Saturday, June 21, 2014

My Home Runs!

As a Little League'r, I once hit an "in the park Home Run".  The 4 bagger was the result of speed and a weak unassuming right fielder who wasn't paying attention as I hit a line drive directly over first base that kept bouncing down the foul line in fair territory!  I sped around the bases hoping to stretch the hit into a triple, yet was surprised that my coach was sending me home!  I was safe - there wasn't even a throw to the plate! I never really thought that the hit was a real home run.  I did, however, in my short youthful baseball career have two legitimate home runs: one as an older Little League'r and the other as a High School'r.

Etched in my memory was the fact that as a 12 yr old, I faced the best pitcher in the league at our season's opening game.  He had a reputation of throwing a great curve ball, yet his fastball although fast was flat - it did not rise.  His first pitch fooled me coming in high and outside, I thought it would stay out of the strike zone, however, it dipped right over the plate for a strike.  With an 0-1 count, I saw the next pitch in my strongest hitting zone: just below the hips right over the plate.  I initiated an easy swing seeing the ball clearly connecting squarely with it.  The ball sailed straight away over the cones (in lieu of a fence) at least 50 feet for a home run!  I did not swing hard, as a matter of fact my coach reiterated, "I bet you didn't even swing hard! You don't have to 'swing for fences' to clear the fence!"

I trotted around the bases hoping that this hit would be a good omen for the whole season.  At that moment, there was a great expectation that I would be a home run hitter that season. It was an expectation that never materialized: I was a consistent hitter for average and I made the all-star team but I never hit another home run that season.

The other home run came in High School.  I came up to bat (I don't recall the team we were playing) and dug my cleats into the batter's box and took the first pitch for a called strike from a right hander. The pitch was a fastball right over the plate.  Hoping to over power me, the pitcher hurled another fastball in the same vicinity and I jumped on the pitch aggressively, hitting the ball solidly to where I initially thought was directly at the right fielder.  When I saw that he turned and started to run, I knew I had an extra base hit!  As it turned out, I truly connected with the ball and it carried very far.  In those days my school had no fence - the outfield seemed to sprawl in all directions with out end except in right field where I hit the ball.  There was a fence in right field that separated the athletic field from the street.  Just before the fence was a line of trees and something that resembled a 'warning' track.  I hit the ball at the edge of the grass by this 'warning' track and with two bounces it was in the tree area. The ball was not lost, but rather easily retrieved, however, by that time I had cleared running the bases. When the cut off man had the ball I was already practically home.

I was mobbed at the plate because I was the first left hander to send the ball sailing so far over the right fielder's head.  Oddly enough, I can not say that I swung my bat to hit a home run.  I was excited to receive a pitch thrown at my strength so I turned on it hitting it solidly on the fat part of the bat which was a signature 'Jackie Robinson' that had a characteristic thick handle, not known as a home run bat!

There is a strange sensation when one hits the ball squarely, solidly.  One hardly feels the ball leave the bat, but it shoots through the air.

Had we had a fence I would have been able to savor the hit by going into a home run trot.  Not knowing,however, how good the right fielder was, I did not take any chances and sprinted around the bases.

Subsequently I paced off the distance of the fence at about 390 feet which meant that my hit traveled approximately 360 feet.  It was a legitimate home run to most right fields.

Hitting a home run that sails off a bat easily is likened to the clarity of understanding a Torah thought - at its simplicity and depth one can marvel.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The catch

The greatest baseball player I ever saw was Willie Mays.  He had the skills to accomplish every possible feat in the game: he was fast on the bases, he had a very strong throw, he could hit for power and average and he could field- he was a golden glove.  I believe he holds the record for outfield putouts which upon reflection is an amazing notion.  He literally roamed the outfield from center-field catching balls that seemed un-catchable.

His most famous catch was recorded in a world series when Cleveland's Vic Wertz smashed a deep drive over his head in center-field.  With his back to everyone including the ball, Mays reached out for it towards the stands.  Most were amazed at the catch without realizing that his accompanying throw that he whipped in one motion was just as amazing.  Commentator Bob Costas explained in a tribute video that nobody believed the ball could have been caught!  Bob Feller on the other hand, disagreed.  Feller disclosed that the players knew Willie would catch the ball all along because Mays had a famous 'tell': tapping his glove with his fist signaled to everyone that he had tracked the ball and there was no way he would miss.[Sure enough if one watches the film, Mays indeed taps his glove before the catch]

I once witnessed Willie Mays evading a collision with Bobby Bonds (who played right-field) making the catch behind Bonds!  Mays had such energy and he exuded enthusiasm as he played.
In my youth, I played center-field from 13 years old through High School.  Mays was the paradigm. Once during a 13 year old Allstar game, I too made a catch that is seared in my memory not necessarily because the catch was a good one but rather because the announcer stopped the game to encourage enthusiasm and excitement.

