In writing this essay, I was forced to take a hard examination of my passion for the game of baseball, and for giving back to the children. It turns out, it is far more accurate to say that I am paying back, not giving back.
I grew up in a very poor family. There was always food on the table, and some sort of roof over my head, but things like baseball equipment were definitely considered a luxury. New equipment was considered a treasure, to be protected at all costs, and bragging rights throughout the neighborhood!
I distinctly remember my mother taking me around town to the “authorities” of our local youth baseball league. She had come to them to swallow her pride, and to beg for lenience in the fees so her son could play on a team. I did not realize it then, but looking back, I think an awful lot of charity was put into me.
I remember my very first practice. I showed up ill prepared. I had a hand me down glove, and myself. The coach, Randy, called everyone over. Most of the kids on the team were returning from last year, and knew their place. They also came adorned in new cleats, batting gloves, and Cubs ball caps. I took notice, as all children are taught to, that I was the one thing that didn’t look like all the others. He asked everyone to go to their position. Everyone ran off in different directions, leaving me standing there looking confused and feeling alienated. He asked me if I knew what position I played.
“No sir.” I managed meekly, certain that my ignorance was a sign of unworthiness.
“Why don’t you head out to the outfield then?” And with his pointed finger giving me my direction, I ran to the nearest child in the general area of his distinction. I assume he proceeded to hit us fly balls, and had us throw to specified bases. I had no reference to tell at the time how I did, but I wouldn’t play outfield for another 12 years.
Upon calling all of us back in to him. He said something about batting practice, and pitchers. Again kids went running off in all directions, and again I stood there. He just said, “You’re coming with me.” In all of my childhood, those words were never a good thing. Although his tone didn’t relay any sort of negative message. I followed, unsure of my fate. Coach then handed me a ball, paced off a certain distance, and instructed me to “pitch” the ball to him. He then proceeded to kneel down, and stick his glove out in an inviting way. There was no conscious though process. His actions seemed to dictate my reaction. So my instinct took over, and I reared back, and fired the ball at the target.
That first pitch I ever threw, would be a telling sign of the rest of my life. The ball flew over his head, and continued to fly. Over the fence behind him, across the street, ending up somewhere near the railroad tracks. My instinct had told me to throw the ball as hard as I could to the target he provided, and I had missed, badly. The feeling of failure began to creep through every vein in me. And then, the most amazing thing happened. Coach Randy turned back towards me, with a look of astonishment in his eyes. This was not a bad look. No, this was an impressed look. At the time, I had no idea what I had done, nor why it was good. Years later, I would realize that Coach Randy saw my God given gift. And his single look, would spur me for years to come. At that point, I became a baseball player.
Nothing was safe. Anything even close to round became a ball, and anything with any semblance to a target became my catcher. The most likely victims? A rolled up sock, (I would later discover that a rolled up sock inside another one makes an even BETTER ball!) and the space between the two garage doors of our duplex. I am certain that I threw more innings to that garage than any major leaguer in history.
Being outside pitching, drew the attention of neighborhood kids. Soon there were full games taking place. Sticks, or broken golf clubs were bats. Socks, balled up aluminum foil, and on the sweet and rare occasion, a tennis or whiffle were used as the ball. Any piece of trash or clothing, and sometimes natural things such as trees or rocks, served as bases. The ground rules were direly important at this stage in life, and they were discussed and debated by the older kids before every game. Then told to us younger children. These were laws, never to be broken in any circumstance. The games were regulated by ourselves, with age serving as the thing that granted a person the most weight in an argument.
This would be the first time I was told that I was not good enough, and that I would never be good enough. I was too small, too short, and too skinny.
It turns out, having an arm like I did takes you places. It took me from a lost kid, to the star of my team. It took our team to the state playoffs. It granted me acceptance and fame of sorts, in any circle that knew anything about baseball. By the time I got to the eighth grade, the local high school coach wanted me to play for his JV team. But that would mean losing my last year with Randy. It would’ve been good for my high school career. I would’ve been guaranteed a spot on varsity my freshman year. I politely declined. It was hard enough thinking that Coach Randy would no longer be my coach. That year would be the last time most of my teammates, whom I grew up with on the baseball field, would ever play the game.
