ek75ul_pI’ve never been one to keep my mouth shut and do as I’m told. It’s not that I was confrontational (quite the opposite during my youth), so much as I needed justification as to why. Why was the sky blue? Why do I have to cut grass when I’m told? Why is the bible viewed as law, but practiced as opinion? Why am I expected to know what I want to do with the rest of my life at eighteen?

By and large, I learned through challenging norms. Conformity was a concept I truly couldn’t grasp. Perhaps it was because socially I didn’t have the means to blend in. Perhaps it was because I demonized weak-mindedness through my mother’s actions, and my means to staying sharp was to insert a system of checks and balances where I vetted my decisions through validating the information from which I derived my biases. I just knew being a part of the crowd didn’t align with self-interests– I wanted to be able to speak for myself. Too often what they had to say wasn’t what I believed to be true.

As I moved toward the next stage of my life, I was honing in my ability to think deeply; to think critically. I developed an argumentative personality that certainly wore thin the patience of anyone willing to engage in debate with me. Fortunately, at that age, we were all full of piss and vinegar, and given the general culture of the Northeast, a good ole fashion shouting match would often resolve a debate. With a brash baritone and unwillingness to relent, I won my unfair share of arguments.

Much like any eighteen-year-old I ultimately didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. Choosing a major was an additional stress added to the already mounting pile containing, but not limited to: uncertainty over my fate with the baseball team; the glaring fact that my current social construct consisted of Maria, whoever she had befriended, and slew of AIM chats with my high school friends who were spread out all over the great state of Pennsylvania– and that merely covers orientation week.

Once all the school nonsense was out of the way, the real reason I enrolled came into focus. A combination of fear and intimidation rushed over me as I walked in the locker room. The rest of the freshmen seemed so well acquainted and already formulating cliques– A by-product of being actual recruits with official visits I assumed. I chose a vacant space near my roommate, who by comparison made me feel like I really had my affairs in order. He was a quiet, unassuming fella from the backcountry of PA and aside from a bit of a nervous tick, I honestly couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. As the coaches began to cover their expectations, one thing quickly stood out as a major point of emphasis– running. In order to even be accepted into tryouts, we had to complete the mile in under (a now laughable) eight minutes and the 60-yard dash in sub-eight seconds. Looking back it really speaks to just how absent my physical conditioning was due largely in part to skating by on natural ability and a high baseball IQ– you don’t need to be fast if you know exactly where to be at all times. We had one week to prepare for each required run, and one lone opportunity to pass prior to tryouts.

The next seven days I should have been getting acclimated to my new environment; meeting new people, digesting the plethora of information thrown at me daily, and most of all taking note of which girls caught my eye. Instead, I was on the track and in the gym. I quickly learned the ins and outs of efficiency. I passed on parties and freshmen events in order to get in an extra lift or a few extra laps. I defined myself as an athlete first and foremost and had made the decision long ago to sacrifice anything and everything I deemed to interfere with further pursuing that persona.

Baseball was the one area where I lost sight of my maxim to challenge everything. Instead, I challenged myself to achieve things that, by and large, I was physically incapable of. Choosing to never question why– why I wasn’t good enough; why I couldn’t add velocity to my fastball; why I was so slow; why I was paranoid of a DIII try out when I believed I would play professionally one day– ultimately left me working hard, not smart.  Through sheer will I would keep my head above water, but I lacked the ability to shine because I couldn’t see my path. Rather, I attempted to keep pace on the path of those far more talented than me.

Throughout my life in my moments of need I’ve been extended a glimpse of a guiding light. In this instance, it came in the form of sophomore pitcher Justin Elliott. Hardly the epitome of a natural athlete, he too was often in the gym working. I think he commiserated with my situation as I believe he too once struggled with his times. He assured me it was a mere formality and that he would help me keep pace. That just left my sixty time to improve upon, which even at my worst, I was still running south of eight seconds.

Tryouts had arrived, but first the formality of the runs. It must have been ninety degrees with infinite humidity that day. I was certain this would be the death of me, but at the time I was willing to blackout if it meant crossing that line in sub eight minutes– an all too common theme throughout my freshman season. I allowed Justin to set the pace and ran shoulder to shoulder with him for the first two laps. We were about the middle of the pack, but my mind was in a state of distress. I was struggling to keep this pace and we were barely halfway. As we crossed the third lap Justin began coercing me to keep up. I’d fall a few steps behind and he would be right there in my ear shouting for me to dig in and find the will to finish– I had rarely been challenged physically throughout my career, and mentally I had never been broken down like this. 5cfbf3d38223f039db061c6ed5b5938fI wanted to quit. I still lacked the mental fortitude to push through failure. I likely would have succumbed to the moment had it not been for that voice reminding me of all I had to gain if I could just sacrifice a few more seconds of pain. As we sprinted that final leg I wasn’t racing against the clock anymore, rather I was attempting to outrun the weaker version of myself that showed up to campus on day one. With thirty seconds to spare, I casually excused myself to reexamine my lunch in the shade.