With less than two outs with a man on third base, the play was at home.  I was playing straight away at medium depth.  I crouched into position on the balls of my feet ready for the pitch.  It was a fast ball down the middle of the plate that must have looked like a grapefruit to the hitter because he met it easily and hit it squarely.  It was a rifle shot that was quickly sinking behind second base.  I also took off like a shot digging closer and closer to the ball hoping I could cut it off before it bounced to the ground.  I lengthened each stride drilling my cleats harder and harder with each step trying desperately to increase my speed.  As I realized there was a slight chance at gloving the ball, I extendesd my glove just atop of my shoe strings of my right foot catching the ball and in one motion I fired a peg to the plate as I tumbled over myself.  The runner on third held up!  I was happy that I did my job.

All of sudden, the official league announcer spoke into the loud speaker, "Ladies and Gentlemen is this not a great ball game?!  Have we seen some great plays today?!  Let's give a great round of applause to that little center-fielder!"  I was stunned and embarrassed, looking down into the grass trying to ignore the attention directed at me.  It was the first time I was ever publicly acknowledged as a ball-player and didn't know what to do.  Eventually, I was able to say thanks to those individuals who came up to compliment me.

When the verse says "Serve Hashem with joy" the true meaning is to be passionate and enthusiastic in what ever one does just like Willie Mays played baseball because the passion and enthusiasm are contagious creating a much more exciting, better world.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Bunt

Sometimes one finds oneself tested, and one never knows the outcome until the situation presents itself to apply all one's ability to the test. The Ramban teaches that each person has a potential and sometimes that potential translates to actual accomplishment because life contains many tests, trials and tribulations.  The Ramban tells us that Hashem never gives an impossible test; His tests are always meant to transform one's potential energy into actual energy resulting in a fortification of not only one's self esteem but also a means of building a positive reputation.

One of the most difficult plays in baseball for a left-hander is to field a ball hit to the left side of the infield.  One will never see a left-handed short-stop because a grounder toward the hole between second and third is gloved with the right hand, however, the throw can not be made without completely turning either counter-clockwise or clockwise to get in position to make the throw.  Left-handed infielders are usually only found at First base because they are naturally in position to throw either to second or third without turning; they can throw with just a pivot.

One day, unusually chilly and overcast for baseball season, I was pitching well.  There was a constant drizzle that day making the field wet.  I was the winning pitcher that day, our team won, however, I can't remember the details of the win because the game was overshadowed by one play.

Late in the game, trying to get something going for the opposing team, their manager called for a bunt and the batter laid down a great bunt straight down the third base line.  Our third baseman started for the ball, however, I tore off the mound with abandon to field the ball.  What I was about to do, my coach would say was something that he thought could not be done.

I gloved the ball with my right hand, and instead of turning around either clockwise or counterclockwise, with my back to first base, I stepped with my left foot toward the dugout, away from the field as if walking off the infield.  Then, I pivoted on that left foot, planting it to throw off it toward first base.  As I planted my foot and shifted my weight to throw, my cleat slipped slightly backwards as I snapped off my throw to first.  The slip made my release point slightly later than a usual throw and added an extra snap that cast the ball no higher than three and a half feet off the ground.  The throw beat the runner easily.

At the end of the inning as I walked off the mound my teammates congratulated me and my coach stood there beaming saying,"I never saw such a play - I didn't think it could be done!"

