It wasn't the ball that seemed so frightening as it came flying toward the plate. The prospect of swinging at the ball and missing it was what scared me.
I don't know how fast the ball was propelled, only that it wasn't as fast as I would like it to be in the retelling. I can say this: I didn't swing and miss. I watched. I watched the ball all the way until it slammed into the back of the batting cage. This is what as known as not being able to pull the trigger. What I'm trying to say is, if it had been me firing at Archduke Ferdinand, no World War I.
I waited for the next ball. Facing a baseball is one thing. Facing the specter of dimly remembered youth is quite another. Trying to recapture your past is a dangerous adventure in any case, but if you're determined to make the attempt, buy a red sports car or a hairpiece. Don't go to the batting cage.
The ball flew past me again. The bat stayed on my shoulder. I wondered if this is what they meant when batters were said to be thinking too much. If so, Rodin would have loved a shot at me. Thinking was all I was doing. That, and backing up in the batter's box. Even now, if you look closely, you can see the imprint of the cage's netting on my back.
It seemed so innocent at the time. A surprise 40th-birthday party for your typical arrested adolescent who still thought he had a shot at playing center field for the Yankees (these days, why not?). So, we gathered at the batting cage, the usual group of lawyers and doctors and accountants and the odd sportswriter. All of us in our mid-30s or older. None of us what you'd call in great shape. This a group that collectively couldn't bench-press anything heavier than a six-pack of imported beer.
Batting cages are a growth industry. A huge indoor complex, only slightly smaller than the Astrodome, has just opened in Cockeysville. You might think the industry reflects a similar growth in baseball, and that youngsters, already in love with the sport and looking for a way to improve their swing, are the principal customers. They're not.
Oh, their dads might bring them to the cage, but, before you can say Jack Robinson, or Mickey Mantle, dad has nudged his son out of the way, grabbed some resin, strapped on a batting glove and moved into the cage to show the kid how he used to do it. Eventually, the kid, after vainly begging for another turn, loses interest and goes to play the video games while dad flails away.
Most cages feature three speeds -- slow, medium, fast -- and, thankfully, no curveballs. Slow is easy. Slow is so easy you feel like Cecil Fielder. You hit wicked line drives, towering fly balls. The only problem you have in the slow lane is that your puffed-up chest gets in the way. Of course, the ball is coming at you at about 20 mph. T-ball is more demanding.
In the medium cage, to make contact, you probably have to wear your glasses. You can still see the ball all the way to the bat. In fact, you can bring in the sports page with you and not miss anything. If you played any ball at all -- and some of the guests apparently hadn't; these were the guys who, as kids, thought golf was a contact sport -- you were OK facing that medium ball.
But humiliation beckoned from the fast cage. Oh, there were kids in their late teens and early 20s who made the fast cage look like batting practice, which is, probably, what it was. The biggest problem facing the thirtysomething batter was stage fright. Bobby Burns, the poet, once wrote about "the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us." He'd obviously never been in a batting cage. Could there be anything worse than seeing yourself -- slow of reflex, spread of waist -- as others see you? You wanted to imagine yourself as the slugger you imagine you used to be.
This hit home a few months ago, when a friend and I went to see the Rolling Stones. A couple of rows down from us, there were two guys, in their 40s, singing and dancing to the music, making middle-aged fools of themselves. With no sympathy for the devils, I nudged my friend, pointed to them and said, "What geeks." Then it struck me: We were dancing and singing, too, and we must have looked just as -- what's the word? -- dweeby.
In the batting cage, it was worse. All eyes were on you. So, you swung and you missed. You made a joke. You missed again, and then you gritted your teeth in fearful determination. Finally, you started to make a little contact, although, to tell the truth, if I'd swung any later, I'd have been aiming at the next ball flying from the relentless pitching machine.
The funny thing is, I am of a generation that insisted we hoped we'd die before we got old. Looking around the batting cage, where grown men dreamed of home runs on the fly, I could see it was too late.