Being "In The Zone" My Zen-Like Exerience!
This is not about "a stupid game."
This is a story about our youth slowly fading away until all that's left is a distant memory yet so clear when recalled. It's also about a level of consciousness few reach. But mainly it's about humiliation, redemption, failure, victory, and closure.
hu·mil·i·ate: (h)yo͞oˈmilēˌāt/verb - 1. To make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect, especially publicly. synonyms: embarrass, mortify, humble, shame, disgrace.
Humiliation. I had never experienced it before that day. Of course, I'm ten so I hadn't experienced much at all yet. It's my second year of Little League and Dad was my coach.
Second half of the season, Pop gives me a try at pitching and we both find out I can just about throw it past everyone. So when it came time for the championship game, he chose me over our 11 year old pitcher. I had been nearly invincible through six games.
So the stage was set at County Park in Simi Valley, California and quite a large crowd of about 200 had turned out.
Right away I'm finding out these guys are good. The Yankees. It always seems like it's the Yankees as the nemesis to all. A hit, another hit and I was visibly shaken to begin the game. What's with these guys? They aren't striking out like most all my opponents did during the season.
I walk the next guy to load the bases and the clean up hitter is up. What happened next was so traumatic, that I can even remember who was at bat to this day over 40 years later - John Hopkins. How could I ever forget a name like that even if I had tried!
I'm Just A Kid And Act Like One
OK, pull yourself together, I tell myself. The team is relying upon me. We wore flannel uniforms and used wooden bats back then. I windup, lean back, throw it as hard as I can and then the most unmistakably loud sound of solid contact when an ash wood bat connects with a leather baseball.
"CRACK!!" My head jerks straight up into the air at an unfamiliar angle to me. I seemingly surrealistically watch this high flying missile leave the park in a hurry and disappear into the huge dark green clump of oak trees beyond left field! A GRAND SLAM! 4 batters, 4 runs!
I'm in shock and try to stifle my sobbing, but I just can't. I'm totally coming apart at the seams. So mad, I windup, lean back, and aim right for the number on the next batter's back through blurry eyes. This'll teach 'em to dig in on me in that batter's box! An audible THUMP!! resonates as he collapses in the dirt.
Next batter up, I bean him with a fastball right in the numbers for good measure, too. Wiping my wet eyes, I get the ball back quickly and the third batter narrowly ducks my fastball. Dad calls time, walks out to the mound and quietly escorts me back to the dugout. I drop the ball in the soft dirt and trudge off, head down with Dad's arm softly around my shouders hating the game of baseball at that moment. I'd let everyone down.
But Dad, oh gosh, poor guy. He must have been so embarrassed. Not for my performance but for the way I had handled it. Probably regretting his decision too, putting so much pressure on his own son like that. But I WAS the logical choice.
He doesn't say a word (and for the rest of the day) to me as we sit at opposite ends of the wooden bench in the dugout. Of course, we lost.
So THIS must be what it feels like. Yes, this was the first time I had ever experienced HUMILIATION. You'll be reminded of it even if you try to forget it later because so many saw it, you were aware of that fact and you'll never get that awful moment back.
Not Going To Assume Anything Today
My sister is bothering me in the back seat of the family car and I go into a rage on her. "MOM! What is Dan's problem?" she whines. "Leave him alone." she says while driving us to County Park in Santa Susana, California, "He's just nervous."
What responsibilities did you have as a kid at 10 or 11 years old? Maybe clean your room, feed your pet or you might have to “look after your little sister or brother” and even then in what capacity really? When your peers, your teammates on your Little League team are relying upon you to pitch the championship game, in front of a crowd of people you mostly knew, THAT’S ASKING LOT for a ten year old and I had come to pieces the season before. We lost and I felt I had let everyone down.
