I was playing left field in the top of the 11th inning of a tie game Sunday in my over-30 league for baseball dreamers who refuse to wake up. With a runner on second and two outs, and the three-hole hitter up, I was playing rather deep. Had it been the bottom of the inning I would have been playing shallower, close enough to have a play at the plate on a base hit. But, it being the top of the inning, and the batter being one of the finest in our league, I was in deep left and shading him to pull.
The late afternoon sun beating on my head, I strain to see each pitch as I lean slightly forward onto my toes, left foot in front of right, balanced and poised, watching, and when the ball is not hit my way I quickly relax. A ball fouled back high over the screen into the cars, a called strike and then a couple of sliders just wide of the zone. Without seeing the signs I know what's coming—got to be the fastball, don't want ball three and a good time to change speeds. The batter was thinking along the same lines, must have been, because he launched that 2-2 fastball high into the sky. A major league fly ball tracking about 20 steps to my left, a can of corn if your name is DiMaggio or Mays, but a wickedly high speck in a sky of blue and sunshine for my 43-year-old eyes. Still, I had it off the bat; I catch this ball 99 times out of a 100.
I am drifting under it, feet gliding across the grass. A hushed grace to my steps, or at least that's the way it feels to me. Coach Wooden deep in my brain and time on my side, I am moving fast, but not in a hurry. The sun is a problem, but I know this sun and this left field. I have my glove high, shielding eyes already benefiting from pulled down cap and dark summer shades.
My god is that ball hit high, carrying farther than I first thought. The trajectory fooled me a bit. I find as I get older that I misjudge fly balls in a consistent way: They travel farther than my eye first tells me. Now I am moving fast and hurrying too, in full backpedal with a panic rising in my gut. My teammates later tell me I looked like I was doing the hot foot dance.
I lose the ball about six feet above my head, as it is coming straight down like a wedge at the pin. It wasn't the sun that got me but rather my glove; I blocked the ball with my own clumsy hand.
Fear is the only thing I feel. More than panic or excitement or fun or dread, it is plain fear I feel when I can't find the ball. Fear makes me awful, and alive, and later when the fear has passed, sometimes it is what I both crave and miss the most.
Ball out of view but right on top of me. I hear the centerfielder's tiny voice, “Right there, right there,” somewhere calling me from far, far away. I drop towards the ground while jerking my glove. I don't think to drop, I just drop, deep-seated animal learning somewhere in the baseball reptilian brain. Drop down and give yourself an extra fraction of a second to get that glove between the ground and the ball. Not sure it's been taught, or if it even should be taught, but that is an instinct that the game has taught me.
The ball hits my glove, of that I am sure, but as I roll on the ground I am equally sure that it was missed, clumsily bouncing, allowing the runners to run, run and score. I look for the ball between me in the fence, lying on the ground I can't see anything but the grass, summer green and grown too long. The fear is gone, I just want find it, to pick it up, and throw the dang thing in.
In an instant, almost as soon as my mind sobers, before I scramble up, our centerfielder is over me asking, “Are you ok, can you get up?”
Wait. Why is he not running, grabbing the ball and throwing it in? My glove, so old, so trusted, so soft, I turn it to me and find the ball silently sleeping within. ♦
—August 20, 2010