Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Round Tripper

It was Freud, no, who said "Every man is a God in his dreams?" Something like that, anyway, and it's really not that important. I can't imagine anyone would disagree that a great many of us live robust, and completely otherly lives in our minds, in which we pursue and perhaps seize that which eludes us in the world we come to think of as real. Our fantasies our all over the map, some of course more spectacular than others, some more attainable than others. Some have the effect of charting a course to their attainment in the world. Others are more remote, ephemeral, consisting either of things that simply aren't meant to be, or perhaps things that we'd realize had been folly to want in the first place were we ever to achieve them.

Perhaps it's the time of year that leads me to consider this one particular aspect of my fantasy life; as some columnist recently noted, among the more appealing words in the English language for this writer are "Pitchers and catchers." Spring training is nearly upon us. I love baseball, I always will, and though I resist accession to our culture's most dominant metaphors as ultimately stultifying and counterproductive, memes that cabin our imaginations in the worst way, I can't dispute that through socialization and habit I have come to count the game of baseball as a highly instructive and appealing milieu.

Perhaps my fantasy life is richer in virtue of my dominant creative streak. It strikes me as high arrogance to say so, insofar as it's not a quantifiable characteristic, but it does seem to be a dominant cultural assumption: that in certain senses, artists' imaginative faculties somehow exceed those of the non-artists. And I have lived many lives in my dreams, by day and night, eyes tightly shut and sliding anxiously back and forth or open and fixed on some point in the remote distance. But there is one fantasy that never fades, that I indulge virtually (or quite possibly actually) every day of my life: hitting a homerun.

I played baseball from a very young age, and continued on into high school, though I ended my baseball career prior to my junior year because other, er, priorities became paramount. I never played spectacularly well, but once I hit twelve or so I played competently, and had moments of great success. At fifteen years old, I pitched an honest-to-goodness no hitter in my town's equivalent of Babe Ruth level baseball, a considerable feat given that in town leagues it's a given that at least one of your outfielders will be hopelessly incompetent. My last high school team, the junior varsity on which I spent my second year, was atrociously bad, and I was able to pitch only one truly good game (which we lost anyway, I should add). That my freshman and JV teams won only one or two games in two seasons probably had something to do with my early retirement.

At 21 or so, when I contemplated attempting to walk on to my Division I university team as perhaps a relief pitcher, I joined a men's league team for one season. I enjoyed modest success, but my always mediocre hitting had become even more dubious, and as a pitcher I probably hit ten batters in fifteen or so innings due to tremendous problems harnessing and spotting the curveball on which I'd always relied. I also was just beginning to wear glasses, and was dubious about whether to wear them on the field, which led to the rather embarrassing handling of a number of infield fly balls when I was tasked to play second base.

Since then, with one brief exception, my diamond has been smaller -- the softball field. There, I have found much greater success as a hitter, and as a third baseman I've proven far more effective than I ever was on defense in my life as a baseball player. That the ball covers the 60 feet between home plate and my glove in an eyeblink, I think, makes things easier for me: as this blog might attest, I tend to overthink things, and the longer I have to contemplate a task, the more likely I am to muff it. Third bass in softpitch softball isn't a game, it's survival. Evidently, I have a strong will to live and fairly sharp reflexes.

But the homerun -- ah, it has always eluded me. I have hit precisely one homerun in competition: an inside-the-parker in softball in the spring of 2003 that skidded by a shortstop and a centerfielder en route to the far reaches of the park, the low line drive skipping frantically along the parched desert-hard outfield and to the playground over 300 feet from home plate. It didn't hurt, of course, that I am still young and thin enough to be fairly quick around the bases, or that in softball the basepaths from home plate to home plate measure only 240 feet -- even factoring in high speed turns and the arcs they necessitate, the transit covers less ground than the 100m.

But every day, at my desk, in my bed, in the shower, I am hitting homeruns, I am feeling that indescribable satisfaction of a fastball striking a bat's sweetest spot, and watching it streak skyward, watching the pitcher and middle infielders snapping their necks back to follow its transit, the outfielders converging on the groundline of its trajectory at a full run and then relenting long before the ball begins its descent in the simple knowledge that the ball will land far outside the field of play, that it will exceed their best efforts entirely.

