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Where I think back on a summer evening
We all know that tragedy sticks in our minds. I doubt thtere is a single reader of this blog who can’t tell me precisely what was going on in their lives when they first started hearing details of September 11. Somewhere, there is a sense that “my life is never going to be the same after this” that rings in your head, and you etch every detail of what’s going on so that it will live long-term.
The thing is, it’s not only tragedy that bring that about. And something about a recent post from The Mad Woman has me remembering this particular moment of triumph.
I was in the 7th grade, and we were rapidly approaching the end of the school year. Late spring had been especially rainy, and that forced games to be rained out left & right, meaning that the temperatures grew and grew. It was hot.
My team was a good team — we were certainly in contention to finish the season with the best record & get that cheesy plastic trophy that came associated with such a feat. In fact, the team we were playing tonight was the other team that would have the same chance. Whoever won, if they won the rest of their games, would get the cheesy plastic tropy. And, of course, we all wanted it.
And when I say “hot” the evening was unnaturally hot. The team sponsored by Adam’s Habadashery (we didn’t have cool team names like the pros did — we had local establishments sponsor us, and for that, they got the team name) would head up by a run or two over our team (sponsored by the local Lyon’s Club), and then someone from my own team would smack a big hit to keep things close.
Years later, as I started to get into Sabermetrics and “old school” versus “new school” baseball, I’d actually think back on this game. My opponents manufactured runs – they’d get a guy on, get him into scoring position, and then hope for a timely hit to bring him home. My team, we’d sit back, take a walk if they came, and would, surely, never scoff at a base hit, but hope for the three run home run.
As the night turned late, I already had one of those three run home runs. Shaun, the leadoff hitter, was on second, having smacked a hit straight up the middle. Jeff was on first, having walked. Jeff was our best player, by far, and was often pitched around. Me, I batted fifth, behind Jeff’s cleanup, and throughout the season, the strategy of trying to pitch around Jeff had helped pad my numbers quite a bit.
I swung at the first pitch (I always swung at the first pitch, always) and connected, solidly, but I caught the ball just a tad bit late. The ball sailed in the gap between center and right field. Had this been a real park, it would have been a double, the ball bouncing back from the wall. But this park had no wall — the field just went on, and the ball rolled and rolled. I know I didn’t touch third base as I ran my butt off to beat the throw (the third base coach came up to me between innings to ask if I knew, but he really, really didn’t want to draw any attention to the fact while play occurred). I beat the throw by a few seconds, and didn’t have to slide.
That was my only hit until my last at bat.
The score was 8-5, the other team winning, heading into the top of the 6th (of a 6 inning game). The manager had to give us a pep talk beforehand, because we were growing discouraged. Most teams, we’d run up 10-15 runs on . . . in fact, we were the team that drew out the “mercy rule,” and here we were losing . . . and if we lost, we wouldn’t finish at the top of the standings for the season.
The pep talk worked — we were a bit fired up. I remember asking the other catcher if he wanted to catch for the inning . . . we’d always trade off, I’d take the first inning, he’d take the second, and so forth. Technically, it was his inning, but we always worked out the last two — see, catching, even on middle school bodies, takes a lot out of your knees.
He said he would take left-field. I’d catch.
See, when I first started playing baseball, I was the obvious choice for catcher. Simply, I was bigger than everyone else1, and who else would be the obvious choice when it was time to block the plate but the big guy?
In the top of the inning, we managed the first two outs quickly – three-pitch strike-out then a three-pitch strike-out. Then Casey (yes, his name was actually Casey, and he was actually up to bat) came up and smacked a double. Then he stole third, my throw being far from accurrate, and he broke for home as the ball kareemed off of the third-baseman’s glove.
Jeff, playing shortstop, picked it up and threw it home. Casey didn’t try to slide. The ball came to me first. Casey ran hard, but, well, I was bigger. After a collision, he fell down, I did not, and I held the ball. Onto the bottom of the last inning.
I should say that Casey & I had a bit of a history. He lived right up the road from me, so it was just natural that, should any pickup game happen, we’d find ourselves playing in the same game, often on opposite sides. See, where I was tall, Casey was athletic. He was actually good at the sports, where I used my size to my advantage, but did so effectively. The big sport, for both of us, was basketball, and even the very proud middle schooler me would admit that Casey was a far better basketball player. He was quicker, he was faster, and he could control the ball wonderfully. But, well, I was at least a foot taller than him. Whenever we faced each other in a game, if he ended up anywhere near me as I shot, he’d foul me. Hard. And that was his right. For a sanctioned game, I just took my foul shots and the game went on. For pickup games, I’d call the foul and we’d start the play over again. In those sanctioned games, it happened so frequently that the refs, sometimes, stopped calling these fouls, and I’d just stare him down as he dribbled the ball up-court . . . he’d avoid ever trying to dribble into the lane whenever I did that (though the one time I actually tried to run out to meet him, as if I was going to run him over, he just dribbled right past me for an easy lay-up).
