Archive for March, 2013

March 29, 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About Hitting

Let’s go hit.

Everything we need is in the trunk.

We’ve got a bucket of balls. A bright orange Home Depot bucket filled with  two dozen balls. Balls layered like the earth; a red rubber inner core, a cork outer core, miles of twine wound tight, and two white leather continents bound with one hundred eight red stitches. Well, that leather used to be white; it’s now greenish brown.

None of that synthetic leather. Those balls are cold, slippery, and malleable. They end as oblong spheroids, not balls. Real leather is always warm and only slick when they’ve been polished by years of play. Real leather goes further, though that has more to do with what is inside. Those cores. The synthetics just have a single rubber cork composite.

We’ve got two bats, a maple and a metal. We’ll start with the maple. It sounds so sweet. It’s an instrument of destruction and a musical instrument. Those are holy, acoustic tones when you connect at the sweet spot. You know when you hit it right. The handle is taped; a homemade job. Our sweat and dirt and skin are massaged into that tape. It’s dirty just like the balls, just with less grass stains. It grips our hands, tearing at the skin as it twists in the swing. Those blisters will turn to callouses soon.

When we want to be strong we put down the maple and pick up the metal. If wood is Rite I, aluminum is Rite II. The sweet spot still sings, but now it’s contemporary, not resonant holiness. But we are okay with this; every connection with that sweet spot yields sweeter results. The language of power is brought down to our level.

The sweet spot is real.

Assemble the inventory at the car. Cleats in hand, socks in pocket, backwards cap on the head covered by the five fingered yarmulke. In the other pocket are sunflower seeds –no chewing tobacco here. Bats and balls. We walk towards the fence with the post noon sun drawing our sweat already. Sometimes we remember water.

Set the bucket on the mound and turn to the dugout; we would take care not to smudge the crisp foul line if there was one. Lose the peripherals not left in the car; the keys, the phones, the wallets. Pull on those socks and lace up the cleats. Take off the cap only long enough to remove the shirt. Pour that first cheekful of seeds and step back on to the field.

That cap. It isn’t a current logo, but it’s not old enough to be retro. You don’t wear it anywhere else. The dark blue crown is marred by the white salt stains. The interior band was white once; it’s now a very sickly yellow. The only thing out here that smells worse is the inside of your glove – pungent sweaty leather. But you’re not out here to smell sexxy.

Everyone ready? Start throwing. Start close and back it up; get those arms lose. The sparse conversation is peppered with purple language and my bads at errant throws. Shoulders loose? Okay, let’s do this.

But first, refill the cheek. How do you chew seeds? Some people just chew and swallow them up, shell and all; some people chew them up, suck out the salt and flavoring, and spit out residual paste. The practiced keep a handful lodged in one cheek; with their tongue pull out one seed at a time, crack the shell, eat the seed, and spit the cartridge. Chewing, spitting, standing in the field gauging the vectors of each pitch and swing.

Righty batter – Centerfielder, Leftfielder, Shortstop. Pitcher climbs to the rubber. Pitcher is a stretch, but he’s the most accurate of the least injured. He pulls one ball from the bucket and begins to whip it into that glove; the batter uses gloves and preens before stepping into the box. Picher is a column, facing Third. Then he turns his head and spreads. Like a net, a spider, a web.

No, he is trebuchet.

The first one bounces. He is still gauging the distance. More right leg; power comes from the legs. Next is just outside, but at the knees. Batter pokes it over the imaginary second baseman’s head. Where we have no fielders. Exercise for Center. Barehand scoop and a lob to the back of the mound.

Again from the stretch and the batter is brushed back. Range found, for now. Ten decent pitches; two grounders to Short, two flies that Center runs in to snag, three bloops in the gaps, two flies to Left, one line over his head. That line was the Sweet Spot. More than that, the Sweetest Spot.

Another errant pitch followed by another good one; we’re not real pitchers. We finish the bucket and collect the stray balls. Most have congregated near the mound after Outfield – Short relays, but there are strays. Pop fouls behind the backstop, whiffs and wild pitches, line drive fouls outside the fence. But no long balls this time.

