Bringing My Mitt

I fell in love for the first time in the 8th grade. This time, despite my endless, unrequited crushes, it wasn’t with another human being. I fell hopelessly, endlessly, passionately, and head over heels with the great American pastime: baseball. Infatuation quickly morphed into a full-blown love affair, the flames of which have never extinguished.

More specifically, I fell in love with my hometown team: the Detroit Tigers – on the cusp of their lowest point in franchise history. How fitting.

Not only did I quickly develop a kinship with the boys of summer, but I gained both a refuge and a gateway into acceptance. Though I sucked at sports, I convinced myself that being a fan would somehow improve my social standing.

It didn’t. But baseball certainly made my life feel more complete.

Like the Tigers, I also endured a lot of losing during that time – a steady stream of rejections, epitomized by bullying, my dating life, and eventual writing life.

Like any good marriage, I have stuck with my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

And just like I have never given up on my dream, I have remained devoted to my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself somehow loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

I was fueled with consistent optimism that both myself and my team would go all the way. Living life with eternal optimism certainly has its perks, but it also means enduring an endless parade of unmet expectations. And sacrificing the present in exchange for a brighter future.

My first exposure to the game actually took place several years before my passion soared into full-flight when my parents signed me up for recreational tee-ball. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that I would become a much better fan than I ever was going to be a player. The bullying from my opponents and my teammates didn’t help matters. Nor, did being afraid of the ball. Nor, did running to the wrong base (e.g. running from home to third … on a strikeout). Sure, I was only a beginner. But I was still running to third at the end of the season, too. At least I wasn’t running on strikeouts anymore.

Somehow, my failed tee-ball experiment managed to plant a seed deep within my subconscious, years before it would eventually blossom into full fandom, of which there are several different levels: fanatics, moderates, and bandwagon. Overall, I’d say I landed in the moderate category, with a sprinkling of superstitions that occasionally push me into the realm of fanatic. I can certainly never be accused of being a bandwagon fan, which is attested by my unwavering, optimistic devotion to my hometown team, no matter how bad they may be. And for most of my formative years, there was no shortage of bad.

I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that was conducive to becoming a sports fan. My father gave two shits about sports. My mother watched baseball on TV every now and then, as I begged to watch reruns of Facts of Life or Diff’rent Strokes. Like many other kids, my father didn’t take me

to my first game. Instead, I was taken by my Grandma’s longtime boyfriend., Chuck At the time, my excitement was measured only by hot dogs, nachos, and Cracker Jack, as opposed to base hits, home runs, and stolen bases. Chuck had season tickets to old Tiger Stadium (lower-deck, third base side, a few rows back from the Tigers’ dugout – paradise for a “real” fan) and took me to several games each summer throughout my youth. Beyond that, I never tuned into games at home and never had any idea – or interest – in what their record was (which during that time, was a blessing). In fact, I barely paid attention to the score while watching it live.

But then came 8th grade.

That was when I made a conscious decision to become a devoted follower of the Tigers. The seed had finally taken root, making me a late-bloomer in both sports and puberty. Perhaps subconsciously, I figured if I liked sports, than my peers would like me. But that wasn’t the case. It was also 1990. The Tigers were so bad, I quickly learned that there was nothing cool about being a Tigers fan and therefore, with no friends to play with, I had more time to watch baseball on a regular basis.

There was no turning back. My theory was that I simply saw enough reruns of Facts of Life to last a lifetime. It was time for something new. It was time to become a man.

I remember that first Opening Day as a christened-fan. My school had a half-day. My mom prepared egg salad sandwiches, which I ate while I read the season preview in the Detroit News. With game time less than an hour away, my baseball journey was about to take full flight.

And there was certainly plenty of space left on the bandwagon, which was not only empty – but running on fumes. By the end of the decade, the The Tigers had amassed more losses than any other team. Things didn’t get much better at the turn of the century, either. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, taking jabs from family and friends for my blind devotion, and watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter if – when – they finally did win. And if you are an eternal optimist like myself… life was always a matter of when.

Despite the losing, nothing dampened my enthusiasm for my beloved team – the tell-tale sign of true love. Of course, I wanted them to win more than anything, but I knew that it was only a matter of time.

I just had to be patient – a skill that would later serve me very well in my writing endeavors. Through the years, my patience and optimism never waned, in the face of logic, reason, and Vegas odds.

Despite the endless losing, I became instantly obsessed with absorbing every detail and intricacy of the game: the sights, the smells, the sounds, the box scores, the standings, the endless parade of stats – in short, anything and everything about the American pastime, which was now my pastime, even though I still couldn’t play it worth a lick. It was during that summer that I also got my first big-boy glove, which I promptly oiled up (the warm, nostalgic smell is as vivid now as it was then) and placed under the tires of my parents’ black Dodge van in order to break it in. That fall, it became the subject of an essay I wrote in my 10th grade English class entitled “My Most Prized Possession.” An essay that simultaneously showcased my passion, overshadowed by delusions of grandeur:

“When I look at my mitt, I feel hope that someday, I will be the greatest baseball player ever. It seems to hold a bit of magic that allows me to feel like a real ballplayer.”

I optimistically concluded the essay with:

“One more thing. My mother told me when I entered high school that I would make the baseball team my senior year. I laughed at this comment. But as I look at my mitt, I wonder. And hope…”

Though I never made the baseball team, it was in this very class that my writing dream was born.

And although that seemingly magical glove was de-commissioned a long time ago, I still have it safely packed away in a box full of childhood memories. To this day, it still remains one of my most-prized possessions – a symbol of never giving up. It still smells of oil … from that long ago summer. As I sometimes do with my old security blanket, I often take it out for a dose of instant nostalgia.

Countless summer afternoons were spent adorning my prized glove on one hand and bouncing a tennis ball off of the orange brick of my house with the other, as I waited for the Detroit News to arrive so I could devour the sports section This was often the highlight of my day.

When I got bored of tossing a tennis ball against the wall, I would simply hop on my blue and yellow Huffy and take a bag filled with baseballs to my neighborhood park, proceeding to hit them one after another with my Louisville Slugger, before gathering them all up and doing it all over again from the opposite side of the field. It didn’t matter that I was doing it alone. I was enjoying every second of it.

At family gatherings, I would ask my countless cousins “Did you bring your mitt?” They usually didn’t. But of course, I did. And I never lost hope that someday, they would bring theirs. I still get teased about this till this day. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, her funeral was held at the church just down the street from the house. On the grounds of a church was a baseball diamond. While standing in the parking lot with some of my cousins, overlooking the now weed-strewn field and mourning my grandmother’s passing, I asked – in a moment of levity – “Did anyone bring their mitt?” We all laughed. Some things never die. And for the record, I always keep my mitt in my trunk. Just in case.

