One of the first things I ever wrote that I actually liked
I don’t see all that well. Or at least I found this out later. I squinted, tilted my head, basically did anything I could to see the fingers pointed down sixty feet away. Once in a while I simply couldn’t do it. I would have to call him over and have him just tell me what he was thinking. It wasn’t always so bad. When I was younger, he was closer and I had less trouble. But as I got older, he got farther and farther away and the distance became increasingly difficult, particularly under the lights. My eyes may give me trouble but my shoulder never did. I was blessed with an arm that was strong. It didn’t get tired. It didn’t get hurt. It didn’t get sore. And best of all, it was mine.
I started when I was five. At that age you didn’t actually do anything. Just stand by the machine and get the ball if it’s hit your way. Eventually they let me do what the machine and coaches had done the last few years. They didn’t keep score but that didn’t mean I didn’t take it seriously–probably too seriously. I was good. I didn’t understand why the other kids couldn’t just hit the glove.
When they did finally start keeping score I got demoted. Or at least that’s what it was in my mind. Instead of the one throwing it I was the one catching it. This upset me. I was just as capable as the ones who still got to throw. But I learned from the experience. Catching taught me the nuances of the game that most pitchers are unaware of. How a hitter’s stance affects how they swing and how you can beat them. How umpires thought and that it was more important to hit the glove than to actually throw something in the strike zone.
When our best guy got hurt, it was my gain. I got to put into practice all of the things I thought I had learned. They worked.
Pregame is critical.
Stretching is key. I undervalued it growing up. But as you age you realize how important it is. Not just the arms—legs are even more important. Or they should be. I take my time. Everyone else rushes on ahead, I seem to lag behind. I don’t mind. Let them talk and casually stretch, I am already sweating from exertion. It isn’t just about pulling muscles, yanking them one way or another. I want them to be loose. I can’t be tight.
Use the game ball—always. None of that rubbing dirt on it shit. Feel it with your hands. Use the sweat from your palms to give it that tacky feel. Not sticky—just right. Don’t let the catcher do too much with it. It’s my ball not his. I don’t care if he likes it dusty, keep it clean.
I don’t say much—or anything. Everything that needs to be said can be said with a nod. Or a grunt.
A casual warm-up starts off every start. Just toss and catch with the guy with the gear. Nothing special. Just enough to get the blood flowing through the arm and make sure that there are no twinges, aches, or pain. I lengthen it out almost as far as possible. The guy at the other end is rolling it to me; I keep it as level as possible. Long throws. Not the distance but the way the arm moves: as far back as possible—pause—explode outward. Head stays focused, no pulling left to get extra distance. Accuracy over that extra distance all day.
Bring it back in. Soft tosses, almost playing. Near the end might yank a couple to see if the rotation’s tight. Maybe a slow one or two make sure the release point is in the general vicinity.
The fielders start their crap. Some pretending to swing, others being honest about it and just chatting. Some wrapping, some watching the other team, others are focused. I’m in the last group. I am either sitting—jacket on—or pacing, waiting for the right time.
Once they start BP, that’s my cue. We head to the pen. It damn well better be the guy with the gear. I don’t want some sorry infielder crouching with a mask on. Give me the real deal or get out.
The first three throws are tosses from the rubber to the catch standing up. It’s up to me when he crouches. If he sits before I say so he’ll be up in a hurry chasing the ball I just threw over his head. The first real throw is just a look in and kick, no set position. Just getting the leg used to going all the way up again.
I can tell what kind of day it’s going to be with that fourth toss. A good strong ball with that late break that makes my game work means we’re in business. Ball in the dirt means nerves. Anything else means shit, today’s going to take some work. Those last two are the days that determine the great from the good. Anybody can get the job done when they’ve got their best stuff. It’s the guys that get guy out when they got shit that are the good ones. They got a word for it: crafty. Today is not a crafty day. Today is a good day.
