By M. Diane McCormick
The catcher emerged from the locker room into the dugout, wearing chest protector and shin guards.
“You sure you want to do this?” were the first words out of his mouth.
Gulp. I’d been full of bravura. Now, I was mushy with meekness. It’s one thing to imagine standing in a batter’s box, taking real pitches. It’s another thing when this Star Wars Stormtrooper in red is looming over you, asking, “You ever been hit? By a baseball? You know that’s a possibility. It’s gonna be like – ” he slammed fist into palm. Was it just my imagination, or did I really hear a bone cracking?
Too late now. It was all arranged. For my inaugural outing as Adventure Chick, I would stand in a batter’s box at the Harrisburg Senators’ Metro Bank Park, to get the feel of taking pitches from a professional pitcher.
Every complete baseball game comprises at least 51 showdowns between pitcher and batter. Like snowflakes, no two have ever been the same.
There was certainly never an outing like this one. When Jadrian Klinger earned his promotion to editorial director and handed over Harrisburg Magazine’s Adventure Man mantle, he described it as a chance to make fun of myself for the things for which I have no talent.
No-talent No. 1: Connecting bat to ball. In school, I was the sure out at the top of the inning and, at the bottom, the kid in left field, praying that no one would hit a ball my way.
USA Today once listed hitting a baseball as the hardest thing to do in sports. “Considering that a major-league pitch can reach speeds more than 95 mph, hitters have only 0.4 seconds to find the ball, decide where the ball is going and swing the bat.”
I can now say: It’s all true.
My day as a boy of summer came on a hot afternoon of a Senators’ home stand. The park had a laid-back feel. Grounds crew members raked and mowed. Bob 94.9 blared country music from the sound system.
I was to face Paul Menhart, Senators’ pitching coach and former big-leaguer. Pitched 12 years – 12 years! – for Toronto, Seattle and San Diego. And he’s got the Tommy John and rotator cuff surgeries to show for it. The first batter he ever faced was Mark McGwire.
Whoa. How’d he do?
“I struck him out,” Menhart recalled with satisfaction.
Despite the scare that catcher Jeff Howell threw into me, he turned out to be my supportive batting coach and cheering section. He drew a batter’s box in the dirt for me. When I tried standing a few feet to his right while he took Menhart’s warm-up tosses – you know, gauging the pitches, just like a big-leaguer – he saw that I was a righty.
“Come stand on over here,” he said, pointing to his left. “You’ll get a better view.”
Finally, I stepped into the batter’s box, a helmet on my head and a black Louisville Slugger – 31 ounces, the lightest available – in hand.
“Did you take some warm-up swings?” Howell asked. “I don’t want you to go into it cold. Get loose. Get loose.”
I swung once, bringing the bat around waist level. Howell pointed to the outside corner of the plate and instructed me to swing lower. Ah, the Ryan Howard model. I get it.
And use the hands to “lift the bat,” Howell reminded. I put my best Chase Utley wrist roll into a few more practice swings, and it was time to go.
“You got no chance, Paul,” Howell shouted to Menhart on the mound. He went into his crouch and punched hand into glove. “Alright, here we go.”
A white blur whizzed past. The first pitches were outside the plate. That much, I could see.
“Wanna see a strike?” Menhart asked.
“Put the barrel of that bat on that ball,” Howell coaxed in his Florida drawl.
Another 85-mph white blur, a swing, and the ear-shattering pop of the ball landing in Howell’s glove. Boy, does four-tenths of a second go by like, well, .4 seconds.
“Curve ball’s coming,” Menhart warned.
This is what I came for. What can the batter really distinguish from the plate?
Well, it sounded a little quieter. Menhart asked if I saw the curve. Honestly, no. He tried again. See it that time? Well, yes, kinda. The ball dipped a bit on its way to the plate.
Later, sitting on top of the dugout seats, spitting sunflower seeds – just kidding – I would ask Menhart how batters can know so much, so quickly, about the characteristics of a pitch.
It’s repetition, he said. “You’ve got to recognize the speed, the height, the width, where it is, inside or outside. Through experience, you get a better feel as a hitter as to what that pitcher is trying to do to you, and you do pick up rotation of the baseball. You do. The good ones do.”
Hitting, in and of itself, might not be that hard. It’s hitting consistently that’s hard, he said.
In the batter’s box, I had bigger things to worry about than consistency. But then, I looked out toward Menhart, and he was shaking off a sign from Howell.
Shaking off a sign, for me! This may have been the biggest thrill of the afternoon – until the ball came flying at the inside of the plate, chasing my lily-livered self out of the box. I knew I was in good hands with Menhart, but pure instinct kicked in.
“Did that look like it was going to hit you?” Menhart asked. Why, yes. It did. But apparently, that was the point. Placement creates the intimidation factor that disrupts the batter’s timing. When he threw it again, I stood my ground – and my swing missed by a mile.
Howell started giving a pitch count. 2-0. 2-1. My time was ending.
“Hit one,” Howell encouraged. “Get ready to swing. Get ready to swing. Swing now!”
Swing and a miss.
“OK. Here it comes,” he said. “Right down the middle. Swing!”
Swing and – a miss. Oh, but it was so close. I had my pitch to hit, and I whiffed it. My time at bat was done.
“I’m glad you stayed in the batter’s box,” Howell told me as we strode back to the dugout. “That’s a tough thing to do.”
He repeated baseball’s most profound life lesson.
“Hitting, if you get three hits out of 10, you’re doing excellent,” he said. “If you do two out of 10, you stink.”
Menhart once threw a one-hitter against my Baltimore Orioles – and lost, 1-0. Seems he waffled over the pitch to throw against Harold Baines, so Baines got “a 1-2 hanging curveball that he drilled to straightaway center field.”
The lesson Menhart preaches to his pitchers every day: Commit “100 percent into what you want to do on every pitch.”
Good lesson to learn. And I took my own lesson from my day on the field, from that final swing against a ball that was tantalizingly hittable. I didn’t head back to the dugout having left the bat on my shoulder. On my date against a big-leaguer, I went down swinging.
Check out more photos of Diane’s batting against a professional pitcher in our photo gallery.