“Now up to bat, for the Rockies, Andres Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-larraga!!!” The sun is shining brightly in the backyard and my friend, Shane puts the wiffle bat on his shoulder, holding his left hand up in the air as he scrapes his feet from side to side, marking a batter’s box.
I hold the wiffle ball behind my back, turning it in my fingers, and swipe at the dirt that covers the disregarded old road sign that we’ve made the pitching rubber with my toe. I’m thinking about beaning him for breaking my pitching groove.
“The Big Cat takes his stance and sets himself at the plate,” Shane bellows, trying to imitate Rockies broadcaster Jeff Kingery, as he taps each corner of home plate- a car floor mat- and bounces dramatically on the balls of his feet. “Cubs righty Kerry Wood waits on the mound.” He straightens his back and the bat dances behind his right ear. It’s a little windy and his arrow straight hair, cut in a severe bowl, blows in the breeze.
We won’t discuss my bowl cut- wavy and unruly and ridiculous.
“Galarraga doesn’t even play for the Rockies anymore,” I toss the ball up in the air and the breeze catches it. It falls to the ground.
“Shut up, dude! Pitch it,” he narrows his eyes and glares at me.
“You were the one calling for time!” From the windup, I rear back and throw what I want to be a slider. It’s supposed to go down and away from him, but the breeze catches it halfway to the plate and floats it up around his chest.
He swings and connects with a hollow plastic thwack.
“It’s a high fly ball!” He shouts and we both take off in a sprint- he around the bases and I toward the outfield. We both know that it’s not going over the fence, but we’re both unsure of whether or not I can get back in time to make the catch. I am, after all, both the pitcher and the outfielder, and it’s an awfully long run.
Thank G-d it’s a windy day.
The ball towers mercifully, floating like a lazy kite, and I stretch out my hands, running at full tilt. In our heads, we can hear the roar of the crowd and the vendors selling peanuts and beer.
“Galarraga’s around second!” Shane shouts.
The ball begins its slow descent. By the time it comes down, he’s going to be around third. I’m either going to have to make a Willie Mays over-the-shoulder catch or throw the living hell out of it to get him out. We’re adolescent boys, after all, and so it’s only logical that throwing the ball at the runner is a fair way to get the other guy out.
“It looks like you can tack another one on, folks! The Rockies are going to go up on the Cubs!”
Oh no they’re not. I grit my teeth. I am going to catch this ball.
The holes on the wiffle ball become clearer and clearer as it descends and it’s slowing down. It’s going to happen- I’m actually going to make the catch. My hands are a basket and my heart is in my chest. I stop my forward momentum and set my feet as the ball comes down into my hands.
“He makes the ca-” I shout and begin to turn. I set my right foot hard and rear back because- what the hell- I’m going to throw it at him anyway. Shane looks at me in disbelief and slows between third and home. His mouth is agape. He can’t believe he’s out.
The ball falls through my hands and falls at my feet.
“He dropped it!” Shane shouts, leaping in the air. I am cursing as I quickly collect the ball and we both begin to sprint. He is a full five strides away from home as I rear back and fire a dart toward him.
It’s a damn good throw. A shoulder height frozen rope that whistles through the air. I’ve never thrown a ball like this in my life. We both can’t believe it- I dropped an easy catch and he’s still going to be out.
The ball hisses toward him as he closes the gap to the plate. He is fast- one of the most athletic kids in school- and it’s a good throw, but it’s going to be close. In fact, I think it might just hit him as his foot begins to come down onto the bag. Shane and the throw arrive at the plate at the same time and I am grinning wildly, amazed.
I’m finally going to win one.
Grinning, he digs his heels in the dirt and stops flatfooted. The ball sails by him and buries itself into some tall grass behind the plate. He struts across the plate, whistling as he does.
“Did you see my new Todd Helton?” Shane’s face is lit up like a Christmas tree. We are in his room later that afternoon. We’ve long since stopped sweating, but the smell of adolescent boy hangs over his bedroom like a wet wool blanket. He’s holding up a baseball card, being careful to only touch the sides of it. It’s embossed foil and reflects the waning sunlight coming through the window. “Rookie card. He might be better than Galarraga.”
