Baseball

It started happening just before the bottom of the sixth inning began.

I caught the pitcher’s final warm-up as I stepped out of my crouch to throw down to second. I cocked my hips, transitioned the ball to my bare hand, and felt my insubordinate fingers lock onto the baseball, refusing to release it at the top of my throwing motion. The ball darted into the all-sand infield just left of the pitcher’s mound, skipping off toward where the shortstop would have been if he weren’t covering second, and rolling to a stop in short left field.

“My bad,” I yelled.

No one ever gets caught stealing at this level; it has happened maybe twice in three years of weekly play. Pitchers aren’t good enough at holding runners on, catchers aren’t good enough at blocking balls in the dirt or throwing to bases, infielders aren’t good enough at receiving throws and tagging runners. There are just way too many variables that could go wrong on the defensive side, and all the baserunner has to do is haul his ass 90 feet.

But a catcher with a strong or accurate arm can at least dissuade the casual basestealers — the fat guys, the hungover crowd, the smokers, and the one fat, smoking, hungover dude.

Last week, I caught 10 innings and my throws were sharp. Not hard, but on target, and good enough to limit only the speedy runners to taking bags when the situation called for it, instead of beckoning every runner to steal every time he reached base.

This week, after the errant warmup throw, the latter happened. This week, they ran wild, taking advantage as, with increased concentration on controlling my hand, my throws grew worse: pop-ups 15 feet to the left of second base, bloopers over the third baseman’s head.

I knew I shouldn’t have caught before I even arrived at the ballfields in Red Hook. The pain in my back and shoulders nagged me for days before, knifing into my neck and radiating down my arms into my hands.

No one here would judge me if, while we divvied up positions before the game, I grumbled something about my back acting up and begged out of catching. But when no one else immediately volunteered, I stepped up, knowing what I do about how much more value a slap-hitting, poor-defending backstop offers to his team than a slap-hitting, poor-defending corner outfielder.

I started playing pickup baseball in Brooklyn three years ago this month, and, coincidentally, just a few weeks after I first felt the symptoms of M.S.

The game started because a guy named Grant heard about adult hardball leagues that played around the borough, then got drunk and put up a Craigslist ad inviting players to Prospect Park to come try out for his team. When a bunch of people showed up the next day, Grant copped to having no idea how to get involved in any organized league but the group decided to break into two teams for a pickup game anyway. They played again the next week.

I heard about it from a couple of friends a week later, and I’ve been playing pretty much every week since, work and weather permitting.

Grant followed a girl to South America that winter. New leaders emerged, and slowly, the game became better organized: equipment purchased, vague bylaws and codes of conduct established. Eventually enough guys started playing regularly that we had to cap the roster and stop welcoming passing hipsters in skinny jeans and hiking boots, even though we all agreed that was kind of awesome. Fewer guys smoke cigarettes during play now, and more wear real baseball pants.

We even legitimized and secured permits for fields, though our disagreement with the Parks Department over the actual length of baseball season — they say April-to-Labor Day, we say March-to-Thanksgiving — means we still wind up itinerant for a few months of each year, playing at whatever Brooklyn diamond seems least likely to be overrun with flag football or LARPers or leftover temporary fences from a concert.

During that time, what started as some pain in my upper back gave way to a variety of stranger problems: numbness in my hands, tingling in my foot when I worked out too long, difficulty grabbing certain chords on the guitar, a buzzing sensation in my neck when I tilted my head downwards, and a few terrifying episodes in which I entirely lost control of my left arm.

It took five doctors, countless tests and over a year to get a diagnosis, then a five-day hospital stint for steroid treatment (which did nothing for my power!) and now a bevy of pills and vitamins and a weekly injection to reach some semblance of stasis.

I still have the pain — some days and nights worse than others — plus an odd hypersensitivity to uncomfortable seating arrangements and a Zoolander-like inability to turn my head all the way to the left. Sometimes the drugs leave me feeling a bit sick, light-headed, or just dumb. Plus there are the times when, if my body gets too hot or too tired, certain parts don’t seem to comply with my brain’s instructions, ever a strange sensation. That’s what was happening that Saturday in Red Hook.

