Part I: Taking One to the Face, A Short Narrative
It went down in the books as a fairly unconventional 6-4-3-2 double play. We were playing Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, during the spring of my senior year. I don’t remember what inning it was, or the score, or even who was pitching. It wasn’t a meaningful game—none of them are in barely .500 season in the NAIA. I know there was one out and a runner was on second, and a right-handed batter was at the plate. I was holding the runner, so I was pinched in a step or two closer to second base. The batter hit a sharp groundball up the middle, and I took a quick step to my left and bent to field the ball off my left foot in stride, already preparing to throw to first, but on the last hop, the one in which I’d timed to field, the ball took a proverbial “bad-hop” on a pebble or sunflower seed shell or some other such imperfection and smacked me in the face, the seams of the ball opening a small gash at the base of my right nostril. Coaches like to say there’s no such thing as a “bad hop,” only bad footwork. Coaches like to say a lot of stupid things.
My face deflected the ball all the way to the second baseman—a freshman who didn’t play much and instead of yelling the customary “shit” or “fuck” or “goddammit” anytime he made an error (like I did), he’d yell out a screechy, pubertal “stink!”—who scrambled after it fired to first just in time for the out. The runner on second, who had advanced to third on contact, must’ve hesitated around third or lost track of the ball because our first baseman threw home to get him as he tried to score. Of course, I saw none of this happen. After the ball struck me, I went down to my hands and knees, understandably dazed. A little blood dripped from my nose and I tongued a small cut inside my mouth, high up under my lip. The space beneath my nose instantly felt three or four times its normal size, but even then I realized I was lucky to still have all my front teeth. I stood and saw everyone was jogging off the field, and it wasn’t until I was back in the dugout that someone explained to me what happened.
Part II: Identity, or What it Means to be Red Assed
While in college, and all through high school, my identity was as a baseball player. At a small, Christian university where sports, and everything else for that matter, took a back seat to Jesus, I was a baseball player, a shortstop, the shortstop. In a school where I didn’t really belong—I wasn’t evangelical (I grew up a Christmas and Easter Catholic) or conservative (we were blue-collar Democrats)—and in hindsight never should have attended, it was comforting to know there was one spot I could be myself: on the baseball field. And there my identity, as I saw it, was even further narrowed: I wasn’t just a baseball player, I was Hard-Nosed. I was Gritty. I was a Ballplayer. I was Red Assed. On our long bus rides to away games, I would sit with a teammate, a fellow Red Asser (by the way, calling oneself “Red Assed” is pretty much the antithesis of being Red Assed…apparently the irony of this was lost on us at the time), and we would list the names of all the Red Ass players we could: Darrin Erstad, Lenny Dykstra, Jason Kendall, Dave Stewart, Kirk Gibson, Hal McCrae. We’d debate the merits of different players, judging them against the principles of Red Assness we’d honed over the course of the season.
Never draw undue attention to themselves, i.e., they let their play do the talking;
Run out every ball out as if it is their last;
Go hard into second base on every double play;
Refrain from outward displays of emotion, like smiling (Red Assers often look like angry, miserable bastards while playing);
Are, unquestionably, indisputably, tough (if you want to get them off the field, you better bring a stretcher).
Sometimes these players were stars, but often they weren’t. Sometimes it was their stardom that prohibited their status as Red Ass: see Cal Ripken, Jr. as an example. But they demanded respect because they played the game hard—always. Admittedly, it was in imperfect set of criteria, and arguments ensued. For example: Was Hal McCrae Red Assed, or had he “played dirty”? Was Paul O’Neill Red Assed, or did he throw too many tantrums? Was George Brett Red Assed, or was he disqualified for removing himself—because of hemorrhoids—from Game 2 of the 1980 World Series? You get the idea. Being Red Assed was an attitude more than anything, and I performed it diligently for everyone to witness. And during my senior season, I was one of two players, the other being my friend and fellow Red Asser, our team chose as captains. It was honor, for sure, but looking back, I was an easy choice. I was the gritty, serious player who played a demanding position. I was the kind of player coaches would point out as a model for work ethic and dedication. Our “star” players, such as they were, weren’t serious or committed enough. That said, all our captainship entailed was leading the team in stretching and delegating equipment and tarp duties.
