Thursday, April 4, 2013

It's Baseball Season...I think


Dad was a disappointed baseball fan for most of his life.

As a kid, playing ball on the streets of Brooklyn, he rooted for the Dodgers.  After years of the Ebbets Field slogan being, “Wait till next year,” they finally won the Pennant in 1955, and made the World Series again in 1956.  Around a year later, Dem Bums left him behind and relocated to California.

As an adult, playing on the D&B softball team, his allegiance had changed to the Mets.  They ended years of embarrassment by winning the World Series, and then traded away anyone of value on the team…TWICE.

And of course, as a father…he had me.

For example, I had to ask around the office to find out when opening day was to time this post correctly.

While I had no interest or ability in baseball, it wasn’t for a complete lack of trying on both my parents’ parts.
(Mom grew up within walking distance of Yankee Stadium.)  I do remember watching two Met games in person.

Or actually…

I remember going to Shea Stadium and enjoying a really good hot dog while a bunch of people on the field below didn’t seem to be doing much for a couple of hours.

My Father’s most direct effort to engage me in “America’s Pastime” is probably what cemented my attitude towards it.

On an unassuming, calm spring day, he took his little boy outside. Dad had on his well-worn old mitt, and carried a new, and somewhat tree like, Louisville Slugger.   He placed the bat in my hands, and set me up on the side of the house. 

My Father then paced the required distance away,
Locked eyes with mine,
And sent a pitch into my strike zone.

I whipped the wooden monstrosity around in time to make a perfect, and satisfying *THONK* on the ball, sending it careening above my father’s outstretched arm, over the swing-set and well into the woods.

As Dad retrieved the ball he stated, “That was good, but you need to correct your stance and grip.”

He proceeded to meticulously demonstrate and then pose me, insuring my feet were in the right distance apart, my posture was correct, I had properly choked up on the bat, and my shoulders were squared with whatever they were supposed to be squared to.

My Father then paced the required distance away,
Locked eyes with mine,
And sent a pitch into my strike zone.

I whipped the wooden monstrosity around in time to make a perfect, and satisfying *THONK* on the ball, sending it careening into a tree somewhat to the left of my dad and directly back into my forehead, knocking me flat on the half grown grass and moss on that shaded section of our yard.

As Dad retrieved the ball he stated, “THAT WAS PERFECT!”

As he brought me into the house for an ice pack, I stated, “I don’t like this game.”

That beginning coupled with the nonexistence of my:  patience for the game, interest in competitive pursuits, and ANY childhood physical coordination kept me as far away from Little League efforts, or Major League spectating as I could possibly be for the remainder of my childhood.  The fact that my attention span diminished to a vanishing point as time passed did not increase the chances of a later life surge in baseball fandom.

I do find the history of the game somewhat interesting.

OK, technically I find whatever Yogi Berra says somewhat interesting, but it’s something.

Additionally, my born in The Bronx blood compels me to check newspaper stats to insure the universe is normal and the Yankees are leading the division come the Fall. However, the total of all the baseball I’ve watched on TV in my entire life is likely less than nine full innings.

I occasionally listened when my Aunt had Yankee games on the radio Up the Lake, for two not quite MLB approved reasons.

1) It reminded me of my Grandfather.

2) I liked to have warning of when a victory was coming, because she cranked the volume for,

Amidst all the rabid apathy, something weird happened.

I became a juggler.  (No, that isn’t the weird thing, this time.)

By becoming a juggler, I managed to develop unconscious coordination, untainted by practice, skills or training.

This translated into:

If I was surprised by an object flying at my head, I could usually catch it.
If I prepared myself, and was looking directly at the thrower of an object, I could usually get hit in the face by it.

This increase in the ability of my brain to track objects travelling in an arc without my active participation changed a few things on the ball field.

The first evidence of this was a spectacular diving catch I made at the end of senior year at the math club picnic.

We now pause to admire a true freak of nature:
A sentence containing “spectacular diving catch” and “math club picnic.”

I was in my usual position of “Out-of-the-way-field” when a high flying pop up started heading toward the opposite corner…section…part of the park…thing.

I started running toward the ball’s target location and stunned everyone with grabbing it in my glove inches above the ground.  Nobody, however, was more stunned than I was. 

I remembered running.

I remembered being prone on the turf with a mitt full of softball, and a group of cheering fellow math geeks nearby.

I had, and still have, ABSOLUTELY no recollection of what happened between those two moments.  I’m guessing I tripped over something and pulled a Hitchhikers Guide like flying moment to make the catch.

That out of mind experience was only the tip of the iceberg.  The regular and intensive weight training I did in college added considerably to the weird occurrences on the rare occasions I’d appear on the diamond.

My sister handled all the athletics in our family growing up, I believe there were seasons that she played multiple sports simultaneously.  Her team…squad…group…thingy held the county high school shot put relay record for fifteen years.  I’m not really sure what that entailed, but it may explain why she never got any taller in high school.

Most of her friends were equally athletic and competitive (and mostly guys), and would often gather for pick up sporting events.  Tales of their NFL championship morning Hangover Bowl games are legendary. (Not quite as legendary as the tales of the parties the night before them, but still legendary.)

Once in a while, I would join in to the best of my limited abilities.  It was during one of their softball games that my unconscious reflexes surfaced again.

I was already aware that the arc of a fly ball was now within my brain’s ability to calculate.  What was new to me during this game was my brain’s unerring ability to lock onto the juggling pass like path of a pitched softball. 

