My first at-bat of 2018 ended with a flourish, writes Rob Jones. No, not a majestic home run, but an impressive flailing swing at a curve ball which was so far off the plate on the outside it was probably in a different post code.
It was a Herts Spring League game against the London Musketeers, I was batting fifth on a boggy field. We had got a runner on, and I calmly took a few pitches. But after six fastballs or so, the crucial payoff fooled me completely.
In my defence, it was probably the first time I had swung at any sort of moving ball since last October, as none of the indoor training sessions I attended included any batting. And the skies were a bit grey. And Jupiter was moving into Orion. Or something.
But the point of this is not to make excuses — it’s to say that it didn’t really matter.
This is a paean to the joys of the Spring League, when the welcome opportunity to play baseball after a winter of hibernation overrides every doubt about how well you actually play it.
The first weekend of the HSL fell victim to unseasonably arctic weather. Only one game survived — and that was really just because the teams had already made the journey to Grovehill and refused to be defeated. Conditions were entirely unsuitable.
The second weekend still had some of the nastiest feel underfoot that I have ever experienced at our Spring League. The dugouts were soggy, the on-deck area slippy. Being a good citizen, and retrieving a pass ball, was quite a challenge.
For the stats geeks among you, I can reassure you that my performance at the plate improved some. I worked a walk the second time up, and what I will score as an infield hit the third time. Some scorers might think it was a throwing error by third base. But what do they know.
It was an adventure in the field, at shortstop, with the famous red cleats clogged with dirt. Fortunately it, too, followed a broad upward trajectory towards acceptability.
Of my first few plays, one was a muffed attempt to get a force at home on a dribbling ground ball. I was too late, and the throw was too low.
I was swiftly reminded that in such situations the throw, when in doubt, should always go to first. My reasoning was that I was rushing towards home plate to go and get the ball, so it seemed more sensible to throw in the direction I was heading. Who knows if I was right, but I certainly wasn’t successful.
The next chance I had was a straightforward infield pop-up, close to the pitchers’ mound. I called it, moved in. But somehow missed it entirely. I’m still not sure how. I only really knew I had dropped it by the aghast look on the face of Paul, the pitcher.
Fortunately I redeemed myself, taking a later pop-up despite a collision with the second baseman. We had both called for it, simultaneously, and so both ploughed on to try to catch it. Perhaps my earlier faux pas, and my determination to assert my shortstop’s authority, made me ignore a looming impact.
It ended well. I caught it, and nobody was hurt.
Except Paul. He was no longer pitching, Ken was. So Paul wanted to know quite why I couldn’t handle an easy catch for him, but could survive a clattering to help Ken. Oops!
The Raptors lost the game in the end, but there was lots of good pitching and lots of good plays.
We actually pulled off a hidden ball trick to tag a runner on second. I’m always bit conflicted about the hidden ball, to be honest. It feels like a low blow, a bit bush league.
And yet, if we are going to pay any attention at all to base discipline, then the hidden ball is surely just an extension of that. All players learning the game should understand when they are free to roam on the bases, and when they they have to get back. They should be looking out for pickoffs. So they should also look out for someone smuggling the ball in their glove.
Torrential rain put paid to the Raptors game scheduled for the Saturday of the third week. There was still a small boating lake on one diamond on the Sunday. Luckily, and with some solid work by the grounds crew, games did go ahead for lots of teams.
It’s always heartening to see teams coming from far and wide to brave what are often cold conditions to play Spring games at Herts. The weather really outdid itself this year. And so perhaps it is fair to say that all those travelling teams outdid themselves too.
I was obviously disappointed not to get more at-bats, and more ground balls. But the Spring League washes away all disappointments with positivity.
It may have had the muddy conditions of trench warfare sometimes, but the action has begun. We can only go up from here.