The baseball try-out that forged in me a shadow of shame

Many non-Western cultures have honor and shame as their pivotal cultural value. The point of this story from my own life is simple. I want to show that people growing up in Western cultures, like I did, also sometimes need to address deep-seated issues of shame—and to find a way to have their sense of honor restored.

This is the same baseball glove I had as a boy—an “Al Kaline” Wilson-brand glove. It’s amazing that I found a picture of the same baseball glove I had as a teenage boy.

I was 15 or 16 years old, probably 1971. I loved playing softball in the summers. When I was on a summer softball team, I remember being so happy to get on my bike twice a week and ride to where the softball teams played. I hung my smallish brown leather baseball glove on the handle bar. I faithfully nurtured that glove with Vaseline to make it have the best form possible. We played over on Lake Avenue at the ball fields near the cemetery and the Genesee River gorge.

That glove I remember well. I had desperately wanted a baseball glove. Finally, after much asking, my mom drove me to a sporting goods store, Naum Brothers on Ridge Road West. I think that glove cost twelve dollars. This was a stretch for my mom. (Probably, my dad would not have bought it for me. He was ill.) Baseball was so American, but I grew up in a German family, and my parents had no interest in it.

Playing softball with my friends was a thrill. It was great, great fun competing, trying to win, yelling, “come on batter, batter, swing” and other sayings like, “He’s a wiffer.” Talking it up on on the infield was a way to make it known whose team you were on, and to pretend you could influence other players with your words.

I played second base. I was pretty good. Not great, but good enough to enjoy being part of a team.

Softball is different from baseball. The softball is bigger. The distance is 60 feet between bases instead of 90 feet. I remember once walking on a baseball diamond and thinking, Wow that throw from third base to first seems about twice as far. Another difference: baseball is overhand, fast pitch … softball is underhand, slow pitch. Baseball is a more difficult sport to play well.

I remember going to bed at night and secretly listening to the radio broadcasts of the Rochester Red Wings. The announcers painted a picture of the game, the players, the drama. Would he get the big hit? Would my team win? Winning feels so wonderful. I did not want my parents to know that I was doing things like this. My affection for baseball was a secret. They didn’t care about baseball. They were German.

At Greece Olympia High School, boys played baseball, not softball. As a freshman, I considered going out for the baseball team, even though I had only played softball. The challenge would be huge. Could I do throw a ball accurately that far? Could I hit a baseball going that fast? I decided I would not go out for the freshman baseball team.

When I was a sophomore, my love for softball and baseball had remained, I still loved the game. I still followed the Red Wings, although I hardly ever attended a game. Did I go to one game with some friends? Maybe. I followed the team by reading the paper, watching the sports report on local TV news, and listening to the radio. I considered going out for the high school baseball team again. I decided to go for it, and try to make the team.

What do I remember? The process was to stay after school and meet somewhere outside. It was called “try-outs.” You would try to make the team. You would practice and you would do your best. If you were good enough, you made the list.

Of course, I had to have my baseball glove along for try-outs. But I remember on the first day of try-outs, I forgot my glove! How could I do that? It was so new—bringing my glove to school. This glove that I nurtured had always represented a non-school activity. Now I was connecting love for a game with school. Plus bringing my glove to school meant explaining to my mom or pop that I was bringing the equivalent of a toy to school.

That was an obstacle right there; bringing my glove to school. What would I tell them? Something like, This is what I’m doing — I don’t care what you think. It feels a little dangerous, risky, unsettling—even today.

I am not sure what exactly I did. Maybe I just took my glove the next day without them knowing it. Maybe I told them defiantly, This is what I’m doing, I’m going out for the baseball team. 

In any case, I was out there. I was trying. I had my glove. I felt unsure of myself, this was all so new, but I was asserting myself to prove I could do it.

My dream was to play and score and be on a winning team. Would I succeed? Would I make the team? Would other guys want me on their team? Would I be good enough? My little manhood was at stake

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My father Guenther Mischke, was born in Germany in 1925, I believe. He died in January 1992 at age 67. I called him Papi as a little boy, and Pop as I grew up.

Pop was tall, about 6-2. He was warm and had a good sense of humor. I remember him laughing and I loved him when he laughed. He deeply loved his wife and his three kids. He kissed me often. He loved me and I loved him. With his family, he attended Andrew’s Street Baptist Church which later became Latta Road Baptist Church.

I believe that the defining thing about Pop is that he saw himself as a failure. Although I loved him, I saw him as a failure, too, because he mostly could not and did not give me what I needed from my father as a teenage boy growing up in America.

