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MY TURN AT BAT

Back on the Field
By Matt Tullis

I stood in the on-deck circle and watched the pitcher, a tall, pudgy kid whose pants seemed to fall down his backside a little bit every time he delivered a pitch. I watched as he walked the hitter before me. He had nothing, I told myself. Just a lot of slow, breaking stuff that didn't break much.

I was more nervous than I ever had been before, partly because it was my first at bat of the season, but mostly because it was my first at bat since being diagnosed with leukemia more than a year earlier. I had missed the previous season and had barely made the junior varsity squad this season. I was still receiving frequent chemo-therapy treatments and had yet to gain the more than thirty pounds I had lost because of the cancer. Despite the brown-and-gold uniform, despite the fact that I was on the team, I was still a skinny, sick kid playing among a bunch of young, healthy, strong boys.

I strolled to the plate, cutting the bat through the air every couple steps. I looked at Coach Seder down at third base for signs, but he just clapped his hands and shouted, "Come on, Tully."

I adjusted the helmet on my head and stepped into the batter's box. I remembered my routine perfectly; tap the bat on the inside of home plate, then the outside, then the inside again, take two half-swings and dig my back foot in, stare at the pitcher. His cheeks were red and his curly brown hair fell out of his cap, just like my hair would have had it not fallen out. He delivered the first pitch and I let it go. Ball one. He delivered another pitch. Again, I watched it go by. Strike one. After each pitch, I stepped out of the box and looked at Coach Seder before stepping back into the box and repeating my routine. The third pitch came right down the middle, and I started forward, first my left foot, then my hands. I yanked the bat through the strike zone and there was the familiar dink of aluminum bat on ball. My hands began ringing, stinging from the contact and the cold, and I started running.

I watched the ball roll between the shortstop and second baseman, into the outfield grass. I plodded toward first base, my atrophied legs barely able to move my body down the baseline. The center fielder picked up the ball when I was still several feet away from first. I thought: don't get thrown out, don't get thrown out. And then my right foot landed on the white base with a puff. I looked at second base and saw the runner had made a wide turn toward third but was retreating as the center fielder threw the ball back into the infield. I turned and walked back to first base, out of breath and straightening my loose helmet.

My friend Jamie was coaching first base.

"Nice hit, Slo Mo," he said, the nickname coming after early spring practices during which I was always the last one done running.

The guys in the dugout were still yelling, and our meager collection of fans were standing and cheering. I didn't smile, though. Instead, I acted like it was just another hit, just another at bat. The inning ended a couple batters later with me standing on third base. The game was over a short time after that, a blowout win for the Waynedale Golden Bears, not helped at all by my single, but a win I felt I had contributed to nonetheless.

 

For so long, I have envisioned that scene being the final chapter of a book I am writing about having leukemia and about the fight to get back to normal. That, after all, was the moment when I was back. I was back on the baseball field, the place I held more sacred than any other. And I was able to drive a pitch up the middle for a solid single. I was part of the team again. I was a normal teenager again. That was it, the perfect ending.

Except the story doesn't end there. I kept playing baseball, or trying to play baseball. After the hit, I took to the field with a new attitude, one that led me to believe I was just as good as I had been before I got sick, and that I was one of the best players on the team. I was, after all, batting 1.000, highest average on the team, and while I may have only been one for one, I knew that if I had the chance to hit more often, I would still be the best hitter on the team.

For the rest of the season, I walked into the dugout believing that I should be the starting shortstop or second baseman, that I should be hitting second in the lineup, that I should be the one driving home clutch runs. I walked into that dugout despising the fact that I would be sitting on the bench cheering on teammates that I was so much better than, jogging down to first to occasionally coach baserunners, hoping for a blowout so I might get a chance to hit or play half an inning in the field.

The seeds for this attitude had been planted long before I got that base hit. It happened on a cold, snowy night in January at a church youth group lock-in that was held at a facility that had, among other things, batting cages. They had a hitting contest that night, and more than forty people took their cuts.

I won.

I hadn't hit the balls particularly hard, but this contest valued contact more than anything, and I made contact on every pitch. I stood there and sprayed balls all over the cage, collecting point after point.

