Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My new black catcher’s mitt still isn’t broken in. To break it in, I have to pound the pocket with a special tool called a “glove mallet” — I don’t know for how long. Until it’s broken in, I suppose. I’ve had this mitt since a year ago last spring, and it’s a work in progress. I pound it every so often but apparently not enough. Now that I have a deadline — tryouts for a new league are in six weeks, in February — I plan to be more disciplined.
The regimen: twenty-seven simulated pitches into the pocket, each with an angry-sounding thwack, the sound of “this far and no further.” Twenty-seven: a perfect game, each batter striking out on three pitches . . . Wait a second. Math check: nine innings, three outs an inning, three strikes per out — I should be thwacking my mitt eighty-one times. No wonder it’s not broken in yet. I must triple my efforts, re-creating the glory of snaring every pitch of a three-pitch-strikeout perfect game. What a sublime accomplishment that would be.
I wonder what the neighbors think I’m doing. They seem resigned to a certain ruckus from my office, where, when not pounding a mitt, I’m often blasting rock music loud enough to see the subwoofer shudder. If they can stand to hear me screaming along to Everclear with my ultraheartfelt classic-rock gestures, they can stand the staccato thwacks of my pounding a glove.
I’d really like to get in a full season with this mitt. “For the PROFESSIONAL player,” it proclaims in silver lettering on the black leather. I am no more a PROFESSIONAL than a kid on a tricycle is a STOCK-CAR RACER. And that kid could conceivably grow up to become a stock-car racer, whereas I am two decades and counting past the end of all but the most enduring pro ballplayer’s career; never mind being several orders of magnitude behind even a subaverage Major Leaguer in talent.
But so what? I can still play. And what would you rather I do? Crawl unburdened toward death, King Lear–style? Play golf? I think not. I plan to keep playing ball until one or both of my knees finally says, This far and no further, or I find something else to aspire to, such as enlightenment, a mystic connection to the divine — which is, in fact, part of my long-term plan, along with goat-herding along the banks of the Pedernales. But only after I can patently no longer squat for nine innings.
Some catchers will hustle up the first-base line on ground balls to back up the throw to first. I find this truly admirable. I myself send sincere best wishes up the first-base line, but getting up and down from the crouch is the extent of my range behind the plate. I’m confident, though, that I’ll be able to hit line drives until I’m dead.
What I would like to do while still alive is throw a guy out at second base — the long toss, 120 feet, the hero’s heave. Third base would be good, too, though it’s possible there to overthrow and let the runner score. Risky, you say? Let’s try it! Our lives are defined by the risks we take, or so I overheard a student say in the halls of the school where I teach.
I’m also up for picking a runner off at first. Point being I am sick of letting my opponents scamper around the bases unchallenged. That’s why I am committed to a training program of hurling baseballs from the back-porch deck — across the milkweed, lavender, blackberries, and primrose — to the top of a batting net out by the grapefruit trees, near the compost heap. I just have to find and keep the correct arm motion: overhead, not sidearm or three-quarters, as I have been throwing my entire life. This is manifestly still doable. On the wall I have my training regimen written on teal Post-Its:
Start with dart throws.
Hold at wrist.
Hold at elbow.
Get rid of elbow.
“Dart throws” means toss the ball like you’re throwing a dart. “Hold at wrist” means do the dart throw while supporting the right wrist with your left hand. “Hold at elbow” means support the arm there, and don’t give up no matter what. I don’t remember what “Get rid of elbow” means. I got this training regimen from an Internet video. I suppose I could watch it again, but I feel like, at a certain point, you just have to figure these things out for yourself.
As I said, tryouts for the new league are six weeks away. The old league is too far from my Los Angeles neighborhood, and I also got a not-undeserved rap there for fighting with my teammates. They just say and do such Not Right things. For example, on my first team in that league, the guy ahead of me in the order, Curt, tried giving me batting tips while we waited our turns at the plate. Whatever. I blotted it out. Curt was our nimble infielder who sported a skullcap in the dugout, which gave him the appearance of being a rugged scholar of the game. It’s a good look. Personally I don’t have a large enough head to pull it off.
