I was about 30 miles outside of Kissimmee, FL when I realized it. I had already stopped to get gas and lunch, but it had slipped my mind. I was about to attempt navigating through Orlando without any cash for tolls. If you’ve ever driven down to Disney© (the most magical place on earth) then you understand…I should’ve known better. There were a couple of options at my disposal at that point. I could either hope that the tolls took personal checks, of which I would have to write approximately 6 of them for $1.50 a piece. Or, as I chose to do, try the scenic route around Orlando straight to Kissimmee. My GPS said it would add about 30 extra minutes to the drive, which I wasn’t crazy about, but it beat writing a of handful checks, grandma-in-a-grocery-store style.
I got off the expressway and onto the dreaded back roads in all their stoplight glory. I
whizzed travelled at exactly the speed
limit past cows, pastures, fields of orange trees and the occasional Mickey D's. Once I got closer to Kissimmee (step brother to the most magical place on earth) I began to feel the crawl of traffic, suggesting the “snow birds” and
tourists were out in force. 30 minutes turned into an hour, and my limit for
traffic on long road trips had officially expired. Finally I rolled into
Osceola County Stadium only to be directed into a parking lot for the rodeo
next door. Confused at where I was being led, I decided to ask the camo-clad
traffic director if this was the way to the Houston Astros major league
clubhouse. The look I got was priceless. It was a combination of frustration
and judgment, coupled with a cigarette hanging gracefully from his lower
lip. Like how could I possibly want to go to a baseball stadium when there was
a rodeo literally right in front of me. He begrudgingly pointed me in the
direction of the building on the other side of the parking lot and I exited the bull crazed circus as quickly as possible. I headed over to, what was, my new office
for the next 6 weeks.
I pulled up in my wife’s dirty 2006 Toyota Corolla. Yes, the same one with the huge dent in the passenger’s side door and an endearing UGA sticker on the rear windshield. 121,000 miles of getting us from point A to point B, with no end in sight. Yet it stood in stark contrast to the rest of the cars in the parking lot. There was a row of rental cars. All identical Chrystler 200 sedans only varying in shades of white and burgundy, and all on loan to ballplayers and coaches who decided renting a car was easier than the drive from their respective homes. My drive was only about 7.5 hours (6.5 without my cashless detour), but some guys coming from up north or out west were looking at 20+ hours trips and a few thousand miles on their whips. A couple thousand miles on the old Corolla wouldn’t do too much to hurt its resale value, but for the guys driving cars without huge dents in them sometimes a rental is better than the miles on those beauties. However, some decided to bring their cars, trucks and SUVs down to camp anyway. And let me tell you, my car was OUT OF PLACE. There were Mercedes, Jaguars, souped-up Jeeps and lifted trucks. Most looked as if they had just been through the wash and detailed with a toothbrush. I proudly rolled my little non gas guzzler into a gravel spot amidst the others, outwardly happy that my wife and I decided not to buy new cars, but inwardly jealous that the clocks in all the other cars probably worked, unlike mine.
Grabbing my Colorado Rockies bag out of the trunk, I felt, for the first time, very self-conscious. I looked like a sort of baseball mutt. I had a New York Mets suitcase and a Colorado Rockies baseball bag, while walking into my new team, the Astros, clubhouse. It felt wrong to do, but that was the hand we had been dealt of over the last 8 months. 3 organizations, each with their own way of doing things (and their own luggage). Walking towards the glass doors, I hoped somebody would simply point me in the right direction. I had already made up my mind that I would walk around that entire building if I had to, looking like I knew exactly what I was doing until someone told me differently. Not the best plan, I know, but you gotta at least act like you belong, right? By the grace of God I opened the right doors and made my way into the major league clubhouse. I popped my head into the first office I came across, which happened to be the clubbies’ domain. Thank goodness! These are the guys that you want to see first, because they’re super nice, super helpful and don’t judge you when you walk in looking like this…
I introduced myself to all of them hoping that the sound of my name would at least ring some bell in their heads that I was supposed to be here. Apparently it did, because they led me to my locker right in the front...right next to the bathrooms. Not sure exactly what the deal is with me and bathrooms, but the world has a way of always putting me close to them. From my college dorm room to multiple big league lockers, the toilet is never more than a few steps away. Maybe it’s the universe trying to tell me “I understand you have bowel issues”, or maybe it just knows that I’m a sucker for looking at myself in the mirror (who isn’t, though). On my chair there was a stack of boxes 5 high. This could best be described as “2nd Christmas”. These were my new shoes, cleats, shirts, jackets, and various other baseball related gear for the new season. My endorsement deals (Yes, people are finally giving me stuff for free!) guaranteed me a certain amount of athletic products from said companies, so I began tearing open the boxes. Like a small child, I ripped them open and tore tissue paper out of the toe of cleats, trying them on to make sure they fit just right. Once satisfied with the experience, I decided it was probably a good idea to put in some face time with as many coaches as were still around. I did my best “little kid trying not to get caught” impression, peeking around corners and into offices until I finally found one that was occupied by men of a distinct age and attire usually characterized by coaches. It was our manager’s office and with him sat our pitching coach and bench coach for the major league team. Now I always consider myself well prepared for encounters like these. I’ll go over a script a few times in my head of probable topics of conversation, tone and body language. Yet when these scenarios present themselves, I never fail to look/act like a confused teenager. When I sheepishly knocked on the door all 3 sets of eyes (6 individual eyes for all you math majors out there) locked on me immediately. I froze. I think everyone in the room was waiting for me to say what I was doing interrupting a coaches’ meeting at 4:30 in the evening, but all I could muster was, “Hey guys. I’m Collin McHugh?” Yes, I phrased it like a question, with the assumption that if I was in the right place they would invite me in, and if not, they’d continue to stare at me awkwardly until I backed out the way I came in. The seconds that passed after my strange introduction seemed to last forever. I could feel the beads of sweat beginning to form on my forehead, until finally the manager stood up and stretched out his hand. “Welcome to the Astros,” he said. And with that, I breathed an audible sigh of relief and we all exchanged pleasantries. I was on my way out, but before I could get through the door, I heard a voice say those words that everyone longs to hear. The words that mean more to us as social beings than any others.
“We’re really glad to have you here, son. You belong.”
That pang inside all of us that dreads new experiences is fear. Fear that we won’t be accepted for who we are. Fear that we won’t live up to expectations. Fear of being ostracized. Fear of failure. Fear that we don’t and will never belong. I know that FDR said that the only thing to fear is fear itself, but as we all know, fear can be pretty damn scary. Yet, with a turn of phrase, once person erased all of those fears. Sure, there will always be doubt and second guessing in this game, but the basis for all those fears was erased in that moment. I was told that I belong. That I was in the right place at the right time for a specific purpose. I’m not sure there are more life-giving words that can be spoken, both on the field, off the field and in all of our relationships.
So camp has begun. It’s well underway at this point and pretty much everything is still up in the air. I don’t know where I’ll be spending my summer, or who will be joining me wherever I land. There are still 3 more weeks left until opening day, and every day affords each of us more opportunity to confirm the words spoken over us.