I’m 10 minutes early for my lesson with Eddie. I drove by the building over the weekend just so I’d know how to get to the place and how much time to allow for the trip. When courting my mother in the 1940s, my anxious father left nothing to chance. Before he took her to a brand-new place, an unfamiliar destination, he’d make a trial run on his own in his father’s black-and-white De Soto. I feel like an anxious suitor myself. I tried on a few different things from my closet and studied myself in the mirror before leaving. “Will he like me?” I thought. “Will I like him?”
I enter by the rear of the building, a large anonymous box of a structure covered in white vertical siding. Within, a bored young woman at a desk, out of sync with my excitement, directs me “all the way in the back” at the mention of Eddie’s name, motioning rearward with a listless nod. A dark-haired man with a phone to his ear jabbers away at a neighboring desk. I recognize the voice of Dom, who recommended Eddie to me, and as I pass him I catch his eye and raise a spirited hand in greeting. Out of sync with my excitement, he raises a tepid hand in response.
A walkway leads me into the back, where the batting cages—eight long alleys—are laid out side by side on my left, each one fenced from the other by netting, and each one draped with a blue square pad to deaden ricochets off the back wall. Children’s cries echo from the rafters. It’s that popular hour after school when budding hitters invade the cages and a sprinkling of mothers watches from the sidelines. Then there’s the old-timer here for his own lesson, clutching to hope while he still lives and breathes.
I walk on down to cage No. 8, where a strapping, shaved-headed fellow in his 30s, standing smack in the middle of the cage and fronted by a pitching screen, soft-tosses overhand to a helmeted batter whose pigtail waggles with each lunging cut. The batter is a chunky girl with glasses who sends back dribblers to the feet of the pitcher.
“Stay level, Melody,” the big man bellows before he tosses up another.
The young girl’s mother, a larger Melody, watches the lesson from a seat on the bench directly opposite the door to the cage. The mother and I exchange a glance. In me she sees a mature gent of indeterminate age, dressed in light street clothes and carrying no gear. I’d seem to be just another grown-up observer come to watch his child’s, or grandchild’s, lesson. But what am I doing by cage No. 8, and where is my little prodigy lurking?
I look at Eddie perspiring in the cage. He is dressed in gray sweat shorts and a sleeveless gray t-shirt that gives full exposure to his big upper arms, each one covered in a mass of tattoos. This is the man described to me by Dom, the scheduler at Gappers & Moonshots, as one of the staff’s more “nurturing” types.
Over the weekend I did some snooping into Eddie’s past. Dom, it turns out, had spoken truthfully when he told me over the phone last week that Eddie racked up nearly 10 years of professional ball in the Pirates’ system, topping out at Double-A before finally packing it in. But Dom had left something out. Since Eddie came billed as a hitting instructor, I simply assumed he’d played in the field all those years he’d labored in the minors. But no, according to the official record, Eddie B. of Wall, New Jersey (bats right, throws right), had been a pitcher from start to finish, with 72 career wins and almost as many losses.
I found this discovery somewhat deflating. A pitcher teaching me how to hit? But not all pitchers are stiffs at the plate; maybe Eddie was one of the good ones. In any case, did it really matter? At my particular age and level, I hardly need a Charlie Lau.
One of the nuggets gleaned from my snooping was Eddie’s strikeout of Alex Rodriguez during an exhibition game. “The greatest thrill of my life,” said Eddie in a five-line profile accompanying his stats. Sad to see this man now reduced to lobbing it in to pigtailed Melody, soon to be followed by the hovering figure of the skinny old gent waiting on deck. To spare him any further indignity, I’m half-inclined to slink away before Eddie sees me. But Dom saw me come in. And Dom is friendly with Frank Van Meter, the general contractor who remodeled our kitchen. I can hear Dom’s confidential voice the next time he and Frank meet up: “That guy you sent us, Howard Kaplan? Here’s one for you, listen to this. He comes in 10 minutes early for a lesson, and five minutes later he walks right out. Paid for a half-hour lesson up front, and walks right out with no explanation. Funny, huh? What do you make of it? Is the guy a little strange?"
Eddie’s bucket of balls is empty. “All right, Mel, let’s wrap it up.”
Melody drops the bat at her feet and helps pick up the scores of balls strewn the length of the concrete floor. I hover by the chain-link door. I’d like young Melody to leave with her mother before I announce myself to Eddie, but as she opens the door to the cage to let herself out, Eddie is right behind her, as if about to leave himself.
Seeing no choice, I step in his path. “I’m your four o’clock,” I say, in full hearing of mother and daughter. If Eddie has a reaction to my age, he doesn’t show it. Instead he’s all business. “Did you bring a bat?” I shake my head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t.”
“Hold on a second, I’ll bring you some.” I’m left alone with the two females, who linger by the cage. I can feel their eyes looking me over. I pretend to study the other cages. Eddie returns with a clutch of bats and I follow him into cage No. 8, shutting the chain-link door behind me. The whole backside of Eddie’s t-shirt droops from his shoulders with heavy sweat. I’d expressly asked for a nurturing type, but Eddie, on setting down his load, puts his sweaty face in mine and attacks me with a question. “Are you ready to give me 50 push-ups before we start to rock and roll?”
It’s only Eddie’s little joke, as the peal of laughter from the two behind me helps me understand. I smile feebly. “I’m ready,” I say.
