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VERY FIRST PERSON

Sanctuary

Amid an Uncertain Transition to and Through Adulthood, the Batting Cage Proves an All-Purpose Touchstone

July 11, 1999|STEVE SALERNO | Steve Salerno teaches magazine journalism at Indiana University

The Glendale pitching machine is throwing a tad inside today, maybe two or three inches closer to my hands than on my last West Coast swing a month ago. Still, I find this particular fast cage preferable to the one in Torrance, or the old standby on Western Avenue. In truth, the Glendale cage most reminds me of the fast machine at a place just outside River Oaks in Houston: not quite as quick, say, as the super-fast cage in Elmsford, N.Y. (where you must sign a release before stepping in to hit each time), but--like the one in Jupiter, Fla.--pleasantly erratic. More of a challenge.

I know these machines, their habits and idiosyncrasies, as well as I know their physical locations and the best way to reach them from their respective local airports. I can drive the various routes as if on autopilot, making the sequence of turns unthinkingly, in much the same way that I can take my batting stance in any given cage and end up within a half-inch of where I stand in any other given cage, at any other given time.

I have lived my life in America's batting cages.

The roots of this phenomenon are dug deep in an otherwise normal Saturday in Brooklyn, a fortnight shy of the birthday that would make me a teenager. In weeks prior my father had been trying to ease my introduction to baseball, a task monumentally complicated by the fact that I was clumsy and fat. ("Husky," my mother liked to say, but no one was fooled, least of all girls my age, who took great delight in shunning me.) Athletically I was about what you'd expect in the above package: always the penultimate pick in games during gym, right before the kid who was so husky that he could barely squeeze his rump into a single seat on the school bus.

Which brings us to that fateful weekend, and the Bat-Away.

While I ambled to and fro, wondering what about this ramshackle establishment could inspire the awe I heard in the voices of my more sports-minded classmates, my father hefted several of the dozen bats lined up against the change booth. He deemed one appropriate and nudged me into the third cage out of seven. Hung haphazardly on the chain-link door was a rust-edged, license-plate-like sign: WHITEY FORD, 50 MPH.

I knew the name. I knew that few guys in the majors could hit Whitey Ford. It seemed doubtful that I'd fare any better, and I told Dad as much.

"Just follow the pitch all the way in," he soothed, clinking a quarter into the coin box. Fifty feet in front of me, a yellow light flickered on; the belts behind the blue mechanical arm began whirring. "Throw the barrel of the bat at the ball," Dad continued, "when it reaches you."

Now a green light blinked on. The mechanical arm made a lazy, lulling ascent to its zenith, like an azure-hued cobra cradling a large white egg in its mouth. Then the cobra/arm snapped down and spat the ball toward me.

The suddenness of the act caught me flat-footed. I was afraid I'd waited too long to swing. Lo and behold, I reacted at the last instant, and a second later an exquisite sensation flooded my forearms: at once solid and hollow, hard and soft, violent and becalming.

The ball leaped off my bat on a low line and punched into the mesh enshrouding the arm. Astonished, I glanced back at my father, who fought the mirth that tugged at the corners of his solemn expression. "Pay attention," he said firmly. "One hit doesn't make you Mickey Mantle."

But I sent the next pitch arcing high over the mesh to where deep centerfield would be. Again I turned and smiled. This time Dad smiled back.

I had found something I could do.

From that first experience of "the feel of nothing," Ted Williams' haunting phrase for that sublime physical awareness of perfect union between bat and ball, I was hooked. Amid the ebb and flow of my uncertain transition to and through adulthood, the cages became the lone constant and my all-purpose touchstone. They were sanctuary and whipping boy rolled into one.

I spent way too much time there those first few years. School was skipped, homework left undone. (It's not like I had my choice of parties to go to, anyway, social leper that I was.) Financing this obsession with diverted lunch money, I took the measure, in turn, of "Juan Marichal" (65 mph), "Don Drysdale" (75), "Sandy Koufax" (85), and, finally "Bob Feller," at 95 mph billed as "The World's Fastest Pitching Machine." I acquired an entourage that would part like something out of "The Ten Commandments" as I swaggered toward that storied last machine on the right, then jockey for position against the chain links while I smacked line drives to the far reaches of the heavy netting. At the cages, if nowhere else, I was accepted.

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