It was the bottom of the first inning, none out, bases loaded, and I’d thrown 9 consecutive balls – the last one, a flat curveball that hit the batter square in the back, making a soft plunk that probably inflicted less pain than a locker room towel slap. Sweat dripped into my eyes, nearly blinding me in the humid July heat. I squinted towards the catcher’s sign, an upside-down middle finger, expressing the obvious: fastball for a strike.
I came to the set position and paused, taking a deep breath in the hopes it might quell the disorienting floating feeling that engulfed my body every time I stood on the pitcher’s mound – or at least whenever a batter stood in the box facing me. My head was swimming, my legs were twitching, my guts one giant entangled knot of nerves. I lifted my leg, broke my throwing hand from my glove, unsteadily drove my leg towards the catcher’s mitt, and released the ball with a silent prayer. Six inches outside. The pitching coach began his slow walk to the mound to remove me.
The general manager called me to his office after the game. “It’s just not working out,” he said, not unsympathetically. I could not disagree. It was a clean release.
I fell into a pit of depression after that, struggling to get out of bed, subsisting off government welfare. Eventually I got a job as a high school physical education teacher. As a perk, they let me be the assistant coach for the junior varsity baseball team. One of my duties was to throw batting practice to the kids during practice. I didn’t mention this was not something I was capable of, despite my impressive sounding background: high school All American and two years riding the minor’s circuit. The boys were at first mystified by my wildness. I hit five kids in the head the first day I pitched batting practice. The boys’ mystification soon turned to mockery. Any possibility of earning their respect was over after that first day. The coach told me not to worry about it as boys would be boys. “Just do your best,” he said, as he patted me on the shoulder avuncularly. “We’re all out here just doing the best we can. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
I was not fine. I took up drinking. The strike zone continued to elude me, those kids kept laughing at me, and the rage inside me would not abate. I got a little bit better with throwing strikes to the boys on the JV team over the course of that season. Maybe one out of every five pitches were strikes. But my attendance at practices became spotty. I rarely missed afternoon sessions at the local bar. Halfway into the season, the coach sent me an email letting me know my services would no longer be needed.
It was a few weeks before the start of my second year as the PE teacher at the high school. They needed a warm body, and I checked that box. My home away from home was the bar, a half mile from the school and a short stumbling distance from my apartment. My new best friend was Bob the bartender. It was a one-sided friendship, but I made the most of it. He knew all about my baseball predicament and he made a good show of listening to me tell the same stories over and over again. Only occasionally did I catch an eye roll. About four beers in on a Saturday afternoon, I asked him if he knew about any coaching opportunities.
Bob, uncharacteristically, let out an exasperated sigh, and slammed his fists on the bar. “You are in no shape to coach anybody! You’re here drinking nearly every day. If you want to get back into the game, coaching or otherwise, you’ve got to take care of yourself first.” He took a card out from a drawer behind the bar and wrote something on the back. He handed it to me and said, “This is the name and number of my old sponsor. He helped me many years ago and maybe he can do something for you too. Look, I’ll keep taking your money and you can drink yourself to oblivion if that’s what you want. It makes no difference to me. But if baseball means as much to you as you say it does, then you need to take care of business. Go home, take a shower. Make the phone call.”
Bob’s sponsor’s name was Alvin. “Bob told me to expect you,” he boomed. I like to bowl. You want to talk to me, come down to Striker’s Alley and bowl a few frames with me. We can get to know each other.”
Striker’s Alley was enormous. It was 9:00 pm and the lights were turned low so that the neon flashing lights could have their psychedelic effect on the mostly teenage crew who seemed to be the joints’ primary patrons. I felt vertigo coming on and was about to turn around when a giant hand patted my shoulder and spun me around like I was a plastic top. “You must be Dale. Bob gave me your description but I can always spot a kindred spirit. Follow me, I got us set up on lane 11.” Alvin was about 6’6 and easily 300 pounds. His belly was massive and poured over his belt but he had a smooth and self-assured walk and a self-confidence about him that made me instantly like him.
Alvin didn’t care for small talk, so we stuck strictly to bowling. After about an hour Alvin had flirted with 300 for three straight games, and I had hovered around 100. At least I was consistent. Alvin bought us each a coke and a hotdog from the snack station and took me to a small room at the corner of the bowling alley. I felt like I was about to be interrogated. The lights were dim and the air felt smokey. Even seated, Alvin’s presence dwarfed mine.
“I hear you’re a baseball man.”
