STEPPING TO THE PLATE
By Wes Stephenson
Oh no… I could see it developing… final inning; down by a couple of runs; two of our guys on base with no one out and me in the hole. I pled silently, “Please… please let someone batting in front of me win this game?”
I didn’t need to be the hero and, besides, there was a reason why I was last in the batting order. The whole team knew what I knew, even though they remained encouraging.
The batter hit a pop fly to foul territory and it was catchable. That made it “one away” as a new hope approached the plate. I moved slowly out into the on-deck circle and begged heaven for the batter’s success.
Why couldn’t I have been the first out of the inning? No one remembers the first out as focus turns to the remaining opportunities. Even for the pros, it’s the final out of the game that get replayed on ESPN, with some poor batter or base-runner representing the team’s lost hopes.
Some folks dream of such a situation as this. Perhaps I, too, have fantasized; but that was before I learned that, though I love to play, I am not a playmaker. I’ve always been all effort; all desire; and almost enough.
A crack of the bat sent a hard chopper to third; double play was likely, (and almost hoped for). The infielder snagged the ball, stepped on base, and whirled the ball toward first. Low and out of reach, the ball skittered toward the dugout and runners advanced to second and third, holding there.
Two away. I sighed, swallowed hard, as I approached the plate.
My teammates urged me on: “Here we go!” “You can do it!” “Just a hit, buddy” “Just a single, now!”
I looked out beyond the bases. The outfielders moved in a few paces as they smacked their fists into their gloves. They remembered my one bloop single and the two weak pop-outs.
I waved my bat through the air above the plate and set my right foot as deep as I could into the clay.
“Don’t swing at the first ball” I told myself. The pitcher was tiring and had been falling behind the count these last two innings. “Please; Heaven help me find a gap,” I pled.
“Find a gap?” That was a hilarious suggestion. They always told me “nice placement” anytime my hits happened to fall between fielders as if I had the skills to accurately direct the ball.
The pitcher was now ready, my fingers flitted on the grip, and the ball was released.
I was previously unaware that you could think two thoughts at the same time. My mind continued to repeat “don’t swing at the first pitch” while a whole ‘nother line of thought assessed the arc of the ball; coming in high and a bit outside but, oh, so tempting. And while the first line of thought screamed, “NOOOO!” the second line of thought shrugged, “Why not?”
The body is a chain of loose parts that skilled athletes learn to weld together at just the right moment to transfer power from far flung regions to a specific point of focus, producing the successful half-court jump-shot, the three-hundred yard drive, or the fighter’s devastating jab. It is a concert of physiology with which I was not familiar but, decision made, my sequence began: The drive of my planted leg; the twist of my hips and the torque of my torso; the pull of my left shoulder and bicep, assisted by the push from my right. Forearms breaking my wrists while cinching my fingers more tightly to the tape and, unprecedented in my life and only for a flash, all welded at once as the bat struck the ball. More miraculous still, the point of contact was not an instant too soon nor a twinkling too late and the interface of ball and bat not a speck too high nor a whisker too low. It really didn’t seem like the bat “met” the ball so much as it drove through and beyond the sphere.
I’d never seen such a trajectory from that vantage point. Not a loop but a line, rising shallow and running away… and at an amazing rate. As quickly, my heart fell when the flight path streaked toward the centerfielder where, surely, the orb would fall. It always had. But this time… the ball kept rising; rising into the night.
I was halfway to first base when the ball entered the airspace above the centerfield fence and the shrieks and laughter of joy sounded from the base runners, from the dugout, and from the bleachers on the near side of the field. I touched the billowy bag and was forced to trot around the first baseman who stood motionless, hands on hips, staring out toward centerfield.
And then, halfway between first and second, I awoke, a faint glint of morning piercing my bedroom window; my fists still tight, my pulse still racing, and my moment of glory a fading phantom; a thing recorded in heart but not in history.
My eyes darted from one corner of the ceiling to another, my green ball diamond replaced by a rectangle of dull plaster; the pitcher’s mound fading into a gnat-filled globe.
Yet, still the sensation remained; familiar and vital and real. No foreign impression was this… I had been here before; I had felt this through and through, though not on a ball field, so where? From whence this echo, this resonance?
A backwards glance through decades past. Through times of struggle, to moments of success. I found those scattered instances where all combined to produce the anomaly, the victory nearly given up on while muddling through defeats.
My mind becomes caught on that sweet memory of romancing my lady. How did I win her? After countless near misses how found me a Missus? Like that miracle of location and timing when ball met with bat and the improbable occurred, what if I had met her a month too soon or a few weeks too late? What if my approach had been ever so different than what it was? Another foul? Another ground-out? What fortunes amalgamated to allow such triumph? I remember feeling then this familiar elation; part surprise, part relief, and part unfounded pride as she became mine.
I’ve experienced similar jubilation at periodic pinnacle points across my career when few knew the turns of chance behind the achievement nor realized the components that were not of my making. I accepted the applause of mortals but blushed at heaven’s eye.
I’ve known the satisfaction of delivering words of comfort, of inspiration, or of enlightenment when the sweet spot was found, the moment was right, and “you just kinda had to have been there.” Preparation played a part, but the magic was provided by the fluke of perfect timing and of pertinent backstory as the listener brought the message its deepest meaning.
And so the feeling is familiar. Of course it is. Now and again the links just weld together, the power comes through, that sweet spot is found, and things simply take flight. We find life is joy even with a bushel of strike-outs among a thimble of hits. And, when the ball manages to clear the fence, to whom does credit belong? How much to ourselves; how much to others, how much to angels; and how much to dumb luck?
For me, God only knows, and I hope no one else suspects. In one thing only can I take pride: Regardless of my awareness of past failures and despite seldom knowing what the outcome would be, I have still chosen to step to the plate and to swing the bat.