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MY TURN AT BAT
A Baseball Boy Turns Fifty
By Jack Bushnell
Let me tell you the nightmare first. It visited me in a motel room in Indiana, in June 2002, as I was driving east to pick up my son on our way to Fenway Park. The manager comes to me shortly before the game, tells me he only has nine guys, so I'm in. But he wants to warm me up, so he puts me in right field, hits slice shots and line drives at me. I don't catch a single ball. I misjudge them. They hit my glove and ricochet off. I lose sight of them as they approach. I notice my fingers aren't even in the glove, just through the strap, so it hangs on my hand in a strange, ineffectual way. It flaps at impact, like a pet door slapping open and shut behind the escaping animal. For one of the line drives, the manager turns his back to me and hits the ball between his legs. It gets to me so fast, I don't see it.
"I've got a good glove," I tell him sheepishly, meaning to reassure him that I usually catch the ball well. "Though I guess I'm not showing it."
He tries to be kind, but he's clearly skeptical and maybe wishing anybody else, even the batboy, would turn up to play in my place. "Can you hit a softball?" he asks, hoping perhaps that I might have a chance with an off-speed pitch, hoping thatdespite my abysmal fieldingI might contribute in some way to the team.
That's when I wake up. Because I can't bear it any longer. Because the humiliation is about as thorough as it could be. In the empty, sterile darkness of the motel, with the air conditioner rumbling loudly across the room, I feel not only alone but alien to myself, as if I couldn't possibly be me. And I wonder why I'm having a dream like this now, in the summer of my fiftieth year.
There's a trick to playing baseball well, I think. I first learned it during long, satisfying hours as a boy, throwing a tennis ball against the concrete retaining wall down at the bottom of my neighbor's sloping yard. I stood in our suburban street, literally at the base of the foothills in Boulder, Colorado, and threw hard. If I wanted a groundball that would stay low, I pitched toward the base of the wall. If I wanted a high bouncer, I'd aim at a midway point. And if I wanted a flyball, I'd hit the sidewalk first, forcing the ball to carom up into the wall, then (through simple laws of physics) up higher still, lofting toward me or, even better, over my head.
But here's the key: no matter how that ball came back at me, I tried not to lunge, not to hurry. A simple cross step, left over right, knees bent almost to the ground, and a backhand scoop, the ball thumping into the webbing of the glove. I'd seen plenty of major leaguers play a grounder like that. Or two long strides forward, catching it with deliberate casualness, then firing it against the wall again. Out at first. Or, my favorite, loping back on the high fly, reaching up over my shoulder as if to touch an apple ripening on a branch above me, pulling it in, admiring it nestled in the leather. I was a boy. I missed plenty. But I knew something already. I knew how to conserve energy. I knew, I guess, that that's what the game was partly about. Not a rushing back and forth or up and down the field. Instead, on defense anyway, a kind of giving way, a receding that robs the ball of its force, confounds it, tames it, redirects it. Calms it.
In other team sports, the players are mostly vehicles for the ball, accomplices in its relentless movement toward the goal, toward an end point. In baseball, they repeatedly thwart it. Except in the case of a home run, the ball travels a kind of elaborate circular path that brings it always back to where it started. From the pitcher to the batter, on the ground to third, over to first, and back to the pitcher. A long drive into the gap is followed by a throw to the cutoff man or to a base, and then it returns to the pitcher once more. Self-contained. No end point. The beginning is the ending, and the ending is the beginning.
Okay, now to a confession, one that I can't help wishing were more unique for a man my age: what I want to do more than anything is play baseball. I'd give up my entire college teaching career for one season as an active major leaguer. Hell, a minor leaguer. That would do. Who do I summon? What dark pact do I have to sign? I sit and watch my town team, the Eau Claire Cavaliers, in the Wisconsin ballpark where Hank Aaron started out as a professional, and I think, "I could play with these guys. I'm still in good shape. I'm still graceful at defense. 'Course I'd have to get my hitting eye back. And I don't have much time." The first baseman on the other team comes to bat. He's tall, with a stoop to his shoulders, and the gloomy, resigned countenance of a mortician. I've already noticed that he has trouble bending his knees on groundballs. In fact, he looks as old as I am, a surprise in a league comprised mostly of men in their twenties and early thirties. The Cavaliers pitcher throws him three fastballs, and he can't even get the bat off his shoulder. I feel a chill.
