Knuckleball

By Dave O'Karma


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“What do you want with a dead mouse, anyways?”
“I could pet it with my thumb while we walked along,” said Lennie.
—John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
 
I started working on a knuckleball.
Why, you may ask? Does it have anything to do with the recent loss of a job I’ve worked for 30 years?

Yep, that was soul-crushing. Still even more crushing is knowing that at age 56, the many miles of time in my life’s resume feels fossilized, typewritten, landlined, and snail-mailed in an iPad-Twitter-Android world that demands breakneck speed.
  
But, I am refusing to be farmed out to “the old guy with antique skills searching for any kind of crummy job” demographic.

The knuckler is my answer to the speed. A secret weapon from the Walter Mitty part of my brain.

Instead of staying down for the count, I’ve decided to be bold and reinvent myself with a new career, a career I choose and love. I’ve always loved baseball. So, I've begun prepping myself to be a major-league knuckleball pitcher.

Sure, it’s a wild, long shot idea, and yeah, I’m kind of old for baseball, but I’m an “in-good-shape” old, and the knuckleball isn’t about athletic prowess, it’s about guile. I’m loaded with guile.
To make my new career a success, all I need to do is master the slow moving floating pitch that never knows what it is going to do.
 
I’ve marked off 60 feet, six inches from my shed to a two-foot piece of board out in my backyard. It’s the official major-league distance between the home plate and pitcher’s mound. The two-by-four is my pitcher’s rubber and the back of the shed is my catcher and backstop.

It’s 30-some degrees outside. Everyone in my family is at work or school. I’ve got 10 old scuffed baseballs at my feet and I am dressed in stocking cap, sweats and mitt. I’ve let my fingernails grow out for the knuckler and for the last week have been studying every knuckleball video I can find on YouTube.

With the ball balanced on my fingertips and pitching out of a stretch, I go through the odd mechanics of the pitch and push the ball towards its intended target. In a high arc, it bounces to the plate and pucks against my make-shift catcher. From my vantage, it “looked” like it floated, and “felt” like it floated, and I chuckle to myself, assured I can really develop this crackpot pitch with practice.

Plonk, plonk, plonk, sounds the continued practice beat of my pitches against the back of the shed. The feel of a baseball in my hand creates the joy of being with a long lost childhood friend. Its raised red stitches and hard horsehide skin miraculously loosens my limbs and my load. But, after a while, paranoia seeps in and I think I should get out my ax and occasionally chop a few logs in case one of the neighbours peeks over our fence wondering what all the noise is about. No one must know of my dream until I’m ready. I don’t want anyone to think I am crazy.
 
For days, when everyone is gone, I sneak out to my private pitcher’s mound to practice my pitch and plot. I imagine major league hitters slipping spinal discs as they powerfully swing, lunge, hack, and miss my new best friend. I also pump myself up with positive thoughts: The Indians need pitching… If 60 is the new 50, then my 56 is the new 46, the same age as Phil Niekro when he was still baffling hitters with his dancing, capricious masterpiece. Every pitch I throw sharpens my mind’s eye and I can envision a Disney movie, with George Clooney as me, documenting my quixotic quest to make the major leagues at 56.

After a game’s worth of practice, I call it a day and head to the front yard to get the mail. There, the post office lets me know I’m not the only one who can throw a pretty good pitch. It’s a fat box of bill after bill after bill. And suddenly my stomach hurts with truths that pain me much more than the loss of my job; a past that wants paid, and a future with not much time left for whimsy. I'm instantly stricken with rational thoughts.

“Who am I kidding?” I ask myself, as the Cleveland Indians, Disney, George Clooney and my dignity fade to oblivion. I need to man up, get my mind right and set my sights to more attainable goals. But what? What is there left for a “me generation” disciple when nobody cares about the “me” anymore? Where do I go from here?

Country music singer immediately panics into my mind from Mitty-ville. I still have my guitar?
 
STOP! Take a deep breath and think. You’re a born survivor. Dismiss the panic and loss of job and identity. Accept the fact that even though life doesn’t always turn out like a fairy tale, it doesn’t make it a failure. Appreciate what you already have: a beautiful wife and two children who don’t care if you are professional athlete, a star country and western singer — or a suddenly old and unemployed construction worker.
 
Establishing these simple thoughts, I start to feel a return of my balance and sanity. I finally admit to myself that getting older isn’t the most awful sin that can happen to a person, but the loss of hope and fancy is.

I’m starting to understand that my future years will probably not include climbing Mount Everest, swimming the English Channel or even learning to throw a decent knuckleball. But that’s okay. Because no matter where life eventually takes me, I can still take my fantasies. And that’s a big gift from me to my sanity. For I can forever believe in them… and find solace in them – even if they are the dead mice in the loose pockets of a long-gone youth.

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