So damn tired from all the keeping track of everything

April 25, 2021

My shoulder was barking.

It was August 2019, and my adult rec hardball team was at the end of a tough season in an 18+ league. Since most of us were carryovers from the team that had played in a 30+ league the year before, we were generally older than and overmatched by teams that all had at least a couple former pros or current college players.

Even so, I loved the competition and felt like I held my own at the plate. I was a better hitter than I’d ever been in my life. Back in high school, I started a bunch at third base on the freshman team, but most of my value came from fielding and pitching. The next year, on the JV team, I started switch-hitting in games for the first time, having practiced hitting lefty in the cages since I was eight years old, and essentially got the same results, but in far fewer opportunities as my coaches started viewing me as primarily a pitcher. On varsity my junior and senior seasons, I only pitched and did not get a single at-bat.

When I resumed playing in my thirties, I was about as fit as I’d been in my teens, but the big difference was that I knew how to practice and how to analyze my own skills in a way I simply didn’t twenty years prior. When I went to the batting cages, I had a plan for how I wanted to approach hitting, and I adjusted when I felt myself straying from that approach. I’d always been that way with pitching, and while I’d read a lot about hitting as a kid, back then it always felt much more instinctive and reactive. I wanted to hit, but I didn’t enjoy it the way I enjoyed catching or pitching, roles in which I felt like I was imposing my influence on the game.

As an adult, throwing limitations meant I was mainly a second baseman, but by the conclusion of the 2019 season, even that was becoming less viable with each lollipop toss that left a burning sensation in the front of my shoulder. While warming up before the final matchup of the season, I found myself wondering if this would be my last baseball game.

But first, we had to solve a problem. It was five minutes before first pitch, and our starting catcher hadn’t showed up yet. Our other two catchers had already let us know they couldn’t make it to this game. We didn’t even have gear. Fuck it, I thought. I’ll do it.

We told the other team we’d need to borrow catcher’s gear, and I strapped on the tools of ignorance for the bottom of the first. Thankfully, no one got on base, so I didn’t have to try to throw out a potential base stealer, and as we got back to the dugout, our catcher arrived, apologizing profusely for having gotten hung up at work.

For the bottom of the second, I went out to my usual position at second base, and as the sun beat down on me, and the pain radiated through my shoulder with each warm up throw to first, I basked in the total clarity of how much I loved being there, on the field, in cleats, my pant legs pulled up to the knees to show off my real stirrups. And I also had total clarity on how the game ought to go.

In the third, we were already losing and pretty much knew we wouldn’t come back to win. Before running out on the field again, I had a quick chat with the coach to explain what I wanted to try. He was all for it, so I trotted out to left field for that inning.

I remember standing on the grass, a dry wind blowing across the field, and being completely and totally focused on the game, how far off the left field line I was, if the center fielder was shifting left or right. It wasn’t as if I’d forgotten my wife and child, who were probably out grocery shopping on that Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t as if I’d forgotten the work I’d have to do the next day at my job. Rather, I was utterly unconcerned with anything else.

I’ve missed that feeling over the past year-plus. There’s lots of documentation about the mental loads most of us have carried during the pandemic (particularly women), so, while remaining grateful that my family has largely avoided coronavirus tragedy, I’ve tried to consciously acknowledge the unique stress we’ve endured since March 2020 and remember life wasn’t always like this.

In September, my employer let me know they would be eliminating my position at the end of the calendar year. That amounted to a wildly generous favor, giving me a long run-up time to prepare for unemployment and perhaps find a new position before then. As it turned out, seeking a new job in the middle of a pandemic and accompanying economic catastrophe is bad. I didn’t gain a new job until last month, when I landed a position I’m still excited about and where I feel my skills are being put to good use. Moreover, I’m fortunate I can do this work remotely.