Problem is, I've wasted too much time already. During my boyhood and adolescence, I lived for football. Though I was always too small to try out for school teams, I nevertheless played eight-man tackle football with friends and enemies right through high school and much of college. I couldn't get enough of it, the catharsis, the exhilaration and exhaustion of all-out physical assault. The joy of speed, the breathlessness of it. And I watched every game I could on TVcollege, pro, anybody. I sat up late, after the rest of my family had fallen asleep, and watched Canadian football, if the reception wasn't too grainy.
I slept with a football.
Baseball, on the other hand, was just something that I did, when the weather turned warm. Out would come the MacGregor or Montgomery Ward gloves, the bat with a screw in it to repair the break from the previous season, the brown balls, some wrapped with black electrician's tape, some just beginning to split a seam. The park was only a couple of blocks away, and we'd gather kids as we walked, our bats over our shoulders, our gloves threaded onto them, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We'd start by throwing around, taking batting practice, then maybe a pickup game if we had enough players. Or, if there were only a handful of us, a game of five hundred.
The only organized baseball I ever played was Little League. Sometime after that, I went out for my junior high school team, made it to the last cut, but it turns out I was also too small for baseball. My friend Gordon Pyle was a pitcher. He was probably half again as tall as I was, with yellow-white hair, and when we played catch at practice, his throws came in so hard they popped the rawhide strips holding the web of my glove. I had to tie extra knots to keep it together. The team played on a dirt and gravel lot behind the school. Not a blade of grass anywhere. I thought I wanted to be an infielder in those days, so I took groundballs at short and third. The bounces were erratic, dangerous. Even after I managed to knock one down or catch it, first base always looked alarmingly far away. It was all too bleak, too unlike baseball. In retrospect, it reminds me of one of those garish, overexposed scenes in a Fellini film.
So, by default, I became what Thomas Boswell, in his book How Life Imitates the World Series, calls "a baseball boy," someone outside of organized ball, for whom the game is simply an inevitable part of life, a place I went to because it was there. Like that hidden field in the Winchester, Massachusetts, neighborhood we lived in one summer, a little ballpark surrounded by trees and honeysuckle. A field of cool green grass, a magic place where my two brothers and I joined a losing team and took on all challengers. I was fourteen. I played third base. Brooks Robinson was my favorite major leaguer. For those months, on a field tucked in behind houses and only visible to those who knew where to look for it, we won. Even now it seems a bit unreal, a product of my imagination, a conjured place of youth.
But there's another field, one not of the past or of memory, but of right now, fifty years into my life. A field I stood in only last night. In fact, I've been there nearly every night for the last year or two, though I can't tell you where it is, except to say that it exists in a place just before sleep. Sometimes it looks like Coors Field in Denver, sometimes somewhere else. A minor league park, perhaps. I'm only aware of a dark, populated vastness out beyond the lights and shimmering green grass that sweeps away from my feet toward the distant wall. I come to the plate, always during a night game. I look out at the mound, scan the infield alignment, take some swings. Then I wait out a couple of balls, maybe even watch a strike, a nice looping curve that I admire. The fact is, I rarely get to the actual hit, which (if it happens) tends to be a line drive to the left side, before I fall asleep. It's the preparatory rituals that I find soothing, that I look forward to. The slowing down of time. Same goes for when I take the field. It's the anticipation, looking in at the batter, getting ready, rather than the play itself. I like that I'm perpetually in a game, one that doesn't progress much but that is always in progress. And it always has a spot for me.
Baseball haunts me. Night after night, summer or winter, spring or fall. I go to it with relief, with a sense of completion.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2004 issue.
JACK BUSHNELL teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. He has published his nonfiction in a number of literary quarterlies and is also an award-winning children's writer. His third book, Farm Crossing, was just released in September.
© 2004 Jack Bushnell
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