I’m on the phone with a man named Dom, the scheduling coordinator at Gappers & Moonshots, and as he’s taking my information one of his questions for me is this: “What kind of instructor do you think you might like? We have what I call the drill sergeant types and others with more of a nurturing style.”
Hearing these last words fills me with joy. “Oh, please,” I cry, “the nurturing type.” I have a vision of spending my first lesson not even bothering to lift a bat but simply talking my problems out. If I’ve waited so long in seeking help, it’s because I’ve recently signed up to play in an over-30 softball league and I don’t want to embarrass myself at the plate. The clincher for me was attending “draft night” and seeing the bruisers who people this league.
I’ve already had it confirmed by Dom that while it’s usually children and teenagers who come to the cages for batting instruction, he sometimes gets adults as well.
“Even one as old as me?” I asked. “I’ll be 61 next month.”
“You wouldn’t be the oldest we ever had,” Dom assured me matter-of-factly. “We once had a guy who was 67.”
I wondered about this elderly client. Did he have a history similar to mine—a father with a glorious baseball past whose son had never measured up? I ate up grounders like nobody else, but I was born with a hole in my bat. “Hopeless” is how my father once put it when reflecting back on my youthful swing. And yet, despite this handicap, I’ve never stopped loving, or playing, the game. Even now in my early sixties I’m one of roughly 20 red-hots who regularly meet in the town where I live for a hardnosed game of slow-pitch softball. Our time is early Sunday morning, when the rest of the town is dozing to sermons. Sunday is also the day of the week when I call my parents in California. My father waits his turn with me, and always starts with the same two questions. “Did you play today?” he asks me first, and then comes the big one: “Did you get any hits?” My father is creeping up on 90; the twilight years are upon me, too. But still, I want to make him proud and tell him I got a couple of hits. (If only he asked me how I fielded, then what wonders I could relate.) On days when I take an O-fer at the plate—a much-too-frequent occurrence of late—I brace myself for that dreaded question from the moment I start to pack my gear immediately following my hitless performance. I won’t permit myself to lie, but in giving my factually honest answer, the offhand tone I affect is a lie. Not that my father is taken in. However advanced his loss of hearing, he still picks up a sadness in my voice, try as I might to tamp it down. “Don’t worry,” he’ll say, “you’ll get your hits. They’ll come in bunches. Watch, you’ll see.”
He wasn’t always so consoling. During one of my worst slumps ever, when I couldn’t seem to hit the ball out of the infield and all four outfielders played me accordingly, practically standing on the infield dirt and breathing down the necks of the infielders—during this stretch my father said from across the country to me in New Jersey, “Maybe it’s your bat speed. Do you have a slow bat?” Before I could answer, he added a thought: “I bet I could swing the bat harder than you.”
“I said I’ll bet right now I could swing the bat harder than you.”
My father was 81 at the time, with a cranky knee that left him hobbled and a chronically aching lower back, for which he girded himself in a truss. And let’s not forget his damaged heart, the result of a coronary 10 years earlier that he’d been lucky enough to survive. And this man could swing the bat harder than me? Night was coming on outside. From where I sat in the family room, I could hear Karen puttering in the kitchen and addressing an occasional word to the dog. From behind Will’s door at the top of the stairs, I heard his newly-deepened voice singing along to a Dylan record. In the wake of my father’s preposterous statement, life was going placidly on. I thought of my Sunday softball pals enjoying their final moments of the weekend in relaxation in front of the TV, a bowl of ice cream clutched to their chests. They were not discussing their swings with their fathers. Their swings were the furthest thing from their thoughts. These were healthy people with healthy minds who left their swings behind on the ballfield. And because they thought I was healthy, too—eminently so, some would have said—they would have been shocked at the talk about hitting taking place on my phone at that moment.
Later that night I grabbed the bat I keep by my bedside and took it into the study with me and started taking cuts. Karen had already turned out the lights, or else I would have stayed in the bedroom and taken my cuts at the foot of the bed, as I often do in the middle of the day when I have the room all to myself. But with Karen there sleeping, I don’t take chances. God forbid I should lose my grip and the bat go flying—I won’t say more. And would the police, in answer to my call, my frantic, bawling cry for help, buy my story that what happened tonight was simply a tragic accident and not a deliberate act of murder? “Let’s see if I have this right, Mr. Kaplan. You’re saying that some time after 11:00 at night, in the darkened bedroom where your wife was sleeping, you were taking practice cuts with an aluminum bat when it accidentally slipped from your hands and struck your wife? Is that right, Mr. Kaplan? And you were standing on the carpeted area at the foot of the bed at the time? Is that right also? Tell me, Mr. Kaplan, is it a common practice of yours to swing a bat so late at night with your wife asleep just a few feet away?”