I would gladly have admired Curt if he hadn’t been such a bad sport. He hollered at pitchers to “just throw strikes” and exuded exasperation loudly. Being a quietly encouraging person myself, I find flagrant negativity objectionable. Which is why I picked a fight with him.
He gave me his batting tips, whatever they were, and I let them smash into my indifference like poor little birdies into a plateglass window. Then Curt strode to the plate and struck out on three consecutive pitches, flailing more pathetically with each missed swing. Surging with schadenfreude, I got up next and blooped a first-pitch single to the opposite field. The ball took a hard right on the bounce, evading a flabbergasted outfielder who otherwise would have easily thrown me out at first. As it was, I plodded determinedly down the baseline and arrived safely, at which point I was wisely replaced with a pinch runner. After my joyous trundle back to the dugout, I shared with Curt my heartfelt thoughts on the value of his batting tips: “Don’t . . . give . . . me . . . ad . . . vice,” I told him. It was all I could get out after that frenzied dash to first.
Curt took this flagrant showboating the way a fuse takes a flame. “We’ve got some real prima donnas on this team,” he huffed.
Huff all you want, big fella. You heard me. Thus spake my body language as I positioned myself at the far end of the dugout and studied the lead being taken by my pinch runner. I’d like to say my teammates congratulated me on my bloop single, and perhaps they did, though mildly, as it truly was not much of a hit. One click up from a walk, no big deal; we won’t speak of it again. I was too focused on what Curt was saying at the other end of the dugout. I couldn’t make out the particulars, but there was a lot of huffing and puffing, and it felt like time to blow the house down.
So I observed, with the sort of condescension that has been rankling my opponents and teammates alike since Little League, “It sounds like you’re upset, Curt. Would you like to discuss your feelings?”
To which he replied that I was a “washed-up has-been.” (My teammates were all thirty years younger than I was.) To which I replied that his statement was redundant. At which point he came charging, and our teammates intervened.
Nobody really wants the token old man on the team to be picking fights in the dugout. My teammates shook their heads while the manager put a firm arm across my shoulders and led me up the left-field line for a talk. I was supposed to feel chastened, but instead I felt like the grand marshal of a pent-up-aggression parade, waving to an adoring crowd of kindred souls also tired of playing nice.
The manager, who in his other, not-baseball, life was either a stockbroker or a bail bondsman, had the sober demeanor of a person who might not always act with sobriety but understood the role to be played here. He wanted my assurance that This Was Over.
“Most definitely,” I told him. I had said what I wanted to say.
“Not the time for it,” he reiterated.
“It’s not like I’m going to see him during the week,” I countered, apparently not finished after all. He looked at me skeptically, and I looked at him like a man with nothing to lose. If I was going to back down, I would have done it already. The manager was a decent guy, committed to winning. He had way better catchers than me on the roster, as any manager committed to winning would.
So there we stood for a little while, and a little bit longer still. I felt peaceful, with no want or need for justification. Eventually, for the sake of the game, I agreed to shake Curt’s hand, which was all the manager wanted to hear.
I victory-ambled back to the dugout, where Curt left me hanging with my hand out. No surprise there. Who was the bigger man now? Never have I felt the sun shine more benevolently upon me than I did in that moment with my hand extended and Curt not understanding the role to be played. That was on him.
What was on me was the lesson to be learned: not to pick fights with teammates. Yet the next season, when I was starting catcher for the worst club in the league, I had a bat-throwing, glove-hurling lout on my team. Let’s call him Louty. His bat never actually hit anyone, and when he hurled his glove to the ground after a routine error, his poor sportsmanship made the rest of us feel like jolly good fellows. Our role was to assure him that it was OK to strike out with runners on base time after time.