I cleared my throat. “Yes, baseball has been my life for as long as I remember. I guess Bob told you about my, situation.”
He waived his hand aside and said simply: “Speak.”
I more or less told him my life story, my rise from high school greatness to steadily rising in the farm teams all the way up to AAA for the White Sox. After a promising start, something happened. Maybe I lost my confidence or developed some unusual disability that prevented me from throwing strikes. Alvin sat silently with his hands flat on the table. He barely moved a muscle for the 10 minutes I talked. He didn’t even bother to throw in any obligatory uh-huhs, or yeahs. He was just letting me put it all out there, as pathetic as it was.
I stopped and waited for his reaction. The silence was deafening. Then he said, “That’s it?”
“Yeah, that’s about it. I guess it boils down to I stopped being able to do the thing I felt I was born to do, and then I just kind of gave up on life. I tried to coach, thinking it would bring me some confidence back, but all that did was make me feel sorrier for myself. And then I hit the bottle. So here I am.”
Alvin stood up straight in his chair and addressed me sternly and directly. “You’re young. Less than one minute after listening to you talk, I knew everything I needed to know about you. You are so wrapped up about who you’re supposed to be, you have no idea who you actually are. You are a ghost without a soul.” His smile went away and he looked at me vacantly, awaiting my response. I had nothing to say to that.
“Alcohol, drugs, obsessions, whatever you fill yourself up with, they all just fill your mind with some real estate to wander around in and get lost. If you want to stop drinking, you’ve got to have a reason. It sounds like you’ve got a reason. You want to get back into baseball, the one thing you think you’re good at. Maybe that’s true. I don’t really know you. But I do get you. Problem is, you’ve already had a reason to stop drinking. And that hasn’t worked for you, has it?”
He waited for an answer before going on, so I shook my head.
“So it’s not a reason you need for quitting drinking, is it?” I shook my head again, but I wasn’t sure where he was going with this. “What you need, is to learn to feel comfortable with what’s already inside you here.” He tapped his forefinger to his temple. “Sometimes it’s as simple as forming a ritual. But you have to develop a mind that is receptive to the ritual. I can’t tell you what the ritual is or how it will work. But I can tell you how to prime yourself.”
“What can I do?”
“You have to fail over and over and over again in order pay attention to your mind’s response. And you’re going to fail -- badly. But you’re going to pay attention to your mind and the thoughts and feelings that generate as you fail. And then you will implement a ritual. When the time comes you will know what that ritual needs to be. I can get you started, but you’ll have to finish it. Are you on board with the treatment plan?”
It seemed he had everything pretty well worked out, so I agreed to the proposal.
Alvin set me up as an assistant coach with his grandson’s youth baseball team. I arrived at their team practice and introduced myself to the coach. He already knew all about me. I wondered if Alvin had informed the coach about the plan for me to fail miserably. The coach took a fungo bat and hit the boys some infield and outfield for defense work. Then he assigned groups of 4 to go to the plate and get some BP.
I took the bucket of balls and made my way up to the pitching mound. I threw a few practice pitches to the catcher while the first hitter took some practice swings in the on-deck circle. Every pitch hit the mitt precisely and made a loud echoing boom resounding in the evening air. It was nice. That sound epitomized everything I loved about the game. The first batter stepped up to the plate. I felt the chills, the nausea, the doubt all over again. Nothing had changed. I knew at once I wasn’t up to this. But that was the point, so said Master Alvin. I gritted my teeth and wound up to throw the ball. My arm felt like it was being dragged in slow motion and my elbow seemed to be snapping awkwardly as the ball flung out of my hand. Sure enough, the ball bounced 10 feet in front of the plate. I received similar results on the 2nd 3rd, and 4th pitch. And so on. I was humiliated and was hoping the coach would let me leave. But he never budged. The jerk was sitting on the bench playing with his phone like he had no interest at all in what was happening on the baseball field right in front of him. I pitched to all 16 hitters and I probably threw close to 300 pitches. Maybe 10 of them were strikes. As I walked away from the field, I could sense all of the players glaring at me with pure and utter hatred. I had completely wasted their time.
I called Alvin to give him an update on my performance. “That’s wonderful. Just wonderful,” he said gleefully. Now tell me, how did you feel while pitching?”
“Not great. My arm hurts, my pride hurts, I feel like crap.”
“I didn’t ask you how you feel now. That’s obvious. I’m asking you how you felt while you were pitching.”
