Celebrating baseball

 

Editor’s Note:  Major League Baseball started the 2011 season yesterday with a few select teams, and today the Seattle Mariners begin their campiagn in Oakland.  They’ll have their home-opener next Thursday against Cleveland at Safeco Field, and this short story is offered as a celebration of this wonderful sport.

 

 If You Dream It, He Will Come

 by Bruce A. Smith

 

My pitch sailed over Matt’s head, again.  Dropping his bat, he turned to retrieve the ball and the other four scattered along the backstop.  As he got the balls, I saw a grey car slow down on the main street running alongside our Yelm Middle School baseball field.  The driver turned in his seat and gave us a long look.

I didn’t recognize the guy, a middle-aged man with a ruddy face, but our eyes met for an instant.  Then he turned away, accelerated and caught up to traffic.

Matt threw the first of the five balls back to me – it went over my head into center field.  His next toss bounced at my feet and skidded through my legs.  The next two were wide to the left, and as I lunged for the second one I caught a glimpse of the grey car pull into the parking lot.  Matt’s last throw was solid, but tailed wide to the right and I caught it bare-handed.  I gripped the ball tight and rubbed it hard in glove, determined to make my next pitch a strike.  Before I went into my wind-up I saw the driver step out of his car.

He was tall, well over six-foot, lean and trim, early fifties.  He walked toward our diamond with a smooth grace.

Returning to my pitching duties I called out, “Batter-up.” 

Matt, my baseball partner, was twelve-years old and my girl friend’s kid.  He and I were trying to connect as surrogate father and son, and in the summer we came to the Yelm Middle School field about once a week to hit the ball around.  I can’t say we had a lot of fun, or even connected personally, but I think we both felt it was important to try.

My tightly gripped pitch flew directly over the plate.  Matt swung mightily, but missed, again.  It’s hard throwing to a struggling kid because I tried to place my pitches on his bat, but, in doing so they came in soft and floaty, and rarely in the strike zone.  Now, I was changing my strategy.  I was burning them in over the plate.

It worked, I think, because on my next pitch Matt connected, hitting a wobbler foul down the first base line toward the stranger, now leaning on the chain-link fence running parallel to the right field line. 

The stranger leaned over the fence he grabbed it with his left hand.  Then slinging his arm back and snapping it forward, he threw me a perfect strike.  Tears came to my eyes.  I knew, but had to ask, “JJ, is that you?”

“Yeah, mind if I play?” he said, smiling.

“Matt,” I yelled as I walked toward the newcomer, “c’mere and meet JJ Johnson.”

“I see you got my letter,” I said to our new teammate.

“Yeah,” he chuckled, “it was quite a letter.”

I had sent JJ Johnson, Baseball Hall of Famer, a letter because I had had two powerful and lengthy, lucid dreams about him, all of them having to do with him and me hitting the ball around on this Little League field in Yelm, Washington.  I had never met the man before nor had we ever spoken, but my visions were so powerful I just had to tell him.

In these dreams I felt the sun on my skin, the baseball bat in my hands, and smelled the rich sweetness of newly mown outfield grass.  They were so lucid I remember taking deep breaths just to savor the sweet smells.

I envisioned us having a catch and hitting long fly balls to each other in the outfield.  But the best part of the dream was the last scene.  “Lefty” and I sat on the dugout bench and talked about our feelings about playing baseball and what it meant to us as grown-up men, and even how we felt about being men in general.  This conversation was replete with the sense that I was connecting with a friend, one I could talk to about a world beyond baseball, beyond the stranglehold of jock talk and jock thinking and talk about the big questions of our lives and really connect mind-to-mind.

My letter had concluded by stating that Matt and I tried to do the father-and-son thing at our local Little League field on sunny-but-not-too-hot afternoons after I came home from work.  I wrote that we would welcome his presence if he ever visited his sister, who lives in my town and was the intermediary in the delivery of the letter.  She’s is my yoga group, and now her brother was on my baseball field.

“Matt,” I said as the kid joined us, “this is JJ Johnson, the famous baseball player.  The boy looked unimpressed.  I was surprised. 

“He’s in the Hall of Fame,” I added, trying to find a way to impress him. 

“Oh,” he said, still not too wowed.  “Congratulations,” he said flatly.

“He played for the Phillies,” I continued.

“Oh, yeah?  Really?”  Now, I was getting somewhere with Matt, who lived in the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken with his Dad during the school year.  I think JJ saw the glimmer of connection, too, because he turned toward the kid.

