Two of my favorite scents in life are freshly mowed grass and the natural fragrance that rain brings. I inhaled both this week. Mowed grass accentuated by rain makes me think about baseball. I like baseball. I like to play it, coach it, watch it and in that order. (For you baseball enthusiasts, I know that the coach is actually the manager.) I couldn’t help reminiscing about my baseball career…
Suddenly, I was back in high school. It was the spring of 1982. I was a freshman and it was time for baseball season. In Washington, baseball is a school sport that runs parallel with softball. Being a freshman provides it’s own circumscriptions but weighing about 120 pounds adds insult to injury. I was a barely pubescent kid who was teamed with juniors and seniors who knew how to use a razor. The manager of the team was Pete Penrose; a burly man equipped with a burly voice whose first love was football.
The third contest of the season was a home game against our nearest rival, Almira – a school about 20 miles away. By the eighth inning the scoreboard was not favorably disposed to our team and all indications pointed to another loss. Penrose barked into our dugout, “Burgin!” My heart sank.
I can remember standing in left field praying that the ball wouldn’t be hit anywhere within 200 feet of me. After some well produced pitches, the first batter struck out. The second batter hit a line drive right into my airspace and called me to attention. All I could hope for now was to make the play and not screw anything up. Amazingly, I fielded the ball cleanly and tossed it to second base stopping the runner as he rounded first. My confidence soared as Penrose clapped his hands and pumped his usual right fist signifying delight for a well-executed defensive play. The third batter fouled twice and fanned the umpire on a dropping left curve. It closed the top of the inning. The bottom of the eight and top of the ninth passed without incident.
As we started our hitting rotation during the ninth inning, I was to be the third batter. After the first two struck out, I wasn’t looking forward to bringing the game to a close as the last batter and handing Penrose our third loss. It was only about 40 feet from the dugout to the batters box but it had all the qualities of a 40-mile hot dusty road to certain failure.
The first pitch was released – foul tip. The second and third pitches, both balls – high and away. I was ahead in the count and I was praying for two more balls. As the forth pitch came down the line I knew it was a strike. You can see the way a ball rotates in the air as you watch the stitches and within a split second you have to make a decision. Do I swing or let it pass? For weeks Penrose had been demanding that we swing the bat at anything close. So, almost as if in autopilot, I gritted my teeth and…
Some of my best moments in life have come with my eyes closed. The first time I kissed Selena – eyes closed. My first hunting trip – eyes closed while I shot and harvested a mule deer buck. First brussels sprouts – eyes closed. Nose plugged too for that one. My first hit on the high school baseball team – eyes closed and teeth gritted.
You can always tell when it’s a good hit. There’s a smooth, almost euphoric contact as the bat meets the ball and all you hear is a hollow sounding “pop”. I opened my eyes just in time to see the ball soar over the center fielder’s head. As I was rounding first base I could see the defense chasing my convincingly hit ball to the fence.
That’s when it happened. Feet grow first. I guess every boy becoming a man needs a firm foundation for everything else to rest on in the same sense that a building needs a firm foundation. As I was rounding first, I was watching the fielder and was not paying attention to my feet which I’m certain doubled in size during that winter. I tripped. But it was a slow painful trip accompanied with 20 feet of stumbling and flailing arms. I came to a halt about midway through the 90-foot baseline.
Have you ever seen a movie that depicted a plane crash and upon impact all kinds of debris come flying over and through the cockpit? For me, the one taking a nosedive into the dirt, that’s what it seemed like; all in super slow motion. In a state of disorientation, I literally crawled to second base – and made it! I was safe. I had hit a double. A more skilled runner might have been able to eek out an infield home run.
My hit, my double hit, sparked a rally in the last inning with two outs and one man on second base. I felt like a hero who had helped his team win that day. I don’t remember how many games we won or lost that season. But, we won that game.