It was the summer of 1998.
On the radio Will Smith was telling us to Get Jiggy With it, Brandy F and Monica were fighting over The Boy, Britany wanted us to Do It Baby One More Time, and Offspring was Pretty Fly (for a white guy). In the theaters, Titanic was sinking, two different asteroids threatened earth (one dealt with by Bruce Willis, the other wiped out Téa Leone), and we were waiting to see if Tom Hanks could Save Private Ryan.
For me, life was good. I was 40 years old, and although a little overweight, not as obese as I would be in a few years. My wife’s cancer was biding its time, unknown to us, as yet undiagnosed. The local internet provider I worked for had just been bought out by a regional ISP, I enjoyed my job, kids were healthy and happy, and we were on our way to Pittsburgh to meet the new bosses at a big family picnic in a park.
Just me and my son and daughter went on the trip, as my wife Carolyn was also a part-time pastor, so her weekends were always shot. But the kids and I were having a great time. We drove up the night before and stayed in a hotel that had a hot tub in the room, for some reason smack in the middle of the room itself, not the bath. The kids thought it was great, and made a righteous mess.
The next morning found us at the park on a beautiful July day. The weather was perfect – just enough clouds blowing by to give you a little relief from the sun now and then, not too hot, and low humidity. There was plenty of food and beer, lots of organized play for the kids, and if most of the Pittsburgh folks my WV work friends and I were meeting seemed to be a bit on the asshole-ish side, well, there was the consolation that we would not have to share offices with them.
The highlight of the day for me came in the afternoon. The kids were busy tiring themselves out in sack races and the food-related games that make us so beloved in starving countries (i.e. egg toss and eating contests), and I went over to the baseball field to join in the softball game.
It had probably been 23 years at least since I had held a bat or picked up a glove. But between the ages of about 11-16, the kids in my neighborhood were baseball fanatics. During summer vacation, between breakfast and lunch we played catch, or threw a ball on the bowling alley’s curved roof and waited for it to come down and catch it. If there were more than three of us, we’d go to what we called the “field” and play some variation of the game. Back to the diamond after lunch, and play until it got too dark to see.
The “field” was an empty, overgrown lot. We cleared the trash and debris off, and marked out a base path and a mound. It was at some time a corn field or something, because it still had furrows running through it, which made for interesting infield plays. You had to be very alert – the phrase “bad bounce” didn’t exist for us, they were all pretty much random bounce. Good for the reflexes, bad for the ankles.
Young boys are very creative when it comes to playing baseball with just a few people. You could invoke the “right field closed” rule, or “all time pitcher”, “ghost runner on second”, for example – or all three. No first baseman? No problem, just throw the ball to the pitcher, if he gets it and tags the mound before the runner gets to first, he’s OUT! So we could play with as few as three kids, changing places and keeping mental track of the lineup, as we pretended different professional teams were playing.
It got easier of course as more kids showed up, and usually at some point in the day we had about 6 kids per team, which makes for a decent game. My best friend at the time was a math whiz, and could tell you what your batting average or earned run average was as we played, which was cool.
By the way, none of us played Little League. That was for rich kids, who had parents that drove them around and paid for uniforms and equipment. We rode our bikes everywhere or walked, and played with cracked and chipped bats that were mostly too big or too small, and baseballs with dirty and torn covers. When the covers got too bad, a little electrical tape would give you another good month of use.
At any rate, over 5 years or so I logged thousands of hours playing sandlot baseball. Was I any good? Oh hells no! I sucked! We all sucked, really. I mean, sometimes one of the big kids would show up (high schoolers) and smack the shit out of the ball, but the rest of us were just playing out the fantasy in our heads, and having a blast in a way that is hard for today’s video game generation to understand. The point is, although we were all bad, all of that practice and exercise did build pathways in our muscles and reflexes that I was surprised and delighted to see popup (baseball pun, get it?) in 1998.
I remember my first time at bat that summer afternoon, my friends from the Shepherdstown office cheering me on as I took a few practice swings. The first pitch came in high and away, and I wisely laid off. The next was low and inside, and I took a mighty swing – and connected with absolutely nothing. Actually, I was lucky I didn’t overbalance and fall on my fat ass.
Then the magic happened. The next pitch was right down the middle, and it felt like my body took over, and just responded. Perfect swing, solid contact, and the ball was on its way to left center field, over the head of the short stop. Textbook base hit. I took off for first base on contact, watching the ball and the left fielder with a practiced eye, rounded first base, held up, and trotted back to first.
Then I broke out into laughter. One of my friends asked what was so funny, I managed to gasp out “I rounded first!”. I mean, that is what you are supposed to do, and my body remembered to round first. But was I really a threat to take two on a base hit? A 40 year old, overweight guy who had been eating hot dogs and hamburgers all day, washing it down with beer – a guy who gets winded toweling off after a shower – I was going to stretch it into a double?!?
Anyway, got myself under control, and watched the next batter, shouting the usual encouragement.
CRACK! Another shot up the middle! Again, my body knew what to do. I took off, running full speed – well for me, anyway, Usain Bolt probably sleepwalks faster – hellbent for second base. I saw the centerfielder bobble the ball, so naturally, my baseball-ingrained body understood before my brain that I must go for third base.
I rounded second, and headed for third, keeping my eye on the third baseman. I saw him get in front of the bag, crouch and hold up his glove, ready to catch the throw.
So naturally, my body decided the only thing to do was to slide into third, and take him out if needed. Before my brain could point out that it has been more than two decades and about a hundred pounds since the last time we slid into anything but a jacuzzi, my body turned, my legs went up and out, and I dropped into a textbook slide that did indeed upend the third baseman and get me safely to the bag.
I got up and dusted myself off to cheers from my friends, and a few minutes later trotted in to score easily on a long fly ball.
I didn’t bat again, the game broke up for some kind of corporate rah-rah session, but it didn’t matter. I had had my moment in the sun, and walked around with a goofy grin on my face the rest of the day, marveling at how the body of an adult can remember what it learned as a child.
Of course when I woke up in the hotel the next morning, I got out of bed and fell to the floor, a quivering mass of sore and aching muscles.