I could not hit with Pop in the stands. I would crouch at home plate, waiting for the inevitable surge of nerve juice to tighten my thighs, and stare at the pitcher. Pop would squat behind first base at the base of the wire fence, where he could best stand watch over my stance. I never looked at him. I knew he was watching, alternately silent, and then: “Watch it leave his hand! Watch for the spin!”
I saw the ball, but rarely the spin. I could hit it, and always on a rope-like line, if it came in straight and fast. But never the curve, the hook. I knew it spun, just as Pop always said. It always arrived, spinning, for my head. I would jerk instinctively, back and away, dropping my hands. It was not a matter of fear, for I had been struck many times by thrown balls and considered myself something of a hero for the experience. It was merely a reflex, like the blink of an eye. At the instant I would begin falling away, it would suddenly begin spinning back away from me in an arc as gentle as the blade of a scythe. A strike, always a strike. And Pop would clap his hands as loudly as a rifle shot: “Don’t bail out! If it’s spinning, stay in there!”
Pop was a hitter. He played semi-pro ball for 12 years. It was his living, like baking bread or making book. When he was 29, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates watched Pop splatter curveballs, sliders, fastballs on graceful straight lines across the outfield of an old green ballpark in Wilmington, Delaware. The scout said: “Son, I wish I had seen you 10 years ago.” A 19-year-old boy is a big league prospect. A 29-year-old man is a semi-pro ballplayer, nothing more. But Pop could smack a curve ball.
He tried to teach me. It was not a thing that could be conquered through diligence, like playing the piano. It was an instinctive thing, neither learned nor acquired. A man is born with the ability to paint a landscape, build a bridge, hit a curve ball.
Still, Pop tried to teach it. He would take me before games to an Iron Mike batting cage, where he would set the machine to toss up a soft lollypop of a curveball. I would flail away at a few and then, as I learned to anticipate the arc, begin to send each one into the fine topspin rockets that radio sportscasters called “frozen ropes.” That was only a machine, of course. Young pitchers of that time, and of any time, threw a bewildering array of curves. Each one threw slightly differently and, more through wildness than design, made it trying for a young hitter to hit curves through sheer familiarity. In games, against human pitchers, I watched curve balls dip into catchers’ mitts or, on occasion, flutter weakly into right field.
I managed to cover my deficiency during games by waiting for fastballs which, though thrown harder, are predictable and reassuring. I would attack them, praying they would not curve suddenly, and line dives would shoot from my bat. In certain circumstances, I was quite a hitter.
But not with Pop watching. I kept waiting for the curve, the spin. My arms were tied in knots as I listened to him shout advice. I unraveled slowly, a sad and desperate out while Pop shook his head at the edge of the stands. He would put his arm around me afterwards, describing the spin of a curveball by twirling his thick index finger. We would rush home for supper, Pop forever reminding me, “Watch for the spin. Watch.”
One spring, when I was 15, Pop was called to Vietnam. He left before our season began. My first time at bat that spring, with Pop sitting in a field tent halfway across the globe, my baseball world stopped spinning. During a game that day, I got a sign from the team’s coach that I had come to love: hit and run. The runner on first, a fast Mexican named Alberto Morales, was ordered to sprint towards second on the first pitch. My task was to swing at the pitch, no matter where it was thrown. I relished it. There was no agonizing, no waiting in dread for the awful spin. Nor was there the hesitancy inherent in the art of hitting a ball with a club. The pitch would come in and I would hit it, reflexively, without conscious deliberation. It demanded no decision.
As the pitcher delivered, Morales broke for second. I began my own stride towards the mound, shifting my weight forward. The ball shot towards me and, no . . . yes, it began to spin, down and away. My mind was back in the cage against the Iron Mike. It computed for the break of the ball as my stride carried me forward. I swung. A sweet solid surge of shock flowed into my arms. Instantly the ball was arching towards the center fielder. I watched him take two steps in as though to catch it. Suddenly he was backpedaling furiously and then turning and running full tilt with his back to the plate. The ball crashed into the base of the fence. By the time the fielder relayed it in, I found myself standing on third base.
