When I was on my high school baseball team in Lincoln, Neb., I could hit a fastball with the best of them.
By JAMES A. FUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
I was 17 then, athletic and trim.
I’m 55 now. Everything hurts.
Can I still hit a high hard one? I dared myself to find out. At a Lenexa batting cage I ditched my dignity and stood against a pitching machine firing balls at its fastest setting — 70 mph.
What’s that? Doesn’t seem that fast to you, Hercules?
Try it sometime.
Sure, major leaguers face guys chucking the rock 90 to 100 mph. But remember, they’re professional athletes in their 20s and 30s standing 60 feet away. I’m a rumpled writer pushing 60 standing 40 feet away.
What does that mean? I asked a math professor at the University of Kansas, who explained that, to me — considering the closer proximity, my age and diminished eyesight — the 70 mph baseball actually would appear more like a marble traveling at 869 mph!
Or something like that.
Look, I can’t do math now. There’s a marble coming at my head!
OK, focus! When the red light flashes it is about to …
The ball whizzed past me, slapping hard into the padded backstop. I didn’t even swing.
“Oh-kay,” I said, squinting. “I … sort of saw that.”
“Just gettin’ my bearings,” I said. “Hittin’ the pill. Little bingo!”
“Come on, Mr. Roboto! Give me one to hit!”
Finally I was ready. “ This time,” I said, waggling the bat and staring down the ball chute. “ This time I’m going to —
I flailed at the tiny gray blur. The aluminum bat felt like it weighed 20 pounds as I nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to whip it through the zone fast enough to make contact. I had to start early. The math professor told me I had a whopping 0.4 seconds to start my swing.
Was it too late to dare myself to ride a roller coaster?
“Breathe, Jim. Once an athlete, always an …”
I swung violently, hitting nothing but air.
OK. Eyes on the ball. Keep your head down and your left arm straight. … Wait. That’s golf.
And then it happened. Right there in the batting cage. The heavens parted and the angels started to sing. Finally, with the kind of compact swing that would make Billy Butler proud, I laid bat on ball, feeling the sweet redemption of success that took me back to my days as a feared high school slugger.
Er, slap hitter.
I raised my arms in victory and danced around the batter’s box.
“OH YEAH,” I screamed. “DID YOU SEE THAT? FOUL TIP! I TOTALLY FOULED IT OFF! YOU SAW IT! WOOOOOO!
I spun quickly out of the way, barely avoiding the next ball that could have tattooed a nasty red welt on my backside.
I stayed in there for 30 pitches. Did I look overmatched on some and silly on others? Sure I did. But the point is, I tried. And after I warmed up I actually whacked a few of them — a clean single to left, a double to the gap and a power shot to straight-away center.
And you know what? I’m glad I challenged myself. Turns out, when it comes to sports, I’m not nearly as useless as I had begun to feel.
Take that, middle age.
To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or email email@example.com.