From the collection of true stories, titled: “Stories from the Journey,” due for publication in mid-2018.
By Bruce A. Smith
When I was ten, I hit a home run in a Little League baseball game. It was a solid shot, soaring over the pitcher’s head and arcing towards center field.
I didn’t watch its full flight because my father, who was also my coach, told me not to look at the ball after I hit it but only to run to first base. “When you’re there, turn your head and see where the ball has gone,” he instructed. “If it’s still in play and you think you can make it, run towards second base.”
So when I reached first, I looked up and saw that the ball was still rolling away from the center fielder into the outfield of the adjoining baseball field. I pivoted and headed towards second. On the way I saw the umpire running out from home plate and swinging his arm in the air, signaling a home run. Okay, home run, I thought.
In a slight daze I circled the bases and touched home plate. When I got to my team’s bench I got a bunch of back slaps from my teammates, and then a league official came over and presented me with a bat – a gift in recognition of what I had done. However, it was a left-over 28-inch bat from the minor leagues for 8-year olds. Nevertheless, I accepted it for the symbolism of accomplishing something special.
I had never hit a home run before nor did I know anyone who had, certainly not any 10-year olds. I had heard in the prior year that a couple of the older boys, 11 and 12-years old, had hit home runs and got their bats too, but I didn’t know them personally.
On the bench my teammates told me about the home run. It was a high arching blast that flew over the center fielder’s head and landed well past the chalk line circled in the outfield to signify a home run. My Little League was too poor to have outfield fences or even a dedicated baseball field, so we played on diamonds that were over-laid in a catty-corner fashion on an elementary school’s large grassy playground. As a result, our center fields overlapped one another, and I had hit my home run into the other field.
I soaked all of this in, but didn’t rejoice in any dramatic way that I can remember. What I do recall is shrugging it off as if it was something that happened, but wasn’t that big a deal. As the other team came to bat I took my regular position at second base, and never thought about the home run.
Two innings later though, I came to bat again. But this time, instead of swinging away as I did when I hit my home run I bunted. It was an immediate, unconscious decision – one that I made without thinking. I tapped the ball weakly into the ground by home plate.
“What are you doing?” my father shouted as he ran over to me.
“I figured they’d never think I’d bunt after hitting the home run,” I replied.
“Well, they’d know now, so swing away. You’re swinging good tonight, too. You hit that home run beautifully.”
But after my father left and the next pitch came in I squared away to bunt again, and hit the ball foul down the first-base line.
My father ran over a second time – now flustered and upset, maybe even angry. “What are you doing!?”
Once again I explained my strategy. “Oh c’mon,” my father exclaimed, “you’re not going to fool anyone now, so swing away. Besides you have two strikes.”
But even with the two strikes I bunted a third time, again fouling it off. A bunt foul on a third strike is an automatic out, so I was retired. I wasn’t reproached by my teammates on the bench, but one did ask, “Why’d you bunt?”
“I thought I could fool ’em,” I replied. My teammate shrugged and said nothing.
When the other team came to bat I again returned to my position at second base and didn’t think about the home run nor the bunting.
Two innings later I came to bat a third time. Again, I tried bunting and my father was exasperated, running over to me at home plate and almost begging me to swing away.
“But Dad, they’ll never think I’ll continue to bunt!” I argued.
I had fouled off the first pitch, and on the second I was determined to bunt the ball fair. I gripped the barrel of the bat solidly with my right hand as I squared around to meet the pitch. But this time the ball hit my ring-finger – squishing it painfully. I screamed, dropped the bat, and held my stinging hand. My Dad rushed over and escorted me back to the bench. After a few minutes of examination and seeing the swelling taking place the assistant coach called another player to pinch-hit for me, and I was removed from the game.
I could barely wiggle my fingers, and my father was uncertain what to do with me. One of my teammate’s father encouraged my father to take me to the hospital. “You should get an X-Ray, Alan, just to make sure Bruce’s finger isn’t broken.” Eventually, my father agreed and we trudged off to the car. But instead of driving to the local emergency room at the other end of town, my father drove home and picked-up my mother, which reflected the odd nature of decisive thinking in my family. Then we headed to Winthrop Hospital.
