Monday, August 16, 2010
Thank God for Mush Balls
I'm just over a week removed from my annual tour of duty at our community's Summer Camp. I've been to this camp virtually every summer since 1992, so this was my 19th camp. As I've done every time but one, I was the
Camp Clown Music Director. Which just might be the best job in the whole camp. I get to sing and play my guitar A LOT (and this year, I even had some callouses built up in advance on the fingertips of my left hand, so the suffering quotient was less than it has sometimes been), and just generally provide random goofiness levity. And of course, the kids love me.
I also do a couple other things at camp - I help with one of the boys' Bible Studies, and run the afternoon softball game, both of which I love to do. One of the other staffers, who was the Camp Director for several years, helps with the softball game; every year we have a light-hearted competition over whose teams win more games during the week. Every day, we pick new teams from the campers and staff who show up to play. Typically, I'll have the players line up against the backstop, and just count 'em off 1-2-1-2-etc. One day, we'll line up shortest-to-tallest; another day, by birthdays (January at one end, December at the other); another day, alphabetically by their middle names (which always seems to take longer than it should); and another day, alphabetically by their mothers' maiden names (I was a little leery of this, given how hard it was to line 'em up by middle names, but they did fine with it). 1's will be my team, 2's my buddy's (or vice-versa; I don't keep that close a track).
In bygone years, we played with the tight, hard-ish softballs (which are still a good deal softer than a baseball), and those things would fly when we hit 'em well. I don't know the precise dimensions of our field, but the 'outfield' is surrounded by trees. If a camper hits a ball into the trees on the fly, it's a home run; if a staffer does, it's an out. So the pitchers will feed the heavy hitters among the staff a steady diet of 'meatballs', hoping to goad them into hitting the trees. And if a staffer's team is either ahead or behind by a large margin, he might just swing for the trees anyway, for the ego boost. There is an art to hitting the ball hard, but just short of the trees, so it won't 'draw green' as we call it, but will roll into the woods, which just about guarantees a home run, since it's pretty hard to get a clean throw out of the woods.
In all my years at camp, only one camper has hit the ball into the trees during a live game - my son, 4M (*shameless proud-papa grin*). That's mostly because, the way the field is laid out, the trees in right field are a good bit closer than in left or center, so a left-handed-hitting kid who's had an early growth spurt (4M is both) is at a pretty good advantage over the other kids as far as hitting the ball into the trees. A few other kids have come real close to hitting the trees, including 3M and this year, 7M, who both missed by just a foot or two in their 6th-grade year (the oldest kids at the camp). And both of them, after the last game of the week passed without them having reached the trees, stayed after, and took 'batting practice' until they finally 'drew green'. One kid, who'd striven mightily during his camper years to reach the trees, without success, returned as a staffer when he was in high school, and hit the trees at last; even though he was out, he threw his hands in the air, and skipped around the bases anyway.
Hitting the trees got a bit more difficult a few years ago, when we decided to switch from the tight, stiff balls, to 'safety' balls, which are spongier and a little bit heavier, and don't fly as far as the balls we used to use. I had no issue with the change; it really only made sense, if we were gonna have 250-lb adults and 50-lb third-graders playing together on the same field. And really, as far as the staff is concerned, a lower likelihood of hitting the trees means a greater likelihood of actually reaching base safely. The 'mush balls' do tend to bounce strangely, especially on fly balls to the outfield (think about balls bouncing over the outfielders' heads in the old Minnesota Metrodome) (better yet, don't think about that), and they have a few other annoying properties, but in general, we've accepted them.
So this year, I was struggling a bit at the plate, at least in the early part of the week. These days, I don't play a whole lot of softball anymore, so sometimes it takes me a game or two to get my 'hitting eye' dialed in. Plus, I tend to overswing at first, which results in a lot of weak popups, instead of line drives to the gaps of the outfield. As I relaxed a bit, and just concentrated on making contact, and not on crushing the ball, the line drives returned.
And so it was that on Thursday afternoon of camp week, I came to the plate. I'm pretty sure my team was behind when I came up, and we had a couple runners on base. The shortstop for the other team was a 5th-grader named Juan Pablo, who was one of the better players among the campers (which was not unrelated to why he was playing shortstop); he could hit well and field his position, and so we didn't have to worry about 'hiding' him somewhere he wouldn't get hurt.
So I came up to bat, thinking I just needed to make solid contact, and put the ball in play somewhere. The pitch came in, and I swung, not trying to crush the ball, just hit it 'down-and-hard' as we say. And the ball shot off my bat like a rocket, probably the hardest I hit a ball all week.
And it hit Juan Pablo right in the face.
The ball was so 'hot' that the kid, as good a player as he was, didn't even have a chance to deflect it with his glove, and he went down like he'd been shot, while everyone looked on in horror. The guys who got to him first said that he was never unconscious, so that was good, but his nose was bleeding like a faucet. One of the other counselors scooped him up and took him over to the nurses' station.
The nurse got him cleaned up, and induced his nose to stop bleeding. Then she did some basic checks to determine if his nose was broken (she was pretty sure it wasn't), or if he had a concussion (she was pretty sure he didn't). She kept him for observation for an hour or so, and when he was alert and breathing freely, she turned him loose, and a few minutes later, he was horsing around in the swimming area, with a purplish bruise across the bridge of his nose.
While all the staff who'd been at the softball game exhaled. It occurred to me that the mush ball had probably done exactly what we'd switched to it for in the first place. If we'd been using the old, 'tight' balls, it would've come off my bat even faster, and instead of mushing onto the bridge of Juan Pablo's nose, might've broken it, or given him a concussion. I shuddered to think of how many games we'd played in the past with those balls, and perhaps how fortunate we'd been that there hadn't been previous Juan Pablos sent to the hospital. As a camp, you always hate to tell a kid's parents that little Willie is in the hospital (much less that a hefty staffer had smashed a softball off his face). . .
On Saturday, when we turned the campers back over to their parents, I made a point to seek out Juan Pablo's dad and tell him what had happened, and encouraged him to talk to the nurse about the basic evaluations she'd done. Dad thanked me for telling him, and mostly laughed that he'd be working with Juan Pablo to be quicker with his glove next time. . .