When I climbed out of the cage and pulled off my helmet, I caught several people staring at my head, bald except for a few wispy strands of hair stubbornly clinging to my scalp. They had to have wondered how I, with my beanpole legs and strings for arms, was able to hit the ball so consistently. I just shrugged and went on like it was something I had been doing every night for the last ten years.

It wasn't, of course. It was really only about the second or third time I had even held a bat in my hand since getting sick. But the tall trophy I received for winning the contest convinced me that I hadn't lost anything. If anything, I may have gotten better.

 

We were a good team. We played twenty or twenty-five games, and only lost four or five. But still I found fault with nearly every player on the field, particularly those playing the positions I thought were mine, the outfield and shortstop.

Jim, my best friend since elementary school (and a very capable catcher), and I ragged incessantly on Shawn, a freshman outfielder who started the season in a horrible slump. I couldn't believe someone who had only one hit in the month of April was still in the starting lineup every single game. Hell, I had one hit in the month of April and that came in only one at bat.

When someone got thrown out stealing, I said that wouldn't have happened to me because I knew my limitations. When someone made an error, I said, "I would have fielded that ball. Why the hell can't he stay down on it?" When someone struck out, I said, "At least I can make contact." When someone failed to get down a sacrifice bunt, I said, "Jesus Christ, that's fundamental." In the dugout, I seethed about the fact that I was on the bench and this group of inept players was on the field. How we won any games, I didn't know. How Coach Seder couldn't see this, I hadn't any idea.

Eventually I was deriding every decision made by the coach.

"Having a designated hitter for Jim? Give me a break."

"Why the hell does he have Shawn hitting second? Why the hell does he have Shawn hitting at all?"

One day, we were locked in a tight game. Tight games meant my butt would never leave the bench, so I was particularly edgy. I knew the only time I would get to leave the dugout was to coach first base, which I had been doing less and less each week, finally understanding that no amount of team spirit was going to get me in more games.

We were in the field and up by one run. There were runners on second and third and two outs. The ninth batter was coming to the plate. This kid was all that stood between us and a win, and he had struck out twice, looking like he had no idea what was coming. I knew these things because I was occasionally given the score book and told to keep score and shut up.

I was happy because it looked like we were going to get out of the inning fairly soon and win the game. That meant I could go home and complain about not playing but at least salvage some glee in the fact that we had won. Then Coach Seder told the pitcher to walk the ninth hitter.

"We can set up a force at any base," he said.

My jaw dropped. We hadn't gotten our opponent's leadoff hitter out all afternoon, and it wasn't because of luck. He had been crushing the ball to all fields.

"That was stupid," I said to anyone on the bench who would listen. "Why would you walk the ninth batter? Who cares about a force out?"

The next hitter lined a double down the line. Three runs scored. We eventually lost the game.

"That was the stupidest coaching I have ever seen," I said after our team had come in to hit and Coach Seder had walked out to coach third base. I made sure I said it loud enough that he might actually hear me.

"Seriously, that kid he walked hadn't even come close to the ball all day. And he walks him to bring up a kid we haven't gotten out yet. I swear, I have more baseball knowledge in my pinkie finger than Seder has in his whole body."

Coach Seder apparently had had enough.

"Tullis, shut up."

When he came back into the dugout he told me that I was done for the day and that I would be suspended for the next game as well.

I mumbled under my breath that it didn't make any difference, that I wasn't going to play anyway.

Embarrassing as it is to admit now, I was proud of that moment throughout high school. I was proud of the fact that I tried to show up Coach Seder. I told the story over and over again and people laughed. They knew you didn't walk the ninth hitter to load the bases. Why didn't he? I didn't tell the story to make people laugh, though. I told it because I was mean and mad, and I wanted to make the coach look bad. I told the story because I thought it made me look better, smarter. It made me look more than I really was. It elevated me past skinny sick kid to baseball player who knew more than the coach. I told the story to prove how stupid the coach was and how smart I was when it came to the game of baseball. I may have been sick, but my brain still worked, and I wanted people to know that if I had coached the junior varsity baseball team, we would have been undefeated.