Then, I transferred high schools. I gave up certain stardom, to go to a more competitive program. Again, I became a nobody. I started from scratch in my new high school. It was a much more affluent high school than the one I was supposed to go to. First day of practice. Again feeling alienated. All these kids had played in a different, more expensive, “better” league than me. They all had the cool new spikes, new gloves, and the brand new high technology bats. And their star, on the first day, informed me that I was not good enough, I was too small, too short, and too skinny.
It wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior year, the second to last game of the season, that I became the star. Our coach announced who would be starting the first game of the playoffs; therefore announcing the ace of the team, as well as the person who would be starting the championship game. The announcement sent a shockwave through the team and the school. It would be bitterly held against me, not only for the rest of my days at that school either.
At this point in high school, scouts from colleges and the pros watch your every performance. I was told by all of them that I wasn’t good enough, too small, too short, too skinny.
I wasn’t drafted out of high school. Almost all the other all stars were. It was projected that my body was too small, and even though I threw hard, my body would break down before I could ever make a significant impact on a program. They gave me 2-3 years tops. So I signed with a junior college, and a coach that made me feel like he believed in me. And more importantly, with a scholarship that would help pay for my education. FAFSA decided that my family was poor enough that they would pay for the rest, and I would get to go to college. Something my family couldn’t have afforded. Something most of the kids in my neighborhood would not get to do. Something, that no one in my family had ever done. You see, an arm like I had takes you places.
I was an immediate all star at my junior college. Yet again, the pro scouts told me I wasn’t good enough, and I was too small. I went undrafted yet again. At least I got the attention of some bigger schools. I signed a full ride scholarship with Oregon State University. The head coach there would later tell me I wasn’t good enough. So, after my junior year, I again went undrafted. I was good enough, but too small. Scouts told me over and over that my frame shouldn’t be able to throw that hard, and that my body would break down. They gave me another 2-3 years tops, not enough time to make an impact on a program. My own family, and even some of my friends told me, “Maybe you’re not quite good enough. Maybe you are too small, too short and/or too skinny.”
A Baltimore Oriole hall of famer by the name of “Diamond” Jim Gentil sent me a contract. I signed, and was off to Missouri. An arm like mine, can take you places.
For the last four years I have been an all star, near record breaking professional pitcher. Impacting every program I play for, both on and off the field. I still get told I’m not good enough, that I’m too small, and that my body won’t hold up long enough to make an impact.
I have been afforded the opportunity to travel all over the world, and work with all sorts of children and in all sorts of communities. Because of my status as a professional baseball player, my word seems to carry weight with people. I have reached out to younger players, people of the communities I played in, random people I meet during the course of life, teammates from all over the world and from all walks of life, local schools and organizations, but most importantly, children. I have a special place in my heart for children who knowingly have to spend their life playing against all odds.
It is interesting to note, by the way, that those very people that I have the opportunity to touch, are the very people who buy tickets to the games and allow my salary to be paid. It is also those very people that God uses when I’m feeling defeated, to lift me up and recharge me in my missions.
You see, no matter how poor, short, skinny or otherwise impaired you are. Sometimes, those people who are supposed to know, are wrong. God gave me a gift, and has helped me use it to touch thousands of lives. He also gave me a passion, to use my gift to pay back. So that one day, another one of His soldiers who was never supposed to make it, can put a smile that could light up an entire city on the face of a young child.
To those who gave me charity that allowed me to play. To those whose face lit up because of my gift and spurred me on. To my parents who never let me believe what others were telling me. To all those who told me I wasn’t good enough, for providing the burn deep inside to prove you wrong. To those that gave me a chance when no one else would. To those who have lifted me when I have doubted myself. To those children who have taught me more about life than life itself. To those fans who have wanted my autograph even when I have lost. To those teammates who have touched me. To those who have been told they are not good enough for whatever reason, but persevered anyways. And most importantly, to God, for a gift that has allowed me to pay back all of the above. Thank you.