Monday, February 13, 2006

Chapter 6: Sports, or How to Avoid Getting Hurt

Have you ever played Horse[1]? It is a challenge game of basketball with two or more players challenging each other scored by goals (baskets) made from specific points on the floor, or with specific types of shots, such as a free throw or hook shot. Positions can be combined with types (a hook shot from a point just below the basket, or farther out) as the game progresses.

Horse is a game devoid of crowds, high speed movement that can result in sudden hard body contact, and surprise passes that connect with your eyewear. Horse is a game skinny boys can excel at, given enough practice and the strength to sink baskets. It is much more attractive than basketball to four eyed people with astigmatism and an inability to accurately see objects moving rapidly in their peripheral vision. Oh, and young girls, too.

At 5’7” and 98 pounds, I learned to play horse with friends (yes, sometimes even girls); but school gym rules required that all boys play basketball now and then, no matter your preference or abilities. We won’t mention dodge ball, which has been done to death in prose and the movies. Basketball is a serious game when played right. Even the talented get hurt sometimes. The untalented are most likely to avoid getting hurt where possible, but the opposing team can usually spot the kid with the thick glasses. Particularly if that kid tries to mix it up with the big guys. Such arrogant and out of place behavior usually gets rewarded with a hard pass to the face. Sometimes it’s even one (unintentionally) from your own team. When you can’t see the ball coming, it matters little who threw it, or the intent. Some time is usually spent retrieving the frames (the glass may even remain attached to them) from the court floor and the game goes on. Most often it went on without yours truly, who was probably going to spend some time in the boy’s locker room with a wet towel to his head, nose or eye; then going in search of some adhesive tape to link left to right side or pad the center in the absence of a nose piece.

Most players with the above history deal with their inadequacies by becoming water boy, team mascot or manager. I was lucky enough to be interested in photography, so I shot pictures of the team scoring baskets. You could take pictures of the football, basketball and wrestling team, and be tolerated as a minor nuisance. Later I was able to hook up with the yearbook committee, ably and patiently advised by Mr. Muggleton, and got to take real pictures of the teams for candid yearbook shots. Sometimes I used the school camera, sometimes a Speed Graphic loaned to me by Mr. Williams and sometimes Mr. Muggleton’s personal cameral. I never used my Kodak Brownie box camera for anything serious. You can’t take action photos with one, and it has almost no depth of field. That makes things in the foreground fuzzy when you focus on anything far away, as it had a fixed lens. Also, anything that moves is guaranteed to be out of focus, so sports shots were out. Any “good” pictures taken by that Brownie were either accidents or posed photos, or dramatic shots such as the aftermath of the Consaul Haul coal dock fire, which I no longer have!

Clayton had a wonderful history of good basketball, football and baseball teams. My brother Jack was a member of one championship team in 1947 or ’48. My brother Dick was on the baseball team in the 50’s. Jim, Jack and Dick all played some sport, much to my later embarrassment when comparisons were made. I tried baseball, but couldn’t get past the hay fever induced by the long grass surrounding the playing field. It’s hard enough to learn to catch a line drive when visually handicapped; darn near impossible when your eyes and nose run and blurred vision is an added factor. Grounders were a challenge too. I enjoyed watching the games, though.

Dick tried to teach me to play, unsuccessfully, but he did succeed in teaching me how to catch a ball thrown at me with the force of a very good high school pitcher. When he was 17 and I was 12 or 13, he started my education in the field across the street, next door to what we always thought of as “the Graves House” on Graves St. Dad had bought me a baseball glove signed by the great outfielder and manager Alvin Dark. I still had it until the flood of 1972 in Elmira, NY made it an unrecognizable glob of leather held together by green mold .

Dick took me to the extreme end of the field (at least 75 feet) and hurled the ball at my knees. Of course the first one hit my knees, because I had no idea that it would arrive that fast, and less of an idea how to stop it. When I stopped howling in pain, Dick patiently explained that I needed to put the glove in front of the ball, not my knees. He then went back toward the street and did it again. And again, and again until I got the ball to bounce off the glove instead of my legs or arms. Not to be discouraged (you have to have known Dick: he did not discourage easily, did I forget to say we kept at it until it was too dark to see the ball?) he took me out there again and again after school (and never early, as he had baseball practice early) until I finally got it right.

Anyone who has experienced a Clayton spring knows that it can get fairly cold in April in the afternoon when daylight wanes. When I finally mastered the simple task of getting the ball into the pocket of the glove (“Remember, you need to oil that pocket and keep pounding it with your left fist to maintain it!”) we began the serious training. I would get into a crouch and Dick would throw the ball at my face as hard as he could. About the cold part: how warm does it have to be before a ball hitting 1/32 of an inch of oiled leather at about 60 mph stops leaving your hand paralyzed? From personal experience I can tell you that the air temperature needs to be above 65 degrees. I leave the rest of this experience up to your imagination....

