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HOW TO HIT A CURVEBALL, GRILL THE PERFECT STEAK, AND BECOME A REAL MAN
learning what our fathers never taught us
By Stephen James David Thomas TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2008
Stephen James and David Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter One How to Hit a Curveball
The Art of Authentic Manhood
In the spring of 1984, I (Stephen) was a fifth grader, and I was not cool.
In fact, on the social hierarchy, I was somewhere just below average and just above dork. I wasn't shunned or disliked, but neither was I popular. I was mostly ignored. I was vanilla ice cream. Sure, everybody likes vanilla ice cream. It's just not what most people would pick given the choice at Baskin-Robbins.
I did not, in any way, enjoy fifth grade. Hindsight being what it is, I can see now that I did have some good times, but with all things being equal, for me fifth grade sucked like a Hoover.
Earlier that year, my family had moved from my middle- class boyhood home out by the airport to a house on a hill in an upscale suburb south of town. What was a great move for my family was a bad move for me. The transition was horrible-kind of like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth.
We moved from a neighborhood where I had friends in almost every house to a subdivision with only two kids my age. One was a girl, and the other was a guy who had hit puberty somewhere around kindergarten. (I called him Man-boy, though not tohis face.) When I met him, he was already almost six feet tall.
Needless to say, I had trouble making new friends. Being a redneck in a community of white collars didn't help, either. In a culture of BMWs and Mercedes, my family was a nice Buick, and I came fully loaded with bright orange hair parted down the middle and feathered back on the sides-that's right, a flaming butt cut. It was a tragic scene.
The one place where I did meet some kids with whom I was able to build friendships was through the local sports leagues. Team sports became my sanctuary from the loneliness, shame, and awkwardness of school. I played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and soccer again in the early spring. Slowly, I began to make connections.
When soccer was finished that spring, the father of a kid from my team invited me to come out for the local baseball league. "Absolutely!" I loved baseball. I had started playing tee-ball when I was three or four and had progressed up through coach pitch. I wasn't half bad, either. I was a good little infielder and could be counted on to put the bat on the ball. So, on a cold Saturday in April, I showed up at the ballpark for tryouts, along with a few hundred other boys from four to fourteen.
At the tryouts, we each hit a few balls, fielded a few grounders, caught a few flies, and ran the bases, while a line of dads watched with clipboards and rated our performances so they would know where to put us in the draft. The soccer dad ended up picking me for his eleven- and twelve-year-old team, and I was the youngest player on the team.
The first practice went well. I was enthusiastic and a hard worker, and when the first scrimmage came around, I found myself playing second base and batting third.
Summer was just around the corner, I was playing baseball, I had made a few friends, and school was nearly over for the year. I was beginning to believe that fifth grade might turn out okay after all.
At the last practice before the first game, the coach handed out the uniforms. He gave them out by size, moving from largest to smallest. Being the youngest, I got my uniform last, and the wait about killed me. Those few minutes seemed like forever. Our uniforms were black and yellow, 100 percent polyester, with a silk-screen logo on the front (some insurance company, if I remember). After some final instructions about the upcoming game and the opening-day ceremonies, I raced excitedly to my mother, who was waiting for me in the parking lot.
The moment I got home, I ran to my bedroom to put on the uniform-stirrup socks and all. As kids, we are really cool that way. Our hopes, passions, and dreams unregulated. Our hearts right up against our rib cages. As I got dressed, I thought about Mickey Mantle, my favorite baseball player. He was tough as nails-a real man's man. His nickname said it all: Blood and Guts. That's me, I said to myself. Blood and Guts.
Fully outfitted, I walked into the bathroom to check out my uniform. When I climbed up onto the toilet to get a full view of myself in the mirror, my heart dropped. The uniform was way too small. I looked ridiculous-more like Fat Elvis than Mean Mickey. "Guts" was right. My pants were way too tight, and the shirt hugged my prepubescent, pudgy stomach so that I looked like John Goodman at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I pulled at my shirt, trying to stretch it out, but to my chagrin, I learned my first lesson about polyester: It ain't cotton. In an instant, I went from sky-high to in the dumps. As I slinked down from the toilet, I tried to pep myself up. "You can still play baseball," I told myself in a weak attempt to manufacture a morsel of self-esteem.
The first game came, and we were the home team. When we took the field for warm-ups, I jogged out to my position between first and second base. But I was so self-conscious about my uniform that I might as well have been naked. Once the game began, I loosened up. I got a couple of hits and fielded a few balls, and when the game was over, I walked off the field feeling okay about myself. For the next few games, things progressed well.
