Back to Playing Baseball

Remember Chuy, the dude who owns the car wash/batting cage me and Lucas practice at? He plays on a team in a serious amateur league, and I got a call from him last Friday night asking (actually more like begging) me to fill in for their shortstop the next day. It was a playoff game, and the regular shortstop’s wife had literally just had a baby that night. I said sure, dug out my baseball glove and cleats and lucky sunglasses and a couple bats and headed over the next day to the park where the game was taking place. It was a field with way bigger stands than where we play at Brookside…and there were people to fill them. It clearly was a big game.

The name of the team was Los Cervezeros. I reckoned that had something to do with cerveza…so I had a feeling I was gonna feel right at home lol. Chuy found a jersey that fit my shoulders but hung around the rest of me like a nightgown, stuck a cap on my head – and there I was, ready to play baseball for the first time since I moved to California.

That was cool. What was crazy is that nobody on the team except Chuy spoke any English. I played with a 2nd baseman in Hickory who only spoke Spanish, but even that didn’t help me, since it turns out that Dominican Spanish and Mexican Spanish aren’t the same thing. And this time it wasn’t just the 2nd baseman I couldn’t talk to, it was everybody except Chuy…and he was off in right field and not much use as a translator in the infield.

You can also imagine how sillyass I must have looked surrounded by a couple dozen Mexican dudes.

What’s the Spanish for “ringer” lol?

Since Chuy couldn’t be my full-time translator, we had to do a lot by sign language. Like use fingers to tell me where I went in the batting order (Chuy must have said good things about me, since they had me batting 3rd.) They kept track of the game in Spanish, and the umpires were speaking Spanish, so it really was kinda crazyass. (New word for the day: fuera, which pretty obviously meant out.) I understood what I was looking at, but I couldn’t understand anything I was hearing. I can understand a little Spanish, and, like I said, I lived with a Dominican ball player when I was in Hickory, but, dang, Mexican dudes talk fast, and there was no way I was going to get anything they were saying to each other.

I gotta admit I made not one but two stupidass throwing errors in the 1st, but, ok, I was probably rusty. Except for my sessions with Lucas, I’ve only been handling softballs since I got to California, and there’s a big difference between throwing a softball to 1st and throwing a baseball across the diamond. I got back in my groove after that, though. Although there was nothing for my highlight reel, I made a couple good catches, handled my ground balls like I should have…and, come to think of it, maybe that cool 4-6-3 double play we turned in the 5th (I practically slid into 2nd) deserved to be on Quick Pitch lol.

And let me tell you something: those guys are good. Both teams. This wasn’t just another recreational league…this was a bunch of Mexican dudes who could seriously play.

And the best player on the field was the opposing team’s pitcher.

So y’all can picture it: ex-pro ringer shows up at the plate batting 3rd…and strikes out looking. (I could hear my high school coach letting me have it.) I was the third punch-out in as many batters, so it could have been worse. Only I couldn’t use the excuse that I was out of practice hitting like I was at throwing: with all the time me and Lucas spent at Chuy’s batting cages, I’ve hit more baseballs than softballs this year.

Lucky for us, we had a good pitcher too, and him, combined with really good fielding, kept the score 0-0 through 6 innings. I reckon we were better in the field, but their pitcher had the edge on ours, so it balanced out. But no matter how good your pitcher is, you can’t win a baseball game if you don’t score, and we weren’t backing up our pitcher like we should have. I wasn’t helping: I flied out in my 2nd AB, and we barely got 2 guys on base in those 6 innings.

My 3rd time up came in the bottom of the 7th, and I said to myself, fuck this, I don’t care how good that motherfucker on the mound is…I was brought in to help win a ballgame, and I wasn’t going to let those guys down. Even if I couldn’t talk to them. So I got a new piece of bubble gum in my mouth, picked up a bat, and got into the box.

I took a deep breath…and almost swung myself out of my shoes on the first pitch. 0 and 1. I reckon the deep breath wasn’t deep enough lol. Next pitch was a slider for a strike. I missed it, but at least I took a swing at it. 0 and 2. That motherfucker on the mound almost never threw balls, so I was surprised when the next pitch was way outside and up. 1 and 2.

The next part is like a movie. I took another deep breath (really deep this time), told myself I wasn’t gonna let that motherfucker strike me out if it was the last thing I did, and reminded myself of the two basic Sumter Henderson rules of hitting. Rule One was wait for the meatball. Even Clayton Kershaw throws ‘em once in a while, so, with patience and a little luck, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a pitch you can hit. It doesn’t always work – if the pitcher throws three strikes while you’re waiting for a meatball, you’re out.

Sumter had another big rule: when it doubt, shorten your swing. I know it’s not something he invented (he didn’t invent the meatball rule, either…but you’d be surprised how many players don’t remember it), but it’s helped me in a lot of key situations. There are times I’ve shortened up on first pitches, and it works a lot of the time. So I shortened up on this dude. He didn’t exactly throw me a meatball over the middle of the plate, but he threw me a hittable pitch.

Ok…maybe I only thought I shortened up.

Since I smoked the fuckin thing.

It felt like the hardest I’d ever hit a ball in my life…and it was gone way, way over the outfielders’ heads.

In a weekend in which Los Doyers hit walk-off jonrones in three straight games, Hunter Block got a walk-off jonron of his own. Los Monstruos beat Los Dragones 1-0.

They didn’t have Gatorade, but they did have coolers of ice water in the dugouts. And I understood the shower I got a lot better than I understood all the Spanish things my teammates were saying at me.

In addition to being fuckin proud of myself, I was also glad that I didn’t disgrace Chuy for bringing me in in the first place. Chuy’s an awesome dude, and I did him a big favor earlier this year, but just because I ran his car wash for him one night doesn’t mean that he owed me anything. If anything, I owed him for giving me the chance to play with his team.

Oh yeah: I’ve got a new nickname. They were having trouble pronouncing my name, so Chuy translated it into Spanish: el cazador. Better be called that than el guapo.

In addition to that near slide into 2nd on the double play, I made some catches in the dirt, so I was pretty sweaty and dirty after the game, although the ice water shower cooled me down some. The guys came up with a cooler of cerveza (there’s a Spanish word I know lol) and I had one before I got in my car to drive home. I felt dang good, and not just because of the beer. Then I realized what it was: I played a game of baseball for the first time in a long time. I proved that I could still do it, but, more than that, I realized how much I still love the game. I may not have made it as a pro, but I got to know that I was still a ball player, and a pretty good one. Putting aside what the Dodgers did last weekend, you don’t hit walk-off home runs every day.

So it was a dang cool afternoon. Later on, Chuy called me to thank me, and I told him that I was available if he ever needed me again. I hope I sounded as eager as I felt. Don’t get me wrong: I love playing with the Parrots and those guys are some of my best friends. But what the baseball game Saturday made me realize is that there’s no substitute for the real thing.


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