Part III: A Case of Mistaken Identity, Regarding My High School Success
During baseball tryouts my junior year of high school, I was playing second base, and we were turning double plays. I received a throw from the third basemen for an around-the-horn double play, and, trying to be (too) quick, I snuck my right hand too far into the palm of my glove, and the ball jammed the point of the second knuckle of my index finger, causing what I later learned was a spiral fracture of the proximal bone. I was at a new school and felt I needed to prove myself, so I didn’t tell the coaches I’d hurt my finger. I gutted out the rest of the infield practice, and it wasn’t until we were hitting in the cages that the head coach noticed something. I was a right-handed batter, and I was releasing my top hand on my swing’s follow through because the vibrations from the bat striking the ball sent shockwaves through my hand.
Four weeks later, my finger mostly healed, I was relegated to the Junior Varsity roster. It was disappointing, of course, but because of my injury I couldn’t justifiably compete for a Varsity spot. But by the final inning of the opening JV doubleheader, I’d hit two home runs and a double. The next afternoon I was practicing with Varsity and never looked back.
The head coach was, as coaches often understandably are, loyal to the senior starting shortstop, and the guy playing second base, also a junior and a hell of a hitter, didn’t really have any other position. So, aside from two games at second and maybe one at shortstop, I was the team’s Designated Hitter for the remainder of the twenty-game season. I hit .460 on the year with three home runs (not counting the two I hit on JV), and our season ended with a loss in the regional championship game.
The conference our school was in, The Sunflower League, was one of the best in the Kansas City metro area, and I was named to the 2nd Team All-Sunflower League at DH. Every year, The Kansas City Star awards an All-Metro team for each sport, and given the city’s size, it is a tremendous honor for a high school athlete to be so recognized. Our second baseman was named to the All-Metro 2nd team, and deservedly so—the guy was one of the best hitters I ever played with, but, oddly, he was also named to the All-Metro Honorable Mention team at DH, a position he’d only played for two games, the same two games I played at second base. Clearly, at least to me, this was an instance of mistaken identity. I mean, how could the same player make the All-Metro team at two different positions? Didn’t being good enough to be named to the All-Metro Team at one position, by default, prohibit one from being good enough to be named at another? It wasn’t my style to raise a stink about this kind of thing, being a Red Ass and all, but it would have been nice if my coach had, at least, put in a call to see if there had been a mistake. Apparently it wasn’t his style, either.
Part IV: In Which I’m Honest about My Career
By all statistical measures, my college career was utterly unremarkable. In over 200 games in four years, I hit three home runs. In one season, I drew over 30 walks, which I think at the time was a single-season record at my school, though admittedly not a very sexy one. I’m sure my career batting average was well under .300, and thankfully there’s no statistics available online to prove it. Defensively, I was fundamental, steady, and though I wasn’t flashy—I couldn’t be as a Red Ass—I was occasionally great. Neither my arm strength nor my foot speed were exceptional, but both were better than average. I prided myself on hanging in on double plays—holding my ground to get the out as the baserunner barrels into second base—and I have the spike scars on my ankles to prove it. I had very good hands; in fact, a coach once said he wanted all the “bad hops” to come to me (ah, the irony). My play at shortstop was probably the only facet of the game where I excelled, where I was objectively good. One of my goals for each game was to outplay the opposing shortstop, and often enough, I did.
Like all sports, baseball is a physical game, but because the game is slow, it requires particular metal capabilities that aren’t as crucial in other sports. As an infielder, when the ball is hit to you, it becomes a game of reactions. Your body takes over and rarely do you have time to think. This is why you’ll often see the most spectacular plays made on hard hit balls and the errors on the most routine of groundballs. But as a hitter, even though the reaction times are even shorter, the game slows to a point where too much thinking is detrimental to success.
Thinking deeply has served me as an academic and writer, but as a baseball player, as a hitter, especially, it was the downfall of my college career. That is not to say that successful hitters are dumb; in reality, the opposite is true. Great hitting requires a high level of thinking; understanding a pitcher and his catcher’s trends, reading the pitcher’s body language, studying the defensive alignment as a clue to how the pitcher might try to get you out, perhaps even setting the pitcher up in order to get him to throw you a specific pitch—all of this necessitates a great deal of thinking, that is, right up until the moment before the pitcher delivers his pitch. Then, what great hitters have the ability to do is let go, to clear their minds of everything unessential to the task at hand, so that their brains can process what their eyes tell them, and their bodies can simply react. This is something that, except on rare occasions, I was unable to consistently do in college the way I had in high school. Whereas in the field, you never know when or if the ball will be hit to you, when you stand in the batter’s box, you know, with certainty, that the pitcher will deliver a pitch. And in the waiting for him to throw his pitch so that you can react, you have time to think, which in my case, led me to worry about my mechanics—my hands, balance, swing plane—to allow my body to tense, to doubt myself. The short interval—literally only a few seconds—before a pitcher threw his pitch was time enough for me to get in my own head. I could no longer simply let go like I’d been able to in the past. I was my own worst enemy. I wasn’t able to allow my training, my muscle memory to take over, and I was often down 0-2 before I ever took a swing. Inevitably, I would bring the failure of my first at bat to my second and so on. It was an ugly and difficult cycle that I struggled with my entire college career and ultimately failed to break.
