The stuff dreams are made of
By Tom Jackson
Old Guy Ballplayer
I dreamed last night that Billy Dubois, manager of the Chicago Suburban Baseball League’s Lexington Snipes, gave me a token at bat in a game and I walked. I mean, literally walked — I took ball four, then strode to first, casually undoing my batting gloves, stuffing them in my back pocket, intending to arrive at first slowly so I could perch my right foot on the bag and sigh coolly while greeting the opposing first baseman, just like I’ve seen so many Major Leaguers do.
“No, Tommy, get down to first and get your lead!” Billy shouted from the third-base coach’s box. “The league wants these games MOVIN’! Look — Dylan’s already in the batters box!”
I barely get a three-foot lead when Dylan squirts a grounder past the second baseman, and I, running slowly as if in a pool of oatmeal like I always do in both dreams and in real life, barely make it to second ahead of the right fielder’s rifle-like throw. A past ball gets me to third, again just barely ahead of the throw. Another grounder to second, and I’m charging toward the plate, but I never get there — a Brahms concerto on my alarm clock radio awakens me.
So you have a guy in his late 40s playing baseball with a bunch of gifted college ballplayers, kids a good decade younger than his oldest son — pretty far-fetched, eh? But not as much as you might think.
See, I’ve been serving as bullpen catcher for the Snipes — the real-life ones, not in a dream — for the past month. That arrangement came from a deal to borrow a full set of catcher’s gear from Billy so I could warm up my pal Dan Blewett, a frequent CBBB contributor and former hurler for the Normal CornBelters, now with the Kevin Costner-owned Lake County Fielders, who needed to throw the week before reporting to spring training in Florida.
“Sure, you can take the equipment — would you also be willing to serve in the same capacity for our young hurlers throughout our home schedule?” Billy asked, in not so many words.
“Absolutely!” I responded, in exactly that many words. See, I view as a privilege any opportunity to do something even remotely related to playing ball.
But I also know that I might not have quite the same lightning-quick reflexes — or at least the not-quite-oatmeal-slogging-slow ones — I had back in my college baseball days. So I made a few more equipment purchases: A specially designed catcher’s “under-glove,” essentially a batting glove with extra padding in the fingers and around the wrist; a gel-like pad that I tape to my mitt thumb for extra protection against 90-plus MPH fastballs; as well as a pair of home plate umpire shoes with steel toes and instep covers.
The latter were purchased shortly after my first bullpen session with Dan — his eighth full-speed offering, a wicked slider, darted late out of the strike zone (an outstanding swing-and-miss pitch, but also a tough-to-catch one for uninitiated middle-aged catchers) and onto my left big toe, rendering it plum-like in size and color.
In return for my catching services, Dan assisted with the mechanical breakdown of my throwing motion — a source of great wailing and gnashing of teeth for me and my Old Guy League teammates in recent years — and reconstruction of my mechanics and, more importantly, my confidence.
Since catching the Snipes in the bullpen, I’ve found that Dan’s efforts have paid off. I’m not Knobloching the ball over pitchers’s heads or at their feet (at least, nothing worse than your average amateur catcher). And the guys who throw to me are extremely appreciative.
Better still: The Snipes are undefeated since I’ve been helping in the pen. And I continue to be eager to catch anybody who needs to throw. Simply because it’s fun.
But Billy calls my activity and enthusiasm “working your ass off.” And last night, he decided to reward me for it — as if just doing it wasn’t reward enough in itself.
With game-time temperatures reaching the 90s — or what my wife would call “comfortable, maybe light-sweater weather” — I gushed sweat like a salty faucet while warming up a pair of relievers in what proved to be the Snipes’ 10-0 blowout over the Central Illinois Stars. As I took my seat in the dugout in the bottom of the eighth, Billy shouted, “Hey, Jackson, you’re up third this inning!”
“Take off the gear and get ready to hit!” He tugged at my coach’s warmup shirt — “Take this off, you need a jersey.”
One of the kids who’d just pitched middle relief pulled off his number 23 shirt and tossed it to me. I pulled it on, tucked it into my pants and grabbed a helmet.
Billy tapped my shoulder again as he headed for the third-base coach’s box. “Oh, hey, Tom, you’re batting SECOND this inning! You’re on deck — get out there!”
I snagged a 33-inch DeMarini club and set it against the wall near the on-deck circle. I picked up the weighted practice bat nearby and took my stance — one I hadn’t struck in about a month. Looking down at my foot position, I noticed my metal-heavy umping shoes — great for keeping the feet safe behind the plate, not so great for running. No time to change — my old-school Puma spikes were still in my car.
And no time to even get in a practice swing. The Snipes leadoff batter already popped out to right — I was up.
Didn’t have time to be nervous, either. First pitch was up and away, and I checked my swing. Not nearly enough, though. “Yes, he went,” the ump said. “Strike one!”
I’d be damned if I’d get cheated any more than that. Two breaking balls away, two swings and misses — just like the Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano, minus the actual natural baseball-playing ability, of course. I walked back to the dugout, unsuccessful but undiscouraged.
“You were right on that last hack,” said Bo Kinder, a hard-hitting, hard-throwing Clinton native who plays college ball in Michigan and serves as DH and closer for the Snipes. “Just barely swung over it.”
“You went down HACKIN’!” added Billy. “That’s the way to go!”
Snipes infielder and ISU stud Bryan Huff nudged me. “Hey, know whose idea it was to get you in there?” His smile gave away the answer.
“Hey, man, thanks,” I told him. “Made my day. Big time.”
I thanked Billy, too — and said I hoped my lack of success today didn’t prevent him from letting me bat late in another blowout game sometime soon. He just smiled and turned to the rest of the team. “Hey,” he said, “wouldn’t it be great if Jackson got a hit before (a longtime, current Snipes player who shall remain nameless)?”
My teammates laughed and concurred, smacking me on the back, giving me fist bumps.
Get a load of this middle-aged guy. Living the dream.