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April 10 2001: Stick With It – Women’s Baseball In New England

Is there a future for me at second base?

Or maybe in the outfield, on the bench? It’s all wide open right now. I’ve now spent a total of four hours in the company of the New England Women’s Baseball League, and already I know twice as much about the mechanics of baseball as I did before.

I discovered the league’s web site while surfing the Internet in the offseason of 1999-2000, and I started to dream. Could I really get myself out on the diamond? Could I really try to do some of the things the players I admire do?

My hunger to understand the game has been fed thus far by observation of the major league game, reading many books, watching videos, traveling–basically doing everything I can short of playing. I think at this point the only way I can increase my knowledge of the game is to play. And what better place than in a league that has aspirations to become a professional league within a few years?

When I found out that one of the tryouts was on my 34th birthday this year, I decided I had to give it a shot. Anyone who has been following my “Why I Like Baseball” articles to this point knows that my physical experience with baseball has been extremely limited. To tell you the truth, I had no idea if I could make the throw from second to first. I had no idea if I could hit a ball thrown by a human, or if I could get a grounder into my glove.

I decided to find out. I filled out the registration form on the web site, and went to an open workout.

Although today it seems almost like spring in New England, most of the month of April has been forty degrees and raining. So the workout was held indoors at a baseball training facility called Strike One Fitness. Imagine an indoor tennis building, but rip out the courts and fill the whole thing with clay. On my way to Strike One that night, I stopped at a nearby sporting goods store to pick up a pair of cleats. Maybe that seems extreme, but I figured if I didn’t make the league, I’d use the spikes for wiffle ball season–the sand in the sandlot where we play wiffle is so loose, regular sneakers slide all over the place…

I thought I got lost on my way there, so pulled off the highway and drove around, only to figure out that I had been going the right way all along, and if only I’d just stayed my course, I would have been on time. Instead I was about five minutes late. The moral of the story? Trust yourself and stick with it.

When I arrived, some twenty or so women were occupying half of the indoor field, which was divided by a net into two sections each about the size of a complete infield with a couple of feet of “outfield.” They were paired up, playing catch. I jumped in with a woman named Robin* and caught the first throw that came my way. In fact, I caught the first few, but was having trouble getting the ball all the way to her. Then, as I thought more and more about my throws, I started to miss catches, too.

She came over to me and showed me how to hold the ball, how to set for the throw, and how to make sure I kept my back foot on the ground so I could generate power with my hips. “Once you get your throwing mechanics together, you can throw a lot farther,” she told me. Hmm, let’s see, turn the wrist over, use the hip, generate power from the back leg… “Hey, it’s just like punching somebody,” I realized.

This was reassuring. If I have any chance of learning the skills necessary to play baseball, it will be because of the knowledge of my body and biomechanics I have from fifteen years in the martial arts. Maybe I am athlete enough, it’s just a totally new set of skills. To realize that the same mechnics are at work in baseball as in taekwondo for generating power in the body made me feel that yes, I can learn this.

Though not right that minute. I was then thinking so hard about all the things I wanted my wrist, shoulder, hip, and foot to do that then I couldn’t throw the ball straight. We didn’t get very many more tosses in, though, as it was time to start infield practice.

What followed was a familiar-looking crossfire drill, familiar from all those times I’ve gone early to major league games to watch batting practice and infield practice. Two coaches, one a bit up the first base line hitting grounders into the shortstop hole, and one on the third base line, hitting to second base. Half of the players lined up at short, half at second. Each woman would take three to five grounders and then go to the back of the line.

Somehow I ended up first in line in the second base group. Okay, fine–I figured, just do it the way they do it on tv, run toward the ball, get it in your glove, and then throw to first. Hey, you know what? The first one came right at me, and it went into my glove. It went in with a reassuring smack against the leather, comfortable in the pocket. I probably threw it into the dirt, though… I can’t remember exactly.

Went for one and fell on my ass in the clay–I changed into my spikes after my turn and had no more problems with footing. I found it funny the cleats I bought (Reeboks) were more comfortable than the athletic shoes I had been wearing since last summer (sorry, Derek, but Nikes aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be).

Don’t ask me where I learned this, probably from baseball movies, or maybe it was just a reflex from being a goalie in deck hockey in high school, but I had this idea that it was better to bend more at one knee and get the glove down to the ground than to keep my ass up and reach between my legs. It was. One ball came low to the ground, skipping over the uneven clay and taking weird hops. I charged in and got the ball off the heel of my glove so it fell dead in front of me. It wasn’t as pretty or as smooth as if it had gone straight into the glove, but it meant the ball didn’t get past me, and it was easy to pick up and throw. Timing-wise I probably only lost a fraction of a second. I tried not to rush the throw, though, to make up for it. When I got back to the line a woman whose name I didn’t catch told me I’d done it right. Hmm. Is that what they mean when they say “Get the glove down”?

Balls did get past me. Plenty of them. But I was interested to see that balls got past everyone. One woman, Suzy (Susie?), was clearly the smoothest of our group, but even she got some bad hops. The chatter phrase was “Stay with it!” or “Stick with it!” i.e. stick with the ball, keep on top of it and get it to first base even if you have to chase it.

