This is the first in a series of posts, all of which will connect at some point.
As a kid I played a lot of baseball. Where I was growing up, there were organized leagues, Little League and such, but the kids in our neighborhood shunned them all in favor of the way we played, which was not unlike the formation of Italian Governments; pure chaos. Cliques would form, friendships would rise and fall, sometimes you'd play on the same team as kids you hated just because you were bored with your friends, none of it mattered. What mattered was getting good; you stunk, you sat, and nobody said boo about it. Practically any random assemblage of us would have creamed any of the organized teams because they didn't play enough. We would be out there sunup to sundown, hammering away.
We played on a series of overgrown grassy fields connected by Westinghouse warehouses. Those warehouses were a trip themselves, but I'll save that one up. One of the fields required a regular catcher,etc., but the other was against a wall sort of, flanked by cherry trees that served as 'dugouts' because they were the coolest place to sit on those hot ballyards. The trees were close, but not too close, to the warehouses, such that the howler monkeys among us would clamber up the trees and leap onto to the tar roofs of buildings chasing after foul tips. Other things would be bring down from up there, like half-empty liquor bottles, parts of mysterious design, and, a working typewriter. The grass ended in a gracefully curved arch, that was a roadway for trucks to come through, and after that gravel and glass nightmare, was a second grassy area that extended to the next warehouse.
I was a scrawny kid with a good arm for my age, and the only bat I had for the longest time was a 42 ounce monster with Harry Heilmann's name burned into it somewhere around 1925. There was no knob, so one was formed out of electrical tape, rubber cement, and more electrical tape. In the summer months, it would just slide off like a goop of tobacco chaw, and I'd have to choke the bat practically half way up. Given that the bat was almost bigger than me, this meant I had to slap a lot of singles every which way, and I became a Master of Bat Control. If I could've run better than a fireplug, I'd have been the greatest bunter on earth, but alas...
This all changed when I got a 33 ounce Henry Aaron bat with a whippet-thin handle and a huge bat head. I felt like The Hulk Unchained from that point on, and I extracted revenge on everyone who dared played third base. I viewed them like ducks in a shooting gallery, and more than once did I hit a liner so hard it knocked the glove off some saps hand! It was tremendous.
But one kid, who did a lot of pitching...I just had a hard time hitting him, he threw hard and had an odd Tiant-like motion, which I just couldn't see. I can't remember the kids name, just that he had a face like the cartoony mascot of the Cleveland Indians, angular, squinting, always some kind of daffy, toothy grin, even when he wasn't smiling.
But this time I saw the pitch when it was behind his head, still in his hand. By the time it was closing in on his ear, I thought, “I’ll be damned, here comes that little shit fastball he throws,” saying that in my mind just like I had read it in Ted Williams’ My Turn at Bat, only in Ted’s case, it was about Jim Bunning. Those words…they weren’t obscene, or even cranky to me, it was a Zen coen of how much you could see of the world in so little time….
I knew I was going to crush it, and when I knew that, everything relaxed. My hands were loose, I was set up just so, mind, head, heart. I didn’t want to hit another of my frozen rope liners, I wanted to drive it, and drive it as deep as I could. And that’s what happened; it took off so quickly and so high, I couldn’t see it, so I watched the centerfielder, who took two steps back, and watched it sail over his head. On the fly, of all things, it hit the sidewalk of the Second Grass, the one that led to a door that led to…what? We never knew. When it hit the sidewalk, on one hop, it crashed through an unprotected glass pane – tink! – almost soundlessly, the ball never to be seen again, perhaps winding up in a jet engine, but most likely made into a refrigerator.
It wasn’t the hardest baseball I ever hit; there were times when you close your eyes and whip the bat through the zone, and like sub-atomic particles, the bat and the ball go all Hiroshima and you get a dinger. But I was never before or since as conscious about hitting the ball as I was in that small moment.
Are these things happy accidents without a context? Do they mean something more than mere good performance? I wish I knew. But I do know this: I’ve never forgotten it.