From the Magazine: How to Fail in Baseball (While Really Trying)

Timely for the onset of October baseball, but also for the arrival of the third […]

Mockingbird / 10.10.14

Timely for the onset of October baseball, but also for the arrival of the third issue of the magazine, which is now available for pre-order on our magazine page. This one comes from our second issue, a memoir from the bench, graciously told by the hilarious Michael Sansbury.


I was always afraid of Jenny Farmer,[1] and that’s probably why we became fast friends. Jenny was the queen of the Parkview High School Theater[2] Department, destined, everyone thought, for Broadway or Hollywood, whichever she wanted really. “I’d rather be famous than happy,” she once told a group of my friends. And they believed her.

I spoke to Jenny for the first time on the night before I left for Sewanee. During that conversation, I realized that Jenny’s soulless ambition in fact made her the perfect soulmate. I could tell her anything about myself—my most ridiculous aspiration, my most disgusting desire—and she would affirm it, nod knowingly, and tell me that I was not only capable of doing it, it was imperative that I do so.

By the next summer, after a year exchanging actual letters (of which she kept carbon copies, for her memoirs), I was ready to confess something about myself, in person, something I had never told anyone else.

“I’ve always wanted to look like a ballplayer,” I told her.

She looked me up and down. “Oh,” she purred, “you doooo!”

* * *

Being a ballplayer was never my dream. My older brother would lay in bed at night and pretend to be a broadcaster, narrating his future feats. “Bases loaded, two outs here in the bottom of the ninth. Sansbury steps up to the plate. He hits a drive . . .” My younger brother would run the bases in our family den. One time, his feet slipped out from under him, and he knocked himself out, resulting in a visit from the paramedics.

I didn’t pretend in that way. Looking like a ballplayer was my dream. I wanted to be lean and muscle-toned. Not bulky. I wanted a haircut that looked good under a baseball cap. A hale, hardy, clear-eyed face, meant for the smudge of eye-black and dust. An All-American smile. Poise. Confidence.

To get me there? Bender. Baker. Butler. These were my coaches, men who dedicated their lives to molding raw young boys into baseball men. Sure, they had advanced degrees in Applied Kinesiology and Physical Fitness, but did they minor in Alchemy?

* * *

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. NCAA Division III is made up of colleges that, by rule, do “not award financial aid to any student on the basis of athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance.” We might say that Division III is composed of true student-athletes, with emphasis on the “student” part. We might also say that, in athletic terms, Division III is the worst division in college sports.

In 1899, the University of the South—once commonly known as “Sewanee” and now officially known as “Sewanee: The University of the South”—fielded a football team that, over the course of a six-day road trip, defeated five teams by a combined score of 91-0. Impressive. Even more impressive when you consider that among those defeated teams were current football powerhouses like Texas, Texas A&M, and LSU.

But Sewanee’s football glory did not last long. While Sewanee was a charter member of the Southeastern Conference in 1932, it never won an SEC game and withdrew in 1940. Sewanee is now a member of Division III.

Sewanee’s football glory—as brief and spectacular as it was—also never quite rubbed off on its baseball team. Since 1875, when Sewanee beat the Lynchburg Artics 24-9 to go 1-0 in its first recorded baseball season, Sewanee baseball has posted a record of 697 wins and 1,159 losses. It is an old adage that, in baseball, you win a third of your games, you lose a third of your games, and what you do with the other third is what matters. Sewanee has only won about 37.6% of its games, meaning it has lost almost every game that mattered.

Even by Sewanee baseball’s low historical standards, I was on one of the worst Sewanee baseball teams of all time. The 1875 team achieved an undefeated season with a single win. In 1997, my team doubled that win total, going 2-30 on the year. We didn’t even come close to winning a third.

I say that “I was on” the Sewanee baseball team rather than “I played for” the baseball team, because, unless we were winning big (and it was rare to win at all), I was never going to see the field. On the team that went 2-30 in 1997, I wasn’t even good enough to play. As I usually tell people now, when they ask about my college career, I was the worst player on the worst team in college baseball. No one has ever attempted to dispute that claim.

Sadly, in 1997, while the team managed to scrape together two wins, I had quit before either of them. More sadly, it wasn’t even my first time quitting.

* * *


I had been on the Parkview High School baseball team for three years. Unlike Sewanee, Parkview has a tremendous baseball program that has produced dozens of professional baseball players, including Jeff Francoeur and Jeff Keppinger—not exactly household names, but not too shabby either. Parkview has won the Georgia State Championship five times. Its team was ranked first in the country in 2012. While I hardly played at all, I was on the team, which was itself a tremendous honor, having had tryouts and everything. It was, of course, an honor I didn’t deserve.

