Heading for home

Sometimes even the simplest things seem impossible to imagine.


Larry Habegger
April 4, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

What would it feel like to play baseball
again? The question lingered for
weeks after the phone call that invited
me to a reunion of my Minnesota
high school's back-to-back state
champion baseball teams. It was a
rhetorical question, really, because I
knew how it would feel. It would
feel terrific.

I hadn't swung at a baseball in so many
years I could hardly count
back that far. Softball, yes, but not
baseball. I was in my 40th year and
had stopped playing in my 21st, when
childhood dreams found their final
resting place in an inability to hit
curveballs to the opposite field and I
moved on to adult ambitions.

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But to play ball again, if only once,
would recapture those
long-lost days of hope and promise,
those days of dirt, grass and clean
white lines, of leather, wood and the
unparalleled crack of bat on ball.
Good wood, we used to say. Do
ballplayers still say that, "good wood,"
when
they make solid contact?

Would I be young again? Of course not.
But of course! One last
round with old friends to celebrate the
champions we once were. It may
sound childish, but it kept me awake at
night, rekindled dreams, brought
back with stunning clarity specific
plays in the field, heroic at-bats,
game-winning hits that were so vivid
they could have happened that
afternoon. It invaded me with a
nostalgic eagerness.

At that time I was working nights in a
bar, fueling the itinerant
writer's life, covering the mortgage,
building for the future. The Friday
night before I flew from San Francisco
to Minneapolis for the Saturday
afternoon game, I had to work till
closing time, impatiently herding the
stragglers out at 2 a.m. and turning to
the task of cleaning up the joint.
It had been an especially busy night and
I was way behind schedule. By the
time I got home it was nearly 4 a.m. and
my flight left at 7. I fell into
bed and slept maybe two hours, rising
with little time to spare.

After a quick shower, I nicked myself
with an unsteady hand while
shaving. The blood wouldn't stop flowing
and my window of time shrank. By
the time I headed for the car with
Paula, my wife, who would drop me off, I
was
running very late.

Traffic was light so early in the
morning, but my heart sank when I
saw the gridlocked cars trying to drop
passengers at the terminal. Why was
the airport so busy so early on a
Saturday? It made no sense. But Paula
diverted onto an adjacent road to avoid
the jam and got close to my
airline's check-in. I gave her a quick
kiss goodbye, vaulted a low wall
and wedged through the stalled cars.

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I had 15 minutes to departure now, but
was confident I could
make it. When I entered the terminal,
though, it was utter chaos. Crowds
pushed and pulled, and to get to a
monitor to locate the gate for my flight
I had to wrestle with desperate people
dragging overstuffed luggage. With
bags slung over my shoulders, I began to
sweat, and the nick on my upper
lip began to bleed again. The only
tissue I had was already stained, but I
pressed it against my lip hoping to
staunch the flow.

A large woman with enormous suitcases
blocked my way. Impatient
children squeezed past my legs and
almost tripped me. A sweaty man cursed
as my bag bumped his shoulder. He looked
vile, but he couldn't have looked
worse than I did, with sweat dripping
from my nose, blood seeping through
the tattered tissue, a frantic look in
my eyes. I was having trouble
breathing now, but finally I found a
monitor, located my flight number and
cursed aloud when I saw the gate listed.
It was at the satellite farthest
from the check-in counter, a long haul
on the best of days.

Luckily I had a first-class upgrade
provided by a brother who flew
more than 100,000 miles annually on this
airline. But I still had to get
through the interminable line at
security and out to the gate. Blood now
covered my fingers and probably half my
face as I waited for the line to
creep through the metal detectors.

When I finally cleared security, I ran,
dripping blood, the half
mile, it seemed, to the gate, where a
long line of people shuffled their
feet trying to check in. I ran to the
counter waving my first class
upgrade.

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"First class!" I said. "I'm in first
class!"

The agent looked at me as if I'd just
stormed across the Tiber in
animal skins. "All seats are assigned.
Please go to the end of the line."

"But I have a confirmed seat, in first
class!"

"All seats are released 10 minutes
before departure, and all seats
have now been assigned. Please go to the
end of the line."

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"But I'm in first class."

The agent scowled at me as if dealing
with a stupid child. "It's
too late. You have lost your seat. Go to
the end of the line."

I was stunned. My watch read 6:55. I'd
lost my seat. Blood dripped
to the floor. My hand was sticky; the
tissue was shredded, sopping. I
shambled to the end of the line, numb.

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Five minutes later the agent announced
that the flight had been
closed, and anyone holding tickets for
this flight could catch the next one
in two hours. Two hours meant I would
arrive in Minneapolis after the game
was over. There'd be baseball, but there
wouldn't be any for me.

I don't remember ever being so
depressed. I wandered away from the
line, closer to the gate, as if by doing
so I might somehow find a way
aboard the plane. I stood there, one
hand on my bleeding face, the other
holding my ticket and upgrade limply at
my side, feeling a gnawing
emptiness as the reality sank in: I
would miss the game.

I was standing to the left of the
check-in desk. The ramp to the
plane was to my left. I was staring at
it like a man in an emergency room
watching a silent TV while waiting to be
sewn back together, when a gate
agent strode off the ramp toward me and
announced, "I have one more seat.
Who wants it?"

"I do!" I shouted and almost tackled
her. By sheer luck I was
closer to her than any other would-be
passenger and no one was going to get
that seat ahead of me. She grabbed my
ticket and hurried up the ramp with
me in tow, handing me a boarding pass on
the fly and returning my upgrade.

