Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy Part 1

I wasn’t supposed to pitch. When they walked over to me and put the ball in my hands, Bobby McFerrin could have been singing right in my ear and I still would have worried and been unhappy. Really, really unhappy. All season long I had been the fourth best pitcher on the team, third if you felt like being generous. And maybe another day it wouldn’t matter, but this was the championship game against the Astros.

“Why isn’t Ian pitching?” I asked.

The Astros were more like an All-Star team than a little league team. Erik Johnson towered over all of us and struck out hitter after hitter with such consistency that it was like he was working a turnstile at an amusement park. Daniel Crzernilovsky had a cannon for an arm at third base, and at the plate could tattoo the ball to either field.

Coach Kevin Burndt would have been the perfect cliché of the superior and evil opposition’s coach if had he been a cold dictator that made the kids on other teams happy they only had to see him a few times a year.

In reality he was a decent guy with a kid on the team, but he was so good that whatever he team he was coaching was instantly the favorite to win the championship. I can’t say what it was actually like to be on his team, but I would have traded my Super Nintendo, all of my baseball cards, and possibly one or both of my sisters if it meant I could have played for him.

On draft night, the managers in El Cerrito Little League individually called up the kids they had drafted to welcome them to their new teams. The draft was a process filled with politics and scheming that determined the next two years of little league. And to a twelve year old, it was the most important phone call that you would ever get. It might as well have been the President, or even a Major League owner calling. Every time the phone rang that night I sprinted from the living room, bumping into the walls, on my way to go answer.

When I finally got the phone call after the little league tryouts, it was from Mike, not Kevin. I was going to be a Twin, not an Astro. Each age group in El Cerrito little league was two years, so it would be another two years before I would reenter the draft. I was a Twin, and that was that.

Still, I remember the pride the day the hats and the uniform came. The black jersey with the yellow printed plastic and the black hat with a yellow embroidered “T”. They were cheaply made and simple, but they were the grandest of the grand. The black was cool and sleek, and the yellow shone brighter than anything I’d ever seen. I threw off my shirt and replaced it with the jersey, tucked the hat down over my hair, and looked in the mirror with wide eyes. I was a Twin, and that meant something.

Ian was the stud of the team. Catcher was my best position. Ian was both the team’s best pitcher and catcher. He was a big kid with a big nose and a bigger temper. He was chunky around the waist but could throw the ball faster and hit the ball harder than anyone around. It was a crapshoot on any given day however, whether he’d be ready to play, or be ready to throw a tantrum and end up pouting in his dad’s van. It was a crapshoot we had to bet ours seasons on, and to a 12 year-old boy, that meant betting absolutely everything.

Our second year in the league, we weren’t so bad. Actually we were pretty damn good. Ian was leading the way with his dad as head coach, and I wasn't so bad either.

We might have had a bunch of head cases, but we had a good team.

We also had Bobby McFerrin.

My dad, who was the assistant coach, decided that everyone was too nervous before the game, and it was making us play worse. His solution was to cart out a boom box to every game and blast “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” while we were warming up. Over and over again. Every game.

Other kids on our team wondered why the hell we were listening to this weird a cappella all the time. Other teams hated us.

Whenever I’d make it to second base, the opposing teams’ infielders would invariably tell me, “Your dad is fucking weird.”

“I know,” I said.

The other teams really did hate it. In fact so much so that it started to distract them and make us laugh, once it had become white noise. We stopped worrying. We started getting singles, and RBIs, and wins.

We made the playoffs. We made the championship game.

To be continued...

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