One of the sweetest feelings is hitting the living shit out of a baseball.
You don’t even have to hit the ball that far, really, but every bat has that sweet spot, and when you smash the bat into a ball thrown at you at the exact right moment and the ball finds that spot, your whole body jumps. It’s a thrill. You feel all-powerful. And it’s not an easy task.
In case you couldn’t tell, I love baseball. I always have, I swear it was coded into my genetics. And I had the joy of being able to play in little league when I was growing up. It was an amazing time. Ask anyone about their time in little league, be it softball or baseball, and they will automatically smile. Unless they sucked at it. Or perhaps were the coach’s kid. The coach’s kids are always good, but typically that’s because they don’t stop playing the game when they get home, and the coach feels free lobbing obscenities at their own child. Maybe that was just in the 80’s and 90’s…I digress.
I was always one of the bigger kids on the team. I wasn’t ever really fat, but I thought I was because it was just another thing I was teased about in Catholic school. (Other than being a Jew.) This didn’t matter in baseball. Being a bigger kid meant more of a potential to get bigger hits. And I wasn’t too shabby of a hitter.
I could bat all around the field, but it was so rare to get that coveted home run in little league, as there weren’t any fences. You had to spank the ball a long way to get a home run, and the outfielders had to have not seen it coming. This was one of my problems. I looked like I could hit a ball quite a way, so the outfielders typically played deep for me. On top of that, I wasn’t a particularly fast runner. So, I seriously had to hit the living shit out of a baseball to get a home run.
I only had 2 1/2 home runs in my little league career. One was aided by a lack of coordination, another I was technically called out at home for, but was totally a home run, trust me (this is the one that counts for 1/2), and then there was the most glorious home run of my career. Each one a vivid memory branded into my brain.
Let’s start with the 1/2 home run, the time I was called out…a technicality.
I think I was about 12, and my team was playing the light blue team. The light blue team had gone through a few pitchers, and we were winning. Their current pitcher was obviously down the roster, because he was just lobbing pitches in, coach-pitch style, with our team just getting hit after hit. When it came to be my turn at the bat, I had two men on base, and I was ready to send them home. All the pitcher needed to do was to lob one right in my strike zone.
The first pitch was way outside. Ball one. “That’s okay, I’ll be patient.”
The second pitch was as bad as the first. “Okay…still waiting. Just a simple strike, please.”
The third pitch was in the dirt. Ball three. “Please, just give me something to hit.”
I was eager, hungry. I wanted to take advantage of this terrible pitcher to send a ball long. I wanted to get the free RBI’s that were on base. I had to, had to, hit off of this pitcher.
Then came the fourth pitch. It was obvious from the time the ball left the kid’s hand that this pitch was going to be way too high. It was coming in over my head. This was going to be ball four and I would have to walk without ever getting a chance to swing at these free pitches this kid was tossing, and I had no doubt that they would change pitchers by the time I got my turn again in the roster.
Something in my head said, “No! I’m not missing this for shit!”
Yes, my 12 year-old self thought in swear words.
I swung the bat hard at the pitch above my head, nowhere near the strike zone. The movement of my arms was closer to that required of catching a butterfly overhead rather than swinging at a baseball. It was maybe the stupidest pitch to swing at, but then the most amazing sound happened.
That feeling. My whole body jumped. I took a moment to look. I didn’t see the ball in the air, I just saw the centerfielder backpedalling. It was time to run.
As I rounded first, I looked and saw the centerfielder running toward my ball, which was bouncing toward a set of trees in the far outfield. “Wow! I smacked that thing!”
Then I had to keep running, haul ass, really. Everyone was cheering, and I couldn’t hear any instruction. The third base coach was waving me to run home, but also telling me to book it. I had thought I had more time, as the ball was seemingly long gone as I turned through first.
I was three quarters of the way to home plate when the unthinkable happened. The catcher caught my ball thrown in. I was going to be out! No way! I was too close to the catcher to turn around and start a run-down, so I ran the last couple of feet to home plate.
I was frustrated and embarrassed. With as far as that ball was hit, I should have had an easy home run, I should have been able to make it back to first base again with the amount of distance I put on that ball. But now I was going to be tagged out at home in front of my friends and family. It was time for a desperate, last-ditch effort.
As the catcher reached forward to tag me out, I jammed my hand into his glove and wrenched the ball loose. It was a sore loser kind of move, but I was just an embarrassed kid. I pointed at the ground manically as I stepped on home plate. The ump didn’t buy it and still called me out.
I was out, fair and square. But I count it as half of a home run because the electric feeling was still there, and if there had been a fence, my hit would have cleared it and I would’ve been able to trot my slow ass around the bases comfortably. It counts as half.
Then there was my home run that was aided by a lack of coordination.
I was probably about 14 years old this time, and I was a much better player all around. I was more of a solid hitter, and I was MUCH more willing to take a walk. I knew the value of just getting on base. Most of my hits were singles.
Then, one day, that sweet spot pitch came to me, and there were a couple of guys on base. It just felt great right off of the bat.
The ball was a nice, solid line drive over the short right fielder’s head. It was a close game and we were down by two runs at that point, so both the right fielder and I knew that we had to haul ass. I felt that I could squeeze a triple out of this hit, tying the game. I just needed to push myself. He knew that if he could scoop it up and get it back in time, he might be able to hold the runner that was at first to third base, scoring only one run and preserving their lead.
As I sprinted up the first base line, I could see my hit bouncing fairly deep in right field, and rolling underneath a set of pipes that came up out of the ground into a kind of cubical pattern. These pipes were supposed to be far enough into right field that they were never a problem, but my hit was far enough to settle underneath. The right fielder had already played deep when I had got up to bat, so it did not take him long to get to these pipes, and my ball. I had to dig deep to get to third. I put my head down and charged around the bag, eyes fixated on second.
