A Fragile Calm

The Masked Marvels
Proof that you can find anything on the Internet: The book that inspired me to be a major-league catcher — for all of 10 minutes.

When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I read a book called The Masked Marvels about some of the best catchers in the history of Major League Baseball. It was one of those school-age chapter books, probably acquired from a Scholastic book sale. I still remember the cover, with a photo of Milwaukee’s Ted Simmons tagging out a runner at home plate Chicago’s Carlton Fisk preparing to receive a pitch. (ed note: My memory was faulty. I found the cover shot, above, after writing the post. But that Simmons photo was somewhere inside the book.)

I’m sure I read it two or three times. I stared at that picture of Simmons. He just looked so damned cool in the photo, with the equipment, his mask askew, dirt flying, applying the tag to a surprised runner. I remember trying to draw it in art class. I searched my baseball card collection for Simmons, taking delight in finding one of his cards.

I decided right there I would be a catcher. I had never played organized baseball, but when I signed up for Little League, I did, indeed put on “the tools of ignorance,” as catching gear has famously been called, and get behind the plate.

I loved it. I loved the view of the entire field from back there. I loved that the catcher directed all the fielders during each batted ball. Later, in high school, I loved calling pitches in sequences that set up hitters to strike out.

There was just one problem: I was not very good. Actually, that’s being charitable. I was terrible. I was a no-hit catcher with a terrible arm. Somehow, this didn’t prevent me from getting playing time, maybe because most people don’t want to get down in a crouch for two hours and get hit with foul tips.

But back when I first discovered the position, courtesy of that book, I had the answer. The chapter on Reds great Johnny Bench described in detail the routine he followed as a young player that turned him into a Hall-of-Famer. I decided all I needed to do was create and follow my own routine, and success would follow.

I was learning about computers at the time and I remember sitting at our family’s Apple II and typing up what would be my daily practice routine, then printing it out on the silver scrolls of paper that our early printer used. It prescribed all manner of squats and throws that I would complete each day.

And then I went out to practice. I remember throwing tennis balls against the garage wall and attempting to block the rebounds that came back, thinking this would be a useful skill to learn.

I lasted perhaps 10 minutes. I was bored, hot, and miserable. I went back inside. I never revisited that routine. I don’t need to point out that I didn’t become Johnny Bench.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying, I am not my son. When Ryan sets his mind to something, he goes out and does it. If he fails to achieve something, it won’t ever be from lack of effort.

The relative recent calm in our house was shattered last night, as anxiety paid a very unwelcome visit and took us back to some dark days of a few years ago.

After returning home from his school concert, Ryan retreated to the basement to watch hockey, as he does most nights. But soon he was exercising in a way that can only be described as manic. He was running up and down the stairs and turning laps around the house. He was pounding out sets of push-ups and pull-ups. He was clearly upset.

As we tried to slow him down and find out what was driving him, it all came pouring out. Hockey was frustrating him. Something about the stats was triggering a wave of uncontrollable anxiety. It made him angry. As he explained to us amid tears “you don’t know what it’s like to have your favorite thing make you so mad!”

And so he exercised, trying to follow to the letter what I’m sure was a throwaway line from a coach about a recommended daily routine.

It has been two years since we’ve seen something like this. It was ugly. It was painful. It was sad. And yet, the difference from the last time was stark. Ryan was able to express to us, in precise, measured language, exactly what he was feeling and how it made him feel, as well as what he was trying to do about it.

We tried to slow him. I grabbed him in a tight embrace to reassure him all would be OK. He struggled against me, reminding me that he is not a little kid anymore. He is a rapidly growing young man with strength he did not possess even a few months ago.

As the wave passed, we began to talk about it. We tried to help him understand that replacing one compulsive behavior with another was not likely to solve the problem. We empathized that yes, it sucks that hockey can make him this upset and no, it’s not fair.

But we did something else, too. I told him I needed him to understand something about the way his brain is wired. He is always going to tend towards the compulsive, and that can cause him difficulty. But that compulsion is also the reason he can pound out those sets of push-ups and pull-ups that he couldn’t a few months ago. It’s why he’s an honor roll student. It’s why he can do some incredible things that very few other people can do.

I told him the story about my dreams of being a catcher as a way of illustrating that I do not possess the desire and drive that he does. I pointed out that people who do extraordinary things — in any field — likely do.

Ryan laughed at my story. He loves knowing that he’s better at something than I am. It was not a cure, because this is not something that will be cured. It’s part of who he is, and we just have to mitigate the challenges it presents while also embracing the strengths it creates.

Maybe it’s that I’ve spent some time around professional athletes — people who are extraordinary in their fields — and recognized the traits of compulsion that led to those extraordinary skills. All sports fans have read about a player who makes 500 free throws a day. Jaromir Jagr is 43 years old, and keeps keys to the practice rink so he can work out at midnight. Mark Zuckerberg went on multiday coding binges. None of these things is “normal,” and yet, the results are extraordinary.

When Ryan began exercising regularly over the summer, one of his doctors warned us to be careful and watch that it did not become an obsession. I smiled, because everything Ryan does becomes somewhat of an obsession. It is who he is. It is our job to help him navigate it. Veronica and I agreed we would monitor his exercise habits and intervene if we saw it becoming a negative.

Last night, we intervened. We tried to help Ryan understand that it’s all connected, that the same reason he gets upset about hockey stats is what drives him to do some incredible things. And that it’s a trait that we sometimes wish we had.

For us, it was a reminder that he exists in a carefully structured routine that is extremely fragile. If things get even slightly out of balance, that routine can come crumbling down.

Thankfully, we have resources at our disposal to help us keep that structure intact. Veronica is reaching out to the team at school, who will work with the coach to understand that there are no throwaway suggestions with Ryan. We will ask for specific exercise (and nutrition — Ryan informed us his coach doesn’t want him eating some of his favorite foods) guidelines that he can follow without going overboard.

And we will continue to praise the hell out of him for his desire and drive.

Mitigate challenges.

Embrace differences.

Recognize — and encourage — strengths.

It is what we do.

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