Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hero for a Day

I had a friend was a big baseball player back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
but all he kept talking about was . . .
Glory days -- well they'll pass you by
Glory days -- in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days
(From “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen)

The weather was perfect for baseball, the sky a bright and distant blue, not a cloud in sight, with a cool breeze offsetting the warmth of a gentle sun. As was often the case in those days, my mind wandered to thoughts of that afternoon’s game, the dull, droning voice of my trigonometry teacher a distant hum in the background. I could not tell you one thing I learned in trigonometry, or much else during my senior year at Hightstown High School, but I remember the game we played that day as if it was yesterday, every detail permanently embedded in my memory, as clearly as a collection of photographs.

As seventh period came to a close, I began to feel nervous excitement, part fear, part anticipation, as butterflies filled my stomach. Craig Walker was to be the starting pitcher for the Allentown High Redbirds, our rival high school and that day’s scheduled opponent. I knew of him from when he played American Legion ball with my brother two years earlier, when Steve was a senior and Walker a sophomore. He was the team’s best pitcher then, even as its youngest player. Now a senior, he was the best pitcher in the Colonial Valley Conference, which encompassed fourteen high schools in Central New Jersey. Walker was a rugged, husky farm boy, with a serious demeanor, menacing mustache, and goatee. He was quietly intimidating and betrayed no sense of fear. He possessed that intangible quality God assigns to all hard throwing fireballers – the ability to make a batter think that, at any moment, he has the ability and will to inflict great pain.

Nothing creates more apprehension in a batter’s mind than a pitcher who throws high heat with movement. Catching up to the speed of the pitch – simply to make contact – is challenging enough. But velocity combined with a lack of control and erratic accuracy generates fear – the fear of striking out, yes, but more disconcertingly, the fear of getting beaned on the head. When a pitcher can generate fear in a batter’s mind, the joyful anticipation of coming to the plate is replaced by feelings of discomfort and apprehension. As Shoeless Joe Jackson so aptly advised Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, after Graham was brushed back twice in a row, “Look for the pitch down and away . . . but watch out for in your ear!” Craig Walker did not like batters feeling comfortable. He excelled at creating fear and apprehension.

When I stepped up to the plate for the first time in the bottom half of the second inning, the game scoreless and uneventful, my stomach turned somersaults. I took a deep breath, dug my back foot into the dirt at the low end of the batter’s box, and kicked up whatever white chalk remained. I did my best to present a cool fa├žade, swinging the bat back and forth, rhythmically pushing off the ball of my back foot, trying to appear confident as I completed a sort of stand-in-place pimp walk. But Walker maintained an unfriendly presence. From home plate, he appeared even more menacing, as he glared down from the slightly raised pitcher’s mound, his six foot, four inch frame now merely sixty feet, six inches away. He had mean, dark, brooding eyes which all but said, “Try me. Try crowding the plate. See what happens.” I mean, this kid looked like he would knock down his own grandmother if he thought she was crowding the plate.

As he started into his windup, I quickly tried to erase all background noises and distractions from my mind, but I could feel the ever present, judgmental eyes of spectators, like a pack of owls staring from treetops. I wanted nothing more than to solidly connect with the pitch, but could not shake the fear of being drilled in the back by an unforgiving, 90-mile an hour hardball. In a flash, the pitch whizzed by and pounded the catcher’s mitt with an echoing thud. “Strike One!” roared the umpire, who at this precise moment represented all of the dark forces in the world, an evil despot who ruled over our tranquil pastime, much like a dark cloud hovers over a sandy beach.

“Come on Ehlers, stand in there and swing at the ball,” yelled Charlie Pesce, our manager; tyrant, motivator, fierce competitor, Pesce was a man you did not cross. To him, life was baseball and baseball was simple – when a good pitch comes your way, you hit it. Swinging and missing at a good pitch was acceptable on occasion; watching a good pitch go by was not. Pesce invoked a level of anxiety in his players which counteracted the natural inclination to fear the opposing team’s pitcher. Getting hit by the pitch was a reasonable alternative to Pesce’s verbal chastisements and trite humiliations.

However easy it may appear on television, the art of hitting is not an easy one. Whether a pitch is hittable, not just in the strike zone but in the batter’s hitting zone, is a judgment that must be made within a split second of when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. I took a deep breath and dug in for Walker’s next pitch. This one looked hittable, so I swung. I missed. “Strike two!” roared the man in black, who was really beginning to irritate me. I was convinced he beat up newborn puppies in his spare time. “Goddamit!” I whispered to myself, as I glanced down the third base line to look at Pesce, who stared back with his disdainful, penetrating glare.

Walker wound up for the next pitch. It came in high and hard, fat as a watermelon. I swung hard. I missed. “Strike three!” I looked down at the plate, and then to Walker, who let slip a slight grin as he brushed his long, dark, sweaty hair under his cap. I walked back to the bench and tossed my bat and helmet to the ground. Walker had gotten the best of me.

