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My first pitch sailed over the catcher’s head and slammed against the backstop. I grinned nervously and shook my right arm. Just slipped, I told myself as I dug my heal into the pitcher’s mound. I wound up and fired again. This time the ball bounced five feet in front of the plate, sending the batter skipping out of the way and the catcher sprawling into a cloud of dirt.
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The next pitch was a foot outside. Another was an inch from the hitter’s chin. As pitch after pitch missed the strike zone, I grimaced and tried to hold back tears. I could hear mothers in the crowd sighing with pity. I spotted my dad squirming in the bleachers, tugging the bill of his cap. Finally, my coach called time. Eyes downcast, he trudged to the mound and snatched the ball from my glove. “Did you forget how to pitch?” he said.
The truth is: I did. It sounds ridiculous. An artist doesn’t forget how to hold a brush. A bird doesn’t forget how to fly. I had been throwing a baseball since I was 7, since my father hung a pitching screen in our backyard and drilled me from my balance point to my follow through. I had pitched in tournament championships and college showcases, on sandlots and minor league mounds. Pitching came as naturally to me as breathing. Now at 16, I had forgotten how to do it.
“It’s physical,” my dad said. But no x-rays or orthopedists could find a muscle tear or a tendon pull. “It’s your mechanics,” my high school coach said. But my back was bent and my hips were rotating and my elbow was cocked at 90 degrees. “Relax,” my mother said. So I breathed deeply from my diaphragm, cleared my mind and visualized. But game after game, my pitches zigged, zagged, soared and dove—and never found the strike zone.
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To me, being a pitcher was my identity. Some teens are guitarists who can pick strings as nimbly as Jimi Hendrix. Others are debaters who can talk circles around their opponents. I was the guy who could throw a baseball through a brick wall.
So I began to paint a new picture of myself. Maybe the qualities that served me so well on the mound weren’t a strong arm and pinpoint control. Maybe it was a calm demeanor with the bases loaded—a coolness under pressure that comes in handy when there are two minutes to the bell and you have three unanswered questions left on your calculus test. Maybe it’s the cheering and high-fiving in the dugout—a sportsmanship that I pass on to the kids I mentor as a baseball counselor. Maybe it’s the lessons that the game taught me—that you are bound to fail more than you succeed, that your effort can matter more than your results, and, ultimately, that baseball is what I do, but it doesn’t have to be who I am.
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