Steve Salerno | Missouri Review | Winter 2004| 24 minutes (6,016 words)
Steve Salerno’s essays and memoirs have appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Esquire and many other publications. His 2005 book, SHAM, was a groundbreaking deconstruction of the self-help movement, and he is working on a similar book about medicine. He teaches globalization and media at Lehigh University. This essay first appeared in the Missouri Review (subscribe here!). Thanks to Salerno for allowing us to reprint it here.
Observed on video at half-speed, through the metal lattice-work of the batting cage, it is a perfectly choreographed pas de deux of man and machine. While the machine readies the pitch, the man executes the idiosyncratic but vital preparatory movements of torso and hand that jump-start his batting rhythm; he leans forward, then rocks his weight back, the bat wavering in a narrow arc above his head much as the young palms visible in the background yield to the soft ocean breezes—slightly forward of true vertical, slightly aft, slightly forward again. As the dimpled yellow ball shuffles down that last segment of the feeder sleeve toward the pair of spinning wheels that will propel it homeward, the batter’s hands twist around the axis of the lower wrist in a subtle cocking mechanism; when the ball drops between the wheels and disappears for an instant, the batter’s front foot lifts, then returns to earth perhaps six inches beyond its initial resting place; the bat itself remains well back, high over the rear shoulder, in obeisance to an ancient admonition—“hips before hands.”
Even in slo-mo, the swiftness of the ball’s flight to the plate startles. At first it seems that there’s no way the man can snap the bat down and around his body fast enough to intercept the sphere (which actually, now, more resembles a yellow antiaircraft tracer) before it blurs by him…. But no, he starts his swing, his lower body leading the way, pivoting sharply on the front foot—now—and in fact, somehow manages to confront the pitch out ahead of the ersatz plate. If you pause the video at this precise point—that millisecond before impact—you marvel at the fact that, slicing through the strike zone, the bat, despite being molded from a single sheet of metal, is no longer a straight, rigid line. Rather, the bat- head clearly lags behind the handle in its travel to the ball, a vivid manifestation of the explosive torque all good hitters rely on for generating power. An instant later, post-contact, the ball too is misshapen, flattened on the impact side, shooting off the bat in a shallow upward arc with such velocity that it appears to leave a comet-like contrail in its wake.
Completing his swing, the man lets go with the top hand, allowing his bottom hand to carry the bat out to his side and behind his back in a broad, sweeping parabola. The sequence then begins anew—though someone who stumbled upon the activity in mid-pitch, having never witnessed it before, might be hard-pressed to tell where it really began and ended. Pitch to pitch, the movements are so rote that even if you take the digital footage and download it into a computer, sample the corresponding movements from the assorted pitches, then splice them together in random combinations, the sequences look identical; interchangeable. You can substitute any of the preparatory movements of one swing for the preparatory movement of any other with no evident loss of continuity. Indeed, to the naked eye, the only differences are those in the demeanor of the man himself from one swing to another. There is the quick, feral-looking grin, top lip pulled back like a snarling Rottweiler’s, at moments of optimal impact; and there is the grimace, or small-but-perceptible shake of the head—a show of disgust—when the impact is less stellar. The man has taken perhaps a half-million such swings in his lifetime, and still, to him, each one counts. Each one matters. For these movements, these acts that casual onlookers might describe as a part of a “leisure activity,” are not just something he does. As much as anything else in the man’s life, and to a far greater degree than most things, they are what he ineluctably is.
I am the man in the video. My wife shot the footage a few years ago, during one of her final trips to the cages with me. She used to accompany me quite a bit when we were younger, hotter for each other; in those days my cage exploits constituted a kind of foreplay, a man showcasing his maleness for his woman in the way that some women will strip for their man. But, like my first wife, she gradually lost interest, and in time I came to prefer her absence to her feigned enthusiasm. (“Oh, that was a good one, honey… Um, how many turns did you say you were going to take today?”) For in truth, even those closest to me have only dimly understood “this thing of yours about the cages,” as my first wife put it. She thought my hitting consumed far too much money at a time when we had little of it, though I believe on a more visceral level she felt suspicious of, and threatened by, my absorption in the cages. Which helps explain the advent of a second wife.[ad]
But she was right, of course. It is the mark of my absorption that I know the pitching machines in American cities large and small, their habits and quirks, as well as I know their physical locations and the best way to reach them from their respective local airports. I can drive the various routes as if on autopilot, making the turns unthinkingly, in much the same way that I can take my batting stance in any given cage, in any given city, and orient myself in the batter’s box within a fractional inch of where I stand in any other given cage, in any other city, at any other time.
