As I said in my 2013 MLB Preview, I have a deep and abiding love for the game of baseball, but the sad reality is that I was never much of an athlete, nor much good at the game. I taught myself to pitch through hours of obsessively throwing a ball against the side of my parents’ house, and to this day I can still get pretty good movement on a sinker or a cutter, but I could never blow up a radar gun like Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn. I was a pudgy kid, and in the early days I got stuck at catcher when I wasn’t pitching. I did learn the nuances of the position, but the day my coach found another kid to catch was one of the happier days of little league for me. (Don’t judge me until you take a foul-tip off the collarbone.) I ended up playing a fair amount at second and third base, and while I became passable at the positions, I was never anything special. And I could never hit much.
Which is all to say that even though I loved the game, my baseball career petered out sometime in middle school. I wasn’t that sad about it. I found other games to play, and I still attended dozens of Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants games every year. In college—I was much skinnier by now, though sadly not all that much taller than I’d been in middle school (We’re talking five-foot-nine and a buck-forty, soaking wet)—I played intramural softball, and I eventually became a baseball beat writer for my school’s daily paper. It was a pretty sweet gig. The games were always during the day, and I went to school at UC Santa Barbara, where the weather is basically always perfect, and I’d sit in the stands (or occasionally chill back behind the outfield fence where I could drink beer), watch a ballgame, and afterwards conduct a couple of short interviews, dash off a quick game recap, and go to the beach.
During every home game, the UCSB athletic department ran a number of giveaways, contests, and raffles. One of these was a challenge to see if one lucky contestant, picked at random based on the number of his or her ticket, could hit a home run off of a tee placed in the outfield grass just beyond the infield dirt, roughly in line with where the shortstop would take his position. This doesn’t sound hard, but I’d say less than a third of the people I saw attempt it actually succeeded (if you went yard, you won a gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse). Some of the failed swings were as amusing for the crowd as I’m sure they were traumatic for the batters.
Anyway, during one game during my final semester working for the paper, I was sitting near an older couple, I’d say in their fifties, and the woman was holding the ticket number that the stadium announcer called. Oh no, she cried, and looked frantically around her. I was the nearest young guy, and she handed me the ticket. Here. You do it.
I looked up at the announcer’s booth, held up the ticket questioningly. He laughed and introduced me: Today’s contestant, The Daily Nexus. I walked down to the field, where a pretty girl who was some kind of athletic department assistant had set up the tee. She handed me the bat, wished me luck. I took a practice swing, then stepped up to the tee, measuring the proper distance to get the barrel of the bat to the ball.
You might think I was nervous from all the people watching me take the swing—I think that’s why a lot of people whiff so badly—but I was actually calm, perhaps if only because I felt a bit out-of-body. I took a breath, got in my crouched batting stance, measured the stroke one more time, and swung.
Like I said, I was never much of a hitter, even back in little league. But anyone who ever played baseball knows the feeling of good contact, when the bat makes the right sound, when you feel hardly any vibration in your hands, when every bit of force is channeled through the sweet spot of the bat and into the ball.
The ball soared off the tee and over the left-centerfield fence, a perfect arcing bomb of a home run that crashed high into the trees outside Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. I doubt it would have cleared the fence if the tee had been set up at home plate (remember, I weighed 140 pounds), but the girl who set up the tee told me it was the farthest she’d ever seen a contestant hit a ball. The crowd applauded, I got my gift certificate, and as I walked past the home dugout, several of the players called out, nice swing. I told the team, Look out boys, I’m walking on next year.
I returned to my seat in the stands, all smiles, and I offered the woman with the winning ticket the gift certificate. I mean, I’d gotten the hit, but it had been her ticket. She shook her head and said, Oh no, you take it. You look like you could use a good meal.
Sigh. Even in the greatest moment of my baseball career, I still got punked.