The Legend of Golden Arm [Single White Nerd]
When I was 15, I became a sports hero in the doll-making capital of Japan. It was one of the worst experiences of my young life.
Anyway, I’d love to say that I took to the experience like a true explorer, but truth is that I curled up into a fetal position for about two weeks listening to Les Miserables on endless repeat. I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying; why couldn’t they all just speak English? The food grossed me out. I couldn’t read the street signs and kept falling off my bike.
I spent two weeks in culture shock being the posterboy for Ugly Americans everywhere.
Eventually, I came out of my shell a bit and started going to school with my host brother. School was kind of awesome. Slight and dorky as I was, I was an American and that made me an instant celebrity. Girls pointed and tittered. Boys surrounded me, offered high fives, and asked me if I knew Michael Jordan. After a week or so, I had a group of friends. We couldn’t understand each other all that well, but high fives and smiles took us a long way.
As the term wound to a close, my friends’ conversation revolved around the school’s Field Day. My Japanese sucked, but I gathered that there was a longstanding rivalry between my class and another class. The “Red Dragons” (yes, really). Every year, the Red Dragons soundly whomped my friends in softball. But this year, my class had a secret weapon. Something called Golden Arm.
I had no idea who or what this Golden Arm might be, but was excited to see my friends so optimistic. Field Day arrived and I gamely changed into the athletic uniform — ridiculous shorts and a collared shirt. I jogged out onto the field and made my way towards the out-out-field where I could be reasonably certain that I wouldn’t do any harm.
Oh. Right. I should probably mention that I sucked at sports. A lot. I could do math, geography, Model UN, and even run a bit. But no sports. In seventh grade, I’d somehow made it onto the basketball team. The one time coach played me, I ended up dribbling the ball onto my own foot, stumbling into a teammate, and tossing up a shot so wide that it actually bounced out of the gym. Not sporty.
So imagine my shock when one of my friends came trotting up to me with a wide grin. “No, no,” he said, “You pitch. Very good. Pitch.” I thought I’d misunderstood, but then he started dragging me to the mound. I shook my head, but he would not be deterred. I tried to tell him I was bad at sports and did my best mime impression of someone who hits himself in the face with bats. All to no avail. Within moments, he had pushed me into the center of the diamond. Then he took my arm and raised it up.
“Golden Arm!” he proclaimed. Loudly. The rest of the team cheered. “Golden Arm,” they repeated.
Oh Good God.
My classmates had somehow assumed that, being American, I could naturally play baseball. After all, it was the national pastime. Any self-respecting American could play it well. Surely.
Now I couldn’t step off the mound without insulting my friends. I wanted to cry. The catcher, my friend, Hiro, crouched down and waited. I underhanded an experimental warm up pitch to him. Remarkably, it soared over the plate. Hiro nodded at me. “Golden Arm,” he called as he tossed the ball back to me.
Meanwhile, our opponents, the infamous Red Dragons had arrived. They were larger. Behemoths. Older. At least 16 years old. They belied the stereotype that Japanese men were small. These guys were fit. Maybe they took steroids. My pulse raced, sweat poured down my face. This was going to be a slaughter.
The first Red Dragon stepped up to the plate. I looked longingly towards the outfield. It didn’t matter. Nothing did. My friends would hate me after this game. Might as well get it over with.
I focused on Hiro’s catcher’s mitt. Willed myself to block everything else out. Maybe I could get out of this without humiliating myself too badly. All I had to do was get the ball over the plate. Quickly. I had to throw the ball really fast. That way the batter couldn’t hit it. I would do it on the count of three. One. Two. Three.
I pitched. It sailed towards the plate. The batter swung. He missed.
The batter missed.
My team cheered. “Golden Arm!” screamed one of the girls who had assembled to watch the American fulfill his destiny.
I tried to ignore them. It had been a fluke. Surely it wouldn’t happen again.
I focused. Imagined the batter swinging and missing again. I pitched. He swung.
He missed. Again.
Another cheer from my team. A throng of girls was now screaming my name. Well, Golden Arm’s name. But I was Golden Arm. So they were screaming my name.
I understood what it was to be a sports hero. I knew the glory that the jocks at my school back in the US felt. I allowed myself a moment of enjoyment, raised my arm over my head. My Golden Arm. They cheered. This was the coolest thing. Ever.
Hiro tossed the ball back to me. I refocused. Tried to move my mind into the place it had been just minutes earlier. The crowd faded. Only the batter and Hiro existed. One more strike and this sucker was history. I crouched down. Prepared to pitch.
Then the batter did something different. He raised out of his crouch. Smiled at me. Then he did the Babe Ruth thing. He pointed towards deep left field. Nodded at me, he smile growing wider. Then he sank back down into his crouch. A different crouch than before. Before he’d been almost lazy. Now he was a spring ready to explode.
Had he been toying with me? No. Surely not. I was Golden Arm. Had to focus. Couldn’t let him faze me. Mind games wouldn’t work on Golden Arm. I envisioned him swinging and missing. The humiliation he would feel. I didn’t just want to strike him out. I wanted to destroy him.
I swung my arm back and pitched. All my years of sportsless frustration went into that pitch. All the angst that came with being the dorky kid who was good at math. All the desire to be better, faster, and taller. I put it all into the pitch.
The ball flew towards the plate, spinning in the air, fueled by 15 years of preparation.
The Red Dragon’s eyes narrowed. The ball got closer. He swung.
He connected. The ball flew. It flew very fast. Very, very fast. It flew very, very fast towards left field. Deep left field. Very, very deep left field. So deep, that it actually made it past left field into the right field of the opposite softball field. Home run.
This time there were no cries of Golden Arm. Hiro looked at me, shocked. He tossed the ball back to me. I trotted towards him. “Please,” I said, “you pitch.” He shook his head. “No, you are Golden Arm. Batter lucky.” But he didn’t sound so sure.
For the next hour or so, the Red Dragons hit pitch after pitch. It didn’t matter how hard I focused, how much I envisioned them striking out. They always hit the ball. Again and again I tried to remove myself from the mound. My team wouldn’t hear of it. I was Golden Arm.
The game ended with a score of something like 17 to 3. The Red Dragons got 17. My friends patted me on the back afterwards. “Good game,” they said. They’d stopped calling me Golden Arm somewhere around the fourth inning. I’d let them down and that felt awful. But for a moment there, just a moment, I’d been a sports hero. And it had been great.
Need something to do tonight? Come see Michael Kass pitch a story for your entertainment at the Moth’s GrandSLAM at the Echoplex. 10 stories, one night, lots of beer. There might be some tickets left here.
featured image credit: Anne Ruthmann