It started with a whisper I couldn’t ignore.
Almost immediately, Rance volunteered to cover the cost of my tryout promptly eliminating my first excuse.
Mark and I started working out the day after the Royals Opening Day victory.
Four months later, tryouts were here.
I didn’t sleep well at all the night before. At 6 AM, I rolled out of bed and got dressed because I was tired of pretending I was sleeping.
I entered the stadium gates of The U.S. Baseball Park at 7:30 AM. The last pitch of batting practice was thrown at 12:25 PM. Five hours of adrenaline and nerves and all those uninvited voices in my head. Voices of fear and doubt and reasons to quit. Voices telling me to play it safe and not risk injury. I keep thinking that, one of these days, those voices will leave me alone.
Those voices listed all of those reasons several times over throughout the day.
Even at 7:30 AM, a time I’m fairly certain belongs to coffee and donuts and prayers to make it through the day, a time when the best baseball is not being played, the registration line was long. I was intimidated simply by others’ appearances. Their top-dollar gloves and bats and bat-packs. I waited impatiently to check in so I could start stretching out. The line moved quickly and I joked with those near me so I wouldn’t chicken out.
I signed a release form and a friendly young woman handed me my number written on a yellow sticky note.
Walking away from the table, I heard numbers 117 and 119 check in. It took me about three seconds to do the math of 6 teams and 14 players per team — 84 players will make the cut.
The voices shouted a little louder, “You can walk away. You don’t have to stay. Go surprise your family at church. Get donuts. Give Rance his money back and leave. There is a reason the vast majority of baseball players retire before they reach your age.”
By the time I walked in to the third base dugout, the left field foul line was full of people playing catch. I put on my cleats and started stretching, waiting for Mark to work through the registration process. Mark and I were running in right field when I spotted Dad waving his hat. I had invited him to watch, but feared the day was going to be long and boring and hot. He took pictures to document the effort.
I decided to try out as a second baseman and outfielder. It’s possible I could pitch an inning with a little movement. I could represent the Stevie Wilkerson school of pitching. It’s also possible my arm might fall off at the elbow.
Tony, the league commissioner, opened the tryouts with a quick welcome and sent everyone to work. Pitchers and catchers reported to the bullpen. I had about an hour to practice grounders, getting better acclimated to the speedy turf field.
I stood in line with about 15 other middle infielders. When it was my turn at the front of the line, I signaled my readiness by showing my glove to the man swinging the fungo bat and bounced on my toes. The very first ground ball hit to me was a rocket shot, screaming just inches off the ground. It bounced less than a foot in front of me and skimmed off the turf, like a skipping stone across a still lake, where it seemed to pick up speed, glanced off my cup — Thanks be to God for the Nutty Buddy — and shot straight through my legs and into the kneecap of the young man standing behind me.
I felt like an idiot. I apologized to the young man profusely.
In between turns, I kept an eye out on the pitchers so I could watch and cheer Mark. He threw a short bullpen session the last time we practiced. His slider was nasty. I was glad I was catching it and not trying to hit it.
The bullpen sessions were impressive. Pitches cut and dropped and zipped to the plate at velocities exceeding anything I’ve driven any motor vehicle. I witnessed one lefty knuckleballer throwing pitches that would have made Bugs Bunny proud.
Side note: I honestly don’t know how anyone ever hits a baseball.
When the pitchers and catchers finished, all outfielders were sent to right field. A pitching machine was set up near home plate and dialed in to launch line drives. Prospective outfielders were to field four balls on one or two hops, and then make two throws to third base and two throws home.
Standing in right field, third base is forever away.
The gray metal siding of the U.S. Ballpark offices and the gray bleachers camouflaged the ball quite well. There were more than a couple times I had difficulty picking the ball up out of the machine.
Being number 92 was like having a last name that started with X. I wasn’t quite last, but close enough. I watched players make throws that would have made Oakland A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano proud.
I had enough time to think and doubt and worry. My arm is not a throw-through-the-cutoff-guy kind of arm. My arm is a thank-God-Almighty-there-is-a-cutoff-guy arm. I was slow to field my first line drive simply because I lost it in the buildings. Four relatively accurate throws bounced half a dozen times on the way to their destinations.
Waiting my turn in the outfield, at second base, before batting practice I could not help but notice how much talent there was on the field. I talked to several of the other baseball hopefuls and heard their stories and again I felt ridiculous when I compared my relatively limited baseball experiences to theirs.
“You are very good at writing baseball stories,” the voices said. “You could really help the league by writing about the teams and the players.”
The pitching machine was re-aimed at the ground to deliver consistent grounders for all of the infield positions. I cleanly fielded my three ground balls, no cup checks, made accurate throws to first, and then waited my turn for batting practice.
There were two rounds of batting practice. Five swings the first round; four swings the second. While I waited, I tried to time the pitcher who seemed to be standing about two feet in front of the plate.
I walked into the cage affectionately called the “turtle,” and don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know if I held my breath or closed my eyes or what. Most likely, I swung at every pitch whether or not if it was a strike. I don’t think I missed any. I honestly don’t know.
I returned to the outfield to shag fly balls while batting practice finished and then tryouts were over and it was time to wait.
I drove home, treated the black turf-tire-sliding stains on my white pants, and laundered all of my sweat-saturated clothing while I waited. I guzzled a couple glasses of water and watched the Twins dominate the Royals. I emptied my baseball backpack, noticed that it is hanging together by mere threads, and considered throwing it away. I played ball with my dog and cleaned dishes and waited.
Three hours later, Mark and Rance texted almost simultaneously.
“Congrats! But we’re on separate teams,” Mark said.
“Your uniform is going to be red. Congratulations!” Rance said.
I was drafted by Scott Nasby, the head coach for the Drury University Panthers, and by Ryan Wolfe, the owner at CY Sports and sponsor for the team — the CY Cyclones.
Dad and I drove back to the ballpark for the opening banquet catered by Mexican Villa. I was inspired by the passionate speeches Tony and Rance and Scott delivered. I was still a little stunned believing that I belonged. I met my teammates, signed a contract, received my first payday** as a “professional ballplayer,” and got my jersey.
I will be wearing number 10.
Like Andre Dawson.
Like Lefty Grove.
Like Chipper Jones and Ron Santo.
Like Dick Howser.
Like Mark. Now we’ll look like twins, I’m positive.
(He’s the one with the beard. I’m the bald guy.)
“Congrats today. It took courage,” Tony told me after the banquet.
At no point during the entire tryout process did the word “courage” ever cross my brain.
Maybe courage in real life isn’t bold and brash and brave as seen in Marvel movies and Firefly and Braveheart and Finding Nemo.
Maybe courage is just daring to believe that first whisper a little more than the voices that tell you to quit, to give up, to play it safe.
Maybe courage is believing in yourself just enough to try and climb that first hill, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”
It takes courage to try new things, to meet new friends, to set oneself up for rejection whether on the field, in the batter’s box, or shopping publishers for your latest manuscript.
The presence of Rance, Mark, and Dad helped me believe in myself enough not to quit.
Your presence may give someone else the courage they need to face whatever whispers are on their hearts.
**Tony gave every ballplayer a $1 bill so we could all be considered professional baseball players, being paid for our skills. I am having mine framed.