I hadn’t swung at a baseball in so many years I could hardly count back that far. Softball, yes, but not baseball. I was in my 40th year, and had stopped playing in my 21st, when childhood dreams found their final resting place in an inability to hit curveballs to the opposite field and I moved on to adult ambitions.
But to play ball again, if only once, would recapture those long-lost days of hope and promise, those days of dirt and grass and clean white lines, of leather and wood and the unparalleled crack of bat on ball. Good wood, we used to say. Do ballplayers still say that, good wood, when they make solid contact?
Would I be young again? Of course not. But of course! One last round with old friends to celebrate the champions we once were. It may sound childish, but it kept me awake at night, rekindled dreams, brought back with stunning clarity specific plays in the field, heroic at-bats, game winning hits that were so vivid they could have happened that afternoon.
At that time I was working nights in a bar, fueling the itinerant writer’s life, covering the mortgage, building for the future. The Friday night before I flew from San Francisco to Minneapolis for the Saturday afternoon game, I had to work till closing time, impatiently herding the stragglers out at 2 a.m. and turning to the task of cleaning up the joint. It had been an especially busy night and I was way behind schedule. By the time I got home it was nearly 4 a.m. and my flight left at 7. I fell into bed and slept two hours, rising with little time to spare.
After a quick shower I nicked myself with an unsteady hand while shaving. The blood wouldn’t stop flowing and my window of time shrank. By the time I headed for the car with Paula, who would drop me off, I was running very late.
Traffic was light so early in the morning, but my heart sank when I saw the gridlocked cars trying to drop passengers at the terminal. Why was the airport so busy so early on a Saturday? It made no sense. But Paula diverted onto the adjacent road to avoid the jam and got close to my airline’s check-in. I gave her a quick kiss good-bye, vaulted a low wall, and wedged through the stalled cars.
I had fifteen minutes to departure now, but was confident I could make it. When I entered the terminal, though, it was utter chaos. Crowds pushed and pulled, and to get to a monitor to locate the gate for my flight I had to wrestle with desperate people dragging overstuffed luggage. With bags slung over my shoulders I began to sweat, and the nick on my upper lip began to bleed again. The only tissue I had was already stained, but I pressed it against my lip hoping to stanch the flow.
A large woman with enormous suitcases blocked my way. Impatient children squeezed past my legs and almost tripped me. A sweaty man cursed as my bag bumped his shoulder. He looked vile, but he couldn’t have looked worse than I did, with sweat dripping from my nose, blood seeping through the tattered tissue, a frantic look in my eyes. I was having trouble breathing now, but finally I found a monitor, located my flight number, and cursed aloud when I saw the gate listed. It was at the satellite farthest from the check-in counter, a long haul on the best of days.
Luckily I had a first class upgrade provided by a brother who flew more than 100,000 miles annually on this airline. But I still had to get through the interminable line at security and out to the gate. Blood now covered my fingers and probably half my face as I waited for the line to creep through the metal detectors.
When I finally cleared security I ran, dripping blood, the half mile, it seemed, to the gate, where a long line of people shuffled their feet trying to check in. I ran to the counter waving my first class upgrade.
“First class!” I said. “I’m in first class!”
The agent looked at me as if I’d just stormed across the Tiber in animal skins. “All seats are assigned. Please go to the end of the line.”
“But I have a confirmed seat, in first class!”
“All seats are released ten minutes before departure, and all seats have now been assigned. Please go to the end of the line.”
“But I’m in first class.”
The agent scowled at me as if dealing with a stupid child. “It’s too late. You have lost your seat. Go to the end of the line.”
I was stunned. My watch read 6:55. I’d lost my seat. Blood dripped to the floor. My hand was sticky; the tissue was shredded, sopping. I shambled to the end of the line, numb.
Five minutes later the agent announced that the flight had been closed, and anyone holding tickets for this flight could catch the next one in two hours. Two hours meant I would arrive in Minneapolis after the game was over. There’d be baseball, but there wouldn’t be any for me.
I don’t remember ever being so depressed. I wandered away from the line, closer to the gate, as if by doing so I might somehow find a way aboard the plane. I stood there, one hand on my bleeding face, the other holding my ticket and upgrade limply at my side, feeling a gnawing emptiness as the reality sank in: I would miss the game.
I was standing to the left of the check-in desk. The ramp to the plane was to my left. I was staring at it like a man in an emergency room watching a silent TV while waiting to be sewn back together, when a gate agent strode off the ramp toward me and announced, “I have one more seat. Who wants it?”
“I do!” I shouted and almost tackled her. By sheer luck I was closer to her than any other would-be passenger and no one was going to get that seat ahead of me. She grabbed my ticket and hurried up the ramp with me in tow, handing me a boarding pass on the fly and returning my upgrade.
“The seat’s near the back,” she said as I followed her on board, and I shuffled down the aisle feeling the other passengers looking at me in barely suppressed alarm because of my bloody face. Each one seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as I passed, knowing I wouldn’t be sitting anywhere near them. I went all the way to the rear without finding the seat, and I just stood there, waiting to be rescued. No way would they get me off this plane.
“What are you doing?” an attendant asked.
“I have a seat, but I don’t know where.”
