The batter kicked the dust off of his cleats and settled into his stance and put on a face that he hoped looked like a glare as he faced the monstrously large pitcher standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.
He was no more than a kid, just two years removed from high school, playing ball in the low minor leagues. When he was told he had been invited to spring training with the big-league club he was ecstatic, but realistic. As he stood in to face the veteran pitcher, he knew he was considered more of a “suspect” than a “prospect.” His game was on a practice field far from where the major leaguers were working out. It was little more than a scrimmage.
But all that mattered to him, was this moment, this at-bat. It was the only thing he could control. He set his hands and saw the pitcher move into his wind-up and felt, more than saw, the image of the ball whiz past him.
“Strike one!” called the umpire.
The ball had smacked the catcher’s glove before the kid had even been able to focus on the pitch.
“Nice one, kid,” the catcher said, gently taunting the rookie as he flipped the ball back to the pitcher. “You almost got the bat off your shoulder.”
“I can do this,” he thought and squared himself up and studied the pitcher who wandered off the mound rubbing the baseball and staring into the catcher for the sign.
“Go ahead,” he thought. “Bring the the heater again–you think I can’t hit it. I’ll see this one.”
The pitcher wound up and reared back and the kid picked up the ball coming out of his hand as he had been taught, the same spin, the same scorching fastball, and this time he swung as had all through high school, his sweet, natural swing, perfectly timed but just an inch or two low and the foul ball ticked high off his bat to the screen behind home plate.
“Aww, that was close, kid. Hey, Kirby,” he yelled to the pitcher, “he almost got you on that one. Let’s step it up my brother.”
The pitcher just shook his head at the catcher’s incessant chatter, looked in for the sign and rocked back and fired another fastball, the hardest one the kid had seen yet.
But the ball sailed high and the kid could hear the pitcher curse his own wildness as he stood at the edge of the mound facing the outfield and the deep, blue sky of another spring–another spring of having to prove himself against a new crop of goddam, wet-behind-the-ears kids.
“You shouldn’t have gotten him pissed off like that kid,” chided the catcher. “He’s likely to drill you with the next one.”
The kid could see the irritation on the veteran’s face, but he calmed his mind. “See and react,” he said to himself as he swung a couple of lazy, practice swings.
The pitcher’s arm reared back and suddenly it was as if everything was in slow motion for the kid. He could see the pitcher’s wrist curl forward and snap the ball as he had not done before and he watched the ball spinning fiercely as it arced toward his head, but he waited, waited, and yes–the curveball began to dive toward the middle of the plate. He swung effortlessly and when he connected, he could barely feel the impact, but he could see that he had caught the ball on the sweet spot of the bat and sent it soaring toward the outfield.
He dropped the bat and ran toward first because he knew that he should, even though he desperately wanted to watch the ball. He rounded first and, without breaking stride, glanced over his shoulder to watch the ball drop over the fence and on to the lawn in left field as fans swarmed to grab a souvenir.
He glided around the bases on the hot afternoon with his head down, respectful of the game, trying to act as if he had done this before, and as he touched home plate he felt the catcher tap his behind with his glove.
“Nice hit, kid.”
The kid grabbed his bat and trotted back to the dugout. It was a home run in a meaningless game on an Arizona practice field both miles and years away from the major leagues. Today, though, it meant everything.