I look in; flip my glove up to let him know which is coming. I come set. The left foot a little ahead of the right. Not too close together. Legs comes up, but also twists back. A guru will tell you that this creates torque which gives you more velocity. Sure, whatever. When I caught it wasn’t about how hard a guy threw it was about when you saw the damn ball. Some guys let you see it first thing, easy as pie to catch—and hit. Others—myself included—didn’t let you see in right away, they made you wait for it. That’s what made it hard to hit, hiding the ball for as long as possible. That’s why I turn, the hitter’s got no fucking clue where my arm is, where the ball is, and when it’s coming.
Leg reaches out toward the plate, arm reaches back out twisting even farther the wrong. If the hitter looked—but he won’t—he could see the ball right by my right hip. There’s a hesitation before the arm comes forward. A little hiccup. And then it comes whistling around. Not over the top and not from the side—somewhere in between. Index and middle fingers are with the seams, not across, and are behind the ball as the arm comes forward. If I twist the wrist at all the ball will sail up or drop dead into the ground. When you throw over the top you can get away with a weak wrist, not at three quarters. The release point is all feel and repetition. The ball starts straight over the heart of the plate. With about fifteen feet left, the ball’s rotation finally catches up with it and it bites right and down.
I was the never the guy lighting up the radar gun. But I did have an effective mixture of spin mixture, superb control, and late movement on my fastball. That last one is key.
The catch tracks the ball with his glove, snaring it at the bottom right corner of the strike zone. A called strike and a hittable one. Depending on the situation this is a good pitch. I can have a tough time with called strikes sometimes, the ball moves around so much there are times when I can’t buy a call. But, to the hitter the ball looks so fat they can’t help but swing, and by then the ball is nowhere near where it was. He tosses me the ball back and I take a look at my footprint before setting up again. I look at two things. The first is my drag line. As I explode towards the plate my back foot drags along the ground making a curved line. This line is like a pitcher’s signature, everyone’s is a little different. You want the end of it to be directly in front of home. The path doesn’t matter just the end.
I’m right on line.
The next thing I look at is where my left foot landed, or more specifically my left heel. The one hitch in my motion is my landing. My lack of ankle flexibility meant that I landed on my left heel. This could cause problems, particularly as I tired. I was centered but not quite perfect. The farther from the rubber that foot landed, the harder you throw. Getting it to your height is pretty good; anything substantially over it is good. This was an area I could work on, but not now. I settled in to throw another from the stretch.
I settle quickly in a smooth rhythm. After maybe ten fastballs I whip a few curves. The first one is always bad.
I bounce it, no spin it, or throw it over everything. This one was a no spin. Yuck.
The second one was an improvement. It bit nicely down and to the left. I mixed in a decent change followed by a high and tight fastball. An undervalued—and very effective—pitch. A few tosses later I switch into the windup. My windup is very efficient. No extreme motion, nothing unnecessary. A small step to the left and then up and back with the leg, exactly the same as the stretch. It’s a little quicker and a little more erratic, a pretty effective combo. The term is effectively wild. I was really warm now. Sweating a lot, this gives me an advantage because I have some wetness to grip the ball.
I finish in the pen as our first hitter steps into the box. Our shortstop, a quick, high batting average and on base guy digging in. You couldn’t ask for a better leadoff man—and only a sophomore. Though he did have his faults, he didn’t take the game all that seriously, but that played helped hum get through the rough patches. I shrugged on a jacket as he took ball three—a good sign for us.
I tuned out my teammates as much as I could. I don’t like to talk before, or during, a start. I was hitting fifth that day which meant I could wholly turn off the game. Generally I didn’t hit well on throwing days; I was focused on other things.
I would have been my own worst enemy. I crowd the plate and just yank foul anything inside. I didn’t strike out often, but I didn’t have nearly as much power as I should have for my size. I just hated swinging and missing.
My first at bat was easy. A curveball was a little in, I flinched—read leaned into—and gladly took first base. I led the league in HBP, the next guy far behind. I will admit it, I stuck out knees, elbows, shoulders, anything to take the pitch and the base.
Once on base I tuned out again. I was left stranded, but we took the lead, up one to zero.
That’d be enough.
TD // 8/23/16