I never thought I could make such a play!  Life is filled with tests; tests that build confidence.  One should remember the Ramban's lesson: there are no impossible tests!  Meeting a challenge is just another opportunity transforming potential energy into actual tangible results.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Strike-out

Success in Pitching depends on a variety of factors.  Most would agree that control is the basic key to success.  [Sandy Koufax wasn't any good until he found the strike zone and then went on to be among the greatest left-handers ever.]  Some would say an umpire that enjoys the black borders of the plate helps the success of a pitcher.  Knowing that the ump will always call that low outside pitch over the black borders of the plate builds a pitcher's confidence.  Success is also build around a repertoire of different pitches.  One who can only throw heat will not last long.  Eventually, hitters catch on. [Ted Williams was convinced that pitchers were stupid because they were predictable: if a certain pitch was effective for a strike out then under similar conditions, the pitcher would throw it again!  Williams was the last .400 hitter because he remembered pitching situations and successfully capitalized on the expected pitch.  When Boston made it to World Series in '46 against the Cardinals, legend has it that manager Eddie Dyer told pitchers to throw the opposite pitch and hence Williams was ineffective and had a terrible series.  Although Williams was indeed injured, struck on the arm at the beginning of that series, he refused to hang his failure on his injury.]  Psychological confrontation can contribute to a pitcher's success.  For example, when a hitter is unsure of his safety at the plate because he has a gnawing feeling that the pitcher will deliberately strike at him, then the pitcher has great advantage. [Hank Aaron testified that standing in on Don Drysdale, the big intimidating Dodger right-hander who was known to deliberately throw at batters, was the toughest pitcher he faced because one never knew when one would have to bail!]

I once experienced a day that contained all the elements of a pitcher's success in High School.  I had control, Hack Robbins behind the plate, with a great repertoire of pitches: three different fastballs, three different curveballs and a psychological advantage: I had a history of effectiveness against one particular hitter. He didn't think he could hit me!

Some days when warming up, one senses that the ball will go where one points the foot!  Fluid motion and complete control of one's body, a certain consistent athleticism results in a regularity of throwing strikes, without concern of pitch selection: the ball will go where one wants it to end up!  

This in combination of Hack Robbins behind the plate made a great strike zone.  Mr. Robbins had the classic image of an umpire: short squat, deep raspy voice, and build like a tank.  Even his name exuded umpire: Hack! He loved the black corners of the plate to the chagrin of hitters and to the delight of pitchers. He called out balls and strikes decisively like a medieval executioner brings down his ax on the condemned man.  There was something definitive about him.  I loved pitching when Hack Robbins was the umpire!  

On one bright sunny day in July, I took to the mound and felt warm.  My control was there that day: I could throw the ball exactly where I wanted to throw. At bat, was the leading home-run hitter in the league with 18! with Hack Robbins calling Balls and Strikes.  I was not so concerned because I felt good about pitch selection and placement that day and additionally I had great success over the years with this fellow.  [As a matter of fact we shared the same Little League team at one time and although we ended up at different High Schools we truly never lacked respect for each other.]  I knew, however, that his slump with me bothered him; he never hit a home run off me.

Ironically, that day I did not need Hack Robbin's wide strike zone.  It turned out that my old former Little League teammate jumped at my pitches determined to end his slump.  The scouting report that we had on him was that he liked to pull the ball.  So I took a chance and placed an overhand fast ball up and in at armpit height and he turned on that pitch like a major league'r crushing the ball so far that had it stayed fair it would have been a Home Run in any ballpark!  The pitch was clearly out of the strike-zone.  I decided to come in with an overhand curve ball that would start out of the strike-zone and break in on his fists.  As the ball broke down I could tell that my old teammate was not fooled and followed the trajectory of the pitch and met the ball shoulder high.  He crushed this one too.  This one too arched horizontally foul.  Now I was ahead in the count, 0-2 with the best power hitter in the league apprehensive.  I had the psychological advantage. I knew he eventually would have to adjust to defensive hitting; he needed to protect the plate to stay alive.  I was to waste a pitch.  I threw a side-armed fast ball that tailed away from a right handed hitter. I threw it low and away, a great spot and possibly in the strike zone according to Hack Robbins.  The umpire did not have to make the call. The batter must have decided that the ball was close enough to be called a strike so he lunged for the ball across the plate swinging weakly and lamely. "STRIKE THREE YER OUUUUT!!!" cried Mr. Robbins casting down his ax!

That feeling of accomplishment with the strike out is the closest analogy I can think of to the definition of the Simcha Shel Mitzva: the sense of doing everything right; having all the elements of success in the performance of a Divine commandment [L'Havdil!]

Tag him Jerry! Tag him!

