What It Means to Be Ugly
by Susan Petrone
Nine is not only one of the magic numbers of baseball, I would argue that it is the optimum age to fall in love with the game. You’re old enough to play and watch the game with some level of skill and understanding. Things like sacrifice bunts and pitch choices and infield shifts start making sense and you begin to understand why it’s called “the thinking man’s game.” However, if you’re a dorky nine-year-old girl, you wonder whether that definition can be expanded to thinking girls as well.
I was nine in the summer of 1977, and I lived and breathed the Cleveland Indians with my brother, Mike, and Michael and Ann Duhigg, two kids who lived behind us and were close to our ages. Every morning I would wake up with the prospect of 15 hours of daylight stretching out before me like the ribbon on a birthday gift. We were all at the tail ends of large families—six in ours and seven in theirs. It was the 1970’s, and our mothers didn’t have the worries of missing children on milk cartons or poisoned Tylenol or pornography on the Internet. Nobody missed us or worried too much about us when we were out. We were free to spend each day of the summer as we wished. We would play baseball or whiffle ball all day with the Duhiggs, then my brother and I would watch the Indians on WUAB, the local, non-network channel. That was when I learned the game, and that’s when I fell in love with the Cleveland Indians.
The 1977 Indians were not a very good team. In the 112-year history of the Cleveland Indians franchise (beginning with the Cleveland Blues in 1901), the ’77 team ranks 95th with a .441 won-loss average. They had some fine players. It was my hero, Andre Thornton’s, first year with the club. He batted .263 that season with 28 home runs—not his best season but certainly respectable. Future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley was on the pitching staff. He only went 14-13 that season, but did pitch the 200th no-hitter in modern baseball history (i.e., since 1901). I didn’t know it at the time, but he already problems with alcohol, and his best friend and teammate, Rick Manning, was sleeping with his wife. My father was sleeping with someone other than my mother, but I didn’t know that either and wouldn’t for a few more years. Baseball has a way of hiding secrets and acting as a balm for the truths we’d rather not face.
The ’77 Indians were ugly both figuratively and literally. Their road uniforms were especially atrocious—red jerseys and red pants that made them look like tall glasses of Hawaiian Punch. I was ugly too. For some reason, that was the summer my parents decided to cut my hair short. I was a tomboy, but until that point, I had long straight hair. It got tangled, as the hair of an active little girl will do, so my parents convinced me that I should have short hair. The haircut itself was an unglamorous affair. My great-grandfather had been a barber, and apparently someone thought the barbering gene passed to my oldest brother John. It didn’t. So I had a bad, boyish short haircut, thick glasses, lots of hand-me-down clothes, and did I mention I was a little chubby at the time?
Our brother John worked as a soda jerk at a place called Meither’s Ice Cream, which was one of the last remaining soda shops on the east side of Cleveland. My brother Mike and I would ride our bikes up, get ice cream, and play pinball. I fancied myself a pinball wizard. I was not. Like the Indians, I had flashes of brilliance and great games, but mainly I just lost quarters. One day, while playing one of my better games, a girl a couple years older watched me for a minute and commented on my score. My brother said, “Yeah, she’s doing pretty good.” The older girl took in the bad, bowl-like haircut, old T-shirt, and cut-off shorts that had once belonged to my brother and said with disgust: “She? That’s a girl?”
I would like to say that I had a quick and cutting reply.
There was a ballgame on that night—in the childhood of my memory, there is an Indians game every day—and I watched it and dreamt of being the first woman in the major leagues. I knew I wouldn’t be. I knew no women played in the majors and that I would have to be spectacular to be the first, and I wasn’t. But I watched the game with my brother and learned a bit more about baseball and felt a bit less ugly, a bit less awkward. I’ve watched my Indians go from ugly duckling to graceful swan and back again several times since I was nine. Each time, I believe the metamorphosis is permanent, but it never is. I have my bad hair days. They have their bad seasons. That is what baseball does: It gives us moments of grace when we most need them, it teaches us unconditional love. Even the least talented among us is worthy of being loved and admired. Even the ugliest among us can still become beautiful.
Susan Petrone grew up in Cleveland Heights as one of those punk kids who hung out on Coventry. She’s moved away a couple of times but always comes back and now lives in South Euclid with her husband and child. She still loves the Indians and writes about them at ItsPronouncedLajaway.com, an ESPN SweetSpot blog. Her short fiction has been published by Glimmer Train, Featherproof Books, The Cleveland Review, Muse, and Conclave. Her first novel, A Body at Rest (2009) takes place in and around the Coventry area. You can read more of her work at: susanpetrone.com.