Back to Baseball Basics : Hitting the Ball, for Example!

Have you ever been frustrated by some skill that seemed beyond your reach? Who has not, especially in those ability-driven activities, sports and music? I have had three such notable lifetime experiences – two in sports and one in music. As of this post, and, late in life, I am batting two out of three, with one more meaningful challenge left – the art of hitting a baseball. I just purchased this baseball bat!

IMG_2331 Many fellow retirees might ask, “Why concern yourself with THAT now, in the golden years of retirement?” Are you contemplating a new career in major league baseball? Hardly, but I have a grandson now playing Little League baseball (his first experience), and our whole family is enjoying watching. Athletics come naturally to Matthew – we realized this rather early, with him. He and I enjoy throwing footballs and playing “catch” in the backyard with a baseball and glove, but team athletics pose a different challenge. So far, so good. Early in the season, Matthew was awarded the game ball for catching a pop fly for the final out in a close game with runners on base. He can field, he is fast on the base path, and he meets the ball pretty well with the bat. Lurking in the back of my mind is the challenge of becoming a good hitter at the plate. I hope Matthew has more success than his Grandpa did on that score!

11044580_10152741939913310_3547499852237230642_n[1] I vividly recall my challenges in freshman/sophomore high school baseball, and the biggest of all was hitting the baseball. Baseball came along before I found my true calling: Running the hurdles in track during my last two years. I had little confidence hitting at the plate because I had no clue as to “batting mechanics.” I wrote a personal memoir some time ago which included my early sports experiences. Here is a brief excerpt which relates one memorable and somewhat comical experience which accompanied my adventures in the batter’s box: My debut in frosh-soph baseball at San Mateo High benefitted from my treacherous learning curve that previous summer with the Lions. Our coach, Jack Alexander, was a good man who appreciated my effort; he also appreciated the fact that I was only going to help the team by the good example of my attitude and hustle. There was one time, however, when I surprised him – and good! It was a late inning substitution again. I do not recall the game circumstances, but we were playing Capuchino High School from Millbrae/San Bruno. I suspect we were losing decisively late in the game, given the situation. On the mound for them was a pitcher with the reputation of having the best fastball in the league; his name was Daryl W. He was going through our batters like a hot knife through butter. I could see he was a hard thrower for sure, so I stepped into the batter’s box with considerable trepidation. As always, hitting the ball was not something that came easily for me, and even our best hitters were striking out against this pitcher; so expectations were low all around. I stepped in, took a few practice swings, and waited. He went into his windup with a high kick and delivered. From what I could tell, the ball was coming very fast and it looked like it was coming toward my hands; I jumped back from the plate. The pitch came right over the plate with awesome velocity and terminated with a loud tha-WACK! in the catcher’s glove. Despite the great velocity of the pitch, the ball apparently had some real lateral movement as well because it ended up a perfect strike. My first reaction was ….GEEZ! Then, I felt slightly embarrassed for having jumped back from the plate on a perfect strike. My confidence was now even two or three notches lower, and I was just hoping that his control would not falter and that I would not be killed by a fastball to the temple. I steadied myself as he delivered again. I got a peek at the ball coming – this time seemingly right over the plate – and swung for all I was worth. Crr-AACK! I opened my eyes to see that baseball take off like a shot very deep to center field. When I recovered from my surprise, my legs began to churn toward first base. Why, I do not know, but the center fielder was playing back around 350 feet from home plate. He drifted back a bit and caught the ball. I suppose his thinking might have been as follows: in the unlikely case that anyone is able to hit this fastball pitcher, it is going to go deep. There was a lot of excitement on our bench as I trotted back to sit down. I am certain that no one else hit that pitcher harder than I did that day. Some time later, Tom H., who was one of our better first string players, told me how clearly he remembered the way I crushed that pitch. He said Coach Alexander literally fell off the bench when I hit it as did others of my teammates. My baseball experience was both valuable and humbling. I felt quite certain that I lacked the eye-hand coordination required to be a good hitter. In a way, it was much like my inability to hit high notes on the trumpet because of a poorly-suited embouchure [Note: Later proven untrue!]. As with my first athletic experiences at Lomita Park school, it was even more obvious that there would be no easy tickets for me in sports and that hard work and dedication would take me only so far in baseball. Besides, baseball was a team sport where an aura of personal confidence went far in promoting achievement as well as solidarity with one’s team mates. I always got along well with my team mates, but confidence was not one of my personal assets. Nothing breeds confidence like success, and nothing breeds success like confidence; it seemed I was just not able to get a foothold in baseball.

