The first baseball practice for my 6th grade team was held on a Saturday morning in early April. It was 48 degrees out with a hard, damp breeze blowing, and we hopped up and down in place to stay warm as we waited to begin. The coaches made a few speeches about team rules and then sent half of the team into the field. The other half took batting practice.
We used rubber coated balls that in cold weather had the unforgiving density of rocks. I took a swing at a pitch that crowded inside and hit the ball near the handle. The bat vibrated in my hands, and I got the dreaded “bees in the bat” stinging sensation that communicated itself from my fingers up to my elbows. I dropped the bat and shook off the tingles in my nerves. The next pitch hit me in the side of my chest. I went down in a heap, my breath knocked out of me. I sat there thinking that I’d much rather be sitting at home in a chair by the heat register sipping hot chocolate and reading comic books. The head coach ran up to me and probed the impact zone to check if I had any broken ribs. He told me to walk it off. No one discussed the possibility of internal bleeding.
I was sent out into the field and the batting practice pitcher was replaced by the assistant coach, a gruff man in his forties. He didn’t have much zip on his fast ball, and threw a dinky curve to fool us when we started to drive his other pitches into the deep reaches of the outfield. The more skilled batters started to follow his curve after he fooled them once or twice, and one guy got so far around on a pitch that he drove it almost perpendicular to the line between the mound and home plate. The ball landed in a parking lot, hit the coach’s piss yellow station wagon, and finally came to a stop on the Rectory lawn next to the church. The batter gloated over the power of his errant drive, and the boys cheered the dent that he had put in the hood of the car. The assistant coach wasn’t amused, however, and said, “Foul ball. Go get it. Run.” The batter was forced to sprint 100 yards there and back to retrieve it.
A few pitches later a fat kid hit a high pop up over the left side of the infield. The third baseman circled under it and called, “I got it!” A gust of wind shifted its trajectory into foul territory, and the fielder looked a lot less confident as he suddenly lurched to his right. He made a blind stab with his glove and managed, miraculously, to catch the ball. He looked at his glove in disbelief, and his team mates clapped and cheered sarcastically. The head coach said, “Next time try looking at the ball,” which was funny but not entirely fair.
The school janitor hadn’t gotten around to mowing the grass in the outfield or filling some of the potholes in the infield. Rocks and pieces of gravel poked up between the mound and the shortstop position, and fielding grounders became a form of gambling. Some ground balls bounced straight, true and according to a consistent rhythm, but others skittered sideways after hitting a stone, and others caromed upwards after hopping into a divot in the infield. A worm burner headed my way, spinning and buzzing angrily, and it bounced up at the last split second and grazed my temple. A shift in its direction of one inch would have sent it into my eye.
The outfielders weren’t any safer. The high grass hid gopher holes, and more than one boy went down abruptly after snagging his foot. They rolled and grabbed their ankles and knees, but eventually got up and staggered away to the sidelines. Their ligaments at 12 were still flexible enough to stretch under duress instead of tearing.
At the end of practice the head coach called us in and told us about the schedule of upcoming practices and when the real season would begin. He finished by saying, “Look, don’t call me and ask if there’s a practice if it’s raining. Use your common sense. Stick your head out your front door. If it gets wet stay home.” A smart ass raised his hand and asked, “What if it snows?” The coach grimaced and threw up his arms, and we laughed at him.
The next practice was scheduled 10 days before Easter. Trees were budding, and flowering bushes exploded with pink and yellow blossoms. On the morning of the practice I woke up early and dug my glove and baseball cap out of my closet. When I walked into the living room I looked out of the picture window and saw fat flakes of snow falling. I didn’t stick my head out the door, and I didn’t call the coach. I got some butter toast and chocolate milk and settled down in front of the TV. I turned on cartoons and watched Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. I was safe, warm, and comfortable, and felt like I’d been given a reprieve.