The first thing I wanted to do upon arriving in Illinois as a twelve-year-old kid was to get signed up to play baseball that summer. My folks lined me up with a team in the 8-12 year old league, which was a similar age grouping to the Local 285 team back in Lancaster where I helped pitch the team to a Lancaster New Era Tournament championship two summers before, and led the team as its top pitcher the following year.
That league was immensely competitive. You had to try out to make a team, and the first year I tried that as a nine-year-old, I got cut. So I understood what it meant to earn a spot on a baseball team, and I was determined to make that happen again in Elburn.
The coaches saw me warming up at the park that day and offered to let me be the starting pitcher. I struck out the side in the first inning. And the second. And so on. Before all was said and done, I’d thrown a perfect game with no one on the other team reaching base either on a hit or a walk. I don’t recall anyone really touching the ball with a bat that day. Perhaps a foul tip, but that was about it.
Following that game, a group of parents gathered around to discuss what to do with me. They talked to my dad, and he pulled me aside and told me kindly, “They said you’re too good to play in this league. I think they want you to try out for the American Legion team.”
There apparently wasn’t a Pony League team for 13-15-year olds. The next step up for Elburn baseball was the American Legion squad, which started at age 16.
I showed up for practice and met the coach, a 22-year-old firebrand named Trent Richards. He was assisted by another young man named Jim Yagel, a well-known athlete from the region who would help out from time to time.
The top pitcher on the team was a guy named Dale Garmin. He was a quiet, studious guy with a decent set of pitches, and he led the squad. But I got to pitch quite a bit that summer, and while it was intimidating at first to face batters a few years older than me, I was used to pitching to my older brothers and their friends, so I got over those fears pretty quickly.
I was happy kicking around in the dust of that baseball field that summer. I turned thirteen on July 26 and the transition to being a teenager was nothing special. I was just as horny and naive about sex and girls as I was at twelve years old. But I felt like something of a man playing baseball with those older guys.
I hung out with some of Elburn’s best athletes, including a guy named Kevin Peterson who was also a good basketball player. Rumors went around town that I was a pretty good player. Some of that reputation caused jealousy and eventually ridicule by some of the more cynical guys in town. But Kevin always treated me well.
So I got pulled into the hoops arena as well. We played basketball all year around at the Morris Barn court just west of Elburn. It was nearly a full-length basketball court in what would have been a hay loft. The floorboards were worn smooth from all the years of basketball played there. A couple of those boards were “dead zones” where we learned not to dribble the ball. We’d play in the heat of summer and through the cold of winter, sometimes wearing full gloves on our hands as we worked up a sweat in the cold air streaming between the wooden slats of the barn.
But for all that acceptance and interaction I was still an anxious and sometimes depressed kid that summer. I had made new friends named Mark Strong and Eric Berry (Eeker, RIP) that were my age. We rode our bikes around Elburn trying to connect with the girls we liked. Twyla. Allison. Ellen. Mary Jo. Sometimes we’d sit on their porches and compete for attention. It felt like the world expanded in their presence. I lived for the ability to make them laugh, even a little. But no matter how hard I tried, they still seemed to know so much more about the world than I did.
We’d all be attending eighth grade together that fall. That meant a whole new wave of introductions was at hand. I was the New Kid In Town that year for months at a time. On one hand I loved the attention. On the other hand it meant I was always on trial with the new people I was meeting. As always when seeking a competitive social advantage, I turned to sports as my proving ground and social outlet. That’s all I knew how to do. Focus on making impressions and hope for the best. Thirteen years on this earth isn’t that long a time to know how the whole place works. But we do our best. That’s all anyone can do.
It’s a funny thing how we circle around each other trying to match priorities and make contact in this centrifugal world of inner existence. We spin and brush up against the events going on around us, and whatever rubs off on our being is what we wind up calling experience. It’s a thin veneer in some ways, this impression we make of ourselves. But it’s all we have to protect ourselves from the pressures the world places upon us.