During my junior year, I somehow found the confidence to try out for the JV team and put my mom’s prediction to the test. By that point, I had found a safe haven in band class. And though band did nothing to improve my athletic ability, it certainly boosted my confidence – socially, at least.  I knew I didn’t have a realistic shot, but I had recently taught myself how to throw a decent side-arm pitch, so, I figured what the hell?

In the end, I failed. Though coaches admire heart, most have no need for a pitcher with zero velocity in combination with the uncanny ability of being able to consistently toss a meatball over the heart of the plate. My years of “training” did little to help – other than preparing me to lose. At least the coach thanked me for trying out. I took that for what it was worth. The fact that the baseball coach acknowledged my existence was a victory in itself. And thus ended my high school athletic career. One thing was clear: I was always going to be a much better fan than I ever was a player. But I could live with that.

Three summers later, I formed a co-ed softball team through my church. The only thing more unlikely than becoming a manager of a sports team would have been becoming a gym teacher. Yet, there I was. In charge of a team that I assembled out of nothing.

It was time to get serious.

I bought a brand new glove, my first pair of cleats, my first cup, and my first non-wood bat. The glove has held up well over the years (despite the invisible hole responsible for all of my errors). The lack of contact of ball into glove is probably the reason why it has lasted so long. As far as the bat, it turned out to be an absolute lemon – taking me from suck to super suck.

Not that it would have really mattered which bat I used; the results would have more than likely been the same. But others attested to the fact that my bat sucked, proving I was even a loser at selecting a bat. Once I switched bats, I actually turned out to be a fairly consistent hitter – certainly, not in terms of power numbers, but I could at least get on base with a steady stream of singles. My above average speed certainly helped. My deficiency as a player was on the defensive side of things. I lacked the ability to judge fly balls. Hence why I was a natural fit for right field, where the balls were least likely to go – unless it was a left-handed hitter … or a crafty right-handed one who knew how to hit the opposite way once they realized I was a weak link (it usually didn’t take much time). Whenever a ball was hit my way, I would either: overrun it, or stop short of it, watching the ball drop right in front of me – or, more often than not, far away from me. My inability to judge even the most routine fly ball renders my decent speed completely useless.

Another hindrance to my speed is the fact that I’m still afraid of the ball … even after all of these years. This includes running out a grounder to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits – once again, neutralizing my speed.

As far as my team itself, it was doomed from the start. Each week, I scrambled to find enough players to field a team – especially female ones. The females that were on my team had little to no interest in playing softball. And I didn’t exactly assemble a Murder’s Row of men. Suffice to say, I guided my team to three straight, pitiful losing seasons. And thanks to my Gold Glove talent, even my Grandmother paid an unfortunate price. It was bad enough my family came to watch such an awful mockery of the game. Making it worse was when the third baseman threw a ball to me, while I was stationed at first base during pre-game warm-ups. In usual fashion, the ball got past me, only to ricochet directly into my Grandma’s leg. What began as a major bruise later required minor surgery.

Three years later, I waved the white flag on my softball experiment, deservingly putting it – and myself – out of its collective misery.

Despite my failings on the field, I could always hang my hat on my one true position – being a mere spectator. Even my dad eventually came around to the fact that his son wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps of being an anti-sports fan. In 1993, he finally acknowledged this fact by taking his me to the holiest of holy days for a baseball fan: Opening Day in Detroit – an unofficial holiday. I remember that day so vividly – the rusted girders of the ballpark giving way to the vivid shades of green grass, the smell of hot dogs, mustard, and spilled beer, the sounds the crowd, the crack of the bat, the ball snapping into gloves, and a glimpse of my first boobies (a drunken fan seated behind us). It has become one of those memories that feels as immediate now as it did then – no matter how much time continues to pass by.

Every game I have gone to since – in some form or another – takes me back to that one, magical day.

We sat in the massive sun and booze-soaked centerfield bleacher section at old Tiger Stadium, which had originally opened in 1912 on the same day the Titanic sunk.

Any true Tigers fan knows that the bleachers – despite their distance from most of the action – were the place to be. As for the game itself, the Tigers beat the Oakland Athletics 20-4 and went on to have their only winning season in an almost a 20-year span (a short-lived success … the losing resumed the following year … and several years after that).

I’ll always remember Opening Days with my dad. The tradition lasted about six or seven years and I have gone to several other Opening Days since, but none of them have matched – nor, ever will – the memory of the first one. Coming in at a close second was the strike-shortened season of 1994 that wiped out the World Series, irate fans protested by littering the field with magnet schedules – most of which were flung from the bleacher section where we sat.

Another vivid baseball memory involved my entire family and took place at historic Fenway Park, which, like the now long-gone Tiger Stadium, opened its doors in 1912. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. It was rained out. Despite the torrential downpour, I remained determined that the game would be played eventually, forcing my family to endure sitting in the pouring rain for over three hours before the game was finally called. I can still see the falling rain through the hazy lights of the hallowed ballpark. Seared into my memory more than any actual game would have been.

Though I could at least say that I had been inside hollowed Fenway, it just wasn’t the same as actually watching a game played there.

It wouldn’t be until June 2017 that I would finally enter the hallowed ballpark, in celebration of my 40th birthday. Also joining us at Fenway: my Detroit Tigers – at the tail end of a decade of dominance and on the heels of a re-build.

I was also fortunate enough to be at the last game at Tiger Stadium, as well as the first game at Comerica Park the following April. In many ways, the transition between the two stadiums represented, in my mind, the divide between childhood and adulthood. My past and future. And the promise of better days ahead.

I remember that last game so vividly. September 27, 1999. I attended with both my parents – the only game I remember going to with both of them. Though the team was enduring yet another losing season, the magical atmosphere was worthy of the World Series. A fitting end to the beloved, nearly century-old beloved ballpark, Sadly, like so many other structures in Detroit, the stadium would be left to rot.

The people I have attended games with over the years serve as a sort of timeline –  or snapshot – of my social life at the time. Friends and relationships have come and gone, just like the players on the team, or each passing season. One of the joys of the game is the social dimension that the sport provides – more so than other, far more fast-paced sports like football, basketball, or hockey, which demands constant attention. Baseball moves at a leisurely pace, allowing for conversation with friends and family in a way that the other sports simply can’t provide. At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years. They are the timeline to our lives.

