One summer, some time ago when I lived in New York City, I walked with a friend through Central Park. We passed by a ballfield filled with players in crisp green uniforms. A baseball game was in progress. My friend mentioned how he'd like to join in. As he lamented over his missed opportunity to join a summer league, I reassured him with the thought that he could join a team next year. But underneath my voice of consolation lurked a quiet inner jealousy. I was filled with envy over his ability to participate in this most cherished of American pastimes.
When I was a kid, unlike most little boys, I chose not to play ball, even though my father tried hard to teach me. Dad was a formidable ballplayer in his youth. He lived for afternoons on the sandlots of his hometown in upstate New York. He would have liked nothing more than for his first-born son to share his love of second base. But I was too scared to learn how to play, too intimidated by the neighborhood boys whose competitive and confident personalities drove home my all-too-obvious lack of any physical skills.
But even that kid who was too terrified to play with athletic boys knew that baseball, indeed any team sport, was a guaranteed ticket to childhood popularity. It didn't take long for this little guy to learn that the best schoolyard jocks were usually the best-liked classmates -- at first respected and envied by all the other boys, and later fawned and fantasized over by luvsick girls in training bras. I learned how unfair life could be at the cusp of my adolescence. I understood that no matter how artistic or expansive my imagination was, no matter how good I could play a piano rendition of "Themes & Variations to Three Blind Mice," such talent would never make other guys jealous nor launch blossoming babes into fits of unrestrained ecstasy.
As I gradually realized that my creative juices would never merit the peer respect that an athletic body would, I concealed my G-d given gifts and began an earnest attempt to metamorphasize into that singularly focused high school jock. But just how does one geeky uncoordinated nebbish go about becoming a 16-year-old stud without the benefit of years of after-school workouts, team practices, messy handwriting, and bad table manners? I knew I would never make it into that closed, intimidating circle of varsity athletes -- guys who paraded the school corridors in their letterman jackets, dated girls I couldn't even say hello to, and seemed destined for a privileged life on Melrose Place. So what's a jock in training to do?
Then it hit me. I'd fashion myself into something I had never seen before in my school, or for that matter anywhere else. I would not strive to be one of the ordinary brain-challenged, ethically stunted teen macho men. No, I would become something totally unique, something unheard of in my neighborhood. I would take what I was given, combine it with who I wanted to be, and become the sensitive jock.
But talk is cheap. The challenge before me was to actually put into practice what seemed so appealing in words. Surmising the situation, I concluded that to be a jock in Toronto, Canada, my birthplace and hometown, meant being able to play hockey above and beyond any other sport. But how could I chase a puck on ice if I couldn't even skate on it?
So I fired off a note to the coach of a neighborhood hockey club. I wrote to him inquiring where this pubescent soon-to-be hockey hero could learn how to skate with guys his own age. What, was I kidding? There is no such thing as a learn-to-skate class for teenage boys in Canada. This letter was written about 10 years too late. All I could imagine was this guy reading my letter, shaking his head, and laughing aloud. Of course, I never got a reply back from him. After all it was all a joke ... right?
But this was not a joke. This was serious. I truly wanted to learn how to skate so I could play hockey. If this coach would not help me, I would have to help myself. I was on a quest to become Lorne Opler: Sensitive Jock. Nothing would stop me. Even if I had to humiliate myself. With no other option, I enrolled in a figure-skating class, way across town where I was sure to be recognized by nobody. In Canada, at least when I was growing up in the Seventies, young boys did not score popularity points for learning how to execute a triple axle. I felt awkward, out of place, and not very masculine. This was the price I had to pay for waiting so long to begin my march towards red-blooded jockhood.
I endured the experience for three months that autumn, tripping on ice, crashing into boards, bruising my body and bruising my ego. But when the lessons were finally over, I could actually skate (sort of). So, I took my education to a rink closer to home, and practiced, practiced, practiced: forward, backward, sharp turns, hockey stops. I was still a sensitive jock in the making, but not yet ready for my for gameday debut.
Then it happened. Sometime the following spring, a neighbor invited me to play hockey with his friends: my first game of ice hockey! I shared the arena with a veritable bunch of jocks. They were the real thing. So what if I was the worst player on the ice? At that moment I decided I could finally and legitimately crown myself that uniquely magnificent sensitive jock -- that mythical figure that I so badly dreamed of being. I had "arrived." There was no ceremony to mark this milestone: no letter from the NHL commissioner, no congratulations from Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito, no plaque to put on my bedroom wall -- not even a letter from the neighborhood coach who never answered my letter. This was an event I kept to myself. Nobody knew just how important this game was to me.
But soon the rink closed down for the season, and that brief coveted moment of feeling like any other Canadian teenage guy melted as quickly as the snow on the ground. Skates were hung up and bats, gloves, and cleats were pressed into action. Spring was in the air, and it was time to play ball. Now what? A retreat to the basement piano and more sappy tunes to practice? Or back to step one? Would I have to endure the ordeal of learning another sport that I had no experience in?
I quaked at the thought of having to throw a baseball. I looked like a shot putter whenever I tossed one. I threw, as some idiotic people would say, "like a girl." (What is that supposed to mean, anyway?). I anticipated yet another summer of avoiding the local ballfields just to pre-empt any possibility of having to throw back a stray ball that might land at my feet. The self-consciousness of being seen struggling to throw "like a boy" was enough to keep me at safe distances from any diamond.
But the fear challenged me again to repeat my victory of winter past. So I practiced my throws against the wall of a nearby junior high school. I threw alone and then with my brothers. I was bound to repeat my victory on ice. And then ... it all stopped.
I lost interest. I never did learn to throw a curveball, to bunt, or steal a base. And I'm not sure why. Maybe I subconsciously began to admit the truth. Perhaps I began to ask myself, "Who am I kidding?" I wasn't really a jock; to my fantasized self maybe, but to a jock, I was no jock. And maybe ... that's okay. Maybe it's just okay.
Flash forward 25 years.
Today it doesn't matter. Nobody cares if I can play baseball or hockey or any team sport. Today we are all adults, all so preoccupied with jobs, families, mortgages -- things much more important than the missed opportunities of youth. Today what counts is character, not cockiness. We are measured by the deeds we do, and values we uphold, not the athletic skills we might possess. We are loved and admired by others for the depth of our honesty, our integrity, our humor -- not for the shallowness of being a star on ice, on the field, or on the gridiron.
But on that day in Central Park, when I walked past those ballplayers in their crisp green uniforms, I prayed a stray baseball would not land at my feet, forcing me to throw it back into play, only reminding me again of the embarrassment I still feel for not throwing "like a boy."
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