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August 18 2004: Sweet Swings

It has been a hectic summer for this baseball-loving geek, with far too much going on and not enough time to write about it all. There was the SABR convention in Cincinnati. There was Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium. There was running into Byung-Hyun Kim in a restaurant by chance, the same weekend we were at Fenway to see Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek get into a brawl.

And there has been my season with the Slaterettes, my second full season playing hardball. I have some shocking news.

I am an All-Star.

I received this news last night, down at the Boathouse Field in Slater Park, where my team (Narragansett Electric) lost our 16th game in a row. That sounds bad–and it is. With rain-outs, our record is likely to end this season at 0-17.

This is a major reversal from last year’s team, when I think we lost only three or four games all season, and we played a longer season. I think last year’s record was 18-3, though I’m not 100% sure since we had some games half-played because of rain and other strangenesses of the schedule. Last year we had a dominant catcher, one dominating pitcher (Nikki), and three other good pitchers. Nikki is now with a different team, and none of the rest came back to the league.

In fact, of the 18 names we had on last year’s roster, only myself, Lori, and Kathy Roy (also a rookie last year), and Deb Hutton came back. Hut showed up for only two games last year and then disappeared–she did the same this year, so no one was surprised. But still, most of the denizens of the “old lady team,” as we were called, decided to call it quits.

Chief among them was Diane, our coach, mostly over what I heard were political reasons. The gossip around the league is that various people, mostly men, were upset that our team won so much last year, and they were upset that assertive (okay, loudmouthed and opinionated) Diane was critical of the way the league was being run. Talk is that they wanted to get rid of her, so they broke up her team to drive her away. I don’t know how much of that is true, given that a lot of the old players aren’t playing at all this year. But if they wanted to drive her out, it worked: she quit, and they stocked the roster with all new players. The team didn’t get a new coach until a few days before the season started. We went into that first game not only with no practice, we didn’t even know each other’s names.

We were awful that first game, and although the team has steadily improved, we have continued to be awful for two and a half months. When we hit, we don’t pitch. When we pitch, the defense is weak. When the defense is working, we don’t hit. And so it has gone all year. Some more players quit shortly after the season started, and we recruited a bunch of juniors (young teenagers) to come up and fill in for us, and they have been great. But they are still young (and short). It is exactly like the Seattle Mariners bringing up all their guys from Triple-A to play this year. How the mighty have fallen.

Are we having fun? Yes, though much of the fun is of our own making. I will give no names to protect the guilty and innocent alike, but whenever the home plate umpire goes to brush off the plate and we’re in the field, you’ll hear someone ask “what’s the count?” Regardless of the count, you’ll hear the answer is “two balls.” This kind of fun is necessary since all too often we are on the verge of being killed by the “mercy rule,” which says if one team is more than 15 runs ahead, it’s a lost cause. Thanks to the mercy rule, many of our games have been cut short after only four innings, which means that I have oftentimes been making a two hour drive through rush hour traffic just to get one at bat. Let me tell you, when you drive two hours fighting rush hour, just to get called out on a pitch that was in no way a strike by an umpire who… well, it simply sucks.

I can see you’re skeptical. No, really, we’ve lost every game. We’ve had a few good pitching performances, but they were always on nights when we got shut out. We have had the lead in exactly four games, and we have never led after the fourth inning. We have batted around in an inning, I think, three times. That was really fun when it happened, but we’ve never been able to make a lead stick.

I have been trying to adopt a zen attitude about the whole thing. It’s still better to be standing in the overgrown clover in right field while the sun sets behind the trees than in front of a computer, isn’t it? The team can’t seem to put together a win, so instead of looking at the end result, I look at all the pieces. Each play, each inning, each pitch–I count them all separately, just trying to live in the moment. It means I play hard all the time. I do not look at the score.

Right now we have one game left and then the All-Star game, our season’s finale. You knew I was going to get back to this All-Star thing, didn’t you?

