Upon entering puberty, adolescent boys and girls undergo several, life-altering changes. In the 4th grade, however, my body was similar to that of a toddler—but slightly taller—and I possessed slightly improved bathroom habits. I was always sporting sweatpants and a t-shirt with some type of baseball emblem (see the Barry Larkin blog entry) or cartoon character ironed on the front.
Recess at our elementary school included all students in 4th-6th grades, which resulted in a smorgasbord of children, as well as those who were beginning the child-to-adult transition. Four girls in particular—let’s call them the Amazon Quartet—found themselves a good 5 or 6 inches taller as they entered their 6th grade year. They towered over my weenie frame and seemed to enjoy how a light shove from their hairy, man-like arms could easily knock me off my feet. One girl had poufy bangs and eyes that seemed to want to jump out of her face; another looked like a red-headed cave man with press-on nails. The other two just had an overall unpleasant appearance—I imagined they were twins of one or more non-human parents.
One cloudy day as we headed out to recess, Bertha and her step-sisters (FYI: I just changed their group’s name) decided they really wanted to unload some insults and shove someone—me. They made the usual jokes about my sweatpants, small stature, and off-brand K-mart shoes. I stood there and attempted to shrug it off and laugh, but my patience was fading and I was becoming angry. Then the shoving began along with the insults and I had had enough. I was sick of their tormenting and I reached my boiling point, so all of a sudden my best attempt at a counter attack left my lips:
“Shut up, you...buncha fat cows!” I yelled.
This was not a good idea because I then felt what seemed like Godzilla’s hand smack my back, and I found myself lying in a thick mud puddle. The women’s biker gang….err…I mean girls erupted in laughter. The bell rang ending recess and they turned and walked towards the school. I stood up and tried to wipe off the mud that was covering half of my body and hair. I looked down and Barry Larkin’s face was also covered with mud. I think he was ashamed of my inability to defend myself.
This is it; I’ve had it with these girls. I’m going to tell on them. Their teacher and principal will be so upset they’ll get suspended and I’ll win. I’ll have revenge.
I began walking back to the school building ready to turn in the bride of Sasquatch and her daughters. I looked and saw the four of them walking in front of five or six boys in their class. The boys were teasing the girls and pulling their hair and I think I heard a “How’s the weather up there?” joke. The girls looked mortified and displayed frowns of stone on their faces.
As much as I fought against it, I felt pity on them, and though I would spend the remainder of the afternoon in mud-caked clothes, I refrained from telling my teacher. It seemed they received their comeuppance and continued to receive it, as these same boys would go on to ridicule them for the rest of the school year—and well into junior high and high school.
They couldn’t change who they were, but I could always wash off the mud, forgive and move on. I could be a better person than those girls—as well as the boys who were teasing them. Later that afternoon, while doing an activity in class, I made a girl who was often the victim of bullying and teasing, smile and laugh—which made me feel about 10 feet tall.
That was a pretty good start.
We all have people we admire and look up to, maybe even aspire to be. They may be a celebrity, author, or a friend. For a child, professional athletes are a popular role model choice—I was no different—well sort of.
I was 6 years old. One winter morning I was eating some cereal at the kitchen table with my mom while she was reading the newspaper. She perked up and said that there was a professional baseball player named Barry Larkin coming to an antique mall in town to sign autographs. I had no idea who he was, but her enthusiasm was more than enough to trigger my own excitement towards the event.
The following Saturday we all piled into our Gumby green colored boat-of-a-car, and drove the few miles to the antique mall. There was a ridiculously long line filing out the front door and it would turn out to be a 2-hour wait to see this guy, but my mom didn’t seem to be troubled by this. I, however, was pacing in circles, hunching my shoulders and waving the flaps to my hot winter coat because I knew if I took it off I’d have to carry it. And, a six year old has little desire to look at antiques if he’s not allowed to touch them anyway.
I kind of wanted to leave.
What was I going to do with this guy’s autograph anyway? Throw it around with my friends? I had yet to discover my love for baseball cards and memorabilia, so having a signed picture seemed worthless to me.
The line creaked along and we finally came to a small table that displayed cards and photographs of Barry, which could be purchased for him to sign. My mom bought an 8x10 photograph of the shortstop in a batting stance. I don’t remember the exact price, but I know it wasn’t cheap—and we didn’t have much money in those days—so I didn’t really understand her reasoning.
I overheard the dad from the family in front of us say, “Thank you,” and they turn and walked away. And there he was: sitting at a small table in a Cincinnati Reds jersey and matching red hat. He looked at me and smiled warmly. My legs began shaking as I realized I was meeting an actual professional baseball player.
He motioned for me to come forward saying, “Hi! What’s your name?”
My mind went blank and I almost said ‘Barry’ but I finally murmured, “B…Ben.”
“Alright,” he chuckled, “Big Ben!”
That statement, coupled with my rising triple-digit body temperature inside my winter coat, almost made me faint.
He took the photograph my mom bought and signed it:
To Big Ben.
Then he shook my hand, at least I think he did, I couldn’t feel much at that point.
We left that day and for the next 10 or so years I would constantly wear shirts with the name ‘Larkin’ ironed on the back, or request the number 11 (Barry’s number) on my baseball jersey when playing pee-wee baseball. Christmases and birthdays would all include some type of Barry Larkin merchandise. I loved the guy and he could do no wrong.
Over the years I’ve looked back and reflected on my childhood loyalty to Barry Larkin and I couldn’t have picked a better athlete to emulate. In his baseball career, Barry Larkin was one of the best. He also was (and still is) supportive of many charities and remains a faithful husband and supportive father. Thankfully my mom put me in a position to meet him and discover an honest and hardworking role model.
That’s when I realized that maybe Barry Larkin wasn’t my true role model after all.
He was a great athlete and good man, but he didn’t actually know me. My mother knew before I knew, that I needed someone decent to admire. She put Barry Larkin in my life because she loved me and selflessly took a back seat in that respect.
No ball player could ever compete with that.