Friday, October 23, 2015

Baseball Dreams: Dwarf or average stature, everyone strikes out

October is Dwarfism Awareness Month. In addition to the specifics that distinguish people with dwarfism from others, awareness can be raised by drawing attention to the common bonds that make people with dwarfism just like everybody else.  One of those bonds is baseball. Many young boys and girls who have dwarfism dream of playing baseball deep into their lives, just like millions of others around the world. 

When I was between seven and 16 years old, I played baseball as much as I could, both organized ball and pick-up.  One day long ago, probably somewhere between 4th Grade and 6th Grade, playing street baseball in front of my house, I stood over a manhole, which served as home plate.  While waiting for the pitch, I glanced to my right, at the catcher behind me.  The catcher crouched down. His head was at the same height as mine. I don’t remember which one of my friends from the neighborhood caught that day, but he gave me hope.  He gave me hope because I loved baseball, because I wanted to play baseball forever, and because he made me think of Davey Lopes.  Davey Lopes was short and Davey Lopes played second base, the same position I played. Perhaps most important, from where I sat on my living room couch watching baseball games on television, it looked as if Davey Lopes, in his batting stance, stood no taller than the catcher squatting behind him at home plate.  I don’t remember how tall I was on the day I stood over the manhole. But as a dwarf, I knew I wouldn’t grow much taller than four feet.  Because no dwarf had ever played professional baseball, I believed height, not my slow bat speed or my inability to judge fly balls, would hold me back from the Major Leagues.  But the sight of the catcher, at eye level with me, made me believe I had a chance.  Davey Lopes must have been a little bit taller than me, but I thought I could make up the difference in our heights through practice and determination.

At some point, later that day, or later that year, I went up to my bedroom to confirm my hopes. I retrieved Davey Lopes from my baseball card collection.  I stared at the numbers printed on the back of the baseball card. Davey Lopes’ height was listed as 5’9”.  I must have looked at the baseball card before then, but until that day, when I looked closely at the card, I thought Lopes was shorter.  I would never grow taller than 4’5”.  Grit might have made up for a few inches, but no amount of hustle could bridge over a foot. The next thing I remember, my parents were in my bedroom, hugging me, talking to me, as I cried.

The 5’9” listing on the back of a baseball card dashed my dreams of major league baseball, but I continued to play for as long as I could. For a while, my older brother made it easy. He loved baseball more than I did.  As long as he was around, it was not hard to find a game.  But when he started high school, he didn’t have time to organize pick-up games.  The kids up and down the street, without my brother initiating the games, lost interest.

As baseball in front of my house tapered out, I found new games with friends from middle school.  When more than a handful of us were around, we played wiffle ball in a park adjacent to a small pond about a half mile from my house. If only a few of us were around, as long as we had two gloves, a tennis ball, and a bat, we played a game called automatic.  We took turns batting, pitching and catching. Where and how far we hit the ball determined base hits and outs.  Once the batter hit into three outs, we rotated positions.     

Whether wiffle ball or automatic, my friend Murray always played.  We both, like many of our friends, also played organized baseball.  For six years, between the ages of 10 and 15, we played in Kennedy Little League, a league based on the east side of town in Madison, Wisconsin.  We shared our triumphs together.  Murray called me the day, as an eleven year old, he hit an inside the park home run.  In the 13-year old league, Murray once caught behind the plate an entire game, allowing just one passed ball, probably a record for the league.  The summer of 1985, the year we both played in the Senior Leagues, our teams faced each other on opening day. He was positioned behind the plate when I came up to bat for the first time.  The count quickly ran to two and oh, what I believed to be the best hitter’s count. 

“This is it Gary.  This is your pitch,” Murray said, crouching at the knees behind me as the pitcher wound up.  I ended up striking out.  

For me, organized baseball ended the summer I turned 16.  With it, most of the pick-up games died out also.  I drifted away from Murray and the other friends from that baseball group. 

I didn’t play organized baseball again until my late 20’s.  A group of us put together a softball team.  We joined a league in which every other team was much better skilled than us and much better equipped than us, with uniforms, fancy sunglasses, and batting gloves.  My team’s biggest problem was scrapping together enough players to field a team.  We either forfeit for lack of players every Saturday morning or got crushed by the opposing team. The league organizer took pity on us. He’d call me at the end of the season.  “Gary,” he’d say. “I’ve got great news. Every team is eligible for the playoffs.” He gave us one more chance to stare down humiliation.  Though my memories of softball are miserable, we joined the league three summers in a row.

