Baseball gods, birthday gifts, baked goods

The first pitch was up around my shoulders. I left it, and it was called a strike. The second pitch was a little higher, but I swung at it anyway, and missed.

This being a training game between the playoff-bound Raptors and the cobbled-together Herts Rebels, I was still ribbing the umpire — and being ribbed by the catcher — when the third pitch came down. It was low in the zone and somehow I managed to stroke it imperiously towards the outfield. And thus began my 41st birthday present from the baseball gods.

The Herts club has had an amazing year, and still has the prospect of three teams winning post-season silverware. So there is a lot to talk about. But the advantage of having a personal quasi-blog is that I can still talk about my own fun on a baseball field.

My standing excuse remains that my own experience reflects that of many British baseball part-timers, and I am sticking to it. If the game is not about a collection of great personal moments creating a greater whole, then what is it?

And so, back to the story. As warm late summer sunshine bathed Grovehill I was taking part in a loose but nonetheless competitive training game for the Raptors. And I had just driven that 0-2 pitch over and past the centre fielder. I was running hard out of the box and straight to second base and as I approached I could see the ball was still at the base of the fence. So I kept going.

Heading for third I shouted for a clear sign about what to do and was met with a wheeling arm. Carry on. As the Rebels bench rose in encouragement, and the catcher began to set up to take the throw, I wrung the last out of my newly-aged legs to head for home. It wasn’t a classic Major League slide taking me through the plate and into a pop-up. It was a desperate slide to simply get a toe to the plate and grind to a halt.

But it was a success. And it was, unquestionably, an inside the park home run. Never in over a decade of baseball have I scored a home run. Elsewhere on this blog you will find references to the hits which have come closest. And there have been times when overthrows and blatant errors have allowed me to get all the way round in one go. But this was the real deal.

My sister characterises baseball as “Swing, miss. Swing, miss. Swing, miss. Sit down”. Wag that she is, she asked if I still had to sit down after scoring a home run. I replied that no, I had to lie down, as it was exhausting!

It had been six weeks since I played any baseball at all and the pace was hard to handle. After the first ten minutes or so of fielding drills at second base – not only taking my own grounders, but covering first and going to second for cut-off throws – I was thoroughly knackered. But somehow this turned into a day when everything went right.

At the plate, I hit two more singles, and didn’t make an out.  In the field, I tagged out two runners at second. Both were a credit more to the pickoff move of young Zack, and the arm of the Hawks catcher Hunter Devine. But they were fun outs to get.

As the day came to an end the remaining players split to make two seven-man teams so we could continue. One hit got through and sped away into our vacant outfield, but I sprinted after it, made a good throw to Adam, who made a great cut and relay and the batter — who was outrageously trying to follow my earlier example and score an inside-the-parker — was cut down at the plate. Result.

Finally, as the sun sank so low behind home plate that the batter and catcher became an anonymous silhouette, I made my final stellar contribution – as a relief pitcher.

My memory may be tinted by rose-coloured sunglasses, but the way I recall it – and how history will now mark it — is that I got the final two outs to save the win. (Yes OK so I walked in a run first, but that’s being picky)

It all ended with me fielding a sharp comebacker off Eagles slugger Adrian Smithers, despite barely being able to see the ball. A simple throw to first and it was over.

This had been my 41st birthday. And it had been a good one. There were home-made cakes, courtesy of my long suffering wife, for everyone involved. Quite literally, icing on the top of a fine day.

The year had once again thrown up many obstacles to prevent my regular appearance in a Herts uniform, and I’m not sure that I made it to a single training session at Grovehill. But there is something deeply satisfying about a storybook ending, and I will call this one of those. The sun shone. Everyone was relaxed and was just having fun. And doing some simple things right made it even more fun.

Will it be champagne-time this Saturday as the Herts Raptors try to win the Single-A League national championship

The next few weeks hold great promise for the club, with the Raptors the first to step to the plate. They have a great spirit and a lot of talent and they deserve success. The Falcons, having secured the NBL pennant, can now top that by going one better than last year and winning the playoffs.

I will be watching from the sidelines, but at all times I will be willing for those players to experience the exuberant feeling I know you can get from playing baseball.