After I got over being mad and hurt, it has to be said that though Dick never did succeed in making a baseball player out of me, he did create a boy very proud of his brother, and very good at catching baseballs. I couldn’t get out on the field and run, but until my arm and shoulder gave out at about age 40, you could rifle a ball at me from 40 or 100 feet away and I’d catch it, no matter how high, low or possessed of “action” it was; and I would get it back to you from center field. Fly balls, grounders, line drives; you name it, Dick threw it or batted it and I caught it. I taught our son the same way, (hopefully with less pain) and in his second year of little league he surprised many a batter who thought he had a home run over the right field fence. He would watch the ball and track it right into his glove, sometimes leaping into the air at the last minute to do so. In high school he chose the swim team instead of baseball, and excelled at it. His sister could catch and throw a ball like a boy, but also went out for swimming and ended up as a lifeguard in high school.

All this fits my theory (and it is just a theory, of course) that children should never be “babied”, but taught how to respond to a challenge that will not hurt them but toughen them. Until a child has failed repeatedly, he or she can never understand success. One has to learn to accept failure, and go on to succeed before he or she can become both a good winner and a good loser. My brother never made me feel like a failure because I couldn’t play ball. As much as he “rode” me as a boy for being afraid of things, weak, and “a little crybaby” he always made sure I knew he loved me, as I loved him. He could pick on me, but typically, it was a bad idea for anyone else to!

I never did learn to love sports the way my Dad and brothers did, but I have many more fond memories of it and their attempts to get me interested than harsh ones. To this day I can watch a baseball, football or basketball game and know what is going on, and tune it out or watch it with enthusiasm, knowing that success in sports, any kind of success, helps build confidence and self image. I am disappointed that money has become the center of such great sports, and more. I have seen the look in the eyes of children who revere ball players, and want to emulate them.

My son gave me a baseball to take to an athletic fund raising dinner when he was in high school and working as a life guard. He planned to make the dinner, but could not get there for the autograph session. I stood in line for the ball player whose signature he wanted most (I will not name him here, as he has enough troubles of his own) for an hour and 15 minutes. He took my son’s much autographed ball, turned it over several times and said “Phil Necro. He wasn’t so hot. I could hit him any day all day.” He scrawled his name on the ball and tossed it back to me. I caught it, knowing that if I told Kevin his hero’s response, it would reduce his admiration of this particular ball player. I knew that he respected Phil Necro, and cherished the signature he had waited in line for at a previous year’s banquet. Necro, unlike this braggart, never had his name attached to a scandal. At least he signed the ball, when many of his fellow athletes were refusing to sign autographs even if paid to.

In the 40’s and 50’s, the Clayton High Pirates were respected (and maybe revered) teams. We had coaches who instilled and demanded respect, sportsmanship and pride. Coach Allen, Coach Croyle, Mr. Black, Mr. Netto and Mr. Guardino produced teams with spirit, sportsmanship and pride aplenty, win or lose. They brought out loyal fans to watch interscholastic contests between Clayton and surrounding towns. The Pirates are gone since the 1000 Islands Central School District was formed, but not forgotten. My father was a great believer in sports and sportsmanship. He coached teams in his early years, but none at Clayton. I fear he and many of the Clayton Coaches would be disappointed in many of today’s professional athletes, with their dissolute life styles and disdain of fans. Many even refuse to sign autographs, or ask to get paid for signing sessions.

When Carol and I pass the old school (which is now named after Harry Guardino, the teacher, and coach of football and wrestling when I went to CCS High) that is now middle school, I remember baseball and football games, and flashes of scenes played out on the field and off. I remember Freddy coming at me over the line, and me out cold suddenly on the ground with his hair in my glasses frame. I remember as well watching and photographing basketball games and wrestling matches coached and played out in the gym, which still smells of old sweat and gym sealer, and the excitement of pre game pep rallies held in that gym. I don’t go in there much anymore, as it isn’t the same gym somehow. No hanging climbing rope, no hanging rings, different bleachers, and one knows contests between greats are no longer held here. It’s just a gym now, with a nice stage. A good gym, but somehow it seems smaller.

[1] Horse: The players will decide among themselves who will go first. The game starts when the first player takes a shot from anywhere in the court. If he sinks it, the next player must make the same type of shot from the exact same spot. If he makes it, the next player tries, and so on. If the second player makes the shot, then the first player tries a different shot. If he doesn't make the shot, the player gets an H. When the first player misses a shot, the second player has the chance to make a shot that must be copied. The coveted first shot will be traded between players as they miss shots. The player that spells out H-O-R-S-E first, loses the game

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