I have lived my life in America’s batting cages.
The roots of this phenomenon are dug deep in an otherwise normal Saturday in 1963, shortly before the birthday that would make me a teenager. I was a sensitive, insecure boy— the kind marketers had in mind when they conceived the vengeful psychodrama of those classic Charles Atlas ads about not letting bullies kick sand in your face. I had ample reason to be that way.
Tight pants were very much in vogue that year, which meant I went to school in the loosest-fitting trousers my father could find. Because his world-view posited a conclusive link between fashion-consciousness and homosexuality, I was forever at least one step out of phase, sporting a thin belt when other kids wore them thick, straight cuffs when everyone showed up for school in bell-bottoms, bell-bottoms only after they’d begun littering clearance racks nationwide because nobody with cutting-edge fashion sense would be caught dead in them.
Then again, the loose fit was probably not a bad idea, as I was also fat. My mother, like many Italian mothers of that era, preferred the word husky, but other kids my age, the girls in particular, knew the difference. My huskiness did have its advantages, the chief one being that it diverted attention from my buck teeth and jagged Eddie Munster hairline, both set off by the military-style buzz-cut for which my father took me twice each month—this, as Beatle-mania built to a crescendo. Ill-at-ease in any public setting, I spent my bountiful free time in my room spinning big-band records (John, Paul, George and Ringo taking a back seat to Benny and Artie and Tommy and Glenn in this boy’s musical library) or reading our massive encyclopedic dictionary page by page as though it were a narrative. My parents scratched their heads over my reclusiveness, somehow never connecting up their only son’s social failures with his weight, the eccentricity of his tastes and habits, or the get-a-load-of- this-one dress code they imposed upon him.
Athletically I was a disaster, ponderous afoot and blessed with all the physical fluency one would expect in the above-described package. As a rule, I was the penultimate pick in games during Gym, right before the kid who was so husky he couldn’t squeeze his rump into a single seat on the school bus. Romantically, it hardly bears saying, I did not exist.
Yet on that fateful Saturday, a few weeks shy of birthday number 13, I was to be saved.
For months, my father—a good man at heart—had been trying to ease my introduction to baseball, an essential rite of passage among boys of my generation in Brooklyn. He’d spent many frustrating hours working with me in the backyard on ground balls that displayed an unusual affinity for my crotch, or pop flies that plopped into my glove only after ricocheting off my chin. This day would mark our inaugural foray to “the cages.” There, said Dad, my odds of learning the rudiments of hitting far exceeded what they’d be if he just pitched to me down at the park, where I’d be lucky to get one hittable ball out of four—and doubtless would find a way of getting smacked in the face with the other three.
And so we departed for the Brooklyn Bat-Away, an enterprise then familiar to me solely as the topic of the wide-eyed lunchtime banter that drifted my way from those tables where my socially acceptable classmates sat. The twenty-minute drive was one of those, common to the era, where you could watch the neighborhood deteriorate block by block as you passed through; it ultimately took us to the fringe of East New York, then the borough’s most forbidding slum. “It’s right up ahead there,” said my father, pointing through the windshield toward the Bat-Away’s trademark black netting, which rose high in the air and was visible at some distance above the low-slung landscape. To the young men of Brooklyn, soon to include this young man, the nets were a visual reference point on the order of Disney’s Matterhorn.[ad]
Still, as I stepped from the car and surveyed my surroundings, I wondered what about the ramshackle establishment I saw before me could possibly inspire the thrill that took hold of kids’ voices when the Bat-Away came up at school. The only actual building was the claustrophobic change booth, a makeshift hut that looked to be built of scavenged wood, and overall, seemed more appropriate to a jungle outpost than an urban amusement center. It was already listing to one side and, I thought, might have collapsed at the first strong gust or even an errant foul that tore through the netting.
