Monday, January 5, 2009

Fastball Virtouso

It was a sunny summer day in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Like many, many other summer days, the heat was beginning to show it's ugly face and the slight wind beginning to pick up the abundant, loose earth. It was a few minutes before noon, and my brother and I were dressed in one of many baseball uniforms grandpa had his tailor make for us. He was a man we called, "Don Pete."

This particular baseball field had better grass than most. Green ballparks in town like Juarez were the exception, not the rule in Mexico. Most city leagues played on barren fields. Many were littered with remnants of empty beer bottles, wrappers, dirty diapers, etc. On any given day, teams had to sweep fields of all debris before engaging in a game.

Grandpa had a jimmy-rigged a contraption to paint the field, right before he suited up in blue uniform as home plate umpire. The contraption consisted of a tin coffee can with many holes at the bottom. It was screwed to a broomstick, or any stick about 3' in height. The can was filled with chalk. He would measure distances, place the bags and home plate, and we would walk those distances, shaking those cans as straight as we could. It would be akin to sprinkling a cinnamon roll with sugar, except we had to make perfectly straight lines. He had about 6 such cans and they traveled with his baseball kit in the back of that brown Ford LTD. I'm sure there were easier ways and/or gadgets to paint the field, but he wouldn't hear of it. Besides budgets being very tight, he always said painting the field was one of the best parts of a day at the ballpark.

On this occasion, my brother and I were riding a fence of a ranch that bordered this preferred field. Pitchers were warming up, and this is where our story begins.

Local sports loudmouth, Randy Galloway, says that football is about the quarterback. In that spirit, I'd like to pose an argument that baseball is about the fastball. It's not only about the fastball, but legendary pitcher, Cy Young, was given that name because of his fastball. With 511 career wins, Denton True "Cy" Young's record is one -- I think -- will never be touched in today's professional baseball. He is quoted as saying he "almost tore the boards off the grand stands once" for scouts.

To hit a fastball is to understand baseball bliss. Baseball fans are unique people. True baseball fans can readily read-off player stats -- sometimes -- better than he/she can remember who their U.S. Senator is, or when their wedding anniversary might be. Baseball fans have love affairs, not only with their team and players, but also with the sport itself. You often see them writing on scorecards at ballpark. So much of baseball is discussion about future scenarios between pitcher and hitter. So much is about game is situational and statistical knowledge, which a alluded to in a previous post about explaining to a foreigner, "How do you watch baseball?"

2004 ALCS. Game 4. Mariano vs. Millar. Bottom of the ninth. Fenway Park. The unusual Mariano walk to Millar in that inning. That walk (officially scored as base on balls - BB) sparked a World Series Title for the Red Sox, one that hadn't been for 86 years. You'd had to know of Mariano's legendary closer status. You'd have to know of Millar's mediocrity. Mostly, you'd had to know Mariano Rivera is money with his cutter, a type of fastball.

How do you explain that to somebody who doesn't understand baseball?

Many years before this 2004 miracle and my adulthood, on that fence, my own miracle happened. My introduction to the euphoria surrounding the fastball. In our little world in Mexico, with our hand-tailored baseball unis, I hit my first fastball.

The pitcher warming up had "a chance," as many liked to scout kids who might make it to some form of professional baseball. He was slim and tall, yea lanky. He was cocky, and that may have been a big part of his "chance". Don Pete said "he was an arrogant son of a bitch". Above all, he could bring the heat. With ease, he could.

Few sounds bring sports bliss to the fans. The hard hit on the gridiron. The wood connecting with the baseball. The swoosh of the basketball -- notin' but net. The ice and skates.

The ball hitting the catcher's that's a sound to behold. And, on that late morning, what a sound it was.

My grandfather, aside from acting umpire and grounds crewman, always tried to offer unsolicited advice to young players, especially when he knew it would irritate them. To this player he said, "If you would keep your eye on the target, you'd be a lot more accurate."

"Thank you blue, but don't talk if you've never hit my fastball. I can't take advice from someone who has never stood in the box when I'm on the mound."

The moment served as a turning point in my manhood preparation, too. Kind of like the lion teaching the cub to hunt. Most umpires would have let it go. Comments like that are part of the friendly banter between the law and the player. Don Pete, though, turned on the comment and said to me, "Go get me my bat from the back of the car."