I started playing baseball as soon as I was old enough to play. I still remember standing out in right field, five years old, glove over my face, and bored out of my mind. While I had my triumphs—I scored the winning run in the championship game as a six-year-old and was an alternate to the all-star team when I was eight—I mostly remember the failures. The time I pitched and hit three batters in one inning. The time I cried when I tagged out a base-stealer and the umpire called him safe. The time I cried when an umpire accused me of leaning into a pitch. The time I broke my arm sliding into third base. The time my dad threatened to put a game under protest when my coach refused to play me the required number of innings. I just wasn’t very good.

Unfortunately, my failures weren’t mine to bear alone—they were also borne by my family. I am a middle child. My older brother was a stellar baseball player who earned a scholarship and was once mentioned by Paul Harvey for his academic and baseball prowess. My younger brother was also a natural athlete who played college football on scholarship and, for a few glorious weeks, was in an NFL training camp. My parents wanted us to be athletes, throwing us thousands of baseballs and driving us to hundreds of games in pursuit of excellence.

But, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I practiced, no matter how many times my dad yelled at me to swing the bat, I was never going to be excellent. I was always just a bit too slow, reacting just a little too late, thinking a little too much.

During my freshman year in high school, the baseball team held tryouts for the ninth-grade team. Over the course of a couple weeks, the team was carved out of a larger group by means of daily cuts. Every morning on the gym door, the coach would post a list of the players who had made the cut and were still in the running. Every morning, I would rush to the gym, along with a group of other hopeful boys, and check to see if my name was on the list.

It probably shouldn’t have been. Every afternoon at practice, I would fail in some astonishingly predictable way. A series of swings and misses at batting practice. A series of balls through my legs during fielding drills. I would scowl, pretending that my failure was just an anomaly, in no way related to the player I truly was. And the coaches must’ve believed me, because every morning I was on the list.

hubbardOne morning, Brad Foreman stood beside me in the group gathered around the list. Brad had transferred into our school district in sixth grade and was one of those kids who had hair on his face (and elsewhere) at the age of 12. His abnormal physical progression also endowed him with athletic prowess. He was a shoo-in for the ninth-grade team and probably had a shot at the JV team as well.

As we looked at the list, I expressed the slightest bit of surprise that my name was still on there. Brad responded like the aggressive, overly-grown Neanderthal that he was: “Did you really think they’d cut someone with your last name?” Words can hurt, Brad. Words can hurt.

I was well aware that I wasn’t as good as my brothers, but was I really a sympathy pick, kept on the team to avoid upsetting my family? More importantly, was someone better left off of the team just because he didn’t have athletic brothers? These questions troubled me, but not enough for me to renounce my place on the team. When I made the final cut, I attributed it to the coaches’ discerning eyes, which chalked up my failures to bad luck, not lack of ability.

The ninth-grade team only had twelve players, but I was the back-up third baseman, and the starting third baseman wasn’t good. After he made a fielding error that cost our team a close game, I decided to approach our coach about getting some more playing time. My parents encouraged the delusion, but helpfully suggested that I pose my concern in the form of a question.

I approached Coach Bender one day during lunch, when he was sitting at a table overlooking our lunchroom. Bender closely resembled King Hippo from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, especially when he was chewing. As I sat down across from him, his eyes flashed annoyance. I didn’t take the hint.

“Coach, I was wondering why you’re not giving me the chance to play more.”

He stared at me as he carefully chewed his food and weighed his thoughts against my fragile psyche. Oh, who am I kidding? He was about to give it to me straight, whether I was ready for it or not. “Well, Sansbury, it’s because you’re about two years behind everybody else.”

So, it was true. I did not deserve to be on the team, and my lack of playing time was attributable to my lack of ability, not to some oversight on Coach Bender’s part.

I could feel my eyes welling up as I tried to keep my face from otherwise betraying me, but I couldn’t hold it for long. I summoned the strength for a witty retort, one that would show Bender, once and for all, that I was ahead of my time.

“OK. Thanks,” I mumbled and headed back to my table. My friends saw that I was upset, and I told them what Bender had said, hoping they would judge it ridiculous. They didn’t.

Coach Bender left the Parkview ninth-grade squad after that season to coach the junior varsity team at our rival high school, Brookwood. Having cut the ninth-grade team to twelve, Coach Baker, Parkview’s varsity coach, was mathematically obligated to leave me on the junior varsity team. When we played Brookwood that season, Coach Bender coached third base for them. And I, due to an act of generosity, was playing third base.

I was determined to show Coach Bender that I had caught up to my teammates, that the two-year gap was gone and then some.