End of memoir excerpt

The other two especially significant “doing” challenges in my life besides hitting a baseball were: Playing the trumpet, especially in a higher register, and acquiring a strong and reliable tennis serve. My ultimate breakthroughs in these last two endeavors happened long after I began taking trumpet lessons in my early teen years and long after I started playing tennis in high school. Those two personal “triumphs” came about only after careful study and analysis of the technique utilized by trumpet players and tennis stars who had what I wanted – proficient ability. I finally learned how to learn things.

“Learning how” to Finally Do Something Well:
Perhaps the Greatest Feeling in the World!

The renowned author, David McCullough, expressed it very well when describing the elation of becoming proficient in a challenging task by doing it: “I can do this…and I am getting better!” He stated a canon truth when he maintained that skills like painting and playing the piano cannot be mastered by reading a how-to book; one has to do them! I agree, but I also maintain that the optimal method of learning for us not-naturally-gifted mortals is to supplant the doing with critical analysis of how to do it vs. how we are doing it. Further “doing” then becomes an attempt at experimentation with different approaches and a verification of what works best – working smart, in other words. My experience has revealed, in no uncertain terms, that practicing the same, possibly ineffective approach, over and over and expecting different and improved results is bound to frustrate…been there, done that. When my wife took home movies of my long-term lousy tennis serve many, many years ago, I was astounded at just how lousy it looked, as well. I had no idea – no concept of the inept body mechanics at play. I could immediately see why my serve was so weak and unreliable. Until I made major changes to my body mechanics which were in concert with motion physics (yes, science!), I got nowhere. Starting from scratch on a completely new serve was not easy and required hours of backyard, slow-motion visualization of my new service motion. It was difficult training new muscle responses, but it worked. The result: A classic-looking, reliable serve, and most important – one with power that really benefitted my tennis game. Cabrera-Back-Foot[1]Back to baseball! I am rising to the challenge, once more, in search of optimal body mechanics… like those of the great hitters in baseball – players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial. Often, great natural athletes like these know little about the physics of baseball; they instinctively visualize the appropriate body mechanics and efficiently proceed to convert them into automatic reflexes. The rest of us can truly benefit from watching the slow-motion and stop-action films so readily available today which reveal the instinctive secrets of the great ones. So…it’s off to the backyard with my new baseball bat for some slow motion visualization of what it takes to produce an efficient and effective batting swing. This stuff keeps me feeling young! I love investigating the whole learning process in sport, and I have high regard for the great coaches in any sport who can quickly and efficiently improve the athletic performance of young athletes by sharing their hard-won knowledge and insights into optimal technique. I have aspirations that I might even finally learn how to hit a baseball: Hmmm….better late than never. Yes, I am confident that I can learn to do that – the last remaining item on my lifetime big-three list of personal challenges. Make no mistake, there have been and remain many others, as well. These three were merely among the most vexing.

More importantly, I hope that I can be a baseball resource to my grandson, should he ever need any extra coaching. It may happen that the tables might be turned and Matthew will be the one who shows me how! Either way, it’s a win-win situation.

Life-Lessons Learned From Playing Sports

Few experiences in life were more beneficial to me than the lessons learned from competing in high school track and field. Other learning experiences came from my earlier involvement with baseball and later mid-life involvement with tennis. Most revelations were of the positive kind; a few were not, of course. My two track events in high school were the high and the low hurdles.

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I am the proud possessor of two gold track medals and a bronze! No, they are not from running track at the Olympics, but from my 1958 senior year in track at San Mateo High School! Yes, I know, the gulf between such accolades is immense, but those awards, nevertheless, mean a great deal to me because of life-lessons learned along the athletic path leading to May 9, 1958 when they were handed to me by our high school track coach. That little “ceremony” took place on the infield of Burlingame High School’s track, the site of our Peninsula League meet finals that afternoon.