My father picked through the several dozen bats lined up against the change booth, hefted two or three of them, and, judging one appropriate, nudged me into the second cage out of six. Hung haphazardly on the chain-link door was a rust-edged, license-plate-like sign. It read, WHITEY FORD, 50 MPH.
I knew who Whitey Ford was. I knew that few guys in the Major Leagues could hit Whitey Ford. I doubted I’d fare much better, and I told my father as much.
“Just follow the pitch all the way in,” he soothed, clinking a quarter into the coin box. Fifty feet ahead of me, a yellow light flickered on. The belts behind the blue mechanical arm began whirring. “Pop the hips when you see the arm come down, then throw the barrel of the bat at the ball,” he continued, “when it reaches you.”
While I puzzled over what my father might mean by “pop the hips,” a green light now blinked on above the yellow one. The mechanical arm made a lazy, lulling ascent to its zenith, like an azure-hued cobra cradling a large white egg in its mouth. Then the cobra/arm snapped down and spat the ball my way.
The suddenness of the act caught me flat-footed. But lo and behold, I reacted at the last instant, and an instant later an exquisite sensation flooded my forearms: at once solid and hollow, hard and soft, violent and becalming.
The ball leaped off my bat on a low line and punched into the mesh enshrouding the arm. Astonished, I glanced back at my father, who fought the mirth that tugged at the corners of his solemn expression. “One hit doesn’t make you Mickey Mantle,” he said firmly. “Just remember—hips before hands.”
I sent the next pitch arcing high over the mesh to where deep centerfield would be. Again I turned and smiled at my father. This time he smiled back.
I had found something I could do.
On February 16, 1963—the Saturday I stepped into my first batting cage—I knew nothing about A.B. Ferguson. And A.B Ferguson could not have known, on August 21, 1917, the effect he would have on the life of a maladroit preteen from Brooklyn. It was Ferguson who, that August day, patented the precursor to the modern-day batting machine. Patents for various mechanical means of propelling inert objects besides bullets or cannon shells actually date back to 1884, which more or less coincides with the appearance of organized baseball nationwide. (Such knowledge, an inevitable byproduct of my discovery of the cages: The books I brought up to my room suddenly focused on baseball, hitting, and related matters.) Still, it’s not known whether the first contributors to this movement—among them Henry W. Bradley, who also is credited with inventing oleomargarine—had batting practice in mind. Bradley’s application, for example, describes his invention as an “object-throwing apparatus,” and declines to specify what object his apparatus might throw. In any case, these early inventions did not throw their objects so much as expel them: They used small explosive charges to generate thrust, and in the diagrams accompanying the patent applications, look less like pitching machines and more like miniature mortars. Interestingly enough, the notion that this activity—to be most productive and least irksome —might also call for a device to catch the objects after they were thrown, hit or otherwise scattered did not seem to occur to anyone until 1907, when Wellington S. Titus invented the portable batting cage, presumably after growing weary of chasing fouled and missed pitches. Ferguson was the first to conceive his invention in baseball-specific terms. Though for whatever reason his patent application continues to use the amorphous description —“object-throwing machine”—his sketches bear a stunning similarity to what the batting-cage experience remains to this day: Ferguson’s Fig. 1 depicts his spring-loaded device at one side and a man clearly holding a bat aloft at the other. (One does question whether Ferguson himself ever did much hitting, as the batter’s footwork desperately needs remediation.) Variations and enhancements on Ferguson’s theme appeared through the ensuing decades. A patent issued to J.R. Locoste in October 1930 shows a device that attempts to mimic the action of a human arm, thrusting the ball through a catapult-like effect.
