I had come to the Omega Institute, an adult summer learning center in the Hudson River Valley, on a lark, intrigued by a catalog description for a workshop that promised to integrate baseball with yoga, meditation, and martial arts:
Here is a chance to experience both the doing and the being of the great American myth. Participants in this workshop experience will re-create the national pastime as it might have been and might yet become. With bats, balls, and gloves we will explore baseball as a Way.
One instructor listed was Jeff McKay, a coach from Western Washington University. The other was Bill Lee.
I’d last seen Bill Lee pitch in the big leagues more than a decade ago. He’d been a hero of mine since childhood, when I’d watched him train with the Boston Red Sox one spring. He made the game seem fun — stretching and swinging an imaginary bat while he talked, and catching balls behind his back. As I grew older, I came to like him for his elaborate theories on left-handedness and the environment, and because he tweaked the establishment. He was on manager Don Zimmer’s blacklist for so long he said, “Every manager has a doghouse, but Zimmer’s doesn’t have a door on it.” Once, he called Zimmer a gerbil — a nickname that stuck — and then later apologized, saying he’d made a mistake: he’d meant hamster. “They’re the ones that are fat and have puffy cheeks, right?” He and a few similarly eccentric teammates called themselves the Loyal Order of the Buffalo Heads. Sportswriters called him Spaceman.
The chance to play ball for a weekend with Bill Lee blinded me to what should have been the obvious warning signs in a catalog filled with such self-help workshops as “Recovering Our Masculinity” and “Radical Aliveness.” I should have understood the double meaning of the catalog description’s last line: “Bring any extra gear you have to share.”
The first morning arrived drenched in humidity and (for me) doubt. Though the light rain had tapered off overnight, we didn’t play ball. Instead, we sat on soft pillows in our socks, in a circle around two totems: a figurine named Homer and the autobiography of Japanese baseball star Sadahara Oh.
“It’s important that we understand the reasons people have come here,” Coach Jeff said. “And it’s also important to then let those reasons go.”
Bill Lee stood outside the circle, stretching his hamstrings and working his quads.
We introduced ourselves. Dan from Baltimore had never played baseball before, had never been good at any sport, and was afraid his son, whom he wanted to coach, wouldn’t respect him.
“Have you read Fathers Playing Catch with Sons, by Donald Hall?” asked Jeff. “I think you’d like it. Welcome.”
Debby from New Jersey carried resentment toward her father because he had never let her play this “boys’ game.”
“Everybody plays here,” said Jeff. “Welcome.”
It went around the circle like this: five women and thirty men sharing confessions of childhood clumsiness, fears of being hit by the ball, hopes of being healed. Everyone, it seemed, had some kind of “issue” surrounding baseball.
When my turn came, I wanted to say, “Come on, you guys! Baseball is a game! It’s fun. That’s why I came — to play baseball with Bill Lee. Am I in the wrong workshop?”
Instead, I told them, “I grew up playing baseball, but I haven’t played in five years. I’m wondering if I can still play, now that I’m almost thirty — which was all true. As I spoke, I read in some of the faces around the circle that turning thirty was my issue.
I didn’t know these people well enough to tell them what baseball really meant to me. I had once trained year-round to be good at it, and I’d played varsity ball at a Division I college. After college, though, my circle of friends had gradually come to include fewer traditional jocks and more people who canoed, hiked, and skied. I had grown busy with work, building a home, becoming an adult. I was embarrassed about still liking a kids’ game so much, and often apologized for it. Eventually, I stopped wearing a baseball hat around town. I put the game behind me.
Leaving all this unsaid, I listened to Jeff outlining the weekend: days would be divided into morning practices and afternoon games; at night we’d come together “in our circle, to share our reflections.” For now, we each chose between two groups: one would go with Jeff for hitting instruction, the other with Bill for defensive fundamentals. I walked with Bill’s group across the wooded campus to a disappointing, bumpy, makeshift field.
Bill wore his hat cocked back, like a boy, and looked much as I remembered him: same Red Sox uniform, the familiar 37 on the back, same sloping shoulders, same bright smile. He was heavier and wore glasses now, but he still pantomimed throwing and scooping an imaginary ground ball as he talked. It was as if I were gaping through a fence in Florida again, watching him at spring training in 1975.
Everyone, it seemed, had some kind of “issue” surrounding baseball. When my turn came, I wanted to say, “Come on, you guys! Baseball is a game! It’s fun.”
As bright sunshine leaked through the overcast sky, Bill gathered us along the first-base line and urged us to reach a “relaxed state of concentration.” He told of meeting yogis who could actually slow their heart rates. But our practice session wasn’t especially mystical. He hit balls to us, and we ran the bases. Most of the group caught fly balls tentatively, and threw awkwardly. I was one of the few who had played beyond Little League, and it seemed the others had already placed me on a slightly elevated pedestal. The sound of drumming drifted over the field from a workshop on the hill above us. I pretended not to hear it. I wanted Bill both to notice me and not to single me out in the crowd. A small doe stepped out of the woods along left field and stared at us. The wind shifted, and Bill said, “Front’s coming through. Humidity will be gone within three hours.” He was right.
