How my lack of a fastball got me interested in science

Jul 17 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

As a kid growing up I never had much interest in science. I mean I used to watch Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy, but I was way more interested in baseball. In fact that was pretty much all my friends and I could think about as kids coming up in the south. My best friend growing up was a kid named Gerry who lived down the street from us. Like most of the people who lived by us, we were of the lower class ilk but unlike us they were black.

My mother, who was brought up as a Southern Democrat, met Gerry's father and the rest of his family as a kid when she was shifted from her lilly white school to "negro" school during the enforced and albeit slow desegregation of the Johnson Administration. My grandmother had the option to keep her in white school but allowed her to go to the black school because in her opinion, "colored people are no different then white people like you and me, they deserve the same treatment and opportunities that we are afforded." My family always had a progressive stance on race and would get strange looks and hear the soft whispers of racism when a black boy was invited to sleepovers with my uncle when he was a young boy.

I gravitated to Gerry because I looked nothing like the white kids and my skin tone was only a few shades lighter than that of Gerry. So I preferred to spend my days hanging out with Gerry and his friends, playing sandlot baseball. I didn't have far to go, the sandlot was just across the street from my house. On this huge tract of property was a large seedy motel that faced out to the road and behind it lay an empty lot that had WWII cinderblock duplexes lining the perimeter. Our deal with the motel owner was that we would pick up trash around the property and maintain the sandlot and in exchange we got to play as much baseball as we wanted. The owner was a decent guy, he put a picnic table out back by the field for us to use. This came in handy when on Fridays we would make our weekly pilgrimage to the local Piggy Wiggly and buy up a bucket of fried chicken and come back with watermelon. Since my bike didn't have a basket and I was adept at riding with one or no hands, I was usually tasked with transporting the watermelon. As soon as we made it back to the sandlot, I'd run home and grab a bucket of water and a knife to cut up the watermelon. Napkins were dispensable, we had t-shirts with which to wipe our hands with. Those soccer weenies could use napkins, we were men who played baseball damnit.

Gerry idolized Bob Gibson growing up as a kid, having heard the stories of his pitching from his father and grandfather. And I can say Gerry had the same ferocity on the mound that Gibson did, except that this was tempered by the fact that his faded St. Louis Cardinals hat sat about 8 inches higher than placement of Gibson because of Gerry's big afro. But this kid could pitch. Like Gibson he was all about the speed but unlike Gerry had a bigger plate to work with. Growing up poor, we couldn't afford bases, so we used brick pavers for all the bases but home plate. Home plate was a municipal manhole cover, its large size gave Gerry ample space to "paint the black" as it were.

But lets be honest we weren't going to lay off pitches, we were a bunch of hackers. Occasionally when Gerry wanted to hit, I'd trot out to mound (regulation 10", thanks for the fill dirt dad). Now I was the antithesis of Gerry: he was tall, I was short; he had a well-muscled physique, my skinny ass couldn't even intimidate a neighborhood cat; Gerry had some zip on his fastball, my fastball might get there next week if you were lucky.

What I lacked for velocity I made up for in movement, I threw a curveball that pissed Gerry off to no end. And I threw it and threw it, and continued to throw it through high school (to the detriment of my rotator cuff and elbow). Gerry had to know the secret to my curveball and in exchange he would teach me his change up. While Gerry picked up my curveball over a full summer I could never replicate his change up. Mainly because it wasn't a change up at all! A change up should have less velocity than a fastball but the crazy thing was, Gerry's got faster. Same arm slot, same release point, just a modified grip that should have made it go faster. But it didn't.

And no one could touch it. You might get lucky and foul off of it, but none of us get better than a lucky single off that damn pitch.

My first interest in science came when Gerry's dad took us to the local minor league baseball game, who back then were an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. Before the game started we walked past the cotton candy vendors straight to the boiled peanuts and grabbed a bag. Next to the boiled peanut man was kids mound and radar gun.

I held the peanuts and Gerry lit up the gun with a 70 mile per hour pitch. Not bad for a kid just starting middle school. Next it was my turn, and I reared back to find my inner Koufax and try and blow one past the gun. Nothing. My fastball was so slow it failed to even register on the gun. And it wasn't a gun malfunction because I made about six more tries to get something to come up on the gun. And never could.

We were fascinated with how the radar gun worked that night after we got back home we walked down the street to my grandmother's house. So this was in the pre-interwebs days, so I got all my knowledge from her Funk & Wagnalls's encyclopedia set. We spent that night reading about radar, projectile motion, and basic physics.

The genesis of our scientific interest was in how something knew how fast we were throwing and how we generated speed on our pitches and how we could get more.

Sadly, a year or two after this, Gerry moved away when his dad got transferred to another military posting and we never kept in touch. I still hope he is wearing that faded Cardinals hat and hopefully teaching his kid to throw my curveball. I somehow imagine that his fastball is an autosomal dominant trait that his kid would already have inherited.

7 responses so far

  • Jeremy says:

    Thanks for this, GRM. It brought back memories of sitting in my basement as a kid with friends after a ballgame (that we played in the neighborhood circle) huddled over hitting/pitching guides, baseball cards strewn everywhere, arguing about who was the better shortstop: Cal Ripken or Ozzie Smith.

    Did you play high school or college ball?

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    High school baseball and college intramural softball. Ozzie had some sick moves when he flashed the leather but I'd have to take Ripken for his offensive production.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    Though Ozzie could hit when necessary, thank you very much.
    I have spent the bulk of this heat wave watching my kid finish up his high school career, knowing he will move on to engineering next year but always love baseball. The least I can do is sit outside, swat mosquitoes, and sweat.

    • Genomic Repairman says:

      I don't deny Ozzie could hit, but his offensive production was less than Ripken (about half the RBIs). Have fun watching your boy, is he still playing 3rd?

  • namnezia says:

    Definitely Ripken. It was fun living in Baltimore when he broke Lou Gehrig's record. I think I still have that day's issue of the Baltimore Sun somewhere in my basement.

  • JaySeeDub says:

    This was badass, GRM. It made me nostalgic for my baseball card collection and afternoons playing in the dirt field behind our apartment.

  • [...] Baseball’s loss is the science blogosphere’s gain. The author at Scientopia’s Tales of the Genomic Repairman explains how he got interested in science – it had to do with his lack of a major-league fastball. [...]

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