Thursday, April 26, 2007

Anecdote time

I went to high school at Lakes High School in Washington State (Go Lancers!). While in high school, I played baseball; I'd actually played most of my life up until then. But, in high school, I wasn't that good. My fielding was ok, nothing that would win any gold gloves, but good enough to get me on the team. I couldn't bat, though. I mean, I really couldn't hit. I couldn't hit a lake if I was standing on the bottom. I couldn't hit the floor if I tripped and fell. I just was not a batter. I blame lots of things, but what it all really boils down to is that I just didn't get over my anxiety at the plate. And our team was bad. We lost our first ten games my sophomore season, including one where we were ahead by four in the last inning.

But we didn't lose every game that year. I still remember our first win. The day was clear, it looked and smelled just like that first really good, clear spring day of tenth grade. We were playing Clover Park high school (they of the John Deere colors), our rival school and the other high school in our school district. I started the game on the pine, as I often did (I was the guy good enough to not get cut), and enjoyed cheering my friends on. The innings went by, scoreless first, they scored one in the second, we responded with two in the third, but they put a bit of a hurt on us in the top of the fifth, the inning I entered the game, where they scored three runs on a gamut of small ball. A single here, a missed pickoff throw, a blooper just over the shortstop's head, a walk, a sharp hit to the gap between the right fielder and myself in center that brought in two, a sacrifice that brought home the third of the inning before we chased them from the bats. We were held at bay in the bottom of the fifth, and the sixth inning brought Clover Park a goose egg; I even recorded one of the outs on a routine fly just to my left and about ten steps in front of me. The scoreboard showed Clover Park 4, Lakes 2. We had a smattering of hits, about nine, but few actually strung together.

John McKinney was the first batter, and he grounded out to short after punching a foul ball about 300 feet deep but too far left. Lief batted next, and he popped out to left. This put me on the plate for my first at-bat of the day. For the season up to this point I was 0 for everything, and part of me was really just expecting to stand up there and either walk or strike out again. But then something happened, something that I didn't really have happen before. I'd always had people root me on, "C'mon Steve, go get 'em," and jingoistic things like that, but this time, as I left the on deck circle, my friend Pete Chiarelli (not the U.S. Army General) called me over to the dugout. He looked me in the eyes and said "Steve, you can hit this guy. Pick a pitch and nail it." And I don't know what it was about the way he said it, but I believed him, and I wanted to show him he was right. And I went to the plate not really feeling different, but knowing differently than I had the other times I'd gone to the plate.

I took my time setting up in the batter's box. I got a really good plant on my foot, spit out the sunflower seeds I'd been chewing on. I swung the bat around a couple times, because that's what the pros did, so that's what I did. I looked at the pitcher, and whereas before I'd see a guy in that spot who was intimidating, this time, I saw a high school kid, just like me. I still had some hesitation as he threw the first pitch. Ball one, low. I wouldn't have swung anyway, it was my first at-bat and we were to wait until the first called strike before we could look to hit - make the pitcher earn it. I stepped out of the batter's box and took a practice swing. Looked at my teammates, my friends and heard them cheering me on, real cheering, not just lip service. I went back to the plate and readied myself for the second pitch. A nicely placed pitch, just about thigh level, closer to the outside corner, strike one. I have the green light now.

I shake my head. I step out of the box again and pace a little, not much, but enough to get my nervous energy under control. I look up and Pete is looking at me, "You got him!" I step back in the box and look the kid on the mound down. He winds up and delivers. Outside, Ball two. And I realize something. He's got to throw a good pitch next. I decide I'm swinging on the next pitch. The ball goes back to the pitcher. I stay in the box, digging a little with my back foot. I check my grip, hands in the right spot. I'm ready. I look at the pitcher, right in his eyes. He knows I'm ready. He winds up, full windup. I get a look at the ball as it leaves his glove with his pitching hand. I see it as his arm winds back, and I see the fingers release from the ball. It's coming right at me, just a little bit lower than my waist and right down the pipe. My arms are moving on their own right now, going into the swing. My hips open up as my weight shifts to my front leg, the bat gaining speed in my arms. I watch as the ball begins to cross the plate when its path is interrupted by 36 ounces of aluminum. I made contact and the ball starts moving away. It's going right back up the middle, so hard the pitcher doesn't have time to move to defend himself from the object heading toward his shins. He has that look you get when you think you're about to be hit by something you really don't want to get hit by as the ball bounces just to his left and heads out into center field. I have my first hit of the season. Marc Thomas is coaching first, and he congratulates me on my achievement, and I'm jumping up and down on the inside, but I know my job isn't over - the game is still going on.

Tony is up next, and he walks. Then Mike singles to load the bases. Binh is next, and he rips a double that sends myself and Tony home - Tony beating out the throw. John Cook is next up, and his single brings in Mike and gives us the lead, 5-4. Shannon grounds out to second to end the rally, but the damage is done, and insurmountable, as we hold off a late Clover Park threat in the top of the seventh, leaving them with two on and our first win of the season. After the game, my teammates decided who was going to get thrown in the shower to celebrate our victory, when Shannon yelled "Let's get Steve!" Now, I was a relatively quick guy in high school, but cleats on tile don't run so well, and it's impossible to get past 9 guys celebrating their first victory, so while I made a valiant effort to dash for the door, I was grabbed in full uniform, ceremoniously dropped on the shower room floor while the cold water was turned on full blast. My reward for starting the game-winning, two out rally.

Experiences like this are what prep sports ought to be about.

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