I had hit a curve ball. Not obliquely, passively, but with force and power. I had discovered a secret: Do not anticipate it; merely react to it. Poor Pop. He had been doing it all his life. He just couldn’t put it into words.
I had a ferocious season. After three games I was moved to cleanup. I hit with nobody on, with the bases loaded, fast balls and curve balls. I was still being fooled by curves on occasion, but I could no longer be set up for that soft break. I finished the season at .483, second in the Babe Ruth League to Morales. We, the Redlegs, won the city championship and, with no real effort, the state championship. We were 30 and 1 going into the regional championships.
I described our progress to Pop in recorded tapes mailed to Vietnam. I told him that I was hitting a few curves, but I did not tell him how. I sent him a newspaper photo of me hitting, plus a list of the league statistics. Years later, I found the clips in his bedroom. They were worn and creased from the countless times he had withdrawn them from his wallet to show them to his troops. I can see him now, passing the smudged clippings from hand to hand, saying, “Just think what the kid could do if he learned how to hit a curve ball.”
We won the regionals. We won them despite the fact that we snuck beer into the converted Army barracks where we stayed the night before the game, that we stayed up all night telling jokes in our underwear, and that we swallowed a cereal bowl of warm beer each just before the game.
The score was 6-5. I tied it in the eighth inning with a runner on third. I dumped a curve ball into center field to drive in a run. We won it in the bottom of the ninth on a two-run homer by a kid who now sells tuxedos. We all got trophies. The local paper wrote a story about us, with pictures.
The next spring, Pop returned. I had since gone to high school and made the baseball team. I did not play a single inning until the last game of a hopeless season (we finished at 5-16). Because it was the last game and because Pop had come back, the coach let me hit. We had somehow managed to tie the game and put a runner on second in the ninth. Pop was yelling again abbut the spin as I stepped in. I looked for a spin on the first pitch and got it, one of those buzzing curves inside and at eye level. Instinctively, for I had not hit in competition since the previous summer, I began to bail out towards third base. I swept my bat around for self-protection. I looked up as I fell back and was surprised to see the ball, spinning wildly, kick its way past the pitcher’s mound, careen madly past the straining glove of the shortstop and then roll gently to shallow center field. Base hit. I ran to first base and remained there until someone told me the game was over. I had won the game.
I felt hollow, emptied. I had lost the magic. Where I had merely reacted to curve balls the summer before, I was now a victim again. I was anticipating, dreading. My secret had slipped away with the summer. Never again would I hit a curve ball with the recklessness of that previous summer.
Pop was ecstatic. He took me out after the game and bought me a cheeseburger and two Cokes, though we were supposed to head straight home for dinner. He kept sweeping his beer bottle over our table, trying to simulate the motion of a curving baseball in flight. “You see! You see!” he kept saying. “All you’ve got to do is watch for the spin. Just watch for it.” I smiled warmly at Pop and assured him that I would.
Tea-break in The Octagon on the top of Mount Mansfield, Stowe, Vermont: the sun blazes to the West over the Nosedive; evening comes on fast from the East across the far fields and distant mountains. The table is full of flushed faces surrounded by a room full of flushed faces. Voices glad-mouth over a cup of Lipton’s and a Milky Way bar, all cares careless while the boots are still buckled on those nearly-exhausted-but-ready-to-crank-one-more-time muscles.
The last run. Time to go.
The whirr of the chair spins off its riders, two by two, swoosh. The bindings are cooked, the skis dropped; left boot connects and locks, the right clicks in right beside. Squat to tie up the straps, flex and stretch the muscles limber. Rub those deep down gloves once together, slide them through the straps, grip their poles.
And look to the others. Big smiles all around. We’re ready to go.