As a little boy, until I was in my early teens, Papi gave me affection and discipline. When I needed to be spanked, he occasionally did so. He kissed me once in awhile, maybe every night at bedtime. He pretended to be Santa Claus at Christmastime. Sometimes, he was fun and laughed very hard. He took us to church every Sunday.

Pop became mentally ill when I was 14 years old or so. He lost his job at Alliance Tool Company where he had worked all the years that I remember. I don’t remember him ever having another full-time job. He was diagnosed by a psychiatrist, Dr. Lieberman, to be manic depressive. Nowadays, it’s called being bipolar.

I remember one time my mother gathered my two sisters and me in a little sharing time. Mom said something like this: “Pop is sick. He has manic depressive psychosis.”

This is why he lost his job. This is why my mother had a nervous breakdown. This is why there was a huge conflict between my father and my uncle as they sat in our driveway in his car. This is why there were so many heated arguments between my mom and pop in our home. This is why I would go to bed at night and pray, Lord, please give me wisdom to say the right things so that there isn’s so much anger and conflict and yelling. I felt this crazy responsibility of behaving in such a way that I could bring a modicum of healing to my family.

This is why Pop embarrassed me and made me feel ashamed.

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It was springtime, probably March of 1971. I remember going out for the baseball team at Greece Olympia High School. I was tenth grade. I wasn’t yet tall because I entered puberty later in my teen years. I think of myself as having moderate height and a skinny build. Nothing impressive, physically.

We were outside on the front grounds of the school—not on a baseball diamond. Not sure why, except probably, the main High School teams were out on the real baseball diamonds in the back of the high school.

The drills were simple. The coach would hit a ground ball and I would gather it in my glove and throw it back. We had begun doing this drill. I remember I was not fielding the ball very well, always hoping to do better the next time.

Then I saw my father nearby.

I’m thinking: Oh no! What is Pop doing here? My mentally-ill father showing up here? Why? This is so embarrassing. 

Pop said to me in strong words, with his German accent, “Werner, let’s go. Come home.”

I don’t want to.

“You must come home.” Pop was looking angry. I could see he was not going to lose this showdown with his son. He was emotionally intense with a dogmatic sternness in his demeanor. He tilted his head a little, “Come home!”

Why? 

“We have spring cleaning to do.” Mom wants you to come home.

I knew all the other guys were watching what I would do. I imagine the coach saw it all, as well. I didn’t want to look at any of them.

My heart sank. Here was sickness personified in my father bringing sickness and shame into my life. Reflecting on it now, I wonder, was Pop being sadistic? Was his behavior involuntary? Why would he do this? I don’t know.

With great reluctance, I walked off the field. Pop insisted on following me into the boy’s locker room where I had my other clothes and school stuff. Even that was weird, that he would follow me into the locker room. Maybe he was afraid I would run away and hide. Looking back, I feel like I was controlled by a force that was unkind, strange, and diseased.

I gathered my stuff in the locker room, and walked back out with Pop to the parking lot. Get me outta here before anyone else sees me. We got in our car, probably a boring older model Chevrolet, and drove home. It was a 10-minute drive from Greece Olympia to 194 Rosecroft Drive.

While riding home, what I was thinking? What did I say to Pop, if anything? I probably just looked out the window. Unbelievable. Did I cry? I don’t think so. Maybe I just felt numb. Like, Did this really just happen?

The next day, I loathed going back to school. Of course, there were one or two boys who asked me mockingly, “How was spring cleaning?”

If, because of prior weirdnesses in Pop’s behavior, there was the onset of a shame-sickness in my soul, then this event (on the baseball practice field) lodged that shadow of shame firmly inside of me. I, along with my sisters and mother, were destined to live with feelings of shame concerning the man who was supposed to love me, but at times, just couldn’t. And I wanted to avoid ever feeling these feelings again.

The father who supposedly loved me—made me look like an idiot. Instead of encouraging me to take up a challenge and pursue my dream, he extracted me from my dream and joy. He yanked it from me in front of my friends—other teenage boys who were trying to make the team.

I looked like a weak mama’s boy from a weird family, whose weird old man without a job comes out on the practice and calls his only son home. And for what? To do spring cleaning.

Are you kidding me? It was awful. In this event he was deeply unloving and uncaring. The exact opposite of what a father was supposed to do.

No other moment in my youth had the depth of shame that this moment had. Looking back now I remember it painfully and comedically; you can laugh about it, because it was so irrational, so weird, so unkind. It created a shadow of shame which has affected my life in many ways.


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