But my doctor says the lesions on my brain and spinal chord that cause all those issues have stopped growing, and claims that an M.S. diagnosis is not the damning sentence it was even a few years ago. He says, with treatment, I should expect to remain at least this healthy into old age.

In other words, I have no reason to believe I’ll have to stop playing baseball anytime soon.

That’s important.

I’m lucky enough to say that the worst effect M.S. ever had on me was the pervasive uncertainty it unleashed. The symptoms of the disease can be so vague and potentially so comprehensive that it’s easy to become concerned that every little thing represents a symptom, every twitch and pain and hiccup, every lost memory and unrecalled word emblematic of the onslaught of sickness. It’s frightening.

Playing baseball helps keep that paranoia at bay. Being able to compete, even at a casual level, with a group of men who presumably do not have M.S. reminds me that the disease cannot have made all that much headway before the doctors stopped the progression. It’s not like I was ever that good at baseball in the first place, and I’m still decent enough now to mostly avoid embarrassing myself among a bunch of guys who played high school and college ball.

I’m conscious of the disease while I play, of course. There are rare humiliating moments like that inning behind the plate, and slightly less epic ones like just dropping a flyball in the outfield and wondering if I would have made the play if my fingers weren’t numb under my glove. But my errors, I’ve realized, are no more costly or common than those of plenty of other guys on the field. Stranger, perhaps, but not necessarily more egregious.

Sometimes I fantasize about what might happen if I could be magically freed of the symptoms of the disease — the knots in my back loosened, all feeling in my extremities restored — while maintaining all the new skills I’ve certainly developed to compensate, some great Harrison Bergeron unveiling. But I know that’s not to be, that who I am now is who I am. And I know, rationally, that it doesn’t really matter if I dropped that flyball because I have M.S. or I dropped that flyball because I’ve been a crappy defender my whole life, because both M.S. and crappy defense are now invariable parts of my constitution.

Playing with mostly the same group of guys for several years, you develop pretty strong scouting reports. I assume the others see me as a good contact hitter without a lot of power, and a poor defender occasionally prone to the yips. Other than the two guys that know me personally, they have no idea I have a decent excuse for an awful throw here and there. That’s fine. The last thing I want is pity or mercy.

And though most of our bench conversations focus on baseball, through the years I pick up more about the guys around me on the field and learn which guy needs surgery but lacks insurance, which guy runs the bases with a helmet because he fears a seizure, which guy is suffering through a brutal divorce, which guy was uprooted by Katrina, and I realize how silly I am, how selfish, to assume that I’m the only one here playing to prove something to myself, or to escape some rough reality.

With enough experience in baseball or life, we are doomed to endure a great deal of misfortune. That’s universal. Frozen ropes sometimes fly right into fielder’s gloves and loved ones sometimes die young. And we can harp on the awful things that seem to happen for no good reason, let them weigh us down and ruin us, or we can accept that they are likely random, the pitfalls of existence, and shoulder them as best we can and focus on the dribblers that squeak through the infield.

Right around the time my back started hurting, some guy got drunk and put up a Craigslist post. I am still playing baseball three years later.

Cool.

I am riding 30 miles on a bike on Sunday to benefit the National MS Society. Please donate if you can.

34 thoughts on “Baseball

  1. Powerful stuff. Its a tribute to your writing that I enjoyed reading that. My thoughts are with you, and I wish you luck in your ride.

  2. Where is the ride taking place? 30 miles sounds rough but if its relatively flat, and its juts a nice steady pace, its really no big deal, even for someone who doesnt bike alot.

  3. Thanks for “stepping into a throw” for the readers. For my 2 cents if you can read stuff from someone that is droll and smart and also read something that has depth of content and consequence and if both are satisfying reads that shows the authors strength at their craft. Even more so if it can be done in one piece.

