Step One: Thinking About Catching the Ball
All your life you have dreamed of catching the ball and now, at last, it is time to begin. You have studied the history of catching, memorized that list of the most famous catchers of the ball, undergone extensive reconstructive surgery to render you more attractive to other catchers of the ball and to the ball-catching community in general.
B. Physical Conditioning
The muscles to be used for the catching of the ball are different than the muscles for throwing. Throwing muscles tend to be large, lug-like, twitching conglomerates of raw red tissue also used for the lifting of fully loaded boxcars onto railroad sidings or the shoving of four-ton grand pianos through the plate glass windows of expensive French restaurants. Not that throwing is such a—should be such a—big whoop-de-doo. Any spherical object flung out into space in any direction can be considered a thrown ball. Any drunken palooka with a pound of raw hamburger in his mitt and a pack of stray dogs snapping at his heels knows what it means to throw the ball.
Catching the ball, however, requires a precision and an intelligence few individuals possess. Catching muscles are a set of tiny, finely tuned filaments, an exquisitely delicate processing system responsive only to the most sophisticated of neural commands. The ball must be snatched from its trajectory at that one—and only one—optimal point of intersection between catcher and catchee. One must calculate to within a fraction of an inch the mutual approach velocities of a matched set of interrelated parabolic arcs. Ergo, catching muscles are intellectual muscles, and the physique of the pure catcher of the ball need not necessarily be anatomically imposing. Here, have another doughnut.
C. What to Eat
In order to be attractive to the ball, it is important for you to look as much like a ball as possible. Since you are what you eat, we suggest as many sphere-icular foods as possible: cheese balls, gumballs, sourballs, crème-puffs, bon-bons, chocolate-covered ho-ho's. Be creative. Don't be afraid to vary your training program by expanding beyond the six major food groups listed here. This is what is known as "having a good range."
Step Two: The Proper Equipment
The glove was first developed in the middle ages to keep the hand warm during the period of time between the catching of the balls. As this period of time grew longer and longer, and the hand grew colder, the glove grew larger, gradually working its way up the arm, over the shoulder, and down across the torso in a linked, lobster-like armor of leather and beaten steel panels. Gloves today are made of space-age, high-impact, sear-resistant, projectile-deflecting materials like Teflon, graphite, titanium, epoxified nano-tubular high-tensile torque-resistant plutonium schmeer—like the one that I am wearing. Meaning: belonging to me. Mine. No touchy-touchy.
But not to worry. Right on your own doorstep you can find everything you need. Do you have a pair of sunglasses? Good. Do you have a pair of cleats? Good. Do you have a pair of shins? Good, good. Then roll up the legs of those city-boy trousers and let's have a—say hey! Just where have you been hiding those things? Those babies look smooth as a pair of porcelain swizzle sticks. You cannot hope to be catching the ball with equipment like that. Here, here's a bottle of Neatsfoot Oil, trot back down to the trainer's room and give those pegs a little rub-down. And here, here's a ball you can pound into those shins a few hundred times so as to make them soft and flexible and responsive to the touch, so as to make them the shins of a true professional. This is what is known as the breaking in of the equipment.
Step Three: The Proper Position
Now limp on out to the diamond here so we can get a good look at you. Good. Now get yourself down into the proper position. No, no, that is the fetal position. That is not right, that is incorrect, that is going to result in an error. An error is what causes you to miss the ball.
Now stand up. Good. Now let go of my hand. Good, good. Let's just try to concentrate on the ball on the ground—the grounder. There's the ball. Okay now: catch it! Good, good. Now put it back down again. Okay now, catch it! Good, good! You have mastered the most basic of the fundamental of the skills, the catching of the stationary ball. Now close your eyes and try to visualize what it would be like if there was some kind of a movement on this ball. No, no, do not move the ball! Focus your energies upon the beingness of the ball, the Zen state of the baseballness of the ball. Good, good. Aquinas says that the ball is the same ball whether it is in a state of motion or in a state of rest. Einstein says that time will actually be passing more slowly when the ball is in a state of rest. Feel how slowly the state of time is passing. Good, good. Whew! This is an awful lot to try to grasp hold of here. Here, here is some milk and some cookies; lie down here for a little bit, take yourself a little nap, that's plenty enough for today.