By the sixth game of the season, I had nearly forgotten about my uniform issue. I was playing great, and my team was doing well. On this particular evening, we were the away team, so we batted first. On the mound against us was Man-boy-the kid from my neighborhood- all six-feet-tall, hairy-lipped inch of him.
The first two batters went down on three pitches each. With two outs, I approached the plate, determined to get something going. I knocked the dirt off my cleats and looked up at Man-boy standing on the mound. He looked even bigger than usual. My courage and resolve vanished in an instant. I got the feeling I needed to pee.
I was pretty sure that everybody could tell I was scared. For sure my coach could tell, because he yelled, "Time!" and called me over for a chat. We met about halfway between third and home. "Stephen," he said sternly, "move back in the box, choke up a little on the bat, and wait on the fastball. Take a good, level swing."
"Yes, sir," I said, never taking my eyes off Man-boy. I made my way back to the plate, dug in my cleats, and got ready to hit. In a blur, the ball zoomed past me. I barely even saw it.
"Strike!" called the umpire.
I took a couple of practice swings. Man-boy went into his windup, reared back, and threw. Then I saw something amazing, something I had never seen before in my young baseball career. The ball started behind me, and then it came right at me. I turned my head, closed my eyes, and cringed before I heard the pop of the ball hitting the catcher's mitt.
"Ball," yelled the ump.
What was that? I was baffled. I was sure that pitch was going to hit me, but it hadn't. Again, my coach called a time-out. Again, we met along the third-base line. "That last pitch was a curveball," he said. "Don't worry, son. Just watch the ball and take a good swing. If it's another curve, don't swing. He can't throw it for a strike."
I got back in the batter's box, knocked the dirt off my cleats again, touched my bat to the outside corner of the plate, and waited.
I swung hard and foul tipped the pitch into the chain-link backstop.
"One ball! Two strikes!" The umpire declared. All right! I thought to myself. I can do this. The next pitch was another curve. Like the first one, this pitch seemed as if it started out behind me, and then came right at my head. I waited and held my ground. But this time there was no pop of the catcher's mitt. Only the muffled thump of the ball hitting me square in the back as I tried too late to get out of the way. Man, that hurt. As I shuffled to first base, I tried to choke back the tears of fear and pain and embarrassment.
My next time up, I got hit again. In fact, the same scene repeated itself on all three of my plate appearances.
I was a magnet for Man-boy's errant curveball.
After that game, I was never the same. Over the course of the next couple of outings, I became frozen in the batter's box-watching pitch after pitch glide right by me. When I did take a swing, I did so with my eyes closed, more wishing than swinging. If I got on base, it was because of walks. Teams we played began to yell, "Easy out!" whenever I came to the plate. I was locked up in fear and shame, and in the field I began to commit errors because of it.
I ended the season as a late-inning substitute, batting last in the lineup and playing in the outfield. By the final game, I found myself alone in right field-the position of losers and dweebs. We were winning by three runs, so the coach figured it was safe to leave me in. I had been in the game for three innings, and not a single ball had made it out of the infield.
I remember kicking the ground and digging at a hole in the grass with my cleats. Then the tide of the game began to change. Our pitcher walked two batters and gave up a single down the third-base line. The bases were loaded now, and the winning run was at the plate. I remember praying, "Please, God, don't let him hit the ball to me."
The next batter fouled off pitch after pitch in an epic battle. It was a long at bat, made even longer by my paralyzing fear. I ran every possible scenario through my head of what could happen if the ball was hit to me. I was rattled with questions like, What if I can't catch it? What if it's right to me and I drop the ball? I began to formulate a plan for how I would run toward the ball and then accidently slip in the grass and fall so that I wouldn't have to try to make a play.
I don't remember how the game ended. But I do know that somewhere in right field that summer I promised myself I wouldn't let someone else's taunting hurt me again. I began to erect a wall around my heart.
I will never forget the heartache of fifth-grade Little League. That was the last year I played baseball.
When I think about that time, the first image that comes to mind is that of a pudgy, preadolescent boy with a butt cut, in a way-too-tight polyester baseball uniform. That picture about sums up my entire fifth-grade experience. What an icon of self-contempt. Over the course of the year, I lost most of my self-confidence, and along with it, much of my heart. The seeds of self-doubt had taken root, and I was beginning to grow ashamed of myself. I doubted that I would ever grow up to be a "real man."