That was all fine, but what’s never fine is ignoring “I got it.” People can and do get hurt — I’ve gotten hurt — when one guy calls for a pop fly and some lunatic comes charging in to catch it anyway. Louty was that lunatic. I kept my distance for the first half of the season, but you remember how I really can’t abide negativity? Well, it turns out I also can’t abide flagrant disregard of “I got it.” Basically hit REPEAT on my dustup with Curt, and you’ll see half the team pushing me away from Louty, who was being pushed by the other half in the opposite direction. The only difference this time was that we did shake hands afterward.
And now I’m looking for a new team in a new league, preferably one where I don’t feel compelled to fight my own teammates over common baseball decency.
Or so I was when I started this essay, back when I was working on breaking in my catcher’s mitt and improving my throwing accuracy, when tryouts were still six weeks away.
I was writing this to psych myself up to find a new team where I would not be known as a dugout brawler. And I did, in fact, get on with a team I loved, this time in a thirty-five-and-older league, meaning there were actually some players within a decade of me. We were the Athletics, which is perfect because I have the Oakland A’s in my DNA. Atop my dresser at home is a picture from 1988 of my friend Jimmy and me sporting full-body smiles in the press box at the Oakland Coliseum. We had wrangled press passes under the auspices of writing loosey-goosey baseball commentary for an alternative weekly. Earlier that same afternoon All-Star slugger Dave “The Cobra” Parker had revealed to me the secret of hitting: “Hit the fucker hard, and hope it goes far.” I keep this revelation enshrined in the same chamber of my heart where my rabbinical ancestors kept their favorite Scriptures.
If I am ever going to stick with any team, it’s this one. I didn’t even have to try out. The manager picked me on the basis of a phone interview. We were talking baseball philosophy, and I said there is nothing else in life like standing in the batter’s box; it is the truest of all moments of truth. He said, “Stop right there. You’re in.”
In our first practice game he had me starting behind the plate and batting cleanup, too. I smacked a line drive up the middle in my first at bat, which quickly settled my batting position. But after seeing me behind the plate for three innings — my catcher’s mitt, despite all that thumping, still not broken in — he asked how I felt about playing first base.
I agreed with alacrity. First base is where aging catchers go. Also I had started feeling a stabbing pain in my left knee — not constantly, but often enough. It hurt so much I would shout, “Ouch!” and the knee often buckled. The time had come for me to get up from the crouch.
First base turned out to be not so horrible. I made a few nifty scoops with a beat-up old fielder’s mitt. My teammates seemed sincerely supportive. One of them did comment, “Well, of course — he’s a catcher!” You know you’re on the right team when the other players make you feel good about yourself.
After four games I was hitting .375 and feeling confident that I could maintain that above-average average for the foreseeable future, when the pandemic ended the season. Being over .300 helped me cope with the cancellation of baseball and pretty much everything else.
In the unlimited interim I have staple-gunned two aluminum pie plates to the top of the blackberry trellis. When hit with a ball, they give a satisfying clack-clack. My goal is to hit them three times in a row. I’m currently good for about one out of four. I like the challenge.
I have also developed a new throwing theory that involves lining up the bulging bunion of my left foot so that it points toward the pie pans. This, I imagine, opens up my hips, something I always read about in interviews with pitching coaches. And I have had plenty of time to read here amid the pandemic, which is like a long and deadly rain delay.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the rest of my catcher’s equipment. Precious as it is, what would make it even more precious would be to give it away. I bet the Boys & Girls Club of Venice will snap it up, once it’s safe to play baseball again. I’ll give them everything: helmet, mask, chest protector, shin guards, the equipment bag itself. If this sounds like the bargaining phase of grief, that’s just about right.
The only thing I’ll keep is the mitt, which I’m still breaking in, this time as a pillow for the sadness that keeps me up at night. It works only sometimes. One day, when the mitt is finally broken in and the pandemic is over, I’ll play catch with anyone who still wants to play.
Occasionally I wonder if anyone at The Sun has a sense of humor. Then you publish something like Mark Gozonsky’s essay “How I Got to First Base” [November 2020]. I laughed all the way through it.