Merry Christmas, Man: Wherein We Get What We Need

(via Simon_sees)

The mini ball came with a message: 12 months plus.

Thus advised the little round tag that dangled from the surface of the soft white ball. On the opposite side was another key message, perhaps more important than its counterpart: For safety’s sake, remove all tags and plastic fasteners before giving this item to a child. Here’s the interesting thing: My wife did not remove any of the tags, or the fasteners, before giving it to me.

I don’t remember the first Christmas gift I ever received. I was born in the month of August, late August, so whatever that gift might have been, it wasn’t intended for kids 12 months plus. Nor do I remember the first baseball-themed Christmas gift I received. I might have gotten a baseball at some point, but I really don’t recall. Baseballs are baseballs. They come and go without distinction. To get one is to use one, and to use it is to lose it.

The first baseball-themed Christmas gift I do remember, without equivocation, is the one I received in my senior year of high school: an Easton aluminum bat, 34 inches in length and 32 ounces in weight, with green lettering on the gray barrel and a black rubber grip on the handle.

I had wanted one for a while. Several of my teammates already owned their own bats, and it seemed to me that private bat ownership was the first prerequisite for a batting title and/or a home run crown. I mean, Rod Carew never rooted around in the equipment bag for a Louisville Slugger, did he? Babe Ruth never stumbled through the utility closet in search of the right piece of lumber. Nor did he borrow a bat from teammate Johnny Grabowski.

History aside, nothing looked cooler than bringing your own weapon into District 4A battle. Kids who brought their own bats looked like hustlers who brought their own pool cues. You couldn’t beat ’em. They looked like men.

That’s the thing about that Easton. I had gotten a gazillion toys in Decembers past. I knew what a toy looked like. This was not a toy. This was a valuable piece of merchandise, a commodity meant for bigger things than after-school distraction. With it I would whack my way to All-State status, and, if such a thing existed, All-American status, not to mention my choice of Division I scholarship offers from across the United States. With it I would go places.

Next stop: Vero Beach, or Albuquerque, or whatever backwater town would hold me just long enough to make the major league city grow restless for my arrival. By that point, of course, the Easton would be remaindered to fond memory, its utility exploited, as planned, along the sanctified path to my own signature bat. A trade of aluminum for ash —of Easton for Louisville Slugger — would end with my autograph burned into the customized barrel.

That was the thinking, anyway, and it all started with that one Christmas gift. But sometimes, in the days and months that follow Christmas morning, a gift can begin to feel more burdensome than just the weight it constitutes.

***

Dear Santa: Or, What I Want for Baseball Christmas

Thus titled is the piece I’ve published every December for the past three years. In it, I implore St. Nick to deliver whatever baseball-centric gift I ask for. Invariably, the big man disappoints. I ask for the Yankees to vanish. He doesn’t deliver. I ask for broadcasters to stop being derivative twits. Alas.

What it amounts to, of course, is whimsy. Scratch that. What it amounts to is a brand of bellyaching given the guise of whimsy and the gift of a public forum. That, I suppose, is my annual present: the freedom to whine about whatever I wish to whine about, even if the solution to each complaint is met with a stiff arm from Santa. After all, the Yankees are still the Yankees, forever hitching their Death Star to ESPN’s Sunday Night Yankee Baseball, and in-game interviews are still the scourge of our summer, littering the seasonal airwaves with asinine banalities that have long since reached their expiration dates.

The point is this: However much I want that very special gift — however much I want the Yankees to stumble into the Springfield Mystery Spot, however much I want broadcasters to stop using the word “gamer” — I’m reasonably certain I won’t receive it. Those Yankees are gamers. They are here to stay.

The Physics of the “Seamy” Side of Baseball
How much difference does seam height really make?

What you wish for and what you get are often two different things. At times, however, they aren’t. Careful or not, you get what you wish for. I wanted and wished for that Easton aluminum bat. I got it. It was now my cross to bear.

Show up at Rick’s Billiards with your own pool cue, you’d better win that game and the next one, too. You’d better shark those nobodies out of their Budweiser money or they’re gonna laugh you right out of the tavern. Ownership has its privileges, as they say, but it also has its pressures. That bat had stamped my status as a player, the kind you keep your eye on. It had triggered my initiation as a hot shot, the kind who makes them say, “I remember when…” My job now was to give them something to remember. And in the first three at-bats of my senior season, I did. I gave them three things: three base hits — 3-for-3! — in the sort of performance I had wished for.

Better yet, better than even the morning line score would indicate with its soundless font and sightless typeface, all three had been frozen ropes. Clang! Or maybe ding! Whatever that sound was, whatever had replaced the traditional crack of the bat, that was the sound still echoing across the yard. It seemed to me, while standing on base for the third time, that no Christmas gift had ever announced itself so boldly on a warm spring night.

