Fastball Hymnal

“Ok Mark, I believe in you. We need this run, but don’t worry about the two outs, don’t worry about the loaded bases, just focus on the next pitch, got it?”

I nodded. The batting helmet, two sizes too small for my head, fell off. Again. The only helmet that fit my head was the one we inherited from the junior high kids, and David Rezick always used it because he knew that if he got a hit I’d have no helmets that could stay on my head. Rezick was standing at second base.

Coach R picked the helmet up out of the dirt and brushed it off. “You can do this. If you can just get one run in, we tie the game, ok? I put you in the number two spot in this lineup for a reason, you know that? You deserve it. You’ll deserve it no matter what happens in this at bat. Just play your heart out, you’ve got a big one.”

I rubbed my nose. “I’m pretty sure a big heart is a health problem, coach.”

“Shut up, Mark. Just get on the Goddamn base, ok, big guy? Get on base.” He trotted back to the dugout, spitting in the ground as he got there. Five or six of the 10-year-olds sitting the dug out spit in response, a Greek chorus chomping on Big League Chew. I stepped up to the plate.

The umpire looked me in the eye. His eyes narrowed to slits, remembering me from the last two at-bats. Randy Stein’s older brother Adam was a sophomore and had classes with the ump, and Randy said he was a jag-off, so we took it as gospel that he was obviously, then, a jag-off. Jag-off, as in, “this jag-off better call the game fairly.”

“PLAY BALL” the jag-off yelled, pulling his facemark on.

I stepped up to the plate, right to the very edge of the batter’s box. I saw my father standing up, shielding his eyes with his right hand. My mother was sitting on a lawn chair next to him, my little bother was in his baseball uniform sitting on the grass. The t-ball league ended earlier in the day, so he was eating whatever snacks my folks had packed and picking at dandelions. Or maybe he was picking at the snacks and eating the dandelions, I don’t know. What am I, a high elf ranger? My eyes are terrible, I can’t see that far.

I can make out the sound of my family cheering for me, but the helmet is pinching my ears.

I look up at the pitchers mound. The pitcher is tall, the tallest 6th grader in the league. His fastball is so strong that it was whispered that he once broke a catcher’s hand, like Dwight Gooden. It was so fast that, to hit it, you had to start swinging before you even stepped up to the plate. When we heard which team were facing for this game, we knew exactly who would be pitching: John Moon. John Moon, the biggest arm in Morton Grove Little League, the terror of Mansfield Park.

I wiped my brow, caking my hand in dirt and sweat and gatorade. I was nervous, a kind of nervousness that only baseball players feel, the nerves that come from being alone against the storm. There are reasons why poems are written about being at-bat; its a microcosm of life, you know? I had to have absolute concentration if I wanted to have any shot at all of

“STRIKE ONE!”

What the heck oh crap, geez, really? C’mon Mark, pay attention, I thought, punching myself in the hip.

“HEY MARK PAY ATTENTION WILL YA?” Coach R yelled from the third base dugout, adjusting his cap. I had played for him for three straight years, and about once a year he would show up to practice without his ball cap and we would all be surprised that he was bald, all over again, every year.

Alright, I can do this. I can do this. I turned to face John Moon, the Howitzer of the North Shore, gripping the bat tight as I steeled my nerves. I’m gonna be a hero, like Frodo or Peter Parker or Willis Drummond, and I just had to focus on the moment and not think about how itchy this jock strap is and

“STRIKE TWO!”

A collective groan came up from the Greek chorus. Coach R folded his arms and spit again. A voice cried out “That was three feet out of the strike zone, jag-off!”

The ump whipped off his facemark and wheeled around to face the spectators. “I will kick you out of here if if you use that language again, do you hear me?” the ump yelled, pointing his finger at the stands on the first base line, “and I mean it, ma’am.”

“MOM SIT DOWN,” Rezick screamed from second base.

I squared my stance, spitting into my hands. The spit helps to remove dirt that can decrease your grip, so the bat is easier to control. Aluminum bats can be really painful if you connect on a good swing, which makes it weird that little leagues tend to use them. I guess its because of their durability? Or the lower expense? Maybe there is, like, an aluminum conspiracy or

“PAY ATTENTION THIS TIME, BUDDY, YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.” Coach R called, soft chirps of agreement coming from the dugout.