As the game progressed, a true pitcher’s duel developed, with neither side able to muster much offense. Allentown snuck a run in the fifth, and we responded with one in the sixth. Walker was still going strong. He struck me out for a second time in the fifth, his fast ball still blazing like a comet on a hot August night. Frustration was now my biggest enemy, self-forgiveness being one of my lesser traits; all I could think was how I should have hit this pitch or not swung at that one.

But sometimes the Gods are good to you, as I would have one more shot at the farm boy from Allentown. In the bottom of the seventh (the last inning in high school ball), I was to bat third. With Walker’s fastball still blazing (did this kid even throw a curveball?), the leadoff batter weakly popped up and the next went down swinging. Now it was my turn. With the score tied 1-1, two outs and nobody on, everybody believed that this game would be forced into extra innings.

I stepped up to the plate, determined at least to make contact. But before I sank my feet into the batter’s box, Pesce called time. “Come here, Ehlers.” Oh no, I thought, and slowly trotted to the coach’s position down the third base line, unable to look Pesce in the eye, not knowing what was coming. “Come on, son,” he said sternly, “You need to concentrate. I play you for a reason. Don’t disappoint me.” As I rushed back to the batter’s box, I felt my body reacting to the burdens of competition; nervous tension tore invisibly at my stomach and my lungs contracted, making it difficult to breathe, as if a restraint was wrapped tightly around my chest.

I took a deep breath and exhaled, then dug in once more. Walker looked down from the mound, waiting for the catcher’s sign – though everyone east of Trenton knew what was coming. “No sweat, Craig,” the catcher yelled, “this guy struck out twice already. He can’t hit.” Fuck you, I thought – in a Christian way –as I wiped the sweat from my brow. The butterflies in my stomach were more intense than before, each breath more difficult to extract.

As Walker started into his windup, I gripped the bat and lifted my right elbow, my arms locked in place, my armament ready for battle. Walker kicked up his leg and delivered his pitch, a fastball belt high, just over the outer half of the plate. My eyes glued to the pitch, this is as good as any, I thought, and took a rip. Crack! The ball sailed high and far into right field. I ran full speed toward first with my eyes planted on the ball as it went over and beyond the right fielder’s outstretched arm. I rounded first and sprinted towards second, relieved and exhilarated at the sound of the cheering spectators, vindicated of my prior failings, freed of the burdens of disappointment and Pesce’s glare. Approaching second, with the ball and right fielder no longer in view, my trust was now placed in Pesce, who was coaching third. Pesce rotated his right arm, signaling me to keep running. I raced towards third, then saw Pesce hesitate, briefly, his eyes firmly planted on the action taking place in right field as he quickly calculated the location of the ball projected against the distance of the outfielder’s throw and my running speed. “Go!” he shouted, as he wound his arm repeatedly, willing me to home plate. The entire game now came down to a 90-foot race between my feet and the right fielder’s throw. Almost breathless, I rounded third and went full stride, my teammates shouting, the crowd cheering.

I crossed home plate standing, just as the ball made it to the infield. Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, my teammates swarmed me, mugged me, slapped my helmet, each slap a little harder than the previous one, high fives generously exchanged all over. As I glanced toward the pitcher’s mound, I saw Craig Walker slowly walking away, dejected, his head bowed in shame, his spirit defeated. The game was over, Hightstown had won, and I was the reason. Charlie Pesce smiled broadly and extended a congratulatory handshake. “Nice work, son. I knew you could do it. I expect to see more of that.”

When I awoke the next morning, robins chirping outside my window, the sun shining through the curtains, I rushed downstairs and grabbed our home delivered copy of The Trentonian. Buried deep within the sports section, on page 42, was the headline, “Ehlers Home Run Beats Allentown.” Slightly embarrassed, but quietly relishing in the glory, I felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that has rarely been repeated since.

Looking back thirty years later, my body having betrayed me, my dreams of playing baseball professionally having long ago been forsaken for other, more realistic goals, I remember my sense of pride when, walking through the school hallways, everyone treated me as if I had done something really special. I hadn’t saved a life, or found a cure for cancer, but for one day at least, I was The Man, the school hero, a bright and shining star of an otherwise mediocre, suburban high school that achieved as much recognition as one would expect in central New Jersey, an area defined by split-level developments, fast food restaurants, and the exit number on the Turnpike. I would go on to college and law school, clerk for a judge, argue criminal cases before juries and U.S. courts of appeal, and lead a fairly distinguished career, full of minor accolades, a few awards, and some pats on the back. But as my youth recedes ever so distantly, as my personal and professional life continues to confront new challenges, I have come to learn that my moment of glory was but a short-lived moment in time, never to be matched in life’s other arenas.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps I knew of the game back then in 1977, but, if I did, I had forgotten it. But, I say a hearty "well done", these many, many years later. Yes, I have my own sports glory story (which I will spare you now, since this is your blog), and I remember it, too, just as you do here. Great memories, great feeling. Thanks for reminding me. Steve Weitzen