It was so hot!
I had clearly never been a creature in the desert, but I imagined that the sensations I felt that day had to at least be similar. The heat was thick, sticky and tangible. When you stretched your arm out you felt this hot invisible wall that seemingly pushed back against you. I looked up at the sun overhead, but not directly into it because I knew better. I didn’t want to be one of those people who actually burned out his retina by staring into the bright ball of fire. I bent down to adjust my shin guards because the straps had been digging into calves. For the last three innings I’d been adjusting a half inch here…a quarter inch there…just to get comfortable when I positioned myself behind the plate.
I hated other people wearing my equipment!
My chest protector felt a little loose too, but I think at that point I was just frustrated from the heat and the shin guard issues. What I really needed was for the inning to end. I was due to bat 3rd in the bottom of the thing and I wasn’t so much looking forward to that as I was looking forward to the reprieve I’d get from carrying the extra weight. The gap in the game seemed to take forever. My mask was off, but with the helmet on, my head bathed in the sauna it created. I suspected the infield dirt was collaborating with the sweat that fell from my brow. I imagined my face looked much like a Picasso with paint dripping in streaks. Any attempt to wipe it away would only end in some new pattern thus turning my Picasso into a Rorschach.
Finally, the umpire had had enough and moved the opposing team into action. You’d think that would have happened sooner. He has been wearing just as much equipment as I was…and had at least an extra 75 pounds. Other than me, he’s the one person I thought would benefit from a faster paced game…and he had the power to make that happen. At least to some degree. I straightened my equipment, placed the straps of my mask to the back of my helmet and pulled the face down. I always felt like Iron Man at this moment. Of course, he was rich and spoiled and had an internal AC unit built in to his suit.
I had little metal crossbars spaced out just enough to keep a ball or bat from slamming into my face.
I squatted down as the batter walked up to the plate. I rested my elbows on my knees and surveyed the field. Two outs with a man on first and my counterpart at the plate. He batted 9th, but he was unpredictable. He could hit for the cycle one day and go 0 for 4 the very next. In many respects…he was a lot like me. Two days prior I walked back to the bench 3 times…each after watching the last pitch sail through the strike zone into the waiting glove of the catcher. During this game though, I had 2 doubles and a triple and trust me when I say that triple was no easy feet. Speed and I were flip sides of two very different coins.
With one foot in the batter’s box and one foot out, my counterpart took a peek behind him toward his third base coach for his signs. A swipe of the belt, a swipe on each arm, a tug of the right ear and a swipe across the chest, followed by the inevitable three claps and a cry of, “Let’s get at it”. As he swung his left leg into the batter’s box and began his phantom swings, I took a quick peek toward first base. The center fielder was taking liberties as he stepped off the bag toward second. A swipe of the belt, a swipe on each arm, a tug of the right ear and a swipe across the chest…it was a steal. The right ear tug was the indicator, the chest swipe was the steal sign. The center fielder dug in as I slid my right hand down to flash signs to my battery mate. Four simple gestures with a fist for a pitch out. This inning was going to end…soon. After a nod in agreement, I settled in and waited. From the stretch my battery mate prepared to deliver the pitch and just as his left leg left the ground the center fielder took off. I moved to the right and stood in one fluid motion to catch the deliberately errant pitch so I could go to work.
As soon as the ball left my hand…I knew.
I think I knew from the first inning. I knew that everything was just going to work out that day. I was not typically a cocky ball player. I was actually very mediocre when it came down to it. But that day…that day…I was the love child of Yogi Berra and Ivan Rodriguez. My battery mate ducked as the ball sailed overhead. The arc of the ball was perfect. I watched the second basement move swiftly into position, arriving at the same time as the ball which landed perfectly into his gloved hand near the ground…directly ahead of the center fielders outstretched left leg.
All of them at least 8 inches from the bag.
God how I miss those days!