    So yeah… both… or rather “that”.

  4. Ted,

    Truly inspirational. My fiance was diagnosed with MS after experiencing optic neuritis and going through a battery of tests. She is now receiving a weekly injection to delay the progression and so far so good. I have had a difficult time dealing with the enormity of the 800lb gorilla that is MS that is affecting my fiance, but she is not unlike you and is tough as nails in this fight. I’ve learned how to see as she has (and you have) that its not the end of the world. I will share your story with her. Keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Wonderful to read, and all the best to you for continued success in treating your MS. It’s amazing the advances that have been made in treatments. My dad had MS for more than 30 years, diagnosed in 1976, which was before there really were any drugs available (or at least widely used) to treat it. Once he did start taking medications, in the early ’90s, it definitely helped slow the disease’s progression. I am a big supporter of the National MS Society (my family has a team at our local walk each year) and wish you success in your ride and your fundraising.

  6. Backdrop of Red Hook ballfields — which i now recognize as such; i took a jog past there last April — briefly confused me with the backdrop at the Clinton, IA Class “A” stadium where I played – or watched from bench — a couple high school games.

    Ain’t adult pick-up grand, though? I must have some disease, too, since it done me just as good. Basketball, not baseball, but same kind of deal, i guess.

    Good luck, medically and all.

  7. G-d bless, Ted. You’re not only a gifted writer, but a true example of what it means to have, well, “grission.” I wish you luck on your ride and I know with the attitude you have, nothing can hold you back. Thanks for the wonderful read.

  8. Ted .. Great Story! As another person with MS (and huge baseball fan, ex player) I relate to just about EVERYTHING you wrote about. Keep doing what you do. I will keep following you on twiiter, etc.

    Go Mets!!

    Mike S.
    Red Bank NJ

  9. Ted, that was a great post. Like you, my wife had some random things happening to her. Her eye was getting a little blurry, her fingers tingled, nothing that seemed “too bad”. But after this went on for 6 weeks, it all hit her at once. Luckily an MS specialist was at the hospital she went to, and decided to check for MS. I wish there was more awareness for MS, but hopefully people who read this post will understand what it is all about. Ted, you are an inspiration to all people. Keep playing and keep writing.

  10. Ted, powerful stuff. First time poster here. My mom has MS and I’ve done the walk-a-thons for years. They say men with MS get affected worse than women do.
    Had no idea you had MS. Keep fightin the good fight. Love your work online and on SNY. I wish metsblog loaded on my computer but the past few weeks its been dead, permanently. thank goodness i can still load your blog and TJB.

  11. Ted,

    I can relate to your experience. Last fall, I was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. It used to be a pretty dire condition, now with medication, it can be kept in check and I can live a normal life.

    I’m a runner, and the happiest of days was this past March when I was able to resume running. I agree, there is a powerful healing power in sports. They offer us a brief moment when we’re no longer a patient or someone to feel sorry for. At that point we are just another competitor, no different than anyone else out there with us. For a brief period of time, we get to feel ‘normal’ again. That’s a tough feeling to beat.

    Best of luck with your bike ride and pick-up baseball. I hope you have nothing but continued health.

  12. Ted:

    thank you for this.

    it’s beautifully and simply written, and it means a lot to me. Like many people who have posted, and in the world, I’ve suffered health problems, ones that can easily become an inhibiting preoccupation, and your piece helps lift us out of that–it’s wise, lovely and inspiring.

    Michael Murray

  13. Great post Ted. I was sent this way via Aaron Gleeman’s website, and couldn’t be more happy with what awaited me. I’m epileptic, and while it doesn’t effect me every day, it does certainly cast a shadow. I’ve been wanting to play pick-up games for a while now, but have been kind of scared to do so.

    This post certainly pushed me forward in that pursuit though, so thanks again for the beautiful post.

  14. Ted – WOW! powerful stuff – You have helped put things into perspective – I didn’t realize the ride was this week and would like to contribute. Please let me know how –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s