The bat's too heavy. It's a thick-handled #5 Mickey Mantle rather than my lean #4 Johnny Bench, which I must have split the week before, and its leaden weight deadens my muscles, aggravates the soreness of my joints. Following a few clumsy swings, I drape the bat over my shoulders like a yoke and approach the plate, eyes on the turf. Gripping the bat at the base of the handle, I'm unable to control its balance, the tip falling to the ground with a thud. I shorten my grip and with difficulty lift the bat to my shoulder, and as I step into the box I look up to find playing the field against me the entire army of the People's Republic of China equipped with mitts the size of peach baskets.
The bat's too heavy. It's a thick-handled #5 Mickey Mantle rather than my lean #4 Johnny Bench, which I must have split the week before, and its leaden weight deadens my muscles, aggravates the soreness of my joints. Following a few clumsy swings, I drape the bat over my shoulders like a yoke and approach the plate, eyes on the turf. Gripping the bat at the base of the handle, I'm unable to control its balance, the tip falling to the ground with a thud. I shorten my grip and with difficulty lift the bat to my shoulder, and as I step into the box I look up to find playing the field against me the entire army of the People's Republic of China equipped with mitts the size of peach baskets. I step aside to wipe the sweat from my hands, then, gathering all my strength, take one last, ferocious swing. The left side of the infield--three hundred thousand strong--retreats a pace, and I return to the plate. The first pitch arches toward me, soft and feathery like a dove, and as if it were indeed a fragile creature buoyed by the air, I tap it lightly across the seams. It dribbles slowly down the third base line, just fair, and the Chinese army falls all over itself as I leg it out to first, safe.
I'll never get my chance to bat. I feel strong, and despite my countless practice swings my stroke remains clean and smooth, sharp as a butcher's knife. But I was one of the last chosen, and I've lost track of the number of outs, the number of runs across, and the number of batters in the lineup ahead of me. When I ask for the inning or the score, the captain informs me it's still the first quarter and we're only a touchdown behind, but I know that no matter how many quarters we play, no matter how many touchdowns we score, I'll never get a chance to bat.
The preceding are probably vestiges of daily frustrations sublimated into dream. Here are four more, equally monotonous, all vaguely unpleasant:
The muddy field: fly ball overhead, turf the consistency of a peat bog, runs ringing up against us like the score on a pinball machine while the ball bounces far behind me and conceals itself in the mud.
The receding infielder: often in tandem with the muddy field; my cutoff man decreasing in size, fading so far from me I can hardly spot his glove. "Whassamatter?" he shouts. "Why donchya throw it? Canchya reach me? Throw it! Throw it!"
The heavy ball: often in tandem with the receding infielder; "Whassamatter? Why donchya throw it? Canchya reach me? Throw it! Throw it!"
The heavy bat: often in tandem with the heavy ball and, on occasion, the entire Chinese army.
Except for the last, I assume these are all fairly ordinary phenomena, self-explanatory.
I've been struck in the face by a ball before--a bad-hop grounder, an unanticipated warmup toss--and I'm acquainted with that fearfully helpless moment between understanding and concussion. This is a dream that would descend upon me just as my will surrendered its power to my subconscious. Was it some sort of safety net, preventing me from falling through sleep--into something deeper, much darker? In any case, my body would twitch, my limbs jerk outward, and my wife, who always falls asleep leaning against me, would whimper accusingly, "You hit me. You hit me." I'd bend over and gently tell her to go back to sleep, that it was nothing, nothing, and in the morning I'd be grateful she'd forgotten having been awakened by her husband's terrified efforts to protect himself from the phantom softball hurtling toward his face.
Last season I broke my ankle sliding into third base, and when I dreamed about the slide I would see my foot bend back against itself and crack in half at the joint. For the rest of the aftemoon I would sit in foul territory, dusty and with tears in my eyes, desperate to fit my foot back into the empty socket left in its place. There would be no pain, only a wrenching sadness, as if I'd committed some irreparable offense against myself, as if I'd blown my brains out with a shotgun and survived just long enough to regret the act, just long enough to want to cram the debris back into whatever remained of my skull. I suspect that this dream had nothing whatever to do with my broken ankle or the game of softball.
My ankle never fully healed, and now I swim on Sundays or bicycle through the park rather than play softball with younger men and boys half my age. I turned my glove over to my nephew, who promptly lost it in the stream that runs behind my sister's home. But a few nights ago, I dreamed that my ankle was sound, and that when I came to bat I could swing my #4 Johnny Bench with an ease I hadn't experienced for years, and when the new ball--hard and glistening white against the mid-afternoon sun--floated across the plate, I uncoiled from my stance like Musial in his prime and swung through it cleanly and without effort, my body in perfect balance, the stroke as true as a carpenter's level. Only the wooden ripple against my palm hinted that contact had been made at the bat, and when I looked up, the center fielder's back was toward me and the ball a bright speck soaring over his head, over the elm trees that lined the perimeter of the field. I awoke just then, with the image of the center fielder's back receding before me, and for all I know that ball may never have returned to earth.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.