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July 2, 2007: Mechanical Failure (My throwing arm)

The other day in a game against the Yankees, Shannon Stewart of the Oakland A’s made a weak throw from left field, allowing a run to score and a runner on second base to move to third. The game’s broadcasters mentioned that Stewart’s shoulder is injured, and has been “for years.” How, one might think, could a guy still be playing with such a weakness and why hasn’t he done anything about it?

Well, I don’t know about Stewart’s arm, but I know about mine. And over the past seven years playing in the women’s leagues, my arm has only gotten weaker, not stronger, every year. Stewart probably could hire the best doctors, personal trainers, and kinesiologists to diagnose and treat his problem. He can not only afford all the experts, he can afford to spend hours a day working on his baseball skills. I can’t. I’ve got an acupuncturist, and if I even exercise twice a week right now I’m doing well.

The truth of the matter is that as I age, and as the repetitive strain of daily computer use takes its toll, my throwing actually has been getting weaker. What I found out yesterday in practice, though, was that strictly speaking my arm isn’t weak right now. But my mechanics are all out of whack from years of favoring the elbow pain. And it turns out it’s not just my throwing, but my hitting, too.

Wow. I’ll explain.

I arrived at practice a bit late. Bob told me to take a run around the field for that. Check it out though–I can run all the way around the field (outside the fences) and not die. Last year I don’t think I could have done that. I really am in better shape than last year where I re-injured the elbow in early April and literally didn’t do ANYTHING from then until June 20th when Slaterettes season started. At my age, two and a half months of sitting on your ass definitely puts you out of shape completely.

But we were talking about my arm. One of my tae kwon do instructors pointed out to me recently that I seem to be having trouble extending my arm fully. Even when I reach out, my elbow is staying slightly bent, as if I’m afraid I’ll hyperextend it and hurt it again. I think the rehab exercises I’ve been doing non-stop actually have built up my bicep such that my arm just doesn’t want to straighten. It’s probably been this way for three years at least, but especially since I re-injured it last spring.

Bob took a look at a single throw of mine and said, hmmm. He sent me and another player off to the side to warm up my arm better. We played catch for about 5 minutes, I went back to the infield, took another grounder, sailed another one nowhere near its target, and he did something no coach has done in all my years in the league. He turned the grounder-hitting duties over to Bridget and then he worked with me one-on-one.

We played catch. After only a few throws he came over to show me what my arm looks like when I throw. First of all, it’s bent when it shouldn’t be. I’m not getting full extension. To make up for the shortness of my arm, I’m pushing harder with my shoulder. He asked me, “when you throw a lot where does it hurt?” In my shoulder, of course. I didn’t tell him that last year’s strategy was not to throw at all, and to save the few good throws I had in me for game situations. I made a good throw in the game the other night, too, hitting my cutoff man (by which I mean woman).

We worked on it. I threw a lot, trying to come over the top and extend my arm all the way.

Now, one of the most annoying symptoms of an RSI is that your fingers start to go numb. Funny thing is, I haven’t had much numbness or tingling over the years, but I woke up the other day with two fingers on my right hand partly ‘asleep.’ Which is troubling, but not dire. I hope.

Then he looked at the way I grip the ball. Turns out, to make up for the weakness and numbness in my fingers, I’ve been letting the ball get deeper in my hand than usual so that I don’t lose my grip. If you know anything about pitching, you know that a fastball turns into a changeup when the one thing you change is how deep in your palm the ball is.

It all goes back to that same injury. Shannon Stewart can’t throw? Just goes to show fixing it isn’t that simple. The elbow affects the shoulder affects the fingers affects everything.

We had a fun practice, I worked in the outfield where I’ve been playing mostly the past few years. Thing is, no one has ever told me how to play the outfield. Right field, where I play, is mostly about backing up first base on grounders hit to the left side and on pickoff throws from the catcher. I know that from reading books about positioning. And cutting off line drives in the gap and getting them back to the cutoff man. Not a lot of actual fly balls go that way because the whole league is stacked with pull hitters.

But I still would like to be able to catch a ball if it were coming to me. Thing is, the “instructional” years I worked out with the New England Women’s Baseball League (now the NE division of the North American Women’s Baseball League), I wanted to play second base and they obliged me. I learned all kinds of things about playing the position, and how to field ground balls, turn the double play, et cetera. No one ever taught me to catch a fly ball.

