The Meteoric and Painful Rise of Jack Nuckols, Pitcher

Nuckols

This weekend concluded the spring baseball season for Jack, and it was a rough one at the plate for our hero. There was a regression in his approach where at-bats were filled with tentative swings, attempts to draw walks, and head shakes as he shuffled back to the dugout following a called strike three.

Game after game slid by without a hit. Midway through the season, after another game where he went 0-for-3, Jack rode beside me in the car in a fragile silence. I tried the “get ’em next time” peppy-talk and got nothing. After a few more minutes, I spoke:

“What’s the matter, bub? You look real sad.”

That was all it took. It was like I had nudged a tall tower of blocks. He spoke back, his voice high-pitched with misery.

“I’m just sitting here realizing how bad I am at baseball.”

He fell into inconsolable tears, weeping into his hand.

“Why does the person who loves it the most have to be the one who is the worst at it?”

At this point I was crying too (I do that). I told him he was young and had years ahead of him. I told him that baseball was the hardest sport in the world. I told him he was brave. I tried all the regular parent bullshit you say, but he just kept right on bawlin’. It sucked.

The season kept on and Jack kept doing nothing at the plate. He looked lost up there. But then, with just a few weeks left in the season, Shani and I got an email from Jack’s coach.

Wanted to let you know that I’m pitching Jack for an inning tonight. Please don’t tell him beforehand.

So as Shani and I arrived at the field, Jack was off to the side warming up. He came back to the dugout and mouthed to us: “I’m pitching.” And boy oh boy was there a lot of emotion he was trying to cover up behind a cool face.

Next inning, out he went.

So Jack is a lefty and he’s small. He went out there and shot these slow, lefty loopers right in for gentle strikes. The inning went:

  • Groundout to the pitcher
  • Groundout to first base
  • Groundout to the pitcher

1-2-3 inning. Wowzers! I’d been expecting a walkfest mess, but it went great.

The next game, Jack warmed up again, was sent out, and put down another 1-2-3 inning. As Jack came back to the dugout, the coach came over to him:

“Jack, think you can handle another inning?”

OK…so a second inning. That is significant. One inning is giving a kid a chance to pitch. Two innings means a move into the stable of regulars who pitch for the team. Plus, this was the top of the order for a good team.

  • First batter: groundout to the pitcher
  • Second batter: line drive double
  • Third batter…

The third batter was a boy named Thomas who is one of the best hitters in the league. I frantically texted Shani to tell her who Jack was facing.

“Crapass” was her response.

But Jack pumped in a few of those loopy slowpokers and…

  • Groundout to the pitcher

Jack walked the next guy (men on 1st and 3rd), and then struck out the next batter.

OK, so to say I had a different kid on my hands from that day forward is a major understatement. “Self esteem” is an overused term, I think, but in this case it was like you could see Jack’s newly-glowing self-esteen floating over him like he was pulling around a balloon.

He took to lecturing Alex on how to sequence pitches. He used his prize money from the essay contest to buy a pitch-back and spent hours in the backyard announcing games with himself. Shani asked him if he was happy after getting out of the last inning:

“Yeah, I was happy, but when you walk off the mound you have to look like it was no big deal. That’s how you do it, Mom.”

He kept pitching in every game following and continued to get hitters (good hitters) out.

“I have a 0.00 ERA still,” he informed me.

The team was the underdog heading into a double-elimination playoffs. Jack led the game on the mound and looked shaky. It was raining and the ball slipped from his hand several times. He hit a batter (not hard) and walked another. Then a double ended his perfect ERA. They ended up losing that game.

Then the next game, with the season on the line, Jack took the mound in the 2nd inning and the loopy leftshot was consistently off the plate.

  • Hit batter
  • Walk
  • Walk
  • Walk

As he threw you could see him withering like a weed. After every pitch he would look imploring at the coach, begging with his eyes to be pulled.

When Jack finally came off the mound, he was anything but stone-faced. The team lost and was eliminated by the playoffs.

So a tough season? The team never really got into a groove and Jack didn’t either. But as I look back, I’m filled with gratitude and good feelings.

I love Jack’s coach. He has made it clear that he does not draft based on baseball skill – he drafts to get the nicest kids he can. And sure, lots of coaches say they do that, but this coach really does.

I love the coach’s wife. She is a mainstay in the stands; she beams and smiles through the entire game. She notices every kid’s success and revels in it.

I love sitting with rational parents. Drafting kids based on niceness means the parents are terrific. I’m not much for chit-chat, but I’ve really enjoyed sitting among them.

And above all, I love being a dad. Shani is in the stands next to me. Alex is running the snack bar or begging for me to buy him candy. The pace of a baseball game makes me sit back and realize that this is it. This is fatherhood. These are the moments.

So thanks to everyone for a great season. And beware, Jack has not let up on that pitch back. He will be taking the mound this fall.

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4 thoughts on “The Meteoric and Painful Rise of Jack Nuckols, Pitcher

  1. Great story. Made me think of something I wanted to pass on re: batting. This is a small adjustment that I’ve always wished someone had told me. I’ve always had good hand/eye coordination, but I was a mediocre hitter all the years I played. One day, well after my playing days, I was in a batting cage and realized I was tilting the top of my head toward the area between the bat and the plate. Don’t know why I’d been doing it, but it was throwing off my depth perception. The fact that I ever made contact was surprising. No one had ever told me to straighten my head, I think b/c the tilt wasn’t large and obvious. It was just enough that the speeding object coming to me made no sense. By allowing my head to remain more on a straight up/down axis, so it’s closer to the normal angle we use every other moment of the day, suddenly, everything made sense. As I did, the ball, the machine, everything instantly connected somehow in my brain. I saw the balls better and quickly found them screaming off my bat. That little adjustment that, as a kid, I was too un-selfaware to think of, made all the difference. I immediately wished for so many of my childhood at-bats back, but since this isn’t a time-travel movie, I got nothing. However, that thought came to me as I read about Jack’s struggles at the plate. This vicarious bit of information may be of no use at all, but on the slim chance it helps him, I wanted to put it out there.

    All the best to ya’ll (that’s Texas for “you guys”) and I hope your summer is great.

    1. Thanks, Kevin! I read it to Jack, but he’s off baseball until the fall, so not sure how much it applied. I think it’s mental with his hitting. Not totally sure.

      For the record, one of these days we’re going to do a Nuckols family road trip to Texas. My wife went to Rice and LOVES Houston. But we want to do a solid 2 weeks. Ballgames in Dallas will be in there. But I so want to hook up and catch up.

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