“OK guys, today we’re going to choose up softball teams for the rest of the school year.”
Mr. Doss was my sixth grade homeroom teacher, but he also taught PE for the boys in our three-classroom rotation – enough boys for four teams of nine or ten boys each.
“We’ll keep track of team records, and declare a champion team at the end of the year.”
“It sure won’t be mine,” I thought. I wasn’t very good at softball. My eye condition made both hitting and catching difficult, and years of hearing the laughter at my comical performances had convinced me that’d I’d never be any good. I knew I’d be picked near the end of a roster — but no matter where I came up in the batting order, it would be the wrong time to send old Chip to the plate. PE was destined to be a torment for me for the rest of the year.
Sandy Witcher chose me seventh on a team of nine. Not bad, I thought. In fact, I felt downright complimented. Even though the guys after me were pretty pathetic, the one just ahead of me was a decent hitter. Sandy, the captain and lead-off hitter, was quite an athlete – and he was also a really nice guy. He never made fun of anyone, and never felt like he had to show off his own talents.
The first game we played, Sandy stepped up to the plate and hit a home run on the first pitch. Next came Glenn Dalton, who got on base with a single. Tim Doss also got a hit and put Glenn on third. Then Barry Dalton hit a home run. Philip Keesee and Victor Franklin followed with a hit each.
Then I came to the plate. Somehow I managed to hit the ball, but it dribbled on the ground out to the pitcher and I was thrown out at first. I was dejected as I walked back to the bench, but Sandy said, “Great sacrifice, Chip!” Not knowing much about the game, I thought at first he was being sarcastic, but he corrected my attitude. “You drove in a run – that’s how we win the game!” Philip came over and slapped me on the back, “Thanks for getting me home!” All of a sudden, I felt a lot better.
The next two guys struck out to end the first half of the inning, but we were ahead 5-0.
I played in left field, but I never even had a chance to screw up – Sandy struck out the side. After five innings we were ahead 24-0, and Mr. Doss (who was the umpire) called the game on the mercy rule. I didn’t get a hit the whole game, but it hardly mattered. My outs were almost a relief to my team, for otherwise the innings might never have ended.
Before the next game, Sandy told us not to get cocky. The team we were to face looked strong — they had soundly beaten their previous opponent. But we slaughtered them. And I actually managed to get on base, with a fielder’s choice. Not ideal, but it was only the first out and I was able to survive the next two batters. Top of the order with two outs, Sandy took the bat and drove me home. It was the first time I had ever crossed home plate in any game in my softball career.
The winning grew infectious. Everyone on the team became better players, even we three at the end of the order. Our opponents, on the other hand, were often defeated before the first pitch was thrown. We won every game that season, and never by less than five runs. I even started to get a hit every other game or so, as did the guys who came after me. Once when our ninth batter Oscar (who had started out the year with a vertical axe-chopping downswing) hit the ball solidly, I thought “Wow! He’s really learned how to hit. Hey, so have I!”
The last game of the year was more of a team celebration than a contest. As each of our batters came up, we cheered him with memories of his past accomplishments and encouraged him to hit one more for old times’ sake. When I stepped into the box in the top of the last inning, I heard the other guys all cheering me on, and thought about what a magical year it had been. I had gained so much confidence in just a few months. It struck me suddenly that that was the only difference between the loser I had been and the player I had become: confidence. We expected to win, and we did. Unlike in the past, my teammates didn’t expect for me to lose the game for them – they expected me to do well, and I could!
The next pitch came before I could think about it, and I instinctively swung. “Ping” went the aluminum bat, as I felt the full force of Newton’s Third Law in my wrists and arms. The softball shrank away into the sky. I watched in disbelief and heard my teammates’ voices rise in exhortations to “Run, Chip! Run!”
But there was no need to run. The ball cleared the fence by no more than a whisper – a whispered “please” from deep within a boy who had never before hit a home run in his life.
The other team couldn’t understand the celebration – after all, we were already ahead by 12. They didn’t know why the whole team ran out to tackle me at home plate as if I’d just hit a walk-off to win the game.
But we knew – we knew all about that we. And we all knew that a far more important contest had just been won.