by Joe Shea
February 18, 2011
NOWHERE TO GO
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Spring training got underway this past week with those four magical words every baseball fan loves to hear: "pitchers and catchers report."
I love baseball's tenacity against the weather. Baseball ignores Punxsutawney Phil's weather prediction with its own six-week window. About two weeks after the groundhog tells us whether we'll have six more weeks of winter, 750 ball players show up to their warm weather locales to begin six weeks of knocking the rust off their arms, preparing to be the boys of Summer once more.
I was never that great at baseball, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it. I played for one full and two partial seasons of Cub Scout baseball as a kid. The last two seasons I suffered season-ending injuries - a broken collarbone one year, and a broken arm the next.
I was the Bob Sanders of Cub Scout baseball. Although I never played organized baseball afterward, I still played enough backyard ball to carry me well into my early teens.
But my first forays into baseball were not great, and it's only after three-and-a-half decades separate me from my first trips to the plate that I can finally talk about it.
"Not great" is actually an overstatement. "Pretty bad" is closer to the mark; "downright awful" is probably the most accurate As a glasses-wearer, my biggest fear at the plate was being smashed in the face by the ball. I knew the idea of "keeping my eye on the ball" was just a metaphor, but my main goal was to keep the ball off my eye.
Getting hit in the face was also my biggest fear in the infield, in the outfield, and sitting in the dugout. The only safe place on the field was as the catcher, because he wore a face mask. His biggest fear was getting hit in the junk by a bad foul tip.
Nothing frightens an 8-year-old boy more than getting hit in the junk, except maybe getting clocked in the face by a 200 mile-an-hour fastball flung at him by a 10-year-old pitching ace with a mustache and a tattoo on his arm of the Chinese symbol for "death from above."
When we first learned how to play, our coach was the pitcher. He taught me how to hold the bat, to stand at the plate, and to keep my knees from quaking too badly to swing at a pitch. While he had more control than the man-child they had picked to be our pitcher, I was still deathly afraid of getting hit.
"If you swing and miss, it's a strike," he told me that first day. "If you don't swing, it's a ball. Three strikes and you're out, four balls and you get to walk to first."
Once he said that, I had a plan. I knew how I was going to become a baseball star, and never have to worry about getting smashed in the face by a fast ball: if I didn't swing four times in a row, I would get a walk.
It was genius. It was brilliant. And despite over 100 years of baseball history, at 8 years old, I was the first person to ever figure out that by never swinging a bat, I could be a baseball superstar. My Cub Scout team could even win the entire World Series with this plan.
This worked the first two times up at bat. Even though the coach was pitching, and he was throwing floaters that defied gravity and drifted lazily across the plate, I firmly stood my ground. I never swung the bat, and twice, I took my base, as promised.
My strategy was quickly dashed when my coach told me I had to swing the bat because in a few days, they would call strikes that passed through my "strike zone."
"What's a 'strike zone?'" I asked.
"That's the area where, if the ball passes through it, it's a strike." Crap. My brilliant strategy was ground into dust and brushed off home plate. There goes the World Series.
I did eventually learn how to swing the bat, but I never quite got over my fear of getting a ball in the face. The following year, I was lucky enough to break my collarbone and then arm, and avoided the risk of facial injury for two more seasons.
The next fall, I took up soccer, which I played constantly for the next 13 years.
And got smashed in the face with the ball about once a year.
AR Humor Writer Erik Deckers publishes this and other humorous articles at his Laughing Stalk blog.