I was neither the strongest nor the fastest kid. I was a skinny kid who suffered bouts of asthma and mildly stuttered when nervous and had difficulty pronouncing the letter R. I was the kid who tried to keep his lazy eye open- not so much so I would not be the object of derision but so I could prove that besides all those “problems” I was strong and normal and I could be in the team. Hell, I did not want to just be in the team, I wanted to lead the team to victory. But I did not have the physical condition neither the presence to be the team leader. Or so I was told, and for a time I believed it.
Those who met me as a young adult won’t believe any of this- but that was me; a scare-to-death kid trying to overcome a body that refused to cooperate with my plans, a body that betrayed my heart and dreams over and over and that seemed to validate my bullies’ assertions. It seemed that it did not matter how hard I tried I was not meant to make it. But I kept trying.
In elementary school I read about a Greek philosopher who was a stutterer and feared to speak in public. As the story goes he put pebbles in his mouth and practiced his speeches, and managed to control his speech impediment. So I put marbles in mine and read my books out loud. Call it a placebo effect- but it did the trick. After long hours facing the mirror practicing how to keep my left eye open and how to move it in unison with my right eye, the day came when people could not notice my lazy eye.
I worked my ass off physically and kept running even when my body begged me to stop and I felt I was about to pass out. One day I got that second wind and felt like I could go on forever. It feels like flying. By the time I joined the Army, Basic Training was actually quite easy, at least regarding the physical part of it. I ran with fastest and out-toughed the toughest. If we had any physical event or competition I would volunteer in a split second.
You see, I forced my body to be in tune with whom I wanted to be. And when my physical condition wasn’t enough my hunger to overcome gave me an extra mile, a second wind, and helped me get up when I was down. I stopped thinking about the sickly kid I had been a long time ago. Then my son was born with a heart defect. We knew before he was born. The news were devastating. We prepared for the worst.
Luckily, we did not face the worst. He had a heart procedure a couple hours after being born. I fell asleep next to my wife on her recovery bed waiting for him to come out the operation room. The telephone rang. They were done. I ran from Boston Women’s to Children’s Hospital to see him. Once there the doctor told me: “He removed the intubation, he is breathing on his own, he is a tough kid, he will be fine.” And fine he was. Instead of spending a minimum of two months in the hospital in just two weeks we were on our way home with him.
That was the easy part.
Then one day he came back from school telling me he wanted to join the Babe Ruth T-Ball league. “Sure, why not?”
I watched him struggling- even at that level, just to keep up with the bunch. He did OK by the end of the season and we celebrated every hit like if he had won the World Series. I could’ve kept him another year in T-Ball but all his friends were moving up and though he was the youngest he was also the biggest kid in his team. So next year I inscribed him for the next level.
I had my doubts. Was I doing that for him or for me? Was I doing that for that sickly kid who could not make it? Was I being overprotective in a bizarre way? Was I afraid of him having to go through the same I went through, and without guidance and mentors, with just books and magazines to coach, train and mentor him, as had been my experience? Was I not trusting him to overcome his circumstances and rise to the occasion? I had no answers. I kept inscribing him to play and taking him to the games. And when he was not doing OK we would have a chat and practice batting or catching, sliding or even how to run the bases properly. Every year he wanted to give up as soon as the season started. Every year I would tell him that he had to finish the season but that he did not have to play next year if he did not want to. Every year he would ask me to register him again.
He kept playing. Then this spring he moved to Little League. In the first practice I noticed it was a different game. All players but him and another kid (who was his teammate in the previous level) batted, fielded, ran, slid and carried themselves with the demeanor of professional players. And whenever they made a mistake they had to do pushups and ran laps around the park. I thought it would be good for him to be around these kids- most of which play all year round.
He went from getting 2 or 3 hits per game (in the previous league) to strike out every single time. From playing every inning to alternating the bench with two other kids. From having fun playing baseball to feeling like he sucked, big time. The game stopped being fun.
After his fourth game, in which he stroke out four times, the last two without swinging once, we had a talk on our way home. “I’m disappointed with you” I said. “Why, because I stroke out?” he replied. “No, because your team played a great game and you did not clap once or congratulated your team mates. You did not root for your team and I understand you are having a bad day but this is your team and they count on your support. That is how you show you are part of the team. Do you get what I mean?” He said he did and promised next time he would cheer for his teammates, even if he had a bad game.
The next game he surprised me. He was “in” the game clapping and rooting for his team and I could tell he was having fun. He stroke out, then got a walk to first base, then he stroke out again. Next thing I know he is playing second base. I knew he was not ready to play second base at this level. He had been alternating right and left field with other kids. But there he was playing second base. I thought the coach was trying to build his confidence.
His last turn at bat came up and as usual I moved closer so I could see him play. I never say a word unless it is an encouraging one. “Good swing. You got it. There you go. Nice try bud!” And I was ready for more “nice try bud!” and just like that with a count of 1 ball 2 strikes he bunted his way to first, brought two runs home and the game ended by mercy rule. All the mothers sitting on the bench turned to me “he got a hit, he got a good hit!” I nodded and smile at them. Of course he did.
Game over. “Son, way to end the game. Want to go for ice cream or a burger?” Of course he said yes as he asked if I had seen him get a hit.
“Yes, I did. It was awesome! Tell me something. How come you got to play second base?”
“I asked the coach to put me in second base.”
“You did what? I’m so proud of you”
I told him that I had never been that strong at his age, probably not even now. I told him that I knew he was struggling and that was the reason why we were practicing every Sunday and playing catch as many evenings as possible.
I told him that I knew that he has to try twice as hard as his teammates to get half the results.
Most of all, I told him that when I played in basketball teams whenever I was benched I did not dare ask the coach to put me in. I would resent the coach and those doing well in the team and slowly drift away and quit. I told him I was proud of him but not for getting his first hit. I would be proud of him if he stroke out every turn at bat in the season. But asking the coach to put him in? He was much braver than his dad ever was.
He stopped me. “Wait, you don’t know baseball and you were never good at it? Why didn’t you tell me, I thought you knew everything about baseball? It looks so easy when you show me how to do it.” I told him that I had never played baseball in a team, never had coaches, and that after leaving Puerto Rico I stopped following baseball altogether. I told him that all those techniques I tried to teach him I learned by reading articles and watching videos on how to teach this or that technique to your kids.
And then I told him who I was as a kid and what it took for me to be the man he sees now (way hyperbolized in his eyes). And just like that it dawned on me that I had been visitng my own fears on my son- the fear of not being accepted, of not making the team- of not being good enough. I also realized that if I want my son to understand why I try to teach him certain things and values I should be completely honest with him.
We are on the right track now. He is enjoying baseball, and I don’t worry anymore that adversity and hard times may crush his heart (no pun intended). It will happen- that is life, but he will be fine, after all he is the bravest and toughest kid I know. I need to keep that in mind and remember that 1-day old boy who removed his intubation and started breathing on his own. He gave us hope and amazed us back then, and he continues to do the same today.
My son was looking over my shoulder when I was writing this reflection’s first draft on our way back from Pittsburgh on Memorial Day. He asked; “Are you writing about me? May I read it?” I gave him my laptop and I nervously waited for his reaction. “Me encantó papa” he said with the biggest smile possible. Better words of approval have never been uttered.