I honestly do not remember a single detail of tryouts beyond pitching as if my life depended on it. They went by quickly and painlessly. Cuts were announced within hours of tryouts ending, and they were light. That certainly didn’t ease the fear that plagued me in life-altering moments. Only two players were cut, my roommate actually being one of them. My heart went out to him, that is until he decided to transfer upon hearing the news. Selfishness overtook me as I began to imagine having a room to myself throughout the second semester– a scenario that thankfully didn’t play out as my new roommate would prove to be a catalyst to my growth socially.  We rarely spoke a word to one another beyond hello and goodbye for the rest of the semester, and truth be told, I just wasn’t self-confident enough to get beyond my own survival needs in order to extend a sympathetic hand.   

My accomplishment of making the team was short lived, I needed to contribute. I struggled mightily at first. I couldn’t mechanically adjust to what my pitching coach was asking of me– my “yes sir” attitude left me confused, not understanding what exactly I was supposed to change nor why it was important. I chose instead to emulate others and failed miserably along the way. To make matters worse, I was on everyone’s short list, as when it came to conditioning I struggled to make the times. We (the pitching staff) would run as a group and if any member failed to make the time, we would do it again. Long distance was doable; it was the 220 & 440-yard dashes that left me the cause of additional runs. Too many nights I found myself being picked up off the track once the torture had commenced– blacking out became routine throughout the first few weeks.

I was fortunate to be on an all athlete floor, which placed me down the hall from catcher Dan. He was well liked– in that, way too nice to ever say a bad word about kinda way. We became fast friends and he pushed me to get over the hump physically. He also helped break me out of my shell around the team . One particular night, an informal team meeting was called at the baseball house after Coach Ferris disclosed his outrage at the freshman class and our inability to gel as a team. Dan and I were two of the first freshmen to arrive, and we quickly discovered this wasn’t a friendly social gathering. We found fellow freshmen doing pushups and were instructed to join until our entire unit was accounted for. Dan smiled, patted me on the back and said, “Let’s get to it.” Eventually, everyone arrived, the last of which were shamed by the suffering of those who were punctual. We endured a brief browbeating from the seniors before the floor was open for discussion. I had nothing to say beyond an apology for being dead weight and a promise to do better. The night would wind down with a celebratory round of brews, and suddenly the moment I had been most fearful of was upon me.

I was proud that I didn’t drink, but I knew being the odd man out– particularly in a moment of team unity– wasn’t going to earn me any friends. As I began to defend my abstinence, I was confronted by the usually dismissive banter and idle threats that are the backbone of peer pressure. I truly felt no inclination to succumb, rather, I felt fight or flight taking hold. I’m not a fighter. I spent a lot of my elementary days getting in fist fights, the majority of which I would lose in epic fashion. Part of the reason I began lifting weights and dabbling in kickboxing was simply so that I wouldn’t have to ever fight. In lieu of fists, I often would resort to my wit. I’ve always had a certain ability to “bro out” in spite of not being a full blown meat head — I could feel the room turning on me. I explained how important baseball was to me, and that my struggles were not a reflection of a lack of effort. I built a case around my wanting to both better myself and the team, deducing that I had no room for alcohol nor any other diminishers in my life. I could tell there was pushback coming, but hoped a distraction would suffice to quell this discussion. enhanced-buzz-9254-1382819024-19In the dining room was a poker table which I casually made my way toward. I asked who in the house played. Junior second baseman, Ben Contrucci, took the lead and sparked up a game. He grew up in a neighboring town to me and in that moment quickly became my saving grace. I was nervous as they played for as little as $50 a night, but this was too good of an opportunity to ease in with the upperclassmen. Besides, I had a little leftover from a local scholarship I had been awarded at graduation, intended to cover the cost of my books– Lifehack: I realized after the first day of classes that all my books could be found in the library, so I returned any I had purchased for a full refund.

I rarely won big playing cards with the team, but I never really lost either. Socially, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. On our bus trip to Ft. Meyers I was the only freshman to sit in the back. Fortunately, I held my own, in what proved to be a real bloodbath of a game. A few guys had lost their entire $200 meal stipend for the week we were in Florida. I managed to survive with $20 profit. College life was finally starting to come together.

