Throwback Thursday: First Love

Posted: April 7, 2016 in General, life, love, poker, self improvement, workouts/sports
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Very little in this world can compare to young love. The combination of innocence, ignorance, and melodrama results in a perfect recipe as fuel for the emotional roller coaster that is growing up. Before becoming a slave to my hormones and primordial instinct, I gave my heart and soul to the first love of my life.

It was a cool Saturday morning, mid-April 1992; the details etched in my mind like the lyrics to Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. In previous years, I’d have been up before dawn so we could get a prime spot for the first day of trout season, however, this year I had other plans; life altering plans. I spent the night at my Grandparents and quietly snuck out of bed as the sun rose, attempting to not disturb my Pap who was still asleep in the adjacent room. Before I could wipe the sleepies out of my eyes I was fully dressed in the outfit I had carefully laid out the night before; accentuated by my brand new hat dawning a big black “P”, a staple in any young Yinzer’s wardrobe.

By the time I had made it downstairs to the kitchen I was too nervous to eat. My Gram encouraged me to go rest my eyes for another hour or two until it was time to go, but I was in my own head. “Does this undershirt look ok? White is so plain, I think I’ll switch to black.” I grew anxious as I meticulously tried each combo of undershirts, socks, and accessories. Once satisfied I went outside to the porch where my Pap was enjoying his breakfast. He took one look at me and smiled. “Looking sharp kiddo, why don’t you take a seat.” I quickly pulled up a chair desperate for one of his tales to ease my mind. “I ever tell you about the one that got away?”

I still remember pulling up to the park and being overwhelmed. Pap’s tall tale of the man-sized fish he failed to land didn’t quite have the calming effect I had hoped for. The pit in my stomach had become a chasm of angst; I thought puking was a certainty. Slowly I gathered myself and got out of the car. My Grandparents gave me a few words of encouragement and sent me on my way. As I neared the rendezvous, the smell of fresh cut grass overwhelmed my senses, stopping me dead in my tracks to take it all in. My daze was interrupted by a muffled voice welcoming everyone. I scanned frantically for a familiar face. I needed to find my group before I miss my chance at having her all to myself for one brief second. Finally, our eyes locked. I raced over just in the nick of time… 

 And now, the visiting team: The Phillies. Coached by Ron George and Sam Hess… Number 11 Matt Berkey…

Leechburg Little League Opening Day was under way and we were playing in the opening game. Despite the “P” on my hat representing the Leechburg Phillies, not the Pirates, I had never been prouder than I was that day. Hearing my name announced for the first time over the loudspeaker made my infatuation grow. There was no turning back. I was a love-struck, wide-eyed 10-year-old who was willing to have 5f6ea204c4dd53bf311c856f001cad8bhis heart shattered into a thousand pieces endlessly if that meant having even a remote shot at reliving this exact moment in the show someday.     

To say I was obsessed would be demeaning the purity of pursuing a passion; belittling the depths of my love for the game. I lived to play. I was emotionally invested in every at bat, every inning pitched, every win and especially every loss. One of the last times I shed a tear was at age 12 after losing our Little League Championship. It was so bad that by high school a simple thunderstorm could ruin my entire day. I wore my heart on my sleeve, which when dealing with a game of failure led to a lot of heartaches. It wasn’t until college that I finally dropped my Eeyore-like persona and began to understand the importance of remaining even-keeled; judging performance based upon execution rather than outcome. A skill I would later find invaluable.

Like any young kid who has  his whole heart invested, I was desperate and irrational. School consisted of staring out the window, daydreaming of stepping out of a big league dugout to take my rightful position at first base. Mere foreplay to the vision of stepping in against a hard throwing righty and smashing the first pitch I see high into the upper deck. This dream overtook my every conscious and subconscious thought… Until I discovered girls.

Much like baseball I wasn’t a natural talent. To be honest, I was so shy that I couldn’t order a pizza over the phone until I was 10 years old.  So of course, I did what any irrational dreamer would do in my situation, I developed a crush on the most popular, yet shyest girl in my grade, who conveniently enough was also my head coach’s daughter and good friend’s twin sister (it’s a small town, ok). Talk about a game of failure. Sometime in the summer after 7th grade we managed to date for a week. True to form I wasn’t up for the task. I blatantly remember walking her home from the carnival one night where neither of us could muster up a single word. Upon recounting the night to my friends, rather than tell a hero’s tale of how I kissed the girl, I was instead forced to explain how a bug zapper was the only break in the silence. Perhaps this dating thing wasn’t for me. Perhaps I spoke too soon…

Because I’m an apparent glutton for challenges, I began developing quite the crush on one of my closest friends, Maria. A crush is really downplaying it, I was head over heels for the girl. Over the prior year or so we had become very close; I was welcomed into her family as if I was one of their own. It wasn’t long before my love and desire for baseball began to interweave with my feelings for Maria. I couldn’t define any of it; to some degree they defined me. 