No balls were hit my way, but in the second inning, Brookwood started lighting up our pitcher. Bender waved runner after runner towards home. Finally, a batter lifted a pop fly into the outfield, and the left fielder caught it cleanly. I started to run to the dugout.

“That’s the first out, Sansbury,” Coach Bender barked.

OK. Easy mistake to make. It’d been a long inning. After a few more batters and a few more runners, a batter struck out. I again headed toward the dugout.

“That’s the second out, Sansbury.”

Now I was embarrassed. Not only was I still two years behind everyone else, I was two outs ahead. I didn’t even know the basics of baseball or of counting to three. Even as the third out came, I hesitated to run off the field.

But Coach Bender was right. I was at least two years behind everyone else. And, while I spent time in the weight room and on the practice field, another thing was becoming clear: I was never going to catch up. So, while I did make the varsity team my junior year—and ultimately received a letter, likely out of pity, since I had failed to play a significant number of innings—I decided not to play my senior year.

My family was disappointed and wanted me to tell the coach face-to-face, hoping that, in my fright, I would reconsider. Coach Baker, after all, was an intimidating figure. He had coached baseball at Parkview for many years and had single-handedly built the program. He occasionally cracked jokes, but he never cracked a smile. One time, he caught me climbing onto the roof of the high school building, and I thought he might execute me on the spot.

I walked into his office one morning before school and told him that I would not be playing baseball that season. To my surprise, he was neither surprised nor disappointed. But he did say this: “I don’t have a bad word to say about you, and I’d be happy to write you a letter of recommendation if you ever need one.” Of course, at that point, I didn’t need one; college applications had been submitted weeks ago. And I never thought in a million years that Old Bake would write me one, given how poorly I’d always performed on the baseball diamond. Maybe I should’ve asked.

* * *

A year later, I was a freshman at Sewanee. While I had quit the Parkview Baseball team, I hadn’t quit wearing the T-shirts, and I happened to be wearing one on the second day of my Beginner’s Tennis class.

“Sansbury, do you play baseball?” the tennis coach asked.

“I used to,” I replied.

sansburycoach“Well, the Sewanee baseball team can always use players.”

That was all it took. The dormant desire to look like a ballplayer was instantly rekindled, and that afternoon I was on the phone with yet another head baseball coach. Sure, he’d love for me to come out. Here was my opportunity: a team with too few players and me, a product of one of the best high school baseball programs in the country. That elusive baseball glory could not be far behind.

I called my parents. My older brother was just starting his senior season. Wouldn’t they be proud that their son, who had quit ignominiously just two years ago, was now going to be a college baseball player? I asked them to send my dusty glove via FedEx.

The expected glory was slow to dawn. I showed up for my first practice having not thrown a baseball for almost two years, and the team had already been practicing for two weeks. It felt nice to hold a baseball in my hand again. I eyed it closely and confidently flipped it into the air. Then I reared back and threw it to my partner. It was about eight feet off the mark. A little rusty. That’s OK. You’ll get it back. You’ll earn that starting job.

I did not. That season, I moved from third base, to first base, to pitcher, but I never found a spot. I only left the dugout to congratulate someone for hitting a homerun. But I enjoyed being on the team, and my teammates bestowed a new nickname on me: Sans, pronounced “sahns.”

That summer, my little brother was playing summer baseball for the Parkview team. The previous summer, I had skipped every game, appreciating the opportunity to be home alone. But that summer, I eagerly anticipated the first game, knowing that Coach Baker would be there.

The Parkview summer baseball season always began with a round-robin tournament at a field outside of Augusta, Georgia. Because the summer season is basically meaningless, Coach Baker used it as an opportunity to get everyone some playing time, so he could see how the benchwarmers performed in game situations. In the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I played third base in this same round-robin tournament, and, when a flare was popped into foul territory, I badly misjudged it and fell down as it landed three feet behind where I had been standing. In a later game, I went for a slow roller to my left, and, when I couldn’t get to it, I stopped—right in the path of the shortstop, who tripped over me. I couldn’t say how Coach Baker reacted to those plays because I was afraid to look into the dugout.

But it was time for me to return triumphantly to the scene of those distant crimes. I was now a College Baseball Player, and I was certain that Coach Baker would be impressed.

After warm-ups for the first game, I approached the fence near where Baker was standing. “Hey, Coach Bake!” I called out, a confident college man.

“Sansbury! How are you? How’s college?” He reached two fingers through the fence to awkwardly shake my hand.

“Great. I’m playing baseball. It’s fun.” I was expecting him to be awed, to draw A-plusses across the board like in Ralphie’s teacher daydream in A Christmas Story.

