How a teen lost himself in the absence of support from the men in his life.
It took two days — and four decades — to write this story.
Flashback, early 70’s.
I’ve just started high school, and the lights are all green. I see freedom, I see girls. From the bed of the pickup in which I’ve hitched a ride up Fairfax, I see head shops, bookstores, record stores, pizza places. I see my baseball career stretching out before me as far as my mind’s eye can see.
But first I have to make the team. I think I will, for I was a Gardner Park all–star the summer before. Several dozen hopefuls form two opposing lines on the rutted grass of the JV field and play catch as the frowning varsity coach, Coach B, and the frowning JV coach, Coach R, review us like drill instructors. I throw nice and easy; I’ve got a good arm. “Sindell,” Coach B says sourly, “I thought you were a pitcher. Throw like one.” I have no idea what he means, and he doesn’t tell me. Many years later, I discover that there is a proper way to throw a baseball: left hip toward the target, stretch the arm straight back, and so on. But my only instruction in how to play ball has been hundreds of hours of pure, natural play.
I make the team despite my bad form; life looks great. But Coach R isn’t bullish on me. He tells me, as an afterthought, that I’m the fifth pitcher — the understudies’ understudy — and a backup third baseman. Nor is he bullish on the team. “How are you guys gonna do this year?” a friend asks Coach R as he watches batting practice through narrowed eyes. “With this dog meat they gave me?” Coach R winces as if he smells a great pile.
I debut in the season’s fifth game. We have a substitute coach, a friendly old–timer who tells stories of when Fairfax High was a baseball power that sent Norm and Larry Sherry and Mike Epstein to the majors. It’s the first time I’ve heard an expression of pride in the program. The game is one–sided because the opposing pitcher, a tall, intimidating fireballer, is shutting us out. The coach sends me up to hit in the sixth, and to my surprise I rap it hard up the middle, although I’m thrown out. After the game, I ask a friend how many times the ball bounced. “About twenty,” he says. I deserve his snideness for fussing over a grounder. Anyway, it’s just the first at–bat of many.
But it isn’t.
Because, although I’m normally a good student, I pull a D in Geometry at the midway mark, and the bitter Geometry teacher will not consider waiving the rule forbidding struggling athletes from competing. This is my year for bitter teachers. My Spanish teacher, who loves slamming his yardstick onto his desk while screaming “!Silencio!”, gives me F’s on tests because I am absent on road games with the baseball team, and he won’t cut me any slack, souring me on both Spanish and a system that seems designed to deny me the very thing that makes me care about school. Bottom line, I’m suspended. So while my teammates play ball, I play a weeks–long poker game at a remote lunch table with a suspended teammate and two other guys.
When summer vacation approaches at last, I pass the gym coaches’ office feeling free and easy. Coach R hails me — it’s only the second time he’s spoken to me since I joined the team — and says, “Sindell: are you playing next year?” I’ve been so disassociated from the team that I haven’t even thought about it. So I give him a standard teenage shrug.
The last week of school, I’m summoned to the coaches’ office and wait in line with other guys in the program. Coach B waits with Coach R at his side. “Sindell,” he says, “are you playing next year?”
Though baseball is a huge part of my life, I simply haven’t considered the question. So I say, “I don’t know.”
Coach B is disgusted. Looking back, I think he looks hurt, too. “That means no!” he snaps.
The ship’s leaving the dock — and once it leaves, it will never return. But since I’m a card–carrying teen with a standard–issue rebellious streak, I say: “Alright then, no.”
And Coach B explodes. He says, “I’m sick of you guys taking up space in the program and not sticking with it!”
I’m too naïve and confused to realize that in his petulant way he’s actually saying he wants me in the program. “How did know I was gonna get a D in Geometry?” I say with some heat.
Coach R looks disgusted. “Next!” he bellows.
And that’s it. Game over. In one rash moment, I’ve forfeited my dream of playing ball in high school and maybe the pros, and the joy of playing ball, and the biggest part of my identity, and my best chance for happiness in high school — which next year takes a sharp turn for the worse.
I’ve blamed myself for my rashness for years. But in those years, during which I’ve raised my own kids and educated many others, I’ve become keenly aware of just how young and tender fifteen really is. I needed help from the men in my life, but got none: Not from the JV coach who called us dog meat, not from the varsity coach who put his pride before a boy’s needs, not from my inflexible Spanish and Geometry teachers, and certainly not from my uninvolved dad.
It takes a village to raise a child.
It takes just one caring grown–up to stop him from falling.