Riding the Bench

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I still have dreams with the sound of aluminum bats smacking cork balls as the soundtrack. Metal cleats on a packed dirt field and the thwat of the catcher’s mitt was, at one time, music to my ears.

Hey! Hey! Hey #2!

We got our eyes on you!

And what we like most of all!

Is that you rip the ball!

So rrrrrriiiiipppppp the bbbbaaalllll!!!! rrrrrriiiiipppppp the bbbbaaalllll!!!!

 

The story I’m about to share is not new to anyone who has ever played a sport. We all have to get our asses handed to us in order to get improve. This is the nature of sports. The winner is the person who never quits. Winners never quit and quitters never win. I got it. Loud and clear. I can still hear my mother mumbling that phrase under her breath at dinner.

I woke up from one of those softball dreams last week and a wave of understanding swept over me. For four long years I gave everything I had to a team that I loved and and a moody coach who harbored no love for me. I never missed practice, was the first to show up for the batting cages, was the fastest when we did our speed drills and gave myself tennis elbow working on my throw. You might be wondering, how did I know she didn’t like me? Well, she cornered me in the locker room and said, “Horn, I don’t like you. You were a cheerleader and cheerleaders distract my basketball players. You made your choice.” Nevermind that I quit the cheerleading squad to focus on softball and music. She had degrading nicknames for me like “Hair.” I guess it’s impossible to be a good athlete and simultaneously care about your appearance. That conversation in the locker room was the most  she ever spoke to me. I don’t remember any actual coaching on how to improve at softball.

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I was skilled. I was fast. I could be trained. I wanted to work.

I have a vivid memory from a game, around the time of my sophomore year, where we were killing our opponents. We were a formidable team mostly because we had a pitcher that nobody could get a hit off. We were up by over a dozen runs so Coach put me in as a sub. I got up to hit with a passion and anger that was almost blinding. I had this one chance to prove myself. I went for the first pitch and smacked it over the center fielder’s head. As I rounded second and was coming up on third I knew I didn’t have the time to make it home without getting thrown out but I went for it anyway, sliding into home. I felt I only had one chance. I still have a scar on my knee from where I crashed into the catcher.  I thought if I could prove my worth and sacrifice everything, maybe she would let me start. All that came of that moment was a long term injury to my left knee and a new feeling: rage.

Four years and she never let me start a game. I rode the bench with some fierce determination to prove that my willpower was greater than hers. I had a fire that was burning me up inside and I thought I could break her down with my silent passion.

It was the next game, when I didn’t get to start, that I knew I was on a sinking ship. BUT I STUCK WITH IT. I stuck with it my senior year because teammates all said they would stand up for me because they thought I was the best first baseman the team had. I felt encouraged by their support. They saw what I had given to the team, the hours I put in at practice, the time traveling out of town to ride the bench and everything else that came with it. Then the worst happened. I didn’t see it coming. I was on top, finally looking forward to starting every game. The first game of my senior year came and I was ready. First game of the season and Coach gathered us for our pregame talk. She called out the starting lineup. Third base: Cindy. Short stop: Megan. Second base: Sara. First Base: Casey.

What the actual fuck? Casey? The freshman? I was running circles around this girl. She had no experience. She was sloppy. She was SCARED OF THE BALL. I felt all of my blood rush out of my body. It was in that moment that I learned how to take a hit and not let anyone know I was hurting.

I sat back down on the bench. Stunned. Processing. Is this what if feels like to be a loser? To give everything and get nothing in return? Or was I receiving the lesson of my life? That sometimes no matter how hard we try, things are not entirely in our control? I was 17. I just wanted to be good at something. I just wanted to play.

 

Fast forward a year. I ended up leaving the team in the twilight hours of my senior year. I felt so so lonely and disappointed.

The moment our coach announced the starting lineup I had a paralyzing fear that maybe I just wasn’t talented enough. It was a pivotal moment in my world where I realized that my view of myself was not what the rest of the world saw. Why wouldn’t she have told me ahead of time? Why didn’t she say, you know if you only worked on your throw to third base I would start you. Or, if you had a more dependable bunt etc. But I got nothing. Nay a word. I was left to decipher for myself where I went wrong, and I didn’t have a clue. I started to believe there was something very wrong with me and that nobody had the guts to tell me.

On the other hand, I figured maybe sometimes it’s better to walk away.

I walked away. The end of my senior year. I picked up the dignity I had left and flipped her a silent bird.

Humans may be slaves to habit, but we are also capable of evolving. The difference is, twenty years later, I believe in my skill. In the past, I thought I was skilled. Today I believe. The switch is empowering. It’s scary. Yes, now I am the coach and the player and there is no bench. We create imaginary benches.

What is the conclusion of this story? I guess for me, at this moment in my life, I am letting go of the need for validation. My coach was never going to give it to me. I see parallels in my life today. Any musician who has tried to make a living playing gigs and selling their music will, at times, feel like they are riding a bench. Trying to make ends meet, working hard to polish your craft and doing everything right does not guarantee you will succeed. Does that mean you are less qualified? Does that mean your art sucks? I don’t think so.

The worst outcome is that you keep sitting on your bench. But it’s not real.

Get up. What are you waiting for?