It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon — the day before Father’s Day — and I’m standing at home plate at Fenway Park, readying to hit, gazing out at the Green Monster.
Yes, this is the kind of thing that if, at age 12, I’d been told was a certainty in my life, my jaw would have dropped and I’d have said “No way!’ or something like that. Of course, back then I would have imagined I’d be playing shortstop or third base for the Red Sox.
In reality, my baseball-playing days ended in 1974 as a senior in high school. I played first and third base for the Orono High School Red Riots. We were the Class B Maine state runners-up my senior year, and I was a line drive/hard ground ball kind of hitter.
On Saturday, I became that batter again. Sort of.
Batting practice at Fenway is one of the perks of being an annual Red Sox season ticket holder. It's not a full session, mind you and not against a former Red Sox pitcher brought back to delight the fans (that’s Fantasy Camp in January at the Sox spring training in Ft. Myers, Florida). You get 10 swings from a sometimes and sometimes-not well-calibrated pitching machine.
A Fenway employee holds the ball above his head, makes eye contact with you and feeds the ball into the slot. From there, it shoots out at you like a (slow) cannon. There’s no arm motion — human or mechanical — to help your timing.
I’ve been a season ticket holder for more than a quarter-century and have participated in the batting practice event since it began eight years ago. I’ve had good years of solid contact and bad years of swings, misses and nicked foul balls.
When I proposed this story to my Cognoscenti editor — neither of us knowing what the results of the day would be, of course — she wished me well and mentioned “dingers.” I replied “dingers” weren’t on the menu. Even the college baseball guys in their 20s rarely hit the Green Monster, and I’ve never seen anyone hit over it. Me? I'd be very happy with a few hard drives into the outfield.
I’ve had good years of solid contact and bad years of swings, misses and nicked foul balls.
Lest this sound overly idyllic, there’s not much Fenway romance in this activity. No real chance to step back, breathe deep and take it all in. There’s a lot of people to get through and this is an assembly-line process. Even including the time I spent getting settled in the batting cage and kicking away the baseballs that had gathered around home plate, I couldn’t have been batting for much more than a minute.
There’s a prescribed path to and from the mesh batting cage. You’re waiting in line with other anxious, nervous hitters — boys, girls, men, women — watching how the other batters are faring and trying to time pitches. You’re exchanging pleasantries, baseball histories and best wishes.
As your turn approaches, you select a helmet and choose from eight or so bats of varying lengths and weights. (I picked a 33-inch, 30-ounce model.) Once your name is called over the PA, you enter the cage and stand on a rubber mat painted with batter’s box lines and a home plate. And while you may be looking out to a field of green, tarps cover the infield area — that’s precious dirt and the Red Sox don’t want anyone stirring it up.
As my name was announced and my image flashed on the big video screen in centerfield, the crowd roared. All right, that’s a lie; no one really cared. But there was a certain camaraderie among us wannabe hitters. And my wife Roza did yell “Sully!” my old nickname, from outside the roped off area.
First pitch: Chest high. I sting a rising line drive to left field or as the Fenway attendant shooting the video spontaneously exclaimed, “A rope!” It would’ve been a base hit in any league, and certainly in the fantasy baseball game playing in my head. It wasn’t the crack of the (old wooden) bat exactly, but something between pong and phwack, the sound a baseball makes off an aluminum bat. But in my head, it was a kee-rack! The endorphins rushed to the front of my brain. I was back in 1974. The runners on the bases were in motion, the fielders were scrambling to get to the ball.
I’ve learned a few things over the years: Stretching out, taking warm up swings and concentrating is very important on my end. Calibration of the machine is very important for the Sox staff. The bad years happen when the machine shoots out slow (45-50 mph) pitches, which tend to have a 12-to-six loop, often landing low and outside. Those years, I wait, hesitate, hitch, inevitably stride too soon — and lunge.
This year, was a good year. The machine fired 60 mph fast-balls (semi-fastballs?) straight, nearly all over the plate, at different heights.
I scorched about four other “hits” in my imaginative world — hard-hit ground balls between the third base line and my mythical third basemen, and between my mythical third baseman and mythical shortstop.
If pressed, I might concede stellar defensive plays could’ve thrown me out. But don’t press me. I exited the cage with a contact high, a springboard to a very good day.