The attendant who’d brought me aboard returned and beckoned me forward. A few rows up there was a middle seat and she held my bags while I crammed in, then helped stow them.
I leaned back in my seat trying to catch my breath. I’d never felt so wrung out. The tissue in my hand was reduced to powder and the blood still seeped from my lip. It took an hour in the air for me to gather the strength to go clean myself up, and when I witnessed the spectacle of my face in the mirror I cringed. I looked as though I could have climbed aboard the plane after three weeks of sleeping on the street.
But I made it to Minneapolis. My good friend Louie was waiting for me at the gate and hustled me to his car. I threw my bags in the trunk after dragging out my sweats and changed clothes as we drove. Game time was in 30 minutes and we had about a 20-minute drive to the field.
Louie hadn’t played on the baseball team. He’d tried out every year, but never moved higher than junior varsity. But I couldn’t imagine him not being part of this day, and he hoped he’d get a chance to swing a bat if there weren’t enough players.
I was in a fog when we arrived at the field. Everything was so familiar, the green grass, the old dugouts, the pond and park beyond right field. How could nothing have changed through all these years? Everything seemed the same except the outfield fence which hadn’t existed when I played here more than 20 years ago.
The field was full of ballplayers in uniform. Who were they? I wondered. Then I began to recognize people. There was lanky Jim who batted fourth, played right field, and sometimes pitched; and Max, who’d always been big, was even bigger now, who’d hit a dramatic home run to cap a five-run rally that won a game early in that final season. And Dave, left fielder, good power hitter, with the volatile personality. It wasn’t till I got down on the field and got a closer look at the guys that I realized I knew them all from those long ago years.
There wasn’t time for me to go into the school and change into in a uniform. The game was about to begin.
I took my old position at shortstop wearing a sweat shirt and shorts and began warming up. The fertile smells of damp grass and dirt after a summer rain unlocked years of memories, when summer meant slinging my glove onto my bike’s handlebars, wedging my bat over the bars between my thumbs, and riding off to one of the two neighborhood ballfields to play with friends. Every day of summer was filled with baseball, and the names and faces of those neighborhood kids came back to me like characters in a play. I remembered the first time I suffered a bad hop in the balls, at age seven, and the unrelenting pain that made me think I was going to die on the spot. I remembered the joys of sunny days, the disappointments of rain, the thrill of my father saying, “Let’s go shag some balls,” and he’d pitch in the golden evening light to every kid who showed up, and there was always a crowd.
Somehow these reveries took me through the first inning and in the bottom of the second I would get a chance to bat. What would this be like? Could I still hit the ball? I stood in the on-deck circle loosening up, watching Tom, who’d spent most of his career warming the bench, foul off a couple of pitches. He’d had a mysterious neurological disorder just a year ago that doctors thought would leave him bedridden for life, but here he was, playing ball again as if in the glow of youth.
On the next pitch he lined the ball into center field for a single, but he could hardly run to first. Louie was down there coaching first base, and he stepped in to run for Tom.
It was fitting to have Louie on base when I stepped up to the plate. We’d been through so much together in the years after high school. Even though I left Minnesota to go to college and never returned to live there, Louie and I would get together every year and keep in touch by mail and phone, sharing in each other’s joys and frustrations, supporting each other as only true friends do. He grinned broadly, a sign that he was as thrilled as I was to be out on the field, in the game.
The first pitch came at me like a missile out of fog. My eyes seemed to be playing tricks. The whole experience seemed to be playing out in another world. After my ordeal to get here I was hardly “here” in a conscious sense. Everything seemed to be dripping with fantasy and dream, with an unreality that left me floating around the field as if watching from afar.
The next pitch came in and I swung, fouling it back into the screen. That first contact brought me home a little. Now I felt as if I were there in the batter’s box. I looked at Louie on first base and he clapped and yelled. I waited for the next pitch.
When it came I swung, not really seeing the ball, seeing rather a flash of movement, something white against the backdrop of trees. My body initiated the action, not my mind. From deep in the recesses of my muscles I swung and felt the contact, the “good wood” of the past and watched in astonishment as the ball arced high and deep toward left field. I stumbled down the first base line trying to keep my eye on the ball, watching it soar farther, and farther, and finally over the fence.
There was a whoop from somewhere. The voice of an old coach carried across the diamond, “Hey, you still know how to turn on a fastball!” Louie pranced around second base, doing a little jig and shouting. I rounded the bases in a dream. How had this happened? How had I hit that ball out of the park?
I rounded third base and headed for home, seeing Louie standing behind the plate grinning, feeling a lightness and fullness one only feels when touched by the hand of the divine. It was just one swing of the bat, but in baseball parlance sometimes that’s all it takes.
Larry Habegger is a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher who has been covering the world since his international travels began in the 1970s. A freelance writer for more than two decades and syndicated columnist since 1985, he has written for many major newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel & Leisure, andOutside. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and in 1993 founded the award-winning Travelers’ Tales books with James and Tim O’Reilly. He has worked on all of the company’s more than 80 titles and is currently executive editor. Larry’s safety and security column, World Travel Watch, has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on internet sites, including WorldTravelWatch.com. He regularly teaches the craft of personal travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. He is also a lifelong sports fan. This story was excerpted from Testosterone Planet: True Stories from a Man’s World.