Power Padding Through LIfe: Little League Edition

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

After elementary school on Tuesdays, my friend Nicole and I walked together the quarter mile to her family's house.  Just a pair of Jewish 9-year-olds cruising down the middle of a rarely travelled side street, on our way to our weekly play date.

Nine times out of ten, the Nintendo was involved when celebrating those parent-free moments before Nicole's mom took us to Hebrew school.  I still have vivid memories of tapping at the floor like maniacs, stretching for the finish line of Power Pad's maiden release: Track and Field.  When we got too sweaty, we would switch over to Ice Hockey or Double Dribble.  Those 16-bit competitions soon led to an adolescence playing sports together. 

In little league, Nicole and I were on the same team: The Italian American Club.  All the teams were sponsored and named after local businesses (no MLB Trademark infringements here). Perhaps they mistook us for Italian.  We were just thankful we weren't on Burger King, which was an actual team name, even though they were the perennial champs.  Must have been the special sauce.

Nicole was better than me at baseball.  A fact that had no affect on our relationship.  I'm not sure if it was because I knew I didn't love playing baseball (Little League was "as far as I went"), or because I was a pretty sensitive carefree little kid who didn't give any thought to societal constructs like masculinity, but from my outpost in center field, I marveled at how powerful Nicole's arm was as she hucked the ball to first base.

In our final game together, a game that my mind remembers as a playoff game, Nicole was up in the 6th and final inning.  Our team was down three runs with a man on first.  We were always down 3 runs.  We had three decent players and a slew of munchkinhead tinys that all looked like Toad from Mario Brothers, and who could barely support the weight of a child-sized baseball bat. 

Nicole slammed a triple into the right-center gap.  She had a right-handed swing like Ichiro but without the bailing out of the batters box like he does.  It was a swing with mechanics.  I saw her swing the bat and I thought, "Her Dad knows how to play baseball.  He had to have taught her how to do that."  It was an educated guess.  I knew the man, off-course, and he embodied what, back in the 80's, they called a man's man.  He was handy with tools and knew how to fix pretty much anything that broke.  At eleven, that also meant he was a semi-professional baseball player.

With us still down two runs, it was my turn to bat.  I was a contact guy.  Zero home runs in my career, but one of the best on base percentage guys.  That being said, in what I knew would be my last Little League at bat, I swung with some gusto. 

I don't play roulette at the casino, but I imagine that when that little white ball trickles down into your number, the tidal wave of dopamine released in your brain is quite the euphoric sensation.  In much the same way, when my bat contacted the ball, their was a unique painless sensation that came from actually squaring up a baseball for the first time.  I crushed it.  I Barry-Bonds-on-steroid's it, except when I stepped on a scale I still didn't have to shift the weight over to the 100-pound notch.

Having never hit a home run, I took off at full speed towards first base, rounding the bag ready to begin celebrating my game tying homerun.  Just as I was about to downshift into cruising speed, the cheers coming from the stand full of parents morphed into a collective grown.  My frozen rope of a game winner had hit the chest-high chain link fence, about three inches from the top.  I maintained my pace and easily cruised into third base for a triple.  Tragically close.  Memorably close.  I was 3 inches from going out on a huge high note like a boss.  Instead I was standing on third stewing over what could have been.  The game continued on of course.  I may not have tied the game, but I was 60-feet away, with our season on the line. 

Then up comes Toady.  A far cry from trying to save the princess, our season was now riding on the barely defined shoulders of Tiny McBatSwingsHim.  If only we had been sponsored by Disney instead of the Italian American Club, maybe then this mite of a boy would have lucked into a dribbler, leading to a suicide squeeze photo finish at the plate.  But he struck out.  It was all he really could do.  Toad was still heaving his bat across the plate and into his backswing as the umpire called strike three.

I don't think I cried.  Nicole didn't either.  Our team was bad enough that we expected to lose.  Admittedly, the particular way the fates decided to drop that loss on our heads like horse diarrhea was unpleasant, but nothing worthy of more than a brief hang of the head followed by some ice cream.  Ice cream made everything better.

I asked Nicole out in 6th grade by note.  She checked yes.  I was psyched.  We broke up three days later in a similar fashion except she wrote that note and I didn't check any boxes. The best part of this, my literal first relationship, was that those three days were probably the only ones in middle school where Nicole and I had absolutely no communication.  I should have seen our breakup coming . . . communication being the cornerstone of any healthy relationship.

In high school Nicole and I were friends, but never as close as we were in our childhood.  She was a star on the soccer team and had a close group of female friends associated with the various varsity sports she participated in.  I became more involved in my Jewish youth group and took off most weekends to upstate New York. 

That said, our closeness was never questioned.  At an age when turning your back on people you knew in public to save face in front of the cool crowd was commonplace, Nicole and I never forgot each other.

I remember one instance in particular when I saw Nicole hanging with her friends at the local Friendly's, getting ready to walk up the street to that night's school dance.  Nicole was drunk, I was not.  To be clear, I state this as a fact and without judgment.  While my high school-long sober streak did nothing for my popularity, I don't believe I was fulfilling a moral imperative.  More than anything, I didn't have a local group of friends I trusted enough to surrender control of my senses.  I'm fairly certain that if my youth group friends lived closer, we would have gone out drinking in the woods from time to time like countless other high school juniors.  Instead, I did homework. 

Nicole did have friends she could trust, so when 90% of our class got drunk to prepare for this dance, she and the soccer girls pre-gamed thusly.  While I actively distanced myself from the sloppiness of high school kids experimenting with how much alcohol is needed to cause vomiting, I didn't stigmatize Nicole's inebriation as much as I did many of my other classmates.  She was an exception to the rule.

When she saw me enter the Friendly's, Nicole popped out of her seat and came rushing over.  This was a first signal that Nicole had been drinking.  Her day-to-day demeanor was not so effusive.  The smell was my second clue.  A strong one.

But right before she greeted me with a hug, I watched her face dial back her drunkenness in order to have a slightly more sincere moment together.  I took that as a sign of great respect.  Instead of throwing her arms around my willy-nilly, forcing me to bare the weight of her current irresponsible state, she reeled it in just far enough to say a genuine hello.  At 16, this kind of empathy has got to be near the top of the friendship pyramid.

Like so many childhood friendships, most of my updates from Nicole have come via Facebook.  It appears that we have ended up more similar than different.  We both have beautiful wives and two dogs, though only one of her pups is a pittie, which is a pity.  She lives in the greater DC area and seems to have adopted the Nationals as her home team.  Only a small step up, quality-wise, from the Italian American Club in my opinion.  She still looks like she could give me a run for my money on the Power Pad.

Last Sunday I ran in to Nicole's parents as I was having brunch with my wife and some friends in town.  The nostalgic rush of my childhood came flooding over me as I darted out of my seat to go hug them both in the middle of the restaurant.  I wasn't drunk; my day-to-day demeanor is that effusive.  I love Nicole's family.  Not just her parents, but I even had an unusually strong connection to her grandmother before her passing. 

Seeing them across the restaurant added color to what up until that point was a black and white food service catastrophe.  My hunger was assuaged as my body filled with simple, happy memories from my childhood.  Memories entirely removed from the no win scenarios and complexities that scatter the landscape of my adulthood.

In the land of Who, my heart, it grew. 
As quality time with good friends will do. 
When you grasp a handful of past in your present,
the events transport you like a tractor-beam allowing you to live out that Star Trek fantasy you always daydreamed about.

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