Staying in the Game

When I was 10-years old, my father took me to a Boy Scout track and field competition at the local school playground. The scouts in my troop were competing in events like the 50-yard dash, long jump, high jump, and shot put. While the idea was to bring fathers and sons together to promote fitness, many of the kids, including me, were there to win.

I was a woefully underachieving scout. I only excelled in starting fires and watching anything from dirty underwear to boxes of cereal burn in them. Unfortunately, there was no merit badge for arson skills, so I went my entire scouting career without a single award to pin to my uniform. However, I was into all things sports, so I took this particular outing more seriously than, let’s say, advanced tent folding.

Because my parents were divorced and I lived with my mother, I only saw my father on occasional weekends, and he rarely attended any of my school, sports, or scouting activities. He and my mom couldn’t stand the sight of each other, so it was easier for him to just not come around. This day of track and field would be the one and only athletic event of mine he would ever attend.

At that point in my young life, I was a scrappy athlete. I was the catcher and lead-off hitter on my little league baseball team, and usually one of the first picks for kickball and football teams in gym class and neighborhood games. At the school playground, I was one of the only kids who could launch a kickball over the 12-foot-high, right field fence onto the street, and I was ecstatic if the ball happened to hit a passing car in the process. Nothing made a kid cooler than such a feat of elementary-school machismo.

At the Boy Scout track-and-field day, I was by no means the best athlete, but I held my own in a few of the competitions, especially short-distance running events. In fact, I made it to the final round of the 50-yard dash. I was a fast little dirtball, and the dash was an event I actually thought I had a shot at winning.

When I competed that day, my dad stood quietly on the sidelines in grey plumber’s wear, hands in his pockets, puffing on a stubby cigar. He looked completely out of his element, as if someone had dropped him in the middle of Madagascar without a map. He was short, pudgy, didn’t have a single athletic cell in his body, and knew absolutely nothing about track and field or any of America’s favorite sporting pastimes.

I am certain that in his day he made one hell of an industrial arts student – he could design, build, or fix just about anything made out of metal or wood. In fact, he “helped me” build many of my Cub Scout arts and crafts projects – I called them “farts and crap” – which always received great accolades. He once built a model wooden sailboat for me that was so meticulously carved and painted, I was afraid I’d receive a lifetime ban from scouting for committing first-degree arts-and-crafts fraud. It looked as though I had gone to the store and bought a ready-made sailboat, pulled it out of the box, and brought it to the pack meeting.

A few days before we sailed our boats on a neighborhood creek, the other scouts and I unveiled them in our den mother’s basement. I prayed that no one would ask me what paints I used, how I attached the keel, or what material I used for the sails. I didn’t know how to begin to answer those questions. Fortunately, they left me alone, perhaps intimated by my alleged craftsmanship. I was especially glad my den mother didn’t ask much about the boat. But she must have wondered, “What the hell inspired that Shaberman kid to finally do something constructive? Maybe he got that long-overdue can of whoop-ass from his parents.”  Little did she know. I was just glad to have completed the project, avoiding the embarrassment of having shown no effort whatsoever.

On that track-and-field day, I ended up taking second place in the 50-yard dash to Michael Lilly, a lanky kid built only of bone and muscle. He had freakishly long limbs, and moved with the quickness and agility of a cheetah in pursuit of its prey. He seemed to effortlessly cover ten yards with a single stride. To no one’s surprise, he dominated most events, especially the long and high jumps. So, finishing second in the dash was a hugely satisfying moral victory for me.

My father said nothing to me after that race – nothing about me or the phenom who had left me in the dust. I could imagine him thinking, “Okay. I took the kid to the playground. He fooled around with his buddies. No one got hurt. Mission accomplished. Now I can head to the pliers and wrench sale over at True Value.”

But before we left the playground, one of the other fathers, Mr. Fox, came up to my dad and said, “Your boy has good reflexes. He’s a quick little guy.” Then he smiled and walked away. Mr. Fox’s compliment inspired no comment from my father, though I desperately wished it had. I was so proud to receive the unsolicited praise from a guy who had his own kid to cheer for and no reason to say anything to us.

Had I been a little more mature for my ten years, I would have realized my hopes of ever being an accomplished athlete were virtually nonexistent. I needed only to take one look at my father to see that we Shabermans were not of the championship pedigree. But like many kids, I had visions of athletic grandeur, and thought that maybe, just maybe, I could make it to the big leagues someday.