Nowadays I play a game of softball about every other year at the Little People of America Conference, a national event for people with dwarfism around the world.  At the Annual East/West Softball Game, instead of nine position players, anyone who shows up plays every inning. On defense, I typically stake out a place several yards behind second base, on the grass just off the edge of the infield.  Surrounded by many others, I have as much chance of fielding a ball as a fan at a major league stadium does of catching a foul ball.  Yet, I feel the same exhilaration I did as kid, simultaneously hoping the ball will be hit my way and terrified the ball will be hit my way.  

In my middle 40’s, I’ve reconnected through Facebook with some people I knew when I was a kid, including Murray, with whom I played wiffle ball, automatic and Little League.  Back in May of 2015, Murray posted on his Facebook Wall that he was going to be a father. He wrote, “Ever since I had the realization that I was not going to be the starting catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, all I have ever really wanted to be is a father. That dream is coming true in early September!” The post reminded me that my friends and I didn’t play baseball for years because we were bored, or because there was nothing else to do.  Whether organized or pick-up, we went out of our way to play baseball because it was our favorite thing to do.

The post also reminded me of the moment I stared at the back of the Davey Lopes Baseball Card, reality telling me that I would never be the second baseman for the Chicago Cubs. For more than three decades, I believed the significance of that moment was in the lesson I learned about difference. I thought it taught me that no matter what I did, sometimes I wouldn’t be able to bridge the physical differences between myself and others. But just as much as the moment was about dwarfism, the moment was also about baseball.  Murray’s post allowed me to see that I was not alone when I pulled out that baseball card.  The moment I felt the world crumbling down on me is one shared by millions of kids around the world when they understand their baseball dreams are out of reach.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Freakishly Human

Ben and gary  in theater lobby after the Sideshow Performance 
Yesterday, I watched my friend Ben perform in the musical Sideshow, staged by Porchlight Music Theater. It sounds sketchy and possibly exploitative for a little person to play the role of a dwarf character working for a Freak show, but Sideshow, like other more recent productions that highlight circuses and performers put on stage because of their out of the ordinary appearances, tells the story from point of view of disabled characters, highlighting their humanity and in no way exploiting physical differences.  Ironically, Ben was the only actor with a disability in the production, even though the majority of the characters were disabled. Ben often performs in a production of "Six Stories Up," written and directed by another friend of mine, Tekki Lomnicki.  The cast of "Six Stories Up" is typically a majority of people with disabilities.

The Porchlight production follows the careers of the Hilton Sisters, twin sisters who are conjoined, from a Sideshow in San Antonio, Texas, to Vaudeville, to their eventual casting in the movie Freaks and departure to Hollywood.  From the opening number, the show reveals that the twins, along with the other characters who make up the sideshow, share the same emotional needs and desires as those a part of mainstream society, but because of their physical differences they will never be accepted or a part of mainstream society.  My favorite part comes at the end of act one.  The twins have recently been whisked away by a talent scout from the sideshow and their abusive employer.  Daisy, the more assertive, ambitious of the twins, has fallen in love with the talent scout and believes that her feelings are reciprocated.  Then, after one of their debut Vaudeville performances, the twins over hear the talent scout speaking to the press corps. Responding to a question about his relationship with Daisy, the talent scout says something to the effect of, "It's just for show. I could never love something like that." In a simple expression on her face, Daisy betrays heartbreak and devastation, then the twins close out the first act with a number about what it's like to feel human but never to be treated as human.  I could relate.  I am sure many other dwarfs could relate also.

Banner hanging from the rafters on the set of Sideshow 
The show concludes as the twins transition from Vaudeville to Hollywood.  At first, when the twins are approached by the Hollywood Producer, they are thrilled by the opportunity that the Hollywood stage offers, and they also believe that they have been recruited to the world of movies based upon their talents.  But when they ask the name of the movie for which they have been cast, the producer proudly exclaims, "Freaks," and the twins understand that things will never truly change.

A second favorite part of the show came after the final curtain.  Part of the set was a large scale reproduction of a publicity poster for the movie Freaks. The top line of the poster reads, "Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?"  Offensive language aside, six years in my marriage, I am going to say, the answer is.....yes.