Field of Aches

In which a past-his-prime writer wages a quixotic attempt to play with the big boys

After the outfielders and infielders switched places and the infielders had batted -- and run a 60-yard-dash along the right-field warning track -- the outfielders would get to make throws to third base and home plate. Once they were finished, each infielder would take four ground balls. I looked over the size of the crowd, and I realized not only was I in for a long day, but my wife, who would be sitting in the stands the whole time, was in for a really long day.

But when I went onto the outfield grass to shag flies, I knew it would all be worth it. I knew I'd have my own tale to rival the one my father told me about my grandfather:

My dad coached my Little League team. At the end of the season, all of the coaches and dads got together to play a baseball game. Now, most of the guys were in their late thirties, maybe early forties. My dad was in his fifties. On the day of the game, none of the other dads wanted to play catcher, so my dad agreed to do it. I'd never seen my dad actually play baseball, and I knew he'd never played organized ball, so when he went five for five with a single, three doubles, and a homer (all of them ropes), I couldn't believe it. He caught all nine innings of that game, too. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.

Starin' at the stands: This batter is unlikely to park one
Michael McElroy
Starin' at the stands: This batter is unlikely to park one

When my kids tell my grandkids my story, they probably won't go into all the minutiae, like when the first broken bat of the day skittered to first base, drawing an ovation from the players and their fans. Or when a screaming foul ball hit a TV camera -- inches behind the cameraman's head. Or when a 150-man outfield turned its head as one to watch a rare line drive bounce in front of the Teal Tower in left field. And they will definitely leave out the fact that one of the players there, a right-handed pitcher out of Hollywood named Patrick Frawley, was actually good enough to get himself signed to a minor-league contract. No, the story they'll tell will go something like this:

Your grandpa tried out for the Florida Marlins. He got to shag flies in the outfield of a Major League park and spotted a huge swath of sunflower seeds in right field -- likely from a visiting player, because all the Marlins' regular right fielders prefer chewing tobacco. He was supposed to give the balls back once he caught them, but he pocketed one of them, which had "The Official Ball of the Arizona Fall League" printed on it in blue ink. He played catch with one guy who played in a local amateur league and another who DJ'd at several prominent adult-entertainment establishments in Broward County.

He watched the machine mow down batter after batter. Maybe half touched the ball, and fewer than half of those put the ball in play. Only a very few hit with any authority. So when he took his five pitches in the batting cage and swung as fast as he could at something he couldn't see, he didn't feel so bad when he missed three and fouled off two.

He did feel pretty bad about 40 yards into the 60-yard dash, when his legs tried to explain to him that they couldn't remember the last time they'd done anything remotely resembling "dashing."

After a couple more hours of sitting around on this sweltering, partly cloudy South Florida day, he lined up with all the other middle infielders at shortstop -- which made him nervous, because the whole reason he'd signed up as a second-sacker was to avoid making the throw from short. But when he took his four ground balls, he fielded them cleanly and tossed four weak-but-accurate one-hoppers to first.

Then he jogged into the stands, where your grandma informed him that, according to her calculations, the seven hours she had spent watching Middle Infielder No. 3022 mostly stand around and do nothing would cost him exactly three Julia Roberts movies.

OK, so it ain't Field of Dreams. But it'll do.

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