Now, as luck would have it, a year later I was given a reprieve to redeem myself. I had practiced obsessively, relentlessly and so often that my sisters later told me they had asked Mom if I wasn’t slightly autistic. I found time to throw a tennis ball against our side wall hundreds of times nearly every day until my arm was sore. Now the burden of responsibility was upon my skinny shoulders once again exactly one year later. You usually only get one chance at redemption. Today is that day.
Athletes Call It "Being In A Zone"
But this time I’m prepared, as I took the mound for the Simi-Santa Susana American Little League Pilots in this playoff game. My mind is SO FOCUSED now that I strangely feel as though I'm boxed into some kind of weird trance-like self induced hypnotic state. I just FEEL DIFFERENT. A tunnel vision of complete concentration.
This is what athletes will tell you about literally feeling "in a zone." Your muscle memory takes over and your mental focus has completely shut out every outside distraction.
First inning, I strike out all three batters on nine pitches. The next inning I do the same. I’m not speaking to any of my teammates when I go to sit alone at the far end of the bench. The third and fourth innings are the same as every batter I face I strike him out with relative ease. Twelve Oriole batters up, twelve down by strikeout in a row up to this point!
I’m aware it’s me doing it but I had never done anything like this before with seemingly so little effort. Something has taken over my mind and my body. I barely sense the crowd of about 150 cheering even louder with every batter I strike out.
I read recently where striking out every batter in a game is rare but there almost always were, hits, runs, walks given up by the pitcher and of all the thousands of leagues, schools there is almost never 18 up, 18 down striking out.
A girl has her mitt and uniform in Canton home of the Baseball Hall of Fame for doing it. I'm mowing down not just a bunch of bums. This was the team that tied us for the second half season pennant. The winning team played the first half winner in the championship game (which I pitched and won 12-3 versus the Red Sox the next Saturday.) I was 10-1 pitching that season. When someone else pitched then we were 4-7! So we barely made it to this playoff game.
This is how it felt that day. Just a blur of swings and misses. 28 years later the pats on the back
First batter of the fifth inning, I start to realize a strange sense of invincibility. So I close my eyes, wind up and throw it as hard as I can and the ball zips right down the middle smacking into my catcher, Ernie Johnson's mitt. Strike three! That's 13! Then number 14 whiffs and the third batter up in the inning also strikes out. 15 batters up, 15 batters struck out! Three more outs to go.
The score is moot at this point because we're winning 15-0. I can barely remember only pitching in that game and I can't recall a single at bat of mine nor just about anything else up to that point.
Where Did That Strange Feeling Go?
Suddenly, as I'm sitting alone at the far end of the dugout bench, I sense that "it's" gone. "The zone" which I was in has vanished. I'm more fully aware of my surroundings. I can feel my zen-like state has mysteriously left me just before the start of this last inning.
So as I just stood out there on the mound to begin the sixth inning, looking at my surroundings and was wondering where that weird feeling went to. I kept standing there. The minutes passed.
Now for the first time that day, I'm consciously aware that everyone on the field and in the stands are watching me, awaiting my next move. They're crowded right up against the chain link backstop screen. I catch a glimpse of my sister for the first time since the game began and she's smiling broadly.
Finally the umpire yells, "C'mon! Let's go, pitcher!" Fatigue has apparently set in and that uber-confident trance-like feeling has succumbed to exhaustion. Every physical movement is a huge effort. I’m now finally distracted by thoughts and doubts.
On the 16th batter I go to three balls (and two strikes) for the first time all day. Then I fire a pitch into the dirt. I'd walked him. I still have a no-hitter but my chance for the rarest of rare games, a perfect, PERFECT GAME is gone. Concentrate, I tell myself. Get that feeling back. But it's gone. At least for today.
The next batter is the first to actually hit a ball into fair territory, a weak pop up towards first base. I race over, spear it in midair on a dead run and quickly toss the ball to our first baseman, Jerry Doyle all in one motion, doubling off the runner who had started towards second base then froze. Double play! I had made EVERY OUT IN THE GAME up until then (no dropped third strike rule at this level. Pitcher is credited with a putout on a strikeout) when I got my 16th putout and an assist on this play.
