Sunday, August 12, 2012

Baseballs, Conspiracies, and Striking Out.

Rawlings hardballBeing a loyal Bronx native, I watched the Yankees' game on cable tv the other night. Before drifting off (boredom usurps loyalty), third baseman Eric Chavez hit a series of foul balls. Before the balls were out of play, the opposing catcher surreptitiously slipped his glove behind his back.  The umpire dropped another ball into his mitt from a little black satchel hung on his waist, similar to what a magician might keep a fluffy white rabbit in. After the fourth successive foul ball, the ump looked askance; a tow-headed tween in a poorly-fitting uniform scurried in and handed him replacements. All part of the game...

What I found disconcerting was that perfectly good baseballs were tossed out of the game as well, without a second thought. Not so many years ago, umpires would examine a ball for smutz every so often, give it a few rubs and throw it back to the pitcher. Before expensive player salaries, a few errant foul balls probably equaled a day's pay for Gene "Stick" Michaels, the good-glove, no-hit Yankee shortstop. Pitchers like Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro would illegally "doctor" the ball with spit, grease, jism or sandpaper. With it's delicate equilibrium compromised, the ball would float erratically, causing the batter to miss.

Today it seems if a ball hits the dirt, gets put in play or has a bad aura, it's instantly tossed out. The average baseball costs $3. Not a hefty sum, until multiplied by several dozen a game, 162 games and 20 teams. Just where do all these balls go? Something smells worse than David Ortiz' armpits, and I know what it is.

Baseball does not enjoy wide popularity outside the United States; only Japan and a few Caribbean nations have professional leagues. Not being an Olympic sport, MLB cash must be spent wisely, to keep competing interlopers from muscling in. The illicit trade for black-market baseballs, similar to those for healthy organs, is converted into non-traceable cash. An industry insider, who I'll call Deep to Left...That's...Outta Here! gave me the poop. DTLTOH! stated that once out of camera view, discarded baseballs--a veritable treasure trove of rubber and rawhide lucre--are quickly ferreted out of the country and laundered for cash. This plunder funds secret networks engaged in shocking, mercenary-like activities.

soccer rioters
Generally known as being too efficient to riot,
these Germans were paid to do so.
To combat the world-wide popularity of soccer, counter-intelligence agents are hired by baseball owners. Stationed in European soccer stadiums, these so-called "hooligans" wear warpaint, drink warm Carlsberg beer, pass errant gas and attack anyone within head-butting range.

To counteract interest in rugby, photographers are hired to take especially unflattering shots of toothless players with cauliflower ears. Photos of any random player usually produces the intended result. Prescription anti-psychotic drugs are hidden from athletes before games, causing their true natures to emerge on the field.

For cricket, announcers are paid under the table to comment in arcane jargon, randomly interspersing American, UK or metric equivalents for weights and measures. Payoffs to uniform manufacturers ensure that the cardigan sweater remain the official uniform, guaranteeing that macho American males will never play the sport.

But what of Eric Chavez, still at bat?

It was a long inning; the announcers were droning on ad nauseum about fastballs, curves, cutters, splitters, sinkers and any other artful way to hurl a small, round object from a mound of dirt. Their scholarly dissertation included topics such as staying in the zone, picking spots, painting corners, climbing the ladder, riding in, fading out, staying ahead or falling behind in the count. All stratagem had one purpose: to make it difficult for the batter to pick up the rotation of the rapidly approaching sphere. Personally, I never understood how batters see the ball at all.

I only tried to hit a hardball once, when my best friend Tom talked me into trying out for the high school team. Never having played little league, I thought it pointless. Tryouts typically brought out 75-100 young athletes, all vying for three or four coveted openings on the team. I went anyway, being a fierce competitor and determined athlete. Actually, I mindlessly followed my best friend everywhere, and was somewhat of a dope.

The tryouts took place inside the school gymnasium, which surprised me. Perhaps 14-year-old freshmen  risked divoting the immaculate diamond outside. We were paired off and told to toss the ball back and forth, presumably to probe for basic skills. After a minute or so, an assistant coach walked up to me--and only me--and asked what my name was. Scanning his clipboard, he quickly located my signature on the sign-up sheet.  He made a notation I couldn't see, which I imagined to be, “Cut immediately.”

We were then grouped according to defensive position. I had overheard the coach tell an assistant, “I’m looking for the next Lou Gehrig,” so I decided to try out for first base, envisioning myself as the next Iron Horse. I gamely leapt, lunged and stretched for balls thrown several feet asunder by a mouse-like shortstop named Pepe. I was pleased; not having touched a ball, my defensive skills couldn't be questioned.

