Get In There and Swing

Vince approaches the gate to the baseball diamond, tugging the leash toward the chest-high chain-link fence, and I hesitate.

This wasn't part of the walk. Nobody's around, but I'm not even sure we're allowed to go out onto the field, even though Vince has already pooped and is unlikely to repeat the feat.

Still, something about an empty diamond draws me in, and I lift up on the gray latch to hear the door screech open. Vince trots through, taking his place in the on-deck circle. By reflex I walk to the plate. I stand there like an oblivious catcher, waiting for the slugger to round third at a full sprint and slide in, creaming me.

This is a smallish field, I notice. Little league, I suppose, and the pitcher's mound is almost alarmingly close — why, you could barely avoid smacking the ball right back into the poor guy. I walk the bases and marvel at their nearness too; first is *right there* and look, I'm already on second. I pause, looking out at the outfield as Vince sniffs the grass.

I coached little league once, actually. About a year ago. My friend talked me into it; I would be the assistant coach and he would be the real one. It was a challenge — not only because we never won a game, and the other coaches conveniently forgot to tell Larry about draft day until it was too late for him to attend, sticking us by default with the most inexperienced players in the league — but because Larry and I were just as green. Neither of us ever coached anything, nor did we have kids of our own.

It was so difficult to convince the kids to just "stand in there and swing!"

The 9-to-11-year-old on the mound was just too intimidating for most of them. Their fastest pitches were more in the category of a lob, but in fairness to our paralyzed batters it was the first year after Coaches Pitch baseball, so our league's mini-Nolan Ryans were more like lawn sprinklers as far as accuracy.

I was no better as a kid. In little league they put me straight to right field, telling me it was because I had a strong arm and could throw hard to the infield, but that wasn't the real reason. I was scared of the ball, just like most of us. I once dropped an easy pop fly, and the sun wasn't even in my eyes. I was mainly just covering my face with my glove. Fortunately — miraculously — my friend Andy Robinson was crouching behind me, "backing me up" like the coach had taught us, and caught the ball and saved the out. Twenty years later, I still remember him doing that.

But it would be so easy now! Here on second base it looks as if I could almost *throw* the ball over the fence from the plate. Home Run Colin. And as a fielder, anything hit by an eleven-year-old, which I did see my share of, though not nearly often enough, would be pretty simple to "get down on" and toss to the appropriate base.

I sympathized with my kids; I really did. Most coaches never sucked at baseball — that was my big advantage. When Jackson stepped out of the box for the third straight pitch, gasping at the umpire over his accurately called strikeout, I knew why he was doing it. It's scary in there. Everyone's looking at you, and the pitchers... well, the pitchers I swear are trained in intimidation. At the very least they're usually taller than you. Even without the mound.

Still, I looked out at the field, and the grass, and the fence, and smiled. It was a nice night. Vince squirmed around on his back, just behind where the shortstop would crouch. And along the fenceline, right in that area between inside the park and out, between a tough double and ice cream sundaes after the game, was a length of yellow plastic.

A tube of corrugated plastic, slit down one side, and fitted over the top of the fence to keep kids from getting scratched on the chain links. It ran for several dozen feet. They didn't have anything like that when I was playing. Not only did it prevent injury, it seemed to highlight your homers, like a bright yellow marker underlining every ball that sailed over. How cool!

But they didn't have enough to go around. This little field was probably sixty, maybe eighty feet across, and if so they only had about forty feet of tubing. So they did the logical thing and ran the guard just along the fence behind left- and centerfield, where most of the long balls are hit.

Why there? It's a familiar principle to anyone who's ever played — especially anyone who's ever been stuck in deep right, year after year. Most batters are righties, and most of us hit to left field. We swing too early, and connect with the ball late in our swing, so instead of flying off straight to center it tends to pull to left, where the best fly-catcher on the other guys' team is always waiting.

I stood on second base and looked at this corrugated plastic tube and thought about swinging early and watched Vince ecstatic in the grass and I couldn't help smiling. Just a little.

To imagine generations of little batters — me, and the ones here now, and all the ones before us — getting too scared and excited and hopeful and swinging too soon, underestimating our own strength and "getting the bat around" faster than we figured, then somehow making contact anyway, was reassuring.

And universal! Go to the nearest baseball diamond, be it pee-wee or pro, sit down and watch a game or two, and I'll bet you most of the fly balls go to left. Most of the homers, too.

We all get scared, we all freak out, we all don't believe in ourselves enough, yet still we succeed. Some of the time, anyway.

That was a nice thought to leave with. Especially since I knew, as I tugged on Vince's leash and steered us toward home, that I owed the whole moment — all the reflection, all the explanation, and even the happy memory of my friend Andy Robinson, wherever he is — to a length of corrugated plastic.

It wasn't the only conclusion I could have drawn. It wasn't the only way my thoughts could have gone. But that's how they went. And for that, and for so many other things before and after it, even 0-and-18 seasons — especially 0-and-18 seasons — I am grateful.


Anonymous said...

What a fun experience for you and my little doggie nephew :) I remember sucking at a lot of things (sports - mom gave us little to no eye-hand coordination and both parents donated such stellar vision...then of course there was the asthma)...so I just stopped trying and focused on what I did well. And you know what, that's what has made me who I am today, and happy with what I do for a living. Athletic prowess means nothing in the real world (unless you're a pro athlete or one of those crazy Olympians). I think you did the exact same thing :)


{ ry | no } said...

Man Colin, why don't you bring out the nostalgia in me? My brain is chock-full of little league memories. So, thanks.

Here here to the cut you got from sliding when you didn't need to, the 10 run rule, sunflower seeds, getting into your uniform hours before game time because it makes you feel cool, and rewarding yourself with Big League Chew and a Suicide in a winning, or losing effort.

Kimberly said...

The most I ever learned in a season both life lessons and improvement of my skills was when I missed draft day because I was sick. I was playing off season competitive basketball in CA and I got placed on the worst team. It was the best thing. I could enjoy the game for what it was, a game. My coaches knew we stunk and we had a blast. You must have been a great coach Colin. Those kids will remember even when they are in their 30's like myself.