I had a terrible shock one day while taking cuts at the foot of the bed. I had carelessly left a hardbound copy of one of my favorite books in the world, A Shepherd’s Life by W.H. Hudson, on top of the bed like a sitting duck, and during one of my practice cuts I accidentally clobbered the thing, sending it flying into the dresser and onto the floor with a sickening thud. I cried out as if I had walloped a body. I own two other copies of the work, but this was the oldest one of the bunch—a 1921 edition published by E.P. Dutton & Co., with drawings by Bernard A. Gotch.
The book survived, but was badly disfigured, its brown front cover sadly askew, its spine a mangled ghost of itself. It was that experience that taught me never to swing the bat with Karen in the room. Until that moment I had been careless, swinging the bat anywhere and anytime it suited me.
And so, that night of my father’s bombshell, I took my bat into my study, and, clearing a space in the middle of the floor, started swinging as hard as I could, at the same time mentally summoning my father to witness the ferocious cuts I was taking. You see how hard I’m swinging, Dad? Come on, you can’t swing harder than this. I’m 27 years your junior; I have a youthful body still.
The following Sunday I told my father that while I knew he had my best interests at heart, I wanted to put an end to our talks about hitting. “I’m 54 years old,” I said. “I still bring value to the game as a fielder, but as a hitter I am what I am.”
To which my wounded father shot back, “I’ve never used my age as an excuse.” My mind went back to these different scenes at the mention by Dom of that former client who was 67 when he visited the cages.
“Do you know anything about him?” I asked.
“I only remember his age,” said Dom. “He was here a few times, had a few lessons. I think he worked with Eddie B.”
And now when I reach that point with Dom when he asks me to state my ideal instructor and I burst out in favor of the nurturing type, Dom puts forward this same Eddie B., who, he tells me, was a minor leaguer in the Pirates’ system for eight or nine years.
An ex-minor leaguer? I should be thrilled, but somehow the name of Eddie B. does not strike me as that of a nurturer. And can I trust Dom’s notion of the term to accord with the one I carry in my head? I got Dom’s name from the general contractor we’ve used in our house for two big projects. “Tell him I sent you,” the contractor said. “I’ve done a lot of work for Dom.”
When I did as Frank Van Meter directed, it took Dom a moment to register the name. “Frank Van Meter, Frank Van Meter. Oh, Frankie, sure—how’s he doing?”
When I mentioned Frank had worked on my house and that was how I knew him, Dom accepted me as one of the club. “Frank’s the best at what he does. He put in my deck, remodeled my kitchen. I won’t let anyone else touch my house.”
He fairly spat this final endorsement, and out of politeness I agreed. Not that I disagreed in theory; it was just Dom’s way of expressing himself; that vehemence was lacking in me. I think the world of my doctor, for instance, but I would never say of him, as Dom might of his doctor, “I won’t let anyone else touch my body.”
No, I can’t believe he means what I conjure up when I think of a nurturer. I should give up hope of finding in Eddie a shoulder to try on or the mind of a humanist. In a word, he’s probably not what the writer Vita Sackville-West called a “soul.”
But on the whole I’m feeling elated, and in order to let the feeling build, I wait until the two of us are seated at dinner before I share my news with Karen.
“Well, I finally made the call today. Next Tuesday at four I have an appointment with a batting instructor at Gappers & Moonshots.”
“Oh, babe, that’s wonderful. I’m so proud of you. Congratulations.”
For years now, Karen has been pleading with me to get some coach to look at my swing. She has long grown weary of that moment on Sundays when I come through the door with my hangdog face and grimly set my grip on the floor. My mood is like a stain on Nature. The sun will be pouring into the house, and through the open kitchen windows that look directly out on greenery come the calls of chickadees, titmice, and cardinals. How many springtimes do I have left? Like A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad among the cherries, “loveliest of trees,” I should rejoice in what limited time remains to me out on the ball field. In this regard, my healthy-in-mind softball cohorts have the right spirit. After a loss, one of the losers, while changing into his street shoes, will offer up a hymn of thanksgiving from the bench: “Hey, win or lose, I’m just grateful to be out here on a beautiful day,” to which there’s a general murmur of assent. I can’t say more than a general murmur, because of me, the lone abstainer, the sick-in-mind who can’t smell the cherries. My own response to the hymn of thanksgiving can never, ever, be spoken out loud: Sure, it’s all very well for you to talk about the beautiful day. Life is good; you can hit. I would be giving thanks to the day if I could hit the ball like you.
But maybe after I take my lesson with Eddie B. at Gappers & Moonshots, everything will change for me and I will lead the hymn myself. I’ve always felt I have a nice swing. In the final analysis, it may only take a few adjustments to make me right. My appointment is set for the 26th. I’m counting down the days.