When I approached second base, I glanced over my right shoulder to see what the situation was. If the right fielder was ready to throw, I probably had to hold up. If he was still running to the ball, I could dig in for third. I saw him running, almost to the pipes that were protecting my ball, and when he reached the pipes, he must have been either going too fast to stop himself, or he was concentrating too hard on my ball and not enough on what was right in front of him. This poor kid ran headlong into the first pipe. It looked like it hurt, and I’m fairly sure I remember a collective grimace and shouts of “oof” coming from both benches. He didn’t fall down, but he recoiled and stood there, holding his head and crying.
I didn’t know that he was crying, though. I just saw him knock his head, and the adrenaline of my 14 year-old body told me that he was a sucker and that this was my opportunity for extra bases. I rounded third like my coach told me to, and tore it up to home plate, snatching away the lead for our team. I felt great. A few of my teammates met me for congratulations, but then we noticed that our coach had run out to right field to see if the kid was okay. Everything became somber very quickly, and my moment of glory quickly faded. The grand reception I expected for hitting a home run never came, ruined by the empathy of others.
I’ll admit, I was annoyed by this. As I’ve said, hitting a home run in little league is quite rare, so you deserve a decent home plate reception when it happens. I did not know it at the time, but this would be the last home run of my little league career. Stupid idiot kid braining himself ruined it.
The kid was still crying quite a bit when they brought him in, and his forehead was bright red with a growing lump, but no blood or anything. He was inconsolable, actually. I felt a little bad for him, but since he never lost consciousness and he wasn’t going to be taken to the doctor, a part of my pubescent boy brain thought, “serves you right for stealing my thunder.” The centerfielder had actually ran over, got my ball, and tried to throw me out at home before he checked on his own teammate, and he was mad that his team blew their lead. So, I wasn’t the only unsympathetic asshole on the field, okay?
That’s two home runs so far, and the first one wasn’t a home run, and the second one happened because I was a heartless 14 year-old (but my team won that game, so there).
The final home run was one of my favorite sports memories. It was actually the first home run of my life. I was only 11 at the time. This home run was pure. It had none of the baggage or bullshit described above.
I was on an average team, and I was an average player. We had a decent season up until that point, but we needed a win to make the playoffs. The games only ran 6 innings at that age, and we were down by three runs at the bottom of the fifth.
We were having a rally of an inning. A couple of hits and a walk later, and the bases were loaded. Another kid was up to bat, and we had one out at that point. I remember thinking that I was glad I wasn’t at bat at that point, because the pressure was pretty great. I remember cheering that kid out with my full lung capacity, telling him to hit a grand slam. The energy was high.
Then he struck out.
Now it was all up to me.
I remember that feeling in my stomach. It was as if I had just ate a bunch of ball bearings and I was wearing magnetic underwear. There was a lot of cheering. I remember looking at the kid on our team who was on third base as I walked to the plate, and he was just yelling at me to get a grand slam.
I had my doubts, but I was going to try.
The pitcher looked determined. He was throwing hard at everybody, and he wanted to make me the last batter of the inning, saving his team’s lead.
I wanted to blast this pitch out of the city, but I wasn’t entirely confident. A confident batter will gauge the pitcher by looking at the first pitch, unless that first pitch is something worth taking advantage of. The confident batter will use this first pitch to make adjustments and plan for what the pitcher might do next.
I was not a confident batter, but I did have a good swing. And all of my nerves told me to swing like hell at the first pitch.
And that is how I got to know that feeling. That feeling when the bat and the ball seem to have met each other perfectly. That feeling like your bat has a particular musical tone, and that note is only sounded by a perfect swing and the ball striking that coveted sweet spot. And when that sweet spot is hit, the bat gives off a vibration that is received by your hands and transmitted throughout your body, and your body tells your brain: “this is a perfect hit.”
It was one of those hits in which, during the approximate 0.122534 seconds before you see the ball leave your bat, your magnetic underwear drop to the ground and that feeling in your stomach moves up from your balls and straight into your heart, making you instantly excited, happy, energized, and invincible. You are certain, before you see where that ball is going, that the distance you just hit it will give you more than enough time to jump onto home plate, victorious.
After that 0.122534 seconds passed, I saw my ball (it was my ball at this point. Once you hit a ball that well, it becomes yours) sail far over the left fielder’s head. I heard screams and cheers. I sprinted probably faster than I ever have in my life. I could hear my dad yelling for me. When I was rounding third, the left fielder still hadn’t reached the ball. I ran into home plate standing, greeted by the rest of my team in a manic, jumping group hug with everybody cheering my name. It was absolutely magical. I don’t think I came down from that feeling for days, and I still get excited when I talk or write about it.
This was my first experience hitting a home run, and, as you have probably deduced, my last. The other two stories are just that: stories. I threw those in for comparison. The reality is that I have only hit one home run in my life. The other two were bullshit. Did I reach home plate in the other two stories? Yes, of course I did. Were they home runs? No. Just because you touched home plate doesn’t mean you hit a home run. It’s all about the experience.
And that’s something I will carry through the rest of my life. The destination doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do to get there.
If you swing at bullshit and try to snatch the ball from the catcher to get to home plate, it’s not going to matter as much to you.
If you hit well enough for a couple of extra bases, and you only get to home because of someone else’s misery, it will not make you feel good.
But if you find that sweet spot and send a ball yard from a good, honest swing, you will never forget what that looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, and, most importantly, sounds like.