I bought my “new” cleats at Play It Again Sports. My old pair ripped off at the toe box during the second or third week of Friday morning practices with Mark. I tried to repair them with Gorilla Tape; it didn’t work.
At Play It Again Sports, there were several pairs in my size to choose from. I picked the Adidas Icon V. They are some sharp looking cleats. I am not certain my skills are up to snuff for such a shoe. But, they help keep my feet moving in the right direction on the turf, even if I can’t move in them as fast as my mind wants.
I thought about buying a helmet at Play It Again Sports, too. Then I had the crazy thought it might be fun to see if any Minor League or Summer League teams would be willing to lend me one for a couple of months in exchange for a copy of A Year of Playing Catch. I was completely surprised when two teams agreed to ship a helmet my direction — the Cape Catfish of the Prospect League and the Greenville Drive of the South Atlantic League. That means, should the Grip’N’Rip Baseball League play and should I make the cuts, I have a home and away helmet.
I also have a new bat — Mine Bats, Goat model, 34 inches and 31 ounces of European Beech wood. The flat black finish on the bat looks somewhat like Batman’s super suit. I like it. Instead of bearing the logo of the company on the bat, this particular model has the outline of a goat. I was not expecting the bat to be delivered on a Sunday afternoon. When FedEx dropped off the package, I opened it and took a couple quick swings.
I had all but talked myself out of attending a Sunday evening practice with friends from the GRBL. In the first half of 2020, I have tweaked about every muscle in my body. Lower back. Elbow. Wrist. Hamstring. Both calves. Neck. The list is quite ridiculous, really. On Saturday morning, Jamie, Sophie, and I replaced the mat on our trampoline. In the process, I bruised my hand and, again, did something to my lower back. (I also got stung by a bee on my finger, but that was just annoying.) I was leaning toward Sunday truly being a day of rest when the doorbell rang and the bat appeared on my doorstep. After the couple of swings I knew I wanted to hear this bat in action.
I got dressed for practice and loaded up my baseball bat-pack — a youth model also purchased at Play It Again Sports — with towels to help dry off my head, an extra hat, a couple of bottles of water, and the new gear.
I stretched for a considerable amount of time at the field before warming up playing catch with Mark. We made our way to the batting cages where I partnered with friend and Cyclones’ teammate from last season, Scott, to take my first swings with the new bat. More stretching, always stretching, just keep stretching.
I do not know how to describe the feeling of hitting a ball on the barrel of a bat. It’s a sound you feel. A rush of beauty. I took about 20 swings in the cages with Scott and hit a couple of barrels and felt as ready as I was going to be for the Sunday night practice.
My practice team was first to hit, and I quickly volunteered to be the last hitter in the lineup. More stretching, always stretching, just keep stretching while working on timing the pitcher. Chris, the catcher and mastermind behind the practice, kept close count of pitches thrown and number of hitters, getting everyone involved.
In the bottom half of the inning, I ran to second base, where Tyler promptly scorched his first swing my direction. I fielded it cleanly and threw him out. Friday morning practices are paying off. Mark then blistered a line drive over my head, as did the next couple of hitters. I got a workout at second and enjoyed the action. The new shoes felt good on the turf.
My only at bat of the night came against Reese, the closer for the Shockers last season. Reese throws the ball hard, a mid-80s fastball and a sweeping slider. A baseball coach in West Plains, Reese is lean and lanky and young. Put us side by side and the only way you’ll be able to tell us apart is my bald head and glasses. Or something like that.
It is hard not to be intimidated by a good fastball. Until I played in the GRBL, I had never faced a pitcher who threw above 80 mph. The cages at Fun Acre are supposedly 75 mph. There are times I’ll move up five to ten feet and see if I can make contact, but it’s not the same as staring at a mound, waiting, and having the courage to stand in there and swing.
Tanner and Cole were the hardest throwing pitchers I faced last year. Ground out, hit-by-pitch, and strike out were the results of my three at bats against them. Even at 45, I am naïve enough to believe that I can square up a mid-80s fastball. I still think my best days at the plate are ahead of me, if I’ll give myself a chance.
And this is why practicing with Mark on Friday mornings has become one of my favorite times of the week. For two hours, we’ll do infield “work” and outfield “work” and hitting “work.” Later in the day, we’ll touch base and critique and encourage one another. Mark’s encouraging words are just that — words that breathe courage, strength, and heart against my perpetual personal doubts.
I took a deep breath and dug into the batters box — new shoes, new helmet, new bat.
First pitch fastball and I was swinging. I fouled it off. I can do this. Deep breath. Second pitch fastball and I fouled it straight back. I just missed it and I knew I just missed it. And that fact gave me the confidence I needed to keep swinging. Another deep breath. Two sliders outside evened the count. The third fastball and I swung and connected. A solid grounder to second, off the end of the bat. It didn’t bother me in the least that I was thrown out. I didn’t run as hard as I could to save my back and calf. I was proud of myself for not striking out, for putting the ball in play.
As I jogged back toward the dugout, Chris said, “Your bat’s cracked. Sorry.”
I picked it up. The goat had been decapitated.
I toweled off my head, dried the sweat from my glasses, and headed back toward second base, where, at the age of 45 years, 11 months, and 10 days, I might have made the coolest play of my baseball career.
With a runner on first and one out, a grounder was chopped over the mound. One bounce, over the pitcher’s head. A second bounce, the ball was headed toward centerfield. Because I’m right handed and because I was running toward left field, fielding the ball with my glove and then throwing it to second would have taken too much time.
Barehanding grounders is something I’ve worked on with Mark every Friday morning. And it paid off. The ball popped into my palm behind the bag off the second bounce and I flipped it to the shortstop for the force out.
And that is baseball in a nutshell.
Cracking new bats and making the best of the funny bounces.
And, likewise, life.
I hope you have a friend like Mark for the journey.
And don’t forget to stretch.