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"The seat's near the back," she said as
I followed her on board,
and I shuffled down the aisle feeling
the other passengers looking at me in
barely suppressed alarm because of my
bloody face. Each one seemed to
breathe a sigh of relief as I passed,
knowing I wouldn't be sitting
anywhere near them. I went all the way
to the rear without finding the
seat, and I just stood there, waiting to
be rescued. No way would they get
me off this plane.

"What are you doing?" an attendant
asked.

"I have a seat, but I don't know where."

The attendant who'd brought me aboard
returned and beckoned me
forward. A few rows up there was a
middle seat and she held my bags while I
crammed in, then helped stow them.

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I leaned back in my seat trying to catch
my breath. I'd never felt
so wrung out. The tissue in my hand was
reduced to powder and the blood
still seeped from my lip. It took an
hour in the air for me to gather the
strength to go clean myself up, and when
I witnessed the spectacle of my
face in the mirror, I cringed. I looked
as though I could have climbed
aboard the plane after three weeks of
sleeping on the street.

But I made it to Minneapolis. My good
friend Louie was waiting for
me at the gate and hustled me to his
car. I threw my bags in the trunk
after dragging out my sweats and changed
clothes as we drove. Game time was
in 30 minutes and we had about a
20-minute drive to the field.

Louie hadn't played on the baseball
team. He'd tried out every
year, but never moved higher than junior
varsity. But I couldn't imagine
him not being part of this day, and he
hoped he'd get a chance to swing a
bat if there weren't enough players.

I was in a fog when we arrived at the
field. Everything was so
familiar, the green grass, the old
dugouts, the pond and park beyond right
field. Oh! How could nothing have
changed through all these years?
Everything seemed the same except the
outfield fence that hadn't existed
when I played here more than 20 years
ago.

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The field was full of ballplayers in
uniform. Who were they? I
wondered. Then I began to recognize
people. There was lanky Jim, who batted
fourth, played right field and sometimes
pitched; and Max, who'd always
been big, was even bigger now, and who'd hit
a dramatic home run to cap a
five-run rally that won a game early in
that final season. And Dave, left
fielder, good power hitter with the
volatile personality. It wasn't till I
got down on the field and got a closer
look at the guys that I realized I
knew them all from those long ago years.

There wasn't time for me to go into the
school and change into a
uniform. The game was about to begin.

I took my old position at shortstop
wearing a sweatshirt and
shorts and began warming up. The fertile
smells of damp grass and dirt
after a summer rain unlocked years of
memories, when summer meant slinging
my glove onto my bike's handlebars,
wedging my bat over the bars between my
thumbs and riding off to one of the two
neighborhood ball fields to play
with friends. Every day of summer was
filled with baseball, and the names
and faces of those neighborhood kids
came back to me like characters in a
play. I remembered the first time I
suffered a bad hop in the balls, at age
7, and the unrelenting pain that made me
think I was going to die on
the spot. I remembered the joys of sunny
days, the disappointments of rain,
the thrill of my father saying, "Let's
go shag some balls," and he'd pitch
in the golden evening light to every kid
who showed up, and there was
always a crowd.

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Somehow these reveries took me through
the first inning and in the
bottom of the second I would get a
chance to bat. What would this be like?
Could I still hit the ball? I stood in
the on-deck circle loosening up,
watching Tom, who'd spent most of his
career warming the bench, foul off a
couple of pitches. He'd had a mysterious
neurological disorder just a year
ago that doctors thought would leave him
bedridden for life, but here he
was, playing ball again as if in the
glow of youth.

On the next pitch he lined the ball into
center field for a single,
but he could hardly run to first. Louie
was down there coaching first base,
and he stepped in to run for Tom.

It was fitting to have Louie on base
when I stepped up to the
plate. We'd been through so much
together in the years after high school.
Even though I left Minnesota to go to
college and never returned to live
there, Louie and I would get together
every year and keep in touch by mail
and phone, sharing in each other's joys
and frustrations, supporting each
other as only true friends do. He
grinned broadly, a sign that he was as
thrilled as I was to be out on the
field, in the game.

The first pitch came at me like a
missile out of fog. My eyes
seemed to be playing tricks. The whole
experience seemed to be playing out
in another world. After my ordeal to get
here I was hardly "here" in a
conscious sense. Everything seemed to be
dripping with fantasy and dream,
with an unreality that left me floating
around the field as if watching
from afar.

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The next pitch came in and I swung,
fouling it back into the
screen. That first contact brought me
home a little. Now I felt as if I
were there in the batter's box. I looked
at Louie on first base and he
clapped and yelled. I waited for the
next pitch.

When it came I swung, not really seeing
the ball, seeing rather a
flash of movement, something white
against the backdrop of trees. My body
initiated the action, not my mind. From
deep in the recesses of my muscles
I swung and felt the contact, the "good
wood" of the past, and watched in
astonishment as the ball arced high and
deep toward left field. I stumbled
down the first-base line trying to keep
my eye on the ball, watching it
soar farther and farther, and finally
over the fence.

There was a whoop from somewhere. The
voice of an old coach carried
across the diamond, "Hey, you still know
how to turn on a fastball!" Louie
pranced around second base, doing a
little jig and shouting. I rounded the
bases in a dream. How had this happened?
How had I hit that ball out of the
park?

I rounded third base and headed for
home, seeing Louie standing
behind the plate grinning, feeling a
lightness and fullness one only feels
when touched by the hand of the divine.
It was just one swing of the bat,
but in baseball parlance sometimes
that's all it takes.


Larry Habegger

Larry Habegger is executive editor of Travelers' Tales and co-author of the syndicated newspaper column "World Travel Watch." This story originally appeared in "Testosterone Planet: True Stories from a Man's World," published by Travelers' Tales, San Francisco; copyright ) 1999 by Larry Habegger. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher and the author.

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