I don’t know if it is smart to write this series of my third season in the Grip’N’Rip Baseball League. It might serve as “advance scouting” for the other teams and pitchers.
As if they need much advance scouting when it comes to facing me. I’m fairly certain the book on me reads, “Ethan. Swings at everything. No power.”
The “swings at everything” part is quite true. I’ve been conditioned to swing at everything, thanks to paying a quarter for five swings at Fun Acre. I don’t want to waste my money. If no one else is in the adjacent cages, I’ll position myself significantly in front of home plate and take my five hacks against higher speed pitches, almost all of which approach chest high. Simply making contact is the goal. These pitches may be quick, but they are all so, so straight.
The week after the Ozark Mountain Ducks rang the Howard Bell Trophy and celebrated being crowned champions of GRBL Season V, I started putting in work changing my swing. A reasonable and logical person would ask, “Why would a 46-year-old guy care so much about changing his swing?”
This is a good question.
The comeback answer is this: I want to barrel a ball and send it screaming into the gap where it skips past the outfielders and rolls all the way to the fence and I can cruise into second base with a stand-up double. In that scenario, the outfielders will probably be playing shallow, because they know the book on me. There is a chance the third base coach will be waving me on to third and I’ll be sorely tempted to try it. But I also know that, somewhere between second and third base, an invisible cartoon character will drop a piano on my back and I’ll regret making that decision.
When I first decided to try out for the GRBL, a friend once told me, “Never hit a triple. You’ll puke and pull muscles.” I believe him.
The thoughtful answer is this: Life is all about adapting to change, making adjustments, learning from past successes and failures and having the courage to try something new. In the epic words of wisdom from Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, “Keep moving forward.” I still think my best days on a baseball field are in my future. I might be horribly wrong. But that thought, that my best days as a ballplayer lie ahead, push me to do the work of trying to become better, not only for myself, but for my team, and for those who come out to watch the game. My experiences this summer, from giving away gloves and playing catch to playing ball on 42 Field, reinforce my belief. Baseball is a beautiful game for teaching us and reminding us about what really matters on this third curveball from the sun.
And then I went to tryouts.
I watched fastballs that would shatter bats and sliders dip and dive and curveballs that seemed to roll off a table.
A familiar question popped into my mind, “How does anyone ever hit a baseball?”
It is one thing to catch a baseball. Gloves up to 13 inches in length help to wrangle in and control the circular leather ball that’s only three inches in diameter. Brandon Colter aptly demonstrated how to use all 13 inches of a glove on Friday night. Patrolling left field, Brandon successfully robbed Austin Kendrick, coach of the Mountain Ducks, and my training partner, Mark Blehm, from adding to their batting averages. Catching a ball is a skill much like riding a bicycle. Once the brain figures out how to coordinate hands and eyes and all the moving parts to successfully snag a moving ball, there isn’t much active thought given to the process. Even so, there are times when catching a ball is difficult, like when a someone hits a “major league pop-up” or a smokes a line drive. Catching errors are part of the game, too.
Hitting a baseball is an entirely different skill.
Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports.
There have been several studies on the science of hitting demonstrating just this point.
From the moment the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, the hitter has only 400 milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing before the ball will hit the catcher’s mitt. In comparison, it takes 134 milliseconds for light to travel around the earth at the equator. The brain requires at least 80 milliseconds to process the image, to begin to see what’s happening. During that time, the ball’s almost one quarter of the way to the plate. Swinging a bat takes about 150 milliseconds. That leaves about 150 milliseconds when the hitter must decide whether or not to actually swing. And the ball is only in the hitting zone for 10 milliseconds. Don’t blink. Because it takes between 300 and 400 milliseconds for the human eye to blink. The whole thing will be over.
“In other words, the margin of error for where the batter can make contact with the ball and hope to get a hit is half the width of the SIM-card in your iPhone.”
In 1962, Bob Buhl played for the Milwaukee Braves and went hitless in 70 at bats. Of course, Bob was a pitcher and pitchers aren’t really expected to hit.
If you search “worst hitters in MLB,” you’ll learn that the worst hitters still have a batting average around .200.
My prayer is just to have a batting average. And I won’t get anywhere near 70 at bats this season.
After thinking about it for the remainder of tryouts and during my pathetic batting practice session and for the following couple of days, I reasoned that getting a hit is the equivalent of a baseball miracle.