Despite all of life’s changes, baseball has remained a constant, steady pulse in my life. The game remained constant. And sadly, so did the losing.

At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years.

It is only fitting that I would have a chance encounter with a Tigers Hall of Fame legend while waiting at the gate before my fateful flight to L.A. in pursuit of my Hollywood dream, that ultimately led to my memoir Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.

While waiting at the gate, I spotted an elderly, white-haired man sitting in front of me that struck an uncanny resemblance to a certain Hall of Fame manager. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, so I approached the gate attendant:

“Is that Sparky Anderson?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied with a smile. I debated whether I should leave the old man alone, but couldn’t resist. I approached, struggling to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before congratulating him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

I thanked him, before clumsily returning to my seat, where I waited to board. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. He was sitting in first class, already asleep.

Following came several more years of losing – including the rock bottom season in 2003, when the Tigers fell short of setting the all-time loss record by one game (53-119).

And then came 2006. Following years of torture, my beloved Tigers finally turned things around. They not only had their first winning season since 1993, but they somehow put together a dream season that catapulted them all the way to the World Series, where they proceeded to lose in six games. They have been competitive ever since. The bandwagon of which I was once the lone passenger of had begun to overflow.

Incidentally, the Tigers’ turnaround mirrors my own professional and personal turnaround in life in a myriad of ways. Just as the Tigers are no longer losers, I am no longer bullied, nor teased for being such a diehard fan, as I was during all the losing. My loyalty paid off and I am better equipped to handle whatever adversity both the team – and myself – might face down the road.

I often write while a Tigers game plays in the background, finding my own ebbs and flows running concurrently along with the game itself. And much like the Tigers, year after year passed with my writing career seemingly going nowhere. Sure, there may been the occasional winning streak amongst the losing, poking through the gray clouds of my writing life. But it was always fleeting.

Suddenly, once the Tigers figured out how to win, somehow, so did I, as a steady stream of publishing followed. But like the Tigers, I am still searching in vain for the grand prize.

But alas, as Robert Frost once said, “Nothing gold can stay.” Following a decade of dominance, the team is in deep re-building mode. The circle of life. But I remain a loyal fan.

The ebb and flow of both the game and life were further echoed in the dissolution of my first marriage, which paved the way for a new one, ultimately leading to the unexpected discovery that I was going to be father.

And in perfect synchronization, following years of losing in all its various forms, my one true moment of athletic glory finally arrived.

My daughter was due in late August, coinciding with the end of what had turned out to be a fantastic, turn-around season for my work’s recreational softball team.

We ended the season tied for first, which meant having to play a one-game play-off for the championship on a chilly, rain-soaked late summer night. The game was a doozy, going back and forth all game long. Of course, I was conditioned to accept that a loss was always lurking around the corner. I was especially thinking this as I headed to the plate with the bases loaded in our final at-bat, down by one with two outs. After years of folding under pressure, there was no greater choke opportunity than that very moment. The fate of our entire season was now entirely up to me. And if past history was any indication, I was setting my team up to lose, and lose big.

Moments certainly don’t get more pressurized than that. To compound matters, I wasn’t having my best game at the plate to begin with, and I wasn’t expecting it to change now.

But as I stood at the plate, I felt something shift within me. Perhaps it was seeing a glimpse of the new life that awaited me as a father. Perhaps I had simply willed myself to refuse to lose anymore. Perhaps it was all the feel-good sports movies I’d watched over the years. Whatever it was, I suddenly had the clarity I’d heard about, but never before experienced in sports.

The fear was gone.

And I knew exactly what I had to do.

Nothing was going to stop me.

I stepped into the pitch and swung, sending the ball sailing to right-center. The fielders who had come up shallow now had to sprint toward the backfield. The ball continued sailing through the night sky before arcing down and slamming down at the base of the fence. I had never come close to hitting a ball like this. I should point out that in this particular league, balls hit over the fence constitute outs. It would have been my luck to knock one out of the park and lose. But fate was on my side for once. And just like that, it was game over. We were champions.

Once upon a time, I was picked last in gym class.

And now, I was a champion.

If only my bullies could have seen me now. Then again, at that point, I could give two shits what they thought.

That was the real victory.

And even if my big hit didn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, I will never forget the feeling on that cold, wet summer night. In that singular moment, it meant everything.

That same night, just hours after our thrilling victory, came another one. I became a father. And I’ve been winning ever since. Professionally, the game-winning hit, combined with the birth of my daughter, mirrored my arrival as a published writer.

In fact, her birth coincided with a 12-game winning streak late in the season that propelled the Tigers into the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2006. She’s been their good luck charm ever since. A year later, they were back in the World Series (only to lose again).

From the time she was born, my daughter has been immersed in Tigers baseball: from the pink pennant that was hung in her room before she was even born, to various onesies and other clothing items and toys bearing the old English ‘D”, it was no surprise that she quickly learned to associate that logo with daddy. She literally called it “Daddy” for the first two years of her life. She got a much earlier jump on the game than her father. In fact, she was indoctrinated with Tigers baseball before she was baptized into the Catholic faith that defines me nearly as much as my faith in the game of baseball. In fact, after seeing me play softball, she believed I played for the Tigers (she also believed that I am Grover from Sesame Street). If only I could have kept both of these illusions alive in her mind forever.

The following season, just following her first birthday, I took her to her first game. My legacy of baseball fandom was officially moving on to the next generation. Taking my child to a baseball game was a moment I had dreamt of for years. And now, the time had finally come. My parents were there, as well, making everything so very “circle of life.” The Tigers lost, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was, my little girl was experiencing her first baseball game – one of which I’m certain will be many. Of course, being only one-year-old meant she had no concept of what was happening on the field. However, I was strongly encouraged by the fact that she sat perfectly patient for nearly the entire game. Two years later, my son was born.  I look forward to all the games I will be taking them to in the future. I look forward to taking them to their first Opening Day. I am so grateful that I will have permanent baseball companions. I think of all players yet to don the old English D – and wonder who the future superstar my children will look up to.

Recently, my son played in his first t-ball game. As I watched him stationed at third base, kicking up gravel, I swelled with a deep pride that only a parent could feel. I couldn’t help but imagine him one day taking the field as a major leaguer. And I laughed when he stopped running just short of home plate to dig in the dirt.