“Say, Matt, how about I show you a few things with the bat.  Would that be okay?”

“Sure,” Matt replied.

“Pop, why don’t you catch for us,” JJ suggested.

Pop? I thought to myself.  I’ve never been called “Pop” before.  I’ve helped raise a few men’s children but none of my own, so the idea of paternity felt strange, like wearing someone else’s coat.  But, I liked the feel of it.  Not Matt, though.

“He’s-Not-My-Father,” Matt said very deliberately to JJ.  My new found warmth of fatherhood evaporated.

“Sorry, kid,” said JJ, who looked like he meant it.

“C’mere Sonny,” I said playfully, reaching out my arm and trying to break through Matt’s frostiness in the parental department, regaining my own merriment as well.  Matt squirmed away and pounded the barrel end of his bat on my toes.  His anguish was only half-felt though, and his smirk telegraphed the attack and an impending warming trend, so I was able to stutter-step my way out of trouble.

“See what you started, JJ?” I sung as I danced my way out of danger.  JJ’s eyes twinkled.  Geez, I thought, how come he was called a flake back in his playing days?

At the plate Matt stood in the righty’s’ box.  JJ mirrored him from the left side.

“Hold the bat with the label up, Matt,” JJ said, “and rotate your right hand just ever-so-slightly, so the knuckles all line up.”  He placed his large hands over Matt’s and moved the lad’s right hand into the correct position.

“Now, take a nice comfortable stance.”  JJ modeled, holding an imaginary bat in his hands and placed his feet even with his shoulders.

“And then swing your hips a little.  Roll your arms and shoulders….Let ’em get loose….Now, let the bat come around in little half swings….  Yeah, just like that- you’re getting it.”

Matt had a serious look on his face as he swung.  I wondered why learning the skills of baseball seemed so arduous for Matt.  It never was for me.  Did I have athletic good fortune, or have I only forgotten pre-pubescent performance anxiety?  After a few more practice cuts, Matt looked more fluid swinging the bat.  Boy, I thought, a little coaching goes a long way.

“Okay; now Matt,” JJ continued, “take small, slow swings.  Then make them bigger, and feel your weight shift on your legs and feet….Yeah, yeah, like that.  That’s good.” 

When Matt’s next swing crossed the forefront of home plate JJ grabbed it. 

“This is where you want your bat to be when you hit the ball, over the front part of the plate.  Your arms should be fully extended, your weight shifting off the back leg onto the front.  Put your weight on to the balls of your feet.  You don’t want to be leaning back on your heels when you swing, it’ll take the power out of your swing.  If you want to drive the ball your weight has to be moving into the ball.  Just as you make contact snap your wrists by rolling the right one over the left.  That pulls the body into alignment.  Plus, the wrist snap puts top-spin on the ball, so it’ll carry further.”  JJ looked at his student to see how much was sinking in.  It was hard to tell.

“Try it a few times, easy,” JJ offered.

Matt swung very consciously at first, and very slowly.

“Start taking some good cuts,” JJ encouraged.  “Let your bat swing normally.”

Matt took a few more swings, each time building up bat speed.  He started smiling, then grunted slightly and took a Babe Ruth-sized swing.  He tripped in the foot-holes of the batter’s box, fell to his knees and twisted into a heap on top of home plate.

JJ and I laughed, but when we saw the look on Matt’s face we stopped immediately.

“Okay, let’s try some pitches,” JJ said, walking to the mound.  I stood five feet behind Matt to catch any pitches he missed.

The first four came in much faster than what I had thrown to the kid, but they were all right-down-the-middle.  On each one Matt took a full, hard cut but his swings were late, and he missed. 

With each swing however, his timing improved.  He foul tipped the fifth pitch.  The sixth he connected with solidly and sent a line-drive to short right-field.  It was his best hit of the day, by far.

Over the next thirty pitches Matt continued to hit a few, miss a few, and foul-tip many.  When he missed five in a row, it was clear Matt had maxed out.

“I’m pooped, Pop,” he said, smiling at me as he staggered over to the backstop and plopped on the ground.

“I guess it’s you and me, Popsie,” JJ said with a lilt, and threw me a zinger. 

We started to have the catch I had dreamed about.  I returned JJ’s throws with my best fast-but-I-don’t-want-to-wreck-my-arm throw.  After each pitch JJ took two or three steps backward.  Soon he was out by second base.  I instinctively crouched behind the plate in my old but familiar catcher’s position.  JJ got a fiery glow in his eye.  Are you ready for your dream, big guy?

