The guy standing at home plate, pawing the dirt, ready to break for first base, was a professional baseball player, a handsome man so fleet of foot he leads his team in stolen bases. At first was a man with a glove. The guy with the ball, standing at third, poised to throw, was me. Someone yelled, "Go."
Nothing unusual here. Flabby old men like me have idiot fantasies like this one all the time, generally ending in a Walter Mitty moment of triumph. The only difference here is that this was real. Also, the ending was not predetermined.
What brought me there was a short video clip I'd found of Baltimore Orioles' third baseman Manny Machado making an outstanding play. Manny bolts to his right to grab a ground ball. His momentum carries him to the base and then 10 feet beyond it. He is now a daunting distance from first, toward which the batter is barreling. But Manny seems unconcerned. He stares at the ball in his hand for a moment, as though they are exchanging pleasantries, then uncorks a throw so mighty that the ball seems to have independent thrust, from afterburners. You can practically see a contrail. Out.
If you are a certain age and body type, a video like this can prompt some envy, which can become defensiveness. So when I showed it to my editor, Tom the Butcher, I expressed my awe and all that, but added that, stripped of the extra distance and time pressure Machado faced, the third-baseman's routine throw to first - a simple hypotenuse of 127.375 feet! - is not all that hard. I said even I could probably pull it off, at which point Tom observed that it sure would make his month if I tried to prove this contention in a real ballpark, with a real speedster, in front of a real video camera.
It wasn't hard to arrange. Minor league baseball teams tend to be desperate for publicity. If you Google "minor league," there is no phrase you can pair it with that is too hokey to garner some hits. "Chicken race"? Yep. "Helicopter candy drop"? Sure! "Liposuction giveaway"? Why the heck not! By comparison, my proposal was downright dignified, even for the Potomac Nats, the classy, Class-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
So here I am at their G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va. (Adorably, the P-Nats call it "The Pfitz.") Standing at the plate is their speedy star shortstop, Stephen Perez. Stephen has been gracious, but he doesn't look thrilled to have been volunteered for this; despite being the center of attention, he seems a little sullen and indignant, like the costumed schnauzer at a Halloween party whom everyone is aww-ing over. And like that dog, Stephen seems intent on revenge.
This stunt is enormously tipped to my advantage. By the time Manny Machado corralled his grounder in the video, the batter was already halfway to first base; I get to hold the ball from the get-go. (Stephen politely asked if he could start a little down the line, and when I said no, his eyes narrowed just a bit, and he leaned in just a bit harder toward first.)
"Go!" What followed is a blur. Literally. Stephen explodes into an indistinct cloud of churning limbs; though I had resolved not to look at him at all, it becomes impossible to ignore the Wile E. Coyote pinwheel locomotion to my right. Major distraction. When I finally throw the ball, it isn't Machado-like, in the sense that it leaves my hand grudgingly, perhaps unsatisfied that I'd taken no time for pleasantries. The ball seems to completely surrender to "drag," as though the air is not air but minestrone soup. Also, it pulls the first baseman WAY off the bag. Also, it bounces at least five times. Stephen is not "safe," exactly, since that term implies peril avoided. I would say Stephen "is warmly welcomed at first by the base."
There's a video of it at bit.ly/1sqbC0b. I urge you not to view it. You don't want to be one of those digital rubberneckers who watch ghastly things that make you feel dirty afterward, do you?
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