Despite all the changes my life has faced, the one constant has been my love for baseball. That is one of the few things I know will never change. Sure, in any relationship, there are always going to be ups and downs. The relationships that thrive are the ones that realize that even when the ups are outnumbered, they are still far worth it. In fact, getting through the downs make the ups so much sweeter. Baseball is no different, which is why in the baseball diamond of life, I will always bring my mitt.

 

Professional Loser

It’s bad enough I lose at sports on a regular basis when I’m actually playing them. But it’s another thing to directly contribute to your favorite professional teams’ losing – even in the midst of championship runs.

I’ll start with my beloved Detroit Pistons. I became a Pistons fan during the play-off run that resulted in the second of their back-to-back championships (1989-1990). Shortly after that, things went downhill quickly and there were more losing seasons the rest of the decade than winning ones. It was also what was dis-affectionately known as the “teal” era, when the Pistons switched their uniforms from their classic red, white and blue to a puke-ish teal. It was almost as though the teal and the losing formed a what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg effect.

Shortly after switching back to their classic red, white, and blue uniforms, the Pistons returned to glory with a championship in 2004. In 2005, they were making another run at it. After falling behind the Spurs 0-2 on the road in the Finals, the Pistons won two straight home games and had a chance to take the series lead with game 5 at home. The day of the game, a friend called to inform me that he had an extra ticket. I didn’t hesitate. After a tense, back and forth game, the Pistons found themselves up by three with just a few seconds left. With time running out, all the Pistons had to do was guard the three-point line at all costs. Instead, Rasheed Wallace decided to leave his man open by doubling up another player. Well, his “man” was the best three-point threat on the floor: Robert Horry, who promptly received the ball before throwing up a game-tying three-pointer. Overtime. Loss.

Then there’s my number one team – the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately for me, the year I decided to jump on the Tigers’ bandwagon was 1990. They would go on to become the losingest team of the 90’s. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter when (if) they finally did win. I knew it was only a matter of time. And I turned out to be right. But only after enduring the 2003 season, in which they fell one game short of the worst record of all time (53-119).

In 2006, the Tigers had a magical, World-Series bound season and a sparkling home record. I went to over a dozen games that season. They won two of them. In fact, it got to the point that my friends and family pleaded with me not to go to any more games. I even became a semi-regular on a sports talk radio, where the hosts begged me on the air not to go to games. Incidentally, the Tigers’ best stretch took place during the six weeks I was out of the country. Mercifully, my bad karma must have been out of their range.

Incidentally, despite my losing record, the Tigers were also one of the best home teams in all of baseball. Earlier in the season, I turned down a chance to go to a game because of a cold. The Tigers ended up winning 7-6 in come-from-behind fashion in what was definitely one of the highlights and turning points of the season.

But that was nothing compared to what happened at the end of the season. Going into the final weekend of the season against the last-place Royals, the Tigers led the division over the late-surging Twins by a couple of games. No matter what the Twins did, all the Tigers had to do was win one of those three games to clinch the division. Otherwise, they would have to settle for the postseason Wild Card spot. One win would end in a tie. They lost the first two games. It all came down to the final game of the season. Normally, the final game of the regular season is meaningless. At least, that’s what I thought when my friend Mike asked me months before if I wanted to go to the last game. I almost turned it down. As it turned out, the game now meant everything.

The Tigers had two ways in which to clinch it. The first way placed them directly in control of their own destiny: all they had to do was win. If they were to lose, the Twins simply had to lose, too. And I would be there to witness the first division championship at Comerica Park. The Tigers scored early and built up a seemingly safe 6-0 lead. They were well on their way … and then they weren’t. The Royals tied it late in the game and it went into extra innings. The out-of-town scoreboard indicated that the Twins already won, so now it was do or die. We lost. Instead of a champagne-soaked celebration, we were drenched in tears and heartbreak. It wasn’t so much the loss that hurt. It was the way we lost. Like the Pistons’ finals loss, this one still stings. And always will.

Fortunately, the Tigers still made the playoffs that year as the American League Wild Card team, propelling themselves all the way to the World Series, which they proceeded to lose in five games to the Cardinals. I was miraculously at the one game they won … for what it’s worth. Somehow, this only added salt to the wound.

The following season, I missed Justin Verlander’s first non-hitter by one day – the day before my birthday. I went to the game the day after. A loss.

Even my one legitimate shot at catching a home run ball was a loss. It was a Tigers spring training game down in Lakeland, Florida. I was sitting out on the grassy berm in left field in prime home run territory. Tigers’ third baseman Brandon Inge lifted a fly ball that headed right toward me. At first, I couldn’t believe it – not so much because of the odds, but because of my inability to judge fly balls. Next thing I knew, the ball landed directly in front of me on the blanket I was sitting on. If it had been any closer, it would have landed in my lap. The problem was, I had just returned from the concession stand. In one hand was a hot dog; in the other, a beer. I froze. Meanwhile, an unfrozen guy behind me dove directly onto my blanket, simultaneously snatching the ball and spilling my beer. Since catching a home run ball is equivalent to lightning striking twice, that was probably my one and only shot – not to mention the one thing I had control over, unlike the outcome of the game. And I blew it.

Somehow, despite the losses, I continue to keep rooting for my teams, as much as I do myself. Win or lose. Rain or shine.

Lovable Loser

I am not an athlete. I never was and never will be. Don’t get me wrong: I love sports and it’s certainly not for a lack of trying that stunted my athletic prowess. “Natural” athletes are born with two balls between their legs and one ball in hand the moment they climb out of the womb. However, having a father with absolutely no interest in sports doesn’t bode well for one’s athletic development. My mother at least watched sports from time to time (despite not being an athlete herself), but she certainly didn’t teach me how to play sports. Then again, nobody taught my two younger sisters and that didn’t stop them. Being short for my age certainly didn’t help. Nor was being the last in my class to reach puberty.

I never stood a chance.

Like most kids, my sports “career” began in elementary school gym class. It didn’t take long for me – or anyone else for that matter – to realize that I wasn’t a natural born athlete … nor was I one in training. Aside from being a loser at sports, I quickly came to learn, losing doesn’t always have to do with keeping score. I also learned that losing is simply giving up. And nobody could ever accuse me of doing that.

In elementary school, however, one thing I certainly didn’t win at was being cool. There are several ways for a boy in elementary school to elude popularity. I somehow mastered all of them. Take for example, my decision to sport a Sea-Monkey necklace (a small, plastic globe hanging from a string filled with actual live Sea-Monkeys).