John Moon looked at the signal from his catcher. We all used signals, even though no one was allowed to throw anything but a fastball. Curveballs can hurt your arm development, so the league outlawed them. He stood up, exhaled loudly, then started his wind up.

I tightened my grip on the bat, inhaled as hard as I could and did what I had done many, many times before, what I did better than anyone else in the league, maybe in the whole Chicagoland area: I crowded the damn plate.

A wet smack, louder than you’d expect, and my hip felt like it was on fire. My helmet fell off and I dropped my bat.

“TAKE YOUR BASE” yelled the jag-off, “…AGAIN.” The crowd roared, or as much as about a dozen people can roar.

The ball had struck me on the thigh, on the meaty part, and I left out a manly yell. Or, in my head I Let out a manly yell. I was told later that I screamed like a little girl, but that’s ok. I knew my job, and I did it.

“YEAH! YEAH! Way to go, Mark!” Coach R was jumping up and down. The dugout was a mass of jumping, cheering, and sunflower seeds.

“Way to go, Ma-Mark! Way to go!” my father yelled, clapping his hands and high fiving my brother. “Tie game!”

My mother was clapping, smiling, and shaking her head. “Why does he never get out of the way? Why is this always happening to him? No one else gets hit like this.”

I picked myself out of the dirt (when did I fall?) The third base runner came jogging into home plate, fist pumping. We high fived, and he said “Great job, Mark, I knew you’d get hit.” I smiled and whimpered a “damn right.”

I limped to first base, holding my helmet in my hand. I gave a thumbs up to Rezick at third.

John Moon’s first baseman looked at me, his grimace softening into a smile. “Nice job. You’re crying less than you did the last time.”

“Thanks, man,” I replied, “That’s what I said to your mom last night.”

Reinvention and the Power of Community

Reinvention and the Power of Community
Five Lessons from Greendale’s Finest Students

Guest post by Kyle Schmitt

College is a time of personal growth and discovery, especially at Greendale Community College, where teenagers and seniors alike converge to seek education and learn who they really are. Greendale, the setting for the NBC sitcom Community, also serves as a haven for losers on their last chances. Called a “toilet” by its own students and promoted by the slogan, “You’re already accepted!”, the school provides a constant reminder of its denizens’ past failures and lack of opportunity for the future.

Greendale is a place, however, that allows for hard-won self-improvement. Some metamorphoses are just lateral movements – witness Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), who transforms from an incompetent Spanish professor to an incompetent math instructor. But the “Greendale Seven” study group members draw on themselves and their fellow students for courage and support in becoming the people they want to be.

Community shows how we all possess the power for personal reinvention. Here are five lessons the study group teaches us about how to become more ideal versions of ourselves:

Set your goals and pursue them vigorously. Shirley Bennett (played by Yvette Nicole Brown) entered Greendale after a traumatic event in her personal life. When her husband leaves her and their two sons for a stripper, she decides to attend community college to gain independence and a life outside of being an unappreciated homemaker. Shirley gains experience in cooking and promoting her own products. Her efforts culminate in the opening of Shirley’s Sandwiches, a small business she starts on Greendale’s campus. While she eventually reconciles with her husband, Shirley achieves personal growth and finds her own happiness by taking chances and discovering new skills that empower her.

Don’t be afraid to change paths. Annie Edison (Alison Brie) is your typical high-achieving, straight-A student – minus the Adderall addiction that landed her at a bottom-tier community college. She takes academics seriously and keeps a laser focus on the lucrative hospital administration career waiting for her after Greendale. We see periodic signs, however, that Annie is second-guessing her plans for life. And when a class-project yam is destroyed, causing the study group to band together for a Law & Order-style criminal investigation, she realizes a new interest. After graduating and finding no fulfillment in her healthcare industry job, Annie re-enrolls in Greendale to pursue her passion for forensic science. She throws away the rulebook that has restricted her throughout life, and embarks on a new journey that excites and challenges her.

Keep your values along the way. A disgraced lawyer who lost his job for lying about his non-existent college degree, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) creates the study group merely to hook up with his first recruit, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs). His egotistical attitude leads him to act aloof and aim sarcastic barbs at group members who look up to him as being cooler and better than they are. Even after growing close with the other students, Jeff often struggles to prioritize his friends over his own selfish desires. His better angels consistently win out, however, as Jeff routinely postpones whatever he’d rather be doing to serve as a father figure to a group desperate for his leadership. He makes time to support Annie’s creation of a Model U.N. group, provide Shirley with pro bono legal help, and throw fellow group member Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) a Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party. Even when he gets his life back on-track, Jeff maintains tight connections with the classmates he once treated with contempt. These outcasts become a surrogate family for a man who finally learned to prize friendship over wealth and professional achievement.