 

The previous summer was the first in my post˝six-year-old existence in which I did not play baseball. When I came back after being sick, I had looked forward to playing more than anything. I went to practices with the pitchers and catchers simply because they started two weeks earlier than everyone else and I just wanted to throw the ball. I slept with my glove and counted down the days until the first game. From the day I was diagnosed with leukemia, I had looked forward to that spring, to that baseball season, and for it to end the way it did, with me being relieved that the season was over, was unfortunate and sad.

I didn't even plan on playing baseball that summer until Brad, one of our pitchers, mentioned a Hot Stove team in Wooster. They were short players, so I signed up, thinking I would get plenty of playing time.

Mr. McConnell, the physical education teacher at the largest high school in the county, was coaching the team. His son, Quinn, had actually been a good friend in elementary school before his family moved to Wooster, and was playing on the team as well.

Early in the season, I saw plenty of action. I felt like this was how the high school baseball season should have gone, with me playing an integral role in the success of the team. In one game, Coach McConnell used me to sacrifice bunt twice. Bunting was a skill I had worked on since Little League, especially when I realized one of the easiest ways to get on base was to bunt to the third baseman, given that Little Leaguers have a hard time fielding and throwing the ball. In the eighth grade, I did a demonstration speech on the sacrifice bunt and the art of deadening a ball just a few feet in front of the catcher.

I loved to sacrifice bunt, to get a runner in scoring position even though the pitcher knew exactly what you were trying to do but couldn't stop you. The sacrifice bunt is the ultimate team play, so I find it ironic now that even when I was selfish and angry about playing time, when I finally did get in a game, I wanted nothing more than to be the ultimate team player.

The first time up, I moved runners over to second and third, and they were promptly driven home with a base hit. My next at bat came with a runner on third. Coach McConnell signaled for the suicide squeeze. My heart started jumping with excitement. As the pitch came in, the runner on third broke for home. The pitch was outside so I threw my bat out and bunted the ball up the first base line. I was thrown out easily, but the run scored. I had my first RBI. When I jogged back to the dugout, the other team's coach nodded at me and said, "Nice bunting."

When the season started winding down and getting serious, though, when we started playing better teams and positioning ourselves for a run in the state tournament, I played less and less. Quinn, who couldn't throw the ball with his right arm anymore because of an injury, stayed in the lineup every game, playing first base. To get the ball back to the pitcher, he took off his glove and tossed it with his left hand, underhanded.

The fun I had early in the season was starting to wear off. I came home after each game raging about how I didn't get to play again, or how I only got one at bat. I couldn't believe that Coach McConnell thought Quinn was a better player with one arm than I was with two, even if I was still receiving chemotherapy treatments.

During the first game of the state tournament, we were winning in a blowout. Quinn had been playing first base the entire game. Coach told me I was going to pinch-hit for someone, but then that person was going to go back out in the field. We were winning by so many runs, I couldn't see how letting me play in the field was going to cost us anything.

I struck out on three pitches, still muttering under my breath about how Coach McConnell didn't know what he was doing and how it wasn't fair that I didn't get to play. As I turned to walk back to the dugout, there was a thunk in the back of my head. The catcher had turned to whip the ball to third base, to throw it around the infield after the strikeout, only he had horrible aim and drilled me in the back of the head. It didn't hurt. Instead, it just turned the heat up on the anger that was already boiling under my skin.

I walked back to the dugout, sat down, and seethed. After the game was over, after we had won, I picked up my stuff and left the dugout. Coach wanted to have a team meeting before we all scattered for our parents' vehicles, but I was already standing at the gate.

"Tullis, get back here," he shouted.

I opened the gate.

"Tullis," he shouted again.

"I quit," I shouted back and walked through the gate to my parents' van.

It was the first time in my life I had actively chosen to quit playing baseball, and for it to happen less than six months after I had so looked forward to playing again still bothers me. Why couldn't I be happy just being on a team? Why did I insist on being such a jerk, such an individual in the greatest team game? Why didn't I realize earlier that I wasn't as good as I thought I was, thus saving several coaches and me a lot of trouble?