People in the stands at major league baseball games witness these miracles on a nightly basis for six months every year, completely unaware that they are actually spectators of a sacred encounter. Maybe those of us on the field should take off our shoes like Joe Jackson, we are indeed playing this game on holy ground. (Though, US Baseball Park is an all-turf field, and it gets hot. I’ve seen rubber cleats melt on that field. My feet need all the protection they can get.)
The day before Opening Night of GRBL Season VI, I went to the batting cages at Fun Acre and practiced hitting fastballs. I felt good.
An hour before first pitch at Opening Night of GRBL Season VI, I took my batting practice swings in the cages on the first base side, near the building where the umpires get dressed. I hit a couple of balls on the barrel, balls that might have had a chance to skip on the turf, balls that felt good and cracked loudly off the bat, and made me feel ballplayer-ish. I do not think I have hit baseballs that hard in the past two seasons.
After the Opening Night limo ride, for the first time, I experienced the nervous joy and wonder of getting an Opening Night start in left field.
In the bottom of the third inning, I stepped up to the plate against Skyler Henson.
For the previous two seasons, Skyler has been a teammate. I’ve played catch with Skyler on a couple of different occasions. Once, I was his bullpen catcher. My 30-plus-year-old George Brett signature model Wilson does not have sufficient padding to be Skylar’s bullpen catcher. The other time was this past spring, when he and I were extras in a commercial. We played catch on Hammons Field for an hour while camera crews focused their attention on the face of Andy Galle. It was the first time he had thrown since the championship game of Season V. Everything he threw had movement. My throws, on the other hand, were very, very straight.
With two outs and no one on, in the bottom of the third inning, I walked to the plate. Mets’ manager and slugger Brock Chaffin was behind the plate. I tapped his shinguards in passing as a friendly greeting while he visited with the ump. Before I stepped up to the plate, I looked at the mound. Skyler looked at me and patted his chest, a heartwarming tribute and gesture. I tipped my helmet to him, took a deep breath, and promptly took a slider (which I’m still convinced was off the plate) for strike one. The bat remained on my shoulder.
With that first pitch, I had been properly educated where the outside corner was. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle.
I expected Skyler to throw a second slider and he did. And it was one of the best sliders I have ever seen in my life.
At two days shy of 47, my eyes are far from perfect. There are floaters that like to dance around at weird times. I’m extremely nearsighted and gray skies under the lights make picking up a ball a little difficult. All that to say, I really have to work to see the spin on the ball.
If I had one hundred swings against that second slider Skyler threw, I am fairly certain I would miss one hundred times. My bat would never connect with the ball. I felt my front knee give as I took my stride. I would like to nominate that singular pitch to be inducted in the GRBL Hall of Fame.
After the second strike, I complained to Brock, who is not only a slugger and manager, but also the maker of the bat I was holding in my hand. Brock crafted this particular bat for me to take to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa as part of the Catching Hope Tour. I barreled a couple of balls at the Field of Dreams, even putting one into the corn, albeit on one hop. I don’t think I could have done that in either of the past two seasons. I love this bat.
“Come on, man. Don’t you wanna see what your bat can do?” I stated.
Brock complied and called for a fastball. Skyler grunted. It was fast. But it was also eye high. I did not swing.
Instead, I struck out on the fourth pitch of the at bat, another slider. I know I’m wrong, because umpires are always right. Still, I maintain that pitch was even farther outside than the first pitch.
I saw four pitches. The bat never left my shoulder.
I have now been added to the ever-growing strikeout list of Skyler Henson. This is an honor, the GRBL version of saying, “Nolan Ryan once struck me out.”
My book can now be updated. “Ethan. Doesn’t necessarily swing at everything. Self-proclaimed power at the Field of Dreams.”
I only had the single at-bat in the first game, and did my best to cheer on friends and teammates as they found ways to participate in baseball miracles — Austin and Mark and Jared and Nic and Caleb all getting hits. Despite my lack of hitting success, the Ducks were victorious over the Mets, 5-2. I was delighted to celebrate the win by taking a selfie with my family after the game.
My quest for a batting average will continue on Sunday, August 22, against the Branson Showmen. I’m hoping to experiment with actually swinging the bat in the second game.
I still believe my best days on the field are still in my future.
 Popular Science, https://www.popsci.com/story/science/why-is-hitting-a-baseball-so-hard/.