“This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” –Skip, Bull Durham
Baseball lingo and rules befuddle me.
I didn’t grow up watching or playing baseball; the closest I came was playing catcher and outfield for a summer league softball team between my seventh and eighth grade years in 1987 in Lakeville, Indiana, a rural blip along the U.S. 31 highway linking the University of Notre Dame in South Bend to Indianapolis. During practice, a teammate hit a “pop fly” (about the only lingo I know) to center field—me. I missed it. It bonked me on the top of my head, and I stood there stunned for a moment, trying to figure out what had just happened. My coach ran out to me and asked me how many fingers she was holding in front of my face. “Four,” I said. She told me to follow her finger as she moved it across my vision field. “No concussion,” she said and made me go sit in the dugout.
I was so embarrassed by the incident I decided I didn’t want to play softball anymore, though I made up some excuse about not having enough hand-eye coordination to get the job done. Truth is, I made a fair catcher, but after the pop fly incident, I was too afraid of the ball to be of any use. Remember the size and heft of old softballs? Today, they’re light. I picked one up at a sporting goods store not long ago because my husband Sam and I were thinking of joining a summer softball league (I have this urge to overcome my fear of small, round objects being hurled toward my face). It felt more like a Styrofoam ball found in craft stores, used for making doll’s heads and other crafty-type doodads. I looked at Sam as I palmed the ball. “Do you remember how heavy these used to be?” It wasn’t just me. He remembered too. I felt validated. He’d been the true athlete—baseball, football, and basketball. Back then, softball wasn’t for wussies.
Twenty years after the pop fly incident of 1987, I moved to Ohio to a town not much bigger than the Lakeville of my junior high years and discovered baseball. I was looking for something to do on a Friday night and discovered that Toledo, 60 miles or so north of where I live, has a Minor League Baseball team. The Mud Hens is a feeder for the Detroit Tigers club. I’d never been to a major or minor league game before. At the time, I was commuting six-hour round trips between Indiana, where I work, and Ohio, where I live. All told, I was driving six hours on a work day, teaching up to three, sometimes four, classes as a writing instructor at a small liberal arts college. I was awake at 4 a.m. and home around 8 or 9 p.m. This was 2009, the start of the Great Recession and colleges in Ohio and across the country were buckling down. No new hires. I was grateful to be teaching anywhere. Even still, I was rung out. Exhausted.
Baseball offered a respite. Sitting a few rows behind the third-base dugout, the din of the crowd murmured summer and warmth and community as people tended to their kids, tended to their hotdogs and beer, tended to the curve of the pitch and the swing of the bat. I was mesmerized. It was clearly America’s pastime, but it became my pastime when the crack of the bat shook the community from their seats, to their feet with cheers and ovation as they watched the little white ball sail over the right field wall and into the city beyond.
It reminded me of life. Taking joy in the home run while being attentive to the commonplace moments in between—the swings and misses, the bunts and catches.
It’s baseball lingo and rules that get me. They’re confusing, especially if you have no baseball history. Sam recently tried to explain a “sacrifice fly” to me. Something about it not going against the batter’s average if a base runner makes it home. And “breaking ball” pitches. Something about curves and knuckles and fastballs. The batter has to anticipate them. He has a split second to decide whether he’ll swing. Sometimes the batter balks.
I was watching a Boston Red Sox game recently on television (I don’t have a favorite team yet, though I lean toward the Chicago Cubs because I grew up a couple hours away from Chicago, and the Red Sox because of that crazy curse, broken in 2007) and a batter balked. I felt a sudden affinity with him. Sometimes the pitch isn’t quite right and rather than get a strike, I’ve pulled out—the pop fly incident of 1987 was one of those times. But there have been others.
This is a blog of creative nonfiction, essay, and memoir of times I’ve balked, times I’ve struck out, times I’ve hit home runs. It’s the lingo and the rules of this life that will always befuddle me.
BTW: I just read this post to my husband. He informed me that it’s the pitcher that balks, not the batter. Of course.