In the Ethics of the Fathers, one learns that anger takes one out of this world; it can cut years off one's life.  Anger according to the Rambam is the worst personal trait.  Moses is kept from entering the Land of Israel because of anger.  Sometimes anger manifests itself in different ways: a burning silent rage or a wild tantrum.  In either case, one loses reality and must bear the consequences of such scenes.  I witnessed the latter case, a wild tantrum that had dire consequences for a twelve year old and his all-star Little League team.  A wild tantrum brought on despair deflating all hopes of continuing on road to the World Series.  For a Little League'r such is the end of the world or at least that summer!

Back in '69 in the early summer I had not turned 13 so still eligible as a 12 year old and was selected and chosen to play first base for my hometown Little League All-Star team.  We had a very strong team that consisted of hitters and pitchers and we won our first game pretty handily.  The next game, however, was real competition.

I was lead off and saw a first fat pitch that I thought resembled a grapefruit and swung at it expecting to crush the ball through the infield.  I missed.  Determined not to be overconfident, I bore down and received an exact same pitch. I swung and missed again!  I determined that the ball was sailing away from my left handed stance as the reason why I kept missing the ball.  So I adjusted, and the next pitch which surprisingly was not wasted, but rather was the exact same pitch, sailing away from me, I reached out and poked the ball hard to the third baseman. He bobbled the ball and I beat his throw to first. (I can't remember if my at bat was recorded as a hit or error - probably an error).  I stole second base and got a sign to steal third! (In Little League, when I played ball, a runner could not begin to steal a base until the pitch crossed the plate - so the catcher inherently had an advantage)  I broke for third and saw the third baseman holding the ball, so there was only one thing to do which was drummed into us as children :  knock the ball out of his glove! (Such a move now I believe has been outlawed for safety reasons!)  I put my head down and folded my arms against my chest and drove into the third baseman lifting him up hoping to dislodge the ball.  He landed squarely on his rump holding the ball, jumping up piping mad wanting to swat me like a fly with his glove, but I was already trotting to the dugout.  He was screaming foul or something foul against me, but I paid no attention since he probably would have done the same.  That's the way we were coached.  As a matter of fact, my coach complimented me by saying "good job! next time he'll think twice when he sees you coming!"  I was out by a mile!

That first inning was just an indication of what kind of game ensued.  In the bottom of the 6th (last inning in Little League) our opponents were up and the score tied. With one out and a force at home plate, we crouched into position.  Our pitcher had been struggling, he had walked a batter putting a runner on first with the bases loaded.  [One dreams of a double play to extend the game into extra innings, but that does not happen in Little League often.  As a matter of fact, one calls that a miracle!] The play had to go to home to force the out.  We were ready: the wind up and pitch, a hard bounding ball hit to yours truly at first base.  I tracked the ball until my sight was impaired by the first base runner who jumped in front of me momentarily.  I got down on one knee and place my glove on the ground making sure that the ball would not go through me for a hit.  I was determined to bring my glove up for a bad hop and block my face with my bare hand.  The runner scampered away at the last second when I caught sight of the ball landing directly into my glove.  With all my adrenalin coursing through my veins, I pivoted to peg the ball to the plate.  (Do they still call it a peg?!)  It was a perfect throw! directly at the catcher's mitt, a direct hit!  I am thinking "out!"

The ball popped out of the catcher's glove.  Our catcher did not execute the fundamental skill of using two hands.  His bare hand could have safeguarded the ball.  'Could have's are meaningless.  At this point, nevertheless, the game was not over because the umpire did not call the game's end since the runner incredibly missed the plate!  So our coaches and managers started shouting "Tag him Jerry, Tag him!!"  Then the whole team was screaming in unison, "TAG HIM JERRY TAG HIM!!"  Our catcher, however, heard nothing.  He had thrown down his mask, thrown down his glove and started his tantrum!  He heard nothing until the crescendo of "TAG HIM JERRY TAG HIM" was so crushing that everyone at the ballpark realized the runner missed home.  Jerry lamely reached for the ball to attempt a tag at the runner, however, by that time the runner had gotten wind that he missed the plate, he pranced back like a dancer extending his toe to successfully touch it.  When the umpire called the game's finish, Jerry just plopped himself down and intensified his bawling.

We lost.  We were taken out of this world (of Little League baseball) our life cut short of our dreams because of the sin of anger and self loathing.  We were kept out of the 'promised land' just like the Israelite generation of the Exodus being kept out of the Promised Land of Canaan.  One must realize the imperative to stay focused and not get riled, stay enthusiastic and passionate but not get upset! Redemption comes with the blink of an eye!