I remember when I was a young boy, sometimes in the summer my father and I would walk down to the baseball field in Cleveland Circle to watch a men’s amateur league game. We’d stand right behind the backstop, and I vividly remember the terrifying velocity on those fastballs, and I can hear in my head the deafening wham of the ball smashing into catcher’s mitt, and I recall watching hitters barely flinch when a pitch went zinging by, and I remember the exact feeling I had watching all this. I thought, “These guys are so incredibly, inconceivably good. And they’re not even professionals.”
In my 20s, I actually played in that men’s amateur baseball league and enjoyed several good years pitching for Avi Nelson Club. But even the best players among us were not nearly good enough to play at the lowest levels of minor league baseball. There were no scouts at our games. We were all amateurs. Happy amateurs.
I was reminded of this amateur-professional idea last Wednesday night, when I had the good fortune to accompany my friend, songwriter Dan Page, on guitar and background vocals at his show in New York City. Dan is widely admired in music circles, and about fifteen of his musical friends (including the amazing Mark Nadler and many members of the extraordinary Sullivan family) came from all over the country to perform in this show, which featured Dan’s most enduring compositions. Dan asked me to back him up on two songs – the first two songs of the show – and, humbled and honored, I quickly agreed.
The thing is, I was the only amateur musician who participated. Everyone else that plugged into an amp or sang into a mike that night was a pro. And, my God, was I out of my league.
I played all the chords just fine, and I sang my harmony nicely. But I had prepared only for things to go exactly as we had rehearsed, and that’s rarely the way things go when the show is on. The order of verses can get switched without warning, the bridge can get skipped, the pause before the final chorus can get extended, etc. Pros handle these “invisible blunders” with grace and ease. I think they actually love it when things don’t go according to plan. I may have risen to the occasion last Wednesday night, but I sure didn’t feel like a pro when the surprises came along.
The bass player that night, Ritt Henn, was a true pro. He was reading the sheet music for all of these songs for the first time, on stage, and not only performing the songs flawlessly, but adding flourishes at just the right moments and rolling with all the “invisible blunders” of the guitarists, pianists, and vocalists with which he shared the stage – and doing it all with a big smile on his face. (I wrote to Ritt and referred to him as “the Derek Jeter of bass players,” and he wrote back, “Hey, wait a minute…you guys are Red Sox fans, right? Is that some kind of insult or something? (insert appropriate smiley faced icon here) Thanks for the kind words…it’s fun winging it, and it was a kick playing with all those different folks, and thank you (and the entire Red Sox Nation) for recognizing and admiring Mr. Jeter’s prowess…. y’know, the year you guys won, I was actually rooting for you.”)
Performing with Ritt Henn and all those pros was like being asked to play right field for two innings of a Major League Baseball game. I thought, “I can catch a fly ball. I’ve done this a million times.” But in real games, easy flies are intermingled with screaming line drives in the gap, violently bad hops, jeering Yankee fans (see photo), and split-second decisions about which base to throw to. Pros react to these unpredictable challenges as though they expected them — because they’ve practiced for the unexpected their whole lives — and even in the most unusual situations, they execute flawlessly. A pro hits his tee shot into the sand on the 18th hole at Augusta National — and still saves par.
That’s what I learned last Wednesday night in New York. I may know how to play those chords and sing that harmony – I may know how to catch a fly ball – I may know how to drive a golf ball into the fairway – but I’m an amateur. A happy amateur. (Although it sure is fun to hang out with and learn from professionals…)