EDITOR’S NOTE: This report also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
I’m an athlete who never had a prime. I am short, not particularly strong, and I have never really played any of the sports I write and know so much about.
Does that mean I can’t put bat to ball?
Hell, no. That’s almost as stupid as saying a 130-pound woman can’t throw a 70-mile-an-hour fastball that rises from knee to nose as it buzzes across the plate.
What it does means is that when I went out to Rosemont one recent hot summer night for a chance to hit against a pitcher with the Chicago Bandits, last year’s champions in the National Pro Fastpitch women’s softball league, I had no intention of provoking anyone’s wrath, especially after watching the Bandits in batting practice as they crushed one highlighter-yellow ball after another far over the outfield walls and nearly on to the Kennedy Expressway.
The game that night was an exhibition, pitting an all-star lineup of men from the Chicago North Men’s Senior Baseball League against the Bandits. They were playing to raise money for the Les Turner ALS Foundation. Full disclosure: Because I’m an official spokesman for the foundation, I was invited to take one turn at bat.
“Hi,” I said, introducing myself to Chanda Bell, the 22-year-old who would be pitching the game. “Listen, I’m going to be hitting against you today.”
“I’m kind of nervous,” she said, looking me over. I wore khaki shorts and a T-shirt. My cleats were older than Chanda Bell. I was pleased, at least, to have removed my reading glasses before interviewing her.
“Right,” I said. “Well, I was just wondering if you could tell me what kind of pitches you might throw.”
“Why would I tell you that?” she asked, and then smiled and said she might throw a screwball, a curve, a changeup, or a drop, but, in all likelihood, she’d probably throw me nothing but hard risers, coming in somewhere around 62 miles an hour, because most men have never tried to hit a pitch that takes off like a jet as it crosses the plate.
“The rise ball is going to be a big surprise for you,” she said.
I figured I had only one advantage. Having played neither baseball nor softball in years, I wasn’t accustomed to pitches of any kind. It didn’t matter if they rose or dropped.
My more experienced teammates were equally pessimistic. “Oh, my God,” said outfielder Bob Rosenberg, 53, of Buffalo Grove, as he watched the women warm up. “This is going to be very humbling for all of us.”
Before the game, coach Ross Wolfson tried to prepare his team. If the pitcher raises the knuckle of her index finger when she releases the ball, she’s throwing a riser, he said. If you hear her hand brush the side of her leg during her release, that’s a change-up. His charges stared in confusion until Wolfson finally said, “Aw, hell, we’re men. Just hit the goddamn ball!”
They tried. But over the course of seven innings, the men managed only one run on five hits. The Bandits scored three in the first and cruised to an easy, 6-1 win.
My turn came in the top of the third inning. I grabbed a helmet and bat from the dugout, waved to the cheering crowd of about 400, and stepped into the batter’s box. Before the first pitch, I paused to greet Chanda Bell, and to remind her that we had enjoyed a pleasant conversation before the game, in the hopes that she might treat me kindly.
But Bell wasn’t on the mound. She’d been replaced between innings by Michelle Moses, who pitched last year for Fresno State and led the Western Athletic Conference in strikeouts and shutouts. And Moses was not waving back at me. She was glaring.
I dug my feet in the batter’s box and wagged my white bat behind my ear. Bell had given me advice. Start swinging when you see the pitcher raise her hand above her head, she’d said. So I did.
I saw the pitch coming. It was waist high by the time my bat began to move forward across the plate, but in that split second between deciding to swing and swinging, I knew the ball would be too high and too fast for me to reach. I tried to check my swing but it was too late. I wound up waving at the ball like a man attempting to shoo a spider from the ceiling with a broom, and I heard the one thing every athlete surely dreads most: laughter.
I crouched a little lower and stared out for the second pitch. I was better this time. My swing was not so terribly late, but the ball once more rose high and fast and out of the strike zone. I missed it by at least a foot.
One more chance. I dug my cleats into the dirt and tried to look confident. My swing was faster this time. I was getting better at timing her. But once again, the riser was too much for me. It soared over my bat and I was gone. Done.
I smiled, took off my helmet, and waved it to the politely cheering crowd.
Then came the PA announcer, suggesting I take one more swing, and suggesting the pitcher give me something I could hit.
I looked to Moses for permission, not wishing to provoke her.
She shrugged, and I went back for one more try.
This time I was carefree. I smiled as Moses prepared to throw.
Once again, I started my swing early. Once again the ball started low and began to rise. But this time, instead of soaring over my head, it stayed at waist-level. I grunted as I swung and felt the ball hit the sweet spot of the bat.
The outfielders had all gathered in centerfield for a chat, not bothering to defend against me. After all, I’d already struck out. The ball shot on a line over the third baseman’s head and down the left-field line, bouncing several times before hitting the wall.
No one bothered to go get it. I showboated like Sammy Sosa, jumping and grinning, as I watched it go, and enjoyed a swift romp around the bases. It was most definitely not a home run trot, and it was most definitely not a home run, but it would do.
Later, I went into Bandits’ dugout to thank Moses.
“What was that pitch I hit?” I asked her.
“Fastball, straight down the middle,” she said.
“How fast?” I asked.
“About 62, same as the first three. But flat.”
“Why didn’t you throw me a flat one before that?” I asked.
She shrugged before running back on the field and didn’t answer. But I knew why. She’s a competitor. A real athlete, unlike me. First she had to win the battle, and then and only then would she give me a gift.
It was still a hell of a gift.
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STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photos courtesy Dina T. Kwit.