THE FOUL BALL

THE FOUL BALL

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

The Foul Ball

I’m still not sure what made me swing that day.

I hadn’t taken the bat off my shoulder in one and a half seasons of Little League, a span of maybe fifteen games and thirty plate appearances. Everyone knew what would happen when I stepped to the plate: I would take every pitch until I either struck out looking or walked.

Despite the patience and encouragement of my coach, the quiet urging of my parents in the stands and the supportive shouts of “C’mon, you can do it!” from the parents of my teammates—even from the parents of the opposing players—I could not bring myself to swing at the ball.

I so desperately wanted to hang a rope into left field. I so desperately wanted to launch a towering fly, and watch the ball trace a parabola through the sky as I rounded first and headed for second. I so desperately wanted to be like my heroes, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.

Before every game, through one summer and part of another, I would tell myself, This is the day you will swing the bat. Tonight, you will get your first base hit.

But invariably, my throat would go dry as I put on the batting helmet. My stomach would knot up as I waited in the on-deck circle. By the time I stepped into the batter’s box, I was paralyzed with fear, my fate to be determined solely by the umpire’s interpretation of balls and strikes.

Oh, how I hated the embarrassment of heading back to the bench after another third strike, my parents’ shouts of “You’ll get ’em next time” ringing in my ears. How I looked forward to being pulled from the line-up after one or two at bats, thereby avoiding further humiliation.

Who knows why I couldn’t swing the bat? Perhaps it was because I was a scrawny ten-year-old with Coke-bottle glasses and a profound lack of self-confidence. I loved baseball, loved the old Milwaukee Braves, loved the pace and beauty and romance of the game.

But it was a different game entirely when I was standing in the batter’s box and the ball was whistling toward home plate.

The night I finally swung began no differently than the others. I took three strikes in my first at bat and headed for the refuge of the bench. Our coach walked over and said, “Son, after the next inning you’re going to come out.” I nodded and breathed a sigh of relief.

But somehow, our team batted around the line-up, and I felt the usual trepidation as I put on the helmet, took practice swings with two bats, and waited in the on-deck circle.

I was going to bat again! Twice, in the same inning.

I walked slowly toward the plate, and the catcher grinned and yelled to the pitcher, “C’mon, easy out here. Just put it over. He ain’t gonna swing.”

I watched strike one float past.

“Told ya,” the catcher yelled. “He’s a looker.”

He spat out the last word. A looker. That’s all I was. There is no bigger insult in all of Little League baseball.

The pitcher grinned back at the catcher, and I felt my hands tighten involuntarily on the bat. He wound up and sent the ball toward the plate and in that instant, something inside me screamed “NOW!’’

I swung the bat with every ounce of strength I could muster.

Incredibly, I made contact, and I watched in amazement as the ball took flight, looping toward foul territory behind first base. It was one of life’s revelatory moments, a precise intersection of time and space in which I suddenly realized I could do something that previously had been unattainable.

I could hit a pitched ball.

I don’t remember the rest of the at bat. I don’t know whether I got a hit or struck out. But if I did strike out, I’m sure I went down swinging, a much more noble way to go.

In fact, I really don’t remember much of Little League after that, even though I played two more seasons and was a starting outfielder for the town champion Tigers.

That was all more than thirty years ago. There would be other sports, then high school and college and newspaper jobs and mortgages and children who are now themselves in college.

But I will never forget that hot summer night in 1966, when I surprised everyone, most of all myself, by swinging the bat and feeling the sweet vibration in my hands and watching the ball trace a parabola through the sky.

It was just a foul ball.

But it opened up a world of possibility.

Gary D’Amato

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