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Hitless wonder learns a hard lesson at the plate

The Brooklyn Paper
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This week, I did something that no grown man should do: I paid a man $45 to teach me how to hit a baseball.

In theory, the batting lesson had a legitimate purpose: On Saturday night, I will join several Paper colleagues, plus a handful of other local scribes, in a bitter, nasty game of hardball (for charity!) against the front office staff of the Brooklyn Cyclones.

My goal, you see, is to help my team win.

But arriving at Brooklyn Indoor Sports Center in Sunset Park the other day, I realized that my quest for a sweet stroke was merely the athletic equivalent of cosmetic surgery — a vanity-driven move designed solely to stave off the inevitable humiliation that comes from spending your entire adult life hitting nothing but weak groundballs back to the pitcher.

But so what if vanity was behind my batting lesson? Thirteen-year-old girls are getting breast implants as bat-mitzvah gifts, so can’t a middle-aged guy get a chance at glory (which, in my case, would be a 10-bounce dribbler that finds a hole between the shortstop and the third baseman)?

Apparently, no.

“The lesson is for you?!” my batting guru, John Torres, said as I entered the cage, helmet in hand. “I thought it was a lesson for, you know, a kid.”

I explained about the charity game. I told him that I just wanted to do a good job, you know, “for the kids” (the charity game is for the kids, right?).

“OK,” said Torres, who’s also the head baseball coach at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill. “Let’s see what you got.”

I took a few swings and my personal batting coach noticed one problem right away.

“Do you always swing with your arms so far out?” he asked.

No, I thought. Sometimes I don’t swing at all. But I told him that men of my generation — the Dave Kingman generation — were taught to extend their arms as far as they’d go.

Tip number one: Don’t extend the arms as far as they’d go.

Torres gave me a simple drill, telling me to place one end of the bat against my bellybutton and the other against a wall. Then he told me to take a few swings. When I hit the wall, it meant I was extending my arms too far.

After taking a few of my newly shortened swings, I actually did feel like I’d learned something.

Then he started throwing hardballs at me. Other obvious problems with my swing presented themselves like a corpse on a medical examiner’s gurney.

“You’re all off-balance,” said the baseball whisperer. “When the pitch is inside, you get jammed up. When it’s outside, you’re trying so hard to pull it, that you can’t get any power.”

Tip number two: Open up your swing by when the pitch is inside and close your swing when the pitch is away.

I started getting the hang of it, so Torres started throwing me curve balls.

Perhaps you’re familiar with old Looney Tunes films of Elmer Fudd trying so hard to hit a curveball that he ends up swinging, missing and screwing himself into the soil. I’m starring in the live-action remake of those cartoons (and, like Ringo said, all I gotta do is act naturally).

Tip number three: Keep your hands back. If the pitch is a curveball, you’ll have time to adjust to the slower speed.

Sure enough, I started hitting a few. But I still wasn’t driving the ball sharply. The reason? My bat moves through the strike zone like a plastic knife through caramel.

“We need to work on your bat speed,” Torres said. “I have a drill for bat speed. Close your eyes.”

Close my eyes? What, am I supposed to feel the force, Master Yoda?

“I’ll yell ‘Open’ just as the ball is getting to you. That way, you won’t have time to think. You’ll just swing.”

Sure enough, this worked, too. I’d open my eyes just in time to start a shorter, quicker swing — and I even made contact.

A few more practice swings and my confidence was soaring. Then time was up, so Torres wished me luck and went to the other cage to teach a 6-year-old.

With a little time to kill, I decided to put my freshly honed skills to work, and bought a few tokens for the batting cage. I figured I’d warm up with a round of 60-mile-per-hour meatballs before trying to hit the 70-mph fastballs. I put my token in and got my 10 pitches:

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

Foul tip.

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

Foul tip.

Swing and a miss.

So much for confidence.

Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at gkuntzman@cnglocal.com

The Brooklyn Cyclones’ front office will play 12 charity games in 24 hours, starting at 4:30 pm on Saturday, June 2 at Keyspan Park (1904 Surf Ave., at West 17th Street in Coney Island). The game against the journalists will be at midnight.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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