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‘I’ll do it’ Lessons learned, hits muffed and a run scored

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Posted: Saturday, May 21, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 10:54 am, Sat Sep 17, 2011.

All "I'll Do It" assignments offer a significant risk of embarrassment and a possibility of injury. A tryout for Lodi Legion Baseball was chock-full of opportunities for both. Would tendons in my hamstrings pop like bubble wrap from years of inactivity? What if I can't even make contact with a pitch? Are these players going to roll their eyes the minute they see me?

Those thoughts raced around my head as I tucked the legs of my baseball pants into my knee-high black socks and waited to step onto Zupo Field. It was a perfect day for baseball, and I tried to focus on the clear, denim-blue sky instead of my skyrocketing pulse.

The other players arrived at the field. As sophomores and juniors in high school, they are bigger, stronger and faster than I was at their age, and they play baseball almost every day. I couldn't possibly hang with them.

Sure, I can occasionally be found taking hacks at Mojica's Batting Cages on East Elm Street, but my baseball skills and overall health have definitely deteriorated since I last played organized ball.

My arteries are starting to harden from the plethora of bacon fat in my diet, and my reflexes have been dulled from flippant use of NyQuil as a sleep aid.

But I wasn't going to pass on a gracious invitation from manager Mark Armstrong to step between the lines again.

My baseball background

Prior to Saturday, the last time I played organized baseball was Little League. Back then, Bill Clinton was president, few people had cellphones — much less ones that played music and movies — and Fun Dip and Pixy Stix were my version of performance-enhancing drugs.

Getting geeked up on about 15 tablespoons of colored sugar and racing around the basepaths is one of the best ways a kid can spend a Saturday morning.

But as it does for countless others, the weight of the world ultimately crushed my hopes and dreams. Not long before high school I understood a career in the major leagues wasn't happening for me. It happens. Life marches on.

Botching ground balls but having a blast

My Nike cleats, borrowed for the day from News-Sentinel sports editor Scott Howell, carried me over the chalk lines into a world I never figured I would be a part of again.

Ready or not, it was happening.

As we loosened up with some long tosses, my D-minus arm was exposed like Katy Perry on "Sesame Street." The throws that weren't short of the target were 10 feet to the right. The more I tried to muscle up and force distance and accuracy, the worse it got.

Maybe actually picking up a baseball in the weeks leading up to the assignment instead of playing "MLB: The Show 11" on PlayStation 3 for hours on end could've helped me avoid the embarrassment.

But I wasn't done shaming myself.

Rick Morgan, one of the team's coaches, sprayed shots to the outfielders and peppered ground balls for the infield to practice on. Four consecutive ground balls went through my legs as I charged them.

Four.

This is when my mind started racing. In my youth, my glove was the strongest part of my game. My arm was always a joke, but I could pick it. If I couldn't even field a glacially slow tapper, I should probably just pack it up before things really get bad.

That wasn't an option.

Respectable outing in scrimmage

Although I made an error that cost my squad two runs, I drove in a run and also scored one of my own during a practice game.

The error was a ground ball that again went through my legs. Had I made the play, it would've ended the inning. As I shifted between embarrassment and self-loathing, my teammates rallied around me. They told me to focus and get the next one that came my way.

Later in the ballgame I made a run-saving play on a ball hit to my left. With two outs, a right-handed hitter pushed a ball in the hole between first and second base. I backpedaled and stabbed at the ball with my left hand. Somehow, it found my mitt. I set myself and threw to first base to end the inning.

The players congratulated me when I returned to the dugout. Their support was genuine.

A decent day at the dish

I went 1-4 on the day, but reached base three times due to an error and fielder's choice. My batting average on the day was wretched, but my on-base percentage was stellar.

The first at-bat was a wasted effort. Even though I saw a few pitches, I grounded sharply to third and was thrown out several steps before I reached first base.

However, I'm still grinning from my RBI single. I came to the plate with two outs and runners on first and third. The pitch was down and away. My 28-ounce Louisville Slugger aluminum bat made contact and looped the ball into shallow center. It fell in the "Bermuda Triangle" between the leftfielder, shortstop and centerfielder, and the run came home.

The crowd of about 40 cheered. Even though the applause was for the play itself and not for me, I swelled with pride.

Losing my cool

My next time on base came in disappointing fashion.

There were runners at first and second with no outs. Baseball 101 reads: Get them over into scoring position.

Understanding and accepting myself as a Punch-and-Judy hitter, I wanted to give myself up with a sacrifice bunt. Unfortunately, I'm not Brett Butler. The bunt went down, but I hit the ball again with the bat as I dropped it. Foul ball.

Seeing as every hitter in the scrimmage started with a 2-2 count, the at-bat should've been over. Armstrong, the umpire, let me have another pitch. Mike Matlock, who easily threw about 300 pitches during the three-hour practice, spun a diving changeup right underneath my hands. I swung over it and practically screwed myself into the dirt.

Strike three. Again.

But several hitters were getting extra pitches during the tryout, so Armstrong let me stay in the box.

I was so keyed up I forgot the situation. Instead of trying to hit the ball to the right side of the infield and advance the runners, I pulled it to the third baseman.

One of the foulest words in the English language left my lips at a volume loud enough for every man, woman and child at the field to clearly hear as I sprinted down the line. I'm not sure how the double-play was broken up, but I ended up safe at first.

(After the game Armstrong would tell the assembled athletes that displays like my quick outburst of profanity are uncalled for at any level. He was right. Lesson learned.)

Pretending to be Rickey Henderson

After advancing to second on a single, I earned an opportunity to steal third. I hadn't tried to steal a base in more than a decade, so it was going to be an adventure.

I picked my pitch and took off. The base was stolen, even though my legs felt like lead weights plodding through sand.

My slide was hideous — I went in headfirst and veered to the right of the bag because the throw was coming. Instead of gliding gracefully, I flopped in the dirt like a dried earthworm as I collapsed past the base.

Fortunately, my right leg was near third base and I wasn't tagged out.

The players on my team cheered like maniacs when I made it safely home on a drive to center field.

Despite the errors, embarrassment and foul language, I had succeeded.

I touched home plate and exchanged laughs with the players.

Amazing.

These same strapping kids I looked at with horror a couple of hours earlier were actually treating me like I belonged.

It was good to be on the diamond again.

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews.com.

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