Friday, August 6, 2010

My late introduction to American sports

At the age when a lot of kids were playing T-ball or getting ready for peewee football, I was playing soccer and riding horses. I got started with both in Irvine, CA right around kindergarten. I kept up with both for awhile but eventually the horse shows would interfere with the soccer games, and I had to choose one or the other. It's not that I didn't like riding... I just didn't derive much satisfaction from the competitions. We got little ribbons for trotting old nags in a circle around a corral. I didn't understand the appeal. So, I still went out and rode the horses on trail rides for fun, but chose to go with soccer for competition.

The AYSO was the governing organization in Southern California and very popular. There were teams at all levels and games every weekend. Some of the teams I was on include the "Red Hot Chili Peppers", the "The B-52's", even the "Blue Mondays" (our coach was a total 80's emo guy). Now, in the beginning, there wasn't much in the way of tactical strategy. Boys and girls would run onto the field and bunch together in what looked like a rugby scrum, and kick frantically at the ball until it eventually popped out. The swarm would then run after it and repeat this until, hopefully, the ball would find its way into one of the goals.

When we moved to Virginia Beach in 1986, I continued to play soccer there. The leagues were organized differently into rec, advanced, and select leagues. I made the advanced team for my area in the 4th grade, and then moved up to play select in 5th and 6th grade. We traveled around to other cities and played their select teams. I played a variety of positions over the years, but mostly goalkeeper and forward. I preferred the former because I liked the uniqueness of the position, but coaches were insistent about playing me at forward because I was a very fast. I proved to be more of an asset on offense. In addition to my speed, I was one of few players that could pass proficiently at that level. I ended both seasons leading the league in assists.

As I got older, soccer wasn't quite as popular with my friends. They were way more excited about baseball and football. With pressure to fit in, I decided to try them both. Regrettably, I eventually had to give up soccer to do so. I wish I had stuck with it... but c'est la vie. Now, heres the thing... I had athletic ability, but almost ZERO knowledge about the games themselves. I knew nothing about strategy or technique, in either arena. The coaches were there to teach us some stuff, but by the time I started playing, most of these kids had learned the basics already. I had no such experience. I had to learn from scratch how to throw and catch and hit... in both games. I did so quickly, but I still lacked the awareness to know what to do in specific game situations. I was just kind of daft when it came to these games.

For example: At football tryouts I was recognized immediately for my speed. I ran the sprints faster than anybody. They tried me at wide receiver, but I couldn't catch well enough with all the equipment on, nor could I understand timing patterns, or how to create diversions or block on running plays. Often I would ignore the play call and just run a deep fly because I knew I was faster and could get open. I didn't understand that quarterbacks at this level could not even throw the deep ball... much less have the awareness to see I was open and that I had called my own audible and decided to go for the end zone. I was just daft. So they put me at running back. They explained the plays to me...and where I was supposed to run when they handed me the ball. OK, I think I can handle this. What I did not comprehend was that if the "hole" I was supposed to run through wasn't open, that I was supposed to improvise...change directions...find a way to get upfield. I just didn't get it. I would mostly get tackled at or near the line of scrimmage. And on plays where I did not get the ball, I didn't understand that I was supposed to block. After a few weeks at running back, the coaches gave up and moved me to defense. They started me in the secondary, usually as safety, again hoping to capitalize on my speed. This worked better, as I understood I was supposed hit the guy with the ball. I did become proficient at hitting. I learned to tackle the proper way, by lowering the shoulder, driving with my legs, keeping low, wrapping my arms around their legs, and lifting to take them off their feet. In practice the coaches screamed and yelled at us to hit as hard as we could. It resonated with me and I did that every play. I can remember hearing the groan and feeling the air go out of a kid's lungs when I would level him in the open field. I always felt so bad for him. I would get up and ask him if he was ok after I hit him... and then offer a hand to help him up. I wasn't taunting... I was truly concerned. My teammates made fun of me and called me "Care Bear" because I seemed to feel the pain of everyone. But playing the secondary didn't work out that great either because I had no clue what to do when it came to adapting or improvising on the fly. I didn't know how to shift coverages in zone defenses, or when to drop back, when to blitz, etc. I would blow my coverage often. I would bite on fakes often. I just didn't understand the nuances of the game. My father seemed to see this and suggested a position change to my coach. By the 8th grade they moved me to the defensive line and gave me a simple which I already knew well: "Hit the guy with the ball. Hit him as hard as you can." I could do that. I did it really well and it worked out for awhile. Then in one game, the O-lineman that was supposed to pull and block me screwed up and left a gaping hole where I was lined up. I ran straight into the back field untouched. It was a pass play and the QB was standing in the pocket waiting to throw. He was a lefty and did not see me coming as I ran straight towards his turned back. I lowered my shoulder and launched myself at him. There it was... that unmistakable "ughhhhhhhhh" as all the air was forced from his lungs. I heard and felt the bones break as the weight of his body and mine crushed his arm and shoulder into the helmet of another player on the ground. He lost the ball when I hit him and one of my teammates picked it up and ran it back for a touchdown. The crowd was going nuts but all I could hear was the sound of this kid gasping for air. I laid there on the ground with him asking him if he was ok... telling him I was so sorry... and then he just let loose this guttural moan that I can still hear. There was foam coming from his mouth and snot all over his nose. The tears poured from his eyes. The refs pulled me off and sent me back to the sidelines, and I started sobbing uncontrollably. I was so upset that I didn't want to play the second half. I left the field and went to call my Dad to take me home. I skipped practice all week and the next game. My Dad talked to me about it and made me feel better. I came back and played the next week, but I knew it was my last season. I did not like how I felt when I hurt someone, and could not understand how everyone else thought I was crazy for feeling that way.