Nothing feels anything like making square contact with a swift-moving baseball. Nothing is even close. And perhaps it's this, or perhaps it's that I was roughly a .250 hitter at every level of baseball I ever played (I hit closer to .500 in softball) and didn't hit long balls very often, that makes my memories of the few balls I hit truly well so vivid.

I have a mediocre memory at best, but still I remember as though it happened this morning my first basehit in organized baseball. I was young, perhaps seven or eight, and most bats were as tall as I was. We were playing at a field nestled into one of the quadrants formed by a busy suburban intersection, the monolith of a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse looming beyond the distant right field fence, the skin infield tan, unforgivingly hard, and humped with the ossified footprints of muddy post-rain games long past. A pitch came in, low, but I had nothing like a strikezone back then, and at my height nothing was really unhittably low. I swung, following the ball on its path towards the top of the plate, and watching my bat make strike the ball -- I saw it, and still can -- and I peered up into the blue sky incredulously as it arced up and over the first baseman, who I could see was backpedaling toward where he thought it would land. I dropped the bat and began to race to first base, following the ball's flight as though it were a shooting star instead of a bloop fly ball hit perhaps 80 feet. As I approached the bag, the first baseman continued to stumble backward but to no avail: the ball thumped to the grass just beyond the edge of the infield, and just barely in fair territory. A basehit. A single. My first hit ever.

I remember nothing else from that age with such vividness or urgency. Indeed, I remember my first sexual encounter, when I was considerably more than twice as old as I was that little league afternoon, far less vividly. No graduation, no kiss, no party, no accomplishment or victory compares. Which suggests to me, albeit weakly, that perhaps that first basehit was, for me, more a coming of age than any of these other events were -- an astonishing thought.

I remember other significant hits with similar vividness. I remember my first long ball. This occurred on a field across town, at a higher competitive level, and both the pitcher and the centerfielder on the other team were regarded as among the best players in the league (the centerfielder would eventually lead our high school football team to a state champtionship). That day, the outfield playing me in as they always did given my diminutive stature and failure to prove myself a significant threat, I laced a fastball low and hard, perhaps the most satisfying linedrive I ever hit, the ball rising steadily as it streaked toward centerfield. The centerfielder, Derek P., took two hurried steps in, fooled by the low screamer as anyone who has played outfield has been fooled at one time or another. Once he realized his error, that the ball would sail far over his head, he hurled his glove upward toward it in frustration and futility. The ball, of course, eluded the glove, rolled deep into the centerfield grass, and I scrambled into third bass with a triple. Throwing the glove, it turned out, required a one-base sanction. So I jogged home with an umpire-aided homerun.

That same season, later in the year, I hit another gapper, at another field named for our nation's first president, another triple. After that, I remember fewer hits. As you grow older in baseball, your season comprises more games. Certainly, those were not the last of my extra base hits, and I hit a good deal more over the years. Never, though, did I hit a homerun over a fence in a game situation.

The closest I came to doing so was in that summer of 2003. The field at which I sometimes play softball has a hill in right field that climbs toward a fence and then the street. There's a quonset shack standing in dead center field, the point of its roof constituting a dividing line: to the right, balls that clear the building or the adjacent fence are either ground-rule doubles or singles, depending. To the left, however, a ball hit onto the roof of the shack is a homerun. Although in softball I prefer to place line drives (even the long rolling homerun mentioned above was intended to be a single) than to swing for the long ball I virtually never hit, on one occasion I swung foolishly at a ball far outside the strikezone and up at shoulder level. Something about the swing the pitch necessitated, however, accelerated my batspeed considerably, altered my swing, the result being a mammoth flyball to deep center field. I almost didn't leave the batter's box, as surprised by my show of power as a puppy is by its first true bark. The centerfielder raced over to receive it, should it bounce off the side of the building, and that's what it did, ricocheting wildly off the aluminum face of the structure no more than five feet below the roof's gutter, the de facto homerun line, I'd missed it by nothing at all, but still, another double, another rare extra base hit, and my wait would continue.