Step Four: Watching the Ball
Here is the ball. Now watch it closely. Watch as we waft it to you gently with a puff of breath, like a dandelion sailing on a light summer breeze. Watch as it draws closer, as it picks up speed, as it dances erratically to the left and to the right, spins like a swordfish, pitched by a hurricane, up onto the greasy deck of an Argentinean trawler.
Whoops. Too bad, you missed it. That's an error. But watch, watch, it's circling now for another pass. Here, here is some Dramamine, quick now, before it– whoops. Error! Error! That's another error!
This time around let's try to be a bit more precise in our ball-catching technique, shall we? Good. Come out from behind that tree. Good, good. Now elevate that glove of yours into the upright position. Excellent. Now hold yourself steady while we propel this ball with precision and with vigor and at a high rate of speed directly into the vicinity of– whoops. Too bad. Bad hop. You should get some ice on that. Let's just try another– whoops. Too bad, too bad. You do not seem to be maintaining yourself in the upright position with the weight balanced lightly upon the balls of the feet. No. Upright. Upright. Okay now get ready to– error! Error again. Goodness gracious. But not to worry, everybody has made an error at one time or another. To err is human. They put a mark in the book when an error is made and at the end of the season, they count up all of these different errors and figure them into your lifetime total. Sometimes they have to hire an accountant. Here, maybe we should get little closer so that– Yes, yes, that's the ticket! You almost made a good stop that time. The ball would have been dead in its tracks had it not been for that little ricochet off the side of your anterior cranial cavity.
Now let's– okay, the long ball then. Good hustle, good, but I have not done the hitting of the ball yet. You must wait until I do the hitting of the ball before you do the running of the– but no. Running, you are running. You cannot watch the ball with the back of your head, running, running, with the back of your head. Not until you stop running can you watch the ball hit the back of your head, can you watch the ball as it kabooms off the back of your head and skips away, zips away down the block and around the corner turning left onto the interstate merging into the express lane at the junction of I-95 and State Road 27, destination Ogden, Utah.
But not to worry. Now you have stopped running. Now you are watching the ball. Here, let me hold your head up. Good. Good. There goes the ball. Goodbye, ball. You wish that the ball was still here, but the ball has gone away, far far away. This is what is known as "missing the ball."
By the way, do you have a bigger glove, a sturdier glove, a glove without the sequins and the fuchsia lace trim? Good, good. Go and get the bigger glove.
Step Five: Finding the Ball
No, no, we do not need a map. A map is for sissies. Here, hide in the bushes so that you will not be seen by the ball, so that when the ball comes by you will be ready to jump out and to grab it. So stay loose, now– that's it, just kick back and relax and, hey, the morphine's on us! Good job, good. Love the sound but give it more of an ahhhhh, little less of an oooooo, and remember it's a mating call now, not a tracheotomy, so use your diaphram. Project. And toss another shred of clothing out there into the open, you know, as bait. Veni, vidi, vici, my son. Your typical eight-ounce ball—skinned, gutted, skewered, and basted over an open fire with a touch of basil and a honey mustard glaze—meets up to twenty percent of the minimum daily adult requirement for fiber, collagen, carcinogens, and beta-keratin. We have got to be running some errands, but you stay right where you are so that you will be in the best position to catch the ball. Here is the flashlight. Here is the mosquito repellent. No, no, do not worry, we will be back in no time at all, just as soon as we have finished running our errands.
Step Six: The Final Exam
A crowd (step seven) is beginning to gather. They have brought their cameras in order to capture the moment of you catching the ball. No flash photography, please. Maybe they think that you are somebody else, somebody important, somebody who is known as a good catcher of the– wow! Whoa, look at that. Look at that catch over there. An incredible diving catch by that guy over there. Okay, now we're going to hit the ball at you now, it's– whoops, too bad. Let's try another one here if we can– whoops, too bad, too bad. Let's try again—you have got to be taller!—let's just– whoops! Bad hop, bad hop, if we can just– wow! What a catch, what a catch! Look at that catch over there by that guy over there. Hang on here just a minute while we go over there to watch that guy over there make some of his incredible diving catches.