“So what are we doing?” Eddie asks. I had hoped to go into my problems in detail, but I now confine myself to the essentials. I tell him of my difficulty in making in good contact at a time in my life when I’m feeling most vulnerable. “I’ve signed up to play in an old-timers’ league full of serious-looking bruisers.”
“Hardball or softball?”
“Softball,” I say.
“Have you ever hit from a tee?” he asks. I notice a pitting in both his cheeks. “Maybe when I was 10,” I say. “Let’s hit a few from the tee,” he says, and hauling one over on its black rubber mat, he tees up a softball, a big yellow sphere, on top of the sturdy black rubber tube sticking straight up like a birthday candle. “All yours,” says Eddie, backing away. I take an easy practice cut with one of the bats provided by Eddie. I then walk up and address the ball, which sits on top of the tee like a grapefruit, at belly level, awaiting my pleasure; a big fat yellow grapefruit with stitches. I’ve been a switch-hitter from the age of 12, but because I have more power as a righty, I’m starting off from the right-hand side. While Eddie, Mel, and her mother look on, I cock my bat and let her rip, putting into it all I have. The ball drops off the lip of the tee and falls straight down at my feet with a plop.
One of my made-up games of late is to try to grab hold of something I’ve dropped—usually a coin, sometimes a pill—before it rolls or shimmies to a stop. I keep old age at bay with this game as long as my wins exceed my losses; and so far, my winning percentage is staggering. Rare is the day when I don’t scoop up the fallen object in the nick of time, even if I have to pursue it the entire length of the kitchen floor.
I lose this game with the fallen softball. It rolls two inches, comes to a stop, and lies there motionless like something dead. With a sense of foreboding, I tee it back up, take my rip, and it happens again; the ball drops down at my feet with a plop. With the part of my brain that can still think rationally, I realize I’ve hit the tube, not the ball. Eddie, too, has spotted the problem. “Hold on, I’ll bring it down for you. I think it’s too high.”
Eddie lowers the tee two inches, and now I start to hit the ball flush and win back some of my self-respect. For Mel and her mother the show is over, and they leave to the sound of me cracking the ball, as if my bat has swatted them out. While Eddie observes me off to the side, I hit off the tee both right- and left-handed, for a total of roughly 50 swings. After this, Eddie observes my swing straight on, while pitching to me underhand in high, arcing lobs. I won’t go into the entire lesson. Eddie has said he will not overload me, but over the course of my time in the cage, he manages to drop in a number of pointers, ten of which I note below:
- Line up the middle knuckles when gripping the bat.
- Stay “soft” in the knees.
- Step straight into the ball, even on an inside pitch; in which case one needs to be quick with the bat.
- The head stays stationary; do not come forward; let the ball come to you.
- Power comes from the legs. There should be a pivot on the back foot—“squishing the bug,” he calls it.
- Watch the ball hit the bat.
- Don’t be in a rush to follow through; finish up strong.
- Stride with the front toe closed.
- Hit the ball where it’s pitched.
- Keep the mind free.
One other pointer really hits home. “You may be the nicest guy in the world off the field,” Eddie says, “but once you’re at the plate you have to have to be aggressive. Roar, snarl, fart!” People see us for what we are, hard as we try to conceal ourselves. I made my high school baseball team—even started my share of games—but on this team I was known affectionately as The Professor, a nickname suggestive of peace and calm, the very opposite of roaring aggression.
More than 40 years later, nothing has changed. In the knapsack I carry wherever I go, and which sits right now in my car out back, is a worn used copy of an obscure little novel published in 1881; an English novel about a young minister belonging to one of the Dissenting sects who loses his faith and suffers a breakdown, or what in his 19th-century language he calls an attack of hypochondria. When Eddie chides me to be more aggressive, it’s as if he knows of my bookish habits, just as my high school teammates did in designating me The Professor.
It doesn’t come easy for such a person to roar, snarl, and fart at the plate, as Eddie would have me do. And yet, I admit that before today’s lesson I did feel farty all afternoon and worried about letting one go in the cage, little realizing that in that release lay a significant source of power. In all my years of Sunday ball, I’ve never thrown a bat in anger, as some of the guys are prone to do, or let fly with curses, as most of the guys do routinely. If every year we had a Mr. Nice Guy award, I would be the perpetual winner, hands down. I say this without any pride—far from it. I would like to carry on with the best of them. But for someone like me to storm and curse after making an out at the plate—as if I expected better of myself, based on proven past performance—for someone like me, such a display would smack of pretension and utter dishonesty. No, I can only hang my head and retreat to the bench in silence and humility.
I see by the clock in my car after the lesson that Eddie worked with me 15 minutes over and above my allotted 30. All next day I ponder the question of whether to send him a thank-you note. Something tells me it isn’t done, and would only confirm his impression of me as a hopelessly namby-pamby person incapable of hurting a fly. In the end I write him after all, and after dropping the card at the post office I imagine him reading it out to Dom and the two of them laughing heartily over it. But maybe I’m being hard on myself. Maybe he’ll read my note with pleasure and kindly respond with a word of encouragement. I wait a few days, and no word from Eddie. I wait a few more, and still no word. And now a full week has passed since I wrote him. I’ve given up hope of hearing back.