As long as it was thrown in my general direction, I could connect with the ball.  I managed to get on base, instead of getting out, after hitting one with very minimal power, directly back to the pitcher.  He didn’t catch it, owing to his utter shock that the ball was returning to him after pitching it directly above my head.

The other factor came from combining my weightlifting with not having any training or experience.  While I could hit anything, I didn’t have a prayer of aiming it anywhere.  However, I could use my old school, tree like Louisville Slugger to great effect. 

Physics lesson time, feel free to nap-

Converting momentum from one object to another, say a bat to a ball for a random example, is dependent on the mass and velocity of the objects.  A faster bat or a heavier bat means more momentum to the ball.

However, transferring energy from one object to another, say the same bat and ball, as this isn’t an essay about pile driver design, is dependent on the mass and the SQUARE of the velocity of the object.  That means a faster bat has a greater impact on energy transfer than a heavier bat.

However, I was able to combine my knowledge of physics, my strength, and my total lack of baseball skills to an advantage.

Bulking up without increasing any practical ball playing skills meant I could swing my tree like Louisville Slugger exactly as fast as I would be able to swing an aluminum bat. Therefore I combined both our masses to powerful effect.

That translated into any ball being somewhere near my strike zone arriving at some other random destination on the field with arm numbing momentum and energy.

Once again I pulled a base hit out of what should have been an easy out, one hop grounder.  After the one hop kicked up a small crater in front of the infielder, it slammed into his glove, and promptly fell out again to the tune of, “OW!” 

While I had gained some literal and figurative strengths, a glaring weakness was also exposed that day.

My juggling ability imparted a radar sense for the gentle curves of a fly ball or underhand pitch.  However, it was of no help when they placed me on second base.  Unlike hitting, or fielding pop ups, playing the infield well kind of depends on having some remote clue of what the heck you’re doing.

The rolling ground ball that came to me could have been easily stopped and thrown for an out by any second grade little leaguer.

Unfortunately, any second grade little leaguer would have infinitely more baseball instincts, experience and training than I had.

After bobbling the ball off of myself for approximately three quarters of an hour, I looked back and forth between bases about thirty seven times trying to figure out where the play was.

Then I dropped the ball.

It wasn’t quite an “inside the glove” home run, but it wasn’t pretty.

While everyone else in the game (and likely the county) was more competitive than I was, I had almost no patience for my own failings. Also, there was one guy on the team who took the game extremely seriously.  He’d lay vociferously into anyone on our side that made obvious errors that could cost us our edge in the contest, and no one had come close to the disaster I had just displayed.

After my little one man show, I was busy pounding my mitt and inventing new and various kinds of profanity.  He was over by shortstop and whirled to face me, eyes burning with fire, filled with anger and criticism, and poised to deliver a full (and admittedly accurate) description of my ineptitude.

I whirled to face him simultaneously; muscles puffed up to maximum weighliftedness, filled with shame and rage, and poised to eat my glove.

Our gazes locked for a moment, and we both turned away without uttering a word.

Considering he became my brother in law a few years down the road, it’s probably for the best that we didn’t end up killing each other that day.

My lack of conviction and seriousness about the game may have caused the longest and worst error ever in New Jersey ball games, but it did also let me enjoy the greatest play in the history of the game.

Big Bill was up at bat for our team.  He had all the instincts and training for the sport that I was sorely missing, as well as the ability to impart great amounts of energy and momentum to the ball.

Big Bill was not, however, built for sprinting.

The ball crossed the plate and he absolutely creamed it.

If the diamond we had selected on Gardner Field had a fence around it, that ball would have still been on the upward part of its journey as it went over it.  

By the time it hit the ground it needed to ask for directions home.

Such was the force of the blow that softballs on other continents cried out in pain that day.

There was only one obstacle between Big Bill and a point for our team:

The distance between the bases.

With the sun glaring down on him, he set off toward first at top speed, immediately reduced to half speed, and was somewhere just above a jog when he reached the base.

When he stepped on the bag, the rest of us, attempting to ascertain which bus the outfielder who reached his ball was going to take back, yelled for him to keep going.

He looked at us in despair, hung his head, and began to trot to second base.

The trot quickly reduced to a walk, then a stagger complete with impressively dramatic clawing and reaching arm motions.

As the ball made required border crossings to reach our field, his stagger degenerated past a shuffle to a crawl across the grassless infield resembling that of an abandoned member of the French Foreign Legion crossing the Sahara.

He eventually reached second base, flopped over on his back, and emitted Looney Tunes levels of gasps and cries of pain and exhaustion. 

Despite my brother-in-law-to-be’s apoplectic fit of a near constant stream of epithets and commands to continue for the “easy” score. Big Bill concluded his magnificent theatrical display by lying motionless in his spot, claiming to see a bright white light, until the ball reentered our time zone, and play could resume.


I collapsed behind the backstop in hysterics about the same time Big Bill hit the ground, and it took me longer to get up than when I smashed myself in the noggin with my own fly ball next to the house all those years ago.



Bruce Fieggen said...

Now imagine growing up in a country where the only equivalent to baseball is cricket: aptly described by Robin Williams as baseball on quaaludes. Little wonder I became a soccer player.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for sharing. I could only imagine how it looks with no cultural background.

The organized sport I spent the most time on as a kid was soccer as well. I didn't continue, mostly because I didn't live in ANY OTHER COUNTRY on Earth but this one.