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What is America's True Pastime?

When I think about summer, I think about baseball, and this always forces me down a rabbit hole where I'm confronted by my most noteworthy highlight on the diamond. I’d have been about eleven at the time, and was having a nice little summer on the mound. Being a lefty who could throw hard and straight, the little-leaguers in my part of North Dakota had few answers for the cards I was dealing. If memory serves, I spent most mornings laying waste to all who stepped into the box, afternoons putting baby oil on my glove, and evenings perfecting my autograph. My eventual spot on a Major League roster was all but assured.

But then we played a town called St. John, and the challenge wasn’t that they were intimidating as a ball club, or that they were somehow blessed with a bunch of sluggers who could square their shoulders at my fastball. It was that their best player was famous for absolutely raking little hotheads like myself, and it was a known fact that I’d better come with the heat when we faced off. No fear, which was probably what my shirt suggested as well. This player’s name was Jessica, and not only was I scared to death of her bat, but I was also totally smitten with her.

As I recall, I came on to pitch in the top of the third. The first two batters gave up easy -- groundout,

strikeout. And then it was on to Jessica, who had a sinister right-handed swing and, in an unrelated story, was totally dazzling to the wilting pre-pubescent who intended to strike her out at the same moment as he fell hopelessly in love.

I kicked in on the mound, doing my best not to notice a side ponytail that would certainly cause my pitch to sail into the bleachers. I closed my eyes and wound up, had a brief glimpse of exchanging pleasantries and mailing addresses after the game, and threw as hard as I could. And then, because fate is a smirking nogoodnik, I planted that pitch right in the middle of her back. Take your base, my dear, along with any possible chance of an eventual romance.

There would be no future for Jessica and me, on account of the massive welt between her shoulders that probably made her move that mesmerizing side-pony to the middle. But the larger fallout was this: after beaning Jessica, I had a real problem pitching without hitting the batter. I got the yips. Each throw would either immediately find dirt once it left my hand, or would fly directly toward the batter’s hind quarters like a heat-seeker. I was inside my own head, and went from being the ace of our team to being borderline-unplayable.

But what if I’d never smoked her with a sixth-grade approximation of high heat? What if I hadn’t given up baseball a few years later, at least partially because my best skill (that being pitching) had abandoned me? Would Jessica and I now be husband and wife, and would my actual, real-life wife be left to wander this cruel world without a sturdy man on whom to lean? (Wife’s note: I’ll be fine, thanks.)

It's this game of What if, and of enjoying the sepia-tinted nostalgia that is only partially accurate, that is the true American pastime. It may never again be like it was, because it was never that way to begin with. Ultimately, that's less important than remembering it the way I choose. And so I'll always have my summer with my childhood pals, and the needle-sharp shame of feeling my pitching career running down my leg. I'll even relish pondering the squandered potential of my future with Jessica.

Or maybe her name was Jennifer?

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