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Centerfield of Dreams

Baseball springs eternal, with my first fly ball in 55 years

Baseball in America. Norwalk Little League. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Uh, oh. Here it comes, a tiny, fast-moving speck arcing high in the air. It is hard to see against the cloudy sky but it is there, headed directly at me. The imaginary coach who nags me from the back of my brain shouts, “This is it, kid. Go big, or go home!”

“It” is actually a baseball, a fly ball clobbered in my direction by my grandson, James. He is taking his cuts during hitting practice with his (real) coach. I am stationed in centerfield, assigned to track down and gather up the stray baseballs James smacks into the outfield.

My grandson has extraordinary bat control. If I stand in left field, he hits everything to centerfield. If I stand in centerfield, he slices every pitch down the right field line. If I stand in right field, he pulls each ball to left field or smacks it over the fence. This is life for a Gatherer of Baseballs like me. No matter where the ball lands, I will always have a long walk to recover it.

I don’t mind, of course. I need the exercise. I am also doing my part to get James ready for his high school baseball tryout. This will not be an easy task for him. The last time he played on a baseball team was three years ago during the Little League District playoffs.

Unfortunately, a perennial series of disasters (including mistimed vacations, Biblical rainstorms and a COVID-19 pandemic) have prevented him from playing organized baseball since then. But the kid has kept grinding through offseason workouts and specialized conditioning drills, hoping for another chance to play on a baseball team. He will get his chance, soon.

In centerfield. I continue to track the tiny dot descending on me like an asteroid. As I reported, most of the fly balls my grandson hits are considerately dropped in places I am not. This one is different, though. It is playable.

Yikes! Fifty-five years ago, the last time I played centerfield, a fly ball like this one would have been easy pickings. Indeed, any ball hit within 40 feet of my position would have been an automatic out. At age 15 (James’ age!) I had been a glove-first All-Star centerfielder. I was the fastest kid on the field. My arm strength allowed me to peg the ball from centerfield to home on the fly. My spatial judgement was peerless.

Nowadays, at age 70, my physical condition is no longer an asset. My old top-gear burst of speed is permanently stuck in first gear. (The forty pounds I have added since the 1960s probably has something to do with that.) My cannon arm has been spiked by age. My All-Star hand-eye coordination is shackled by a pair of bifocals.

Frankly, I am beginning to have doubts. The odds of catching this projectile before it conks me on the forehead are getting longer by the millisecond.

The baseball seems to be accelerating, no doubt sensing a kill. But it also changes form and meaning in flight. For me, now, it is no longer a baseball; it is an exercise in Time Travel. My ancient body may be stuck in the present but the teenager in me is fully engaged. I once regarded every playable ball as a manifestation of my destiny, my sporting pride. I pounced on every one, saving the game and winning the adoration of all ten people in the stands.

The coach in my brain screams, “Snap out of it!” and my reverie ends. This is no Centerfield of Dreams. At my age, pouncing on anything is a dangerous delusion. I need to be concerned about surviving the impending collision.

The fly ball is making its final approach. It seems normal enough as long as I can see it through the top halves of my bifocal lenses. But then it drops into the distorted, unfocused realm in the lower halves of my glasses. Where did it go? How hard will it hit? Instinctively, I extend my glove …

… and I catch the damn thing, the first fly ball I’ve caught in 55 years! My grandson raises his arms in celebration. His mystified coach turns around to see what is happening, and he raises his arms in celebration.

I give them a matter-of-fact wave. I had it all the way, guys.