It wasn’t a true animosity between us, but just two competitive boys letting their competitive spirits out. Now, I know he was employing “Hack-a-Shaq” before Shaquille O’Neal was even a name (and damn, does that make me feel old).
Of course, Casey was pitching after a big home plate collision.
I was due up fifth. We were down by three. Those of you familair with baseball might be able to figure out how the next couple of moments went.
The kid at the bottom of the order struck out, and then Shaun drew a walk. Colin managed an infield single, leaving Jeff, the tying run, up. Casey didn’t pitch around him, and Casey struck him out. Heck, even as I write it now, it feels cliche – but it happened . . . bottom of the last inning, down by three with two on, two outs. Not quite “bottom of the 9th, down by three with the bases loaded,” but close. After me, in the order, we lost most of our power . . . if I walked, or didn’t clear the bases, we’d have to manufacture the run. If I was out, well, the game was, simply, over.
The opposing manager moved the outfielders further back. Again, there were no fences, if I didn’t hit a home run, the game was likely over.
I swung at the first pitch, and missed. I swung at the second pitch, but I was early, and the ball skidded down the third-base line, foul, for strike two. The next pitch nearly hit my head, and memories of those hard fouls resurrected in my mind. I was mad. But the ball didn’t hit me — ball one, let’s continue.
A gnat flitted about my left eye, but I kept my gaze to the opposing pitcher. I moved back, just a tiny bit, in the batter’s box, hoping to catch a split-second’s extra glimpse of the ball that I was going to hit (and I knew I was swinging at this pitch). My knee creaked. A bead of sweat started to work its way over my forehead, threatening to invade my right eye.
Casey started his wind-up and I prepared to swing. It was a fastball, and I identified it as a ball, high and outside, but it was well within range for me to hit it. I started to swing, with no small amount of malice (though, typically, I would just be “trying to make contact” with two strikes). I connected.
When you swing a bat, hard, and connect with a ball, the feeling is amazing. When that connection comes against the sweet-spot of the bat, as the bat is at the apex of it’s voilent arc, when your body movements were just right (your back foot twisting, leading your whole body to surge, holding your upper body back until your hips force your arms to whip), it’s something you’ll always remember. The impact was violent – time truly seems like it stood still. My bat stopped moving, for just a moment, in my hands and I felt a wave of force travel in a wave from my fingertips to my hands to my wrists and up my arms.
The ball rocketed from the collision. Quickly.
At first, I thought of the position of the outfielders, how they had moved back. The ball was on a linear path directly toward the left fielder, and I assumed the game was over. But then I saw just how fast the ball was moving.
I ran down the first base line, hard, sneaking glimpses of the ball and the outfielder, who had turned and was running, at full speed, away from home plate. As I rounded first, I saw that the ball had cleared him, by a lot, but I didn’t let up, and put my head down and turned the corner to run to third.
The third base coach was laughing as I looked up at him for whether I should stay or head home. Then he got very serious, yelling “touch the fucking base,” as he made the windmill movement waving me home. As I continued running, hard (stomping on the bag as I passed it) he said “you won’t need to slide.”
The opposing catcher wasn’t anywhere near a plate-blocking stance when I got close. I stepped on the plate, turned around, and saw that the left fielder was just getting to the ball. Across the street. See, the baseball field was actually two fields, set catty-corner to one another (the ball I had hit, earlier in the day, had actually interrupted a game being played on the other field as it rolled into their game). According to the fielder, he saw the ball strike the sidewalk, and then bounce in the street before landing on someone’s yard.
I had tied the game — but there was light enough for one more inning. And we lost the game in that inning (walk, ground-out with the runner making it to second, single up the middle scoring the runner, strike-out, pop-up before we failed to score in the bottom of the inning), but that feeling of really striking the ball will stick with me forever.
Years later, using one of those “distance to the pin” golf guides, we measured the distance to the sidewalk from home plate, along the line that I thought held true from my own memories. It was 477 feet. Until my elbow injury, I frequented batting cages quite frequently. While I’ve made some good connections, I’ve never that same thunk as I felt right then. And, I was using a aluminum bat — but, I swear, it wasn’t a ping but a thunk that I felt.
Today, I can still remember the heat of that summer night – and that there was no breeze. I can recall the smell, a combination of boy sweat and mold and dirt and clay and grass and humid and leather. I can still feel that gnat flitting about my eye and the soreness in my knees.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think I managed a single hit for the rest of the season. As news of the hit spread about, pitchers started pitching around me . . . and I wasn’t very good about taking walks. So, many pitches, I swung and missed, because they were nowhere close to hittable. And others, I swung and barely made contact.
This might not be my best athletic memory, but it certainly stands out, strongly. In fact, I believe the feeling in my hands will always rank right up there with the first step, walking, after my first marathon2.