Standing next to home plate with bat in hand, I remember the afternoon sun rays heating the diamond. It was May, my junior year of high school. I was left handed, the pitcher was right handed. He was throwing hard but, thankfully, pretty much all fast balls.
Thinking just get a hit, I approached this as another routine at bat. I had no grand expectations. He fired one down the middle. I saw it and took a rip. The feeling I remember was no feeling at all, which was unusual when I hit a baseball. There was not a vibration in my hands, just a faint ping from the aluminum bat. Up it went. Far it went. Gone-over the home run fence. That wasn't even a question. It was a home run but that was the least of the story. It kept flying into the late Spring sky further and further from home plate. There was another fence beyond the home run fence up on a hill some 80 feet further out. The ball reached its apex as it soared well above that second fence. Out of the stadium it flew.
As I rounded first base it started to descend. I was not going to have to sprint around the bases for this one. No fielders would have to move. This was a ball to be watched, not played.
It came down, seemingly 10-15 seconds after it was launched off the bat, well into the school parking lot. It bounced around. I had just hit a baseball 410 feet, further than I ever had in my life.
By this stage of my high school career, I had hit a half dozen home runs, but never had I caught one as I did this one neither in a game or batting practice. As I rounded the bases I thought it was pretty cool, but in the moment didn't really know how to feel. It actually stunned me how far I hit it, as it did my teammates based on their reactions when I returned to our bench.
Hitting a baseball perfectly, as I did that one day, is the greatest gift the sport offers. It's so hard to do, so infrequent to really catch one, that when you do it's like you've touched bliss and caressed it. These kinds of hits come along a handful of times in a lifetime if you play long enough and are lucky enough.
I write about baseball as I reflect on the fact that it's Opening Day in Major League Baseball. It's easy and predictable to get sentimental about how this game has an opening day every Spring and it symbolizes the start of better weather, more outdoor activities, and, yes, a reminder that this is the sport that Americans have been playing for more than 100 years. But this sentimentality never gets old. Baseball conjures up fond memories of childhood, parenting, and a fun future. To love baseball is to love life.
Thousands of American boys have grown up playing this game, then became men, got real jobs, married, had kids, grew old and died decades ago. Yet the game continues. Like when it was founded, there is still a mound, bases, home plate, pitching, catching and hitting with nine players on a team. Today's major leaguers were boys just a few years ago playing Little League fantasizing about playing in the big leagues one day. The rest of those Little Leaguers never realized that dream and that's sad. Disappointment is a part of baseball as it is a part of life. Kids strike out and it really is a blow to them when it happens. It's a little like dying. Kids can't throw strikes and walk a bunch of guys. They give up home runs and get rattled by the other team.
It can be a real drag baseball. It's a cruel game in many ways especially psychologically. It's hard on the emotions. The best hitters fail on average about seventy percent of the time. This pervasive failure is unlike many other sports. The best basketball shooters who make about 50 percent of their field goals only fail, meaning miss, only 50 percent of the time. The best quarterbacks in football complete about 60 percent of the time; they only fail about 40 percent of the time.
Failure is a baseball guarantee no matter how great you are. Did you notice last season when Albert Pujols, arguably the game's best player, started the season in disastrous hitting slump? Even the greatest get humbled by baseball's nefarious gods. It's a question of how many times you can overcome failure, beat back its demons, be the best at not failing. Or, put another way, the best at minimizing failure.
My son starting playing T-Ball 10 years ago, then went through the tremendous Little League circuit, and is now starting his first year of high school baseball. A year before he embarked on this odyssey, at the age of 4, I introduced him to the sport at a neighborhood field owned by the local firehouse. He would take his cuts off the batting T seeing how far he could hit the ball. Everyone who has ever played baseball has been intrigued to find out how far they could hit the ball. This is the game's most compelling allure, what keeps guys coming back to the diamond day after day, year after year.
My son always wanted to play one-on-one baseball, me against him, using the whole diamond, which was a lot of ground to cover for a middle-aged, out-of-shape father. I would set the ball on the T, he would hit one and then start running to first. I would chase the ball around, then run after him around the bases. He would outrun me all the way for a homerun. He loved hitting home runs. He would smile and chuckle because I was always one step away from tagging him. He hit homeruns every time he swung the bat. I never was able to tag him out.
Since those first days on that field he's played hundreds of baseball games. He has hit home runs. He has struck out. He has made friends. He has lost important championship and been deeply sad. He has won and been jubilant. He has spent many hours practicing his swing in the batting cage. He has practiced pitching, fine-tuned his motion. He has worked on his footwork fielding fly balls in the outfield.
Now his baseball journey is entering a new phase. His high school coaches are in charge of when he plays, where he plays. I am no longer the guy he wants to hit with in the cages. Truth be told, I haven't been for years. I'm his ever-present annoying old man who pushes him to practice more. He needs his space. He's heard enough from me about the game. I would love for him to keep me involved, to tell me how his practices and games are going. But he doesn't share too much. If I want to know, I have to attend the games myself. I understand, though it makes me melancholy and wistful because I love him.
It's OK. Time is moving. He isn't a four year old boy any more willing to listen to his dad's instructions on how to hit. He is in high school. I don't have much to offer him about baseball anymore other than emotional encouragement. He knows more about the techniques of hitting, fielding and pitching a baseball than I ever did. I have nothing intellectual to add. I'm a keenly interested bystander with one hope: that before his baseball career ends he hits one as cleanly and far as I did that one time I did in high school. That feeling alone will give him good memories about baseball the rest of his life. That feeling will help him appreciate the significance of Opening Day the rest of his life.