But in the spirit of consciously acknowledging unique stress, that first month on the job was also, perhaps, the toughest month I’ve spent at work since I was a burned-out teacher. When the calendar switched over to 2021, my wife’s employer started requiring her to go to work in person. Because my wife’s job requires a lot of meeting time and my previous job had a lot of flexibility within the workday, even when she was home I was happily providing most of the attention The Little One required and taking on the mental load of getting her to virtual class on time, troubleshooting her Chromebook, making lunch, going on walks, et cetera et cetera. It wasn’t that much of a switch to do it entirely solo, but it was still different. Like, I couldn’t just go for a half-hour jog during one of The Little One’s classes, because I had to stay in the house.

Taking on a new job upped the level of difficulty. Again, I like my job and the people I work with, but the first days of a new job are always draining and I was trying to learn the organization and my duties in a fully remote setting while also keeping my child on schedule in virtual school and keeping her from watching television unsupervised six hours each day. Even with my parents lending a hand for childcare, I lost weight because I had no appetite, and I fell asleep earlier than I had in decades because I was so damn tired from all the keeping track of everything.

I had to force myself to watch TV shows or movies, read books, or listen to podcasts, because otherwise, I’d use my free moments lying in bed, hoping my brain would turn off on its own. I was simultaneously in active mode and shutdown mode at all times. In other words, it was the complete opposite of that day on the baseball field, when the only thing I had to think about was playing ball.

In the fourth inning, I played center field. The fifth inning, I shifted to right. There was just one liner my way those innings, and I fielded it and tossed the ball back to the infield without incident. In the sixth inning, I took third base and in the seventh I stood at shortstop. I don’t remember any plays coming my way, but I do remember sweating, breathing heavily, running to the grass to get a throw from the outfield, taking joy in considering where to position myself based on the batter and what signs from the catcher I could spot from my vantage point.

The game mattered only for itself and for whatever importance I assigned it. It was completely frivolous — this particular game didn’t even have playoff implications for our league since both teams had been eliminated from contention. Even though we were losing handily, I remember feeling deeply satisfied that I could play and focus on the game and only the game.

I started the bottom of the eighth inning on the mound. As I warmed up, my shoulder groaned and I determined that as long as I could still take my hat off with my right hand, I’d push the shoulder to its limit for one batter. I threw a two-seamer, trying to give it enough oomph and spin to bring it back to the outside black, but it stayed outside, then tried again, only this time it caught too much of the plate and the guy yanked it past our shortstop for a clean single.

Immediately, I called for our first baseman to pitch, and we traded glove and mitt. As I stood on first and watched his warmup pitches, the runner, who’d just gotten a hit off me, said, “You didn’t want to stay on the mound?”

Obviously, he hadn’t noticed what was going on.

“It’s my retirement game,” I said. “I started at catcher, and then I’ve been playing one inning at every position. Pitched to just one batter because my shoulder’s shot. Hence, retirement.”

“Ah, right on,” he said. “I was kinda hoping I’d hit it so hard you instantly gave up.”

We both chuckled.

Our pitcher finished his warmups and got set on the mound. The runner took his lead, and I held him on, waiting to see if I’d get a pickoff throw, or if the pitch would head home. I don’t remember how the rest of the inning went, but we lost, and as we were packing up our stuff, I gave away my helmet and sold my bat to a teammate.

A few weeks ago, I awoke again. Baseball season started — in the spring! — and I realized I’d missed baseball much more than in years past. Last season, I watched games, but mostly with a flagging spirit. My team, the San Francisco Giants, were on the edges of contention for much of last season, so it wasn’t pessimism about their chances that brought me down. I think it was an overwhelming sense of wrongness about playing a 60-game season amidst so much death and suffering and dramatic social change.

This year, Opening Day coincided with my new-job jitters receding. Since then, I’ve watched entire baseball games straight through. And I’ve also experienced spontaneous daydreams about stepping in the box again and trying to hit the crap out of fat belt-high four-seamers coming in at 75 miles per hour. Which is exhilarating because I didn’t have many fanciful daydreams like that over the past year.

I’m definitely staying retired from competitive play, but being able to think about baseball for no other reason than that it’s fun and interesting suggests I feel safer and more normal than I have in a long time. With The Little One finally back to in-person school, I may dare to daydream about more than baseball.

(Photo: "Diamondbacks_Nationals-155.jpg" by All-Pro Reels. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)