idol season ten | week 3 | 1167 words
When I was a child growing up in Oregon, I dreaded playing softball. I'm not talking about the fastballs, curveballs, and other tricky components of baseball—those would have been impossibly hard. No, this was just slow-pitch school P.E. softball.
When you have lousy depth perception, regular softball is already hard enough.
I wrote an Idol entry a year ago about the visual limitations I had during childhood. Third grade was when I was finally "busted" as extremely nearsighted and prescribed eyeglasses. But even earlier in the third grade, well before my vision was corrected, was when I first encountered softball.
During my three years at that school, I was often doing something different from the other kids. Usually, I was studying advanced reading or math (whenever the teachers' aid was available). Sometimes, I just did independent reading.
Imagine years of spending most P.E. sessions indoors with books, and then one day your schedule opens up during P.E. and you're dragged outside to join the rest of the class for a game. You know nothing about this game, you're just told to stand in position with a bat, and hit the ball when it goes by.
Something whips past you. What was that? "Strike." Something whips past you again. Was that it? "Ball." Then something hits you.
"Ow! Why did you—"
"Take your base."
I didn't know what that meant, and I couldn't actually see where the bases were, so I was guided to first base, then to second on a later play. At some point, I probably screwed up and got tagged out, or the team struck out too many times and the inning closed.
That is a horrible way to be introduced to a sport!
Once I got glasses, I had a much better idea of how the game was supposed to go, but I still couldn't hit anything. I couldn't catch anything either, unless it was slow and relatively flat. Fly balls are my nemeses. Even now, they climb in the air and seem to 'hang' for a while, and then they unpredictably shoot out in random directions and I fail to catch them. I know people with good depth perception must see something different, but that's what it looks like to me. Racquetballs and tennis balls are worse. Do you know what's good? Basketballs with black lines. They're large, and the lines help show that they're moving.
Schools like softball—it's a fairly low-equipment sport. A few bats and balls, some mitts, a large area of grass or dirt, and you're set. For most of my childhood from third grade onward, if there was P.E. and it wasn't raining, we'd be playing softball.
I lived in eternal hope of timely rain.
In seventh grade, P.E. became a regular event 2-3 times a week, with its own teacher. He was patient and really tried to help me, but I was more hopeless than most. I played right outfield and missed the few balls that came my way, and almost always struck out at bat. Then one day, I started paying attention to one of the boys on my team.
Yes, there was a crush involved, but that wasn't all. This boy had a really aggressive batting stance, and he swung hard. He made a lot of contact with the ball, and while he hit a lot of foul balls, everyone knew he might really slug one out there at some point. The other kids ignored the foul hits for the promise of a good one.
I observed, and I learned. Legs apart, knees bent, right leg back, cinch up on the bat, and then swing hard with the whole body. Elementary school pitchers are just trying to get the ball over the plate, nothing tricky, so before long… I could actually hit the ball! I had struggled for years to make contact, but now I finally had a shot at it. I hit a lot of hard, foul balls, mostly over the right backstop (signaling a late reaction to the ball, because again, lousy depth perception). But some of those hits were good.
It is amazing how much people will forgive if you show real commitment and potential.
Basketball and volleyball, I could actually play, and even P.E. level soccer. But for softball, my main goal was just to avoid being humiliated every time I came up to bat. That sport has everything I'm bad at (and yes—I also throw like a girl), but the illusion of potential batting skill got the other kids off my back. I never liked the sport, but at least I no longer dreaded it on a daily basis.
I left softball behind after 9th grade P.E., but it returned later in a different form.
Years ago, we used to go camping with the kids in the Sierras. Our regular campground was full one weekend, so we camped where we could—in this case, Snag Lake. It was a small, shaded campground with about 30-40 feet of lake access and an active mosquito population. Unlike Oregon mosquitoes, California mosquitoes respect neither season nor daylight. Instead of coming out at dawn and dusk, they're waiting for you 24/7, especially in the shade.
The first day there, I drove off in the car for a solo hike while my husband stayed with the kids. It turned out there were no trails near the Snag Lake campground, and it was too early to go in the lake. Before long, the kids were bored and under mosquito attack. My husband took stock of what we'd brought and what was available at the campground, and in desperation, he invented the game of whackball.
Whackball is similar to softball, except that it is played with a tiny nerf football and uses a hiking pole as a bat. There are four bases (wherever you can fit them), a pitcher, a batter, and an outfielder. The advantage of the "equipment" is that you can't hit the ball very far, which is good as the inaugural game was held in a small area bounded by the lake, other campers, and a highway.
The kids really enjoyed that game, and we still play it when we go camping—making sure to take the appropriate equipment. While there is no poison oak at those elevations, there is a lot of random brush, and it's easy to lose the ball in a patch of weeds or manzanita. The ill-suited bat and the irregular-shaped shock-absorbent nerf ball really help keep things in line.
Still, the most frequent instigator of impromptu ball searches is me. Even decades later, old habits die hard.
When it's my turn at bat, I find myself striking that batting stance and gripping the hiking pole tight. The nerf football wibble-wobbles its way to me slowly, so much easier to track than any normal ball…
As soon as it comes in range, I'm right back in middle school again, lining up and swinging for the fences.
Voting this week is contestant-only.