The traditional American view of a "real man" is a guy who is more like Dirty Harry or John Wayne than Frasier Crane or Fred Rogers. You know the guy: broad-shouldered, self-confident, rough, tough, and successful. The good news is that the rugged stereotype of an unemotional, power-hungry man is starting to fade in our society, and we are beginning to understand what a real man is supposed to look like. In Christian circles, we've been trying to come up with the answer for some time now. We've had Promise Keepers rallies, Family Life weekends, and Wild at Heart retreats.
All kinds of definitions are floating around Christendom about what it means to be a real man. They range from the really foundational, like Donald Miller's straightforward definition in To Own a Dragon, in which he points out that the only qualification for being a real man is having a penis. (Brilliant!) And then there are the really expansive definitions, like Stu Weber's in his popular book Tender Warrior, in which he suggests that a real man has a vision, has a good family, reads the Bible, is consistent, has feelings, is kind, is caring, is helpful, and doesn't run from problems. (Whew! That's a lot to juggle.)
Both of these definitions seem accurate-depending on your definition of real. If by "real" you mean what makes a man a man, then Donald Miller is right on. On the other hand, if what you mean by "real" is what a man is capable of becoming, then you might tend to migrate toward Stu Weber's definition, or other definitions and insights offered by writers such as Richard Rohr, John Eldredge, Gordon Dalbey, Stephen Arterburn, Robert Lewis, and countless others.
So what's the deal? Why is there such a market for all this conversation about being a "real man"? Why is the need to feel real so prevalent? Why are so many guys struggling with the concept of masculinity?
One big reason is that no one (except Jesus) has ever gotten it completely right-and no one ever will. We all fail as men. We all fall short of perfection ... way short ... helplessly short.
Our own fathers-and their fathers before them-were no exception to this truth. At some point, every father drops the ball with his son. From a human perspective, there is no perfect dad. No father does it well enough to get us through childhood with our entire hearts intact.
Our fathers' imperfections, and how those have played themselves out in our lives, are a big deal. Guys who grew up in a home where their father was absent will often face serious ramifications. How your own father may have abandoned you through his lack of heart, knowledge, passion, wisdom, skill, presence, or willingness goes a long way toward defining your idea of manhood.
For guys whose fathers misused power and authority or were abusive in their efforts to control, train, discipline, or lead their sons, coming to terms with the impact of their father's harm is an important part of growing into their masculinity. How our dads may have shamed, controlled, or abused us through their misuse of power sets us up for misunderstanding our identity as men.
What if the practice of becoming a real man is supposed to be more artistic than prescriptive? What if being a real man has to do more with incorporating a growing authenticity than it does with mastering a set of skills? What if the definition of manhood is far broader than you imagined? What if authenticity looked different for one man than it does for another?
It might seem a weird illustration, but let's think about masculinity in terms of art. No one would argue that van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, and Michelangelo weren't artists. It would be hard to make a case for which artist is more important. And what if we then included great poets such as Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Frost; and writers such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Irving, and Mailer; and architects such as Wren, Saarinen, Pei, and Wright; and chefs such as Pépin, Keller, or Boulud? All these men expressed themselves differently with great impact and beauty.
Let's look at it another way-through the lens of sports. Can you compare Ty Cobb to Johnny Unitas or Wayne Gretzky? All great athletes, right? Each one of the best (if not the best) at what he did. But if Gretzky had tried to play baseball, he might have done okay, but he would not have been The Great One. Remember when Michael Jordan retired from basketball to play baseball and then golf?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Every genuine work of art has as much reason for being as the earth and the sun." The Bible says the same thing a bit differently:
When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers-the moon and the stars you set in place-what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.
What if this means each person is a unique work of art, as important as anyone else? What if the measure of a man is not what he does or what he accomplishes, but whether he is being himself as God reveals that to him? What if practicing authentic Christianity has less to do with our emulating Jesus and more to do with our increasingly becoming more of who we were made to be by God?
<%TOC%> Contents Acknowledgments....................ix
Excerpted from HOW TO HIT A CURVEBALL, GRILL THE PERFECT STEAK, AND BECOME A REAL MAN by Stephen James David Thomas Copyright © 2008 by Stephen James and David Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1: How to Hit a Curveball The Art of Authentic Manhood....................1
2: Hide and Seek The Art of Stepping Up....................29
3: Soft Curves and Softer Lips The Art of the Fairer Sex....................59
4: Pop the Hood The Art of Incompetence....................95
5: Bringin' Home the Bacon The Art of Work and Rest....................127
6: Pinewood Derby The Art of Collaboration....................159
7: King of the Hill The Art of Servant Leadership....................197
Conclusion The Art of Grilling....................235
About the Authors....................259