Sometimes the best birthday presents come from the least expected places.
Sunday, the best birthday present came from the opposite field.
My party on Saturday was a smashing success. I had friends in from far and wide – we drank and ate and made merry. My best friend Maggie’s parents showed up late in the night, after attending a Gordon Lightfoot concert. They were in fine form and demanded dancing music while her father sipped a vodka-redbull and her mother downed white wine and told us about her old “tequila days”. Sal bought cakes from the best bakery in Portland and the crowd delivered a well-lubricated version of “Happy Birthday” in the light of thirty blazing candles.
It went well.
I went to sleep, woke up, ate a helluva a hangover breakfast, drank two killer bloody marys, and then remembered I had batting practice that evening.
I was tired, drained, and anything but motivated, but I gathered up my gear and headed south down I-5 to meet a small group from the team. It wasn’t an official practice, just a mellow gathering to get a few cuts in. Jerry called me repeatedly to be sure that I was going to be there.
It’s no secret that I need batting practice like no tomorrow. Going 0-fer Saturday in a two-day tournament is pretty rough on the morale.
When we finally got rolling, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a typical batting practice where you take your 12-15 cuts and then go shag balls while someone else comes in.
This batting practice was about me.
Sure, the others were going to get to swing the bat a few times, but Jerry kept me at the plate through the whole practice, talking me through positioning in the box, strategies for different baserunner and out scenarios, and making me watch the old pros do what they do best.
As Tracey came up to the plate I decided to call a spade a spade: “Watch and learn, little one…. Watch and learn.”
She snickered and roped a ball to shallow left.
Watch and learn. Watch and learn.
She snickered again and roped a ball to shallow right.
There were a few humbling moments where the reality of what was going on really set in. I was getting schooled. Literally. Jerry was teaching me to be a better batter, and he was using the best that he had to show me how its really done. I was flattered and humbled at once.
I’ve always been a coach’s player. I take direction. I follow orders. I go 110%. I’m a freaking teacher’s pet. So I know how to do this. I know how to sit back and listen – I can realize when I am about to learn something important. I can realized when I need to really focus, concentrate, listen to what I’m being told, and then figure out how to translate it into execution.
So that’s what I did.
And an amazing thing happened – I started hitting opposite field.
I’ve always been a pull hitter. Even in fastpitch. Third base line, 5-6 gap, shallow left, left-field line, whatever. I’ve only hit to the right side of center a handful of times, and I’ve never done it in slowpitch. Ever.
There was a huge gap that occurred as I graduated from college and was forced to transition from fastpitch to slowpitch. I didn’t immediately fine a slowpitch team with and actual coach, so I just tried to figure out how to hit on my own. How hard can this be? The ball is floating toward me like a dream.
Newsflash. It’s harder than you think. Last year I took an athletic friend with me to the batting cages and ended up schooling him silly. He was fairly dejected about it but my point to him was – this is a skill. This is something you have to practice and learn. You can’t just get up and try to muscle it out. You’re going to hit flies if you do that. And if you hit flies, you’re going to be out.
So I never really learned how to hit a slowpitch properly, I just kind of adapted what I knew from fastpitch and tried to make it work. It was effective enough to get me through several decent seasons, but I’ve never been a great hitter – and I’ve certainly never been able to go opposite field.
And then 4 women from my team show up at a field on the day after my 30th birthday and let me hit until my head spins. CD throws up pitch after pitch after pitch with the sun in her eyes and me driving balls straight back up the pipe at her. Cheryl and PeeWee alternately shag balls and provide two insanely solid examples at the plate.
PeeWee talks me through frustration when things aren’t working. Jerry coaches, coaches and then coaches some more.
And somewhere, somehow through their patience, diligence and generosity, the 10-batter starts to get it. I start to drive the ball the way I should be. And I discover that I do, actually, like a deep outside pitch for the purpose of roping to the right side.
It’s a miracle. It’s a goddam softball miracle.
And in the midst of the euphoria I am beginning to feel at having just learned how to do something that will crank my game up at least 5 notches, I start to get another feeling. The tingly, stupid jock feeling that I get when teams come together for a greater good. When the sum is only as great as every single one of its parts, and every person rallies to make sure that the sum is the absolute best that it can be.
This is the essence of team sports. There is a chemistry and a commitment in good teams that transcends the individual effort and the individual experience. This is what I will never get from running 5ks or half marathons. This is what I’ll never get from boot camp. This is what I will never get from yoga.
This commitment. That love. That 4 women would give up a Sunday evening to make me better. That a little round man would call me 5 times to make sure that I was coming. That he would lecture me at the plate until his voice was sore. That his hands would wave uncontrollably as he made an important point just because it mattered that much to him that I learn and grow and get better.
When I say I love my softball team, it’s not just that I love them individually, that I love who each of them is individually – it’s that I love who we are together. What we create when we play the game together. What happens when we take the field. I love the entity of us and I realize exactly how lucky I am to be a part of a greater whole that is just that amazing.
I love that they blindside me with the best 30th birthday present I can imagine. That they came together and gave me the opposite field, and they didn’t even know they were doing it.
Consider this a thank you note, ladies.
Like I always say, Game On.