Later, we changed places with the hitting group. Coach Jeff said, “We are not here to discuss the technical aspects of hitting. People aren’t just technical beings — they’re technical, artistic, spiritual, and more. We’re going to talk about hitting as a way of connecting those different sides of ourselves.” He reminded us that hitting is a balance between mind and body, strength and grace. Then he had us visualize pitches and swing at them. As we did, Jeff broke down the swing into its constituent elements: earth (planting the feet), air (slowing the breathing), fire (the power from the belly), and water (the fluidity of the wrists).
I focused on Jeff and worked the drills, enjoying their familiarity; I’d been through similar ones a thousand times. The instruction Jeff gave was basic and sound (even if it didn’t include baseballs). On occasion, the spiritual context seemed forced, a token he’d added on. Still, I could believe, as he spoke, that hitting a baseball is an elemental act, as worthwhile as anything we do.
That afternoon at the game, a guy named Chuck got two hits, and it made everybody’s day. He had been a fat, asthmatic kid, he’d told us, and had gotten few hits in Little League. Now he raised his fists in the air as we cheered. Joel, who’d told us he was afraid of being hurt, got mowed down in a collision at first base. At that night’s circle session, he wore a brace on his arm as if it were a badge. “Bill says I’ve got a Type 1 AC separation of the left shoulder,” he said proudly. Someone else said it was a joy to play baseball in such a supportive environment. One woman cried and told us this was the first time she’d felt safe around men in a year and a half. The intimacy was increasing too quickly for my tastes. I was expected to say something personal and revealing, but I kept quiet.
Jeff tossed a list of his favorite baseball books into the center with the other totems; I wanted a look at that list (I have an entire wall of baseball books). Doug, who played in a weekend league, said, “Baseball is the closest thing to organized religion in my life.” I could have talked about falling asleep to Ned Martin and Ken Coleman calling the Red Sox games on the radio, but I didn’t.
Bill, still outside the circle, stretched his legs and told war stories from his days in the majors. “Major-league baseball has to become more organic,” he reflected. “My first move as commissioner would be to fire all of the owners, because they aren’t necessary for the well-being of the game.” He smiled as he said this. Then he talked about morality, about codes of honor. Someone asked about Keith Hernandez, who had admitted to using drugs and, even worse, testified against his drug-using teammates in Pittsburgh. “Keith Hernandez? Oh, he was a good fielder.” Bill scooped a throw out of the dirt. “A good-looking guy, cover of GQ and all that.” He stretched his pitching arm in a wide circle. “But you know what?” He held up a finger. “He wakes up in the morning, and he’s still Keith Hernandez.”
And so it went until well past midnight, Bill serving as a bridge between sports and the new age, strangers revealing insecurities and traumatic memories, but also talking about anatomy and Eastern philosophy and government and tolerance and baseball, as if all these subjects were of equal importance, were connected, even. They made no apologies for their interest in a kids’ game. I imagined some of these people — lawyers, teachers, businessmen — in another setting becoming my friends. I walked back to my tent by flashlight, wide awake, unexpectedly feeling that we had something in common.
We played our final game at the local high-school field, which was hard and sandy and rimmed by trees, with no outfield fence — a lousy place for baseball, really, except that Bill would be pitching against both sides. I watched him throwing lightly to stretch his arm, saw the same tug at the undershirt, the same graceful, high kick I remembered watching in my youth.
On the field, I rediscovered muscles I hadn’t used in years, and butterflies I hadn’t felt in just as long. And confidence, too. I was chatty. I bounced around. Until two days before, I hadn’t touched a baseball in five years. Now the ball felt like a part of my hand.
Bill varied his pitching to match our abilities, and told us what was coming. No pitcher I’d faced in college had ever been so kind, and my first time up I hit the ball on the sweet spot, pulling it down the left-field line for a double. Two innings later, Bill threw me a telegraphed fastball, and I drilled a single to right center. He stared at me and said, “You get forkballs from now on.” I felt heady and relieved, a star student singled out by his strict teacher, but according to the athlete’s code I acted cool and said nothing. Without looking at the others, I could sense that my pedestal had risen. The butterflies were gone.
In the field I played shortstop. Without thinking, I glided to my left to cut off a ground ball and threw the runner out at first. After the fact, I realized I was suddenly twelve feet from where I’d started, having shifted effortlessly, impelled by a memory held in my body. It was as close to a feeling of grace as anything I’d ever known. Moments like this had disappeared from my life. It was not what I’d expected to find here.
The game stretched on, and I faced Bill for a third time. As promised, he threw me a forkball, and I dribbled it to third, but the fielder bobbled it, so I reached base anyway. I took too big a lead off first, taunting Bill, who has a wicked pick-off move. I felt loose, invincible. He didn’t throw over. I’d like another shot at that forkball, I thought.
For the final inning, I went back to short, playing behind Bill, chattering, “Hey, Bill. C’mon, Bill. Little ground ball and let’s go home.” But I wanted the game to go on forever.