*The second chapter of the memoirs my students are writing centers on an epiphany. They are to discuss a situation in their lives when they learned a truth they were either confused about or completely oblivious to. This is my entry.
It’s easy to see why a movie like Rudy, which dramatizes the successes of a woefully undersized defensive lineman who played on the Notre Dame football team in the 1970s, is popular. It checks off all the boxes required for an underdog story. Rudy, the main character is likeable and tries repeatedly and relentlessly to achieve despite his obvious shortcomings. The odds are firmly stacked against him in the form of stiff admission requirements and his listed height of “five-foot-nothing.” In the film’s final scene, we are led to believe that Rudy enters in the final seconds of the final game of his senior year and is then left unguarded so that he may sack the quarterback. He is promptly carried off the field as a hero. I don’t need to do any fact-checking to know that this is a lie.
I love baseball, but this was not always the case. In fact, there was a 4-year period of my life when I knew the sport existed, but did not care about it at all. My father and grandfather – two lifetime baseball men – urged me to give the sport a try as early as 5-years old. I did not agree to sign up for Little League until I was 9.
That first season was rough. Because I had started my baseball career so late, I was behind my teammates in terms of the development of baseball skills. I could catch the ball, but not if it was moving quickly. I couldn’t hit – which, as it turns out – is something I was able to say through Little League, high school, and even now in my recreational softball leagues. It’s sad, but it’s also kind of the point.
According to my father and his brothers, my grandfather was a hard man in his youth. This was particularly true on the baseball field. He had coached all of them and they all had stories about my grandfather’s strict, austere hand as baseball manager. They don’t tell me stories about having crossed him, I suspect because they were too afraid to. Well, I never saw that side of my grandfather. Maybe it was because he was older by the time I started playing, maybe it was because my dad was the head coach and my grandfather deferred to him. I don’t know. My grandfather taught me a lot about baseball, particularly the mental, strategic side. But he also taught me sports’ greatest lie: anything can be accomplished through hard work.
I made the varsity baseball team as a sophomore, but sat on the bench for the entire season. By then, I was fifteen and had spent the past six years playing baseball year-round in the never-ending quest of self-improvement. I was faster, my fielding had improved tremendously, but I still could not hit. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I played summer ball for three different teams: Damien, Maryknoll, and Kaimuki. All three teams were in the same league. It was the Wild West. Damien would always get priority, followed by Kaimuki (I played on an All-Star team with them), then Maryknoll. Looking back, it was kind of stupid, but I really just wanted the at-bats. I needed reps to get better. I actually improved over that summer. I played in a tournament in Hilo. Shane Victorino was on the Maui team that beat us for the championship.
I believed in my grandfather’s words right up until the first time we played Iolani during my junior year. The 1997 Iolani team is one of the best high school teams in the history of the ILH. The team featured Greg Omori, Thad Estrada, Keoni De Renne, Danny Kimura, and others who went on to play Division I baseball in college. They dropped 20 runs on us in one inning later in the season. Kimura hit three home runs in that game. In one inning.
Anyway, we were playing Iolani at Iolani and they had taken the field for in-and-out. I watched the outfielders and made a mental note of which players had strong arms, just in case I would have to run on them later in the game. The right fielder threw the ball to home plate. The catcher whipped the ball around to the third baseman and the infielders converged on the diamond to throw the ball around the horn. It was pretty crisp. After the throw-around, the infielders backed up to normal depth and started taking grounders. Eventually, Kimura fielded a grounder at third and launched a missile to first base. My head might have jerked back as a kind of reaction. I did not have that kind of arm. I watched the infield practice play out and felt increasingly feeble. I couldn’t do it like them. They were like sons of baseball gods or something, and I was just a mortal, clinging to an golden statue of Babe Ruth, begging for his grace in the upcoming battle.
Then came the dagger. One of the progressions of infield practice is the ball hit to the players’ backhand. This is meant to show off both the players’ range and their arms. The coach hit a ball into the 6-hole, the space between the shortstop – Keoni De Renne – and the third baseman. De Renne ran to the ball, gloved it on the in-between hop, then jumped into the air. With his momentum headed toward the leftfield line, he contorted his body and fired a laser beam to the first baseman, who had to come off the bag slightly to catch it. “Damn it!” I heard De Renne say. And that’s when I knew.
He was pissed at himself because his throw wasn’t perfect. He had pulled the first baseman off the bag. I would have been thrilled if I had made that play in my backyard. I assume that De Renne knew that on a play like that in an actual game, those few inches would likely have meant the runner would be safe. The pretty play would have been pretty, yes, but ultimately worthless.
Playing against the 1997 Iolani baseball team was the first time in my life I felt as if I didn’t belong on the same field as someone. When I was a sophomore, I chalked up that feeling to youth; I was two years younger, my time and my strength would come. On that day, I knew I had been mistaken. Keoni De Renne was a Hawaii All-State First Team shortstop. He was a Pac-10 First Team shortstop at the University of Arizona. When I was 17, he was the best all-around player I had ever seen and played against. I am positive he was a hard worker. He played parts of 10 seasons in the minor leagues. You can’t do that without hard work. But you can’t do that without God-given talent, either.
I knew that season that I would never be as good as the ILH All-Stars, but more importantly, I would never be as good as I wanted myself to be. In a way, I realized two things on that day: I wasn’t very good and I didn’t have much time to get better. I was already a junior. What was going to happen to me in a year that hadn’t already happened in the last eight? It was kind of liberating, honestly. I know this is going to sound terrible, but I stopped worrying about the things I couldn’t do and instead focused on the things I had control over.
I suppose that my grandfather was simply trying to motivate me to try my very best. For a time it worked. But that kind of idealistic thinking isn’t practical because sooner or later, we will encounter a situation where practicality smacks us in the face and says “Duh!” Who knows? Maybe my grandfather really believed it. I doubt it, but it’s possible.
It’s not really about baseball, though. It’s about the scarcity God-given gifts. Since I do not possess any obviously marketable skills, I appreciate them in other people. Whenever I see a high school kid with a high-80s fastball, I get excited and jealous. Because the truth is I never had it and no amount of hard work would have allowed me to have it.