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February 28 2002: My Own Spring Training

Those of you who have been following WILBB for a while now, know that I’m hoping to play baseball this year with the New England Women’s Baseball League (NEWBL). I’ve been keeping a diary of my progress as I gear up for the season and try to get myself in shape.

Here’s how February went:

February 6th

Major League pitchers and catchers isn’t until next week, but I’m starting my pre-season workouts now. After all, I’ve got a lot farther to go before I’m in any kind of shape than those guys. If I’m going to make a team in the women’s league this season I know I’m going to have to show them something in tryouts. Something other than the weak arm and clueless facial expression I showed last year.

Tonight I went to the cage. There’s a baseball batting cage at a big sports bar about a fifteen minutes drive from my house. The place is called Good Time and it’s huge, like a big warehouse. About half the place is filled with stuff for kids like Skee Ball and pinball/video game machines. The other half is for grownups, pool tables, and giant projection television screens on all the walls.

They’ve got two cages there, one baseball, one softball. I’ve never been in the softball cage and wouldn’t know what to do if I got in there. It’s three tokens for twelve pitches, which is about seventy five cents, though if you cash in $10 to tokens at a time, you get some extra, bringing the price down to about sixty eight cents. I usually feed six tokens at a time, to get twenty four pitches in a row.

One advantage to Good Time: they’re open late. It’s a bar, after all. So when I got off teaching tae kwon do at 8:30pm, I went straight there. corwin, my boyfriend, had his weekly band rehearsal tonight, so I knew he wouldn’t be ready for dinner until 10pm.

When I arrived, there was a man in the cage flailing his arms about. “Ho-lee sh*t!” or something of that nature came out of this mouth. A very overweight teenage relative of his stood outside the cage laughing. “You better get in here and take care o’ this!” he said then, and fled. The kid, head covered with a nappy ‘fro, jumped in and walloped a few. He could smack ’em. I couldn’t imagine him running the bases, but he could connect hard.

When he came out I went in. “You gonna hit?” he said to me, through the mesh of the cage as I picked over the selection of beat up bats that sit in a bucket next to the coin slot.

“We’ll see if I can even hit one,” I said.

He made a derisive noise. “Ah, you can hit. You got gloves and everything. You got baseball in your blood.” I swear I’m not making this up.

“We’ll see.”

I hit okay. Better than last time, although I’m still chopping a lot of balls off the ground right in front of the plate. Fewer foul pops. The kid whooped and hollered behind me and normally that’d make me self-conscious, and tense up. But I was trying to be really conscious of not gripping the bat too tight.

When I grip too tight there’s no doubt that my bat speed is slower. I’m late on every swing and pop the ball up a lot. I am, of course, trying to develop a Charlie Lau style inside-out swing, but if I grip too tight, I can’t make contact in front of the plate, and I sure as heck can’t pull the ball. If I relax my hands, they whip through the zone, and if I really think about it, I can pull the ball. Most of the time, though, I try to take the ball straight up the middle.

What’s funny is the visualization I use to keep my hands loose is Paul O’Neill. I always thought O’Neill’s grip looked too loose, in some ways, with his index finger cocked way up, but whenever I think of how it looked, I grip the bat with my fingers and I have a quick swing.

The machine at Good Time pitches with an arm and whips the ball at you at around 50 miles per hour. That’s my guess based on other cages I’ve been to where you can set the speed. Sometimes it throws ’em high, sometimes low. If there’s one thing I’m sure of right now, it’s that I don’t know how to hit the low ball. And I don’t know the strike zone well enough to know whether I can lay off of those.

After my first 24 pitches, the kid got back in. His uncle or cousin or whoever it was who had been intimidated by the machine started yelling at him that it was time to go. “I”m comin’!” he yelled back, and kept smacking them. This time I noticed he hit a lot more foul. Because I was watching?

I went back in after him and got some better cuts on my second round. The balls are those ones like giant golf balls, all pocked on the surface. Among the disadvantages to Good Time, it being a bar, it’s kind of dark in there. And the balls get dingy very fast. So most of the ones coming at you out of the machine are the same uniform gray as the smoke-filled air. But for some reason, sometimes I “see the ball well.” It’s like my eyes get warmed up and start tracking better, and when it’s like that, I actually see the ball hit the bat.