Strange mythologies inform our lives. I have spent periods of time lulling myself to sleep by typing out my thoughts in my head, by which I taught myself to type 90 or so words per minute. I have spent years lulling myself to sleep by visualizing the completion of various rockclimbing projects that have bedeviled me; I have no doubt that these exercises improved my climbing. But baseball is always there, the din of a modest group of onlookers, the simple symmetry of eight defenders orienting themselves towards my at-bat, chattering back and forth in shows of support and exchanges of information relevant to their defensive enterprise, the left fielder taking a step or two in and to the left, catching my observation of this move, taking compensatory steps to the right and back, me eyeing the infield for a hole through which I might poke a basehit, and then the pitch, the decision whether to swing or take, and the split-second wait that feels, on the best day, like an eternity.

Softball has been a great deal of fun for me, but it also has confirmed the singularity of baseball. Last year, I returned to New Jersey for a weekend to learn that a legacy game was planned for alumni of my high school's baseball teams: my younger brother, a far more talented all-around ballplayer than I ever was, intended to attend. I demurred reluctantly; I hadn't brought any of my equipment. But before long, I was furnished by brother and father with passable spikes, a glove, and a hat. So there I was, playing alongside fifteen or twenty years of assorted old guys, lined up opposite that year's rather abysmal varsity squad. I made numerous mistakes in that game, and on defense looked like what I was: a guy far more accustomed to the soft, fat unwieldiness of a softball rather than the lean and cruel heft of a baseball. At the plate, I prolonged my first at-bat in probably ten years against full-speed pitching, fastballs, curveballs, and fought off a few pitches to reach a full count before going down on a called strike at eye level. My next at bat, I waited on the first curveball I'd tried to hit, stayed with it (as they say), then went with it (as they say), and blooped a Texas leaguer behind first base, which looked like it just might get down before the secondbasemen could wheel around and get under it, following the same path as my first basehit had, some twenty-plus years ago. Alas, the second baseman was a bit too fast, and he managed to extend his glove at ground level just far enough to catch the ball, the heel of his throwing hand sliding in the grass to halt his skid. A nice try, but not enough. O for 2.

In my final at-bat, our team trailing by a couple of runs, two on and two out, I came up in a position that had become a source of great humor in my family for twenty years. Historically, I have had a knack for coming up with two outs in situations where my team trails. And if you do that enough, even if you're a decent hitter, you will make a lot of final outs. And I have. More than my share. And there's nothing fun about returning to the bench as the guy who failed to keep the team's hopes alive, though it gets easier with practice.

I was all too conscious of this as I dug in against the varsity's closer, a pitcher who threw much harder than the other guy I had faced. He was tall and broad of shoulder and thigh and generally imposing. He pitched from the stretch with a slidestep that left little time for picking up the ball out of his hand. I felt as I had during my first at-bat: wholly lost, ten years' removed froom any proficiency at this sort of thing, and at least modestly concerned about getting hit by one of the stopper's hard fastballs. (Getting hit by a fastball is another rather unpleasant thing one doesn't easily forget, and for which there is no adequate comparison.) His first pitch, surprise surprise, raced toward my jaw, and for a moment I stood transfixed, certain that I didn't know how to evade the ball. At the last second instinct kicked in, and I dropped the bat, raised my lead shoulder, and fell away from the plate just escaping the ball's groove by a few inches.

This of course did nothing for my comfort level in the box, and I decided my best bet was to guess what the pitcher would do next. I decided to look for a fastball on the inside part of the plate, but in the strike zone. He threw me precisely that pitch, and everything seemed to slow down. It was a bit further inside than I would have preferred, but it was a strike, one I couldn't afford to take idly. Instead, I stepped into the pitch and brought my bathead around swiftly, looking to pull the pitch into left field. The contact couldn't have been more perfect, the ball leaping off the best part of the bat and hooking down the left field line. It was low, rising just enough to pass cleanly over the leaping thirdbaseman's glove as it arced left toward the line and dropped to the ground thirty or so feet into left field just inside the line -- a single, but an honorable, sharply hit one. I had beaten the pitcher; I knew it, he knew it.

That was possibly as satisfying a hit as my first, and as any of the hits that followed. Trivial as it was in the end (not only did we still lose, but we lost two batters later when yours truly got picked off breaking too soon in an attempt to steal third base), it occurred under adverse circumstances for which I was woefully underprepared. Of course, I still managed to come up with a way to make the last out. And I still continue to fantasize about the heroic late-inning homerun it becomes less likely I will ever hit with each passing season. And I don't care. It's my fantasy, my game, my childhood.

Back back back -- GONE!

And the crowd. Goes. Wild.

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