I was sitting there trying to figure out if we were quarantined, isolating, locked down, or just sheltering in place when a sad thought entered my head. It was Opening Day. The boys of summer should have left spring training to play ball in the great stadiums of America. The box scores were supposed to return to the sports sections, like the leaves to the trees and the swallows to San Juan Capistrano.
Spring has sprung, leaves are leafing, and I think the swallows are doing their thing. But baseball and box scores are AWOL. To some, spring means cleaning, courtship, or crocuses. To the baseball addict, though, spring is the end of that dark, languid void of silent suffering between October and April. Not this year. This year, baseball fans are sitting around wondering how to abide the extended abyss.
So I asked some of my baseball faithful from Bonac to Brooklyn how they cope with the deprivation of the winter months, thinking some of those strategies could be pressed into service this spring.
My buddy Phil likes to go into the woods with a bow and some arrows to put, as he says, “the fear of God, but not much else, into the East End deer population.” That won’t work; deer season is over. Then there’s my old teammate who spends the wintertide scuba diving. “Nothing helps you forget baseball like the pageantry of a coral reef or the panic of a whitetip sighting,” he says. He’s at work on a collection of essays with the working title “Effective Use of Spotlight and Speargun in Pitching With the Bases Loaded.” Interesting, but again, not helpful.
I’ll cop to my own annual winter coping style: As I walk the halls of my office, or even the streets, I imagine a ground ball coming to me. If no one’s there, I actually field it and make the throw across to first. But don’t try to catch me at this; I don’t do it when people are around. If someone’s watching, I let the ball go right by me.
I was fielding one of those grounders at home when it hit me — the antidote for the baseball blues. My daughter’s boyfriend, who is isolating in our pod, is a baseball guy. I’m pushing 60, but I played all my life until about 10 years ago. We’re gonna grab bats, balls, and gloves from the garage, head over to Herrick Park, and hit ’em out. For the virus, we’d take batting gloves, avoid face touching, and hit the showers on our return.
The idea got traction, and pretty soon we were in the truck barreling down Three Mile Harbor Road wearing Mets and Yankees caps.
With puddles on the main field, we crossed over to the far one. We started by just having a catch. Even that was enough to trigger some baseball endorphins. It was like throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
Soon, I was testing out the curveball (all hangers) and a screwball (less of a pitch and more of a heroic fielding opportunity). I had him stand in while I threw a few over the plate. He crushed them, so I dialed up the velocity. But its only effect was that his shots got closer and closer to the gazebo.
I’d had enough of pitcher’s whiplash and sent him to the outfield to shag some flies. After a few fungo whiffs, followed by some squibs, it finally came back to me and I could put it wherever I wanted. I had him running in all directions, and he made some nice plays. By the end, he was throwing them in on one big hop that I could hit back out. There was joy in Mudville.
Then it was my turn in the outfield. My knee odometer had rolled over years ago, and my reaction time was no longer measured in fractions of a second but in multiples of one. I knew all this and had made my peace with the fact that my range was infinitesimal. I was happy just to let the balls land outside it and chase them for exercise.
Then — oh crap! — it’s sky high and it’s playable. As I’m going back on it and back, and the wind is playing games with it, another thought enters my head: Pete, don’t eff this up because the height of a raging pandemic is no time to present at the E.R. with a baseball lodged in your ear.
The baseball gods smiled upon us and let us finish our Opening Day without injury and filled with baseball bliss. We got out there for two more joyous sessions, including with our neighbors — hittin’ ’em out has built-in social distancing.
But now my baseball guy has headed back to the city to take his place among his fellow med students volunteering in support of the front-line health care professionals. Kids today . . . sometimes I don’t understand their priorities.
Pete Jakab lives in Northwest, East Hampton. He says he spends his time trying to improve at fishing, farming, and writing after a misspent career in the city.