We took balls coming right at us, then took them hit to our left, then to our right, then Baltimore chops that hopped all over the place. I was a little surprised that I was able to successfully glove balls on both sides of me–again, what a good feeling to sense the ball stick in the glove. But also what a not-so-good feeling when the ball would get by. Still, run after it, or let it hit you in the chest on a weird hop, just to keep it in front of you. I had no problems letting the ball hit me in the chest, but I did worry a bit about some of the wild bounces toward my face. “Keep your glove down” but then there’s “get your glove up” too. So much to learn.

Anyway, running across the dirt after a little white ball is some of the most fun I think I’ve ever had. Even when I missed, I couldn’t stop smiling. I know I still can’t throw for beans, but I was having fun. As I got into the rhythm of the drill I started to relax a bit, and look around while I was in line waiting. One of the idle worries I’d had in the week leading up to that night was, what kind of Amazons play women’s baseball? Much to my comfort, most of the women in line with me we around my height (5’4″) or shorter. Interesting. Are athletic girls who are tall pushed into basketball and other “tall” sports, while short or stocky girls are pushed into field hockey and softball? Curious. I don’t know the reason for that, but for once in my life I didn’t feel like I was too short. I also didn’t feel like I was too fat, too ugly, too old, or too fill-in-stereotypical-female-worry here. I was comfortable, and I was surprised that I was comfortable in this group of strangers, doing things I’d never really done before.

I watched how some women were able to pick the ball up in their glove, pull it up, and cock their arm into throwing postion all in one smooth motion. Do it too fast, though, and the ball will get past you–the ball has to be firmly in the glove when you do it or you miss, or it pops out. Judge the hops, get the glove down, scoop softly, transfer to the throwing hand, set your feet, and throw. It takes less time to do than it does to read the sentence so there really isn’t time to think about all those steps. You just have to do it. If you do it over and over, you have to think less and less. I wanted to do it over and over, but then infield was over. I could have taken grounders for hours, although my arm would probably not have enjoyed that the next day. We split into groups of three to do soft toss BP into the net. I’ve never done this, but I’ve seen it done at spring training.

I was with two women who played in the league last year, one of whom had brought her own bat, which we used. I figured she’d hit first and I offered to toss for her, though I admitted I had no idea if I could do it well. “Naw, you’re the new kid,” she said, “you hit first.”

I don’t think I’ve ever held a bat so light, and it felt weird, but good. I just tried to get bat on ball. At first I was letting my top hand release too soon, as if the bat was so light it could just fly out of my hand. Or maybe it was that I could swing it faster than I’m used to with the heavy loaner bats they have at the batting cage I haunted all winter. I started holding onto the bat longer, and I could hit harder. I also found I could hit pretty consistently, which was partly credit to the woman doing the tossing, who was able to get the ball in the same spot just about every time. Another skill I’ll need to aquire.

I hit from the right in that group, but then we rearranged the groups into fours. One quartet would take live BP, while two groups shagged in the field and one group kept up soft toss. While we were rearranging ourselves, the other field under the roof changed from a kids’ game to a group of adults. As one guy hit a hard shot he called out to his buddies “I hope you guys are wearing cups!”

“Nope! We’re not!” I, and some of the other women, shouted back.

I switched to left handed for the next while, but then when our group came to bat live, I went back to the right side. We put on batting helmets and stood outside the chain link fence as we went one at a time to the plate. The guy whose name I still hadn’t learned was pitching from behind the L-screen. He told us to bunt twice, and then swing away. Five swings, then rotate. Second time through, we’d just do five swings without the bunts.

Hmm, not only had I never bunted, I’d never taken baseball batting practice, either. Are you supposed to swing at bad pitches, or not? From watching the others, I really wasn’t sure. This guy was not as consistent at BP pitching as Willie Randolph, say–some of his throws were prone to hit the plate, or be too far outside, but that was okay. You’re training your eye as much as your hands, no?

Then I was in the box–well, actually in the two deep divots in the clay that matched most batters’ stances. “Bunt,” he said. In came the ball. I squared and missed the ball entirely. “Bunt,” he said again, and this time the ball hit the bat and rolled in front of me. Hmm. That was the desired effect, no? Then he said “Swing.”

We were pressed for time to get everyone in, hence only five swings twice for each batter. But if he threw you a couple of bad ones, or you flailed a couple of times, he gave you a few extra.

I did not hit well, but I did make contact with a few. I stepped back and let one go by me that looked like it was going to be inside. Another one was clearly way outside. Several I just plain missed.

When I got out after my first turn, the woman who the others called “Goody” told me “You were way out front, just wait on the ball a little more. When you think you should swing, just wait another second.” When she hit, she hit every ball on the nose, prompting others to call out “It’s away!” when her hits would bounce off the net in the roof or against the back wall.

