April 29, 2010

The Dancing Ball

When I walk down long hallways, I often drift to pretending I'm standing on a pitcher's mound, ball in hand. In the daydream, I'm not playing for the Yankees or anything, and it's always a Little League park, with chain-linked backstop, and wind whipping through. I'm 12 or 13, and wearing white pinstripes. My eyes focus on something that isn't there at the other end of the hallway, so there's a faint sense of dizziness as I stare daggers through nothing.

When I was younger, I used to be a power pitcher. I would blow fastballs by 12 year-olds and feel my arm tingle. I would love the brute force I applied to a ball, daring it to barrel through the air faster than physics dictate. The ball I threw, I was told, when it was caught, would hiss. I made the ball hiss. Like a defensive snake.

And, I could make the ball bend. In fact, my favorite thing to do in all of pitching was throwing breaking balls; making the ball, through its hissing spin, bend and dip how I want it. Impressively, it was a slow enough pitch to actually watch. But try and hit it with your bat, and you can't. At least, if you were the 12 year-old at the end of my hallway.

About 10 years ago, I started to dabble with making the ball dance. Literally dance. And to throw this special kind of dancing ball required an awkward grip on the ball, and to do as much as you can to "not throw" in your arm motion. Any wrist movement or spin could ruin the dance. You released it as if it were a slingshot, instead of like a rifle. It was not precise, and even more astounding, it was tremendously, almost unthinkably, slow.

Yet the dance - this beautiful dance - of the ball would make hitters' knees buckle, and make catchers jump and dash just to catch it. Even if someone can make contact with the dancing ball, they never make full contact, and the ball dribbles to an infielder to no avail.

So I'm standing at the end of the hallway today, 26 years old, and remember the joy I feel throwing a knuckleball - the dancing ball. And funny how the older I got, the more I appreciated the slower, more graceful pitch, the one just as effective with less effort. And, how I went from a power pitcher to someone who throws "junk" - the slang for all pitches that bend and curve that are not a fastball. To me, that seems to be a logical progression, to start out as a young man relying on sheer power, and then through experience and the acquisition of a certain amount of understanding and control, you can throw more effectively, and slower. And more graceful.

In my hallway, I crinkle up my fingers as if I were about to throw a knuckleball, and I pretend to throw the pitch, feeling the ball slip and slide out of my hand, instead of rolling out as it does with a hiss ball. It darts out to the right, and then rainbows towards the imaginary catcher, all the while shifting trajectory and elevation.

You see, dancing balls are equal parts optical illusions and equal parts physical fascinations. The ball shifts, bends, and twists - dances - because of microcurrents in the air, which are otherwise overpowered by the force of a regularly spinning hiss ball or breaking ball. The microcurrents are entirely unpredictable, and that's what makes the knuckleball so astounding and almost unhittable.

How like life. Like my transition from power pitcher to knuckleballer, experience teaches you how to do more with less over time, to reduce the work needed to accomplish something, and think smart.

The microcurrents that hit the ball are unpredictable, and they are like the many things I cannot control in this life. And so once I pitch, I can only hope the ball makes it to the catcher.

I miss throwing knuckleballs, and playing catch in general. It symbolizes taking chances, leaving things up to Nature and Fate. It's been far too long, and I long for days when I could spend hours throwing knuckleballs against a wall, watching the ball dance uniquely each time, and believing that the microcurrents were going to safely deliver it to the mitt.

Right when I'm about to finally deliver the fake pitch in the hallway, someone enters at the other end from the other office, and looks at me like I lost my mind. In many ways, I'm trying to reclaim it.

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