When I came out, two guys were in line. One young guy, wearing Adidas flip-flops (which seemed like a good way to get a broken toe) and one older man who looked like a college professor. Adidas was a lefty and had a huge hitch in his swing. And gripped the bat so tight all the power in his swing came from the torque of his shoulders as he would quickly corkscrew his upper body. And yet he could connect well and hit the ball hard. I remarked all this to the professor who just said “Hm.”

Then the prof got in. Now, normally I am the only adult at the Good Time batting cage who wears the beat up helmet they provide. But both Adidas and the professor put it on as well. Prof gripped the bat too tight, too. And the machine gave him a lot of neck-high pitches that he couldn’t get, even going up on tiptoe, which I sense is not the right approach. Then again, on me, those are over my head and it’s more obvious to lay off of them.

I took one more round through and then I was done. Next time, I’m going to work on picking up my front foot and putting it back down.

February 7

Went to the chiropractor today and they were amazed at how much range of motion I had in my lower back. Normally I go in there practically unable to move. But, well, in addition to going to the cage, I’ve actually taken two tae kwon do classes this week and jogged twice. Yes, it’s amazing how much better my back feels when I keep it moving.

Today I threw after my appointment. I jogged over to the Peabody School, about two blocks from my house. It’s an elementary school, and out back they have a kiddie-size soccer field made of artificial turf. It’s fenced in and only about a hundred feet long, and is an excellent place to stand when throwing the ball against the brick wall of the gymnasium.

I had to laugh while reading Bob Cluck’s “Play Better Baseball For Girls” yesterday. In it, he outlines a 30-day program for strengthening your arm. It has you mostly alternating between days when you throw 60 feet 50 times, and days when you throw 120 feet 20 times. Here’s why I had to laugh–if I could throw the ball 120 feet, I wouldn’t need his strengthening program!

Anyway, I threw against the wall and fielded the resulting grounders, trying to get the mechanics of my throw working, and also the mechanics of my fielding. Bend the knees, don’t bend the back, look the ball into the glove, etc. Not bad for the first time throwing in how many months?

I had incentive not to let the ball get past me, because if it did, it would go into the ice puddle. The artificial turf doesn’t have particularly good drainage, I guess, and about midfield where there is apparently a slight depression, there was a puddle of ice about twenty feet across. And the turf for about twenty feet around it was soggy.

After doing about fifty throws hard, I switched to tossing the ball up high on the wall and catching it on the fly. And that was enough for one day.

February 9

Today is Saturday, and it was 31 degrees outside. And what did I do? Throw. I convinced the boyfriend to come to the school with me and play catch. For some reason at 50 feet we’re fine, and at 60 feet the ball goes all over the freakin’ place–for corwin especially. If I’m 50 feet away, he can throw it right to me. But if I back up ten feet, he throws it into the ground, hooks it twenty feet to the right, etc… He was already tired since I had grabbed him right when he came in from aikido class. “Just fifteen minutes, come on.” He wanted to get back to the house in time to hear the NPR sports show we like “Only A Game.” Because it has not been baseball season, we have generally not watched or listened to any sports, but then we decided to watch the Superbowl last week, and then last night we watched the Opening Ceremonies to the Olympics, and corwin wanted to see what Only A Game would say about both.

We had only thrown about three throws each when a group of teenage boys with a football came along. The unwritten rules of the school field are as they are for just about everywhere: first come first serve, and they made no move to get us off the field. Instead they had a great time “skating” on their sneakers on the ice puddle, which they discovered to their delight they could cross in its entirety if they got a good running start on the turf first.

I think we threw for about ten minutes, and then corwin headed for home. I threw another twenty times against the wall, did twelve flies off the wall, and then jogged home. I caught up with him just on our front steps.

Learned one weird fact while throwing in the cold today–I can’t seem to do it with earmuffs on. It’s like my head doesn’t move right and it’s like it makes the ball harder to see. As soon as I took them off, I was fine. Weird, eh?

Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain so I probably will not throw. I will try to get to the cage–maybe Rich will want to take a ride up to Strike One with me, where the cages are something of an improvement over Good Time, but it takes two people to operate the machines.

February 13

Well, I had to get a tire fixed today, and it so happens the car dealership is somewhat near to the batting cage. So after the car was done (phew, only $40 to fix the tire, change the oil, and all that… plus they washed it) I trundled over to Good Time Emporium and changed in another $10 in tokens.

In the afternoon, the sunlight comes in, and it’s possible to see the pitching arm and the release point on the machine. With a little more time to prepare each swing I started trying to do something suggested in “The Louisville Slugger Complete Book of Hitting Faults And Fixes” which is to start my hands back into “launch position” before starting my forward motion through the zone. Guess what? I can hit the ball harder.