I had never seen a ninety-mph fastball before, let alone catch one.  I learned instantaneously that pitches that fast demand concentration.  On each piece of heat I focused keenly on catching the ball in my glove’s webbing, not on my palm.  I also crouched on my toes to make sure I could catch the ball off to the side of my body, letting my glove hand swing back in a half-arc to absorb the impact.  Gawd, ninety is scary but it’s a kick to catch one.

After ten or so fastballs JJ started throwing breaking pitches.  Surprisingly, even though they were a tad slower I had to intensify my focus, plus increase my physical exertion.  I tracked each pitch with my glove as it came in, and the break would come so hard and be so unexpected that I had to push my glove hard to intercept it.  After twenty pitches this Pop was pooped too, and I joined Matt in the dirt.

“Cool, huh?” I said.

“Yeah,” said Matt.

“I’m glad you wanted to come and hit some balls today.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

JJ walked toward our gear stashed on the visitor’s bench.  From my equipment bag he pulled my one-and-only adult-sized wooden baseball bat.

“Let’s hit some,” he said, then grabbed a fistful of baseballs.

“Gawd, his hands are big,” I whispered to Matt.  I got up slowly, but this was definitely something I wanted to do, and Matt followed.

“Matt, take your bat and go out to right field, not too deep,” JJ directed.

“Pop, take one of those aluminum softball bats of yours,” JJ continued, “and head off to that other second base,” motioning to the second field that mirror-imaged our field diagonally.

“How far do you think you can hit?” he asked me as I selected my bat.

“I used to be a pretty good hitter,” I replied.

“Do you think you can reach me on the fly from the other home plate?  Y’know those aluminum bats will carry about thirty percent farther than these wooden ones.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s probably still beyond my range.”

“Well, then go out there as far as you can and still be able to reach Matt.  I’ll hit it to you, you hit it to Matt, and he’ll hit it back to me- like a triangle.

“Gotcha.”  I slid my Easton Black Bomber out of my bag and trotted toward center field. 

“Hey, Matt,” I called, “JJ’s gonna hit ’em to me, then I’m gonna hit ’em to you, and then you hit ’em back to JJ.

“What if I can’t reach him?”

“Then move in a little.  It’s no big deal, we’re just out here for fun.”

Matt didn’t look so sure.  It began to dawn on me that athletic endeavors are always serious challenges to Matt, whereas I had always taken them as simple, fun things to do.  All men may be created equal, but not all boys, especially when it comes to sports.  I had always been good at sports and now, I realized I had taken it for granted.  Now, baseball was teaching me a lesson about some fundamental differences between Matt and me, and in a larger sense, between me and many men.  Strangely, as I saw our differences I felt closer to Matt.  Then slowly, like a soft wave of wisdom coming onto shore, there came a deeper connection to all men.  This wave broke and ran up on the sand, giving me a fuller sense of my own manhood.

When I arrived on the back diamond I decided to shade over toward first base.  This put Matt out of the line-of-fire from the balls JJ was going to hit my way.

I turned toward JJ, but he was facing away from Matt and me.  He bent over and picked up two balls, placing both in one palm, like a tennis player does to begin a serve.  JJ then threw a ball in the air and with one hand on the bat stroked the ball toward the left-side of the backstop.  He pivoted slightly, keeping a bouncing motion going in his legs after the follow-through of his first hit, and then threw the second ball in the air, hitting it into the right-side of the backstop.

I saw him complete three cycles of this maneuver and realized he was aiming for the upright poles on each side of the backstop. 

This was not an idle way to pass the time as Matt and I positioned ourselves on the field, nor was it a simple warm-up procedure.  This was much more.  It was ballet, T’ai Chi, and baseball all rolled into one.  JJ Johnson, a Samurai Warrior using a Louisville Slugger instead of a sword.  He hit each pole square-on.

It’s always more than more than just a game, I thought.  The players know that.  That’s why they call it “The Show.”  Maybe that’s why the fans hate them for getting the ten million dollar salaries – the big money is proof it’s not a game, and that makes the players psychologically unreachable for the fan.  There must be some psychic threshold where a fan says, “If you make too much I won’t be able to relate to you, you’ll become too different.”  I guess every fan, deep in his soul, wants to feel he could have a catch with a JJ Johnson. 

