Little Austin strikeout never hits the ball. Swings too early. Swings too late. Swings just like an iron gate.
I had a dream last night that I was given a tryout for a Major League baseball team. I was playing centerfield, a short looping pop up made its way just beyond the infield, and I sprinted in to make a diving, acrobatic catch.
I was feeling really good about both myself and my big league prospects when I shot up, glove held proudly over my head, to show all the world that I’d snagged that ball cleanly.
The coach running the tryout walked over to me, and I prepared for the good news. I wondered to which level of minor league ball I’d be assigned after the team signed me. Obviously, the contract was only a formality now after that incredible display of athleticism.
“Nice catch, kid,” was all he said as he handed me an envelope.
I anxiously opened it, but rather than my first professional baseball contract, I discovered dozens of passes to the State Fair.
I flipped over the tickets, and printed on the back was: “Seventh Place Finisher. State Fair Passes”.
So not only had I not made the team, but I had also only been the seventh-best player at the tryout. Upon quickly scanning the field, I saw only two other players.
Seventh out of three? Seriously?
As I trudged off the field, my uniform stained with the outfield grass, and my heart broken from the rejection that stung worse than a fastball to the jaw, a man with a clipboard intercepted me.
“They don’t know what they’re missing out on, son,” he assured me as he held out the clipboard, on which rested a pristine minor league contract, “We’d love you have you play for us.”
I snatched the pen from his hand, and without even asking which team he represented, I excitedly gave him my first autograph as a professional baseball player.
Then I woke up in my bedroom in Maine. 46 years old, out of shape, and having not played an organized game of baseball since my senior year at NYU a quarter century ago.
But I couldn’t let go of the dream. I played it back in my head. The amazing catch. The rejection. How incredible it felt to sign the contract.
Being a professional baseball player was a dream I clung to for far longer than I had any right doing. As much as I loved the game, and as hard as I worked at being the best third baseman I could be, I simply could not do much more with a bat other than strikeout.
In Little League, my go-to way of reaching base was to either walk, or be hit by a pitch. In fact, I have no doubt that the pitchers hit me more often than I hit them.
I could hit in batting practice, at the batting cages, and when I played with my friends in the schoolyard. Once the umpire yelled, “Play ball!”, though, I was like that batter in the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon, who kept swinging at the same pitch over and over and missing it numerous times before it finally landed unharmed in the catcher’s mitt.
My stepbrother would mock me with a song that went: “Little Austin strikeout never hits the ball. Swings too early. Swings too late. Swings just like an iron gate.”
The tune was both catchy and accurate.
Regardless of how terrible I was at the plate, I still signed up for baseball every year. I simply loved the game and couldn’t wait to get back out onto the field. I looked forward to practice all day while I was trapped in the classroom, and then would beg the coach to let us stay a little longer when he tried to send us home at night.
I was horrible with the bat, but I knew how to use my glove. Playing third base was a rush. The ball would be on me in seconds, but I wasn’t scared (I’d gotten hit so many times as the plate that my body was numb to the pain). I loved making diving plays like Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles, and I knew I was helping my team defensively, even if I was stinking it up in the batter’s box.
I didn’t make the team in high school, but during my senior year in college, NYU resurrected its baseball program and I was back on the diamond. I still couldn’t hit, and we lost every game, but I was a baseball player again.
So what’s the point of this long, slow walk back to the dugout?
Baseball taught me to be a better man. Even though I struck out pretty much every time I stepped up to the plate, I kept grabbing my bat and taking my hacks. I refused to let me failures keep me from playing the game I loved.
On the rare occasion that I actually got a hit, I was reminded why I never gave up. Quitters don’t get the thrill of rounding first base after finally hitting a solid line drive into leftfield. They don’t hear the crowd roar in amazement, or get that long awaited pat on the back from the first base coach.
Of course, my determination to never let my stockpile of strikeouts prevent me from playing America’s pastime came in very handy once I left the diamond behind for good.
Baseball was replaced by writing and romance, two endeavors where my experience with striking out came in very handy.
Writing and rejection go hand in hand, and for years after graduating from college, I swung and missed every time I submitted a screenplay or queried an agency. If my skin hadn’t been so thick from my seasons of failure in the batter’s box, I seriously do not believe I would have been able to handle striking out so often in the movie business.
I could not catch a break, but I just kept writing. Just like I kept taking batting practice and going to the cages. Eventually, I was going to make solid contact, and all it really takes in Hollywood is one hit to turning a losing streak into a career.
After all those strikeouts, I’ve optioned numerous screenplays, have been hired to do multiple rewrites, and have been lucky enough to have had two of my screenplays produced as feature films.
It hasn’t been a Hall of Fame writing career yet, but I’ve put up decent numbers and I’m still in the game. I write every day, and there still isn’t enough time to get all the stories out of my head and onto paper.
Then there’s my love life. How many times did I get rejected, have my heart broken, never hear back about a second date, or lament the one that got away?
I’ve struck out way more times at love than I ever did in baseball, but it’s those home runs of the heart that keep me swinging for the fences. Sure, I’ve thought about retiring from the game more than once, but quitters never get to experience the thrill of a first kiss, that perfect date, or the butterflies that magically appear whenever that someone special enters your line of sight.
I might have been one of the worst hitters in the history of New York baseball, but my writing career and love life have both made it to the Big Show because I never let strike three turn me into a quitter.
So as Opening Day of the baseball season approaches, I urge you all to pick up a bat and take your hacks. The worst you can do is strike out…
Photo courtesy of the author.