My baseball career ended abruptly in high school, just about the time they started to throw this astounding, unbelievable, unhittable pitch.
It was called the curveball.
It would come winging in, straight for my head; I would make a dive for the dugout, and the umpires would throw little fits and bark "Steeeeeeeee!"
I took my revenge at the batting cages near my house. The machines were a mecca for hundreds of pipsqueak Rod Carews, and they threw nothing but fastballs. Straight over the plate. Every time.
I would haul my wonderful Louisville Slugger into the box, shove the tokens into the machine and, for a blissful half hour or so, launch ball after ball out into the netting. The curveball did not exist. I was still a hitter.
But when you finally face the wretched, inevitable reality of your incompetence as a breaking-ball hitter--and therefore a washout at baseball--you turn reluctantly to the less-than-macho yet hugely popular slo-pitch softball, and you start to hang out with guys like Crazy Al and the boys from Consolidated Sheet Metal and Bail Bonds. And you leave the batting cages behind.
But the cages exert a siren appeal. And it had been--what?--maybe 20 years since I had swung a bat at fast pitching. It would be unconscionable, I reasoned, to let what was left of my youth (about a week and a half, by my count) pass without jacking a few out into left field one more time and hearing that delicious sound of pure contact and, above all, feeling that round, radiant pulse in the hands that means you have just connected on the fattest, most lethal part of the bat.
So, last Friday morning, I arrived at the start of business at the Family Fun Center in Fountain Valley, ready to take my first cuts as a geezer-in-training. The first thing I noticed was that the machines threw no faster than 70 m.p.h. I recalled as a youth that the cages fired at the Nolan Ryanesque clip of 90 m.p.h. Oh well, I thought. I'll have to settle for a bunch of namby-pamby lobs.
But, just to make sure all my baseball reactions hadn't atrophied, I began with 40 m.p.h. The friendly guy behind the counter issued me a helmet, the bat of my choice (a 33 but, alas, a metal one with a rubber-coated handle). I stuffed a few dollar bills into a machine in exchange for a pocketful of tokens. Eighteen pitches for a buck.
I inserted the tokens, turned and stepped into the batter's box, and felt immediately awkward. Were the feet planted properly? How were the arms held? Too high? Too low? Was I crowding the plate? I shuffled around distractedly, the red light on the machine glowed, indicating that a pitch was imminent and then, suddenly, there it was, humming toward me on a fine, flat trajectory, pregnant and glowing in the sun, flashing neon words, "HIT ME!"
It was more of a spasm than a swing, and it produced a galloping ground ball that began with the oddest sound I had ever heard with a bat in my hand: BONK!
I straightened up, waggled the bat. OK, you've seen this machine's one and only pitch. Now hit it. Out shot a second ball. Another BONK!
Right. Slow down. Just make contact. Be patient. See what happens.
It wasn't quite the juicy crack of ash on horsehide (the balls at the cages are hard, heathen plastic), but the feeling was unmistakable: a swelling pressure in the hands as sweet as a lover's heartbeat. No effort, no shock, no pain. And the ball rocketed over the machines and went snick! into the netting.
On they came, one after another, and one after another I sent them sailing away. A few miscued grounders snuck in, but after 36 pitches I felt I was the master of the 40 m.p.h. machine. I moved on to 50.
This was even better. I had been pulling the ball at 40, but now the balls were sailing straight into center. Except for the ones that didn't. These were the ones that I conked off the handle when I unconsciously crowded the plate. I'd forgotten how those shots can hurt.
At 60 m.p.h., the ball began to move. Yes, it did. I began to hit rotten, miserable foul tips. And even more dying quails off the handle. And this time those shots hurt. I felt like a cartoon character, vibrating like a violin string with the waves radiating out from the wrists.
Still, there were a few fine shots, one or two of which might have been in play.
I had now swung at 72 pitches and noticed that two patches of skin had worn off on my left index finger and the heel of the same hand. I visited the guy at the counter on the off chance he'd have a Band-Aid. He instantly forked over two.
I needn't have bothered. It came off after two swings in the 70 m.p.h. cage. The balls were hissing as if they'd been shot from a cannon. I began to miss entirely. And when I finally did make contact it was--yes--on the handle and my hands shattered into shards. At least I thought they did.
Good Lord! I thought. How does anyone hit Roger Clemens? He throws it another 25 m.p.h. faster than this! And you can never be sure he's not throwing it at your head! No wonder they pay these guys the big money.
I kept flailing. Foul. Foul. OUCH!! Foul.
Over the machines, into the netting. Like a bullet. That beautiful caress in the hands. Maybe not a home run, but maybe . . .
I turned my gear in with noodle arms, feeling thoroughly humbled. And then I thought of Michael Jordan, trying to learn to hit big league pitching after being away from pitching of any kind since high school. I pulled into traffic on the freeway and grinned. For a few minutes, I had been like Mike.