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One Last Pitch, Because You Can

October 23, 2003|Pat Jordan | Pat Jordan's comeback story, "A Nice Tuesday" (St. Martin's Press), was published in 1999. His novel "a.k.a. Sheila Weinstein" (Carroll & Graf) was released in September.

The Yankees may be dominating the World Series, but even their taciturn manager, my old teammate in 1960, Joe Torre, admits that the real postseason story is Jack McKeon, the Marlins' 72-year-old manager. McKeon is a cigar-smoking baseball retread who was hired out of retirement in North Carolina to manage the Marlins, which turned into that rarest of all opportunities for an old man -- a comeback.

McKeon laughs amid the AARP jokes and cracks about "victories for the ages," but he's mostly grateful for what we'd all relish in life, a late-inning encore, "the experience of a lifetime," he told one reporter. "I highly recommend it." And I know exactly how he feels.

Six years ago, when I was 56, I got a second chance in the game. I had pitched in the minor leagues, with the Milwaukee Braves organization, from 1959 to 1962, and when I left baseball -- the phrase I always use, although to be honest, baseball left me -- I lost what defined me. I turned into a writer, but that was something I did. Pitching was what I was.

When I made my "comeback," my 58-year-old wife, Susan, and I lived with six dogs and one parakeet in a neat little bungalow in Ft. Lauderdale. We woke to the sun, read the papers, went to the gym to lift weights for an hour, came home, worked at our desks until 2, went to the grocery for pork chops and a can of peas, came home, had our afternoon cocktails, ate dinner, fed the dogs and fell asleep before 9 p.m.

We were becoming just like the old people all around us. It's funny. All your life you look at old people and wonder why they live the lives they do. Suddenly, you see yourself living the same life. With one difference: You aren't wondering why.

And then I made a deal with a minor league owner -- I'd get a chance to pitch again if I could get in shape. So for 32 weeks, before afternoon cocktails, I jogged over to a baseball diamond near our house with a bag of baseballs and threw against the home plate screen.

At dinnertime, Susan and I had something new to talk about. I explained the intricacies of a pitcher's motion, the trajectory of a slider. She feigned interest. But it didn't matter. I was obsessed -- over one last inning. I was set to pitch for the Waterbury (Conn.) Spirit, in the Northeast League, in early August of 1998. It was only a few miles north of my hometown, Fairfield, where I had had my earliest baseball successes.

Coming back wasn't easy. A week before the game I sprained my knee when I slipped on a wet mound after a rainstorm. I arrived in Westbury wearing a knee brace. And the night before, I had to survive the thing I couldn't train for. While Susan slept beside me in the hotel, I began to feel the fear -- in great waves, on me like a pack of predators looking for something to devour. I tried to fight it. It was one game. What did it matter if I failed? I was an old man, a writer, not a pitcher.

But fear can be intellectualized only when it comes to someone else. I saw myself, white-bearded, standing on the mound, helpless, as batter after batter ripped my pathetic slider off the outfield wall. Or worse. One wild pitch after another. Walk after walk. The fans growing restless, then angry, then derisive, laughing finally at the guy who thought he could touch not even what he once had but what he never had in his youthful career -- glory.

If you've been booed on the playing field, it changes you. Nothing in life will ever be as fearful. I wasn't afraid of failing as a writer. That was private. But I was going to put myself in public jeopardy. Nothing inures you to the fear of that failure.

So why was I doing it? Not, as my friends thought, because I wanted to recapture my youth or overcome my frustration at a failed baseball career. I was going to pitch for the same reason Susan still wore her bikini at the beach. Because I could.

We knew we were becoming more old than young. With one hand we held on to strength and beauty, our bikinis and fastballs. With the other, we reached out to beckoning old age. We didn't fear losing the former or embracing the latter. (Susan made me promise that when I looked at her in her bikini and saw the sagging flesh of a foolish old woman, I would make her stop.) Getting old was the natural order. But we weren't there yet.

And so I pitched my one inning back in the minor leagues.

I got the first batter to hit a weak groundball to the shortstop for the first out. I walked the second batter, and the third batter hit another weak grounder, to my first baseman for out number two. And then I struck out the cleanup hitter on a devastating slider as good as any I had ever thrown in my life.

I can still see that slider, breaking away from the batter's swing, as I sit here now, typing these words.

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