Thursday, March 15, 2007

Trying to knuckle down

When I was thirteen years old, I belonged, with maximum exuberance, to a country club of the golf variety. It was a nine-hole course with poorly planned overlapping fairways. My favorite hole, the par-three eighth, was the one that was farthest from the clubhouse. It was across a two-lane road, high up on a hill, and adjacent to the town park swimming pool. From the tee box, you could hear kids shouting “marco” and “polo” in the pool below. Weeds were in the sandtrap and ankle-high grass in the fairway because the groundskeeper deemed it unsafe to drive his mower across the two-lane road.

The cost of my “teen” membership, I still remember, was $265 dollars a year, with a one-time $150 dollar initiation fee. During that one year that I was a club member, I played nearly every day after school. When it snowed, I’d throw on my yellow jacket and play the round with a hot pink ball. I liked the feeling of striking a ball and watching it fly in a perfect trajectory.

I played my rounds, with few exceptions, alone. I was hyper-vigilant and obsessive about keeping an accurate score, and after each round I rushed to the clubhouse computer to enter it. I had three other friends who were club members, but I didn’t like playing with them. They didn’t take the game seriously. They each played with a pocket full of acorns, and whenever one of the four of us hit, acorns would be pelted at our heads during our backswing. One time, all three of them lined up on the eighth tee box and, at the same time, they hit in the direction of the crowded pool below and then waited for an extra loud scream. None came.

I recently found an English essay of mine from that year in which I discuss in great detail how I was going to start “making a living playing golf” before I turned twenty years old. This was before Tiger Woods and Big Bertha drivers. This was before Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati, before Lebron and Dwight Howard. I was a thirteen year-old who was convinced that he’d be on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he could legally drink.

In the first month, my handicap went from a 36 to a 23, but during the next eleven months I was only able to shave off an additional 4 strokes. Still, my confidence remained high. As I wrote in my English essay, “Becoming a star is a process. My diligence will be constant but I expect my game to improve infrequently and unexpectedly.”

At the end of that year of golf tunnel-vision, an unexpected event prevented my game from improving at all, infrequently or otherwise: the clubhouse was burned down by a serial arsonist and was never rebuilt. Within months, my parents signed me up for a floor hockey league and a swim team, and I soon forgot about golf altogether.

Now, decades later, I look back and recognize that I have never been able to recapture the ability to have a singular purpose. I have been handicapped by loving other people and by wanting financial independence, which require flexibility and compromise when it comes to my personal goals. Or so I thought.

I was recently reading an old New Yorker issue when I came across an article about knuckleball pitchers, and I suddenly realized that throwing knuckleballs for a living was something I could do. It didn’t require any real baseball skill. All I needed was to be able to throw a baseball 50 mph with no spin. And throw it for strikes.

My wife, who played Division I softball in college, agreed to play catch with me for thirty minutes each morning, regardless of the weather. She thinks of the time as a way to catch up on one another’s lives. This morning, for example, she told me a story about an annoying co-worker and asked me how I’d deal with him. I mostly just listen to her stories, but anytime I think I have thrown a good knuckler, I interrupted her and ask, “did that one have movement?” So far, the answer to my question has slowly progressed from “no” to “I didn’t see any” to “maybe” to “sort of.”

My wife claims that playing catch every morning has saved our marriage, that she’s noticed that the more my pitches wobble, the less our relationship does. Maybe she’s right, but for me that’s too broad of a concept to wrap my head around. What I do know is that for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling good. And while I realize that I’ve chosen the one pitch whose trajectory nobody can predict—not even the person who throws a lively knuckleball knows where it will end up—I am confident that if I keep practicing, one of these days I’ll be throwing it for strikes in the majors.

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