Yikes! I realized.  I’m living every sports fan’s deepest fantasy.  This one is more profound than the “Fantasy Camps” in Florida where you dress up in a major league uniform and play ball with a few former pros and two dozen middle-aged guys like yourself.

Mine was the ultimate sport fantasy.  I realized that most men don’t want to play in the major leagues.  What we really want is for the major league players to play ball with us in our hometowns, on the fields where we grew up as kids.  We don’t want Yankee Stadium.  We want the Yankees to play with us in Yelm.  We want them to accompany us as we take our first steps toward independent accomplishment – to hit the home run and win the game, or strike out.  Or more likely, hit the ball to the shortstop and cause a fielder’s choice at second base in a game that gets decided 19-18, and no one can remember who won.

Holy smokes, I thought, I feel like I’m playing in the mythological Garden of the Gods, playing hit-a-round with a Hall Of Famer.  But, then I returned to the reality of my Little League field.  The fellow at the other end had stopped and was looking straight at me.

“Hey JJ, we’re ready,” I shouted.

He smiled and gestured with his right-hand holding two baseballs as if to say, “Here we go.”

He threw the first one up in the air dropping the second from his palm.  He took his swing, one of those compact swings the best hitters on my softball teams always had.  I never understood how they could hit a ball so far without the “big swing”.  JJ popped it up.

My hero?  I chuckled.  That’s just what I want him to do, right?  That makes him a “regular guy”.  Then he swung at his second toss.  He blasted it over my head, beyond the fence and into the street.  It took a big bounce and landed in rhododendrons on a side street.

“Somewhere in between, JJ,” I shouted, laughing.

JJ glared right into my eyes.  Oh, no, I’ve offended ZeusWell, I can always side-step his line drives if they’re too hot, and let it go past me I don’t have to let my fantasies hurt me, do I?

JJ hit a beautiful, solid fly.  I loped to my right and got under it.  Thwop, it hit my glove.  It felt like so many other flies I had caught in my life, but this one was from a God.  Yet, it feels just like any other human, I thought.  Ah, the integration of the human and the divine.

JJ hit three more out to me and then it became my turn.  I got one to actually reach Matt, but the others came up short.  I trotted out and hit them a second time.

“On the green in two,” I called out, then watched Matt.

He threw the first ball in the air, swung, and missed.  JJ walked a few paces toward Matt.  The kid threw another and missed again.  Then he connected- a solid liner that bounced to JJ on two hops.

“Not bad kid,” JJ called out, “let ‘er rip.”

Matt hit the balls like me: some on the ground and some in the air, and with the shorties he had to give ’em a second ride.

For the next forty minutes our triad batted ’round, then my back began to tighten.  Time to quit, I thought, and I slowly walked toward Matt.  He saw me coming and we both headed toward JJ.  He came out to greet us.

“Had enough guys?”

“Yeah, JJ.  Thanks,” I said.  “I really appreciate your coming out to play ball with us.”

“No problem.  Hey, I enjoyed it, too.  I’m always up for a little ball.”  The three of us walked over to the fence behind the home team bench and sat down on the grass.

“So, why did you become a professional ball player, JJ?” I asked.

“You mean, why besides the money?”

“Yeah.”

“I liked the game.”

“How so?  What I mean JJ is, well, I remember hearing Phil Rizzuto remark during a Yankee broadcast that he started playing baseball when he was four years old or so, and that he was currently fifty-six.  When I heard that I said to myself, ‘Ye-Gods, this grown man has been connected to a child’s game all of his life.  How can a grown man do that?’ “

“When you think of it like that it does seem strange, but you have to remember that the game we played as pros was not a child’s game; we’re men playing a man’s game, or rather a sport.  I played the game because it made me feel alive, some days in a grand way.  To feel one’s mastery is what kept me connected to the game, more than the money.  It’s what got me through the hassles like the traveling and the press.”

“So, you knew yourself to be a master?”

“Yes, at my level you had to.  It was a natural thing.  All the players at my level felt it, although most wouldn’t be able to talk about it.  But a few say way too much, too, if you ask me.”

“‘I’m the stick that stirs the drink,’ that kind of thing?”

“Yeah.”

“So what was it like for you, to feel your mastery?”

“I enjoyed being the best, getting the game ball for the big games, and facing the best pitcher the other team had.  It felt like our show, him and me.  We had the baton like a symphonic conductor, to wave in front of every batter.