My personal season has not been too bad. My elbow is sore as hell. I went through a few months of rehab but it has never really gotten better. As such, I can throw the ball about 80 feet and that is about it. I’ve played all the outfield positions and the closest I have actually come to catching a ball was once when I was in right I came all the way in trying to get a ball that ended up falling on the infield dirt, which our second baseman should have caught, but she just didn’t. (Did I mention the defense needs work?) As such, it’s hard to tell if my own defense has improved or not. I find it much easier to follow the game now from the outfield–I used to feel like I was so far away from the action that it was a struggle to remember the count or how many outs there were. Not anymore. It’s odd–now that I’ve decided to take things one pitch at a time, one play at a time, some other part of my brain took over keeping track of things like the number of outs and the count, and now I know it almost all the time.

But I guess I am like Ted Williams in that what I love most about the game is hitting. I don’t think I’ll ever love playing in the outfield, if you know what I mean.

My season at the plate has been interesting. Last year I walked a lot, sometimes two or three times in a game (and because we turned the lineup over a lot, I was getting 3-4 at bats per 6-inning game). But this season, instead of “working the count,” I got into a mode of thinking that if I was only going to get one good pitch to hit, I didn’t want to let it go by. Each pitch is a new at bat.

This change in my way of thinking was partly prompted by some bad umpiring, where many, many of the pitches I would never have swung at–some that I couldn’t even REACH–were being called strikes. So I began to swing at anything close. By making every pitch into a new at bat, I could mentally keep myself from feeling like I was in a hole if I was down in the count. Given that even the best pitchers in our league don’t have pinpoint control, this philosphy works well. You really never know what you’re going to get. There is no hitter’s count or pitcher’s count because at any given time, the next pitch could fly over everything to the backstop, bounce in the dirt, hit you in the ribs, or be right down the middle.

Have I ever described what it is like to get hit by pitch? There are a bunch of different ways of getting hit and they are all different. The easiest one to avoid is the one that is coming at your lower legs. First of all, you can see it’s not going to be a strike–not a hittable one, anyway–and it is relatively easy to skip rope, backpedal, or move so that the ball misses you. I say relatively, because I have been hit on the leg more than once. I have been hit on the front leg, the back leg, the calf, the shin…. thankfully never in the knee though. When it’s coming at your calves, you at least FEEL like you can try to get out of the way.

Then there are the pitches bearing in on the meat of your body. By this I mean from the fat part of your thigh, your ass, your back, arm, and shoulder. You’ve seen how major leaguers tuck themselves into this defensive posture, protecting their hands, their face, and taking the bat with them. If the ball hits the bat, of course, it’s a strike, because it is a foul ball.

Lots of women in our league have never learned this. They see the ball coming for them. There are some pitches that don’t look immediately like they are going to hit you. Remember that you’ve dug your cleats into the thick dirt that surrounds the plate, and on top of that the previous batters before you have dug a trench that puts you two inches or more below “sea level.” So your mobility is a little bit limited. By the time you realize that the ball is not going to break over the plate, and that it is making a bee line for your body, it is too late to move your entire torso. Some women actually stick their hand out to deflect the ball–usually only once. Some duck, but they don’t pull the bat down with them and it may get hit with the pitch, foul.

Quite a few, myself included, though, have practiced that defensive tuck that the major leaguers do. You see the pitch coming, you realize you’re not going to have time to move out of the way, but no way are you letting it hit you on your front for all the obvious reasons. You tuck and try to get your buttocks or some other well-padded place in harm’s way.

I got drilled once this year, on the ass. The ball left a perfectly round, completely black bruise. The bruise went so deep, it was actually painful to run for about two weeks. But that was better than getting it on the hip bone.

The third kind of pitch is the one that is coming right at your head. This one you don’t even have time to think about. Some part of you sees the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand, and something about the fact that the ball is coming straight toward your eye makes it almost disappear into a blind spot. You hit the deck before you even know you’ve done it. I had one like that in Arizona, that Kellie Manzie, the fast pitcher from Australia, threw. I don’t think it was intentional at all, but pitches do get away from pitchers sometimes. I felt the dirt hit me on the back before I was really aware that my reflexes had gotten my head out of the way as quickly as possible. At about the same time I was watching the catcher out of the corner of my eye jump up and lunge for it. Let’s just say it was a good thing I went down when I did. (And I hit the next pitch into right field, a pitch away, right where I like it, for a single.) I still haven’t been hit in the head and I never want to be.

So, to get back to hitting philosophy: each pitch was a new at bat. It made me more aggressive at the plate, which was unusual for me, but it worked. It made me feel happier about driving two hours for only one at bat, too.

