I had a dream the other night about baseball. I was at the plate, wielding a green bat. I was determined to get a hit, but went down swinging. For some reason the last strike was a big disappointment to me. I woke up at that point, disturbed that I hadn’t been able to get a piece of the ball. I had taken a huge cut at it. I really wanted to knock it out of the park.
I don’t know where that dream came from. I’ve never been particularly athletic. I’ve never enjoyed team sports. I was pretty bad at baseball and softball as a kid. In retrospect, that was probably an eye hand coordination problem resulting from severe myopia. I never thought to make excuses when I was a kid though. I just thought I sucked … except for one brief, shining moment when I didn’t.
It was the last day of school for my eighth grade classmates and me, a sunny day at the end of May. The air was warm and redolent with the long promise of summer. A softball game had been arranged for the lunch recess break—eighth grade versus seventh, a long standing tradition. I never played much so I was unaware of how the game came to be. The reality was there was a game of some kind every day. It was softball in the early fall and spring, basketball otherwise. This one didn’t seem any more special than any other except for the convergence of two unusual conditions.
Since we were playing one class against another, the eighth grade class was going to be short a man if I didn’t play. In other words I had to play. The other thing was that the girls came down to watch the game. That meant that Connie Staugler was going to see whatever embarrassment I managed to bring upon myself. Normally, that would have given me pause, but it was the last day of school so, surprisingly for me, I managed not to dwell too much on the downside potential.
We played until we ran out of time. That ended up being five innings. I managed not to make a fool of myself through the first four. I played right field. Thankfully, nothing came my way. That’s why they put me there. It was good asset management. My first at bat I flied out to center. I got a good piece of the ball so it wasn’t embarrassing, just typical. We were down one run by the bottom fifth. It got pretty exciting from there.
I hadn’t figured to get another at bat, but sports events usually aren’t determined by what I figure. After five batters we had three men on and two outs. I was up. There was no one in my class who would have wished it so, myself included. Most of the others no doubt thought they were watching their chance for a victory evaporate before their eyes. Still, they were for the most part gracious. It was the last day of school. Everyone was feeling expansive.
My classmates made no derogatory remarks. The seventh grade outfield moved in closer though, and I found that a little disparaging. In fact it kind of pissed me off. I picked a big bat. The bat belonged to a hulking farm kid named Herb. I don’t know where he got the bat, but it was the biggest one I had ever seen—certainly way too big for me, but I liked the feel of it.
I used to shag a lot of fly balls in my neighborhood. Kids would spread out at one end of our yard. I would stand at the other, toss balls up, and knock towering flies and sizzling liners to them. I was good at it. I could hit a ball a country mile. I had a good swing, good rhythm. The rhythm is what made it work for me. The rhythm told me where the ball was going to be—information I was not easily able to discern through my thick glasses. I was never able to translate that ability to hitting a pitched ball, not even a slow-pitch softball, because the rhythm and placement of a pitched ball were determined by the pitcher. With a pitched ball I had to rely on my eyesight, a decided disadvantage no matter how beautiful my swing.
I got a lot of advice when I dragged Herb’s big stick up to the plate. Mostly the advice centered on the idea that I ought to get a smaller bat. When it became obvious that I was committed to the big bat, they started telling me I needed to choke up on it. ‘You’ll never get that tree limb around on the ball,’ they said. I was not swayed. I liked the big, heavy bat. It felt like respect in my hands. I wasn’t about to choke up on it either. I knew I could get it around. I just didn’t know if I could get it on the ball.
I took a called strike on the first pitch. No one ever swung at the first pitch in grade school. I guess it was some kind of prideful thing among the players. I knew the rule, knew I had to do it to be cool. It seemed like a waste of a good fat pitch to stand there and let it pass, but that’s what I did.
I took the bat off my shoulder and held it across the plate to show the pitcher where I wanted the next pitch. I don’t know why we did this either, but we all did it. Ritual is everything in a good ball game. The next two weren’t anywhere near where I had indicated—one high and away, one bounced in front of the plate. The count stood at two and one.
The next one came in flat, right at shoulder level. I stepped into it and whipped that bat around hard as I could. I got a lot of wrist into it at the bottom of the swing—another advantage of rhythm. I knew how to leverage that monster stick into formidable bat speed. It made a whoosh sound as it came around. It moved a lot of air, but it was too heavy to get up to where the ball was. Two and two, the count.
The next pitch came inside. I really wanted it. I stepped cross-wise to open up my swing and hefted the bat off my shoulder, but decided at the last second to pass. It wouldn’t have gone anywhere if I’d hit it. It would have been a ground ball down the third base line, and a force out before the runner on third could score. I didn’t really think all that through at the time. I just knew I wanted to connect. I didn’t even really care about a hit. I wanted to feel that ‘whump’ when ball meets too much wood, that split second in time where everything stops and all the kinetic energy in the world is concentrated right there in your hands, and it all uncoils from there and goes sailing away. I wanted that, so I waited.
The next pitch was perfect. I had no right to expect that. No one does, but every once in a while the wonder of what you don’t deserve gets delivered to you as if by angels. The ball peaked halfway between the mound and the plate. I knew it was a good one. I shifted my weight onto my back leg to slide my front leg forward into the swing. I bumped the bat up out of the crook of my elbow and started to pull it around.
The pitch cut the outside half of the plate, falling at about a forty degree angle across the strike zone. When the ball got to the level of my waist, it was met with more wood than it had ever encountered in elementary school sports. The ‘whump’ I had been hoping for resounded across the playground.
The center fielder who had pulled in because he didn’t think I could hit watched the ball sail over his head, past where he would have positioned himself for someone, anyone, else. It floated past the edge of the grassy field where we played, over the paved basketball court, bounced once on the tarmac, and glanced off the school building—an automatic home run. I trotted round the bases behind the other three runners and cruised over home plate to the general jubilation of the eighth grade class. Connie Staugler was standing there with the other girls. There were ten of them all in a line, but I only noticed her. I only ever noticed her. She had a pretty nice smile working—congratulatory, admiring, beatific. At the time, it was the best smile I had ever seen.
“You should play more often,” she said.
I don’t remember what I said. It hardly matters any more now than it did then. I do know this. Most people don’t get to experience moments like this—perfect moments when all the disparate bits of our desperate lives align in blissful benevolence. I’ve had my moment. That was it. I’m not likely to get another one. My life reached its zenith on the last day of eighth grade and it’s all been downhill from there.
On balance this has been good for me, I think. Good for my soul at any rate. Sure, I rail against the daily indignities and injustices. Don’t we all? I’ve been through a lot of personal hardship, but I still hope for good fortune and work for it with relentless enthusiasm. I don’t expect it though. Not any more. I know better. I know it could all go south on any given day, and the meager means I have left could evaporate without notice or fanfare. This is why I can picture myself living in a refrigerator box with all my stuff piled in a stolen grocery cart without sinking into a profound and suicidal depression. I may already have had my moment…but it was just excellent.