Calling the Pen: One season, one meltdown, one redemptive moment - BaltimoreBaseball.com

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Calling the Pen: One season, one meltdown, one redemptive moment

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

It’s fairly safe to say that most kids, regardless of demographics, had some sort of experience playing youth sports. It’s also just as safe to say that some of these kids had better experiences than others.

I’d consider myself firmly in that “others” category. This wasn’t for a lack of talent — I wasn’t hitting home runs, but I was a decent enough defensive player (for a weirdly shaped 9-year-old girl) if I recall correctly, and I did make the league All-Star team, so I was at least better than presumably most of the other kids playing. But I struggled in other ways that overall marred my Reisterstown Youth Softball experience and assured that I only ever played that one season in the league before retiring from athletic pursuits entirely.

Namely, I discovered that I’m a terrible loser.

There’s a scene early on in the Moneyball film where Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane expresses, “You get on base, we win. You don’t, we lose. And I hate losing. I hate it. I hate losing more than I even wanna win.” That sentiment really sums up my whole attitude about competitive sports … or competitive anything, really. I’m an absolutely garbage loser. The joy gleaned from a victory pales in comparison to the absolute rage felt after a loss. I’ve mellowed a bit on this over the years, but when I was still a feisty elementary school kid, there was little consoling me after a loss.

There were two things that defined my youth softball experience. One, I was trying to emulate one of my all-time favorite players, Ivan Rodriguez. I wore my team’s teal number seven shirsey with a solid amount of pride and all I wanted to do was catch (something I struggled at, as I was both nearsighted and also too tall for the shin guards to effectively do their job). And two, an incident during a game that we easily could have and should have won, had the rest of the girls on the team held it together.

But they didn’t.

This being 20 years in the rear-view mirror, some of the details are a little hazy. But I remember the more important parts of this particular afternoon. My team had cruised to an early 10-0 lead, and had we held on to anything remotely close to that for any length of time, we would have mercy-ruled the opponent. But while I was still at 100 percent, my teammates started to slack off. They got comfortable with that lead … too comfortable, to the point of laziness. Dropped easy tosses at the bases, not running out hard to first, swinging at bad pitches — it’s as if they decided collectively that 10 runs was enough, and that they were done putting in work for the day. Well, that mercy rule that would have kicked in never got the chance to, as the opponents took the opportunity to surge back, cutting our lead in half … and eventually tying the game at 10-10.

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I was livid. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I said some pretty rude things to my teammates as I stood at third base during our defensive half of the inning, watching the other infielders drop ball after ball and allow this other team to catch up. I cried, I screamed — it was a full-blown temper tantrum at the hot corner.

For what it’s worth, we didn’t lose that game. It ended in a 10-10 tie. But in my 9-year-old mind, we should have won, and we didn’t, and that’s just as bad as a loss.

On the ride home, I got a stern talking-to from my mortified father, who was sure to go into the usual spiel about how winning isn’t everything and how I shouldn’t be such a sore loser — you know the drill. I was also embarrassed by my reaction to the situation, to the point where I skipped the next practice. I eventually came back to the team, made that All-Star team despite my questionable emotional maturity, and retired at the height of my abilities after the season. I didn’t ever play sports again outside of mandated school gym classes, but my dad would bring up this particular outburst several times throughout my adolescence as either a way to embarrass me or as a reminder of how I historically did not play well with others.

Fast-forward a little more than a decade. It’s 2011, and I’m working with the Washington Nationals as a glorified intern in the creative services department. Ivan Rodriguez was on the roster that season, having signed a two-year contract the year before with the Nats to back-end what would be a legendary 20-year career in the majors. I was writing a number of the feature articles and player profiles for the official Nats blog in addition to various other less-enviable duties, and the 20-year anniversary of Pudge’s MLB debut was coming up. My boss asked me to interview him and do a quick career retrospective in celebration of an obviously historic milestone.

Thanks largely in part to who my dad is, I’ve spent a lot of time around significant athletes and other sports celebrities in my life, so I didn’t really ever experience being starstruck by an MLB player. Pudge would be the first, and so far only, time that I was remotely overwhelmed by the prospect of a quick interview.

I scheduled the interview through the media relations folks. As I headed into the Nats’ clubhouse, Pudge called me over to his locker to chat. He opened by saying, “Your dad told me about your softball days.”

I began to feel the color drain out of my face.

“He said you were a bad loser,” he continued.

My soul began to leave my body.

I stammered something or other, but Pudge just put his hand up and said, “But that’s the kind of teammate I’d want to have around.”

Sweet, sweet vindication.

I finished that piece for work, which felt like somewhat of a reward in and of itself, but finally being able to turn what I had considered a sour memory from my childhood into something more palatable thanks to one of my baseball idols’ casual approval was perhaps the best thing that happened to me over the course of that year. Working for the Nationals that year was a delight, and I did some really cool work while I was there — but that short piece will likely always be my favorite.

***

Carrie Wood is the assistant editor at Gemstone Publishing, where she writes about comic books and various other collectibles for publications, including the annual Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. She has authored Gemstone titles such as The Overstreet Guide to Collecting Video Games and The Overstreet Guide to Collecting Tabletop Games. Carrie spent a handful of years working in sports, covering the Towson Tigers while a student at Towson University and going on to work for MASN and for the Washington Nationals. She lives in Owings Mills with her husband and their cats. You may be more familiar with the work of her father, Phil Wood, who hosts MASN’s Nats Talk every Saturday morning and has been a DC/Baltimore sportscasting staple for a few decades or so. Unlike her father, Carrie has actually seen Star Wars.

Editor’s Note: I’ve always respected Phil’s baseball knowledge and professionalism — and now I know he deserves respect as a dad, too. And, Phil, if you’re going to see just one Star Wars‘ film, choose The Empire Strikes Back. It has a strong father-and-son moment.

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.

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