My last pitch of the game to the 18th batter (which is the minimum batters allowed in a six inning game) is popped up along the first base foul line. I yell to no other fielder anywhere near me, "I GOT IT! I GOT IT! I GOT IT!"
The batter abruptly stops running because I had entered his path to first and could see I was going to collide with him. *SMACK!* the ball settles into my mitt. THREE OUTS! My teammates mob me then pick me up onto their shoulders. After maybe five minutes I have a brief moment to myself and notice I'm still clutching the ball tightly in my glove. The same ball I have over 45 years later.
I saw this game on live TV and right from that moment on, I decided I was going to emulate Bob Gibson's pitching style
My Body Is Telling Me Enough Is Enough
Fast forward 28 years. I'm washed up at 39 and I know it. I threw over 140 pitches in our season finale two months ago and couldn't even lift my arm to comb my hair for a week afterward.
But my teammates want me to play one last semi-pro Winter League season coming up because they still rely on me in other ways even though I'm the oldest. But also probably because I usually have about a half dozen or more over my place after the game to help me down some beers.
Too painful to pitch, I played shortstop or first base all season and just threw sidearm. My lifetime National Adult Baseball Association pitching stats are stuck on 6 wins 6 losses, 199 strikeouts 199 innings in four previous seasons. We're up 10-0 after five innings in a N.A.B.A. Open League semi-final game in Lancaster (CA.) I'm not aware my manager and the team have secret plans for me.
1993 season one in N.A.B.A. Open League.
My Teammates Understand
"Warm up, Big D. Yer pitchin' next inning!" J.R., my manager says to me but he doesn't see my shocked expression for just a split second. I don't argue and head to the bullpen. My arm feels like it got run over by a train all season long.
But once I enter the game, the pain is forgotten. I manage to get the first batter to fly out then strikeout the second batter with my sidearm delivery. 200! My teammates behind me yell out. Then with a loud, painful grunt, throwing it as hard as I could, the third batter bounces to our second baseman and I watch every hop in the soft dirt like it's in slow motion. One, two, three, he scoops, throws him out by a step.
I twirl, head down and walk off the field towards the third base side dugout for the last time as A PITCHER. I feel a twinge of sadness because pitching is something I had done for a long time and I was pretty good, too. Now, I realize, it has finally come to a fitting end.
I trudge towards the dugout staring only at the tops of my cleats, taking each measured step in the infield dirt for the last time. I think back to my first time at 10 years old and now it's all over.
I think back to when I watched Bob Gibson strikeout nearly everybody in Game One of the 1968 World Series. I watched the entire game. How I copied his wind-up, his delivery, his intimidating demeanor on the mound from that moment on. How he trudged off the field still focused and not celebrating his record setting 17 strikeout performance until his team mobbed him with elation. Only then did he smile and snap out of it and lose his "game face."
I'm thinking about it all at once in one jumbled baseball hurtling through time and space as it whizzes past me and disappears. Completely lost in my thoughts when suddenly, before I reach the foul line (don't step on the white line I would always remind myself,) the entire team behind me and off the bench swarm me with pats on the back, handshakes as my catcher Paul Rodriguez puts his arm around my neck like I had just won the World Series. I'm Bob Gibson for a second. What a great bunch of guys I played for!
Later, my manager, J.R. lets me sit out the last three innings. Then he quietly gives me the ball with a "200" on it and signed by everyone. I can feel all my teammate's gaze upon me as I read each and every signature with a smile on my face. I look up and they're all smiling back at me. For they knew how much it meant to me.
It was the end of the trail for this ol' warrior.
Dan W. Miller
MVP of the 1996 NABA Ventura County All-Star game at Moorpark College. North vs South. Oldest in the game at 37. Winning pitcher 6 2/3 inns 7 Ks & 2 hits
© 2016 Dan W Miller