“Oh,” he balked, trying to figure out if I was lying. “That’s great.” And he walked away toward the dugout. I returned red-faced to the bleachers, where I endured the last baseball game I would attend that summer.

* * *

A little less than two years after that, I was again standing in a coach’s office and again quitting a baseball team. This time it was Coach Butler’s.

Who was Butler, besides another disappointed baseball coach? That was a question to which none of us ever got a clear answer. He came to Sewanee as the trainer for the football team, but we were not convinced that he had any medical training. He did have a Grateful Dead tattoo and some Dancing Bear stickers on the back of his Jeep. He also had a volatile relationship with his wife, who locked him out of the house from time to time if he happened to come home late from a road trip.

Coach Butler joined the baseball staff as an assistant coach my sophomore year in college. He claimed that he had played minor league baseball in the Yankees’ farm system (never confirmed), but there certainly was no record of him having played in the majors, even though he liked to hint otherwise. We did confirm that he was incapable of fielding a ground ball when he took fungo drills one day at practice. That didn’t stop him from sharing increasingly implausible stories about his baseball days.

Whatever glory there might (or might not) have been in Coach Butler’s past, there wasn’t much glory that season. Our team lost the first fifteen games of the season. In the sixteenth game, the first game of a doubleheader, we somehow managed to build an eight run lead by the fifth inning. At that point, Butler decided that the lead was safe enough to give the benchwarmers—me—a chance.

Disaster was not far behind. Our pitcher began giving up hit after hit, drumming up a daze on the field that rendered us incapable of making the simplest defensive play. But Coach Butler left us in there, perhaps to convince us, once and for all, that we didn’t belong on the field. We were convinced.

During the second game of the double header, once again riding the pine, I told my teammate that it would be my last game.

The next day, I went into Coach Butler’s office, ready to embrace my true calling as a quitter. Butler initially tried, perhaps half-heartedly, to convince me to stay. Eventually, he dismissed me with what he probably thought was a considerable compliment: “Well, you got all the baseball you could out of that body.”

Intended, I’m sure, as an affirmation of my hard work, it certainly wasn’t received that way. Instead, it was the long-delayed—yet inevitable—final verdict: No matter how hard you work, no matter how many years you hang around ballplayers and work out with them, you will simply never have the body of a ballplayer. You will never look like a ballplayer.

The team finished the season with Coach Butler and without me. Miraculously, the team eked out two wins, but Coach Butler, after one season, was not asked to return. His total of two victories put him last on the list of all-time winningest Sewanee baseball coaches. Happily, Coach Butler caught on as a rugby coach a few years later. His website résumé touted his experience as a professional rugby player, something we never quite remember him mentioning to us.

Shortly after the 1997 season ended, I ran into Gary Bumstead, who had been the Sports Information Director at Sewanee and sometime assistant baseball coach. He greeted me with the nickname my team had bestowed on me: Sans, pronounced “sahns.”

“You realize ‘sans’ means ‘without’ in French, don’t you?” Bumstead said.

Of course I did.

* * *

Jenny Farmer was a liar. I never did—and never would—look like a ballplayer.

There were a few glorious moments during my career. The time I drove in the winning run as a pinch hitter with a flare into right field, the time I yanked a double into left field with a potential love interest in the stands. But they were overwhelmingly set off by the failures, some of which I’ve detailed, most of which I’ve deeply suppressed. Ultimately, though, my baseball career wasn’t defined by the successes or the failures. Instead, it was defined by the hours I spent in the dugout, keeping the scorecard, watching and recording the feats and failures of my teammates, never really expecting to get into the game myself.

For fifteen years, I hid among ballplayers, hoping at least to be mistaken for one of them. Even when I was able to quit the first time, the lure of being that—the sodden cleats, the fielder chewing leather fringe from his glove—was just too strong and pulled me back in. The final lesson had to be delivered in the form of the worst baseball season imaginable, in which I was the worst part.

It is far too late for me to make amends on the diamond, and I am as far from looking like a ballplayer as I have ever been. While many of my teammates look upon their baseball days as glory days, I look upon them as my first real acquaintance with my own humanity—the payoff proof that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can never be that person you want to be.

Jenny Farmer learned that, too. She went off to drama school but only succeeded in developing a chemical dependency. She moved to LA, she changed her name to “Jennifer,” but she never became famous. Instead, after cleaning up in AA, she became a licensed funeral director, where most of her work was done behind the scenes, only then to lie forever underground.

Unexpectedly, she was happy.

[1] All of the names have been changed because I lack the courage of my convictions. The rest of it, sadly, is true.

[2] She couldn’t believe they called it “theater” rather than “théâtre,” but we were in suburban Atlanta, not Paris, France, for goodness sakes!