The stalwart men of my softball league must never learn of my weekly talks, to be conducted over the phone and lasting exactly 50 minutes, with Dr. Abel (as I’ll refer to him), a resident of one of the New England states. Nor must word ever reach their ears of what these talks are costing me. How these working men with their beer bellies swelling the bottom half of their jerseys would jeer at the news that one among them, of the hoity-toity town of Summit, was dropping $300 a pop for help with his hitting from a sports psychologist. My action brands me a member of my class as surely as their beer bellies speak for their own.
I do not hold back with Dr. Abel during our maiden talk this morning. I now have three full games behind me in the St. Jude’s Old-Timers’ Softball League, and I still have yet to notch a hit, going a collective 0 for 9. The fear has started to grip my mind and only grows more tenacious that I will be the first player in St. Jude’s history to go a full season without making a hit. And nothing we do on the field goes unnoticed. There is always someone keeping a scorebook; a frail young man perched in the stands, the sacred tablet laid on his lap, with its spiral binding and thick, wide pages, like the thick, wide pages in a family bible. When I see that book folded back on itself and the yellow pencil dancing above it, I feel it like a blot on the sun, a sudden eclipse across my world. Is there a hit for me in that book, or only the usual storehouse of outs?
We played our third game the night before last. As we were getting close to starting, the official scorer had yet to appear, and with him that book I’ve grown to hate. With the clock winding down, I dared to hope that the frail young man had met with an accident and we’d be forced to start without him. With no book, and no scorer, I felt I was safe; nothing I did tonight would stick. But then while the umpire was discussing the ground rules with Captain Joe and his opposite number, a car door slammed from the direction of the lot and the slender figure of the scorer appeared, looking like the Reaper himself, with a Rawlings scorebook instead of a scythe. I knew right then it was curtains for me; whatever I did tonight would stick.
Brian, our shortstop, who seems to believe in me, has taken to putting his two cents in regarding my choice of bats at the plate. “Try the blue one, H,” he’ll call in a stage whisper as he sees me reach for the orange club. How I wish it was only that simple—the blue instead of the orange bat. Does he not understand the fault is in me? Every Sunday morning in Summit, I get together with the same 20 guys for a pick-up game of slow-pitch softball. There’s always some player within this group who presses a special bat on me, reciting its rare amalgam of materials and testifying excitedly to its uncanny ability to send the ball flying with barely a tap. And so I take the proffered bat, and it’s like the Arthurian legend in reverse. All the fine men who have grasped this bat have succeeded in producing the vaunted effect; only in my hands is the bat unresponsive, a fabled Excalibur reduced to a noodle. With my mentor looking on from the wings, I swing the bat and what do I get? A tapper, a topper, a tip, a pop-up, a squib, a squiggler, a dribbler, a dink, a roller, a cue shot, a dying quail. All, in short, but the hard-hit ball guaranteed by Excalibur’s owner.
I tell Dr. Abel of my prowess as a fielder, how this is what keeps me going back out there. But a good bat always trumps a good glove, as I hear ad nauseum in so many words from my softball benchmates on Sunday morning. “You gotta score if you wanna win,” a beleaguered voice will observe on my right, while on my left a concurring voice flatly declares, “It’s all about hitting.” I make no answer, I look straight ahead, but I’m left to wonder—is this about me?
One of our Sunday morning players, a bat at rest against his shoulder in the studied pose of an old-time slugger, pulled me aside once during a game, after I’d made an out as usual, in my usual weak way, and without so much as a by-your-leave offered me a batting tip with patronizing self-assurance.
“It’s all about the hips,” he said, and taking up a batting stance twisted like a corkscrew, proceeded to untwist himself with a slow-motion swing, drawing my attention to his rotating hip action. “I’m telling you, man, it’s gonna make all the difference. See, right now you’re all upper body. But once you add the hips, look out. You’ll be hitting over the outfielders’ heads.”
This player, Pat, who attends rarely, is a stiff by almost every measure—slow of foot, weak of arm, leaden of glove, dull of instinct. His one redeeming feature is his bat, if only compared to the rest of his play. He can hit a little, singles mostly, from both sides of the plate, and this one modest talent of his, in spite of all his other deficiencies, gives him the temerity to play the old pro with me, happy to extend a helping hand.