My low threshold for pain also didn’t help matters. I would respond to the smallest of scrapes with the intensity one would expect from a broken arm. One of my earliest memories was at the ripe age of two when I fell off of my tricycle, scraping both of my knees. I screamed and cried for hours. I could never cope with the sight of blood. Even till this day, I have a tendency to pass out during even routine blood tests. I fear needles even more so than blood itself.

However, I was also teased about many things beyond my control. Like the ears that were too big for my abnormally small head. Or my inability to properly pronounce the following sounds: ‘r’, ‘f’ ‘s’ and ‘th’. As much as I loved to read, reading aloud always meant enduring mocks and chuckles from my classmates.

As a result, the school speech therapist would pop into my classroom on a weekly basis and gleefully announce for all to hear: “I’m here to take Bobby for speech therapy.” And away I would go, as my classmates snickered. Fortunately, the therapy paid off and I learned to speak properly. But the price I paid was constant teasing and embarrassment, which probably necessitated the need for a different type of therapy.

If there was one thing I was a champion of in my early childhood days, it was reading by my lonesome. So much so, I got to cash in numerous Book-It awards at Pizza Hut after accumulating the required stars over and over again. This counted for something, at least. Not with my peers, but with my teachers, parents…and Pizza Hut.

Perhaps the one thing that hurt my cause the most was constantly being picked last in gym class. Even a student with a missing limb got picked before I did. Of course, being small for my age had a lot to do with it, but one of the most athletic boys in my class was actually shorter than me. Since math might be the one thing I’m worse at than sports, I was unable to calculate that my Sea-Monkey necklace + getting picked last in class = my face shoved into dog shit in the 4th grade. But by then, it was already too late. Besides, when your gym teacher makes fun in unison with your classmates, you really don’t stand much of a chance. Unless, one doesn’t consider a jock-friendly gym teacher shaking his head in disbelief at your physical education deficiencies an act of teasing.

My lack of athletic ability certainly wasn’t for lack of trying – at least on my parents part. Bless their hearts, they tried, beginning with the blue and yellow Huffy I received for my 7th birthday. However, the gift I was most excited about that year was a Smurf record. In fact, I showed no interest in riding my bike for several weeks – mostly out of fear. Training wheels did little to ease my trepidation. Once I got the hang of the whole training wheel business, they stayed on for over two years. Of course, this prompted only further teasing by my schoolmates. And it came as no surprise. I always lagged behind my classmates – in terms of height, puberty, and refusing to believe that Santa was a myth until I was 12 (I stopped believing in the Easter Bunny a couple of years prior to that). Eventually, I battled my demons and the training wheels came off. By then, my bike and I became inseparable – when I wasn’t falling off it by crashing into a giant rock and landing on my tailbone … or, flipping over the handlebars.

Naturally, gym class was ground zero for my bullies. At least during team sports like dodgeball, I could sort of slip between the cracks and hide out of view. However, solo acts like chin-ups and robe climbing were the worst. It were as though a spotlight was shining on me on a stage of failure of shame as my legs dangled helplessly beneath me.

As though gym class weren’t cruel enough to endure, my parents – in an attempt to “normalize” me – signed me up for recreational sports, beginning with seemingly benign swimming lessons. Of all my early childhood sporting endeavors, swimming lessons were the least traumatic because they didn’t directly involve competition. What I did have to worry about, however, was drowning. It wasn’t because I couldn’t swim, but rather the fear of being drowned by my classmates. From the beginning, I proved to be a at least a “decent” swimmer. Translation: I could stay afloat without drowning. Even to this day, I aesthetically resemble a drowning rat when I swim with way too much unnecessary flopping and splashing around. But I can at least get safely from point A to point B, assuming calm weather conditions. Fortunately, I have no traumatic memories from swim lessons. What was traumatic, on the other hand, were the constant deep-end dunkings I endured after the lesson was over during open swim time. If anything ever drowned, it was my dignity.

Next came soccer and T-ball. Both sports were intended to supplement my athletic development. Both experiments failed miserably. There are two things I remember most from my short-lived soccer career: the taste of my plastic water bottle and the freshly cut orange slices brought in by somebody’s mom that always awaited us when we got off the field. The true highlight of my illustrious soccer career was being known as the weird little boy who stood in the middle of the field during the game, staring incessantly at his digital, water-proof Casio wristwatch, counting down until the game was over so he could be put out of his misery. Obsessive watch-staring was one of the countless reasons I am pretty convinced that I had undiagnosed OCD as a child. This watch-staring habit got so out of hand at school that my teacher actually had to call my parents about it, who then took my watch away. Now, instead of being the weirdo who stood in the middle of the soccer field constantly staring at my watch, I was the weirdo who stood in the middle of the field starting at the skin on my wrist where the watch used to be. I lasted one season. (As a side note, my daughter also lasted one season following a very similar experience. The apple doesn’t…).

I certainly didn’t fare much better in T-ball, either. The problem (well one of many) with t-ball was that I tended to make more contact with the tee, than the ball itself. And I was deathly afraid of the ball when I was in the field – even when it wasn’t hit anywhere close to me. I also had a tendency to run to the wrong base. Or I would run when I wasn’t supposed to, or run when I shouldn’t have been. I lasted three seasons, but showed no signs of progress, aside from an ego no longer just bruised … but turned to mush.

The next fiasco in my sporting career was a brief foray into gymnastics, which lasted even less time than my soccer career. Gymnastics – which requires great coordination, skill, and strength in order to dangle and balance up above – made perfect sense for a clumsy and uncoordinated kid afraid of heights. I lasted only a few sessions. Fortunately, I was smart enough to stay tight-lipped about this particular athletic endeavor to avoid further teasing.

Outside of gym class, gymnastics was my last attempt at athletics until middle school – unless bouncing around on a pogo stick, or rolling on a kick scooter counts. Neither one of these endeavors did anything to improve my popularity. So I naturally progressed to trying my hand at skateboarding, which was almost impossible to avoid as a child of the 80’s. Sensing an opportunity to improve my social standing, I begged my parents for a skateboard of my own. Granted, I should have had the foresight to realize that my lack of coordination was probably not a good fit for skateboarding, but I was willing to look beyond that if it meant any chance to be seen as “cool.” Of course, it was important to get a legitimate, authentic wooden skateboard like all the cool kids and pros used. But my parents bought me a cheapo, blue plastic skateboard that was about ½ the width of the bulky, “cool” skateboards. Not only was I teased for it, but I never quite got the hang of the whole balancing component required to navigate a skateboard, wiping out endlessly to the tune of several minor, but irritating scrapes and bruises. My skateboard suffered the biggest injury – having a large chunk of plastic broken off the tip, which I attempted to duct tape back together. After a few weeks, I used my skateboard for the sole purpose of rolling down the driveway in the sitting position.

