Junior Doesn't Live Here Anymore

"What do you want with a dead mouse, anyways?"

"I could pet it with my thumb while we walked along," said Lennie.
--John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men 

I started working on a knuckleball.

Why, you may ask? Does it have anything to do with the recent loss of a job I've worked for 30 years?

Yep, that was soul-crushing. Still more devastating is knowing that at 56, my life's résumé feels fossilized, typewritten, landlined and snail-mailed in an iPad-Twitter-Android world that demands breakneck speed.

But I refuse to be farmed out to "the old guy with antiquated skills searching for any kind of crummy job" demographic. The knuckler is my answer to the speed. A secret weapon from the Walter Mitty part of my brain. Instead of staying down, I've decided to reinvent myself with a new career I choose and love. So I'm prepping myself to be a major league knuckleball pitcher.

Sure, it's a wild, long shot idea. And yeah, I'm kind of old for baseball. But I'm an "in good shape" old. And the knuckleball isn't about athletic prowess, it's about guile. I'm loaded with guile. To make my new career a success, I just need to master the slow-moving, floating pitch that never knows what it's going to do.

I've marked off 60 feet, 6 inches from my shed to a 2-foot board in my backyard. It's the official major league distance between home plate and the pitcher's mound. The two-by-four is my pitcher's rubber. The shed is my catcher and backstop.

It's 30-some degrees outside, and I'm dressed in a stocking cap, sweats and mitt. My family is at work or school. I've let my fingernails grow out for the knuckler. I've been studying every knuckleball video I can find on the Internet.

I go through the odd mechanics of the pitch. With the ball balanced on my fingertips, I pitch out of a stretch and push the ball toward its intended target. It arcs high, drops, bounces to the plate and plunks against my makeshift catcher. From my vantage, it looks like it floated and feels like it floated. I chuckle to myself, assured I can really develop this crackpot pitch with practice.

Plonk, plonk, plonk sounds the practice beat of my tosses against the shed. The feel of a baseball in my hand creates the joy of being with a childhood friend. Its raised red stitches and hard horsehide miraculously loosen my limbs and my load.

But paranoia peeks in. I think I should get out my ax and chop a few logs in case a neighbor peers over our fence, wondering what the noise is. I don't want anyone to think I am crazy.

I imagine major league hitters slipping spinal discs as they powerfully swing, lunge, hack and miss my new best friend. I pump myself up with positive thoughts: The Indians need pitching. ... If 60 is the new 50, then my 56 is the new 46, the same age as Phil Niekro when he was still baffling hitters with his dancing, capricious masterpiece. Every pitch I throw sharpens my mind's eye. I envision a Disney movie, with George Clooney as me, recounting my quixotic quest to make the major leagues at 56.

After a game's worth of practice, I head to the mailbox. There, the postal service lets me know it can also throw a pretty good pitch. It's a fat box of bill after bill. Suddenly my stomach hurts with truths much more painful than the loss of my job: a past that wants to get paid and a future with not much time left for whimsy. I'm instantly stricken with rational thoughts.

"Who am I kidding?" I ask myself, as the Indians, Disney, George Clooney and my dignity fade to oblivion. I need to man up, get my mind right and set my sights to more attainable goals.

But what? What is there left for a me generation disciple when nobody cares about the "me" anymore?

Country music singer immediately panics into my mind. I still have my guitar!

STOP! Take a deep breath and think. You're a survivor. Dismiss the panic and loss of job and identity. Accept that even though life doesn't always turn out like a fairy tale, it doesn't make it a failure. Appreciate what you already have: a beautiful wife and two children who don't care if you are a professional athlete, a star country singer — or a suddenly old and unemployed construction worker.

My balance and sanity return. I finally admit that getting older isn't the most awful sin. The loss of hope and fancy is.

My future years will probably not include climbing Mount Everest, swimming the English Channel or even learning to throw a decent knuckleball. But that's OK. Because no matter where life takes me, I can bring my fantasies. That's a big gift from me to my sanity. I can forever believe in them and find solace in them — even if they are the dead mice in the loose pockets of a long-gone youth.

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