I had a flashback on this passage from the book Coach this evening as a pitcher struggled in the first inning.
What happened next is that, during Mardi Gras break, I left New Orleans with my parents for a week of vacation. I had thought that if I was a baseball success — and I was becoming one — that was enough. But it wasn’t; success, to Fitz, was a process. Life as he led it and expected us to lead it had less to do with trophies than with sacrifice in the name of some larger purpose: baseball. By missing a full week of practices over Mardi Gras, I had just violated some sacred but unwritten rule. Now I was back on the mound, a hunk of Ben-Gay drooping from the brim of my cap, struggling to relocate myself and my curveball. I didn’t have the nerve to throw the spitter. I’d walked the first two batters I faced and was pitching nervously to the third.
As I pitched I had an uneasy sensation — on bad days I can still feel it, like a bum knee — of having strayed from the Fitz Way. But I had no evidence of Fitz’s displeasure; he hadn’t said anything about the missed practices. Then his voice boomed out of our dugout.
”Where was Michael Lewis during Mardi Gras?”
I did my best not to look over, but out of the corner of my eye I could see him. He was pacing the dugout. I threw another pitch.
‘Everyone else was at practice. But where was Michael Lewis?”
I was now pitching with one eye on the catcher’s mitt and the other on our dugout.
The bases were now loaded. Another guy in need of a shave came to the plate.
”I’ll tell you where Michael Lewis was: skiing!”
Skiing, in 1976, for a 15-year-old New Orleanian, counted as an exotic activity. Being exposed as a vacation skier on a New Orleans baseball field in 1976 was as alarming as being accused of wearing silk underpants in a maximum-security prison. Then and there, on the crabgrass of Slidell, La., Coach Fitz packed into a word what he usually required an entire speech to say: privilege corrupts. It enabled you to do what money could buy instead of what duty demanded. You were always skiing. As a skier, you developed a conviction, buttressed by your parents’ money, that life was meant to be easy. That when difficulty arose, you could just hire someone to deal with it. That nothing mattered so much that you should suffer for it.
But now, suddenly, something did matter so much that I should suffer for it: baseball. Or, more exactly, Fitz! The man was pouring his heart and soul into me and demanding in return only that I pour myself into the game. He’d earned the right to holler at me whatever he wanted to holler. I got set to throw another pitch in the general direction of the strike zone.
”Can someone please tell me why Michael Lewis thinks it’s O.K. to leave town and go . . . and go . . . and go? . . . ”
Please, don’t say skiing, I recall thinking as the ball left my hand. Or, if you must say skiing, don’t shout it. Just then, the batter hit a sharp one-hopper back to the mound. I raised my glove to start the face-saving double play at the plate, but with my ears straining to catch Fitz’s every word. And then, abruptly, his shouting stopped.
When I regained consciousness, I was on my back, blinking up at a hazy, not terribly remorseful Fitz. The baseball had broken my nose in five places. Oddly enough, I did not feel wronged. I felt, in an entirely new way, cared for. On the way to the hospital to get my nose fixed, I told my mother that the next time the family went skiing — or anyplace else, for that matter — they’d be going without me. After the doctor pieced my nose back together, he told me that if I still wanted to play baseball, I had to do it behind a mask. Grim as it all sounds, I don’t believe I had ever been happier in my adolescent life. The rest of that season, when I walked out to the pitcher’s mound, I resembled a rounder hobbit with a bird cage on his face; but I’d never been so filled with a sense of purpose. Immediately, I had a new taste for staying after baseball practice, for extra work. I became, in truth, something of a zealot, and it didn’t take long to figure out how much better my life could be if I applied this new zeal acquired on a baseball field to the rest of it. It was as if this baseball coach had reached inside me, found a rusty switch marked Turn On Before Attempting to Use and flipped it.