On my desk is a baseball – now browned and tattered, bruised in places, its innards exposed in spots. It was found in a box on the bottom rung of a shelving unit, pushed to the back of the shed.
That was no way to treat a baseball; an object that to American boys is to be honored. We’re talking about a true “hard ball” here, not a soft ball, whiffle ball or any variant, but the ball that gave the world one of its greatest metaphors. As young men we understood that the life ahead of us would sometime be “hardball.” There would be bad bounces, and balls that were foul and we would get bruised. The workplace would be hardball, so too would be social pressure. We all knew that the best response to life’s hardballs was to try to swat them away, or at least to bunt. Some hardballs would achieve glory, sailing over an outfield wall. Others would spend eternity in a box at the bottom of a shelf.
It is impossible to grip the ball without being drawn to distant memories. So here I sit recalling that day as a kid when the Boston Red Sox played an exhibition game in City Park against the Cleveland Indians. Through the time-honored practice of having a dad who “knew somebody, who knew somebody,” I secured the job of being the ball boy. My task was to sit on a bench next to the dugout and to run new baseballs to the umpire whenever he signaled the need for them. I watched in awe as major league shadows crossed my path, but then someone sat at the opposite end of the bench. I looked and it was the great Ted Williams, one of the best hitters ever. Shyly, I glimpsed over as Williams touched the end of his bat and rubbed in pine tar – but then THE MOMENT. Williams looked at me and spoke seven words I have still never lived down: “Hey kid, do you have a knife?” I trembled. I was humiliated. For me to be sharing a bench with Williams was like an ancient Grecian goat herder suddenly sharing the same rock with Zeus. When called upon to provide a sacrificial pocketknife I failed. Ashamed, I stammered that I did not.
From that moment though I resolved (1.) to carry a pocketknife for the rest of my life and (2.) if I did, maybe one day I would get a second chance. Neither has happened. Yep, life can play hardball.
Many years later the minor league team then known as the New Orleans Zephyrs invited companies to designate an employee to throw out the first pitch at a game. I got the assignment.
While I was excited about the prospects of standing on a professional pitcher’s mound, I was worried that I had not thrown a baseball, hard or otherwise, in years. So, during the afternoon before the game I went to a City Park ball diamond to practice a few throws. Unfortunately, I did not have anyone to throw the ball to. So, in one of my most pathetic moments I played one man pitch and catch—throwing the ball at the backstop fence then walking to pick it up, heading back to the mound and throwing again. This was the game at its lowest ebb. I did at least assure myself that I could still throw the ball the required distance though I could make no promises about direction or velocity.
That night, during the pre-game rituals, I was called to the mound. This time, I at least had someone to throw to. A Zephyr catcher named Matranga squatted over home plate. I gripped the ball, cocked my arm, hoped for the best and flung the sphere. Moments later I was rushing toward Matranga. “Was that a strike?” I asked. “Yes,” he assured me, equally shocked. I had never ever assumed that I would throw the ball where it was supposed to go, but there it was, an exhibition for everyone to see. Matranga even autographed the ball.
Soon after I was walking back to my seat in the stands expecting cheers from the fans. Then I realized the horrible truth. No one bothered to notice. The situation was like making a hole-in-one while playing Putt-Putt and then instinctively looking around for nodding approvals from the other players, but none were looking.
There was at least some interesting historical perspective from the evening. That very same season at the Major League All-Star game a fellow lefthander named Barack Obama was asked to toss the opening pitch. Like me, he too fired a strike. From the pitchers’ mounds at least, the President and I finished the season perfectly.