Next batter. Next batter, next pitcher. This batter is lefty – well, a switch hitter with a better eye from left but more power from right – so we rearrange. Center, Right, Second. Next batter. Everyone has hit once so refill the cheek. And we rotate and rotate until we’ve all hit twice. And again, there were no homers.

We gather the balls one last time. The sun visibly caressed the skin on some of our backs; some have shirts that never come off. We drop onto the bench and remove our cleats and socks, slipping our sore, blistered feet into flip flops.

Everything is sore. Baseball is a series of explosions and sprints – instant acceleration. First step is everything in the field and our legs hurt. Sore hips from opening on every throw or swing; whole torsos hurt from twisting in those same motions. Shoulders ache from throw after throw after throw; fingers, from strangling the bat. And then there are the scrapes and bruises from diving for that fly ball or grounder up the middle, as well as the unintended bean balls. Everything will still be sore tomorrow, but it’s a good sore.

Baseballs

***

This is the second post in a series leading up to MLB’s Opening Day. See the first post here. See my compatriot’s post here.

 

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March 28, 2013

The New Seasonal Litany

It has been a hard winter in Chicago. But baseball is coming.

The team I bleed for is terrible. That doesn’t matter; Baseball is more than my team.

Most people don’t understand. They think I’m crazy. They think baseball is stupid or boring. Piteous people.

Baseball is huge. Baseball cannot be contained by time. There is no time limit, you play until you are done. The fundamentals remain unchanged over decades, over a century. Players are compared across eras because Baseball envelops itself and its mutations. Innovation never ceases, but it only leads back to Baseball.

Baseball is coming.

Baseball cannot be spatially contained. The whole world is merely where the home run lands. Play extends beyond the foul lines and outfield walls. The game is wide enough to be played in a pasture and narrow enough to fit into back alleys and city streets.

Baseball is coming

Baseball is constant potential. Every second has infinite results. Every routine grounder could be an error. Every benchwarmer could knock one out of the park. Every windup could buckle the knees. Any single can spark a rally; there is always hope.

Baseball is coming.

Baseball is paradoxical, both simple and complex. It can be boiled down to a rock and stick. Or, it can be described with complex mathematical formulas. It is game and it is business. It is historical and it is modern. It has meant absolutely nothing and it has meant absolutely everything.

Baseball is coming.

Baseball is versatile. A full game of nine innings can be played with eighteen players. Or with four friends I can go to the field and chew sunflower seeds and try to hit the ball over the fence. I can hone my switch hitting as though I’ll ever get called up. I can play in a parking lot with a broom handle and a tennis ball

Baseball is coming.

Baseball is language. A pervasive language. My family talks baseball. Talk of our loyalties, our hopes, our scars in baseball. We age against the backdrop of baseball; it is the pantry door against which we measure our growth.

Winter is waning. Baseball is coming.

baseball 1

 

If you enjoyed this post, please check out Eric’s!

March 28, 2013

An Open Letter to a Cantankerous Old Man

Dear Winter,

I’m not the confrontational type, but this needs to be said, and said bluntly. You’ve been a terrible guest. You showed up late, withholding the snowfall far too long; the idyllic White Christmas was sparse. Once you did arrive with snow, it was never enough to validate a snow day, just enough to be a thorough nuisance.

And now you’ve not just overstayed your welcome, it seems as though you might never leave. And I am weary of your presence. I no longer have enough body fat to tolerate you for long. Spring will be sticky and gross, but it will be the welcome prerequisite to Summer.

One day, Winter, I believe:

I won’t go to bed with my feet cold and my nose froze

I won’t have chapped hands thirsting for lotion

I won’t be lopping off my extremities to pay for the gas bill

I won’t kvetch about how cold it is

I won’t be triple layered

I won’t keep the shovel on Red Alert

I won’t be starting my car five minutes before I shift into drive

 

I will wear shorts outside my house

I will sit in my open garage in flip flops with a beer in my hand and the sunset before me

I will wear those canvas socks with rubber soles – Chucks

I will hold Morning Prayer on the deck as the sun rises

I will kvetch about the heat and the bees

I will grill beer brats and shish kabobs and chicken tits (are you salivating?)

