Semi-Pro: The Gift of Giving Up "What-If"
I’m ambidextrous, which is kinda fun. I write with my right hand, I shoot pool with my left. I play tennis and racquetball with my right, bowl with my left. I eat right-handed, kick left-footed. Drum right-handed, but strum a guitar with my left.
As one good friend said: Dude, make up your mind. You’re a goddamned mess.
I played a lot of baseball as a kid, and as a left-handed pitcher I did pretty well. By age 15 I led the summer leagues in ERA. I couldn’t hit for shit, but I struck out a lot of guys from the mound. Yet by my junior year of high school I walked away from the game because I was already working full-time in radio. My trusty mitt was put on a shelf in the garage.
For several years I questioned my decision over and over again. I should’ve kept playing. I was a damned good pitcher. What if I’d played into college? Do you have any idea what a half-assed left-handed pitcher makes in the pros? You don’t even have to set the world on fire; just be left-handed and competent.
Those thoughts probably would’ve nagged at me forever. Until a call from a friend gave me the chance to test those thoughts.
This buddy, Dave, had a friend who played semi-pro baseball. These weren’t the professionals you saw on TV and baseball cards, but they were still good ball players. They kept full-time jobs, but took to the diamond every summer because they loved the game.
Dave’s phone call gave me a jolt of excitement. “Hey, Dom, how would you like to pitch batting practice for the semi-pro team next week?”
Are you kidding? A chance to dust off the mitt and fire strikes? Not just yes, but hell yes!
A week later I trotted out to one of the more well-kept baseball fields in town and met the manager of the semi-pro team. He looked me up and down, tossed me a ball, and pointed toward the pitchers mound.
Look, this wasn’t a tryout with the team. It was just one day where I participated in a practice session and lobbed pitches for the team to hit. I was still nervous. These guys were all in their early-to-mid-twenties (about my age), and in great shape.
But c’mon, it’s baseball. You throw the ball, they hit it, and someone else fields it. After ten or twelve warmup pitches, the first player stepped to the plate. A big guy, at least 6-4, 225 pounds. He looked so casual in the batters box, even joking with a few teammates standing nearby.
Side note: During batting practice, the pitcher has one job. Don’t get fancy, just throw the ball over the plate. It’s batting practice, not pitching practice. You don’t want shit in the dirt or high and outside. Throw it down the middle and let them get in their swings.
So I did. I threw several pitches that were promptly whacked, and I felt good. I still had it. I could still throw strikes. The next guy stepped in, I threw ten good pitches to him, then came the next guy. I could tell these players were appreciative of someone who knew how to put the ball right where they wanted it, to work on their swings without having to wait through a bunch of garbage.
And I started thinking. (We always start thinking, right?) Maybe I really do still have it. Maybe I could speed things up, you know, just a bit. What if I threw a few past these guys? Throw that ol’ fastball, the one that backs up on a right-handed hitter, almost like a screwball.
When the first guy stepped back into the box, I reared back and fired some heat. Real heat.
And he hit the shit out of it.
Well, that was obviously a fluke. I grabbed another ball, wound up, and zipped a blazing fastball just over the inside edge of the plate. Practically unhittable.
The dude hit it about 375 feet.
For the next ten minutes I tried throwing fastballs, a few curveballs, and whatever else I had in my arsenal. And these guys never broke a sweat as they crushed almost every pitch.
After another twenty or so pitches, the manager came out, thanked me profusely, and showed me where the cooler of Gatorade was. A couple of the players gave me high-fives for a job well done, then went out to shag fly balls.
I don’t think I’d ever been so dejected. I’d given everything I had, reaching down into some well of pitching prowess I’d nurtured for years as a young ballplayer, and I’d been hammered. And remember, these weren’t first-class professional baseball players. They weren’t even minor-league players. They were semi-pro. Not shabby, by any stretch, but not the cream of the crop. And I’d still been clobbered.
I’ve thought about that day on the diamond many times in the years since. There are two things that stand out.
One, it was just fucking hilarious. I’d give anything to have video of the day, to see my face as I kept turning to watch the flight of a ball that screamed off the bat of an otherwise-bored twenty-something. I’m sure I looked miserable. Hey, I’m a good pitcher. I led the league in ERA and strikeouts. This can’t be happening!
But the second thought is powerful. So many of us carry What-If baggage throughout our lives. We wonder what might’ve been, how our world would’ve been different, the shitty whining reminiscent of I coulda been a contenda.
No, we probably never would’ve been a contender in that arena. That arena played a part in shaping who we were - my teenage baseball experiences were a blast, and I learned a lot about discipline, etc. But there’s no way, even with that early success, I would’ve excelled to the point that I would’ve made a living from it.
Meanwhile, my detour into radio played out quite nicely. My love of writing turned into more than a dozen books. The whole notion of what could’ve been would only have been an anchor on my dreams, causing me to second-guess things that should never have earned a second thought.
What a blessing for me to have sweaty, tobacco-chewing young men swat my fantasies out of the park before they had a chance to fester and mushroom into some soul-draining angst.
You have dreams, you have fantasies, and those can be good - to a point. But you also have talents. You have skills that not only make you happy, but provide you with a comfortable existence. Those talents could, if nurtured properly and enhanced through lifelong learning, explode into something way beyond those earlier dreams.
Holding on to coulda-beens and what-ifs is toxic. It not only hampers your progress, it keeps your head pointed in the wrong direction - backward, instead of forward. We only think we missed some grandiose opportunity because we aren’t given the gift of a reality check; we base our fantasies on faint, often piddly, evidence.
Striking out 16-year-olds ain’t the same as trying to strike out a damned good 23-year-old. I wasn’t good enough to be a semi-pro baseball player. But I’m more than good enough to be a full-blown professional in two other fields. I jettisoned my woulda/coulda/shoulda a long time ago. You should, too.
Oh, I still keep that mitt around. It’s a nice reminder to sit my ass down and write.