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Square Ball in a Round Hole


To distract my toddler one morning when my wife was trying to get him into the car, I picked up the cardboard container from some wine coolers and told him we were playing “square ball.” I often find that my toddler’s agenda is quite different from mine, which should surprise no one who has ever been around a three-year-old, where the best way to initiate the “run game” is to tell him you want something he has in his little hands. He was sufficiently engaged by the “square” ball being something we could easily toss around. I think sometimes he just enjoys throwing things. I am amused so see objects flying over his shoulder as he searches through his toy-box, but there are times he will just spend time systematically throwing things across the room. He can already throw more accurately than I can.

The combination of my son’s incipient pitching skills and the idea of different agendae reminded me of a powerful and surprising experience I had a decade or so ago. A student of mine who, for whatever reasons, found me approachable, asked me quite innocently after class one day why professors thought what was going on in their classes was so important. The obvious answer is that we got paid to do so, but maybe more importantly, students’ and their parents’ tuition payments were where that pay was from. I asked him why he came to college. The answer was obvious to him, that he came to college to play college baseball. I was teaching at a little liberal arts college, so baseball neither got him into the college nor provided scholarship support for his attendance. I tried to gently suggest that the sizeable tuition payment, provided by his parents and his funding sources, including any loans, was justified by him being exposed to a bunch of overeducated professorial types to try to cheerlead students into learning, if not the inheritance of their culture, at least something that might help them think more fully and critically about the world, or even to learn some skills that they might be later using to make a living. But who knows? This was about the time a college strategic plan had to include all the "stakeholders," which gave faculty about 25%, hardly the dominant influence.

I loved this kid, both for his love of baseball, and his innocent curiosity about how all this other folderol fit into his life. I knew him to party a bit with his teammates, but he wasn’t there to party, he was there to play baseball, about which he spent a lot of his time thinking. He worked hard at it and was, I think, one of our better pitchers, not that I followed college sports that much. Or sports in general for that matter. Clearly my gender role socialization had failed somewhere along the line as I couldn’t understand why people would spend so much time and money watching and thinking about spectator sports that really were irrelevant to anything that mattered in the world.

I guess I understand why people play sports. It’s good exercise, there is the pride in skills learned, in the heat of competition, and there is the camaraderie of one’s teammates. And sure, here there are always professionals with whom to compare oneself. I remember tossing a football in second or third grade, calling out “I’m Bart Starr,” who was then a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. So, there is also identification with professional players, the vicarious enjoyment of playing the game (especially if you have played it yourself, like the appreciation I have for violinists after I spent years trying to learn), being with the team, and even the place pride of this being “our team,” or “my team.” So, some of it is a sense of identity, and even the camaraderie of being shared spectators, certainly giving you plenty to talk about, especially important in bonding with other men.

I think I know what got me off on the wrong foot. I was “young for my age,” being, in those days, one of the later Fall births that were still counted in the same grade cohort. So, for example, I didn’t turn five until late October during my year of Kindergarten. There were a lot of kids that turned six during the following Spring. I do remember being happy “fitting in” when we all compared our first report cards and we all were graded “at grade level,” though my dad encouraged me to do better. But this also meant that I couldn’t sign up for little league baseball the summer everyone else did. So, despite playing catch with my dad on a regular basis, watching the Milwaukee Braves with him and even going to Milwaukee to see a game, I didn’t have much else in the way of the requisite skills. The other kids were all full of game talk, and by the following school year, I was out of the loop. So, I didn’t sign up the next year either.

Maybe this helped me become one of the “smart-alecks.” I remember my sixth-grade teacher, who’d talk sports with the boys in front, telling my friend Dan (the son of a professor at Wisconsin) and me one time, after we’d caught him in another error: “Who do you two think you are, Einstein and Freud?” I made painted buttons for us to wear the next day. Maybe it also meant I had fewer distractions from the issues of the day, after Kennedy’s assassination, and the civil rights protests. My Dad was a campus minister, so maybe we also played catch less in that era, the era he also went to Selma to march with King, and we got nasty racist phone-calls at home. By the end of sixth grade I was already clueless enough to slide into first base after, to my surprise, connecting with the ball. I rode home alone and in shame. My old Louisville Slugger, the paint long gone, still sits propped against my study wall, and despite my Dad being dead 25 years, I still carry a ball and glove in the trunk of my car, just in case.

I learned to throw a Frisbee from my Dad’s college kids in Madison, but that was a long way from being anything more than an afternoon on a sunny campus common, at least at the time. I guess I learned beer-drinking from him sampling his Milwaukee pilsners while we watched the Packers win the first two super bowls. Then, still