The Beautiful Symphony of Batting Practice
The most beautiful sound in a ballpark is not a crowd’s cacophony, Cotton-Eyed Joe, The Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, or even Vin Scully’s play-by-play coming through the radio next to you (that last one is a close second).
No, the most beautiful sound is surrounded mostly by silence – milling chatter, light pops, cracks and hisses…shattered by rifle fire.
If you’ve never done this, do yourself a favor: get into the stadium as early as possible; wait if you have to. Bring a glove. Play some catch. Talk your way in if you can. Just get into that inner stadium before sound-sucking bodies deaden the echo. Make your way to a seat, soaking in the studied routine of the team on the field. Sit back – I mean, lean way back – close your eyes, and just listen. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to HEARING splendor.
Every once in a while there’s a purity to that staccato fire, a silencing of the chatter and pops, a stillness, followed by a resounding crack, then a hiss as breaths draw in and the ball cuts the air. I’ve heard that twice, personally: once with Albert Pujols, and once with Bernie Williams, of all people. Both in the largely empty seats in The Ballpark. Batting practice stories are legend in baseball.
Buck O’Neil, the Negro League great and baseball’s ambassador emeritus well into his 90s, saw every great player from the ‘20s to the 2000s. He told a story of first hearing “that” sound listening outside the fence as a youth while Babe Ruth took batting practice. The next time he heard it was in Washington, D.C. where the Homestead Grays were hitting and their incomparable catcher, Josh Gibson, was mashing monster shots. More than 50 years went by, covering Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron, before Buck heard it again.
He was coaching for Cubs, who were taking on the Kansas City Royals in exhibition play. He heard that sound, felt his eyes go wide and his breath leave him. He looks up, and realizes who has just taken him back a half-century: Bo Jackson.
Ted Williams stories abound when it comes to batting practice. Such it is when you A) take more of it than any person before or since and B) do it to legendary levels.
But one stands out: I’m recalling these from memory, mind you, so bear with me.
This was just after he’d returned from service in Korea, 1953, as a Marine aviator. As they’re wont to do, his hands had softened from their calloused best. But the season was over halfway done, so he had a lot of work to do without spring training. Rather than use golf gloves – the trend was just beginning then – Ted got someone to throw and someone to shag, found a bat with balance and whip, and started taking cuts. Nothing easy about these, mind you. Full on cuts, from the start. When the pitcher eased up a bit too much, Williams would scream, “Throw the G** D*** ball” and squeeze the bat even harder, seemingly trying to grind sawdust with his fingers.
A dozen or so swings in on day one, he manages to hit one out, then gets on a role. From what I read, he hit twelve or so pitches out, mostly consecutive, and blood was literally running from his hands down his bat handle and wrists as the blisters burst. He hit the last homer, deep to right, flipped the bat away, and walked into the dugout. He worked out like that for ten more days, returned to the lineup, and homered in the 8th inning of his first game back – after homering in his last at-bat nearly two years before as he shipped off to Korea.
From the day he returned until the end of the season, Williams put up the following numbers for 37 games of the 1953 season:
Most players never have a stretch that hot at any point in their career. Ted managed it only months after having a jet shot out from under him over enemy territory.
Batting practice can be legendary, too, for lack of contact. There’s a story – pulled here from Diamond Dreams, the amazing pictorial and literary collaboration between Tom Boswell and Walter Iooss, Jr. – about a graceful retiree nearly demoralizing a World Series lineup. Dateline Los Angeles, 1981 World Series vs. the New York Yankees. Before Game 1:
Pitching off the rubber, Koufax threw nothing but fastballs. Garvey swung five times. Baker swung three times, Cey too. Nobody got the ball out of the cage. Glances were being exchanged at the cage. Next round Garvey four swings, Baker five, Cey four. Still nothing but misses and fouls.
Next time up Garvey gives the universal “flip-off-the-wrist” signal for a curve ball. It must have dropped two feet. Garvey couldn’t even swing.
Suddenly a Dodger coach raced to the mound and whispered in Koufax’s ear.
Immediately Koufax seemed to come out of a trance, nodding “Yes, yes.” Quickly he walked off the mound and the other coach pitched the rest of batting practice.”
Consider now: we are 45 minutes before one of the seminal match-ups in World Series history – a chance for Dodgers revenge for 1977 and 1978 – and a pitcher who had been retired for longer than he pitched made mincemeat of the Dodgers lineup. In most situations, that would have elicited a rapid response and change of arms; there’d have never been a second round of misses. But remember, too, this was Koufax. There is something transfixing about his bow-and-arrow bend of body, his arm exploding towards the plate. And there is something about greatness that cannot let go, even minutes before a World Series in a situation where the goal is to LET the hitters hit the ball.
Gourmands do not serve bologna sandwiches.
My personal favorite BP memory involves a former Ranger playing out the string during Spring Training in St. Petersburg, Florida.
My dad and I had arrived while the stands were still nearly empty – our presence doubled the crowd – and we hustled to our seats near the middle of the amphitheater-shaped backdrop framing the infield stands. Suddenly, as I was leafing the program, I heard what I swore was a gun going off. I looked up to see a ball sail over the high left-center screen. The next pitch brought the same sound, as did the third, each peppering the left field wall in high, arching line drives.
The hitter had the right pedigree. In Pompano Beach in 1985, he’d done mortal damage to the top of a fence as a rookie outfielder for your Rangers. One of his monster mashes had literally taken off a chunk of wood fence at the top of the outfield.
That rookie turned veteran, nearly ten years later, was one of the first true Ranger phenoms: Pete Incaviglia.
For all his Ks and chaos in the outfield, the man never failed to find his five o’clock groove.
So whenever you can, find a spot in a filling ballpark, sit back, and listen to the symphonic rumble of five o’clock thunder.