- “The Feel of Nothing”
Observed on videotape at half speed, through the metal latticework of the batting cage, it is a perfectly choreographed pas de deux between man and machine. While the machine readies the pitch, the man executes the quirky but vital preparatory movements of torso and hand that jump-start his batting rhythm: he rocks back and forth, the bat wavering in a narrow arc above his head, much as the young palms visible in the background wave in the ocean breezes, slightly forward of true vertical, slightly aft, slightly forward again. The dimpled yellow ball scuttles down that last segment of the feeder sleeve toward the pair of spinning wheels that will propel it homeward. When the ball drops between the wheels and disappears for an instant, the batter's front foot lifts, then returns to earth perhaps six inches beyond its initial position. The bat itself remains well back, high over the rear shoulder, in obedience to an ancient admonition—"hips before hands."
Even in slo-mo, the swiftness of the ball's flight to the plate startles. At first it seems that there's no way the man can snap the bat down and around his body fast enough to intercept the ball—which now resembles a yellow antiaircraft tracer—before it blurs by him. But he starts his swing, his lower body leading the way, pivoting sharply on the back foot—now—and somehow manages to confront the pitch out ahead of the plate. If you pause the video at this precise point—that millisecond before impact—you marvel that the bat, slicing through the strike zone, is no longer a rigid line. Rather, the barrel clearly lags behind the handle, a vivid demonstration of the explosive torque all good hitters rely on for power. An instant later, postcontact, the ball too is misshapen, flattened on the impact side. It shoots off the bat in a shallow, upward arc with such velocity that it appears to leave a comet-like contrail in its wake.
Completing his swing, the left-handed batter lets go with his top hand, allowing the bottom hand, the right, to carry the bat out to his side and behind his back in a broad, sweeping parabola. The sequence then begins anew—though someone who stumbled upon the activity in midpitch, having never witnessed it before, might be hard-pressed to tell where it really begins and ends. Pitch to pitch, the movements are so rote that if you take the digital footage and download it into a computer, sample the corresponding movements from assorted pitches, [End Page 24] then splice them together in random combinations, the sequences look identical. To the naked eye, the only differences are in the expression of the man himself from one swing to another. There is the quick, feral-looking grin, top lip pulled back like a snarling Rottweiler's at moments of optimal impact. And there is the grimace, the small but perceptible shake of the head when the impact is less stellar.The man has taken perhaps a quarter-million such swings in his lifetime, and still, to him, each one matters. Each one counts. That's because these movements, these acts that casual onlookers might describe as a "leisure activity," are not just something he does.
As much as anything else in the man's life—but to a far greater degree than most things—they are what he ineluctably is.
I am the man in the video. My wife shot the footage a few years ago, during one of her final trips to the cages with me, when we lived for a time in San Diego. During our younger years, my wife accompanied me quite a bit to the cages, where my exploits constituted a kind offoreplay: a man showcasing his maleness for his woman in the way that some women will dance or do an impromptu fashion show for their man. But like my first wife, she gradually lost interest, and in time I came to prefer her absence to her feigned enthusiasm. ("Oh, that was a good one, honey . . . um, how many turns did you say...