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July 13 2005: Hit or Miss (More on playing baseball)

I’m batting .400 on the season. Granted, the season hasn’t been going on very long, but it’s a nice number to have, ain’t it? It probably doesn’t look as good if you see that every out I’ve made, though, has been a strike out.

Yes, folks, I feel Mark Bellhorn’s pain. Like Bellhorn, I tend to take a lot of pitches, and like Bellhorn, I usually walk and strike out a fair bit. What is odd this season is I am hitting more and walking less. Mine being a hardball park league, the umpiring sometimes varies in its accuracy. This is difficult for a hitter like me, who lays off pitches I can’t drive, since some of them are not strikes… but they get called strikes anyway. I refuse to be suckered into swinging at pitches I can’t hit. The result would be a swing and a miss, or an easy out. If I’m just trying to get the runner in from third, then, maybe, I’ll just go up there trying to “make contact,” but I seem to hit best when I focus on trying to actually get a hit.

Bellhorn gets hammered by Red Sox Nation for taking a lot of called third strikes, but I think that would happen even when he is hitting well. (Arguably, he’s not.) Sometimes they throw a pitch that you can’t hit.

The pitch that gets me out most often is on the low inside corner. But few pitchers in my league pitch inside, and those that do often hit me, so I get on base anyway. Most of them pitch away, or high. I let the high ones go by.

The main thing I find is that if “my pitch” comes, I must hit it. The best way to be ready to hit it is to expect it on every pitch. I don’t automatically take the first pitch — I’m ready to swing at it, since it might be the one good one I get. Julie, who is one of the best players on our team, struck out in a recent game and came back to the dugout shaking her head. Someone asked her where the pitch was and she laughed: “It was right down the middle! But you just don’t expect that!” Not with the pitcher walking people and sometimes throwing them to the backstop or in the dirt, a common sight in our league. She was too surprised to swing.

Where Bellhorn and I differ, I think, is that my strategy is not to “work the count.” Instead, I approach each pitch as if it were a separate at bat. Sometimes that means I am up there fouling them off and running the count up, but sometimes that means I see my pitch early on, and hit it.

There are few things in life that feel better than seeing your pitch, and hitting it. And there are few things that are nicer to hear than those two little words: “Nice hit.”

Now, when I said it was early in the season, I could have been more specific. My team, Shove Insurance, has played five games thus far, and we are 1-4, which is already an improvement over last year, when my old team, Narragansett Electric, didn’t win a single game. Unfortunately, I had to miss the one game we won, which was a make-up of a rain-out, which we won 17-2 because the other team had no pitchers to speak of. Other than the blow out on opening night when we got beat 16-1, though, we have been pretty competitive.

Two games ago I made the final out of the game getting forced out at second. I continued my streak of always getting a hit or a walk when I come up in the final at-bats, but I didn’t get to second in time on a ground ball. I should have slid, I realized, because then at least I might have gotten the benefit of the umpire’s call. I have never slid. I never learned how. Deb Bettencourt promised we would practice it at a league practice in a few weeks.

But I felt I needed to learn a bit sooner. I’ve been reading “The Mental Game of Baseball,” and I decided my only shot was just to use the power of positive visualization. I didn’t practice, for fear of hurting myself. Instead, I just pictured Chuck Knoblauch sliding into second. So last game, I made it my goal to steal second. I got on with a hit into center, and on the third or fourth pitch of the next at bat, I went for it. Perhaps the new spikes really have helped me to be faster, because I thought for sure I would be a dead duck. I could see the shortstop with her foot on the bag, reaching out like she was taking the throw from the catcher… and I slid. I just… slid. I slid with my left leg bent, and my hands pulled in to my chest… and it worked. I did not get hurt. And I was safe.

I was so proud of myself that I lost track of the count and failed to move to third on a dropped third strike when I could have, but ultimately it did not matter as I came around to score soon after that. Phew.

Now if I had to tell you what I did to slide, or had to teach it to someone else, I would have no clue. I still don’t know quite what I did, only that it seemed to turn out right. I’ll just keep thinking about Chuck, file the movement away into my muscle memory, and hopefully it’ll work every time.

I think perhaps the most important part of the whole process was somewhere along the way I put aside the fear that I would get hurt doing it. I wasn’t even really aware that I did so, because once I had made up my mind that I had to learn to slide, and that I was going to do it at the first opportunity, any fear I had just kind of disappeared into the background. I’m sure if I had been fearful or tentative about it, I probably would have done it wrong and hurt myself. But when you are running at top speed, and the ball is coming, you just focus on what you have to do, not on what might go wrong. As they say in life, you can only control yourself, not the weather, other people, or circumstance. So too in baseball.

My whole team went to the batting cages tonight, and worked on our hitting. To me the batting cage “game” is all about making contact. I hate to have a pile of missed balls all rolling around my feet. So I felt pretty good about the fact that when I jumped in for my first round, pretty much all the balls ended up back at my coach’s end of the cage. He pointed out, though, that sometimes I would only half-swing, so I started taking some pretty good cuts. I wouldn’t mind developing a little more power.

But I know I can hit. And now I am getting the baserunning thing down. My arm will never be a rifle, but at least now that I’ve thrown several times on the season, I am regaining accuracy and a wee bit of distance. That leaves one major deficiency in my package as a player, and that’s defense.

When I dream about baseball, I am almost always at second base. But with the Pawtucket Slaterettes I have usually been in the outfield. I played two innings at second this year–opening night — and was awful, even worse than I expected, because I haven’t really taken ground balls or played the infield since very early 2003. I’d like a shot at second base again, but what I should probably concentrate on is playing the outfield.

No one has ever taught me to play the outfield, and I have never learned to track a fly ball. This is not usually a problem because it is so rare that any ball hit into the Pawtucket outfield actually comes close enough for me to catch it anyway. Most of my job is picking up balls that got through the infield, and chasing gap shots. But every now and then, and ball might actually be catchable, if only I didn’t run too far in, or not far enough back, and if I knew what to do when I got there. I don’t know if I would drop a fly if it came right to me, since pretty much what happens is I run and run but misjudge where it will come down. I don’t know what it looks like to settle under one correctly–not from the fielder’s point of view, anyway.

When I play right I know to backup the play at first. When I play center I know to back up the throw down at second. But I don’t know how to catch a fly ball.

That’s next. Somehow.

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