I was playing baseball during the same period of years as well. I started out in 5th grade in the Virginia Beach "Pony-Colt" baseball league. Once again I was the fastest guy on the team. I also found out that I could throw very hard. Outfield was the natural choice. They did try me at third base because of my arm, but it was apparent that that I was clueless when it came to where to throw the ball with men on, how to cover other bases, where to play in the field against different hitters, how to check a runner back to second before throwing to first, etc. I was just an error waiting to happen in the infield. So I played left field mostly. Even then, I would screw things up. I would forget how many outs there were. I would get nervous and throw to the wrong base on a ground ball. I remember one particular game, I was playing too shallow in left. I should have been a bit deeper because their slugger was up and they had a man on third, but I just didn't understand these types of things. Sure enough, he absolutely crushes one. I see the ball right off the bat and know its going deep. I turn and take off on a dead sprint towards the wall. Just before the warning track I extend my arm across my body, reach as far as I can, and leap in a desperate attempt at getting to this uncatchable ball. This was dumb. Jumping ensures that I am going to fall and hit the ground. Then the ball is going to bounce of the fence, and I am going to have to get back on my feet and chase after it.... giving the batter another base. The smart play is to hold up and play the ball off the fence and maybe hold the batter to a single since I have a good arm. The man on third is going home anyways so there was no point in trying to save that run. I think I sort of realized this as I was in mid-air...but it was obviously too late. Then, by some miracle, I felt the ball hit the webbing of my glove. I had caught it. I landed on my upper-side/shoulder since I had to spin around to try and catch the ball. My rotation allowed me to kind of roll back up onto my feet very quickly. "MAN ON THIRD!" was all I could think of. I took a crow hop and fired an absolute missile towards home plate. The catcher did not even have to move. He stood there standing straight up. The ball hit his glove on the fly. That was when I noticed there was no runner. "Had he not tagged up? Had he scored already?" I thought. Then I see the catcher, Brian, shake his his head and casually roll the ball towards the mound. The rest of the team headed towards the dugout. I turned bright red as I realized there had been two outs and my catch had ended the inning. As I got back to the dugout, I hung my head as my teammates said, "Nice throw Kelley..." and "way to gun that guy out at home".

Hitting was hard for me. I had no background in it. I hadn't play T-ball. I hadn't played coach-pitch. I had only played some wiffle ball and pickup neighborhood games here and there...and we used a tennis ball for that so that we wouldn't break windows. I only started going to the batting cages after joining the rec league team. I had no idea how to read pitches, or deal with off-speed stuff. In short... I sucked. I struck out a lot. What I could do... was run. So the coach would often pull me aside before I went to bat and tell me to bunt. It worked often enough. They wouldn't be expecting it and I would run it out. And once on base I would always try to steal second if it was open. That worked often enough too. What I didn't realize is that if there were other guys on base... they had to know that I was going to bunt... and that's why you don't just decide to bunt on your own. I figured if I tried to hit and struck out... but got to first when I bunted... then I should bunt all the time. We would have a guy on first with no outs and I would just randomly through down a bunt. Of course the base runner wasn't ready and would just get thrown out at second...sometimes even a double play if I bunted it badly. I;m pretty sure the coaches told me not to bunt unless they said to... but I think I sort of ignored that and did it anyway. I was pretty dumb when it came to sports.

Eventually I learned this stuff. I also learned how to hit. My Dad started taking me to the batting cages almost every weeknight. By the time Junior Varsity tryouts came along, I could hit for power. More about that in another post entitled "Let no good deed go unpunished..."

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