Slide snowplow easy down the alley, dip down and right, under the chairs, skating for speed and relaxation. Let the skis taste the snow down the Main Highway, skipping with little exaggerated frolics of a two-step turn, the hips thrown out.
Pull up short at the start of the National. It’s time to get serious, buried VW’s are soon to be thrown in the way. The Gang assembles, lined up like an instructor’s class, only there is no one to lead or teach: we’re just together, taking turns to say the Way.
One starts off through the opening, not steep here, but the moguls run long and the valleys deep so you get stuck in the line, twist-twist, going fast, and have to bail out 100 feet down just where it drops off steep to the bottom. The panic is on: this bump is no place to stop as the next skier funnels head first for it. Push off, hug the left for three pairs of hip-grinding, mother lode sweeping turns. Cut across two bumps, take the next mogul straight, a jump of 15 feet to quick-turn and rest on the road which cuts through (affectionately known as Panic Alley) on its way to the Liftline.
Aaah, sweet luxury of a resting place, there’s not another until the Birch Tree (no longer standing tall save by reputation) way down about two football fields’ worth of mean bumps. Skiers standing nearby wonder whether to hazard the ice over to the more gentle but still ferocious Liftline, or stick with the sheer drop of the National. Expressions on faces run from cool tameness to utter wobbly-kneed panic. But even in the eyes of the most accomplished there lurks a spot of churning respect, like a foreboding, for the path which must be negotiated before Life may continue.
Sharp intake of breath, like a private dare, and shove off. Slip-slide through the gate of rocks (one crunches delight of a solid bite of tender ski-bottom) and suddenly it’s Oh my God here comethemoguls. Too steep to stop and too fast to breathe, the world becomes a whirlwind tunnel of action and reaction, a stab of the pole right, hip twist, knees crash, float through the absolute silence of pure air, crash back to the Maelstrom, stab left, then left again, right . . . down . . . on . . . through . . .
About 100 yards into furious Heaven, the slope slows into the Crossover, merge of traffic left, the Double chair overhead, duck for the single, and it’s the left side again. Hug the woods, sometimes into the woods and quickly back out (flash of the thought: “No, no, that’s not smart”), still on the left and moving oh so fast, twisting and turning oh so hard, the last few screaming so with exhaustion and pain and ecstasy they’re hardly turns but a racing, contorted, desperate slide to the Birch Tree.
Piles of people gather here. Fifty year old corporate executive of a family man stands next to twenty years of golden locks of a ski-bum lighting a joint to celebrate the day. No Prejudice or Envy besmirch the Birch where all who reach this spot have had to travel the same heavenly trials.
The Middle National slides into a dance, a waltzy tango with the snow for a partner, the music of poetry scattering blossoms of snowflakes. The rhythm rocks even and steady, swish-swish- swish-swish, down to the final plunge, head spinning rush of steep turns, 15 twists and a roll to arc one long final ride of a turn to wait panting at the Park Bench for the pals to gather and bid back-slapping adieus.
From here Downhill Madness wreaks its havoc. Push off with a skate and come tightly into a tuck, head rolled down, eyes strained to tears from the speed. A straight-away rolling down, a slight turn right, dips deep and rolls away left — ears roaring, body flung out from going too fast — straighten and grip tight to nothing and everything through the ripples of bumps down another dip right. Hang just inside over the roots of the woods, straighten and jump the bump, landing to ride out the storm with thighs tuck-tired, screaming to quit around large flat turn left and another 100 feet to open onto the Parking Lot and the day being done.
On the way home along the Mountain Road, one drop in a stream of tired, aching and exhilarated skiers, slowing down and speeding up as cars stop at the Matterhorn (first bar off the Mountain), or their motels (signs bright against the New England greying light) — riding home after a fine time of Skier’s Delite, there is not a thing to be said, not a thought or feeling to dampen the joy of such Sport.
Christopher de Moll