I was often angry at my teammates’ successes, and it might’ve seemed like simple jealousy from the outside, but for me it went far deeper than that. I practiced as hard or harder than anyone, never cut corners, studied the game, and took it more seriously than just about anyone else on the team, and yet there I was watching lazier players, players with measurably less talent, players who cared less, outperforming me.
Part V: Failed Sacrifice, An Anecdote
A few games before I took the groundball off my face, I failed to execute a sacrifice bunt to advance a runner to scoring position, and when I returned to the dugout, a freshman pitcher who didn’t pitch much patted me on the back and said, “Good try, Casey.” I’m sure he was just trying to be a good teammate and “pick me up,” but I wheeled around and got right in his face. “Good try? Did I get the bunt down?” He shook his head feebly, and I said, “Then don’t fucking touch me.”
I was being an asshole, obviously, and I’m not proud of my behavior. But fifteen years later, I’m still trying to understand who I was and why I acted the way I did. I see now that I was a horribly selfish player, only my selfishness was disguised by what came off as a team-first Red Ass mentality. To be as concerned as I was about my identity as a Red Ass, I had to be selfish. I’d like to think it was the kind of selfishness that still helped the team to win, but I’m not so sure. I was often as concerned with being a Red Ass as I was about being a winner. Maybe somehow I already knew I couldn’t be a “winner” and I was mitigating that by overzealously adopting the Red Ass attitude. Perhaps what angered me was the realization that if I couldn’t be the hitter I knew I was capable of being—driving in runs, performing in the clutch—at least I could be a Red Ass, the guy who teammates and coaches know grinds it out and sacrifices for the team when called upon, but who was I, really, if I couldn’t do that job, either?
Part VI: “So, you played baseball in college?”
When people ask where I played my college ball, I answer, usually mumbling, that it was at a small NAIA school in Kansas. I always feel like I’ve disappointed them by not saying a larger school they’ve actually heard of. Sometimes, in an attempt to salvage the conversation, I’ll tell them that as a freshman I walked-on at a mid-sized Division II university in east-central Kansas and when the season began, I’d earned a starting position ahead of two scholarship players and two upperclassmen. But then I feel compelled to explain why I didn’t stay at that school (I was homesick, essentially), why I finished my college career where I did (it was my only real option short of trying to walk on somewhere else), and though I shouldn’t feel embarrassed—I was talented enough to play in college, after all—I do. It’s worse when, after they ask what position I played and I tell them I was a shortstop, they inevitably say, “Wow, you must’ve been really good then.” Since even the casual fan knows that shortstop is one of the most difficult and/or most important positions on the field, I feel like even more of a fraud. It’s difficult to convey to people the abilities I had as an athlete especially without any noteworthy statistics or awards to my name. And not only does it take too long to describe and contextualize what it means to be a Red Ass, but most people just don’t care that much beyond the benchmark statistics that they know, like that a .300 average is good, for example. So, with nothing remotely objective that a person can easily identify as success, I’m left exasperated by my inability to express to people the kind of talent I had and frustrated for having been reminded of my failures as a player to live up to those talents. It’s why you’ll rarely find me talking about my time playing ball.
Part VII: A Reflection on Potential
It’s taken me a long time to think about my career objectively, that is as it actually was instead of substituting that with how I saw myself, with the player I could have been and always felt I was on the cusp of becoming. While I was playing, and even for some time after, I did my best to ignore the mediocre results my play produced and instead carried myself as the player I thought I was and believed I had the ability to be. I felt—I knew—I was better than most of the players around me because I worked harder, took things more seriously, wanted it more. Yet I see now that the only way in which I was “better” was in my potential.
How good a player could I have become if I had lived up to my potential? I used to think about this quite a lot, but despite what I might’ve thought then, I’m under no illusions now about how far I could have gone had I reached my potential. Even if I had somehow figured out how to get out of my own way, it wasn’t as if I would’ve have gotten drafted. I didn’t have the necessary physical tools: I’m couple inches too short, I didn’t have enough arm strength, and I had nowhere near enough power. And I lacked the raw foot speed to be a glove-first guy. Did I have the ability and skills to play professionally in something like the Independent Leagues? Maybe. But I wouldn’t have been a standout, and it’s not as if I could have made any kind of career out of it.