It’s never too late to become the person you want to be. Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) serves as a constant reminder to his younger cohorts of where poor decisions and failed relationships will eventually lead. He treats his fellow study group members with disrespect, then complains that the study group leaves him out of their outside activities. This vicious cycle leads him to act maliciously toward his friends, further driving a wedge between himself and those who should be closest to him. After his frustrations boil over into physical aggression between himself and Jeff, Pierce begins to let others into his heart. He sticks up for his fellow students when he believes they are being bullied, dials back the racist/sexist comments, and even saves Greendale from financial ruin by winning a campus-wide paintball competition, then giving the destroyed school his prize money. Pierce waits until after his own death, however, to openly share his feelings with his friends. In his written will, Pierce posthumously tells Shirley that he admired her business acumen and strength of character, and reveals that Britta’s passion for her various causes inspired him. He also provides a life-changing opportunity for Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), who realizes that Pierce saw something in him that he never saw for himself. Accepting the friends he once kept at arm’s length, Pierce makes continued progress (even into eternity) in becoming a more considerate and appreciative person to those who care about him.

Challenge yourself. The show’s biggest transformation is made by Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), an obtuse ex-jock whose stated ambition is to wait until his best friend Abed strikes it rich with a social media innovation, then sue for a cut of his fortune. While the other study group members mature, Troy remains content to watch unwatchable b-movies and co-host Troy & Abed in the Morning, an early morning television program that no one bothers to film. But his stagnancy is shattered when Pierce offers him $14 million in stock options if he successfully sails around the world. Pierce tells Troy that he sees in him the “heart of a hero”, and challenges him to become the man he knows he can be. Whether induced by the lure of money or the opportunity for personal growth, Troy accepts this offer and sets sail with co-voyager LeVar Burton (per another provision in Pierce’s will). True to form, Troy cannot say goodbye to Greendale without playing an increasingly ridiculous game of “The floor is lava” that symbolizes his rite of passage into manhood. But, eventually, he sheds his lethargic state of no expectations and evolves into an adventurous adult whose best years are just beginning.

Reinvention doesn’t require enrollment at a community college that prides itself on its “Straight A’s” (two of which are “Air Conditioning” and “A Lot of Classes”) or which offers “certificates of completion” due to being legally prevented from awarding diplomas. The Greendale study group members demonstrate that setting goals, keeping an open mind to new ideas and opportunities, and recognizing the worth of those around you can help you live the life you want.

 

The author can be reached at kyleschmitt81 (at) gmail dot com.

Born to Run: Why Political Candidates Roll Out the Rockers at Election Time

Bruce Springsteen Campaigning for Barack Obama

Bruce Springsteen Campaigning for Barack Obama

This is a guest post by the always awesome Kyle Schmitt. He can be reached by emailing the moderator of this blog here.

Running neck-and-neck with Governor Mitt Romney just days before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama brought out the big guns for his final campaign rallies. To help make the case for a second term, the Commander-in-Chief turned to the Boss.

Obama campaigned with Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and other musicians during the campaign’s final week. These artists performed their songs in front of thousands of the President’s supporters in the crucial swing states that decided the election. Running to unseat Obama, Romney enlisted Kid Rock, Lee Greenwood, and the Marshall Tucker Band to play his closing campaign events.

Romney and Meatloaf: Both flavorless

Romney and Meatloaf: Both flavorless

But why campaign with a bunch of long-hairs when you’re running for leader of the free world? Why would Obama and Romney choose musicians as their advocates instead of business moguls like Warren Buffett or Donald Trump, superstar athletes, or even other entertainers with pop culture appeal? It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, as the Rolling Stones have reminded us for almost 40 years. But not only do voters like it, they may cast their votes based on their favorite singers’ support for their candidates of choice. This devotion led to numerous musicians being welcomed onstage to boost rally attendance and fire up the candidates’ supporters ahead of an election that appeared too close to call until the very end. Here’s how the recording artists who appeared with Obama and Romney helped rock the vote.