On that day, the San Mateo High Bearcats pulled off a most surprising local sports upset by defeating the heavily-favored Burlingame Panthers for the league track and field title. Every team member was awarded a gold medal for the team victory. The other gold is the one that means the most to me, for it symbolizes my victory in the league meet over the best high-hurdlers from the other schools in our league. It remains one of my most prized possessions. The bronze medal was awarded for finishing third in the low hurdles final. Overall, I had a very good senior year in track in 1958.

The 120 yard high hurdles race was run over ten 39 inch barriers spaced ten yards apart. At the Olympic level, the race is an equivalent 110 meters over ten 42 inch barriers – a height well above most people’s navel. The world record in the 110 meter high hurdles is just under 13 seconds, today – a phenomenal feat of speed and athleticism.

Early Experiences in Sport – Everyone Can Relate

I recall that my first insights regarding athletics came from schoolyard days at Lomita Park School in Millbrae, California, beginning in grade three. Do you remember playing kick-ball and dodge-ball? I do, and it was on the schoolyard while playing these recess games that I first realized that some kids are blessed with “natural” athletic ability, some kids are hopelessly uncoordinated, and the rest of us fall somewhere in the “great middle.”

Although reasonably coordinated, I recall my frustration with kick-ball as the ball squirted off my foot at an angle and low to the ground, kick after kick. I also recall the towering shots that inevitably came off the foot of a female classmate, Lela Mae. I can still picture her: Slightly pudgy, with freckled cheeks, hair in hanging ringlets, and a booming foot that regularly sent the ball over the outfielders for home-runs. Likewise in dodge-ball: When Lela Mae tagged you with the ball, it really stung! Donald, another classmate, also seemed so much better than the rest of us in these events.

Throughout grade school, I was never the first to be chosen for P.E. or recess teams; luckily, I was not one of the last, either! Thus it was with early grade school athletic experiences. I did begin to notice, however, that when the P.E. teacher had us run sprint races, I was inevitably one of the two or three fastest in the class.

In Junior High, the recess sport was tetherball. Once again, I was embedded in the upper region of the “great middle” (of the pack), no match for a few taller, well-developed boys who, with one initial punch on the ball, could watch bemusedly as the rest of us haplessly flailed at the ball to keep it from winding completely around the pole in one “hit.”

High School Baseball: Can Field Some, but Can’t Hit

In high school, I tried out for freshman/sophomore baseball and got a uniform, but rarely played. I came to high school baseball with no real playing experience except hours spent in the backyard playing “catch” with playmates or with my dad in earlier years. Initially, I excelled at one thing as an aspiring outfielder: When coach would hit us long fly-balls in practice, I was quick to run up on the ball…only to realize far too late that it was sailing over my head! Quite embarrassing, initially, but I did catch-on and became a decent outfielder. I was a lousy hitter, however – a sure ticket to the bench. Despite my lack of baseball accomplishments, I learned about team sports and what is required of a good ballplayer. I know that Coach Alexander was impressed with my hustle and attitude in practice; my good example, not my inherent ability, was what earned me a uniform.

The High-Jump and, Finally, the Hurdles to the Rescue

At the end of sophomore year, I got in the habit of stopping by the track team’s high-jump pit on the way in to the locker room after baseball practice. I found I could clear close to five feet using the outmoded scissors-kick style I had learned as a youngster from my dad. I became interested and arranged for an informal “try-out” one afternoon with the track and field coach, Berny Wagner. I impressed him by clearing five feet in my tennies and sweat-pants. We both thought I had a future in the high-jump on next year’s track team. Accordingly, I went out for the cross-country team that fall term to build my legs and my endurance. It was no surprise to me that I was regularly bringing-up-the-rear in our meets since distance running was never a strong point. I was in it strictly for the conditioning and track, but I worked hard at it. I recall one race which took us past a pig farm in South San Francisco. What an experience, gasping for breath only to run directly into a fog of pig stench! It was awful, but humorous… in hindsight!