Let me tell you, you can be having the worst day in the world, and it is all worth it if you get a hit. It sounds stupid, I know, but I can have a terrible day at work, be stuck in traffic for two straight hours on the way to the field, be losing 14-2, and have been called out on strikes on a bad call two innings ago… and it’s all worth it when the ball sails into right field and my foot hits first base.

Especially when it’s the last inning of the game and I’m either leading off the inning, or there are two out and I’m the last hope. I have a very odd streak going–I’m not even sure I should write about it because I might jinx myself. Starting in the middle of the 2003 season, whenever I came up in the last inning (sometimes, because of darkness, the umpires will declare the 4th or 5th the final inning), either needing to start a rally or with two out–I always got a hit. This year it has been either a hit or a walk. I am sure luck is a factor, but I think it also helps that I focus better when I feel the situation is more dire, and there is also the fact that I feel I get better as the game goes on–the more pitches I see, the better command I feel I have in the batter’s box. This is probably an illusion on my part, but it is just the kind of illusion and positive thinking that seems to lead to success in baseball. I think I hit better in the late innings, so I have more confidence when I go to the plate in the late innings, and the increased confidence helps me to hit better…

In the past two weeks, I have gone back to my more patient mode, waiting to zone a pitch and taking a walk if I don’t get the one I want. The end result is I think my batting average is around .300 and my on base percentage is between .400 and 500. (For about every four to five plate appearances I get one hit and one walk, and make out the other times.)

The other night was one of those last licks kind of situations. When I say our league is a family affair, I don’t just use that as an expression. Our coach Paula’s ex-husband Todd coaches one of the other teams in the league, and her daughter Meg catches for him. Todd decided to put Meg in to pitch the final two innings of the game, though, and as we came up to bat in the bottom of the inning (I think it was only the 5th, but we had a rain delay and it was really getting too dark to see by that point) I was due to bat third. Paula put herself into the lineup for the player who batted after me because she wanted to face her own daughter. But that meant one of the three of us had to get on base to bring her up. I had already made out twice and was feeling pretty low about it–I was called out on one strike that was so high and inside it almost hit me, and in the other at bat got into a hole on bad calls and tried to foul off a pitch, but popped up to the catcher in foul territory. I was doing the thing I try to avoid–which is beating myself up about it and deciding that I really suck at this game and should give it up… something every player should avoid since it’s a game of failure and we know that… but at the time when the minor emotional crisis of going oh-fer sneaks up on you, it takes a while to remember that.

Anyway, the first two struck out, so it was up to me. I don’t know if it was Paula in the on deck circle, or if it was just that meg really hasn’t pitched and was a little wild. I only saw four pitches from her, all balls. I walked, and my mood, which had been as dark as the storm clouds threatening, brightened immediately. Complete mood swing. Then I took second, on a pitch in the dirt–the first time I’ve done that all year. Paula worked a walk after telling Meg that if she got hit by pitch, she would charge the mound. She took a big lead off first and the catcher (lefthander Nikki, of all people, usually a late-inning pitcher) tried to nab her with a quick throw to the first baseman, but the ball went off her glove and I went to third. The next two batters walked–I guess Meg was wild–and I got to trot home. Maybe, I thought, I don’t completely suck at this game.

After the game, Paula announced the All Star selections that were voted by the players. I was fairly amazed to hear I was among those picked. Two innings earlier I was thinking I should hang it up, I can’t hit anymore, I’m too slow, etc. etc… and now my teammates were telling me they thought I deserved to be named among the league’s best. Wow. Mood swings, indeed.

Of course, one of my other great frustrations with the league has been how disorganized it is this year. (One of Diane’s criticisms…) The All-Star game, we were then told, is scheduled for Friday, August 20th. If I had known that a bit sooner, I wouldn’t have scheduled my vacation for then. Bummer…

So you go up, you go down. I had to decline the honor of playing in the game. corwin was willing to reschedule our travel plans–and I love him for that–so that I could play in the game, but… there are so many reasons why we shouldn’t change now. Hotel reservations, ticket bought, etc… And heck, with my elbow the way it is, I probably shouldn’t have even played this season… Like I said, up, down, up, down.

So now I’ve got one game left in my season, and then I can start another round of rehab. That way maybe next year, if I get that All-Star designation again, I will be able to live up to it.

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