I quit playing baseball when I was 11 years old. That was the cutoff for girls; after that point, we had to switch to softball, and I wasn’t having it.
My father tried to reason with me.
“Everybody plays softball eventually,” he told me. “All adults make the switch.”
But I wasn’t an adult. I didn’t want to pitch underhand. I didn’t want to play with a ball the size of a grapefruit. Most of all, I didn’t want the most important thing in my life taken away from me because I was a girl.
Up to that point, baseball had defined me. I had one of those T-shirts — “Baseball is life. The rest is just details.” And in my case, it was pretty much true. If anyone asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I told them: the first woman in the Major League.
I shelved my glove, took up basketball and didn’t walk back onto a baseball diamond for 17 years.
Until one spring two years ago, when I joined a softball team.
Tryouts were on a cold Saturday morning, and as I walked over to the playground, I wondered what I was getting myself into. I had known about this league for years, but joining had never occurred to me.
Something, though, made me more open. I missed sports: the current that runs through you when you catch the meaty part of the ball with your bat; the way everyone cheers when the shortstop catches a line drive to win the game. I wanted to be in the park at dusk, that perfect time of day in summer when the sun finally stops being punishing and all of the fields look orange in the light. And I wanted the camaraderie of a team.
Still: Dreams of friendship and sunsets over baseball diamonds were one thing. Throwing a softball for the first time with three dozen strangers in finger-stiffening temperatures was entirely another.
A middle-aged woman with dimples pinned the number 22 to the back of my sweatshirt and sent me off to play catch. The ball was big, but it flew easily out of my hand and into my partner’s glove. It felt good to throw — familiar, even. We took turns hitting, then fielded grounders at every base. Each time, I scooped up the ball and hurled it at first. Each time, my throw went straight into the woman’s mitt.
The first month was good. Our team played once a week. After most games we’d head to a bar, where we’d drink a few beers and rehash the ump’s bad calls. Softball was turning out exactly as I had hoped it would.
And then, sometime in June, I started throwing wild.
I’m not sure how it happened. All I know is that I suddenly found myself incapable of throwing the ball.
The loss of skill was so complete that it was as if I had never been able to throw a ball in my life. Except that I remembered, so clearly that it was agonizing, a time when throwing was the most natural action in my body’s repertoire. The motion was so deeply etched in my ligaments that it seemed like the process happened entirely outside my brain.
The disappearance of something I had always been good at; the fear that it would never come back; the feeling that something valuable had been taken from me without explanation — it was like losing baseball all over again.
It turns out that the sudden inability to complete the most basic motion in sports has a name: the yips.
As I soon discovered on Wikipedia, the yips is the “loss of fine motor skills in athletes.” It occurs “without apparent explanation.” And, Wikipedia helpfully informed me, it “has no known treatment.”
I read about high-profile cases: Chuck Knoblauch, the second baseman who once hit a sportscaster’s mother in the face with a wild ball. Mickey Sasser, the catcher who couldn’t throw back to the pitcher without double-taking.
And then there was Steve Blass, the great pitcher who developed the yips and was sent down to the minors. I dug up Roger Angell’s 1975 profile of him from The New Yorker and read every word, hoping to uncover some secret that would change my own luck. There was, of course, nothing. Mr. Blass retired early and became a jewelry salesman.At first my team chalked it up to nerves.
“Naomi!” my coach shouted after I fielded a grounder and then threw it 10 feet to her right at practice. “Just relax!”
I tried. But the problem with trying to relax is that the more you try, the less relaxed you feel. I tried to take my time. I tried to be natural. I tried to focus on the mechanics; I tried not to focus on the mechanics at all. I tried to think about being loose; I tried to think about throwing hard. I tried really, really hard not to think.
Sometimes it would work for a while. I’d land a few good tosses, and hopefulness would creep in. But inevitably the anxiety would catch up to me, and soon enough a ball would sail past my partner, sending her jogging into the distance to retrieve it.
After a particularly rough game, my coach pulled me aside. I had been desperate to tell someone on the team what was happening to me: that I was under some kind of curse, that my baseball skills had apparently gone into a coma, that this wasn’t the real me. I thought this was my chance.
“You know, I’ve been having this weird problem — maybe it’s anxiety. This thing happens where I can’t throw the ball.”
Her face went blank.
“Don’t worry, bud, we all get nervous,” she said. “Just do your best.” She patted me on the shoulder and headed off.
The realization came with a thud: To my coach, I wasn’t suffering from some kind of performance anxiety. I just sucked.So again, I quit. I didn’t want to further damage my relationship to something that had once been a source of joy. I stopped playing baseball when I was 11, but I had always carried it with me as something that I was good at, something that no one could take away. Now it seemed that the opposite was true.
One weekend after I left the team, my partner and I made plans to go away with her family. Her father had been a semipro pitcher in his youth.
“You should bring your glove,” she said. “I bet my dad would love to play with you.”
A few days later, she spoke to her father on the phone.
“I told him about your problem,” she said. “He said the same thing happened to him once. And he said what you need to do is …”
I readied myself for advice I couldn’t use: “Set your feet before you throw.” “Just relax!”
But that wasn’t what was coming.
“He said you need to find a wall with no one around, and take a ball there and throw it against the wall for a long time, over and over, until it comes back to you. All alone.”
I thought about the hours I spent as a kid throwing a ball against a wall: old tennis balls against my parents’ stoop; blue Sky Bounce balls against my elementary school building at recess. When we went to my aunts’ and uncles’ houses in the suburbs, we threw baseballs against the garage door until they left marks and we got in trouble. It was the kind of throwing I longed for now, the kind of throwing you don’t have to think about.
I didn’t bring my glove on vacation. But I did stop into a sporting goods store a few weeks ago. I asked the salesman if there were any softballs soft enough to throw against a wall, and he pointed me to a box of neon-yellow ones.
I flung one against the floor. It leapt up at me, satisfying, easily making its way back into my hand.
I bought it. It’s been sitting on my dresser for a while now.
There’s a playground down the street from my parents’ house. We used to play catch there, and basketball, and sometimes we’d skateboard. I haven’t been in years. But I remember a big, wide handball wall, too, one that seemed to be rarely used.
Maybe I’ll try it.
Naomi Gordon-Loebl is a writer and fellow at the Type Media Center.
Rites of Passage is a weekly-ish column from Styles and The Times Gender Initiative. To read past essays and for information on how to submit an essay, check out this page.
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