’Cause I’m Proud to be an American – The right campaign song can serve as the perfect theme for a candidate’s vision, as well as the American attributes they claim as their own. Springsteen’s anthem “We Take Care of Our Own” provides a powerful defense of the social welfare system and Obama’s oft-repeated Twitter statement that, “We’re all in this together.” Over a pounding drumbeat and triumphant guitar, he challenges the nation to stand up for those he believes have been left defenseless and destroyed by the recession. These lyrics provide implicit support not only for specific measures such as the President’s call to extend unemployment benefits, but his campaign’s cornerstone promise to serve as a champion for the country’s middle-class.

On the Republican side, Romney supporter Trace Adkins promoted a more libertarian viewpoint when performing “Tough People Do”. This defiant country song contains the lyric, “Tough people pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they hit hard luck”, and can be read as a conservative indictment of the government-funded bailouts and other perceived Washington excesses of the past five years. Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Kid Rock’s song “Born Free” make use of religious and patriotic imagery, with Rock vowing, “I will bow to the shining sea / and celebrate God’s grace on thee.” These songs touched a chord with the Republican base, which is heavily Christian and places a premium on love of country.

Wilco, with President Obama for scale.

Wilco, with President Obama for scale.

Reaching out, touching me… – Associating with the right musicians can also boost candidates’ appeal to voters they need to win an election, a truth demonstrated in Obama’s choice of campaign performers. Springsteen was deployed to Rust Belt events, where his connection to middle-class white Americans would theoretically lead to greater support for the President among these voters. Obama utilized musicians to reach out to numerous favorable voting groups and enhance his preexisting support from these demographics. His campaign rallies featured the Spanish-language band Maná, hip-hop icon Jay-Z, and pop sensation Katy Perry. These performers helped the President’s campaign to successfully target Hispanic voters (a group Obama won 71% of), black voters (93%), and 18-29-year-old voters (60%).

Both candidates benefitted from campaigning with musicians whose dedicated fanbases connect with their artistic merits as well as their personal backgrounds. Romney worked to shore up his own working-class credentials and appeal to rural voters by appearing with Michigan native Kid Rock and Trace Adkins, a lifetime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Obama attempted to turn the personal narratives of Springsteen and Jay-Z to his advantage, telling supporters at a November 5 rally in Ohio that “both of them tell an American story.” He further linked himself to Jay-Z, who is married to pop star Beyoncé Knowles and holds the Billboard 200 record for most #1 albums by a solo act musician, by noting that “both of us now have daughters … and both of us have wives who are more popular than we are.”

Get on your feet – Enthusiasm is paramount to turning out voters and bringing in volunteers, especially during the campaigns’ all-important Get Out the Vote timeframe. This critical juncture takes place during the four-day period prior to the election when campaigns shift into overdrive to contact all potential voters and get them to the polls. And at a time when campaign volunteers may be weary from canvassing door-to-door (and voters tired of their constant visits), live music provides a welcome jolt of adrenaline to all involved in the political process.

Perhaps no performance was more emblematic of this excitement than Kid Rock standing on a piano this past election eve and belting out the soulful vocals of “Born Free” before a New Hampshire audience of 12,000 people. Obama leveraged the same dynamic when he brought in Dave Matthews to headline a sold-out Virginia amphitheater event November 3. But the motivating factor of live music was never clearer than when the legendary Stevie Wonder played an unannounced concert for Clevelanders standing in line for early voting that same day. His impromptu performance provided extra incentive for these voters to brave the long lines for hours and make their voices heard.

All together now – No matter how strident the song, campaign music rarely turns into attacks on fellow Americans who share different political beliefs. And for good cause: no campaign wants a belligerent message that will turn off independent voters. This policy seems to extend to candidate-affiliated musicians’ comments off-stage, for reasons not limited to the threat of alienating fans and losing record and ticket sales. Even after endorsing the President, Springsteen still made time to speak (via telephone aboard Air Force One) with devoted E Street fan and Republican National Convention keynote speaker Governor Chris Christie. Kid Rock breached the partisan gap the hard way when he ran into Obama at an event just weeks after the November election. He said the President reminded him, “I’m still here,” which he recalled acknowledging while laughingly retelling the encounter. Kid Rock went on to call for Americans to support their country and wished the President good luck in resolving the nation’s challenges. If politicians and musicians, even the self-designated Devil Without a Cause, can reconcile after an election, surely their supporters can come together right now.