In grade school, my physical prowess on the sports stage was cringe-worthy. I was gangly, awkward and had the reflexes of a three-toed sloth.
When it came time to chose-up sides during recess games, my name was among the last of those groaned by grudging team captains.
That changed one day when a neighborhood hellion named Michael took me under his wing and trained me in all things baseball.
God knows why he did this. We had absolutely nothing in common. He was a sharp street-urchin straight out of Oliver Twist while I was a bit of a homebody dullard. For a 12-year-old, he was burly and ripped; I was so thin that I just about disappeared in profile.
Was it a dare made by one of his “roughneck” friends (as my grandmother would say)? Who knows. I didn’t care.
We “trained” in the front yards of our adjoining apartment complexes: throwing, catching, fielding, hitting, bunting, running. To compensate for my lack of physical power, Michael taught me how to “choke up” on the bat for a quicker swing.
To my amazement, I loved the training. The better I got at his drills, the more I wanted to play!
Between this scrappy boy’s exhaustive tutelage and my sheer will, I morphed into a starting player on an intramural team playing for the class softball championship.
Based on previous experience, the outfielders on the opposing team drew toward the infield when I came to bat in the third inning. Their smirks turned to slacked-jaws when I slapped a triple down the right field line, driving in two runs.
I loved Michael for taking a “chance” on me.
Forty-five years later. I’m watching our 10-month old Boston terrier rescue, Lilly, tentatively nose, mouth and carry her new toy. After a few seconds, she fumbles the furry caterpillar at my feet before flopping down next to me and sighing.
No one had played with her at her previous home. And this was the first glimmer of interest she showed in playing with anything.
It was time to pay Michael’s gift forward.
Slowly and gently, one fetch and tug at a time, Lilly learned how to play with others - and how to amuse herself when no one else was available to play. Three years later, she darts after her Kong, flips her rawhide chew three feet into the air and plays a mean game of tag. Her bright eyes, broad smile and lolling tongue say it all.
And I have the best, furry teammate - ever.
Wherever you are, Michael, you done good.
How did you and your animal companion become teammates?