I’m also always using a lighter bat there. My bat is too heavy for me, no doubt about it. It’s 28 ounces, and 32 inches long–or is it the other way around? I like it long because I an reach the outside pitch. But it just takes too long to swing that big thing. Most of the women in the league, I noticed, swing something more like 26 ounce, 26 inch or smaller. When I was used to the heavier bat, they always felt like they were going to fly out of my hands they were so light. But I’ve been using a dinky thing at the cage — I’m guessing it’s around 25-25?–and it’s getting easier.

I still can’t seem to work in a stride or a toe tap, but cocking my hands back before starting forward helps a lot. I’m taking a lot more balls up the middle, and driving more right back over the machine. But I still chop a lot of balls on the ground.

February 19

I haven’t thrown since the last time I wrote about it. It has been cold, cold, cold here. Some nights down to 16 degrees! Brrr. corwin and I have been watching a lot of the Winter Olympics on tv, which is weird because we never watch tv. We just barely get reception clear enough on NBC to actually watch. The picture’s not great, but it’s good enough. Exciting events. But sitting on my ass for several hours every night is hell on my back.

Tonight I went to the cage on the way back from my writers group meeting. I feel like I was hitting better today, although I am still chopping a lot of balls on the ground. A lot of my swings were late, too, but I could feel they were late. Yesterday and today I’ve just felt exhausted. I had waves of sleepiness during my writers group, which normally never happens. Yesterday I called corwin to pick me up from work because after I forced myself to do my tae kwon do forms and kick for several minutes, I felt like I could barely lift my head. Five minutes on the exercise bike and I just felt like laying my head down on the desk. Gee, do you think maybe I’m sick? It’s not the out-of-shape tired, where you get out of breath or feel fatigue in your muscles. It’s more like I’m on the verge of falling asleep. Very disconcerting.

But tonight. It’s school vacation week around here so when I got to the cage around 10 pm, there were a bunch of kids and two parents watching them. Dad, Mom, and three boys, age ten to twelve. The boys were taking turns in the cage while Dad drank a beer and Mom had a glass of wine.

Dad was pretty coach-y to me. He said if I’m making contact, that’s excellent at this time of the season and just keep working on that for now. It’s probably something he heard a Little League coach say to someone else once, but he’s probably right.

Because I was swinging a little late, and also because I was trying to get my hands through the zone quickly, most of what I hit went to the opposite field. Inside out swing. Once or twice I made a determined effort to speed up and pull the ball to the left–succeeded once. Hitting a lot of balls on the ground in front of the plate, though, still. And in the dim light, dingy balls, etc… there’s still no time to work on a pre-swing motion like a toe tap or a stride. You just can’t see when the ball is going to be launched like you can when a pitcher has a windup.

The bad news is that my forearm tendons are swelled up on my right side. I’ve been having some recurring tendonitis there, in the big tendon on the underside of my arm, ever since I typeset a book about two months ago. Computer RSI, overusing the mouse. It feels similar to, but not in the same place as, the tennis elbow I had a few years ago.

I don’t want to face the fact that hitting in the cage (and baseball in general) may aggravate the tendonitis. Basically, gee, that sucks. Tonight I did ice and ibuprofen and I’ll keep up low doses of “vitamin i” tomorrow, too. And hope for the best.

February 22

There’s nothing like watching the Olympic games to get one thinking about athletics, training, pressure, and the like. Tonight, after Michelle Kwan had to settle for bronze after Sarah Hughes just blew the doors off everybody in the place, I went out running. Nothing like running at 12 midnight on wet sidewalks, eh? It’s weirdly warm out and was raining all day, so I ran about a half mile, then threw the ball against a wall in a Harvard/Radcliffe courtyard. Turned out it was a dorm I was throwing against and after about twenty throws, a sleepy-looking guy came to the window and stared out in puzzlement. When I tried to talk to him to apologize for waking him up he was either too groggy to respond, or couldn’t hear me through the window. I went to find another wall.

I ended up behind the school where the turf field was wet, but no longer frozen over or puddly. The field itself is about 100 feet long, so from one line to the other is about 90 feet. I can’t throw 90 feet. I can throw 60 feet pretty consistently, and I can throw about 80 feet when I really rear back. I hope that by the time May (and tryouts) rolls around that will have changed.

End February Diary

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