Heads Up!

When I was younger I played a lot of baseball. Once, at fly ball practice I bent down to remove something from my sock that was irritating my leg. I heard the coach shout "HEADS UP!" and straightened up just in time to catch the fly ball -- right on my mouth! BAM! I don't think I can describe what it feels like to get hit like that. Strangely, it doesn't hurt as much as you might think. My mouth went numb right away, but the inside of my lips were cut against my teeth and I spit out quite a lot of blood. The worst thing was that my lip swelled up to the point that I could barely eat. For many years after that I could still feel with my tongue the scar tissue inside my lip.

I got to be a pretty good ball player after a few years and my team won several citywide championships. I learned how to extend my arm to get the longest throw, how to swing level and control the bat, and how to cover the ball with my body to block the ball and not end up off balance for the throw to first base. I played short-stop or third base most of the time, but eventually played every position except catcher at some point. I even got to do a little late inning relief pitching. Mostly, though, I was a hitter. I could hit any ball they threw at me, and I could hit it where I wanted. I didn't mind taking a walk and would try to force the pitcher to pitch to me. One year I even batted 1.000. That's pretty impressive even if it was only Little League.

I was a very consistent hitter, but I don't think I ever hit a home run. Some guys would swing away at every pitch and strike out most times. I just tried to get on base. There's an important lesson here. It's usually better to take a little bit of the problem at a time rather than trying to do everything at once. In baseball, that's the way you play and win the game. The first guy up just tries to get something started. The next batters work the runner into scoring position so that the clean-up batter can then drive in one or more runs.

The other important lesson I learned playing baseball was to pay attention. The condition on the field is constantly changing, sometimes with every pitch. You have to know what your best play will be if the batter hits the ball to you. You play it one way if there are no runners on base, different if there's a runner and different still depending on whether or not there's a force out at the base in front of the runner. You even make the play differently depending on the number of outs. In short, it really is a "thinking man's game."

Watch a good baseball player and you'll see him crouched down slightly, glove out front, head up watching the batter, ready to move in any direction if the ball is hit. He has to be alert, ready, and know what the best play is at all times. He has to pay attention! I always loved it when I stepped up to the plate and saw some kid out in right field standing straight up, knees locked, counting the stitches on his glove. I knew where I was going to try to hit the ball!

Once I learned to pay attention, I never got hit on the mouth with a ball again. Once was enough for me.