Step Seven: Graduation Day
Boy, what an incredible diving catch over there by that other guy over there. You must have a good reaction time in order to catch the ball, like that guy over there who made the incredible diving catch. You must break for the ball at the crack of the bat. You must anticipate. You must read the hitter. You must get a good jump on the ball. You must drink lots and lots of coffee. Quick, quick, quicker, and quicker! You are a tiger! Ah, ah– that was a popcorn wrapper. Now come on, get ready– bird, bird, that was a– whoa, whoa. That was your hand. Now calm down. Do not move. Do not move until you can see the seams of the ball. You must be perfectly poised. Do not make any harsh or sudden moves. Pretend that you are not even interested in the ball. Good, good. You must be gentle. You must try to make friends with the ball so that– watch out! Ooo. Ouch. Bad hop, bad hop but good ball, good ball.
Remember, you must be firm with the ball, you must show the ball that you are not afraid of it so that– yikes. Ouch and again ouch. That's it then! Forget it then! Bad ball! Baaad ball! You are going to have to punish the ball, you are going to have to teach the ball a lesson that it will never forget.
Step Eight: The Importance of Natural Ability
Natural Ability, which you do not have, has always been the single most important prerequisite to the catching of the ball. Gosh darn it! We'd just like to say that we're very disappointed at your progress up to this point in time. You are a failure.
Fortunately, you do possess, and have amply demonstrated, that one quality no catcher of the ball can live without: mass. And not just any kind of mass—what would be the point of that?—but protoplasmic mass. Congratulations! Eureka! Cowabunga! The time to act is now, but, quick, quick, you are facing the wrong direction. You must roll yourself over. That's it. Roll yourself over, face down into the dirt, and spread your arms out as wide as you can in both directions. Good, good. Clasp the ground firmly with both hands. If the ground is too slippery, anything substantial will do: a tuft of wet grass, the steel stem of a pink flamingo lawn ornament, the chrome grill of a '57 Desoto, skirt of a phone booth, leg of a mailbox, warm sturdy anklebone of an Indiana State Trooper, whatever is at hand with which to find an anchor.
If you happen to be on a parking lot, sidewalk, or interstate highway entrance ramp and can find no dent or nail to afford you the proper purchase, find two spots of flattened-out chewing gum at least an arm's length apart. Now dig into these with tips of your fingernails.
Good, good. Stretch your legs out in the same manner. Good. Now press your nose down into the terra firma.
In every direction the sky in a perfect curve surrounds you. Feel the sunlight on the back of your neck, the roar of the leaves applauding, the warmth between your shoulder blades. Feel the cold earth pressing up against your chest. Feel the wind scouring down across the naked soles of your cleats. The sun smiles down on you from some ninety-odd million miles away. Hold on tight. Patience, patience. Feel the stars rush by. Feel the wind as it lifts the back of your shirt as it tries to pull you away from your proper position, as it lobs the bright moon in an arcing trajectory from ear to ear across the circumference of your head.
You are tumbling through empty space at approximate 687,000 miles per hour. You are tumbling through space with your britches to the wind. You are hanging on tight with the tips of your fingers, with the tips of your fingers you are hanging on tight, hanging on, hanging on, hanging on tight.
This is what is known as catching the ball.
Notes from the Author
Over the years I've performed on stage a version of this story, the hapless wannabe athlete who scrambles to follow the commands of a mysterious booming voice from out the darkness. From the playbill: "Obey the baseball instructional tape that bullies its silent listener—a lone Chaplinesque figure—into bizarre new displays of affection."
"How To Catch The Ball" emerged (originally) as a theater piece in New York City and elsewhere. Later, for the Orlando International Fringe Festival, I managed to stir it into an ensemble theater piece, "American Obsessions," a comic/satirical look at the more surreal aspects of the world we live in today.