When I was in first grade, I became a Cub Scout – the hopeful first step of turning into a man (or, at least, a Boy Scout). Aside from the fact that most of my fellow Scouts were also my bullies, my mother became a den leader, which added even more fodder for my pack to tease me about. It also gave my mother the opportunity to protect me like a, well, little cub.

One of the highlights of being a Cub Scout was the annual Pine Wood Derby race, which blessed me with the opportunity to race against other human beings in races where there were clear last place finishers. Prior to the Pine Wood Derby, the only racing experience I had involved my Sea-Monkey racetrack. Preparation for the Pine Wood Derby entailed conceptualizing, then carving out a wooden car made of pine that would then be raced on a downhill track. Unlike Sea-Monkeys, each car was unique and a clear winner was crowned. My dad helped me throughout the process, which meant he did just about all the work himself, since a.) I had no idea what I was doing and b.) he had no patience to teach me useful skills as carpentry, or anything else involving tools for that matter. My main contribution to the task at hand was adding the head of Stratos from my He-Man action figure collection. Sure enough, my car came in dead last. I would never get a chance to redeem myself. After that year, in the face of constant teasing, my mother and I both quit. I was simply not destined to become a Boy Scout. Me and my dad had one other, lightning bottle foray into miniature transportation This time, it involved a model helicopter that my dad spent weeks building form a kit. Instead of Stratos, he selected a Bo Duke action figure from the Dukes of Hazzard to be its pilot. On its inaugural flight, my dad managed to crash the helicopter directly into the curb in the parking lot of my middle school (which, in hindsight, seems par for the course for the Dukes of Hazzard). It shattered into a million little pieces. And poor Bo was found face down amidst the scattered debris, about 20 feet away from impact. Just like that, the helicopter experiment was over as quickly as it had begun.

My next phase of losing was also my worst: middle school, where the bullying and teasing reached an all-time high. It was also during this period that I gave recreational sports another chance and joined a basketball league – the highlight of which was scoring a whopping two points in a game – the only points I scored all season. My sports activities were supplemented with band and a brief foray into musical theater as a leading man, in a musical entitled Miracle on Angel St. After two hellish years, it was time to start high school, whether I was ready or not.

The combination of my short and scrawny stature and being in the marching band was not exactly a winning combination for an incoming high school freshman. My athletic ability and overall whiteness was so awful, I could barely march in step. On the first day of marching band camp, I overheard an upper classman proclaim: “Look how little he is!” It is a bit discouraging when you aren’t even safe from getting picked on in marching band. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I found a “home” amongst my band mates and suddenly, I didn’t feel like such an outcast anymore. Or, at least not the only outcast. I was now surrounded by my own kind. Sure, we were still outnumbered. But we had each other. During my sophomore year, I branched out into the parallel world of vocal music, joining an all male glee club – the highlight of which was singing a solo in Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”. The group was called Movement. It didn’t take much creativity for others to quickly add ‘Bowel’ in front of it, which is what we quickly became known as. With one foot in the world of both instrumental and vocal music, I flirted again with musical theater, where I was cast as a chorus member of Oklahoma. However, I quit when I was unable to keep up with the requisite choreography that musicals demand.

Aside from this musical misstep, music – like writing – made me feel at home. It made me feel wanted. This isn’t to suggest that high school was smooth sailing – especially outside the band room doors. The losing continued – in both sports and Solo & Ensemble competitions. Among the ways I lost: my favorite Casio watch was stolen out of my gym locker. Later, in that same locker room, somebody decided it would be funny to take my underwear and then put it in the urinal before proceeding to piss on it. The cream of the crop was when someone heaved a basketball over the gymnasium balcony, resulting in a direct hit to my skull. It not only knocked me off my feet, but I saw stars for the first time in my life … or were they birds? At least, I knew I could always retreat to the safe confines of the band room, with my tail between my legs.

Things began to look up in the summer of 10th grade when I magically grew several inches and finally hit puberty. At least I could no longer be considered short. I was still a dork, but a proud band dork. At that point, I began feeling comfortable in my own dork skin. However, despite being taller, my athletic skill did not grow along with me. In gym class, I consistently finished second to last in the 2-mile run. The kid who finished last weighed 300 pounds and had a bum ankle.

During my sophomore year of high school, I decided to do something about it by asking for a weight set for Christmas. Technically, they were very strong rubber bands, but still a major “upgrade” from the five-pound dumbbells I had previously worked out with. The time had come to finally put some meat on my bones. Incidentally, that same Christmas, I also received Michael Jackson’s Dangerous CD, which I worked out to vigorously. I can’t say I got any stronger – or more “dangerous” – but I certainly felt so mentally. After a few months, most of the rubber bands had either snapped, or were on the verge of snapping. Putting safety first, I quit.

Ten years later, I would give weightlifting another shot in the months leading up to my wedding (which also eventually ended with a loss). Only this time, instead of rubber bands, I lifted actual, iron weights. My athletic, Asian friend Tzu volunteered to be my personal trainer and (much-needed) spotter. Buoyed by Tzu’s intense Karate Kid-style mentoring, I got into the best shape of my life. My bodybuilding regimen was also aided with whey protein shakes, which gave me the worst, most foul-smelling gas of my life.

Back to high school: on the heels of my weightlifting experiment, combined with puberty, I was brimming with false confidence and decided to try out for sports. My first attempt was at basketball – both literally and figuratively, I actually thought I had a shot, but I was cut in the first round – and quite likely, the first to be cut, too. Next up, was baseball, but I completely whiffed once again, not making it past the first round of cuts. The only consolation prize was when the baseball coach gave me a firm pat on the back and said with a straight face: “At least you tried, son. At least you tried.”

Realizing I could never compete with my peers, I started playing pick-up basketball at my church, where I learned that I sucked just as much against overweight 40-year-olds as I did against people my own age.

When I started college, I stumbled upon a job in athletics at the university field house. My primary duty was ID checker. Yet again, I was on the outside, looking in. Although not in my job description, I was also required to clean out the men’s locker room the morning after hockey tournaments. Aside from having to deal with some of the nastiest odors known to man, I was forced to clean up various trash, tobacco spit wads, shit smears, and unidentifiable solids and fluids off both the floors and walls. The only saving grace this job afforded was the school volleyball team. From my vantage point behind the ID desk, I could sit back and watched 20 spandexed, long-legged athletic chicks working out. One even became “just a friend”. This almost made up for everything else.