I tried to rewind my brain to see if anything would come up. I felt drained, completely empty. This was pointless. I told him so.
“That’s not unusual. It’s difficult for the untrained mind to remember its state of being from the past. We are conditioned to always be thinking about what’s coming next: where are we going, who are we meeting, what are our plans, etc, etc. But none of that actually matters if you can’t get a handle on your present -- which is your problem at hand. Before we can get you to fully appreciate your present, you must summon your past into your present. You understand what I’m saying?”
“Maybe a little. You want me to relive the agony of failure.”
“Precisely! Bring back those feelings to your mind as specific as possible. I bet you felt something in your gut. Maybe your chest? How about your legs? We have to rewire your brain. But we can’t do that until you understand the feelings you’re experiencing.
I closed my eyes and focused my attention on my gut. Could I remember how my gut felt when I was pitching? I definitely could. It felt loose, like butterflies flapping around my insides. I felt slightly dizzy, almost vertiginous, but it would come and go. I felt my throat constricted. My legs were wobbly. “I know how I felt.” I said. “Do you need me to explain it to you?”
“No, that’s not important. I don’t need to feel your trauma. Who needs that mess? But now that you’ve allowed yourself to feel the past into the present, you have understood an important lesson. You are able to manufacture terrible bodily ailments even when they’re not actually happening. Therefore, if you can manufacture a feeling now, then the feeling in the past must have been manufactured as well.”
“I see. So I’m a headcase like everyone’s already told me. I’m causing myself to get physically sick to the point where I can’t perform.”
“Everyone manufactures their emotions. Some are just better at hiding it than others. Here’s your next lesson. Thursday night you will again pitch batting practice to the boys. This time, I want you to dig up the feelings you just brought up for me now, before you pitch. You’re still going to throw awful. Failure is still the point. But this time, you’re in control of the emotions.”
I had come far enough that I needed to see this through. I had nothing to lose. Except my dignity. And I felt that was out the window a while ago. Thursday night came and I followed the same routine, but this time, right after I stepped on the pitcher’s mound in preparation for BP, I dredged up the feelings Alvin helped me bring about at our last meeting. It was easy enough. I felt absolutely horrendous. I pitched horrendously.
But a funny thing happened after about 5-10 minutes in. The terrible feelings started to abate. It didn’t happen all at once and I couldn’t pinpoint the moment when I started feeling good, but sure enough at some point while I was out on that mound, I started feeling positively terrific. My arm felt looser and more powerful than I could ever remember. I started throwing the ball 20 miles per hour faster without even trying to. And I was hitting the mitt! Not exactly where I wanted the ball to go, but pretty darn close. Close enough where the boys were getting some decent swings in, and balls started flying all around the field. Pretty soon I was really enjoying myself. I forgot about the exercise of trying to dredge up horrible feelings. I was just throwing a baseball and letting the boys do their thing. It was the happiest moment of my life.
Two years later I met Alvin at Striker’s Alley for a little reunion. I had scrapped my way up the AAA minors division and was in the top 10 in all the major categories: wins, innings pitched, ERA, strikeouts/walks ratio. I was getting serious looks from the Big Guys upstairs. My time might never come, but it didn’t seem impossible. And I was loving every minute of playing the game I loved. Alvin gave me a high five when we met each other. I was genuinely happy to see him. He had changed my life and I felt indebted to him.
After several frames he said, “So, you found your ritual, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“And I’m betting it wasn’t bringing up those terrible feelings and making yourself sick, was it?”
I laughed. “No, thank goodness, I didn’t have to resort to that again.”
“The thing about these rituals is that they lose their power if you talk about them. So I’m not going to ask you to divulge any secrets. But I will let you in on a little secret that you may not have discovered yet.” He paused for dramatic effect. “The ritual itself is worthless. The only thing that matters is that the mind believes the ritual has power.”
“That actually makes a lot of sense to me.” I extended my arm to shake his hand. “How about one last game?”
“Sure thing, partner.”
I had a feeling I just might score higher than Alvin on our last game. I imagined the pins formed a baseball player in uniform and bowling had transformed to a baseball game where I was the starting pitcher. The batter morphed into a row of half-drunk beer bottles lined up next to each other on a bar. I imagined a version of myself materializing behind the beer bottles. He was disheveled, red-eyed, slumped over, disgustingly hung-over. I hurled the bowling ball toward the image of myself and I watched it shatter into a thousand shards of broken glass. I bowled a 300.