School, however, was proving to be difficult. Let me rephrase that, adjusting to learning through lectures proved an impossible task. I craved engagement, the ability to question the more difficult concepts thrown at us. Sadly, I was coerced into choosing Computer Science as a major since I had shown an aptitude for math. Linear learning bored me to death. Shockingly enough, building out algorithms was the one area I actually enjoyed, as it allowed for some creative problem solving. I ultimately found myself becoming very interested in theology, a required core studies course. We discussed ancient cultures and the parallels between polytheistic religions of the past and current monotheistic religions. Growing up Catholic in a mostly Catholic region, I derived a sense of pride being aligned with a social norm, something I would grow to question heavily. I felt a powerful disconnect from not just Catholicism, but the overall construct of all organized religions. The biggest conundrum to me was the concept of an all-loving God, whose image we were created in, that condemned people to Hell. If we were, in fact, an extension of him, and he forgives all sin, then how could Hell exist, or sin for that matter? It just felt as though these communities were built upon pride, guilt, and harsh judgment– a narrative that a free thinker with an empathetic heart couldn’t really align with.

That’s not to say I didn’t/don’t believe in God. Growing up the first thing on my mind when I awoke and the last thing before I closed my eyes was my mother’s well being. I developed a very strong relationship with God, or at the very least with my inner consciousness. I carried on deep, meaningful conversations– not through humble, subservient prayer as often is taught in church, but rather as an apprentice asking a mentor for guidance and supervision. The caveat being I believed those conversations would get my mother off the streets safely and that my aspirations would miraculously come to fruition through blind faith and optimistic belief. The hopeless romantic in me still clutches to that sentiment; that my prayers don’t fall on deaf ears; that we are all truly a reflection of the divine– simply lacking mirrors, allowing ourselves to remain blind to the profoundness of our existence.

In one of the last fond memories of my friendship with Maria, I had agreed to attend Easter service with her at the nondenominational church on campus. As the sermon began, the pasture began to question the congregation as to how they define friendship, moreover their best friend. Immediately, Maria and I shared a glance– one that felt like the final nail in my friend-zoned coffin. As he continued rattling off the list of attributes that make up a best friend, as well as the interaction necessary to cultivate such a deep relationship, I couldn’t help but feel somehow he was speaking directly to me. He went on to say that we should view our relationship with God much in the same manner. Rather than being consumed by repentance or the fear of judgment, we should instead be honest and transparent with the expectancy of warm, loving support. It really struck a chord with me, and what I viewed my relationship with God to be. It also struck a nerve in that I knew it was how Maria 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 cast aside such a deeply impactful person from my life. Teenage hormones are one helluva drug.

As I return to campus for my sophomore year, everything appeared the same, yet it was all so different. I pitched merely one inning my freshman year and failed to make the playoff travel roster. Maria and I weren’t speaking, by and large, because her life was moving forward at a rapid pace and I simply was unwilling to tag along for the ride. I was at an impasse. Overwhelmingly unhappy with myself and this innate desire to resist change at all cost, yet unable to find any logical resolution that would lead to restoring some semblance of happiness and normalcy to my life. The real source could be traced to the constant fear of my Pap’s failing health riddling my every thought. However, I wasn’t ready to cope with adult situations. All of my silent struggles would need to be put on ice as tryouts were days away and I had a statement to make. Thank God for the knuckle-curve…knuck

 

**Next Throwback Thursday: The Sky is Falling
**Previous Post
**Start at the beginning

Comments
  1. […] Next– Throwback Thursday: God, Girls, and the Knuckle Curve Previous– Throwback Thursday: Time Won’t Let Me Go Start at the beginning […]

    Like

  2. Jordan Judd says:

    Berkey I miss playing ball with you, and I don’t think I ever got to thank you for inviting me to your home game. Hope you’re doing well brother.

    Like

    • Berkey11 says:

      Thanks man, I miss it a ton too. My arm just isn’t there anymore. Every year I tell myself I’ll get it back into shape, but I just never seem to find the time :/

      Like

  3. […] played with from the game? I assume you meant poker, and yes of course. I actually wrote a blog (https://thevoicewithin.me/2016/09/22/throwback-thursday-god-girls-and-the-knuckle-curve/) talking about how poker allowed me to bridge the social gap between myself, as a freshman who […]

    Like

  4. […] played with from the game? I assume you meant poker, and yes of course. I actually wrote a blog (https://thevoicewithin.me/2016/09/22/throwback-thursday-god-girls-and-the-knuckle-curve/) talking about how poker allowed me to bridge the social gap between myself, as a freshman who […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s