A young George Lucas was nearly killed by an errant
pitching machine, inspiring him to later design
the AT-ST used in Star Wars.
Next was batting practice. Inside a camouflage-like netting was a curious contraption I had never seen: an automated pitching machine. When idle, it seemed innocuous. Two large rubber wheels were inversely set on a tripod, with a chute to drop the ball in. Once plugged in, the wheels spun rapidly, emitting an eerie, high-pitched whine. The coach briefly displayed the ball above the top wheel before dropping it in the chute, to warn the batter a pitch was coming. A loud ker-thump followed as the ball struck the spinning wheels; a split-second later it hit the net 60 feet away. I was fascinated--as long as someone else was in there with that monster, and not me.

There’s a reason it’s called a batting cage. The entire enclosure was netted; I imagined it being winched quickly from above, swooping the batter into the air to hang helplessly upside down. From that vantage point he could be spun around, poked and ridiculed as the coach deemed fit. The idea that I would be expected to enter this man-trap alone to face a high-powered bazooka made me more than a tad nervous. Freshmen entering before me were not fairing well, vainly swinging and missing or barely fouling balls off.

When it was my turn, I was handed a batting helmet more appropriately sized for Darth Vader. Resembling a bobblehead, I entered the cage with trepidation. I picked up the first bat I saw and gave it a few hefty swings, trying to look menacing.

When the coach displayed the ball above the machine for me, it was more like a game of Peek-a-Boo, or now you see it, now you don’t.  There was the ker-thump of the ball as it met the spinning wheels, the thwock of the ball hitting the net behind me, and nothing more. Although blessed with 20-20 eyesight, I never saw anything actually move. 

After two more balls whizzed by without notice, I started to swing at the first ker-thump sound I heard. “React to the ball, not the machine,” the coach announced to everyone waiting in line, rather than me. Translation: “Don’t do what this putz is doing.” To this day, I have no idea whether I swung too early or too late. Needless to say, I didn't make the first cut. Tom fared no better.

dumb statue
Although no Adonis when young,
I possessed many statue-like qualities.
Undaunted, his next idea was the track team, which had no tryouts. The coaches would take anyone, since few students had an interest in running around a large oval until exhaustion set in. The cross-country team sounded romantic, though. I pictured myself trekking across mountain ridges, silhouetted against the setting sun, traversing state lines and territorial borders, escaping notice at tiny wooden checkpoint shacks that were manned by guards wearing heavy overcoats and thick furry hats, hefting machine guns. After crossing the finish line, a kindly head of state would place an olive wreath upon my humbly-bowed, glistening crown, while adoring thousands chanted my name. The insistent applause would continue until I feigned a demure wave, as befits a champion...

The only hiccup to this pastoral fantasy was that I hated running. I never achieved that vaunted second wind, the zen-like, rhythmic breathing state similar to being foisted along on baby's breath. Unfortunately, I possessed only one coarse breath, which quickly abandoned my heaving, bereft chest cavity.  Daily practices were less than idyllic; I ran around the track until my heart was about to explode, took a shower and went home. It took me exactly three days to quit.

I eventually settled on soccer, a relatively new sport in American high schools. I found practice quite agreeable: most drills consisted of standing in line chatting, waiting to pummel a large inflated ball at some goalie’s head. Our coach was a science teacher with no idea about rules, regulations or strategy; he read everything out of a book. "Keep moving to open space!" was his favorite exhortation; good advice for a prairie settler driving a covered wagon. Visiting schools from Hispanic neighborhoods would routinely destroy us, five or six to zero. I didn't care; I got a bright-red, lettered varsity jacket out of the deal, sporting  imitation wool pile lining.

Diapered batter
"Very good, but stop saying
that's mommy's head."
Today, organized sports for children starts younger than ever, which I fully support. I especially like T-ball, which consists of  toddlers hacking at a stationery ball resting on a static platform. The game teaches these skill-sets:
  • How to strike an inanimate, stationary object. 
  • How to fetch and retrieve, in the manner of a Springer Spaniel.
  • How to ignore parents screaming at you.
  • Indoctrination into society as another uniformed, anonymous cypher.
And what of Eric Chavez? I heard he has several thousand, slightly used baseballs, available through extraordinary rendition black sites. Contact DTLTOH! for more information.

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