“Fundamentals are the most valuable tools a player can possess. Bunt the ball into the ground. Hit the cutoff man. Take the extra base. Learn the fundamentals.” Dick Williams
“Be on time. Bust your butt. Play smart. And have some laughs along the way.” Whitey Herzog
“I could field as long as I can remember, but hitting has been a struggle all my life.” Brooks Robinson
“Am I still in uniform? Then I ain’t retired.” Pete Rose
I can still hear my dad’s voice every time I pick up a bat, glove or ball. Today was no different. At the age of 51 I stepped back onto a softball field to play for the Naval Hospital team on a Marine Corps Base. It is the first time since seminary nearly 20 years ago that I have had the chance to play in an organized league. I was a bottom of the 4th inning defensive substitute and went out to a familiar position, Right Field. I have always whether in baseball or softball been a utility player and play pretty well on defense though my arm doesn’t have the power or range that it had 20 or 30 years ago and I have never been much of a hitter. Basically I have a lifetime average somewhere around the Mendoza line and though a decent number of my hits were doubles, more due to where I hit them than how far I hit them I only had one season where my hitting came together. That season ended early when I was run over at home plate by a player that ploughed into me like Pete Rose did to Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. I landed on my throwing hand and broke my arm just above the wrist, so much for a season in the sun.
Today was a good day. It was just good to be back out on the diamond even if I was a mid game substitute. Despite my age I am not the oldest player on the team, there is one player a number of years older than me and one just a bit younger by a couple of years. Unlike the Marine teams we also have some of our civilian employee’s means that we are older in comparison to the Marine teams. Even so most of the other players are in the 20-30 year age range. The team is pretty good and has been in the playoffs and is expected to be there again, although tonight was one of those nights where little went right. Basically it came down to not doing the fundamentals of defense and hitting. We lost but have games on Wednesday and Thursday.
As I said at the beginning I still hear the voice of my dad in my head every time I step onto the field. My dad was a man who believed in teaching the fundamentals of the game and drilled me constantly in our back yard doing infield drills, playing pepper and teaching me to pitch. Unfortunately he did little to teach me about hitting except to turn me from being a lefty to a righty. One of the last conversations that we had before his mind slipped into the clutches of Alzheimer’s dementia and he could no longer recognized me was when I told him that I heard his voice telling me to “get your butt down” “stay in front of the ball” “follow the ball into your glove” “run out every play” “never step on the foul line going on or off the field” “go into every base hard” “always know the count and how many runners are on base” and “hustle every play.” He was a big fan of Pete Rose, “Charlie Hustle” and he drilled that kind of ethic into my head. I wish that I had continued to play baseball rather that dabbling in Ice Hockey and Football during Junior High and High School; I might have done pretty well.
Yet in that last visit I told him that he never taught me to hit. He told me that hitting was a gift and not many people could do it well. Thus I languish as a hitter to this day. I came to the plate one time grounding weakly into a fielder’s choice to end the top of the 6th inning though I dug hard and ran the ball out just in case the fielder went to first or if an error was made. At the same time I hustled on every play. As dad told me I ran on and off the field, made sure that I didn’t step onto the foul line, kept my situational awareness and made sure that I was where I needed to be to make plays. When the game was over I felt good. Here I was a 51 year old man playing a game with men who for the most part were a lot younger than me. Tomorrow is another game.
Over the weekend I plan on going to a batting cage near the island hermitage to work out my hitting mechanics. I know what I did wrong on that weak grounder but the only way to correct it is more at bats and I won’t get that many as a mid-game substitute. What I don’t want to say about my hitting is what Andy Van Slyke said “I have an Alka Seltzer bat. You know, plop plop fizz fizz. When the pitcher sees me walking up there they say, ‘Oh what a relief it is.'”
I was happy with my range in the outfield as well as my speed getting to first base. I will also put my ball return net together and practice some throwing and infield work and probably use my “heavy ball” to build up my arm strength.
God I love this game.