In the 1980s, the metal-arm machines largely gave way to the double-wheel models described at the outset. These were, and still are, commonly called “Jugs machines,” after the best-known manufacturer, although that vernacular is no more defensible than calling all tissues Kleenexes. As a class, the double-wheel varieties tend to be more consistent in both aim and speed than the mechanical arms, which, much like their flesh-and-bone prototypes, can be maddeningly erratic. Further, setting the individual wheels to different angles and velocities enables such models to throw curve balls, which are not possible with machines of the Bat-Away vintage. The refinements continue. Notable are the live-action machines, popular in EPSN Fun Zones and other larger arcades. These marry video and pitching- machine technology such that the ball appears to come straight out of the throwing hand of the life-sized pitcher shown on the projection screen at the far end of the cage; in reality, of course, it’s coming through an artfully placed hole in the screen. In the most advanced of these, the batter can select the Major League pitcher he wishes to face. Alas, the newest wrinkle is the loathsome “virtual batting cage,” where nothing gets thrown or hit, thus reducing the experience to a headset-based illusion in the eye and mind of the putative batter and also depriving him of the timeless exhilaration of bat meeting, and mashing, ball. (I live in terror of a world where this is what children have in mind when they tell their fathers they “want to go hitting.”)[ad]
Thankfully, batting-cage technology had not yet “progressed” to such a point by the winter of 1963, otherwise this might be a very different story, if a story at all. From my first exposure to the “feel of nothing,” Ted Williams’s haunting phrase for that sublime physical awareness of perfect union between bat and ball, I was hooked. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. The cages were free of the relativism and subjectivity that had victimized me elsewhere in life, whether in school (where things my teachers told me failed to jibe with what I’d discovered through independent study up in my room), or in social circles (where I was often left out of the best parties by “friends” who adjudged me and my working-class family of inferior pedigree) or, later, in my so-called love life (where my self-image, fragile on the best of days, took an added battering from girls who must’ve felt they’d done me a favor by acknowledging me long enough to tell me to get lost). In the cages, there were—are—no ambiguities, zero shades of gray: Either you can hit the ball or you can’t. And from day one at the Brooklyn Bat-Away, I could hit the ball.
I spent way too much time there those early years. School was skipped, homework left undone. I’d hop the city bus to the Bat-Away on a near-daily basis as soon as the school bell rang (sometimes sooner), financing these excursions with diverted lunch money. My pilgrimages continued, weather permitting, throughout my 13th and 14th years. It was funny, too, because on Saturdays my father, who never knew of these shenanigans, would drive me to the cages for what he thought was our lone weekly trip, and he’d marvel at the strides I’d made since our last official hitting session. “Son, you really took to this!” he’d tell me. Which was true enough, if not quite as true as he thought.
A teen possessed, I followed my mastery of Ford by taking the measure, in turn, of “Juan Marichal” (65 mph), “Don Drysdale” (75), and “Sandy Koufax” (85 mph, though the real Koufax, of course, threw much harder). Finally, midway between birthdays 14 and 15, I was ready for the acid test. I was ready for “Bob Feller.”
The Feller cage was a mechanized mecca to a generation of ballplayers and would-be ballplayers who grew up in Brooklyn of the 1960s. Named for the Hall of Famer whose legendary fastball once outran a motorcycle traveling 100 mph, the cage was billed as “The World’s Fastest Pitching Machine”—minimum speed of 95, hurled from a distance of 50 feet. For the record, that is more than 10 feet closer than the professionally sanctioned distance, hence the equivalent of a Major League hitter facing a pitcher who throws 110 mph. There are no such pitchers.[ad]
You had to be pretty hard-boiled to tackle the Feller cage, encircled as it always was by crowds of baseball buffs just waiting for some geezer, dilettante or plain dumb schmuck to climb in and find himself laughably overmatched. If you looked bad against Feller the cognoscenti were merciless—and those whose heritages do not lead back to Brooklyn of that era cannot appreciate what I mean by this. Suffice it to say “the dozens,” those over- the-top rank-outs popular among urban youths, pall by comparison to some of the stuff heard in and around the Feller cage.
