All I Have is Opportunity


#17 Bobby Barnard (C) | Photo Credit: Richard Bailey, Staff Contributor

The spring “pre-season” is the best time for me. I refer to it as such because it is the stretch of time where it feels like the seasons are doing a dry run. Winter has not completely left the building – lingering on in the form of chilly mornings and frigid, windy days. You can walk in the park without inhaling a dozen hovering gnats through both nostrils – because the pollen count is not yet at a level to rival the number of birds. I wish I could put that part of the season in a Tupperware container and save it for later.

For many, the changing seasons come and go without much notice. The changing season may not mean anything for those who do not adhere to an academic calendar. For me, it means a return to allergy medicine and yard work that at this point in my life that I – for whatever reason – find oddly satisfying. (The yard work – not the part about allergies.) My recent purchase of a push reel mower has made my carbon footprint smaller and the grass in the yard a little greener. One thing I did not anticipate, though, was the fact that the retro-looking mower would cause curious joggers and dog-walkers to stop what they were doing and base an entire conversation around the mower.

The absence of a gas-powered mower in my yard has caused my neighbor – who is notoriously a private person – to come over and offer his for me to use because he obviously feels a sense of pity for me. I must admit that the attention that it brings is the opposite of what I wanted. I wanted a cleaner cut of grass with little to no flying debris. I wanted to mow without making a ton of noise. I wanted to mow without making a trip to the gas station. For all the positives that the reel mower brought, the one that was least expected was forced socialization. The number of cars, joggers, and lawn enthusiasts who have stopped to make small talk about grass has steadily grown. So much so that I have to plan times to mow when I think there will be less foot traffic.

I am a loner, born and raised, but do not tell my family I said that. I am, in fact, the oldest of four. My brother was born eight years after me and my twin sisters a year after. Sure, we were all present in the house at the same time – but I found a lot of ways to entertain myself. We lived in a series of church parsonages which meant that upkeep was generally handled by someone else. When my family lived in Jacksonville, a member of the church would come to our house with a riding lawn mower and do yardwork for the church and my family’s home. I spent lots of time trying to get on Brother Maylon’s good side in hopes that he would someday allow me – a teenager without a learner’s permit – to have an opportunity behind the wheel. The grass was not important to me. I never dreamed of cutting diagonal lines on the lawn. I was not bothered by the yellow flowers that Brother Maylon yanked out of the ground with a vengeance. My lack of interest was noticed, and I never got the chance to drive that mower.

Being overly passionate about anything has been my gift and curse. On one hand, I do not feel a sense of disappointment when something does not pan out. I tell myself that because I feel an inherent need to explain away my inability to form a real hobby or interest inorganically. The gas-powered mower that I owned last year stopped cranking. The culprit, I think, was a family of snakes who had taken up residents in and around my shed. The serpents have a favorite place to hang out on the block – and it is in my backyard. I see one with such frequency that I would not be surprised if he offered me an apple someday.

My dog is a black lab and pointer mix who searches seeks and destroys the snakes for sport – even though she absolutely hates the taste of the snakes. Her interest in the creatures is second nature and she seems to operate without command when chasing her favorite organic chew toy. That is another funny thing about changing tastes and interests that causes me to step back and laugh. While I have never hated pets, I would have never considered myself a dog person. At 100 pounds, the dog is the largest that I have ever shared a living space with. Her gracious nature has not been lost on me: I am fully aware that this living, breathing creature can pull me down the sidewalk if it wants to. The speed and precision with which it finds and kills snakes or stealthily crawls on its stomach when stalking squirrels often has me asking myself if this is a dog or an acrobatic human in a black fur coat. Either way – I am just glad that she keeps the number of snakes low.

Taking classes in person as a returning student has its interesting moments. A young baseball player in one of my classes mentioned one day that he was looking forward to doing a summer of mowing. Over the years, I have heard people say similar things – that yardwork is their happy place. Being in the sun, pulling weeds, raking leaves, and planting flowers provide people with a sense of pride that I am still finding. There is not much that I have in common with Bobby, a star baseball player for the UIS Prairie Stars. In fact, I learned that he would not be interested in mowing with a reel mower. With a puzzled look, he replies with, “No, thank you” when I suggest the superior cut (by today’s standards) provided by the relic.

In a later class meeting on the same day, Bobby mentioned a series of baseball games that the team had coming up. I have never been into baseball, but on an “up” day I mentioned that I would stop by the field and watch a game. I had made this promise at the top of the week and on two occasions drove by the field on my way home from school as the baseball team warmed up. I drove to the field and away three times the day that I forced myself to park my car. The battle between my body and mind continued during the walk from the parking lot to the bleachers. I wore a recently-buffed pair of powder blue Sperry’s with absolutely no arch support, realizing in real-time that the radio DJ that used the word ‘nice’ was generous with the word. Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” plays faintly in my head as I travel to a destination that guarantees – if anything – no nachos. My glasses fog from the heavy breathing and air that I push through my nostrils as I laugh at the soundtrack to the lonely trek.

It takes a few minutes of a Google search to realize that I am standing directly behind Bobby, who has the letter “C” next to his name on the roster. The other team is highly obnoxious on this particular day, providing a constant low hum and lowbrow chants. I was surprised by the behavior that I saw: the raucous comments by the other team, the harsh push of the frigid wind, and the cold bleacher seats made me take my phone out and search “how many innings in are a college baseball game?” as I found myself just uncomfortable enough. I thought maybe I could leave and come back another day – but that does not make any sense, so I decide to stick it out.

The sensory overload was a challenge for me to tolerate but the constant noise and heckling from the visiting team seemed to have no effect on Bobby as UIS tallied another error.

During the top of the second, a player for the visiting team whacked a pitch far into the outfield. The other team hooted and hollered which caused Bobby to finally respond with, “You didn’t hit a heater – the ball was moving at 30 miles per hour, bro.” The umpire leaned forward to say something when a voice from the crowd yelled, “Let ‘em talk!” The game was starting to get interesting!

The visiting team scored two runs during that inning as the frustration from UIS started to show. I wondered at this point if I could shimmy out of there without being noticed – but let’s be real – a guy shivering next to the bleachers while wearing an old, thinning hoodie and aviator sunglasses? I convince myself that it would be less weird if I stuck around to see the end of the game. I observed several UIS players who were off-field, on the way to or from the porta-potty near the stands. Each one stopped to watch their teammates complete a play.

The Prairie Stars were slow to get started in that game and while the other team had some early luck and lots to say, the Prairie Stars would go on to score six runs in the fourth inning including a three-run homer put up by Zion Pettigrew. As the visiting team stood, stunned by the sudden shift of momentum, the runners made their trot around the bases. The Prairie Stars cleared the dugout and lined up on the line just before home plate.  There was a young kid practicing his swing in the cornfield adjacent to the field and another who chased a foul ball that landed just feet away.

As the Prairie Stars recorded their 8-4 win, Bobby waved at me. He trotted over after the game, and we talk about his plans to play for the Gateway Grizzlies after graduation. If free agency is not in his future, he will go into sales or the firefighter’s academy. “All I have is opportunity,” he says as something clicks in my brain. I get it, now. The focus during the game, being able to play through disappointment and constant “noise” are common characteristics among athletes. While I do not see myself spending many Sunday afternoons watching baseball, I can say that I see it in a slightly different way after coming out of nine innings with lessons that I can apply to my real life – and I consider that a “W.”