My next job was more directly related to athletics: I became a little league coach. I had come full circle, back to my roots and quickly realized that I was as inept at coaching little league as I was in playing it, guiding my team to an 0-10 record. Those poor little kids never stood a chance.

The following summer, I formed my own co-ed softball team, which I guided to three straight, pitiful losing seasons before ultimately disbanding it. I would take three years off before joining a new team – a co-ed work team. The losing continued for several years, before ultimately leading to my singular moment of athletic greatness. Until then, there was still a lot of losing left to accomplish.

Fortunately, there is one athletic skill I can vaguely lay claim to: relatively the blinding speed of a chipmunk. I learned early on that I could usually run faster than most of my bullies – until I got tired and they caught up to me, or, at least until I tripped on a small pebble or twig, or was consumed by panic. When they did catch up to me, I would simply drop to the ground and curl into a ball – like an animal playing dead.

Unfortunately, my speed has not served me nearly as well in my athletic endeavors as I would have hoped. Take softball, for instance. When playing the outfield, I completely lack the ability to judge fly balls. I either overrun a ball, or stop short of it, watching it drop right in front of me (or, more often than not, far away from me). My blazing speed is rendered completely useless as a result. Another hindrance to my speed is my fear of the ball … even after all of these years. I’m even afraid of the ball when I’m running to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits. I firmly believe that softball leagues should require batters to wear helmets. I’ve considered wearing one to alleviate this phobia, but then I would look like an idiot. Or, more accurately, more of one.

As is clearly evident by now, I suck at team sports. And as far as one-on-one sports are concerned, I have an under .200 winning percentage. Only a small handful of those losses were pretty damn close. Sometimes, my losing was so frustrating and unbearable, I would purposely lose (not that it took much effort or fakery … it just expedited things). Throwing in the towel allowed me to get out of my misery sooner. Sometimes, I would even go as far as to fake an injury just to get out of losing.

It’s bad enough I lose at sports on a regular basis when I’m actually playing them. But it’s another thing to directly contribute to your favorite professional teams’ losing – even in the midst of championship runs. A certified professional loser. Yet, despite the losses, I continue to keep rooting for my teams, as much as I do myself. Win or lose. Rain or shine.

I decided to become a faithful Pistons fan following their second of back-to-back championship runs (1989-1990), just in time for a decade of losing and mediocrity. This period also coincided with the infamous “teal” era, when the Pistons switched their uniforms from their classic red, white and blue to a puke-ish teal, begging the question: what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg?

Shortly after switching back to their classic red, white, and blue uniforms, the Pistons returned to glory with a championship in 2004. In 2005, they were making another run at it. After falling behind the Spurs 0-2 on the road in the Finals, the Pistons won two straight home games and had a chance to take the series lead with game 5 at home. The day of the game, a friend called to inform me that he had an extra ticket. I didn’t hesitate. After a tense, back and forth game, the Pistons found themselves up by three with just a few seconds left. With time running out, all the Pistons had to do was guard the three-point line at all costs. Instead, Rasheed Wallace decided to leave his man open by doubling up another player. Well, his “man” was the best three-point threat on the floor: Robert Horry, who promptly received the ball before throwing up a game-tying three-pointer. Overtime. Loss.

I won’t even mention the Lions (ahem 0-16).

Then there’s my number one team – the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately (and even more so … understandably) for me, the year I decided to jump on the Tigers’ bandwagon was 1990. They would go on to become the losingest team of the 90’s. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter when (if) they finally did win. I knew it was only a matter of time. And I turned out to be right. But only after enduring the 2003 season, in which they fell one game short of the worst record of all time (53-119).

In 2006, the Tigers had a magical, World-Series bound season and a sparkling home record. I went to over a dozen games that season. They won two of them. In fact, it got to the point that my friends and family pleaded with me not to go to any more games. I even became a semi-regular on a sports talk radio, where the hosts begged me to stay away. Incidentally, the Tigers’ best stretch took place during the six weeks I was out of the country. Mercifully, my bad karma must have been out of their range.

Incidentally, despite my losing record, the Tigers were also one of the best home teams in all of baseball. Earlier in the season, I turned down a chance to go to a game because of a cold. The Tigers ended up winning 7-6 in come-from-behind fashion in what was definitely one of the highlights and turning points of the season.

But that was nothing compared to what happened at the end of the season. Going into the final weekend of the season against the last-place Royals, the Tigers led the division over the late-surging Twins by a couple of games. No matter what the Twins did, all the Tigers had to do was win one of those three games to clinch the division. Otherwise, they would have to settle for the postseason Wild Card spot. One win would end in a tie. They lost the first two games. It all came down to the final game of the season. When my friend Mike asked me months before if I wanted to go to the last game. I almost turned it down thinking it would be meaningless. Now it meant everything.

The Tigers had two ways in which to clinch it. The first way placed them directly in control of their own destiny: all they had to do was win. If they were to lose, the Twins simply had to lose, too. And I would be there to witness the first division championship at Comerica Park. The Tigers scored early and built up a seemingly safe 6-0 lead. They were well on their way … and then they weren’t. The Royals tied it late in the game and it went into extra innings. The out-of-town scoreboard indicated that the Twins already won, so now it was do or die. We lost. Instead of a champagne-soaked celebration, we were drenched in tears and heartbreak. It wasn’t so much the loss that hurt. It was the way we lost. Like the Pistons’ finals loss, this one still stings. And always will.

Fortunately, the Tigers still made the playoffs that year as the American League Wild Card team, propelling themselves all the way to the World Series, which they proceeded to lose in five games to the Cardinals. I was miraculously at the one game they won … for what it’s worth. Somehow, this only added salt to the wound.

The following season, I missed Justin Verlander’s first non-hitter by one day – the day before my birthday. I went to the game the day after. A loss.

Even my one legitimate shot at catching a home run ball was a loss. It was a Tigers spring training game down in Lakeland, Florida. I was sitting out on the grassy berm in left field in prime home run territory. Tigers’ third baseman Brandon Inge lifted a fly ball that headed right toward me. At first, I couldn’t believe it – not so much because of the odds, but because of my inability to judge fly balls. Next thing I knew, the ball landed directly in front of me on the blanket I was sitting on. If it had been any closer, it would have landed in my lap. The problem was, I had just returned from the concession stand. In one hand was a hot dog; in the other, a beer. I froze. Meanwhile, a fan behind me dove directly onto my blanket, simultaneously snatching the ball and spilling my beer. Since catching a home run ball is equivalent to lightning striking twice, that was probably my one and only shot – not to mention the one thing I had control over, unlike the outcome of the game. And I blew it.