I tried to take her advice, and my second time through I made more contact. I still wouldn’t say I hit well–you can hear the ring on the aluminum bat, just as you can the crack on a wooden bat, when it sounds right. But I didn’t sting my hands, I didn’t let go of the bat too soon. (And I can’t wait to do it again.)

And then two hours had flown by, and it was time to leave. As I was on my way out, someone said to me, “Coming back for tryouts next week?”

You bet. The next Sunday arrived cold and rainy in Massachusetts. The Yankees were beating Toronto 12 to nothing, and Pedro Martinez was on his way to striking out 16 at Fenway that day. I walked in to Strike One to find a couple of nervous-looking women grouped at the top of the stairs. Four kids’ birthday parties were going on–Strike One has batting cages, video games, and air hockey, too, and they had set all the machines to free play for the parties. I was tempted to ask if they’d let me have free play priveleges, since after all, it was my birthday, too… The NEWBL organizers came along after a few minutes and we moved to some tables in the middle of the video game room. About thirty women in the group, over a dozen there to try out, the others returning players there for their workout. Among the new recruits: a fourteen-year-old from New York who will be spending the summer in Boston and who refuses to switch to softball back home, a punk graphic designer for a Boston nightclub who catches, an African American modified-softball player in a Zora Neale Thurston t-shirt, a college student who drove all the way from Northampton…

We had to wait to use the field, so we rookies sat around learning each other’s names and chatting. Those names would come around again during the practice, as we cheered each other on, “Stick with it, Tiffany!” “You got it, Mel!” “Great throw, Heather!” Something tells me that when men have tryouts it’s not like that, but maybe I’m a chauvinist for assuming that. The way I look at it, we’re all trying to make the league, which puts us all on the same team. It felt good to chatter and support the other players and to listen to them cheer for each other.

I don’t know if anyone cheered for me. When I was charging a grounder and making the throw, I couldn’t hear anything but the ping of the ball off the bat, the sound of my feet, and the sound of the ball bouncing on the dirt. I’m sure people were yelling all kinds of things, to one another, coaches yelling to the other group, and people cheering the kids game going on in the adjacent indoor field… but once I got set to move, I didn’t hear any of it. Once my feet were moving, it was like I was wearing earplugs. Is that what Kevin Costner’s character was supposed to be experiencing in For The Love of the Game? I dunno–it just took all my concentration to do what i was doing, there wasn’t any left for the noise around me.

The first three grounders all stuck right in my glove, and I felt pretty good about that. What do you know. It felt natural and I didn’t get any terrible hops. Ball in glove is the best. I also felt I didn’t have to think too hard. When I got back to the line I thought, is that what it’s like for people who are good at it? Well, except they probably made more accurate throws.

The only pain in the ass was literally exactly that. I had a charley horse in my right glute that had been there since my taekwondo workout on Thursday, and the cramp got more and more painful as the workout went on. It was the worst when trying to snag balls hit to my right. Ow. Every time I bent my leg in a certain way, the pain would get sharper. The more I thought about it, the worse I did. We took grounders at second, throwing to third, and then the groups switched and we went to the shortstop hole.

I don’t know if it was the cramp, the four cups of ritually required Passover wine I’d drunk the night before, or the change in perspective, but somehow the same grounders on the shortstop side of second were harder to handle than they were on the first base side of second. Maybe I was just getting tired. Or maybe there’s no explaining why sometimes it seems easy, and sometimes it seems impossible. Several balls got completely past me, but I blocked one with my chest and got one in my glove. This time I heard someone say “nice job” as I jogged back to the line–ironic, since I felt it was the worst group of balls I’d taken yet.

But here’s the thing–even with the pain in my leg, the scramble after missed balls, the curiosity about the older men who were there with clipboards (what were they writing? what did they think?)–I was enjoying myself. This was more fun than tennis, more fun than snowboarding, more fun than anything physical I’d done in a long time.

So, overall, I had a tougher day in the infield than the week before, and I had a rougher time with soft toss, as well. I felt like my feet were never in the right spot, and I couldn’t keep my eyes on the ball. Different bat? Different person tossing? Four cups of wine? Who knows? For whatever reason, I was all over the place.

The final drill was an outfielder’s run, trying to catch a high toss while running to the left. We each went only once as there wasn’t time to do more. As each woman would step forward to start her run, an older fellow with a clipboard would ask her name. Again I wondered what he wrote down when I ran to my left, and watched the ball sail beyond my glove. Probably: “run faster next time.”

I will. I’m going back. They gathered the rookies together at the end of the session and told us they want us all to keep coming to practices. The team draft of players won’t actually take place until the end of the month. There are several more workouts in the coming weeks for us to work on our skills. The final tryout is April 21st, when I have tickets to see the Yankees and Red Sox play at the Stadium. Oof–tough choice. If corwin can’t come with me to New York, I just may stay here and try to make it.

We’ll see if I can learn to throw to first from the shortstop hole by then.

*Note: Robin was Robin “Bama” Wallace, a woman who would later be inducted into the women’s baseball hall of fame and eventually be hired as a major league scout. Another story at MLB.com.

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

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