When I was fifteen my parents took me to see Damn Yankees, a hit Broadway musical in which a paunchy fifty-year old real estate salesman named Joe Boyd is tempted into a bargain with the devil and becomes Joe Hardy, a fleet, hard-hitting centerfielder. Joe leads his feckless Washington Senators against the hated Yankees until…well, it was a bargain with the devil after all. Still, at fifteen, I’d never heard of Faust so it seemed a good deal to me. Who in his right mind would turn down the chance to play major league baseball?
Many of my earliest memories are of baseball and, by the time I was four or five, I was besotted with the sport. There was something about the congruence of what my body could do and the rhythms of the game that must have felt (and I hesitate to use the word in this context) natural. I played at baseball—there are few opportunities for someone that young actually to play baseball—by throwing and catching with my father, by swinging a bat at his gentle tosses, by wearing a miniature Yankee uniform around the house. And, when I slept, I often dreamed of baseball and the players whose numbers and positions I knew by heart.
When I was old enough to join an after-school group whose counselors shepherded us to the park, all I wanted was to play baseball. I kept track of my ‘home runs,’ in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s mythical 60. I slid into bases with a pleasure that even now seems extreme. At home, I would throw a rubber ball against the wall of my apartment building, matching errors against flawlessly fielded balls, and wait for my father to come home so we could “have a catch.” I wasn’t practicing for anything; I was playing.
And here’s the thing I’ve come to understand: I never thought much about being a good player. I knew I was good and I enjoyed being good, but my pleasure was so visceral that those judgments had little to do with it. Someone I knew almost sixty years ago contacted me recently and remembered that his father, long dead, had once told him I might someday play professional ball. I’ve had similar experiences over the years and each time, I’ve been surprised. It sounds disingenuous, I know, but I was just doing what I loved to do, what my body somehow knew how to do.
To play any sport at a certain level is to experience this harmony of instinct and action. The body reacts to the symmetry and angles of a field or a court, to the fluidity of action unfolding. Seeing and sensing are simultaneous, as much an act of imagination as anything physical; and so, a fragment of memory. “Muscle memory” it is often called: pick up a golf club or a tennis racquet; dive into a pool, climb on a bike and, for a little while anyway—until you begin to think about it or feel pain—all may seem as it once was.
But I’m thinking of memory beyond what the body alone can conjure: sensing from the way a ball is pitched how the batter will swing; from the swing where the ball will go; seeing from hundreds of feet away where the arc of a ball will take it; remembering fifty years later a single pitch or the incomparable feeling of a wooden bat connecting with a ball.
I pursued my baseball fantasy more or less seriously for a long time—summer camp baseball, little league baseball, pony league, American Legion; and into high school and college until decreasing discipline and increasing competition intervened and real life began.
After college, I followed the decline of my physical skills into pick up baseball, fast pitch softball and then, with the inevitability familiar to ageing jocks, the shadowy simulacrum of the real thing: slow pitch softball. I didn’t mind; I still loved it all, the throwing the hitting, digging a hole in the batters box with my now plastic cleats, taking the anticipatory step to my right…I loved it even as my body struggled to keep pace with my indelible instincts, even as I got to the ground ball just a little late.
A few weeks ago, as a favor to my son, his Iowa City softball team allowed me to play in a game. Decades past my shortstop days, I was sent to the outfield. I could still tell from the way a hitter held his bat where I should play and which way to move as the pitch was thrown. I liked the feeling of the grass under my feet and seeing the familiar shape of the game. And then a weak hitter, as I sensed he would, hit a short fly ball a few strides in front of me and to my right. It was an easy play. But I couldn’t get there. Instead, I made a clumsy dive for the ball, the distance between instinct and action irrevocable. I got up off the grass and, with contrived nonchalance, trotted back to my position.
It wasn’t the first time I remembered Joe Boyd or why he couldn’t resist Satan’s blandishments. Joe wished neither for immortality nor Promethean insight into the mysteries of the universe. He just wanted one green season in the sun; the “thrill of the grass,” as William Kinsella has put it. He wanted to hear the sound of his spikes on the cement runway leading to the field, to feel them sink into the springy turf, the hum in his ears of the hometown crowd. It isn’t eternal youth that tempted Joe, simply the chance to play baseball as only a child can dream of playing. That’s why I’d been out there on a late Iowa afternoon after all. I’d been thinking for weeks how it would feel to crush a line drive over the left fielder’s head.
Foolish as it seems, that night before falling asleep I wondered what I’d have done had I looked up from my sprawl on the grass and seen someone in the aluminum bleachers lighting a cigarette from his flaming fingers and grinning at me. I’d had one more at bat coming didn’t I? Then I remembered seeing my son’s perfect swing that afternoon and the ball, on a line, smashing into the left field fence. Sometimes things work out just as they should.
Other articles by Jon Maksik