His body style reminded me of Babe Ruth. Years of enjoying the barley and hops expanded his gut quite a bit. That and his legs were disproportionately thin for his frame. Don Pete never lifted a weight one, and -- I'm sure -- never once did any conditioning. What Don Pete could do is hit a fastball and love the game.

He strolled near the batter's box in his umpire uni and swung a few. Catcher and pitcher were in awe. He said, "Keep warming up. I need a few minutes."

"C'mon! You're not serious, are you? What if you get hurt? Who's going to ump our game?"

"OK. I'm ready. Bring the heat kid."

Right before he took his stance, he look towards us and said, "This is how you hit a fastball. It's the sweetest thing on earth."

So, here's the arrogant son of bitch, eyeing my grandfather as he slowly took his stance. The catcher took his position, and gave a target.

"OK, you asked for it."

There are no true walls in most of these barren fields. Home runs are mostly the inability of an outfielder to retrieve the ball from backyard or street. In our case, a leaning fence did outline the field, giving it some privacy from the adjoining neighborhood.

My brother and I ran to stand behind the catcher, about 30 feet. We were naturally afraid for him. Though we had total confidence in his baseball prowess, we didn't trust the cocky son of a bitch.

He didn't take long to wind-up and deliver. From our vantage point, the ball could be coming inside, almost too close. From Don Pete's vantage point, the ball was just right. He lifted his right leg slightly and swung.

Contact made that sound we love to hear in ball yards. It was like a perfect note at the opera. The ball sailed and sailed out of sight.

Not a word was exchanged between pitcher and batter. The catcher stood up and sort bowed to my grandfather.

As if that wasn't enough to make us skip a beat, as he walked towards us, he handed the bat to me and said, "It's your turn."

"When you see the top of his knuckles, start to swing."

I couldn't speak. Witnessing him hit a fastball was shock enough. I was about to pass out. As a kid, I wasn't allowed to quit or say no with either of my grandfathers, or my father for that matter, although dad was much more diplomatic about it.

So, I did what I had done all my life before then and didn't question it. I made my way towards the batter's box, and pitcher and catcher were aghast.

"Bring the heat again. I want my grandson to feel the power."

I was trembling. I tried to take some practice swings, but I'm sure I looked like a 2-year-old with an over sized bat. I was only 10 or 11. My baseball experience had been limited to snot-nosed kids at little league before that.

I stood at the batter's box and the catcher said, "Don't worry kid. He (the pitcher) only looks scary. He's very accurate with his throws. If you see it coming your way, just fall to the ground. I'll catch it."

I didn't even have a helmet.

The first pitch came, and before I could exhale, the ball was in the mitt.

"Don't be scared! Swing that bat!' he said from behind me.

From somewhere, deep in the recesses of my infant mind, I mustered enough courage to actually think I could hit this ball. So, I promised I would swing when I saw the knuckles.

Many experts say that if you can slow down a game, you can really become good at any sport. That's what happened that day. As he made his wind-up, I looked for those knuckles and started to swing.

I always pictured hitting a fastball would hurt. I just had this feeling it'd feel like a hammer hitting a nail, rattling through your innards.

In fact, I never felt any rattling. I never felt any pain. What I felt was sheer ecstasy. As I swung, with my eyes half-closed, that bat made contact that day. The ball sailed and sailed. And though not as long as his, the catcher said, "Nice job kid! I'm sure that would have been a double."

I officially hit a professional caliber fastball, a ball delivered by a man, who had been clocked in the high 90's.

Looking back, the moment had much more weight in my life than I gave it credit for those days. I'd venture into many things later in life, and much of my courage may have been inspired by my standing tall -- but scared to death -- in that batter's box, that day.

Don Pete went on to be the blue behind the plate that day. The cocky son of a bitch won the game, and after would come over to thank Don Pete and wish me good luck.

The beauty of a fastball is the ability for a man to place a ball, traveling close to 100 miles per hour, in an imaginary area about as big as a box of cereal from 60.5 feet out. And, he begins doing all that with movements resembling ballet more than baseball, and lunging his arm with such force, some literally dislocate it from the shoulder.

It's a work of art in many ways.

If you have never stood in the path of a fastball, do so. It may change your life.

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