Monday, April 15, 2013

a number I'll remember...

 43        Almost 100 of us crowded into the infield. Coaches on the sidelines studied us, took turns choosing among us for their teams. Short and stocky then, I was the last one chosen. But for retired policeman Pap Herndon, chances were I wouldn’t have been selected at all. I was the lone Jewish kid with a baseball glove.
And I was eleven years old, just right for Little League tryouts.

Pap was a good coach; I never felt unwanted. Although I don’t remember playing much, I do recall one at bat when the bases were loaded. Too nervous to either talk or swing at the ball, I walked on five pitches, scored the winning run with two outs.

As for baseball history, that’s mine. Three years later, I was a foot taller, thirty pounds heavier, and very fast. Before I finished high school, I lettered in four sports.

Years later, due to a scary wreck that almost cost me the sight of my left eye, I had to have cataract surgery.

“You want this lens to be near-sighted or far-sighted?” asked my doctor.

It sounded like a trick question. “What’ll happen to my golf swing?” I finally asked, since my undamaged eye is far-sighted.

“Not much,” the surgeon at Duke University hospital answered.

I took a swing with an imaginary five iron. It felt the same as always. The doctor repeated his question.

“Near-sighted,” I answered, thankful that, if the surgery worked, I’d never have to wear glasses. Nor would I have to fret over depth perception; I wouldn’t have any. For golf, that didn’t matter much; I wasn’t aiming at moving targets. And the ball was perfectly still when I had to hit it.

Five minutes after my decision, my new lens had been implanted. Brightness returned; my replaced cataracted lens was in the disposal.

For fifteen years, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell whether I was close enough to catch a lightning bug or to snatch a Frisbee out of midair.

Not until I was asked to play softball for a senior league team did I wonder whether my uneven vision mattered. I was told they needed athletes like me. I thought of my eyes, their limited use. “All I can do is pitch,” I told Dickie, my friend and my recruiter.

He assured me I wouldn’t have any trouble. I wanted to believe that, so I joined and was enthusiastic.

Very quickly, I found reasons to question my decision. Finally, today, when I misjudged balls that should have been easy to stop or catch, I realized I was guessing where the ball might be. Not only might that be dangerous for me; it was also bad for the team.

Further proof came when I turned away from watching the pitcher and missed a ball that was hit right at me. I felt it whiz sharply by my right ear.

Trying to play softball even with my kind and supportive teammates made little sense. They wanted me to stay; they befriended rather than belittle me. They wanted me to be like the little engine that could. But I couldn’t; I can’t.

Because my team’s leaders are very religious Christians, our practices begin and end with a Christian message. Families and friends are prayed for; short passages are read by one of our team’s coaches, also one of its best players. He’s 77.

At the end of the practice, he discussed the tournament I’d missed while in Israel. The way he explained it, all of us felt proud. Despite finishing with one win and three losses, our team had won its division. Everyone was excited about the next tournament in May.

Except me. I admitted to myself that I felt more frightened than eager to be on the field. Even when I was on the pitcher’s mound, I couldn’t stop thinking about Herb Score. But I didn’t say anything about that to the good-hearted men on my team.

I’d been given my game cap and my jersey. Its number, forty-three, pleased me because it was so close to Jackie Robinson’s 42. Someday, I may show it to my children or their children when they come.

“It’s the number,” I’ll tell them, “of a dream I once had.”

                                                B.Koplen 4/15/13

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