While running cross-country, I worked on high-jumping technique and learned to run hurdles since that that exercise was supposed to build leg-strength and “spring.” Well, what “spring” I did  have deserted me, and I never was able to clear five feet again in the high jump to Coach Wagner’s dismay (never indicated) and my bitter disappointment.

Fortunately, I began to be seduced by the hurdles, especially the highs, and it all was making perfect sense. I had good foot-speed, but not good enough to compete as a sprinter: Those were the guys who always won those grade school P.E. races and naturally found their way to the track team in high school. Sprinters often have a more muscular build which is not conducive to negotiating ten 39 inch barriers…at speed. I also was tall, lanky, and limber through the hips – prime attributes for a high hurdler. I did face tough competition from sprinter-types in the low hurdles, however, where technique and limber hips are not so necessary.

I grew to love running the high hurdles where the rhythmic three-steps between the ten hurdles allows the runner to really find his “groove” in the race when all is going well. When things go bad in the hurdles, they can go very bad. Hitting one of the weighted hurdles (they do not tip easily) with any significant force can knock the runner off-balance or cause him to lose momentum and his ability to maintain the three steps between hurdles. At that point, the runner is “toast” and the race us lost. Often, runners fall to the track after a collision with the barriers and are in danger of being spiked by the runners in adjacent lanes. And then there is the not- uncommon discovery at the finish line of a bloody “knob” on the trailing-leg knee from contact with a hurdle. Hurdling is not for the faint-of-heart.

One poster-child (among many) illustrating the lurking disaster in every hurdles race is Lolo Jones from team USA, one of the Olympic favorites in the women’s intermediate hurdles event a couple of Games back in time. She had a comfortable lead in the event finals when she jammed one of the very last hurdles with her lead foot, causing her to lose momentum and finish just out of the medal awards. That was such a hard race to watch for an ex-hurdler! One learns early that sports can be a cruel companion; an attitude is necessary which can maturely handle not only the “agony of defeat,” but that great imposter, “the thrill of victory.”

The Good News / Bad News / Good News… for Me

The good news: I was enjoying hurdles practice and felt compatible with the demands of the event, especially in the high hurdles. I felt I had a chance!

The bad news: In my junior year, my first competitive year in track, San Mateo High had three of the very best high hurdlers in the entire league. Our star hurdler, Bob Kile, was a natural athlete with speed who was also tops in the pole-vault and a star halfback on the varsity football team. Dale Lebeck was a fine broad jumper as well as hurdler. Al Holmes was one of the best high jumpers in the league. It was a learning year for me. I placed third in the hurdles once or twice when a lane was available, but I learned a lot watching these three fine athletes practice and compete.

The good news: All three of these hurdlers were seniors who would not be returning next year!! I saw my chance, and I threw myself, heart and soul, into becoming a good hurdler. I practiced hard and late during sixth-period P.E. and after school. Often, I walked home from school – probably a mile and a half to two miles – after two tiring hours on the track. I read books on hurdling technique, and I did stretching exercises every evening before bedtime. I fantasized about being league champion someday as I mowed our back lawn. Basically, I lived an existence heavily focused on track which has allowed me, ever since, to fully appreciate the intensity and focus which is necessary for competition at the Olympic Games. Of course, I have no illusions about the magnitude of my high school experience compared to that of the Olympic Games, but the lessons I learned taught me about self-discipline, perseverance, and dedication to a goal. I learned, too, that year, how socially beneficial athletic success can be. In those days, track and field was quite a popular sport, and my hurdling brought me to the attention of classmates who were outside of my closer circle – an experience that was new to me given my athletic struggles of the past. It all made for a wonderful senior year. Would that all youngsters could have a similar experience and learn the life-lessons that I did because of track.

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The San Mateo Times Sports Page, May 10, 1958

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The San Mateo High School “Elm” of 1958

I owe my success in track to our track coach, Berny Wagner, who passed away last year. Coach Wagner positively affected my life more than any other teacher/educator in all my formative years.

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I intend to write more about Coach Wagner in a future post. Suffice it to say, his inscription in my senior yearbook just before graduation illustrates the kind of mentor he was to the fortunate lads who crossed his coaching path …in high school and, ultimately, at Oregon State University. The “greatest thrills” in his coaching career were still to come!