I sat in the back seat and whimpered. “Go ahead, Bruce,” my mother intoned. “Cry if you want. It’ll help with the pain.” I continued to cry, but gradually the pain subsided. By the time I saw a doctor it didn’t hurt much at all.
The X-Rays were negative, and the doc said my finger was just badly bruised. In a few days my finger was back to normal.
But in various ways this incident has stayed with me my entire life, although at first I never thought about it. However, I have never hit another home run in my life, and have hit only a couple of fly balls to the outfield. But, back in Little League I hit lots of grounders and since I ran fast I could beat most throws from the infielders. In general, I was considered a good player and my batting average was one of the highest on the team.
Occasionally, my father would offer an interpretation on teenage growth patterns and uneven swings, which was a consolation in a veiled kind of way. Also, he worked on changing my batting stance and encouraged me to step into the ball like a slugger. “Swing like you’re Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle,” he said, invoking my baseball heroes.
But it didn’t work. Yet, I loved playing baseball. After Little League I joined the local Babe Ruth League and memorably struck out five times in one game as the clean-up hitter. After that I was demoted to the bottom of the line-up.
In adulthood, I joined softball teams and again hit meekly. At one point I started going to batting cages to practice, and even took a lesson from a professional baseball player. Not much changed though, but I did hit one soaring fly ball to left field in a pick-up game between patients and staff at the Northport VA.
I started psychotherapy too, and eventually joined the Ramtha School of Enlightenment – so I was definitely exploring my inner world. Then one day in my 50s, during a deep mediation exploring the incompleteness of my life I became awash with memories of the home run. I saw my blast and the subsequent decision to bunt repeatedly, and I realized it was the definitive essence of my life. I was deeply afraid of being powerful.
Further, this fear was so unconscious it was like a quiet monster. It had no face nor a name, and only spoke in whispers, if at all.
I’ve come to learn that this fear has warped much of my life. I bunt everywhere, in all facets of my life. I have had a slew of jobs that have left me underpaid, undervalued, and unfulfilled, and when I focus on what I want, such as becoming a professional storyteller or an author, I find that I sabotage my efforts. Mindlessly and unconsciously I mail provocative letters to festival organizers, spill coffee on the query envelop, or argue with editors. One friend told me that the publishing house I had sent my promotional material to thought the packet has been run over by a truck in a muddy street.
But that unbridled, unconscious derailment of my life is coming to an end. After that meditation I made focus cards that I’ve posted on my wall: “I Swing Away.” Another says: “I Hit Home Runs.” A third proclaims: “I Am Not Afraid Of My Power.”
Over time I have made progress. I double and triple check my letters to editors. I am mindful of my time on a stage. Increasingly I view rejections from literary agents as more a form of critique than the obliteration of my soul. The fear is no longer a stranger popping into my life with surprise and sabotage, for I know it will be present for the long haul.
I meditate daily, becoming ever more mindful. I ask the fear in various ways: “Who are you? Where do you come from? Why are you so strong?
I don’t have much in the way of definitive answers, but I sense that the fear of failure, of being different and alone are components.
Maybe now the fear has coupled with heartbreak too, and my dance with fear has to include juggling intimate relationships that demand emotional safety.
I’ve come to realize that seeking what I most truly desire in life also makes me vulnerable, hence timid and clumsy, which diminishes my chances for success. I know it’s hard hitting a home run when you’re looking over your shoulder.
Regardless, becoming a storyteller is what I most deeply want to be right now. Yet the fear is still real and I can feel its presence. Sometimes it distorts me into an arrogant performer, or a schitck-meister – a guy looking for a cheap laugh who also knows how to get one. Or a procrastinator. I took hours building up the courage to write this piece.
But I know I have a need to tell my story, and there is a growing hunger in the world for stories that are substantive and inspiring. I want to embrace that desire, and those people. Along those lines, I have a sense that the connection with others that I long for – my hunger for real intimacy – lies in the company of folks who reside in the World of True Stories.
I’ve come to learn that lots of people are afraid, some quite deeply and in very hidden ways. Perhaps this story will help break through some of the veils that are protecting those fears, leading to a resolution. Perhaps this story will help people become greater than what they have been.
That is my loftiest goal.