Pat has a mellow, cool-daddy voice, like the cartoon character Sugar Bear in the old TV ads for Sugar Crisp cereal. My next time up, I hear this voice exhorting me to use my hips. It comes from behind the chain link backstop, where he’s stationed himself like a Little League father, the better to observe his protégé’s swing. All the guys can hear his voice; it’s a terrible humiliation for me. In spite of his modest flair for hitting, Pat is a perennial last-pick—or would be if, on the days he shows, he arrived on time like everybody else. But knowing his fate to be the last chosen, he waits until the teams are decided before he comes rolling up on his bike, with his mellow, cool-daddy “Morning, gentlemen.” He will now be assigned to the team with next pick, and whose challenge will be where to stick him in the field. This is the player whose voice rings out with advice for me through the chain link mesh. Is he hoping to jockey ahead of me in the long-established picking order, and is this his way of going about it?
I let his insults pass in silence, but not so a few days later in town, when I happen to run into him outside the post office. Right there on Maple, at the bottom of the steps, while the townfolk amble past and around us, he starts in again with his spiel on the hips, hoisting a make-believe bat in the air and torqueing his pelvis to the nth degree.
“Enough,” I mutter in the middle of his act, and with that I abruptly show him my back and go tromping off. Do I tell him how to catch and throw, or how to run the bases? One of the unwritten rules among us is never to give unsolicited advice. To bring up my hitting—without being asked—is to touch me at my sorest point, my handicap from birth. I next see Pat some two weeks later walking toward me on Springfield Ave. I start to cut across the street, and before I reach the other side, I hear that voice of his crooning my name. I keep on walking, I don’t look back; the insult is still too fresh in my mind.
And then one Sunday he shows up for ball (late as usual for the choosing of teams) and walks up to me with hand extended in his smiling, languid Sugar Bear way. I haven’t seen him in over two months. What’s past is past; I shake his hand.
Never again has Sugar Bear given me a batting tip, but I can’t say he’s any less insulting than before. If I hit a lazy pop fly that manages to reach the outfield grass, he’ll shout out fulsomely, “Well struck, Howard!” Nobody else would insult me so. He croons his fulsome praise alone.
Dr. Abel breaks in here to ask if I’ve ever hit the ball hard.
“Two Sundays ago,” I tell him, “I hit a lined shot down the third base line that went for a double, my first of the year. It might have been the hardest ball I’ve ever hit. I caught it right on the sweet part of the bat. The third baseman didn’t even move; it was by him that fast.”
“Do you remember what was in your mind at the time?”
“I remember what was in my mind after I hit it. I was ecstatic. I can do this, I thought. I’ve always known I could do this, but why has it taken me 60 years?”
“My guess, Howard, is that your mind was calm when you hit that ball. And yes, you can do it again, and you will do it again. You know how to hit.”
I know how to hit? No one has ever said this to me. Certainly my father has never said it. If he were here right now, would he scoff at Dr. Abel’s assertion? I did not mishear him. He says it again for good measure.
“You know how to hit.”
“Are you sure? You’ve never seen my swing.”
“It isn’t your swing that’s the problem. It’s what’s in your head. Do you know the famous saying ascribed to Yogi Berra? ‘A full mind makes an empty bat.’ You need to quiet some of the static while you’re at the plate. I’m not telling you not to think up there, as I’m sure you’ve heard others say. The fact is, we can’t stop ourselves from thinking; it simply can’t be done. So we need to get you interested in something other than your mechanics. You know this already as an infielder. You get yourself into position and you focus on the ball coming off the bat. You’re not thinking about mechanics. You’re simply reacting to what’s happening in the moment. When is your next league game?”
“Tonight at six o’clock.”
“When you’re at the plate tonight waiting for a pitch, I’d like you to focus on the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand. This is what I mean by getting interested in something else. I want you to get interested in the ball’s release point.”
“When I talk to you next week, are you going to be like my father and ask if I got any hits?”
“That’s not a question we ask in here. I’m not interested in hits per se.”
“That’s the first question my father asks. He’s 88, and I cringe when I have to tell him I didn’t get a hit. When it comes to ball, I’ve been having the same conversation with him for over half a century. I’ve been a lifelong disappointment to him in this all-important area.” As I talk more and more about my father, it isn’t long before Dr. Abel, with his quiet, sympathetic promptings in his recognizably Jewish voice, has me choking up on the phone and shedding hot tears. This is the release I’d been longing for when I went to see the hitting instructor Eddie B. at Gappers & Moonshots. But I knew there would be no crying for me as soon as I saw him in the cage that day, with his pitted skin and hulking frame. The brutes of St. Jude’s must never find out that the man from Summit wept this morning, but for now, anyway, I’m in no hurry to wipe the coursing tears from my cheeks.