Looking back, it’s clear that after I initially struggled at the college level, instead of being patient and allowing myself to mature as a player, I placed undue pressure on myself. After a strikeout, I would dwell on the failure such that I was almost assured of not being successful in my next at bat. Even after executing a good swing and maybe lining out, I would look for ways to find the negative and continue to beat myself up because, though the execution was good, it was still an out in the scorebook. It was because of this potential. And that’s what this has all really been about, hasn’t it? Potential. Can potential even be measured? I suppose we can look at the skillset required by any endeavor, in this case baseball, and gauge if the person displays the necessary skills or bears certain predetermined markers of possible success (such as size, speed, arm strength), but even then aren’t we just making a guess, hoping that the person/player will live up to the agreed-upon skills or markers? This guessing game is on display every year in June during the Major League Baseball Draft. For every Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, there are literally thousands of other players that wash out in the Minors, never living up to the potential the scouts saw in them. (Though it refers to how teams are assigned their picks, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the NBA calls their draft a “lottery.”) By default, then, isn’t all potential unrealized? For once potential is realized, once it is superseded by actual ability or, in the case of baseball players, successful performance, it ceases to exist.
It’s moving from the realm of the could be to the is.
Part VIII: “The best goddamn round of BP,” My Potential Continued
After a particularly ugly loss to Missouri Western in my first year of college, (when I was playing D-II), our coach reamed us where we sat in the grass down the left field line. I don’t recall the theme of our ass-chewing, but at one point, it was as if our coach lost the thread and began calling us out individually. He got to me, and, bottom lip swollen with Copenhagen, said, “And Pycior here, has the best goddamn round of BP I’ve ever fuckin’ seen. Everything was on a line. And then,” he said, and of course, spat a stream of tobacco juice, “come game time, he fuckin’ sucked.”
It was embarrassing, sure, but he was right on both accounts. I had “fuckin’ sucked” in the game, and I’d had a great batting practice. That latter wasn’t unique, though. I could control the bat really well, and during batting practice, hit the ball wherever and however I wanted at will. Needed a ground ball between shortstop and third? No problem. A fly ball to the outfield? Done. A line drive over the second baseman? Piece of cake. My swing was good, and batting practice was easy. There was no pressure, no risk of failure. No one, not even myself, was relying on me to perform. I could just swing.
Part IX: My Facial Double Play, A Return to the Narrative
In the dugout after taking the groundball to the face, several of my teammates came to check on me while the trainer, a fellow student who was authorized to do little more than ice arms, dug into his tackle box of tape and Band Aids, and produced some cotton for me to hold on the cut under my nostril. He didn’t have any Tylenol for the deep headache that set in as I made my way off the field, nor could he give me any if he did, so one of my teammates scrounged around in his bag and produced two or three Advil which I bolted down with some water.
As I sat on the bench quelling the blood from my nose with the roll of cotton, our coach, a man who was several years younger then than I am now, came down to the end of the dugout. He asked how I was, and when I told him I had a bad headache, he asked if I was okay to stay in the game. I remember I said, “I don’t know,” and I repeated that my head hurt pretty bad. This was true. Looking back, it’s conceivable that I even had a concussion, but this was the first time in my career I hadn’t argued to stay in a game, hadn’t been a true Red Ass. “I don’t think I can go,” I said, and my coach looked at me a moment without speaking. Then he said, “Okay,” and turned and called to the backup shortstop to get ready to replace me.
My coach asking me if I was okay to stay in the game instead of simply taking me out, I see now, was a kind of affirmation, however small, of my Red Assness. Here someone outside of my own ideas about myself as a player acknowledged my identity, the one I’d worked so hard to cultivate in the absence of actual on-field performance. It was real in the way my potential never was or even could be, and I was effectively shunning it. That moment of my coach looking at me has eaten at me over the years, I think, because he respected me enough to give me a chance to be an example of the player I outwardly professed to be. And when I asked out, he seemed unable to disguise his disappointment.
So why did I come out of the game? I’m not sure, exactly. It wasn’t the injury—I’d played through worse. There were no lingering effects aside from the small scar, and even that has faded over the years. It might’ve been that repeatedly falling short of my potential had simply worn me out. Baseball just wasn’t fun anymore. But then I’m not sure the game can ever be fun for a Red Ass.
I am sure, though, that failing to be what I thought I was, what I identified myself as, over time, has proved a far more lasting failure than never having lived up to my potential.