I heard my share of it in the beginning. There were times when I deemed it a moral victory if I so much as touched a ball. That changed suddenly at about the two-month point, and within another few weeks I’d grown adept enough to call my shots: “Right field, down the line.” “All right now, how ’bout I smack one right back atcha, ol’ Bobby boy.” “Whhhaaamm! So how’d you like that one, Mister Feller?” Yes, I said these things, aloud, as I swung—an ego with a bat in its hands. But I was good, damned good, good enough to develop a following among the plumbers, carpenters, carpet installers and other tradesmen/ regulars who stopped by to take a few swings during the day. They’d form an avid entourage who, when I swaggered toward that storied last cage on the right, parted like something out of The Ten Commandments, then jockeyed for position along the fence, where they’d cram their faces up against the chain links. I’d slap my quarters on the top of the coin box with a theatrical flourish and revel in their oohs and aahs while smacking cannon shot after cannon shot to the far reaches of the heavy netting that separated my blasts from the windshields of passing motorists. At the cages, if nowhere else in life, I was accepted.
I had blossomed since age 12, shooting up to a well-proportioned six feet; eventually I would top out at 6-4. (Between the skipped lunches and all that hitting, I’d lost a lot of sloppiness, gained a lot of sinew.) Braces had taken the measure of my once-rebellious teeth, and Dad no longer regarded my hair’s attainment of four millimeters’ length as grounds for an emergency trip to the barber. In my attitude toward the fair sex, however, I remained that same fat kid squeezed into a sleeker package. It follows that I savored the reaction my cage exploits elicited from girls, all the more so when I was able to elicit that reaction at the expense of one of the “super-cool” guys who’d been my tormentors a year or so before. Now and then some leather-jacket type would drag his date down to the Bat-Away in hopes of showing off, only to discover that he could just about get around on the entry-level machine (“Gaylord Perry”). Whereupon I’d strut right over to the Feller cage and do my gig, complete with insufferable narration, then make a point of nonchalantly tossing my bat and helmet to the side. All in a day’s work. Sometimes I’d feel the unaccustomed heat of a girl’s eyes upon me as I swaggered off, and I’d hear one of the “Brooklyn Brandos,” as we called them, rebuking his date: “Hey Angie, what the fuck you lookin’ at?” Heady stuff.
On Saturdays the school crowd turned out in force. Those same animated male voices I’d heard singing the praises of the Bat-Away during lunch, if from a distance, now joined in the chorus of adulation as I hit. Not that it made much difference in my standing in the scholastic caste system. Any impulses my weekend admirers might have felt to accord me a place at their tables went un-acted upon, and I doubt I’d have felt comfortable had they made the offer. Our lives and interests intersected at the cages, and the cages alone. Not surprisingly, then, amid the ebb and flow of my uncertain transition to adulthood, amid the beginnings and endings, periods of growth and regression and growth again, the cages became the one constant and my all-purpose touchstone—confidante, cross, and whipping boy rolled into one, a means of sublimating every emotion whose expression through the normal channels was denied to me by virtue of my ungainliness and/or maladjustment. In an adolescence mostly devoid of females, I found my fulfillment at the cages. And if I didn’t think it then, it now seems plausible to construe each series of swings —excitement, release, resolution, excitement, release, resolution, over and over again—as a perfect cycle of para-sexual experiences, compressed into tenths of a second.
The venues changed over time. My beloved Bat-Away was razed to help make room for a gargantuan subsidized housing complex, much like Brooklyn’s other iconic baseball venue, Ebbets Field, before it. My means of making a living changed, moving from music to selling to writing to teaching. Never far in the background were the cages.
To say that hitting consumed my free time understates the case. Just as it had during school, hitting consumed much of my non-free time as well—this, to the detriment of both my professional and (emerging) social lives. I had few other leisure pursuits, and those I did have wound up as passing fancies. Until I became engaged to my first wife, I did have occasional lovers, but no drinking buddies nor, really, buddies of any kind. There were times, mostly during college, when I’d go to the cages with another guy. It wasn’t the same. The sessions became personally competitive (mano-a-mano, not mano-a-beisbol) and layered with further nuance that, I felt, undercut the purity of the experience. I stopped going to the cages with other guys.
For some reason, all of my jobs have entailed a fair amount of travel, and so as soon as I reached a new city, my first order of business would be to locate the nearest hitting establishment. By the ’80s batting cages had caught on with Little League teams, so any given afternoon in Troy, Michigan, or Plano, Texas, or Murietta, California, would find yours truly down at the neighborhood cages plopping quarters amid a sea of jabbering 9-year-olds. Because coaches were wont to tape their kids in the act of hitting, I’m sure that today, all over America, in towns large and small, there are former Little League managers and team parents whose personal film archives contain shots of tiny Bobby or Mikey or Sean hitting, and there, in the adjacent cage, is this tall guy swinging with furious abandon, often as not wearing most of a business suit.
