My mom was the most resourceful person I ever knew, and books were among her favorite resources. Whenever she needed to know how to do something, she’d go to the library or someplace else that had books and read up on it. In this way she taught herself how to do all sorts of things. She could lay tile, make dresses from scratch, fix appliances. She loved the quote, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” and always attributed it to Bob Knight. Once, lacking a running car, she attempted to learn to ride my dad’s motorcycle by having him tell her how over the phone. She wound up finding a different resource for that problem.
Mom also loved garage sales, and at one garage sale in the summer of 1993 she made a timely find. There was a book there about pitching, and it was written by Nolan Ryan, my hero. I was turning 10 that summer, I was still the shy new kid, and I very much wanted to be a pitcher on my baseball team, though I had virtually no training. I knew the basics of how to toe the rubber and what a balk was, but that was about it. I could throw for strikes, but I couldn’t throw especially hard. I was going to need to be creative.
There was a lot of practical instruction in this book, but two things stand out all these years later. The first was Ryan’s insistence that pitching was done with the legs as much as the arm. That’s where the velocity came from, according to Nolan Ryan, the ultimate authority on the subject. So the first lesson was to concentrate on pushing off the rubber to mitigate the trouble caused by my reluctantly maturing body.
I don’t know how it is where you come from, but on traveling baseball teams in Kansas, a 10- or 11-year-old pitcher can get away with throwing straight fastballs all day, as long as he can hit the strike zone and maybe place it a little from time to time. That was my game. Our other pitchers were bigger than me, and I knew I’d never be able to throw like Nolan Ryan. So I thought of myself as a little Greg Maddux. And I was good at that. I threw as many innings as anybody on our team, my dad always standing right behind the chain-link fence hollering encouragement (usually it was, “Mentally tough, now!”), my mom in the stands keeping stats on the back of envelopes (she was way ahead of the game when it came to on-base percentage and ERA).
Then when I was 12 we made it pretty far in a pretty high-level tournament, and it became pretty clear there was going to need to be a pretty good breaking ball in the repertoire pretty soon.
So back to Nolan we went. His book said the whole thing about throwing a curve ball was to get as close as you could to giving the ball a forward rotation. There were some tips on grip and some other things, but that was the image that stuck. Every day Mom and I would go out into our dirt driveway, where we’d marked off a “rubber” and a “plate,” and Mom would put on some old catcher’s gear (from a garage sale) and crouch down in the dirt while I bounced forward-rotators off her ankles.
And, man did she take some shots to the ankles. Mom was not the world’s most skilled backstop. I missed the glove quite a bit right at first, and the ball would go rolling up the driveway, and she’d get up and chase it, shaking a throbbing ankle. Then, another try.
In time, I started hitting the glove more, and that curve ball really started to move. I knew enough to know the pitch I was throwing was not actually a curve ball, by the strict definition. But it made a big looping break that dove out and away from right-handed batters. It was especially effective against the beefy kids who hit fifth in their lineup and dreamed of hitting cleanup. Those guys swung at that thing every time they were down in the count, especially if I threw it about chest level. Mom and I called this pitch the “slurve,” not realizing that is a real pitch, too.
The slurve and, later, an actual slider, then a splitter, then a change-up, then a sidearm delivery out of nowhere gave me enough junk to get by while I drank whole milk and waited for my body to hit puberty.
I started games, I saved games, I came on in middle relief. My coach called me his workhorse. I never had so much success in sports before or since. I felt strong and capable. It gave me an identity, and a place. I dreamed of playing Major League Baseball, of course, but I was 5-foot-4 when I started high school. Even after puberty, my fastball topped out in the low 80s. That dream was never going to happen, though I’m sure Mom always believed it could, even after I stopped playing.
My mom died a few weeks before Mother’s Day last year. The last time I saw her when she could still communicate, I reminded her about all that. She didn’t just give me a curve ball, she gave me confidence. And that, you get to keep forever.