We’ve got thick binders open in front of us filled with pages upon pages upon pages of plastic sheets that are divided to hold nine baseball cards per sheet. Some of our other friends double the cards up back to back, so as to get more mileage out of the sheets, but we think this is sacrilege. If you double up, you have to take the cards out of the page when you want to see the stats.
Big no no.
We spend hours upon hours listening to music and showing off our baseball cards to one another, endlessly reorganizing them by team or position; alphabetically or chronologically. We debate the merits of one player against another using statistics whose meanings we don’t fully understand yet- .RISP, .OPS, WAR.
We don’t agree about much, but at least we agree that we hate the Yankees.
“Yeah, well did you see my new Scott Rolen?” I point to the middle of the third sheet in my binder smugly. My baseball cards are meticulously organized. Favorite players get their own sheets and the center slot is reserved exclusively for the most valuable or coolest looking card. Ken Griffey, Jr. has the first page, Sammy Sosa the second, Rolen, the young and scrappy corner infielder, is the third.
“Vinny Castilla’s better,” Shane says, searching for his Rockies page.
“Bull!” I immediately turn the Rolen card over to find some stat that will prove my point.
“Best first baseman?” Shane asks. Our cards freshly reorganized, we are going around the diamond choosing our favorite players.
“The Big Hurt.” I don’t even bother to ask him for his choice. Galarraga has been Shane’s hero since the Rockies’ inaugural day. For all intents and purposes, other first baseman do not exist in Shane’s mind. “What about shortstop?”
We pause for a few moments after I ask the question. Shortstop is a position in flux. The old guard- Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin and Omar Visquel- are aging and either retiring or moving to other positions and a group of stud young players- Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter- are coming to the fore.
“I don’t know, dude,” Shane says. “On the one hand, Garciaparra is a vacuum, but A-Rod is incredible. Did you see his dinger the other night? Huge. So far. I think it went out of the stadium.”
“Well, I mean, he is, but then there’s Neifi Perez-”
“Dude, you are such a homer! Neifi Perez is not better than Derek Jeter. You’re just saying that because he’s on the Rockies.”
“Wha?! Totally! He- he could be! You think Jeter’s better than Neifi?” Shane is beside himself at the idea that Jeter could be better than Neifi.
“And better than A-Rod?”
“Even though he’s a Yankee?”
“It sucks to say, but yeah, dude.”
Over the last few years, all of the players who seemed larger than life to me as a kid- the players I revered and worshipped, whose stats I memorized and batting stances I imitated- have all retired. Helton called it quits at the end of last year without warning, eschewing the attention he would have certainly gotten at every ball park the Rockies travelled to. Griffey hung his cleats up in 2010 and Rolen shortly thereafter.
Jeter announced today that he’ll retire after the upcoming 2014 season. He’ll be forty years old when he walks off of the diamond for the last time and few athletes mean as much to their franchises as he has meant to the New York Yankees for the past twenty seasons.
Twenty seasons. To think that he’s played for that long baffles me. I was in the fifth grade when he won the Rookie of the Year award as a skinny, scrappy spark plug of a shortstop. He’s thickened up since then and his hairline has ventured north. The Yankees have gone from an upstart World Series winner to a full-on dynasty. Throughout it all though, Jeter has maintained a reputation as one of the best guys in baseball, a class act through and through.
When you’re a kid, athletes seem ageless, limitless. You never suspect that one day your heroes will slow until they can no longer catch up to a 94MPH fastball, much less send it careening into the stands. You never imagine that their joints will get stiff and seize up, preventing them from going quickly enough to their left to keep that ground ball from getting into the outfield.
Jeter announced his decision to retire today, on my twenty-eighth birthday. I’m not altogether surprised. The guy is going to be forty years old. It did get me to thinking, though. I thought about Shane and wiffle ball and baseball cards and being a kid. I thought about idolizing athletes who eventually slow down and who then get replaced by the kids who idolized them. I thought about how, once Jeter is through, all of the guys that I loved as a kid will be gone, having been replaced by guys my own age who will slowly be replaced by guys younger than me and so on and so forth until one day, I am like my grandfather and reminiscing about the players I used to watch. I had always thought that age was an insidious creep, but I’m starting to see how it catches up to us.
It would seem that today, on my twenty-eighth birthday, Derek Jeter and I came to the same conclusion: “Man, I’m getting old.”