Rudy, my best friend growing up, stood at the plate in seventh grade awaiting the next pitch. Yanking his head and eyes off the ball, he swung and missed by eight inches as his helmet bobbled on his head. Strike one. At such a young age he had begun to lose his hand-eye coordination. Boyhood dreams unraveled before your eyes. In a way it was sad to see because he wasn't a bad athlete.
With this face reddening, more determined to make contact with the ball, he awaited the next pitch. The pitch split the plate waist high, right down the middle. My mother knew it was a strike and she wasn't even at the game and it wasn't being televised.
"Come on, ump, no way that was a strike," yelled Rudy. "That was way outside."
"Shut up, punk," the ump said.
A second later, right on cue, you heard: "Shut up, Rudy." His father sat nearby watching his son's baseball career bomb out and, even worse, his son saying disrespectful things to an adult umpire. Like everyone else, his Dad knew the pitch sailed right over the plate.
Behind in the count 0 and two, the place began to stir. Our whole team, the ump, his father, Rudy, and the crowd feared what would happen after the next pitch. Everybody cringed. Like the second pitch, this one also split the plate at waist level. It could not have been more of a strike had you set the ball there on a T.
Rudy swung. Determined to prove he could still hit a baseball, that he was a star athlete, and fearful that that maybe this would be the end of his baseball life, you can imagine the cluttered thoughts and emotions he must have been experiencing. A little boy with a dream of playing in the Big Leagues coming to terms with a real-life nightmare. All these demons he battled while trying to hit a baseball.
He whiffed again, his bat a mile or two from the ball.
My teammates and I scattered from where he would once again be headed to throw his bat and cuss-in front of his father. He didn't care.
"The ump stinks," he said.
"Shut up, Rudy," said his embarrassed and agitated father.
Through the entire season we had watched Rudy strike out three times a game; sometimes four. His strikeouts wore everybody out emotionally and intellectually. Rudy would strike out, blame the up, get yelled at by his Dad, and them throw his bat anywhere he felt like.
He had struck out for the third time in that game and the 45th time that season, leading the league in that category. Whether we won the game that day, or any others that season, had become a sideshow to the show of Rudy's at-bats. We all waited in trepidation for each of his bats wondering what scene he would cause next, how many adults he would blame for his diminishing skills. I don't remember anything about that season except his at-bats.
Beyond Rudy's ineptitude and the subsequent public rants and rages they caused, as sad realization overcame me. I had thought he and I would soar together as high school basketball and baseball stars. He couldn't hang in baseball anymore. As it turned out, he couldn't hang in basketball either but that's the subject of another blog. It was sad to see but, in a weird way, satisfying.
You see Rudy was a guy who heckled every kid he ever met, especially me, even though we were best friends. Today we remain so but, like then, in a weird way. Playing mind games with people turned out to be his favorite sport and the one at which he which he excelled. He would try to take away your dignity even if you didn't know you had any, or didn't know what dignity was.
Rudy's torments extended far beyond athletic arenas. If you were in class with him, he would try to convince you that you were stupid and didn't understand what was going in class, thereby planting the seed in your mind that maybe you wouldn't get a good grade on the next test. He sprinkled doubts in kid's minds about their self-worth. At seventh grade parties, he would be sure to ride people as they entered the front door and out in the back yard during a barbecue. You couldn't escape his wrath and harassment unless you schemed to stay away from him. He aspired to ride people to the moon with verbal attacks so they would go to the moon. That way the world would be devoid of competition so he could win more easily.
But the inescapable truth was he couldn't hit a baseball anymore. This childhood thunderbolt reality came to a head during that god-awful seventh grade season. As hard as it was to endure the uncomfortable scenes in which he went on rants, there was the perverse joy of knowing that the next time he played mind games with you, you could say to him: "Yeah, but you're the biggest strike out king in the history of baseball. Everybody knows it. Everybody remembers it. No matter how much trash you talk, you must succumb to this reality the rest of your life."