Sunday, March 2, 2014

Play Ball

Baseball spring training is now upon us. I can hear the crack of the bat, balls thumping into gloves and staccato shouts of the fielders. Chuck easy, baby. Heads up.

Sport pages are filled with enough freak injuries to run an HMO out of business.  The act of pitching and batting must call upon a long dormant musculature still hibernating. Or possibly the muscles are over-developed to the extent they have no stretch in them.

It was never my problem. I return now to those glory days which get better every time I revisit them. There I was warming the bench in the late innings with the score tied. The manager had been saving me for this pivotal moment. There was no point in squandering my talent.

He called my number. I sauntered out of the dugout, picked up three bats as if toothpicks in my massive arms, threw away two of them and I dusted the rosin bag in my hands for a better grip. The crowd noise was building as I crossed home plate into the batter’s box. There would be no effort to summon the gods that may be. I knew they were busy and they knew I didn’t need them. No Greek gods could ever get around on a rising fast ball.

It was just that crafty southpaw on the mound and me. I knocked the dirt that wasn’t there out of my spikes.  I rubbed the back chalk line away and dug in. The first pitch was a brush-back as I expected followed by a low-outside slider but I wasn’t chasing. It was now a hitter’s count. He came back with a fastball in my zone but took something off and I was out in front hitting a screaming line-drive foul. He got away with one.

I stepped out of the box to give him something to think about. I unhinged the Velcro on my batting glove and tighten it just to stretch the moment. The next pitch missed the corner. I could see he wanted that one and was out of his rhythm. He came back with a fat hanging curveball he wanted back as soon as he threw it. I launched it into orbit like a celestial body. It jumped out of the stadium and may still be out there.

There is a certain resonance when wood meets ball in the full fat of the bat. Sixty-five years later I can still feel it. For that single moment the game seemed easy. In fact it got harder. It would never happen again but once is enough. There are moments in life we are meant to experience only once. I was part of a continuum started when an ancestor from pre-history picked up a tree branch and struck an errant rock headed his way.

This memory is so vivid because it never happened. The stadium was a schoolyard, the crowd noise was the ovation in my head and the bat was a plump broomstick sawed off at the curb. But I can still taste that confluence, swear-to-god.

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