Gatherer, Not Hunter

“Go ahead and toss a few,” he said. 

I told him I was no pitcher.

We were on the local elementary school ball diamond. It was a Saturday, a few days before little league’s opening day. Fifteen boys, some eager, some not; two dads, one competent, one not.

At the moment I was standing behind home plate catching, as one after another the boys stepped up to batting practice. Coach Ted threw strikes with the accuracy of a mechanized pitching machine. He was a big guy. He’d probably been a star player in little league when he was a kid, then a star player in high school and possibly college baseball as he got older and bigger. When the boy at the plate connected with the ball, Coach Ted turned and barked directions at the boys in the field. When the batter didn’t make contact, I fielded the ball, which meant catching one out of five and running to the backstop to retrieve four out of five.

I threw the ball back out to Coach Ted.

“You sure?” he said.

“I’m sure.”  

I’d already told him I couldn’t pitch. Standing beside me, my son had agreed with me and told Coach Ted I couldn’t pitch. Coach Ted could see, when I threw the ball back in the general direction of the pitcher’s mound, that I couldn’t pitch. I guess he wanted to see just how bad I was.

“Don’t you want to help out Coach Ted?” my wife had said.

“Not really.”

“Don’t you think you should help out Coach Ted?”

We’d dithered about little league that year, signed the boy up late. It was his last year of eligibility. Prior years he’d played little league and was not particularly enthusiastic about it. The teams were already practicing when he changed his mind that year and said he’d like to play. So I called Coach Ted on the phone, and he agreed to put our son on his roster.

“Help how?” I said. 

“Be supportive. You know, work with the boys.” 

“No.”

Our son said, “That’s okay, dad.”

“No, it’s not okay. He should help.”  She turned and gave me an imploring look.  “You should help.”  

#

I played one year of little league. It was the last year I was eligible. I liked baseball. I played in the vacant lot across the street from our house with boys in the neighborhood. Like them, every time I stepped up to the plate, which was a scrap of delaminating plywood or a flattened Cheerios box, I did the Rocky Colavito stretch and aimed for the stands, a long hedge row between the lot and Charlie Sarle’s house. Baseball was fun. The thing was, when I put on the uniform, the fun went out of the game.

I played on the Giants, wore the smallest uniform they had, which was a size too big, and struggled to find my place on the team. Usually I was sent out to right field, which was fine. In one game Mr. Hathaway made the mistake of putting me at third base. Three ground balls got past me, the only errors in the game someone pointed out. In round-the-horn tosses between innings, when we took the field and I was supposed to throw the ball across the infield, all the way from third base to first, like I was throwing out an actual runner, my throw hit our pitcher Paul Daughenbaugh in the back. Twice. I wasn’t just inept; I was slightly dangerous.

When it was my turn to bat, every pitch seemed to travel at the speed of light. Boys on the team talked about pitchers they’d faced, before my time. Brian Bennett threw a slider. Woody Mills, with a face that looked like it belonged on a baseball card, had an off-speed pitch. Louie Munger had a mean curve ball. I still remember the intimidation I felt when David Cibulka pitched. He was a lefty, a modified sidearm, with good control of the ball. He threw strikes. I never swung at one pitch. I went to bat hoping to walk.

#

Not everyone can whistle. And some of those who can, can’t. They can make a sound, but it’s one flat note only and lacks resonance, lacks any reason for even being a whistle. 

I grew up around whistlers. Both my parents whistled. Pete the Barber in my town whistled while he cut. When I watched the Andy Griffith show I whistled the theme song note for note. In seventh grade, when I picked up a guitar and began to play, I soon learned the chords to Lovin Spoonful’s “What a Day for a Daydream” and whistled that melody like I owned it. Jerry Lewis and the Playboys’ “Save Your Heart for Me” had a wonderful whistle solo intro. I nailed it. Today I’ll whistle the opening motif of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major or snatches of Eric Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies. As I do, I give thanks for the musical instrument on my face.

I’ve come to believe you can’t teach someone to whistle. Lauren Bacall wrote the book on it, but it’s a very short book and not really about whistling. 

My grandson asked me the other day, How do you do that?  I just do. I couldn’t begin to explain how.  

#

More than anything in baseball, the throw bedeviled me. Still does. I could put the ball in the air and get some distance, but accuracy was plus or minus ten feet, in any direction. I used to think: There must be a throw gene, like there’s a gene for whistling or rolling your tongue or attached earlobes. 

Scientists who think hard about human evolution surmise that man developed the overhand throw 1.8 million years ago. (This may also have been the time that man began to whistle.) No other primate can throw like we can. “The best an adult male [chimpanzee] can do,” science writer James Gorman observes, “is about 20 miles per hour. A 12-year-old human pitcher can easily throw three times that fast.” A good arm that made prehistoric man an effective hunter would later make him a good baseball player.

Gorman adds, “Pitching coaches and experts in sports medicine have long analyzed the details of the throwing motion…, the shoulder’s functioning like a slingshot.”

As far as I know, no one ever analyzed my throw. I don’t know that it would have helped. I don’t think 10,000 hours would have helped. I was not a natural. I was an unnatural. When I watched the Detroit Tigers win the 1968 World Series, I took special interest in the outfielders, that being my usual position, though by then, I had ignominiously retired from little league. Al Kaline, in particular, was said to have an arm so strong and so accurate, he could throw strikes from the right field fence and dispatch a base runner at home plate.

It’s a good thing I didn’t live 1.2 million years ago, when I would have been expected to put food on the table by throwing rocks and beaning lunch. My family would have starved.

#

Some nights that season I sat on the Giants bench next to Dan Leman. We practiced rolling our tongues and trying to whistle through them. We could both roll, both our tongues made a sound, but it wasn’t really whistling. I wanted to whistle a tune with my tongue.

“Look,” Dan said one night.  “I can make a bowl.”

He stuck out his tongue and showed me. Sure enough it was a perfectly round bowl, deep enough to hold an M&M peanut. 

“You guys watching the game?” Mr. Hathaway said to us. 

I stuck out my tongue and tried it.

“Nope,” Dan said. “That’s not it.”

I tried again.

“Pay attention, you guys.”

“Nope.”

It was just one of those things.  You either had it, or you didn’t. 

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