High School proved to be even more cutthroat. Dances, dating, upperclassmen… How would I ever survive, let alone excel? I knew I’d have a hard time breaking into the lineup being an inexperienced pitcher and having seniors at all other positions I was capable of playing. I rode the bench for my entire freshman year all while playing my heart out in my final year under Coach Smail in Senior League. I got better.  I played fall ball for the first time and pushed Gumby to play too. He, of course, dominated; I, of course, worked. We both caught the eye of the summer Legion coach, Mark Flemm, (who ran the fall league as an instructional team for Legion ball) and committed to play for him the following summer. 

The Edge

The winter of my freshman year was my first true experience with an offseason. I was 15 and quickly wanting to become bigger, faster, and stronger. A new gym called The Iron Pitt had opened in the basement of the shop beneath my apartment. Lamanna, a friend since I was a fresh-faced rookie on the Phillies, committed to joining with me.

My best description of The Pitt (appropriately nicknamed) was a  dungeon-like basement with a few ton of iron, no windows, and the stench of blood and sweat dampening the air. Upon shaking off the initial intimidation, I was welcomed by a very quiet, unassuming man whose mullet and ’80’s inspired tank top made me question if we had fallen into a time warp. For the better part of a year, Brian and I would lift immediately after school; consistently using most machines incorrectly. Art would watch from afar, occasionally walking up to us: hands clasped, behind his back with a rye grin and say, “Well, that’s one way to do it.” in his redneck twang. 

Sophomore year should have been my breakout season. Anyone watching could clearly see I was the best defensive first baseman around, a fact I thought meant something at the time. I earned a starting role, despite having two upperclassmen ahead of me. By game three I found myself benched due to some poor plate appearances. I wasn’t ready. I was weak minded and self-righteous, feeling like I was being overlooked. I wouldn’t sniff the field the rest of the season while Gumby would go on to be a standout. It all culminated in me skipping our round 1 playoff game in order to play a scrimmage for Coach Flemm’s summer team. At the time, I couldn’t see how it mattered. I needed the work and Coach O routinely excused freshmen for their Senior League games. I couldn’t for the life of me see how this was any different. But it was. 

That summer and fall I took my lumps playing for Coach Flemm. I was in a dogfight for playing time, seeing most of it come in pinch hit appearances and relief appearances during blowouts. By winter I found myself right back in The Pitt, hungry and humbled. It was then Art began to take a special interest in a handful of us “young bucks.”  This guy was some 12031607_10153556379126885_5205158429281192809_osort of guru disguised as a compact version of Chuck Norris. In between bench press spots and stories of him wrestling tigers with his bare hands, Art would sprinkle in some grizzled knowledge. One particular message has stuck with me throughout the years. A group of us were leveling off, growing complacent. Day in and day out our weight and reps remained the same. One day Art had seen enough. We were finishing a set of three reps, agreeing to quit rather than continue at the same weight. He slowly came marching over with two baby plates (one of which is the exact plate pictured) and shouted,

“You boys know what this is? … It’s the edge. You don’t get these guns lifting the biggest weights in the gym. You get stronger by finding your breaking point, adding the edge, and poooooooooooowering through…”

As we stood there watching this five-foot-nothing man flexing his massive arms, I’m certain we laughed; I’m also certain we did our remaining sets. We developed a sense of pride, not in being the biggest guys in the gym, but in not allowing the smallest weight to break us.

Love had been my driving force, pushing me to pursue the unobtainable; leaving me soft and vulnerable in it’s wake. The edge became my first layer of grit, giving me the tenacity necessary to withstand love kicking me in the teeth prior to kissing me on the lips. It proved to be the grip which allowed me to hang on to dreams my heart had no interest in giving up. The heart wants what the heart wants; the edge ensures the mind obliges.

Though Art has since passed, and The Iron Pitt has changed ownership and location, I still find myself in that gym every time I’m home, loading the bar with the edge, paying homage to the man who showed us “one way to do it.”


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**Start from the beginning**

  1. […] available to a high school athlete. My bubble suddenly contained the fragile framework of my ideal happily ever after. Keeping it in tact long enough for the glue to dry, however, meant defying time–and with it […]


  2. […] Entry: Throwback Thursday: First Love Start at the […]


  3. […] viewed our relationship, and that I could never reciprocate as I was incapable of repressing my true feelings. It was inevitable we would go our separate ways– I just wish I had been strong enough to not […]


  4. […] suddenly, I was coping with the impact of cutting ties with Maria, an all too close parallel to my baseball dream shattering. On a deeper more terrifying level, this very moment was the first time I truly […]


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