I became exquisitely sensitive to the tiniest variations in pitching-machine performance, such that I could tell when the arms or wheels were throwing a few mph faster or slower. Radar guns weren’t generally available to confirm my intuitions, but I knew, just as Ted Williams could discern a fractional difference in the incline of a batter’s box. One afternoon I went to the fellow at the change booth of an establishment in Jupiter, Florida. “You want to check the fast machine,” I told him. “The ball in flight sounds different.” He narrowed his eyes on me, then waved me off, telling me I was imagining things. When I came back the next afternoon I was dismayed to find a hand-lettered out-of-order sign draped across the cage door. A few batters after I’d left the previous day, the arm had collapsed to one side in mid-pitch, delivering a fastball that just missed neutering a hitter; seems a screw at the base of the arm had worked itself loose. As I trudged over to the adjacent cage, I couldn’t help noticing the expression on the face of the attendant I’d tried to warn: He was studying me as though I might’ve found my way there straight from one of M. Night Shyamalan’s worst nightmares.
Along the way, it became routine for those I met at the cages to ask if I’d “ever gone out for baseball.” I did spend the July of my 15th year at Ted Williams’s Baseball Camp in Massachusetts. Convinced that I was a prodigy, if not the second coming of Williams himself, my beaming father found the tuition money. I did not do as well as expected, but I considered my lackluster showing of little import. For one thing, I was thrown in with older guys, 16- to 18-year-olds on the fast track to the pros. As I recall, at least two of our pitchers signed Triple-A contracts within a year of leaving camp. These were well-rounded ballplayers who themselves had spent a fair amount of time hitting—and fielding, and throwing, and learning the higher concepts of team play.
I learned several things myself that summer, foremost among them that hitting off a machine wasn’t the same as hitting off a real-live pitcher. Real-live pitchers didn’t groove every pitch belt-high. Real-live pitchers kept you off balance by mixing up the pitches, speeds, locations, and delivery angles. When a real-live pitcher threw a real-live fastball, the infernal thing moved, darting and dipping and just generally playing havoc with your ability to “hit a round ball square,” as Yogi Berra famously put it; a batting-cage fastball came pouring straight in, shouting HIT ME. Above all, a real-live pitcher was not above putting you on your ass every now and again merely to remind you that he could. One of the camp’s hitting coaches was fond of saying, “You need lots of balls to play baseball.” His meaning became clear my second week in Massachusetts, when a young phenom who went on to sign with the Detroit Tigers uncorked a scorcher that sailed up and in, nuzzling the hairs on the back of my neck as I fell out of the way.
To my mind, though, the issue was never “balls,” or even talent; it was interest. I was loath to make the investment in shagging and dugout-sitting that bought me the opportunity to swing at perhaps one or two good pitches every third inning. And it was something else as well, something that really didn’t hit home until a few years ago, when I decided to give the game another chance, and played for a time in an over-40 hardball league. Much as I enjoyed baseball from the spectator’s vantage point, I could not as a participant abide the near-total disconnect between effort and result. A scorching line drive would plop into an outfielder’s glove for a harmless out, while the next hitter pushed in the go-ahead run with a blooper he barely dinked off his bat handle. With the game on the line, a pitcher who “induced” a batter to rip a smart one-hopper to short, where it was promptly converted into a game-ending double-play, would be hailed as a hero—even though, had that same ball’s trajectory taken it a yard to either side, it would’ve shot through, handing victory to the other team. Veteran ballplayers will tell you that “it all evens out in the long run”…but therein lay the very source of my frustration.
What’s to be said of the metaphysics—the morality, if you will—of an enterprise whose inherent leveling effect creates functional parity between the superlative and the second-rate? What the cages offer, then, is baseball filleted, a continuous loop of the “good stuff” in its most unalloyed form. All that matters is that you make solid contact; what becomes of the ball thereafter is irrelevant. Nor, in the cages, do I need to suffer the faux camaraderie of men who, in truth, are bitter rivals for individual glory, this little intrigue playing out in a mise en scene whose philosophical scope is circumscribed by words like shit, cocksucker and pussy.
