? I had to acquiesce, and say "OK. Let's go."
One of the best, if not the best pitcher in whatever league he was in for the ensuing years, C.C. lost an entire season to a wrist fracture when he turned 13. After that, with the growth factor of his body, a smidgeon of teenage crap, and other interests healthfully entering his life, he has not yet reached the dominant level he once enjoyed, and that has been hard on him. A huge part of it is mental. Physically tougher than he is given credit for, the mental toughness required at the level he plays is only now arriving. He still thinks too much, and takes off-performances personally, forgetting that it's a team game. But to my joy he has never needed the fighting mindset that at his age I desperately (and yes, somewhat sadly) required. And furthermore, he continued through the rough spots, despite the reassurance that to back away from the game was ok. He loves every aspect of this life -- including his own, also well-established place in this community that is just as real as his coach-father's.
As a head coach, my teams did well. New coaches never have tremendous talent and so they must make their mark by getting much more than expected from what they are given, as well as elicit love and gratitude from their players (word of mouth is your only PR). But my real career soon dictated that I could only be an assistant coach. And so over the years I've assisted on more teams -- developmental, school, travel -- than I can immediately recall. One took a championship, others maybe should have, I help run winter clinics, conduct private sessions, endure the occasional long phone call with parents, and I am loud on the field -- but happy loud. My "Attaboy!"s are well known, even if on occasion the subject of ridicule. But unable to put in the hours of others, I cannot put forth to anyone that I am "a great coach."
For his part, C.C. has sacrificed years to celebrations and tears most of his peers will never know. He played for coaches of great heart, coaches of great mind and even played for one of those screaming lunatics who thinks he invented the game (I secretly tell both my boys that part of what's so fun- - NOT scary -- about travel sports, is that they sometimes get to see grownups behaving VERY badly). He's played for drama queens and Freudian scholars, the educated and not-so educated -- guys who know the game, and guys who didn't. But always, he played for people who have made enormous sacrifices in their lives. Coaching travel ball means anywhere from 35-125 games a year, and these are hours not spent on summer vacations, elevating a career, or making love.
Furthermore, C.C. has shared dugouts containing higher percentages of diversity then exists in any school he's gone to. He's played with teams of relative privilege, and teams dominated by kids from economically-challenged communities. He's seen fights break out, and he's seen hugs that are so real and meaningful that you could cry on a dime just by remembering them. And finally, my wife and I one night realized that neither of our boys had ever (no lie) uttered the words "There's nothing to do."
But in 2011, C.C. went to one team that didn't need me on their staff, and I suddenly had roughly 50 nights open up. Almost as a lark, I wondered if I could still play. The Brooklyn Indians had finished second to last in 2011, and, like anyone, they needed pitching. And in what I would soon find out was a true fastball-hitting league, a junkball pitcher like myself had value.
Semi-pro is interesting. There are 20-somethings who fantasize they might have another shot at minor-league tryouts, and guys like my teammates who smoke cigarettes in the dugout. Competitively, semi-pro ball is over-rated, yet still better than any (often under-rated) "beer league." But we don't play that many games, and the big downer is that we have no audience. Unless you count the occasional heckler, or a handful of one of my teammates' nine kids, nobody really sits in the stands to watch us. In contrast, beer leagues like the Red Hook Mexican league draw huge crowds -- of families, and vendors, and I once thought of following our 3rd baseman, as he transitioned there in 2012, just for the positive change in atmosphere.
Normally, removing yourself from the mound is a cardinal sin, but it was justified herein as our team was playing somewhat coachless (with a few of us taking turns at decision-making). Our player/manager, Juan, had gotten a new job in Florida, and his wife and kids were already down there settling in. Add this to the losing, and morale was very down.
Walking back to the dugout after such humiliation, I didn't know what to think. Over my two years on this team I'd gone from being an occasional reliever and now was the first reliever in. My increased innings were due to my team needing me more, but I also thought that I'd actually been getting better, not worse, the more game time (not to mention the older) I got. But my stats will also tell you that- - deserved roster spot or not -- I really haven't logged that many innings, nor am I about to make the league all-star team anytime soon.
But as midlife crises go, I allow this; figuring it to be a respectable embarrassment. This escapist fantasy, unlike others, is about doing something rather than pretending something; such as thinking you look younger sitting in an expensive car, or that the blue pill is really you. But that hole in the mound... maybe this was it. We only had three games left anyway. The only silver lining of this experience would be to be able to show C.C. by example, rather than tell him (as I've often failed) how to process a night when things do not go your way.
I sat down in the dugout, and C.C. patted my back supportively, but without force, unsure of how I would respond. I reassured him by squeezing his shoulder but did not look at him. I instead stood, rejecting the seating position, and walked the few steps up the dugout to hang over the rail and cheer my mates, especially my replacement, who managed the hole in the mound far better than I. C.C. followed and cheered him as well.
The third out finally came, and my catcher, Eduardo, a 23 year-old Marine Corps reservist, came over to me and screamed, "That wasn't you! That's just freak sh*t so do NOT worry about this night!" I hoped that teammates felt the same, and wondered with warmth and sadness if Eduardo had yelled that for their ears more so than mine.
In the car ride home, C.C. came up with many of the standard platitudes he always feels compelled to say when he has a downer performance. He has been so proud to have a dad that can still do this, and we've even joked about how cognitively wrong such pride could be, given all those who think this is so stupid of us... until now. The fact that he's throwing more than one excuse/rationale in my defense, almost asking me to pick one, speaks volumes. He has been shaken. So I stun him with laughter.
"C.C., that outing was so pathetic that you have to laugh."
His face in the passenger seat, strobe-lit by passing street lamps, stares at me in shock.
"There's a lot of games in a baseball season, kiddo. Each night is different. Sometimes you just don't have it."
But he challenges this, and questions my abandonment of extensive analysis. He asks where my reputation for competitiveness has gone. So I return the standard platitude that in the game moment, my competitiveness is there. But when it's over it has to be over. When you leave the field, you leave the field -- and this is what makes "the field" so special, if not necessary for the young. I add:
"Dude, do you really think that major league ballplayers go home and trash their rooms after crappy nights like this? They have kids that they have to smile for and play with. They have spouses and significant others that they have to be affectionate with... When I have a lousy day at work, I can't lay that on you or your brother..."
Got him. So I conclude with "It really is just a game."
Funny, I've never uttered those words before. And as soon as they're out of my mouth I am contradictorily ecstatic because I have finally reached C.C. with this lesson; but also mortified, because it immediately occurs to me what utter garbage that statement really is . . . if we care, that is.
Next installment: "Stars"
Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, and the author of "Asperger's From the Inside-Out" (Penguin/Perigee), "The Last Memoir of Asperger Syndrome" (TBD), and numerous articles. In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com