So three of us were standing out there with Bob, and he is hitting us pop flies and liners. And Sam and I were not having an easy time judging where they are going. Bob is another one of those coaches who can’t really place his fungoes–a rare skill–so that means running around all over the place, and sometimes giving up on balls that are going to land twenty yards from you no matter how fast you run.

Finally Bob comes over and says to Sam, “which direction should your first step be when a fly ball is coming toward you?” I’m thinking… toward the ball. She’s thinking it’s a trick question and she says “I don’t know.” Well, the answer isn’t toward the ball. It’s “take a step back.” We all know that when the ball’s to the side of us, it’s easier to catch, because you can gauge the arc much more easily. But when it’s more or less toward you? Bob demonstrated the laziest looking little step back. “Just like Manny’s,” he explained. “If you fall back that little step, if the ball looks like it’s still going up as you go back, you know you gotta run back. If it looks like it’s not still going up, you come in. If you don’t take the step back, you can’t judge the top of the arc just by standing there.”

This is clearly one of the most basic things about fielding one should know, and it’s funny that I didn’t. But hey, like I said, I was supposed to be an infielder. Frank Crosetti’s book on infield play didn’t mention this.

Now, here’s one to add to the list of Weird Baseball Injuries. Not as weird as Paxton Crawford cutting himself by falling out of bed in his hotel, nor that guy who burned his face with the iron while watching ESPN. I scooped up a ball from the grass with my glove, and an insect bit me on the finger. The one finger that sticks out from the glove, you know? Somehow a bug got between the finger and the leather and the sucker bit me! It started to swell up and now as I’m typing this two days later it’s got a hard lump. Like, ouch.

It was about 1:15 by the time we were done in the outfield and we’d all been running around in the midday sun for over an hour. Bob’s next step was to make a run to Dunkin Donuts and buy us all frozen drinks. But that’s not why he’s currently my favorite coach. It’s because he takes the time to explain things and he sees it as worth his time to do so to help individual players improve their skills.

This makes me think we have a good shot to win the league this year. If the pitching holds up. The team is pretty strong defensively overall, and clearly getting better, and we’re hitterish enough that we can always put some runs up.

Once we were sufficiently cooled down and sugared up, we went to the batting cages.

Here, my shoulder/elbow reared its head again. I won’t go into a complicated breakdown of my swing, but two major things have changed. The first one you could guess. I’m not extending my arms enough. Still trying to protect that elbow. Bob suggested I get a brace for it to take the worry out. And two, to try to make up for the shortness of my arms, I’ve opened my stance too much. My feet are starting out far apart and then my stride is nonexistent. It was like I had somehow forgotten everything about my natural swing over the course of last season when I was hitting so terribly. Guess what? I did forget everything about my natural swing. All Bob had to do was point it out.

And now I just have to keep it all together in the game. It’s funny how things you do in practice can go out the window when people are watching. Here we are, a group of 7-8 women, mostly between 20 and 25, clustered around the cage watching each other hit. We were using the slower cage as most of the pitchers in our league are not getting the ball above say 55 mph. Along comes this strapping young hunk. Six-two, college age jock. He gets into the faster cage like he knows what he’s doing.

We weren’t really watching him, not really. We were minding our own business. But we couldn’t help but notice when he swung and missed on the first pitch. When the fast pitching machine wings the ball that quick, and you miss, it hits the pad on the backstop with a loud “boom.”

Boom, boom, boom. He didn’t even foul tip a single one of his first 16 balls. I couldn’t help but notice his face was red as he came out to feed another token into the machine. He jumped right back in there.

Boom, boom.

I said to Robin, “I think we’re making that guy nervous.”

Pretty soon we were all stealing glances over there to see if he was getting any better. I was hoping he’d finally connect with one so we could say “nice hit,” but he didn’t. He ended up leaving without really having gotten much in the way of “batting” practice in at all.

Poor guy. He probably had a game to play that night in his league and had just wanted to get some extra swings in. But it could have been worse. We could have actually been giggling.

No games for me this coming week. I’m off to San Francisco for a wedding and will miss our two scheduled matchups. But I think I may pack my batting gloves. Just in case.

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