Those frozen ropes had seemed easy, effortless, as if the Easton’s sweet spot had guided my hands to the pitch. Strikeouts make a bat feel heavy. Pop-ups, dribblers, jam-shots, flares — they likewise make a bat feel cumbersome, burdensome, like a tool the boss just handed you on the first day of your new summer job. What the heck is this thing? What does it do? But frozen ropes make a bat feel weightless, a wand in wizardly hands.

As I stepped once more to the on-deck circle, however, I recognized the statistical truth that faced me: This could not go on all season, or even all night. Perfection is a quality of gods in foolproof heavens. Here on Earth, it is a property of the little sample size. Math is an impartial witness to what unfolds. What unfolds is what makes a 1.000 batting average harder with each at-bat. And if perfection is an unattainable aim, if flawlessness is the fruit beyond the fingers of Tantalus, then failure is what always awaits us.

I sensed its impatience. I left the on-deck circle and dragged my bat through gravity. I felt I’d grabbed someone else’s Easton. It felt heavier than its advertised ounces. With it I swung late at the first pitch, sending a flare down the line and foul. I swung late at the second, sending another pop-up foul. Prior to the two-strike pitch, I choked up on the bat. I tried to make it lighter.

***

The first little gift I grabbed was a baseball trivia set. Its tagline: Hit These Questions Out Of The Park! Yeesh. Even with the world’s greatest bat, how do you hit a question out of the park? Can you also hit a query for a ground-rule double? Despite the silliness, I was pretty excited. My wife had made a stocking for me, just like my mom used to make, and I had reached in with some level of juvenile greed to extract those questions and answers.

Sample question: Do you know which MLB team is named after Indiana’s state bird? Umm … I dunno. The Brewers? Isn’t there a vermillion brewer?

Next! I reached for another gift, and after pulling out the habanero peanuts and the Frank’s Red Hot, I arrived at the second baseball-themed item of the morning: a Texas Rangers tree ornament. Now, granted, this might strike a Yankees fan as the equivalent of a Washington Generals front-door wreath, a sad (if merely seasonal) testament to the futility of one hopeless franchise, but look: Despite these decades of grievous defeat, the Rangers are still my team. Ornament in hand, I reached up and placed it on the tip of a tree limb directly between the Santa Claus ornament and the Bart Simpson ornament.

Eager for more, I reached into the stocking again. And after pulling out the Tabasco and the cheese sticks, I pulled out a soft white ball with a tag on it.

It read: Spark Create Imagine. Mini Ball. 12m+

This wasn’t a wifely mistake. She hadn’t got the wrong stocking. We don’t have kids. No, this was meant for me. She knows I love baseball. She knows that, at times, and despite the grievous defeat, I love it like a little kid loves it.

What came next, she knew. We moved to opposite ends of the room. And there on Christmas morning, two months before pitchers and catchers were to report, we played catch. Back and forth it went, this lightweight ball from Walmart. The stitching lines looked authentic. They looked exactly like seams.

“Wait a second,” I said upon catching the ball.

I grabbed a pair of scissors and severed the little round tag.

“Okay,” I said. “Ready?”

I came to the set position. “Two-seamer,” I said, spinning one toward her.

She caught it like a catcher and threw it back.

“Curveball,” I announced, snapping one off.

My repertoire came complete. I followed with a four-seamer, a slider, a pair of screwballs, a poorly executed change-up and then … the coup de grace.

“Knuckleball,” I said before delivering the Niekro-like pitch.

Only later, in my office, would I move past the memory of the soft white ball to revisit the memory of the aluminum bat. Only later would I once more feel its mass. Gravity is a constant. It gives weight to everything, and no time arrives to remove it. Choked up on the handle, I swung at the two-strike pitch — a fastball high and tight. It hit it below the barrel, just inches above my hands.

The sound this time was not a clang or a ding. It was a thud, thin and tinny. It was the sound of immediate defeat. The sensation it produced is one I feel today, a tingle that deepens to a sting. The jam-shot drifted toward the shortstop, on an arc that scarcely made time for mystery, and his glove made quick and predictable work of my fourth at-bat.

“Well, he won’t hit 1.000,” I heard a teammate say from the dugout.

To this day, I don’t know if he was being sincere or smart-aleck. It really doesn’t matter. The result was the same and remains so. My batting average had just dropped from an unsustainable 1.000 to an equally unsustainable .750, and as the season wore on, it continued to conform to mathematical certainty by dropping steadily more: .667, .535, .444, as if gravity itself were yanking on it. “Regression to the mean” was not a term I had heard. Math was not my bag. But math didn’t care at all. It still demanded my compliance.

Fate seemed all wrapped up in the numbers, as if they had long understood a phenomenon that I was late to recognize: And as they ticked ever lower, the numbers officially flipped the script: They controlled me, and my Easton, more than I and my bat controlled them. I wanted a D-I scholarship. I wanted to go pro. And yet to see so fragile a future depend on the outputs of treated aluminum seemed a cross too heavy to bear. I didn’t need a weighted donut in the on-deck circle. That bat was heavy enough.

And so on Christmas morning of a much later year, we kept tossing that lightweight ball with the fake red seams. It’s made for people 12 months plus.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.

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