I was nervous. After all, it was opening day. I’d had rookie jitters through half of my first season, so I expected to be a little nervous before this game. It was probably fortunate that I didn’t start, so I could get into the rhythm of the game and put those jitters aside. When I strode to the plate with two outs and two men on, I was carrying my brand-new Phoenix bat. Standing in the box, I made a conscious decision to simply watch the first pitch. There were no jitters. I’d seen 85 mile-an-hour fastballs over the winter in the batting cage near my house. The pitcher’s grey hairs and steady pace gave me confidence. On his second pitch, my timing was all 85 mph and I ended up in my follow through before it crossed the plate, even with an attempt to slow my swing. 0 and 2 isn’t always the easiest count to hit in. I steeled myself and watching the release of the ball with great anticipation….
When I strode to the plate for the first time in Ponce de Leon baseball last year, I’d had 34 years between singles. Way back in 8th grade, I’d been inserted late in a game we were losing badly, and beat out a groundball, then, foolishly, tried to advance on the overthrow. I wasn’t that fast then, so I was out and felt like an idiot. 25 years of men’s league softball and countless seasons of coed beer league ball later, I punched a ball off the glove of a first baseman who couldn’t find the handle to it for the putout. Standing on first base, playing on a high school baseball field for the first time, I was ecstatic.
Through half of the season, though, when standing at the plate, I would literally be shaking in my boots. I worried that if I didn’t play well, I’d lose my spot on the team. My wife kept reassuring me that I was better than guys who seemed to average 15 years older than me. I knew I was faster, so every time that I got on first base, I was looking to steal second. That worked, helping my confidence. I even stole third once. Heck, I stole second in a playoff game, diving head first and arm’s length into right field to avoid the tag (the throw beat me, but the stretch was simply too far for him.) By those playoff games, I was no longer shaking at bat, but still worried about earning my keep.
In the fall, our team doesn’t play in the league, but instead uses our field to play more relaxed pick-up games with invitations extending to sons, friends of sons, and men not yet old enough for our league. So, the pitching is a bit faster, though without much movement (at the request of the team manager, since it’s supposed to be live batting practice.) While last year’s regular season was a struggle for me at bat, relying on walks to get on base early in the season before starting to hit a bit, the fall was a break out. 2 or 3 hits every game and time to shine in the outfield. It also allowed me to bring Andrew Cline up from the Humble Flies as a rookie to follow me onto the team.
In the off-season, I bought myself a new bat. My original Louisville Slugger was nice, but I wanted something more. When we went to Cooperstown in August (on our way to Saratoga for horse racing), I went into a few stores selling bats. All had strict prohibitions on swinging the bat. So, I picked up bats, considered how they felt and passed. If I couldn’t swing it, I didn’t want to buy it.
In the winter months, the anticipation was too much. One day, I saw an ad for Phoenix Bats, and decided to follow it to see what they had. I always thought that the only variables in bats were the length and the weight. I was quite wrong. I’ll go into detail on this in a future post, but suffice it to say that I was quite pleased with the variety of offerings. I ordered my bat and it arrived well in advance of Opening Day.
Our team prefers to use wood bats, but not every team wants to, and the league doesn’t force anyone to. Since our opening day opponents chose not to limit themselves to wood bats, we were free to use whatever we wanted. Nonetheless, I’ve found I hit better with wood, so I took my brand new Phoenix Bat to the plate.
That pitch came in and my internal clock was not quite running at 85 miles an hour, but it was running fast, so I swung a little early hitting it on the end of the bat and driving it down the left field line. There were runners on, so rounding first base, I knew I was headed back. I jumped on the base and proudly shouted, “Wood bat!”
After another hit, I was dancing off second, taking a big lead in expectation of scoring on any hit. As I headed to third on a shallow hit in the outfield, Bill waved me home. I didn’t think it was drawing a throw, but I was hustling anyway. I was surprised when the catcher stepped on the plate, but I crossed a few steps before the ball arrived. So, with a few hits strung together with two outs, we tallied three runs.
My totals for the day: 2 for 3, with a stolen base and a run.
Final score: 11-2 victory
Season stats: .667 batting average, 1.333 OPS, 1 SB, 1 R