The other night I had a dream that I ran a home run in. Not hit a home run, mind you, meaning I did not swing like Hammerin' Hank Aaron and knock it into someone else's parking lot—even my subconscious knows that I'm a long way from doing that. But in the dream, I stood on third, a friend (Anthony, in the dream) came to the plate, he smacked the pitch high into the sky, and I ran like lightning across home plate. SCORE!
It is Friday night, The Fifteenth of June, 2012. I step up to the plate. My left leg is a knot of searing pain. We won't be able to see blood through the skin until tomorrow. For now, walking is agony, jogging is almost unbearable.
About ten minutes ago I had my first at-bat of the season, and something bad happened to my lower leg. I would have sprinted from third to home, but somehow my muscles had other plans. The rest of the game has been a blur of pain and sweat. We are five runs behind and running out of time.
Fifty feet away from me, a bright-looking young fellow in a red jersey is pitching a softball at me.
The voice in my head tells me: "Stay focused. You can do this." I listen through a haze of soreness and exhaustion.
I played three years of sports in Junior High School. Three seasons each of basketball and (flag) football, and one season of soccer—a total of seven seasons. But I never made a basket, never ran a touchdown, never kicked a goal. The only scores I made were in pickup games of sandlot baseball where we'd get the neighborhood kids together.
In the last basketball game of my eighth grade year, my coach was telling the other boys "Pass to Kellum, we have to get him to make a basket." I came close one time, I caught one, dribbled in close and shot, but it tipped off the rim and the other team got the ball.
I've never been bitter or sad about the fact that I didn't make any points for my teams. I realize I was sort of an unathletic nerd who was way more interested in reading about astronomy or peering through a microscope than I was in learning how to kick like Pele or run like Dorsett. But I've obviously never forgotten.
As I get ready to bat, my mind goes back to the batting cages yesterday. Em was showing me how to improve my stance, to shift weight from the back to the front. I shift my weight onto my left leg experimentally and instantly wish I had not.
I think back to what my teammate Sherry once told me: "most of these people can't pitch." Even with the talented team we are up against, I decide I better not swing the bat and I stand my ground as the first pitch soars past me. The second one is coming my way and I start to swing, realizing too late it is a bad pitch. A sloppy strike.
Another pitch is far too distant from me and I let it go. "Full count" the umpire says. I can't let the pressure get me. My leg is beginning to scream. Somewhere my brain wants me to just get out and go back to the dugout.
My team captain, Dennis, calls out, "Good eye, make 'em pitch to you." It looks like a good one, but I stand back and let it pass, almost disdainfully, as if to say "You expect me to swing at that?"
"Take your base," the ump cries and I am off and jogging, bad leg and all. In slow-pitch coed softball, that means I go to second. A friend takes the bat from me as I trot past, adrenaline coursing through my veins—I head for second base.
I guess it was around February of this year when my buddy Dennis asked me what I thought about our workplace starting a softball team. It seemed a bit far-fetched, I never thought we'd get enough interest, but the idea of playing a sport, hanging with my co-workers, and having a good time...I liked it. I told him to count me in.
Soon, I was helping him write up a petition for the bosses. When the owner of our clinic, Brendan, saw our petition he was thrilled. "You can be the Massaginators!" he reportedly said.
We had interest, and a name!
I stand on second, rocking, ready to run. I try not to say aloud "Oh man, I am here again, it's that dream all over again." I look around. My friend Julie is stepping up to the plate. I try to control my breathing. Jogging to second base isn't that much exercise, but the bad leg and the excitement are getting to me. I'm trying not to hyperventilate.
I snap my eyes toward Frank, my base coach. I actually have to tell myself to run toward him...I'd die of embarrassment if I ran wide of the base or something. Watch Frank...watch Frank.
Julie hits the ball. Time to run...
I can't feel the bad leg...guess it's the adrenaline. Frank is holding up his hands. "Stop stop stop!" he calls.
I oblige, camping there on third base, pulse hammering in my ears.
After we got official sanction to start our team, I went and bought a glove, a bat, some softballs. I bought two books and read them (it's what I do when I take up something new). I watched videos on YouTube of supposedly famous people showing how to bat, slide, throw, and catch. I wasn't very good, really. I went to practice twice a week with Dennis and the gang. My girlfriend, Jen, trained to be our pitcher.
Meanwhile, I helped Dennis sort out the paperwork for the new team. Before long, I was "team administrator." Keeping track of the minutiae is the least an unathletic nerd can do to help.
Dennis, Emily, and my other experienced friends coached me, giving me pointers and tips. I learned about batting stance, how to catch, how to throw. I spent endless hours in the back yard, throwing softballs at the pole that supports our old washing line.
I'm still not very good, but I am getting better. And I'm having a great time doing it.
I am on third base. All I can hear is the pounding of my heart. The third baseman tries to make a joke...I can't hear him. Blake is stepping up to the plate. Everything is going so slowly. I control my breathing and try to stretch my bad leg.
Frank is saying "Don't move until I say so."
I try to say something like "I hear you." Not sure if it came out.
The pitch arcs toward home plate. I study the imperfections in the chalk line from third to home. The bat swings through the air. I breathe. The familiar clang of bat on softball.
I turn to Frank. He's watching the ball. Hours seem to pass, then "Go! Go! Go!"
My legs churn, tearing up the space between third and home. I'm limping but I won't stop moving.
Someone in a red jersey moves toward me. I expect to be tagged out. He ducks out of my way. Something in my brain registers that he doesn't have the ball.
Home plate is getting closer. It's just like that dream. I'm really going to do it, I'm really going to cross the plate.
I hit the plate, gasping for breath...My brain registers that it seemed a tiny bit anticlimactic. Some distant thought: "Did I do it? Did we get the point?"
I didn't play in the first game of the season. I was in full manager mode, making sure everyone knew the batting order, double checking and making sure the paperwork was right, taking about a hundred pictures. I was okay with that. I didn't feel ready to play.
Tonight, in the early part of the game, Dennis got hurt. When he got to the dugout he was limping badly. "You have to sub for me." He was almost up to bat—now there's a classic scenario. No pressure here!
I informed the umpire I was subbing for Dennis and went out to bat. I remembered not to swing unless I was sure the pitch was perfect. I got walked and wound up on second, my first time there and my first time to fight back the panic.
On third I was ready to sprint for home. I did some sprinting in high school. That was a long time ago, bodies change over the years. Two steps from the bag and my lower left leg exploded in pain. I tried to hobble onwards, but was almost instantly tagged out.
I thought maybe it was just a cramp. My colleague and friend, Rena, helped me by massaging it. I had to limp onto the field several times to take Dennis' spot in the outfield. It was punishing.
Then I was at bat again.
The dugout explodes with my friends whooping, yelling, calling out my name and my nickname (they call me "Mad Dog" because of the way I throw caution to the wind, diving after stray hits). People are smiling, slapping my back, high fiving me. I am stunned. The whole thing is very dream-like. I sit down and drink an entire bottle of water.
So THAT'S what it feels like to cross the plate.
In the end, the Massaginators played hard, but we still didn't win. And yet, I still felt as if I won a sort of a personal victory.