Swinging The Bat

by Lenny Wells

I was not a timid child. Quiet, self-conscious, is a better description. I wasn’t the best athlete on the field but in playground games of kickball, baseball, football, and basketball I could hold my own. When it came to organized games with uniforms, coaches, umpires, and the pressure of performing with the eyes of all 17 people in the stands watching, that was a different story.

               My first organized baseball team was the Tigers of the Crisp County Little League. Our colors were green and yellow. Oh, how I remember the itch of that yellow polyester jersey with “Tigers” stitched in green cursive sprawl across the front and our sponsor, “Howard Johnson’s”, surrounding the number on the back. It seems I remember I was number 7. Played center field and right field. My big, poofy late 1970s mop of hair bulging out from under my cap. We had actual stirrup socks back then. The further you could stretch that stirrup sock to show more of the white sock beneath them like the big leaguers, the cooler you were. Mine only went about ½ way, fitting for my average persona.

               I remember opening day. It was a clear, bright blue-sky, spring day. The opening ceremony to kick off the morning was a grand event. No parking was to be had in the dirt parking lot of the Rec Dept. ball fields behind Gibson’s Discount Store—a forerunner to Wal-Mart—and the movie theater. Concession stands served hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, candy bars, and cotton candy. You could smell the fresh-cut grass in the air. People milled about everywhere. Beleaguered parents dragging lawn chairs behind them. Mothers yelling “Don’t get your uniform dirty before the game even starts! Fathers loping to the ball fields, quiet with hopeful pride in their hearts for their boys’ performances and thinking about all the other things they needed to get done later that day.

               My Grandparents were there. Both sets of them. My mother’s parents drove 2 1/2 hours south from Moreland, GA with my Aunts, Kate and Sally, for the big game. It was to be a grand day. As excitement built up for the game’s first pitch I began to feel the light queasiness of butterflies in my stomach for the very first time. The national anthem was played over the loudspeaker and the umpire hollered “play ball”! 

I don’t remember who we played or which team batted first. I was no lead-off hitter nor a cleanup batter but I held a respectable spot in the batting order—somewhere around 6th or 7th. When my turn arrived I strode to the plate. I had visions of stepping into the batter’s box and blasting the ball over the chain link fence in center field like my hero, Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves. But, I could feel the butterflies flapping stronger in my belly. My mother and grandmother cheered my name as I stepped into the batter’s box. The first pitch came—a ball. The next, a ball. 2-0 count. Then a 23 mph fastball blazed right down the middle. A couple more pitches and the count was 3 balls and 2 strikes. I figured at this point that 10 year olds don’t have very good control so I took again. Ball 4. A walk. I was on base.

As the game wore on I came up with the strategy that its better to take pitches and hope for a walk than to swing and miss and look foolish. After 2 walks and a strike out, I would adopt that strategy for the whole season. In front of the crowd, I was scared. Scared to look foolish, scared to swing, scared to fail.

There were only about 5 teams in our Little League—Tigers, Phillies, Braves, Giants, and Pirates, or as they were known to us, “the Pee-Rats”. Since there were only five teams, we played each other many times over the course of the season. In the field, I was as good as anybody else. I could catch a fly ball. I could throw to the cutoff man, which seems to be the hardest thing to teach a Little Leaguer. Through much of the game I would stand in the outfield and chew on the end of the leather chord that held the webbing of my glove together while I awaited the occasional ball hit my way, dreading my turn at bat.

By the end of the season, most of the teams knew each other’s habits and when I came up to bat for my final at-bat of the last game I could hear the normal chatter rising up from the infield. “hey batter, batter, swing batter”, the opposing players taunted. Finally after I had taken a couple of balls and a strike, I heard the short-stop say, “Aw, he ain’t going to swing. He never does”. His teammates laughed and agreed with him.

Suddenly my fear of failure vanished. I felt my face getting hot—not from nervousness or fear but from anger. And that anger released a stubborn will within me. I didn’t just want to hit the ball. I knew I could hit it. I did it on the playground, in the backyard, and in practice all the time. But, I was dealing with a 10 year old pitcher with the control of an orangutan. The next pitch was a ball that sailed toward my head. I ducked and my bat remained raised in the air. All of a sudden, I heard the metal “ding” of my bat as the ball struck it and rolled around at my feet. Foul ball. Laughter from the stands. It wasn’t meant as a mocking laugh, but that’s how I took it, which infuriated me even more.

The next pitch was down the middle. The ball looked as big as a watermelon and I swung with all my might. The next thing I heard was the joyous sound of my aluminum bat ringing out across the field, echoing beyond into the ether. The pitcher jumped sideways as the ball scorched past him and bounced into center field. Right up the middle. Next thing I knew I was standing on first base, a run had scored, and my teammates were shaking the dugout’s chain link and cheering my name. I felt ten feet tall. It was the greatest feeling I had ever had. I looked over at the shortstop and gave him a slight smirk but I don’t think he noticed. He was soon chattering at the next batter as shortstops do. That hit meant a lot more to me than it did to him. For the first time I felt the satisfaction of believing in myself.

My Little League career didn’t last much longer. I was “traded” to the Phillies the next year but I was never again afraid to swing. I never hit a home run but I could often place the ball wherever I wanted it to go. I learned something that first day I found the courage to swing the bat. Something that has served me well. I learned that not being afraid to fail is one of the secrets to life. It was something I had to learn and re-learn under varying scenarios as I grew older. Yes, to achieve goals you have to work hard and all that but there are times in life when you just have to take a chance and step out onto the dim path of faith. Faith in yourself, faith in something bigger than you, and faith in the belief that everything is going to be ok, whichever way it goes.

©2019 Lenny Wells