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November 11 2000: Offseason Conditioning

Derek Jeter may still be hobnobbing around the Big Apple’s social scene with Miss Universe on his arm, but I’ve decided not to wait to start my offseason conditioning program. I’ve only been at it a week, but I’m feeling pretty good about it. And I didn’t even have to move to Tampa to do it.

Step one in my program is to do all the things my physical therapist has been telling me to do over the years. Stretch my legs, do my back exercises, don’t stand with my knee hyperextended. I’m jogging to work at least once a week (well, that is to say, I jogged to work once this week…), and trying to put in 3 sessions a week on the exercise bike. I’m doing my stretches. I’m doing my knee and back exercises. And you know what? It’s only a week and I’m feeling better already. Okay, okay, and everything my mother ever told me is true, too.

Step two is to go to the batting cage. Now, you might wonder why a spectator who doesn’t play baseball would find it necessary to go the batting cage. Because I’m a fanatic, that’s why.

Last weekend when my boyfriend was away and I didn’t have any plans, I decided to look in the Yellow Pages under the word “baseball.” Why? Because I’m a … I guess I was hoping to find a listing like “Baseball, Offseason Withdrawal Support Groups.” It so happens that the very first listing is “Baseball, Batting Cages.”

Here in the Boston area it lists eight places. Five of them are only open during the summer, one’s kind of a hike from here, one’s disconnected, and one never answers, so I guess I’ll put them in the “closed for the winter” category. Looking through the listing, though, reminded me of a place not far from where I live that I had heard had indoor batting cages.

So when I didn’t have anything better to do last Saturday, I went to check out the “Good Time Emporium.” This place is huge–a hundred pool tables, giant screen tv’s everywhere showing sports, tons of video games, even Skee Ball and other redemption prize games. And right near the door they have two cages, one for baseball, one for softball.

I went in there around 8 o’clock, and the joint was jumping. Tons of kids’ birthday parties were still going on, lots of guys with brewskis in hand watching the college football games, lots of teenagers of all colors looking like they just walked in from a rap music video. The result was an interesting mix of people waiting to bat.

Of the first five people I saw bat, the only one who could hit the ball with any regularity was a chubby ten-year-old in a Cincinnati Reds hat. He was whacking the ball like it was nothing, which made some of the college jocks hanging around think it was easy. They found out it wasn’t. Then a twenty-something guy in a well-worn Abercrombie & Fitch hat got up there, whiffed a bunch of times, chopped the ball on the ground a bunch, and foul tipped a few. His clean-cut beer-drinking buddies laughed, and then each of them had to take a try, as well.

They got into a game where whoever missed the most pitches would have to buy the next round. The competitive fire lit under them, or maybe it was the beer, resulted in a lot more foul tips.

Then a very nicely dressed, forty-ish hispanic man, in dress shoes, slacks, and a button down shirt, getting that distinguished gray look on the sides of his hair, got up. He put double the tokens into the machine, and got double the pitches–something good to remember. He stood in the left-handed batter’s box, and walloped one pitch after another right back at the machine. Several would have been textbook line drives into the gap. You could hear how the aluminum bat rang clearly every time he swung.

He was, as they say, in another league.

When he came out of the cage all the beer-drinking young guys flocked around him. “That was great, man.” “Did you play baseball?” “Where are you from?” El Senor admitted he was from Santo Domingo and that he had played “a little” when he was much younger. So the oldest and the youngest in the line had humbled all the college jocks.

And me? I was the only woman in the line. (Some girls tried the softball cage while I was there, but I didn’t get a chance to see them–and as they left one was saying to the other “Wow, I suck so bad.”) I was also the only switch-hitter in the bunch, and also the only one who wore the safety helmet they provided (over my NY Yankees cap, of course).

I’d like to add that I might have been the only one in the group who had swung a bat fewer than twenty times before trying it that day. Let’s see–I got to bat twice when I was in fourth grade. I had been to the batting cage in Seaside Heights, New Jersey (on the vacation that turned out to be all about baseball and the Yankees this August, read all about it…), once. I don’t think you can count all the games of Wiffle Ball we played this summer. But I had to give it a try.

I would put in my seventy five cents, take my 12 swings, and then sit down again. I didn’t feel too badly about the fact that I only hit one or two good shots per 12 pitches–I did about as good, actually, as most of the guys who got in there. The machine was in a sort of dark box, so you couldn’t see the arm as it rotated to pitch–you had to just pick up the ball at the moment of release. I like to think that’s kind of like facing El Duque.

I took three rounds from the right, and three rounds from the left. That day I looked to be shaping up as a classic switch hitter. I hit the ball a lot harder from the right, but I hit it a lot more often from the left.

Today I went to the cage again, and I went earlier in the day. The light meant I could see the arm rotate a bit better when I stood in the left-handed batter’s box–so apparently the pitching machine is a righty. Without the shadow it was lass like El Duque and more like, um, Roger Clemens. As Jorge Posada said before his one-hitter in Seattle: “Everyone knows what he’s gonna throw, but that doesn’t mean they can hit it.” Three kids around age ten were taking turns when I got there. They each missed about the first ten pitches entirely, then caught up to the last two.

“It’s a fast machine,” I told one of them when he came out. “Try to watch the arm when it’s going around, and start your swing first.” My advice didn’t seem to help him any, but it did help one of the other kids (possibly his older brother) who hit about ten rockets his next time up.

Me, I was seeing the ball a lot better today. Probably because of the light. But maybe I’m also getting better at doing it. If last week I was hitting about .150, today was more like .250. At one point, I hit five line drives in a row over what would have been the pitcher’s head–five identical swings, five good shots. When I came out, a guy who was coaching his son said to me “Good hit.” I felt even better when he got in the cage, and missed the first five before he, too, began to whack them solidly into the back net.

So now I’m going to tell you my fantasy. I think my ultimate dream, right now, is not to go to see a World Series game, or to catch a home run ball… it’s to take batting practice with the Yankees.

They let Regis Philbin do it in Spring Training, before he threw out the first pitch of the game one night, and I read recently that they let some woman tennis player who was visiting take some swings. Was it Martina Hingis? Someone like that. But at the rate I am going, it will be quite a while before I’m famous enough to qualify for such an in. I suppose I’ll have to hope to win a contest or something.

Of course, I’d have to borrow the lightest bat they have. I definitely do better when the bat is lighter–it’s bat speed that gives me power, not muscle, after all. And I just can’t get a big bat around in time. Then I’d have to get over the intense adrenaline rush of being surrounded by Yankees, just focus on the ball, and swing.

I hear the crack of the wooden bat on the real ball, and watch it rocket over the infielder’s heads. (I know it’s a fantasy, but I just don’t see me depositing one in the seats.) Chuck Knoblauch’s head snaps as he watches it fly past and then he looks into the cage–who the heck is that?

And when Derek Jeter, or Clay Bellinger, or Joe Torre says “where’d you learn to do that?” I’ll say I learned it from watching them. Which is true. Everything I know about how to stand, how to hold the bat, the “inside-out swing” — I know from watching baseball games on tv and listening to them on the radio. Did you ever notice that Paul O’Neill and David Justice have an almost identical leg kick? Is it a coincidence they are both lefties? (There isn’t a righty on the Yanks who does it quite that way.) For the record, I don’t have a leg kick so much as a slide step–and man, does it feel good when the timing is right.

My forearms feel Popeye-esque right now from today’s swings, 36 on each side. They are pumped up. But my hands are kind of sore. Would it be just totally dorky to wear batting gloves to go to the cage? Yeah, but I’m a fanatic. And when spring comes, I’ll be ready.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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