There was nothing I enjoyed more than spending hours on end in the alley next to my house throwing a rubber baseball against a concrete wall, imagining I was a major league pitcher. I spray painted a rectangular strike zone on the wall, so I could count balls and strikes to imaginary batters like Hank Aaron, Carl Yaztremski, and Johnny Bench. Back then, most of the important things in my life revolved around sports – either playing, watching, or reading about them.

My father’s silence about the events of that track-and-field day, and frankly, about my entire athletic career growing up, never came as a surprise, but it did come as a disappointment. Not only did he not share my passion for sports, I don’t think he understood what it meant to me to win a race or hit a line-drive triple as the first batter in a baseball game, the crowd cheering me on as I slid into third base under the tag. Moments like those were indelible for me. I remember a little-league playoff game when I was playing catcher and tagged out my opponent’s star player when he barreled into me at home plate. Miraculously, I held onto the ball. My buddies and I talked about that play for months to come. But sports worried my father, because I could get hurt, and perhaps most important to him, they could distract me from schoolwork.  He had dropped out of school, didn’t get his GED until he was in his thirties, and desperately worried the same thing would happen to me. All he wanted was for me to study and go to college.

At that stage in my life, I loved sports so much, I didn’t necessarily need his support or approval to succeed and have fun. I did just fine without him.

But by eighth and ninth grade, competitive sports were no longer the picnic they had once been. Kids got bigger and stronger – much bigger and stronger than I was. I tried out for my eighth grade football team, and after only two days of practice, I gave up because I couldn’t hack the physical demands of the scrimmages and drills. I walked away from those practices feeling drained and defeated, and ultimately, I gave up. I had never faced such formidable athletic challenges and didn’t envision any way through or around them.

I’ll never know if some encouragement or support might have inspired me to give those practices more of a chance. Maybe after a week or two, I would have gotten in better shape and began to enjoy, or at least tolerate, the running, hitting, and calisthenics. Maybe not. My mother was thrilled I gave up football, because she perceived the sport as dangerous, and my father, who lived 1,300 miles away by that time, had no idea I had even tried out for the team. Every Friday that fall, the day of the game, all the players on the team wore their jerseys to school, providing me with a keen reminder of my inability to make the cut.

In ninth grade, I managed to make the wrestling team, but gave up after just a few matches. On the mat, I was thrown around like a rag doll, even during practices. I had neither the strength nor the stamina of the other wrestlers, often running out of gas during the first two-minute period simply by trying to avoid getting pinned.

The most embarrassing moment in my wrestling career came during a B-Team match when I not only got pinned in the first period, I ripped my tights right down the crotch – my athletic supporter sticking out like some bizarre appendage – to the laugh-out-loud amusement of the cheerleading squad. I felt like such a pussy. I never talked to anyone about that demoralizing experience. Instead, I walked away from wrestling, never to return.

That spring, I made the freshman baseball team, but only batted three times during the entire season. I struck out twice and was hit by a pitch during the other at-bat. I felt pathetic watching almost every game from the bench. But it was a fate I deserved. I wasn’t nearly as good as the other players. It was a cruel form of punishment to watch them play while I just sat there, on one hand wanting to play, but on the other hand afraid that if I did get in the game, I’d embarrass myself by striking out or missing an easy pop fly.

By my sophomore year of high school, I finally threw in the towel on competitive sports. As much as I loved playing, I could no longer take the humiliation of losing or sitting out. I also discovered pot, got my driver’s license, and fell in love with girls and rock and roll — a path of much less resistance than athletic pursuits.

But my pot smoking also caused a major rift between my father and me. We didn’t speak from my junior year of high school through the middle of my senior year of college because of it. He never believed I’d make it through college, but I did, and he was proud of me for it. He passed away shortly after I graduated.

I never took the opportunity to talk to him about my victories and disappointments while I was a young athlete. I never told tell him how much I wished he would have encouraged me to stay in the game, to never give up, to keep giving it my all, even if he knew it ultimately wouldn’t have mattered. And when I did crash and burn, how I wish he had been there to console me, to tell me everything would be ok.

But I also never got the chance to thank him for that perfect sailboat he had made for me. He wasn’t even there to witness its one and only voyage. As much as I dismissed the boat, I still vividly remember its sky-blue hull skimming the water, and how amazed I was at its perfection as it glided down the creek alongside the other, lesser boats.