This is the story of my attempt, at fifty years old, and after not playing any organized baseball since I was sixteen, to have a comeback, of sorts, and return to the game in a men’s 35+ baseball league – as a pitcher.
This is the fourth installment of the series. The previous installments are listed here:
Yesterday, April 3, brought with it a great deal of optimism and hope.
After work, in the early evening, I met my friend Michael Saffer to have catch. At the start of my career, almost thirty years ago, Michael was a student in my class. I had been his school teacher, now I’d be his student.
Michael has been involved with baseball his whole life. A tall hard-throwing lefty, Michael grew up enjoying his fair amount of baseball success from the pitcher’s mound. For the last few decades, Michael has been an umpire calling countless games each week for high school and travel baseball leagues. Michael knows baseball. And he knows pitching. I had been looking forward to this chance to throw with him since we arranged the date a few days previously.
After meeting at my house, we struggled, at first, to find an empty Major League size baseball field. Locally, the best field was being used by a team and the next best field was unusable because new infield dirt had just been piled high in the middle of the diamond. Not wanting to waste our entire time driving in search of an empty sandlot with a pitcher’s mound, we had to settle for a kid’s field with one of those plastic removable pitcher’s mounds.
It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do.
As we tossed a baseball back-and-forth to loosen up, Michael kept giving me words of advice. “You know how to pitch. Be smart. Stay low in the strike zone. Work the batters in and out. Change speeds.” All of this was good. And necessary.
Once my arm felt pretty good, and it didn’t take very long, I advanced to the mound and Michael crouched behind home plate to be my catcher.
To start I used the best wind-up I know, the one I have been mostly using in all of these throwing sessions, and one I started using in 1978. I know I started using this delivery in 1978 because that was the year that Ron Guidry was baseball’s best pitcher and I did everything I could (albeit from the right side, Guidry was a lefty) to mimic or model Guidry’s signature delivery. I’m sure today, at fifty, I don’t look anything like Guidry, but in my mind I do. And maybe, at least on some level, that matters.
I started with many pitches coming high (“Release lower,” Michael instructed) and soon found some modest success. As I’d throw, Michael would ask me to envision the batters and locations. “For this pitch, aim here… now go there…” This was all very helpful.
At one point, I gave Michael the best fastball I have. He nodded. I asked if it was fast enough. He said something along the lines of “Changing speeds is good.” When one doesn’t have a fastball, as much as he wants to pretend he does, that doesn’t make it so. I will have to get by with out any real “out” pitch. I just can’t throw that hard. Never could.
Also, although I didn’t admit it at the time, and there were no lingering effects, throwing that pitch as hard as I could sent all sorts of pain signals up and down my right arm. If an arm can see stars as in tingles in pain, mine certainly did.
Out of necessity, we then talked about changing speeds and Michael, a true student of the game, taught me how to throw a circle change. “Frank Viola (the former Cy Young Award winner) taught me this grip,” Michael said. I never asked if he was joking. I don’t think he was. “It’s easy to throw…”
No matter who taught him the pitch, I found it easy to throw from the exact same windup. As the ball snapped into his mitt, Michael exclaimed, “Yes. You got it.” (For the record, when I throw the ball and it snaps into a mitt, it’s more like a “puffff” than a loud crack.) I didn’t perceive any noticeable difference between my fastball and the change-up, but Michael, from his location behind the plate, did. This was very encouraging.
I then threw circle changes for a while, mixing in the “fastball” occasionally. All was going well. Very well.
Because the plastic mound I was throwing off was little league size (and much too small), I started using different wind-ups after a while. I found that a side-arm style approach seemed to work well for a short time. One thing was true, when I went side-arm, I did not throw the occasional pitch up in the zone. I was consistently down. I might try that in a game…
I also threw a bit from the stretch, but this wasn’t easy on so small a mound. (And, I don’t plan to give up any hits anyway, or, more likely, maybe all my pitches will result in home runs. In any event, who needs the stretch?)
As I threw, and as fun as this is, it does become a workout, I started grunting with each throw. I asked Michael if other pitchers grunt with each throw. He didn’t answer…
With things going so well (I guess in spite of the grunting) and my arm still feeling good, I asked Michael to show me how he threw his curveball. Again Michael showed me a simple grip that I immediately tried. I went back to my Guidry-style wind-up. After just a few pitches, Michael said from behind the plate, “That curved!.”
Except in Wiffle Ball, I’ve never been able to throw a curve. Now, at fifty years old, and on a whim, I got one. I have a curveball?
“Yes!” said Michael.
For a while I threw curve after curve.
We ended our session with me pitching to situations. Michael called the pitches and the locations that he wanted me to throw to. I was pretty consistent getting the pitches where I needed them to be. I changed speeds, added in the deuce, and hit my spots. After striking out six imaginary batters against no walks (Michael gave me a generous strike zone, I think), we called it a day.
As we left the field and drove home, I asked, probably too many times, “Do you think I can really do this?”
Later that evening Michael sent me a few texts (including the suggestion to purchase a rosin bag) but my favorites texts were these:
“Use your knowledge of the game. You already know what pitches to throw at different points in the count.”
“You will do great!!!!”