Grandma’s Sick Curve
Spectacles-Testicles-Wallet-Watch is, as far as I know, the only Catholic mnemonic device in existence, representing the Signs of the Cross. The nuns and priests didn’t teach us this, of course, our education coming before school, on the playground, or in the sacristy before Mass as we waited, dressed head to toe in surplice and cassock, for the priest’s arrival.
Spectacles: touch the forehead.
Testicles: touch the lower belly.
Wallet: the left shoulder.
Watch: the right.
Then: salvation (“And that’s what it’s all about!”).
Catholics, on the whole, are a reactive species, praying more frequently for forgiveness than for guidance. We have whole ceremonies and rites built around clemency—Reconciliation, Last Rites, Holy Communion chief amongst them—and we baptize our babies because we’ve been told they’ve skinny-dipped into this world dirty with sin. I spent only nine years, twenty-five percent of my life, as an active participant in Catholicism, from kindergarten through eighth grade, but the papist immersion during my most formative years has been the genesis of many of the habits and superstitions of the twenty that’ve followed. One never escapes indoctrination, not completely anyway, and I am living proof, triggering superstition like I used to activate prayer: typically to end a negative, rarely to continue a positive.
Baseball, which itself can be very catholic, is a game rife with superstition. I had enough talent as a pitcher to play in college and receive letters of interest from scouts from four Major League Baseball teams. A scout from the Minnesota Twins even requested my presence at an invitation-only tryout, an hour-long process of demoralization: I knew my aspirations of playing professionally were over the moment the five-foot-nine left-hander throwing a bullpen next to me started chucking 92 MPH heaters on the black. I stood eight inches taller than him, but my fastball limped in five miles slower. The scout thanked me for coming.
We haven’t spoken since.
So I settled: two years of college education on the house at a community college then an eternity of post-game. My playing career died without so much as an acknowledgment in a box score, rostered but unused in my final affiliated game.
My hitting career, sadly, had been dead since my freshman year of high school.
I’d been a good hitter once, batting no lower than fourth for most of my preteen years, but the moment pitchers started spinning breaking balls was the moment coaches began scribbling the designated hitter’s name into my spot in the lineup. I wanted to hit, of course, so one mid-April day, when I found my name in the eight-hole, I leapt to superstition for assistance. On my way from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, I Spectacles-Testicles-Wallet-and-Watched a bit of Catholicism into my routine and hoped no one saw me do it, embarrassed that my superstition had leaked into public viewing. Most of my superstitions had been hidden: a Newport cigarettes t-shirt beneath my jersey, the gum I swallowed after allowing the first hit of each game I pitched, the stanza of AC/DC lyrics scribbled on the underside of my brim. I’m an introvert by nature, demonstrably so with superstition. Flashing that Sign of the Cross was no small undertaking, but I needed a hit, not to help my team, but to stave off the reality that I just wasn’t good enough any longer.
The result of the ensuing at-bat: a flaccid dribbler that trickled out to the mound. The pitcher barehanded the roller and lobbed a throw to first while I was still thirty feet from the bag. Our coach, like most coaches, made us run out grounders, line drives, and fly balls no matter the outcome, so I was only fifty percent into my sprint by the time I knew my attempt at mixing religion and superstition was an abject disaster. The first base coach was already clapping encouragement to the hitter behind me by the time I dragged my spikes over first.
We went on to win that game.
That night, I visited my grandparents’ house. After dinner, I sat at the kitchen table with Grandma Pat, the two of us alone like we were inside a confessional booth. I had no desire to initiate conversation, stewing about my personal strife even though my team had won. I dropped my forehead to the table and shut my eyes. Put me in a pew and I would’ve looked like I was praying.
“I saw what you did out there,” Grandma Pat finally said like a catcher consoling a Game 7 loser.
“Everyone saw what I did out there,” I said. “I sucked—again.”
“Stop it. I’m not talking about that,” she countered. “I saw you make the Sign of the Cross.”
“Oh yeah,” I mewed. Grandma Pat was a godly woman who sang in the choir and worked as a secretary at the Catholic school I once attended. She was sweet and charitable and selfless and religious, personality traits that too infrequently describe papists. She knew I hadn’t been attending church as regularly as I once had, though she never shamed me. Unlike most Catholics, the laying on of guilt just wasn’t Grandma Pat’s thing.
“Why’d you do that?” she asked.
“I thought it might help.”
“And did it?”
“I grounded out,” I said. “To the pitcher.”
“Are you going to keep crossing yourself?”
“Probably not. It didn’t do anything.”
“Funny how that works, isn’t it?” my grandmother said, then sipped her Slimfast like she was receiving the Eucharist.
For me, baseball, unlike Catholicism, has always been a gateway to relationships. It’s initiated agreements and arguments, happiness and frustration, bittersweet and scrapbooked memories, angst, confidence, a sense of community and a sense of loneliness. And once, like a priest giving penance, it offered me remorse. As Grandma Pat drank her Slimfast, I gradually felt worse and worse, silly and selfish, for trying to use one of the former mechanisms of my Sunday morning routine as a soldier of fortune, as a mercenary sent in to exorcise failure.
It’s for this same reason that I distrust players who, following success at the plate or on the rubber, point to the sky, thank their lord and savior Jesus Christ, or Spectacle-Testicle-Wallet-and-Watch themselves. These same players won’t genuflect following an error or “Hail Mary” themselves after bouncing into a 6-4-3 twin killing. They don’t praise Yahweh for an 0-for-5 day at the dish, nor do they thank all the angels and saints for opening their ears to the heckles raining down from the grandstands like sulfur. A called strike three on a ball clearly six inches inside. A fly ball lost in the sun that’s shining like Let there be light. The mascot who singles them out for a depantsing and a noogie. In the game of baseball, theology hits about .250.
These players, like me, cannot accept one Truth: Grandma Pat, who didn’t say much, was right.
Author's note: "The player pictured on the card is known more for his superstitions than his abilities. Those superstitions are the genesis of my piece."
Matt Muilenburg teaches at the University of Dubuque. His creative nonfiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Southern Indiana Review, Storm Cellar, Superstition Review, Barnstorm, New Plains Review, and others. Matt, a 2018 Pushcart nominee, holds an MFA from Wichita State University and lives near the Field of Dreams movie site.
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