Spring(ish) Training

The batting tunnels are lit by industrial fluorescent bulbs, hung high above the batting nets. Nothing about the indoor practice facility feels like baseball.

But that’s what we’re all doing here on a February Sunday morning. The sun’s shining outside; why aren’t we practicing outside? Because it’s about 35 degrees and the ground is a swamp, still saturated from the 3-foot snowstorm that melted over the last two weeks.

So here we are: guys who should be more concerned about our cholesterol numbers than our on-base percentages, gathered for the beginning of another season. The over-40 league is made up of mostly way-over-40 guys who won’t give up hardball. Softball is out of the question for us. Did you see the softball players down at the other end of the batting tunnels? They all look like Fred Flintstone and carry bats with big, fat, oversize barrels. They wear short pants and pull their socks up real high. They throw each other balloony pitches and see how far they can crank ’em.

If you enjoy softball, God love ya. It’s a great game. But I’m stuck in the league full of guys who insist on wooden bats and full-on baseball uniforms and rules. The league is competitive; a lot more competitive than it should be, really. But we’ve done this all our lives, most of us; it’s written into our genetic code: you play the game hard and you play to win.

When it’s our turn, after the high school kids who rented the tunnels before us, we open the metal gate and duck under the black netting. The floor is coated with artificial turf, green as you can imagine. At one end of the tunnel is a wooden platform with the slant of a pitcher’s mound, built to exact big-league specs. At the other end, a batter’s box painted on the turf and a rubber home plate, carelessly tossed (generally) between the left and right-handed boxes.

We’re warming up for the season. These little workouts aren’t mandatory – most of the league won’t pick up a baseball until the opener, which is still six weeks away. But for those of us who’ve put on a few pounds over the winter or who have gotten a new glove or a new bat or who just want to hit a few baseballs, these Sunday morning workouts are the ticket.

These are the first baseballs I’ve thrown since last July. There’s a feeling of impossibility in the first few heaves. Like, forget it. I’m finally done. I can’t throw anymore. But after a dozen or so balls, there’s that familiar zip, followed an instant later by the slap of ball against leather. Maybe it’ll be ok, after all.

Once we’re all as loose as it’s possible to get in February, the group yields the tunnel to a hitter and a batting-practice pitcher. The rest of us stand outside the cage and watch. There it is! A pitch, a swing and a line drive! Smack after smack, the ball jumps off our third baseman’s bat.

My turn in the cage. A few lefty practice swings and here comes a pitch. Doink. Topped it right to the pitcher. Next pitch. Thump. Pulled a foul ball off the bat handle. Next pitch. Pop. Straight up into the net.

There’s no break when you’re taking batting practice. The pitches come fast and furious. We’re paying for this time. Any time you’re futzing with your batting gloves or kicking around in the box is money wasted. And after six or seven hard swings, I’m starting to get winded. I step back to make an adjustment and the pitcher holds up three baseballs, indicating I get three more pitches.

Exhale hard. Get in a balanced stance. Trust your hands and let the ball travel, as they say. Smack! Liner up the middle. Smack! A shot to right. Smack! Another shot to right.

Drop the bat and help the pitcher pick up the baseballs around the cage. Throw the balls into the white bucket and get out of the cage. Who’s next?


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