I'm sure they didn't want to be the ones that pissed off the sick kid. I'm sure they felt horrible about not being able to find playing time for the kid who had survived so much and just wanted to play baseball. But they also needed to win games, and I realize now that playing me more often would have put that in jeopardy. As competitive as I was then, I still would have rather played nine innings on the losing team than one inning on the winning team, and that feeling caused me to have one of the most miserable summers of my existence. It was even worse than the previous summer, the summer I couldn't play baseball at all.

 

I don't know exactly when it happened, but sometime after that state tournament game and before the next high school baseball season started, I began to realize that maybe I wasn't as good a player as I thought I was. Sure, I caught everything that I got to, and I could bunt better than anyone and hit the ball into a hole consistently. But I thought of a flyball I had chased down and caught under the lights at the county fairgrounds. It was a catch I had been so proud of because I thought it was impressive, a show of great athleticism, but I started to wonder what the catch looked like from the grandstands or the bench where the coach sat. Did the people watching the game see a great running catch, or did they see a kid running slowly, awkwardly, barely able to make it to a routine flyball that would have been caught by even the most inept outfielder?

I tried to picture my bunts, slowing to a roll in a no-man's land between pitcher and catcher, and I wondered whether the crowd saw a beautiful sacrifice bunt or a bunt that was so good that any other runner would have beaten it out.

 

My baseball career ended the following summer. During my junior year in high school, I split time between the varsity squad and the junior varsity team. I got four at bats on the varsity team that spring, two of which resulted in base hits, a single in one game and a double in the other. My JV time came after several players were suspended for breaking into the school's concession stand. For two weeks, I played every inning of every game. I played right field and got three or four at bats per game. I don't remember whether we won or lost those games, only that I actually missed playing with my classmates and friends on the varsity team, a team that was winning game after game and gaining votes in the state rankings.

One summer earlier, I would have given anything to have stayed on the junior varsity squad and played every day, but now I just wanted to be part of the varsity team. The anger was gone, replaced instead with the more logical sense that when it came to playing competitive baseball, I was likely in the right place, at least on this team, and that was on the bench.

We lost a heartbreaking game in the regional finals, a game that turned out to be my last. We had a one-run lead heading into the top of the seventh and had two outs when the opposing team's best hitter drilled a ball to left field. From the dugout, it looked like Paul, our left fielder, had made a spectacular, leaping catch against the fence. We jumped up and down, screaming with joy, until we saw the umpire's signal and the other team's runners scrambling around the bases. Then we started screaming at the umpire, unaware that the ball had popped out of Paul's glove when he hit the fence. Two runs scored. Drained of all momentum, we failed to muster anything in the bottom half of the inning and lost the game.

Had I known then that it would be my last game, I may have been more upset about not getting to play. I was sick that we had lost but was fully convinced that I would play again the following season, that we would get to the state finals and that I would squeeze one more summer of baseball out of my body before calling it quits.

But as summer turned to fall and fall to winter, I started thinking more about college—and the necessary finances it would require—than I did about baseball. I sacrificed the sport I loved the next spring for the Golden Bear Dariette, where I could log many extra hours serving ice cream and make some money to take with me to college.

It was strange, not putting on the sanitary socks and stirrups and pulling the Waynedale jersey over my head twice a week. It wasn't the first time in my life that I chose not to play baseball, but it was the first time I felt like I actually had a choice, that it wasn't about playing time or lack thereof, about winning games or losing my mind because of perceived injustices.

I had played baseball for nine years, two as a cancer survivor. My final two years weren't the greatest seasons of my short career in terms of statistics, but they did help me work through some things that needed working through. I was able to get beyond the anger that came with being diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, and I started to understand the limitations that had been placed on my body, either from birth or from chemotherapy.

While there are moments from those seasons I wish had never happened, there are also those that I cherish. Like the time I got my first hit after coming back from cancer. When I touched first base, I didn't care about the stinging pain in my hands, only about the joy of standing on first base and staring at the ninety feet ahead of me, itching to turn that corner and head for third, to race a throw to the plate and slide in safe.

—EFQ

MATT TULLIS received an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lives with his wife and son in Wooster, Ohio, where he is a reporter at The Daily Record. He also teaches in the English department at Ashland University.

© 2005 Matt Tullis

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