Then there was my visit to my dream stadium: Fenway Park. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. Despite their pleas, I forced my family to sit in the pouring rain for three hours and would have waited all night if I had to. I was certain the game would be played, but the weather gods had other plans. The game was called. And I haven’t been back since.

Now back to my “real” world of sports – where I have at least some control over the outcome. And despite various degrees of failure, I continue to try my hand at other athletic endeavors. And every now and then, I’m prone to brief flashes of athletic competence, but it never takes me long to come back to earth. Despite my failings, nothing has stopped me from attempting: curling, ice-skating, bowling, bocce ball, putt-putt, bean-bag toss, lawn darts, horse shoes, badminton, Frisbee, volleyball and, last, but not least, Wallyball (which aesthetically resembles the white-padded cell of an insane asylum). However, in Wallyball, the walls don’t have pads. They are made of concrete. And they hurt. As for the game itself, Wallyball is volleyball inside a racquetball court – the bumper bowling of volleyball.

Considering the Whitman Sampler world of sports that I traveled through with negligible results, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to avoid any serious injuries, aside from mental anguish (knock on wood). However, speaking of knocking wood, the closest I ever came to a broken bone was a deep bone bruise on my foot caused by a piece of wood, during an innocent game of kickball. It was field day at the high school where I was teaching at the time. A solid block of wood was used for home plate. The ball was rolled to me, but rather than kicking the ball, the top of my foot got all wood. The pain was so intense, I passed out. There’s nothing like getting a stupid, fluke injury in front of a bunch of high school students. They have a tendency to find more humor in situations like this than they do compassion or concern. When I woke up, the first thing I noticed were the number of smiling faces surrounding me, accompanied by various chuckles. I also felt the intense pain surging through the top of my foot. I thought for sure it was broken, but X-rays proved it was nothing more than a deep bone bruise.

Furthermore on the injury front, two of my three most “serious” injuries have involved balls hit in the air. The first one happened back in high school when my dad was tossing me pop-ups, encouraging me “stop being afraid of the ball!” His advice backfired when I attempted to catch it with my nose, rather than my glove. Blood everywhere. Fortunately, my nose wasn’t broken, but my confidence certainly was. And I’m pretty sure it led directly to nasal-septum surgery a few years later. As I indicated earlier, I’m still afraid of the ball. And I still can’t judge balls in the air very well.

My most recent injury happened on my work softball team. It was the last game of a long, losing season. There were two outs. I was playing first base – a position I’m actually halfway decent at on the account that it mercifully doesn’t involve many fly balls or grounders. It’s also a position that pretty much renders my speed (my only athletic asset) irrelevant. Well, with two outs, what should have been the final out hit a routine pop-up (for me, nothing is routine). I thought I was in position to catch it, which would have ended the game and our season with a win. Instead, the ball landed right in front of me, ricocheted off the hard dirt, before upper-cutting me directly on the chin. Like the earlier basketball shot to my head, I saw both stars and birds, accompanied by the ringing of discordant bells. I landed in the ER with a mild concussion. At times, I can still hear the ringing. Oh, and I should probably mention that we lost the game, finishing our season with a 1-19 record. I missed the one game we won.

This injury paralleled my unraveling personal life at the time, which reached rock bottom when my wife and I separated, leading to our eventual divorce. I was never more consumed by losing than I was during that summer.

Shortly after that summer, however, things began to turn around. By the time the next season came around, I was in a new, healthy and far more fulfilling relationship (with a former state champion of track and field!), compounded by the discovery that I was going to be a father. My daughter was due in late August, coinciding with the end of what had turned out to be a fantastic, turn-around season for the softball team.

We ended the season tied for first, which meant having to play a one-game play-off for the championship on a chilly, rain-soaked autumn night. The game was a doozy, going back and forth all game long. Of course, I was conditioned to accept that a loss was always lurking around the corner. I was especially thinking this as I headed up to the plate with the bases loaded in our final at bat, down by one with two outs. After years of folding under pressure, there was no greater choke opportunity than that very moment.

The fate of our entire season was now entirely up to me. Moments certainly don’t get more pressurized than that. To compound matters, I wasn’t having my best game at the plate to begin with. And I wasn’t expecting it to change now. I wouldn’t have expected things to be any different if I were swinging a hot bat. For starters, it was a brisk, autumn night. Any contact the bat made to the ball felt like a lightning bolt through my arm.

As I stood at the plate, I suddenly felt something change within me. Perhaps it was seeing a glimpse of the new life that awaited me as a father. Perhaps I had simply willed myself to refuse to lose anymore. Perhaps it was all the feel-good sports movies I watched over the years. Whatever it was, I suddenly had a clarity I never experienced before in sports. I knew exactly what I had to do. And nothing was going to stop me. I stepped into the pitch and swung, sending the ball sailing to right-center, splitting two fielders, who looked up to see the ball heading toward the fence. The ball continued sailing through the night sky, before arcing down and slamming down at the base of the fence. I had never come close to hitting a ball like this. It is important to note that in this particular league, balls hit over the fence constitute as outs. It would have been my luck to knock one out of the park and lose. But fate was on my side for once. And just like that, it was game over. We were champions. My one moment of athletic glory! Even though it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, I will never forget that feeling.

That same night, just hours after our thrilling victory, my wife went into labor. The next day, I was a father … and I’ve been winning ever since. Professionally, the game-winning hit, combined with the birth of my daughter mirrored my arrival as a published writer. Backing up a bit, if there is anything I have lost more consistently at than any sport or game, it’s my writing. As any writer knows, there are always more “losses” than “wins” (thinking plainly in terms of rejection vs. publications). Despite my losses in my attempts at writing, there have always been signs that I should keep pushing forward. However, one can take only so many semi-finalist awards to begin feeling like you were “always the bridesmaid.”

Over the years, I have come to view each and every rejection as both a loss and a victory. It’s a loss for obvious reasons. It’s a win because it’s proof that I have not given up – that I have not lost my passion, my desire, my lifeblood after years of putting everything I have into a dream that has eluded me for so long. Somehow, that championship-winning hit was the catalyst to a consistent stream of publishing, which ultimately lead to the publication of my first book. Now, every rejection and every publication are a both a testament and a monument to my lifelong commitment of never giving up no matter how many losses are racked up.

Even though I still have an overall losing record – and probably always will – the fact that I continue playing, makes me a champion – even if it’s in a league all to myself. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.