My stint in over-40 baseball merely confirmed what I’d come to suspect after my summer at the Williams camp: that the cages’ very insularity was no small factor in their appeal for me.
The ball diamond had revealed itself as just another place where I did not fit in.
On a bright Saturday in the late March of my sixty-third year, I sit in my car chewing a fast- food lunch, and alternately my nails. Ahead of me, a corps of young men peel off the canvas covers that protect the machines from the pelting rains and machinery-rotting snows of winter in eastern Pennsylvania, where I’m living these days. It is a measure of baseball’s loss of status that here, as in many parts of the country, most such establishments close for the season in early September, well before pennant contenders are decided.
Not having hit since last fall, I am anxious, as is invariably the case nowadays after a layoff of any duration. I wonder if this will be the time I notice that age has taken its toll.
The day is coming, I know, when my eyesight will begin to fail me, or my muscle memory no longer is able to vector my hands with the precision needed to effect flawless contact. It starts innocuously enough: you foul off a pitch or two. The fouls begin to come more often, till one day you move a tad deeper in the box. Just for today, you lie to yourself. It’s cold out, and I’m a little stiff. Then your form starts to deteriorate bit by bit until you resemble a bad parody of a hitter, a la those former baseball greats who make themselves look oafish by throwing out the first ball on Opening Day. One afternoon you turn around midway through an especially nightmarish session, maybe after missing four or five in a row, and you catch the high school players smirking at you in your futility (just as I once smirked at the incompetents who tackled the Feller cage). One of them grins and says, “This machine’s kinda quick for you, eh pop?” Eventually you can no longer hide from the truth: They’re right; you can’t get around on the fastest machines anymore. In hitting’s ignominious twist on second childhood, you regress from the Fellers and Koufaxes to the Marichals and Fords.[ad]
So far I’ve been able to deny the devil his due. Through six decades I can still out-hit most of the high school and college studs who flock to the cages on weekends. But the writing is on the ball, as it were. Already I notice, or think I do, that my hits don’t always produce the same sharp sound they once did. There’s just a trace of that godawful softball thud mixed in, that certain muffled squishiness that defines the difference between a nice clean crack and a slightly softer thwack: the telltale acoustics of the aging swing. At first I thought the problem might actually be my hearing. I ruled that out after paying close attention when some of the stronger young hitters took their cuts. They may not hit the ball as consistently hard, but when they do catch one on the screws, as we say, the sonic accompaniment has that unmistakable crispness.
I’ve confessed such worries to my wife, and she’ll smile indulgently, as one might smile at a child who voices fears about how Santa will get safely down the chimney, you know, with the fire and all…. That’s okay. I don’t really expect, nor do I need, her understanding. My world is not a world she inhabits. That’s how it’s been all along, really—just me and the cages. I’m comfortable there, and it doesn’t matter where there is, or what type of machine I may find when I get there. The essential experience is the same. I’m reminded of what my more spiritual acquaintances say about their respective religions: Wherever you go in life, your church is your church, regardless of what the buildings may look like, or your distance from home on some map. You are home. You belong.
I down the last bite of my lunch at the same moment the workers finish readying the machine. They give a thumbs-up to their first customer of the new season, who secures the snaps on his well-worn batting gloves, drops a token in the slot, and sets up in the fast cage. Once again—for the how-many-thousandth time?—I wait for the green light to flicker on; it obliges me. I tense, now, wave the bat above my head. That ancient admonition—hips before hands—reverberates up from somewhere deep inside. The ball rockets toward me, and a heartbeat later that incomparable feeling warms my wrists and hands and forearms, no less joyous than it was that first time, forty-nine years ago. The feel of nothing. I smile. This is where I come to feel nothing, the one place in life where I’m freed of torments past, oblivious to pitfalls future. It is, will always be, food for the hungry heart of that fat little misfit from Brooklyn.
Photo courtesy of the author