That smell has always taken control of me...has always sent me to the garage to dig out my baseball gear. Sending me out in late February...snow still on the ground...glove on, playing catch with whatever sucker I could con to go out in the cold with me. The sting of the cold bat as you connect just wrong with the ball...there are few things as jarring as hitting a ball wrong when it's only 32 degrees outside. When it's cold, missing the sweet spot by just a hair causes a vibration that stings the hands...but it serves as a reminder...a wake up call...and it starts the search for the perfect line drive.
Seriously, is there a more beautiful thing in sports than a well hit line drive? You can have your towering home Runs...give me a hard liner right up the gut...the kind that causes the pitcher to rethink his profession for just an instant...that always brings a smile to my face. It's one of the glimpses of perfection in baseball...a sport where perfection always sought, but failure is the reality. George Brett and Tony Gwynn carved out Hall of Fame careers with the use of the line drive...Gwynn spraying liners all over the field, racking up hits...Brett crushing doubles in the gaps off hard hit balls. Frank Thomas, during his 1994 MVP season, said that he wasn't a home run hitter, he was line drive hitter, but since he was so big, the ball some times went out of the part...and one look at his 6'5" 275 pound frame, and you knew he wasn't kidding. This brings us to the greatest home run hitter of all time, Hank Aaron, who made the line drive a thing of beauty.
With a certain hitter with a melon sized head, chasing his record, the spotlight is on Aaron again...it would be tragic not to reflect on the beauty of his game. Did you know he never hit more than 47 home runs in a season? Or that he also holds the record for most RBIs? Totals bases? Extra base hits? Or that he was in the top 10 in batting average in 12 of his 23 seasons? Did you know that he learned to hit with his hands reversed on the bat? A right handed hitter, he learned to hit with his right hand below his left...and would return to that cross hand grip when he absolutely needed to make contact. It was said about Aaron that when he hit the ball, the shortstop would leap like he had a chance at the ball, only to turn and watch it sail over the fence. If that's not the description of a perfect line drive, I don't know what is.
The only thing more exciting than seeing a perfect line drive is hitting one yourself. You stand in, relaxed, looking out at the field...looking to hit it where they ain't...settling into the box and deciding that the right fielder looks scared. The pitcher releases the ball, it can be a baseball, a 12" or 16" softball...it doesn't matter...that moment when you know it's your pitch...and a sly smile creeps over your face, the ball looks the size of a blimp, and there is no doubt in your mind that this ball is going the other way fast...that is the moment that all hitters look forward to.
You start your swing, shifting your weight to the back leg, lifting you front foot...as the ball comes closer, the bat swings into action...level and true...the back leg pushes the body forward generating the real power. The hands carry the bat on its path through the zone...the front foot strides toward right field and the poor fielder who doesn't know that you're gunning for him. The bat makes contact just as the front foot lands...and while the sound is always better with a wooden bat (and if you haven't hit a ball with a wooden bat, you should...hit it right, and you'll hear the most perfect sound in the world) you know right away that you connected perfectly with any bat. The torso, arms and hands finish the swing through the contact area...as your top hand flies off the bat...your eyes focus on the flight of the ball...and your feet start the race to first.
A well hit baseball...there are few things in life that bring me as much joy. And each spring, when my nose alerts me, I begin the pursuit for the perfect line drive all over again.