I will drive circles in the parking lot with the windows down and the system up

I will play Frisbee golf on the empty college campus

I will play baseball (Did someone say, baseball!?)

 

In short, Winter, you need to leave. I am beyond pleading. You may return in December if you promise not to stay too long.

With all gravity and sincerity,

Jake

March 14, 2013

On the Quarter Century

Sixteen. Eighteen. Twenty-one. The ages for which we wait expectantly. To drive. To smoke. To purchase and consume alcohol. Every one of us has known someone who, upon reaching that aged threshold, promptly began to abuse the new found privilege; maybe that someone was us.

The counsel of those who have passed those benchmarks is lost on those approaching – that the time will pass in the blink of an eye and the dissipation of a breath.

After passing twenty-one, a great many minds falter, having spent their entire lives, or all that they can remember, yearning for this day. Now that the great expectant event has come and passed, sometimes with a longer honeymoon period, what is the next benchmark to live for? I haven’t researched it much, but don’t AARP cards start arriving around age fifty-five? Is that when senior citizen discounts at the local diner begin to kick in? Does one really need to wait thirty-four years for their next goal? What heinous guardian sets such goals in our hearts?

Well, perhaps our hopeless indignation is a bit premature. There is still the righteous age of twenty-five – that age at which rental car companies oblige us by rescinding their demands for the very arms and legs we’d use to drive their vehicles.

I recently turned twenty-five. I don’t think I had any epiphanies directly associated with my aging another year. I did shatter an urban myth, though. According to my Progressive customer service representative, maybe named Matt, insurance rates do not automatically decrease when one turns twenty-five. Rates do decrease as a result of being another year past the legal drinking age without any accidents, but nothing significant.

A quarter of a century. That is how long I have been alive. That sounds much more impressive than saying I am twenty-five years old. The former sounds as though my life has consumed a significant chunk of history; the latter sounds as if I drink Keystone Light while trying to catch one night stands with freshman girls – an attempt to maintain the carefree (or careless) nature of a dependent.

My parents were twenty-four when I was born. I’ve idolized my father, and the relationship I have with him, forever. When I realized I had the unspoken goal of having my first son by the age of twenty-four, I was terrified. A year ago I certainly wasn’t ready to be a father; I’m still not ready. I’m not even dating anyone, much less married or seriously considering that state. I’m struggling to attain cleanliness in a house of adults; having seen parents honestly operate, I know that my ideal is not possible with a child. One day I’m sure I will be able to accept that. That day is not today.

It is terrifying to look back and realize the chasm that can open in a matter of weeks or months, more so years. I’ve had friends I’d have sworn my life to, with whom I haven’t spoken to in years – years, even, since the last time I saw them. Places from which I never saw or desired an exit strategy are now populated by people who don’t know my name, much less my face. That is not to diminish what our relationship was; it is just to say that it is ended or it has changed. Even with the qualifier, that is still hard to accept. It is contrary to what we imagine as loyalty.

Imagination can be a terrible thing. Romanticism can be crippling, especially when it prowls unrecognized.

In contrast, there are people with whom I speak a couple times a year, max. But when we are together, we pick up where we left off. Some of these are people upon whom I gave up after years of silence; some contact was never lost. These are lucky relationships, and there are some that are luckier. Are these the ones to which we are loyal? What will another twenty-five years add to these?

The show How I Met Your Mother is one of my favorites. One episode features one main character measuring people against the “Front Porch” test: will she want to sit with these people on the front porch of the retirement beach house? I’d like to think that my front porch will always be open to those who, at one time or another, I’ve called my closest friends. But in twenty-five or fifty years, I may only want them there for an afternoon, not day after day – even the ones with whom today I wouldn’t mind sharing the porch with every day.

One day I’d like a very large porch, so that I can host my friends: past, present, and future. I guess, when I think about it as I am now, that is where my expectations lie.

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