Sanctuary

Steve Salerno teaches magazine journalism at Indiana University

The Glendale pitching machine is throwing a tad inside today, maybe two or three inches closer to my hands than on my last West Coast swing a month ago. Still, I find this particular fast cage preferable to the one in Torrance, or the old standby on Western Avenue. In truth, the Glendale cage most reminds me of the fast machine at a place just outside River Oaks in Houston: not quite as quick, say, as the super-fast cage in Elmsford, N.Y. (where you must sign a release before stepping in to hit each time), but--like the one in Jupiter, Fla.--pleasantly erratic. More of a challenge.

I know these machines, their habits and idiosyncrasies, as well as I know their physical locations and the best way to reach them from their respective local airports. I can drive the various routes as if on autopilot, making the sequence of turns unthinkingly, in much the same way that I can take my batting stance in any given cage and end up within a half-inch of where I stand in any other given cage, at any other given time.

I have lived my life in America's batting cages.

The roots of this phenomenon are dug deep in an otherwise normal Saturday in Brooklyn, a fortnight shy of the birthday that would make me a teenager. In weeks prior my father had been trying to ease my introduction to baseball, a task monumentally complicated by the fact that I was clumsy and fat. ("Husky," my mother liked to say, but no one was fooled, least of all girls my age, who took great delight in shunning me.) Athletically I was about what you'd expect in the above package: always the penultimate pick in games during gym, right before the kid who was so husky that he could barely squeeze his rump into a single seat on the school bus.

Which brings us to that fateful weekend, and the Bat-Away.

While I ambled to and fro, wondering what about this ramshackle establishment could inspire the awe I heard in the voices of my more sports-minded classmates, my father hefted several of the dozen bats lined up against the change booth. He deemed one appropriate and nudged me into the third cage out of seven. Hung haphazardly on the chain-link door was a rust-edged, license-plate-like sign: WHITEY FORD, 50 MPH.

I knew the name. I knew that few guys in the majors could hit Whitey Ford. It seemed doubtful that I'd fare any better, and I told Dad as much.

"Just follow the pitch all the way in," he soothed, clinking a quarter into the coin box. Fifty feet in front of me, a yellow light flickered on; the belts behind the blue mechanical arm began whirring. "Throw the barrel of the bat at the ball," Dad continued, "when it reaches you."

Now a green light blinked on. The mechanical arm made a lazy, lulling ascent to its zenith, like an azure-hued cobra cradling a large white egg in its mouth. Then the cobra/arm snapped down and spat the ball toward me.

The suddenness of the act caught me flat-footed. I was afraid I'd waited too long to swing. Lo and behold, I reacted at the last instant, and a second later an exquisite sensation flooded my forearms: at once solid and hollow, hard and soft, violent and becalming.

The ball leaped off my bat on a low line and punched into the mesh enshrouding the arm. Astonished, I glanced back at my father, who fought the mirth that tugged at the corners of his solemn expression. "Pay attention," he said firmly. "One hit doesn't make you Mickey Mantle."

But I sent the next pitch arcing high over the mesh to where deep centerfield would be. Again I turned and smiled. This time Dad smiled back.

I had found something I could do.

From that first experience of "the feel of nothing," Ted Williams' haunting phrase for that sublime physical awareness of perfect union between bat and ball, I was hooked. Amid the ebb and flow of my uncertain transition to and through adulthood, the cages became the lone constant and my all-purpose touchstone. They were sanctuary and whipping boy rolled into one.

I spent way too much time there those first few years. School was skipped, homework left undone. (It's not like I had my choice of parties to go to, anyway, social leper that I was.) Financing this obsession with diverted lunch money, I took the measure, in turn, of "Juan Marichal" (65 mph), "Don Drysdale" (75), "Sandy Koufax" (85), and, finally "Bob Feller," at 95 mph billed as "The World's Fastest Pitching Machine." I acquired an entourage that would part like something out of "The Ten Commandments" as I swaggered toward that storied last machine on the right, then jockey for position against the chain links while I smacked line drives to the far reaches of the heavy netting. At the cages, if nowhere else, I was accepted.

As the years passed, my income-producing life moved from music to selling to writing. The Brooklyn Bat-Away was razed (much like glorious Ebbets Field before it) to make way for a gargantuan housing complex. No matter; I found others. Because all of my jobs entailed solo travel, my first order of business upon arriving in a new city was to find the closest hitting establishment. (L.A. became a cherished winter destination not just for the customary snowbird's reasons, but because the city's cages are open year-round. And hitting was meant to be done outdoors.) By the '80s, batting cages had caught on with Little League teams, so any given afternoon in Los Angeles or Louisville found me plinking quarters amid a sea of jabbering 9-year-olds. No doubt today, across America, there are former Little League coaches whose video archives contain footage of tiny Robby and Ralphie hitting--and there, in the adjacent cage, is this tall guy in a business suit, taking his cuts with maniacal abandon.

Now and then bystanders will ask if I "ever played baseball." I did spend July of my 15th year at Ted Williams' Baseball Camp, where I learned that hitting off a machine wasn't quite the same as hitting off a real-live pitcher. Real-live pitchers don't groove each fastball. (Nor, of course, do they throw a fastball every time.) Yet far more frustrating to me that summer, and again recently during a brief stint in an over-40 league, was the disconnect between input and outcome . . . . A scorching liner plops into a fielder's glove for a harmless out . . . . A pathetic dribbler nudges in the winning run. I end up longing for the purity of the cages, where all that matters is contact.

The time is coming, I know, when muscle memory no longer will be able to vector my swing with the precision required to effect such contact. It starts innocuously enough: You foul off a couple of pitches you should've crushed. Gradually the fouls come more often, until one day you move a tad deeper in the box. Just this time, you lie to yourself. It's chilly and I'm stiff. Someday I'll turn around after missing a few and catch the high-school players smirking at me in my futility. And just as I once worked my way up to the Feller cage, I will need to regress to the Marichals and Fords, hitting's ignominious twist on second childhood.

Not yet, though. Not on this brisk, early-season Sunday in Glendale.

I toss more tokens into the coin box, set up in the fast cage and, for the how-many-thousandth time, await the green light. Though the mechanical-arm models have given way to the Jugs-type, which feed the ball across a spinning wheel, the essential experience remains the same. It's akin to the religion one worships: Your church is your church, regardless of where you are geographically, or any differences in the physical premises. They are all your church. And you belong.

The ball rockets toward me. I tense, cock my hips, "throw the barrel." A heartbeat later that incomparable feeling warms my forearms, no less joyous to me than it was that first time, 35 years ago.

I've heard it said that men in particular fixate on epochal events that transpired during those uneasy years of becoming. Some of us turn to women, some to cars, some to liquor. I turn to the batting cage. It is nourishment for the hungry heart of that fat little misfit from Brooklyn.

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