“They say it’s a team sport and of course it is, but in many ways it isn’t.  I only won or lost when I pitched, and the team’s winning or losing when I didn’t pitch meant something different to me than it did to the non-pitchers on the team.  In fact, in some ways I felt more connected to the opposing pitcher who pitched against me than to my teammates.  It was as if we were a duet, playing as part of two separate orchestras but coming together to perform a movement within the symphony of the game.  Good pitching, I think, raises the team play to its highest level.  The fielding is better, the umpires more consistent.  Everyone tends to be sharper.  The batters have to concentrate more, think smarter; the pitchers then are motivated to think even more imaginatively.  The other pitcher and I did it together in tandem.  If I pitched great and the other guy didn’t, or vice-versa and the game turned into a laugher, then the magic changed.  The game became something else, not necessarily less entertaining or even worse baseball, just different.

“Too, there is something else, baseball itself.  I would not have wanted to play football or basketball, regardless if I could or not, or whatever the money might have been.  I enjoyed being a professional baseball player.  The game itself has an intrinsic power, a poetry perhaps, that made me greater than who I was without it.”

“How so?”

“Baseball defined me.  Or rather it mirrored me, expressed me, made me visible to myself and of course, others.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Baseball expressed my masculinity.  It is a game for and by men like me.  Its rhythms and essences are the same archetype of manhood I feel in my regular life.  It is non-violent, yet rigorously physical and competitive.  It is powerful and graceful in the ways that I feel myself to be.  It is precise and specific in its power, like a fastball – all my body mechanics had to be right for my pitches to work.

“Baseball requires the men who play it to be smart and savvy, both intuitively and intellectually.  You can’t be dumb and successful.  The true greats of baseball know what the odds are on every pitch given the circumstances of the game, such as the count on the batter, the score, the inning, and the skills of the individuals. 

“You play as a team, but all the functions of the game are a collective of individual movements.  That rhythm, that poetry, is of my essence.  I like to do my thing, not be part of a mass herd, like a football team.  It’s a question of my sensibilities.”  JJ took a deep breath and we all shared the pause.

“Baseball is very visual, too,” he continued.  “All the plays are easy to see and understand: the pitcher in his wind-up or an outfielder running full-tilt to snag a line-drive.  The action is clear and clean.  Not messy like football, with twenty guys crashing into each other at the goal-line.  Baseball has a magic that no other sport has, and I enjoyed helping create some of that magic.”

“What do you mean, magic?” I asked.

“Baseball speaks to the American soul, especially men.  It describes something very deep about what American men are.  That is the reason so many movies are made about baseball.  ‘Field Of Dreams’ was a baseball movie.  It wasn’t about football, tennis or hockey.  And God!  There are so many of them- ‘Angels in the Outfield.’ ‘Stealing Home,’ ‘Bull Durham,’ and all the little ones, like ‘Major Leaguer I’ and ‘II’, and ‘Rookie of the Year.’  Whenever you go to the video store you always see a couple of baseball movies on the rack; maybe you’ll see one other movie about some other sport, like “Mighty Ducks” or something.

“So being a professional baseball player put me in touch with something essential about myself as a man, and specifically being an American man.  For many boys learning to play baseball is part of learning how to be a man in American society.  Baseball presents an ideal of what it is to be strong, graceful, and smart.  Baseball models these ideals better than any other sport.  Baseball reflects a very noble part of my maleness, whereas I think football reflects a baser aspect of masculinity – you know, the primitive physicality and brutalizing potential of men.  Football, to me, is male energy gone amuck.  Baseball is a loftier energy.  It reflects a higher consciousness.”

I laughed.  “I can see where this kind of vision of yourself and baseball would get you through those games in August with the Cubbies.”

“You got that right.”

“And I can see why you never talked to the press.  They’d never understand this.”

“Yeah, but the funny thing is, that even though they could never fathom what I was trying to tell them, they in their own way help to sustain this beautiful thing called baseball just by telling the story of the game.  They don’t have to explain it.  The true majesty of baseball is an internal one; it’s usually felt not spoken.  After all, it’s a game that’s played, not talked about.  The philosophizing is secondary.”

“But, I like the philosophizing,” I countered.

“Me, too,” JJ said.  He leaned back against the fence and took a breath, then added, “It’s the icing on the cake.”

Our words ended but our thoughts continued, mostly a sweet acceptance of the beauty of our moment, now and recently passed, on a ball field green with the lushness born from the ever pouring Pacific rains, in the northwestern corner of a land so rightly called, “America, the Beautiful.”

 

©

2011

Bruce A. Smith

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