There I was outstretched on a Tuesday night under the lights diving for a ground ball down the line, a hard hit ball, not doing much thinking but the thinking I was doing was that fast approaching 40 my reflexes not only are not what they used to be, they aren't even what I once spent summer day after summer day preparing them to be.
It was the top of the seventh and we were ahead by four and they had runners on first and second with one out.
One of the things I miss about living with my older brother are the many summer days we spent practicing to become Major League Baseball players. For hitting practice we would use a wiffle ball and a wiffle bat and play a full scale game. It was equally fun playing the part of pitcher trying to make that plastic ball with air vents circling the top, try to dart and dip like a curve or a knucklechange and playing batter trying to launch that ball across our yard and far away into the neighbor's.
For fielding practice we used a tennis racket and a tennis ball that allowed the batter to hit mile high pop ups or smash grounders seemingly just out of the reach of the wannabe shortstop. My brother and I did this every day of every summer so much so that we wore out our parents' backyard and the little girls next door must have watched us intently because my Mom later told me that when she saw that they had begun playing baseball, they did so with a tennis racket and ball.
The fruits of those days of summer came in handy this particular fall night on this particular play on the dusty St. Paul Central High School softball fields. The feeling of being suddenly alive, stabbing a hot shot grounder that hugs the line, relying on instincts to be your guide was a spirit raiser. There was no thinking involved. I reacted the instant the ball hit the bat and everything that came after was like second nature but was probably more attributable to all those plays from the past. I got up and the runner on second hadn't even moved. I don't think he or anyone else was expecting me to field the should have been double down the line. I tagged third base and any feeling that they were going to come from behind and win the game seemed sucked right out of the place. The other team praised me. We got the next out and Cap'n Joe told me, and later repeated to my Dad who was as always faithfully watching in the metal bleachers, "That was the play of the season."
What made it an even more memorable and meaningful play for me was that I probably would have taken for granted being able to do that twenty years ago. I practiced it, I sometimes was able to do it, but it wasn't like it was an ability I'd ever thought would either go away or ever come in handy any day. Yet these days the reflexes are a bit less reliable and timing a little less confident. Things that used to come naturally now come with a moment or two of hesitation. The best example of this strange new sensation comes daily with escalator riding. When I was a kid I used to shake my head at the old people who took their time stepping on to the moving steps. You can't possible miss I thought. Now days I find myself a little less sure and I do on occasion take that stutter step on to an escalator, half expecting myself to fall and make an unintentional spectacle of myself.
Or maybe it all just comes from working far too many hours and sleeping far less seconds than even a chronic lifelong insomniac has come to expect. So on that memorable softball night as I got to bed far too late and never quite ever drifted away I was too tired to get up and find the CD that contained the song that I just couldn't get out of my head even though I hadn't heard it for years.
It then occurred to me that music can be rather strange- the first time you hear a song is different from repeated listenings and where you are at a particular time in life can make the same song mean much different things to you. I was lying there underneath the night sky that blazed down blackly from my skylight thinking of John Lennon's "I'm Steppin' Out" that was released posthumously and was written when Lennon was just the age I'm about to turn. The song came out my freshman year of college and the cocky yet trying to self assure one's self lyrics inspired me during a by where I was, necessary self doubting time of my life. "If it don't feel right, you don't have to do it/Just leave a message on the phone and tell them to screw it/After all is said and done, you can't go pleasing everyone/So screwwwwww oooh oooh oooh eewwww eewww it..."
I'm at a very different place these days professionally and privately. Everything back then seemed to be to prepare for things to come and now as things unfold they are for real yet they don't seem to mean as much as they did back when they weren't supposed to mean anything at all. Listening to John's song all these years later was a lesson in the arc of life and how where we are and who we are today may not be the same the next time the song plays again or the grounder goes right on by.