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.
When I was a boy, I lived and breathed baseball. I watched it, collected and traded cards and chewed the rock hard gum included in the card packages and cherished it because it was ‘baseball gum’, played pick up games in friends’ backyards, and participated in pee wee league all through my elementary years.
And here my friends, is where our story is set, so grab some grape flavored Big League Chew and find a splintered bleacher seat.
I was ten years old that warm July evening and it was late in the game as I took my position in left field. I wasn’t the best ball player in town and it was obvious that my place on the team was merely a result of a random grouping of area boys into teams. As our team was handed the third out of the fourth inning, my coach, out of guilt and what little heart he possessed, would say under his breath, “Alright Crawford…grab your mitt.”—Which could be translated as,We’re losing anyway, what harm can you do in the last two innings? (In little league, the games are only six innings.)
I stood up and put my enormous hat on my head, grabbed my glove from under the seat, and proceeded to the green grass and huge advertising signs of left field. I felt a knot in my stomach which I attributed to nerves because if a ball was hit my way there was little to no chance of me catching it.
My red and blue uniform was perfectly stiff and clean, save for the light dusting of tan dirt on the my front of my pants from my fellow two-inning players taking turns tossing baseball gloves and Gatorade bottles at one another’s crotches. We were ten year olds after all; a coach can’t expect his players to behave like adults when required to wear a jockstrap and awkwardly sized cup in their itchy polyester uniform pants. We spent our downtime in the dugout testing the strange new equipment’s effectiveness. It just made sense.
First batter: infield fly. “Alright guys!” I yelled, “One down!” I knew they probably didn’t hear me but my hope was they saw my puny finger signaling a one and thus would gain confidence in my abilities as a team player and fielder.
So here’s when my stomach began to gurgle.
Not a hungry kind of gurgle, but a you need to get to a bathroom FAST kind of gurgle. I didn’t know if it was the half pound of bologna I had eaten for lunch or the ‘suicide’ (all of the concession stand’s soda flavors combined in one cup) I had consumed in the third inning, but whatever it was needed to leave my body as soon as possible.
Not one to shirk my responsibilities as a trustworthy left fielder, I crouched down to my ready position as our pitcher doled out fast balls to the kid at the plate, who in turn was hitting one foul ball after another.
The sweat began to drip down my forehead—for the first time in the entire game—and season.
This can’t be happening I thought to myself, just hold on until we get three outs.
In this type of situation, control of bodily functions is somewhat manageable, as long there is minimal movement, especially of the fast running variety. But in the midst of my prayer, “Dear God let my clenching hold,” a foul ball was hit my way. I broke loose from my stance—in more ways than one—and held out my trembling glove in the general area where the ball was falling.
It fell right in.
I opened my eyes, took the ball out of my glove and threw it to the third baseman. I was beaming proudly as I shouted, “Two down!” As I walked back to my spot however, I realized that by running for the foul ball, I had relinquished all control of other important muscles, thus releasing the disaster I was holding back.
I *** my pants.
In the middle of a baseball game.
The third out came quickly and I headed back to the dugout with my fellow teammates to each await our turn to bat. I slowly sat down, so as not to further disturb the monster that was quickly saturating my uniform pants.
I thought to myself, The game’s almost done, if I can just make it through without anyone noticing, it will be okay and I’ll still get to bat.
That thought was interrupted by a teammate (a six inning player) sniffing the air and saying, “Man! It smells like cat **** in here!”
I got up, motioned for my brother and grandpa, and asked if they could take me home. I told the coach I wasn’t feeling well and needed to leave. He looked down at me with disappointment or relief, I’m not sure which, and muttered, “Okay, see ya.”
I walked out of the dugout and past the bleachers holding my glove behind me without making eye contact with anyone, vowing to return for my next 5th inning.