I helped the man load the poles and netting into his pickup truck.
“My boys are really gonna like this,” he said, handing over the money.
“I’m glad,” I said. And I really was. I gave him a batting helmet I no longer needed. “Take this too; one of your boys can wear it.” He thanked me, got in his truck, and drove off. Transaction over.
The man didn’t feel an era ending, but I did. Batting cage sold. No baseball comeback now.
I am a trier. I try things. Between two important parts of my brain, the realistic part and the wishing part, is some canyon of a synapse I can’t help wanting to jump over again and again. Oh, I know, I always knew, I would never be a pro ballplayer, or even a good one. But dang, I wanted to try. And so I did.
Me, back in the day. And what a day it was.
It all started when my son was six or seven and going through the usual introduction to baseball through Little League. Dad is a huge fan, so naturally I encouraged Joseph to give it a try. He gave it a game try, too. But some kids take to it and some don’t. Some kids like the idea of trying to swat a ball coming at their head, some don’t. After three years, Joseph said no more please. I was fine with that; he gave it a shot.
But while he was doing it, I witnessed a lot of parents who leaned really hard on their kids to be successful baseball players. Really hard. Coaches expected fully formed ballplayers by age nine. There was one butthead who never ceased to yell from the stands, “PITCH IT, TYLER. DON’T THROW IT. PITCH IT.” Always. Every time his poor kid was on the mound, working in the heat, his dad worked on him, with never a word of encouragement. I wanted to throttle the guy.
If I was going to get any baseball glory, it wasn’t going to be on the back of my son. I decided, at age 46, to play myself while I continued to support his career. I did the research. I got a hitting coach, a friend from Golf Channel who really knows the game. I trimmed down to 197 pounds. (Some of that has come back, but not all.) I worked, learned, sprinted…yes, I did wind sprints. Bought a 10x10x40-foot batting cage and a pitching machine so I could practice in my back yard, and I practiced a lot.
I got on a team full of young guys and got the occasional at-bat. After awhile, I got the chance to manage my own expansion team in the Orlando Senior Baseball Association, a 38-and-over, real-deal, wood-bat, fast-pitch, nine-inning league.
My friends, I was…not good. No. I believe my lifetime batting average was around .182, although it may have edged north of the Mendoza Line (.200). I was not a fast runner. I had a slow bat; when I did connect, it was usually to the opposite field because I just wasn’t getting around as quickly as I should have.
And you know what? I really didn’t care. I got so much out of this try. Sure, there were failures aplenty. But also some really good plays: the RBI singles, the perfect bunts that set up the next batter to drive in runs, the towering fly balls that I was able to hunt down (you could hear everyone in the stadium holding their breath while I circled underneath). And then my favorite play: me on 1B, chasing down a high pop fly in foul territory. It came down hard, hit the heel of my glove, popped up toward my face — and I instinctively nodded. Ball stuck under chin. Umpire screamed, “BATTER’S OUT!”
I loved that play.
But much more important than all that stuff was the catalog of things I learned (or relearned) and the men I got to meet. I actually took myself out of a game once because I missed an easy pop fly, and felt everyone glaring at me (or imagined I did). Sitting next to me on the bench was my catcher, who waited an appropriate moment and then said, “You know, this game will beat you down. You just gotta stay on your feet. Next inning, get back out there. You deserve to be there.”
Another time, my manager (I had turned over the field managing duties by this time) called me in after a ball dropped between me in right field and our center fielder. I asked why. He needed people out there who would make an effort, he snapped. Problem was, my son was in the dugout. I was spectacularly embarrassed in front of my own boy. (Truth was, I was trying to avoid a collision with the center fielder.) But I bit my lip and took it. With my son watching. One day, he will have to do something similar and see that it’s not the end of the world.
If I could pick one thing I’m most proud of from my adult baseball experience, it’s that: the season-in, season-out, off-the-field observation of my son, who got to see his Dad try, fail, refuse to give up, deal with injury, come back from a knee operation (meniscus trim), be a member of a team — in other words, chase it, whatever the It turns out to be.
It felt great, playing ball. Nothing beats standing in the grass on a hot day, watching the bat, the count, the batter, waiting, hoping for the ball. I wanted that ball. At first base, I dug the digging out, the smell of dust, the rooster tail grit in my face from a short-hopped throw from the hole at shortstop, the around-the-horn satisfaction of completing a 5-3 with a deep stretch and POCK there’s that ball right where it should be in my glove, a full second before the runner’s foot hits the bag.
And as hard as hitting is, I loved being in that box. Every AB was a new chance. I did my share of walking back to the dugout, grimace on my face. But I also got to chug it down the line a few times after lifting a shot over 2B — or, one time I remember, trot down after taking a 70-mph fastball in the thigh. “Don’t rub it,” muttered one of my teammates as I passed our dugout. I shot him a look: “No FUCKING way,” I said.
As I reached my 50s, our league began to play in a beautiful stadium in Sanford, about an hour away. With drive time, game prep, and the game itself, it was a six-hour commitment, essentially a whole weekend day. I didn’t feel right about that from a family point of view. Also, I wasn’t getting any younger, but it seemed like the guys in the league were, with more and more just-old-enough pre-40s coming in. And the fact was, you can hide a slow runner, but it gets hard after awhile to hide a slow bat in the lineup. All in all, I figured it was time to go, even though I heard in my mind the echo of the old saw, “You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing.”
I know I did the right thing. I was an injury waiting to happen, and you can’t play baseball the way it should be played if you’re thinking like that. Still, I always held out hope of coming back, perhaps as a late-innings role player, a fill-in OF, even a bullpen catcher — even though I knew it wasn’t likely. But as long as I had that backyard batting cage…
Until I didn’t. I always knew. And that’s fine. I’m so glad I played, that I took on the project and did it. I think I was helping more than just myself. So, the spikes are hung up for good.
Not that I’m going to stop being a trier. I rowed competitively in college, and there’s a boathouse just down the road. My wife and son have enrolled in programs, and wouldn’t you know: there’s a men’s masters division….
Comfort zones are overrated.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr