Thirty years ago when I was a student at Rex Putnam High School, our head PE teacher was a guy named Don McCluskey, who was also the RPHS basketball coach.
In Putnam’s first couple years of existence — I think its initial graduates donned their caps and gowns in 1966 — Don also served as the school’s baseball coach, and he always maintained a deep love of our national pastime, particularly when it involved having a bat in his hands.
“I could hit all day,” I remember Coach McCluskey telling me in his office one day.
“I could too,” I told him.
“Hit till the blisters bleed,” as Ted Williams said of his own ample desire in the area of putting wood on the ball.
Hitting a baseball — or a wiffle ball, or tennis ball, or anything else — will always be on my short list of life’s simple pleasures, and I can’t really explain why other than it’s just so satisfying to really square something up and watch it fly. And when using actual baseballs, there’s also that resounding crack (metal bats, and their ping, are a scourge) when you hit one right on the screws, you can actually feel the bat flex on contact; and that’s about all you feel when you make clean contact on the barrel — no vibrations or anything else.
When I was a young kid, older family members would throw to me — it never seemed like often enough, but it probably happened more regularly than it felt like. When I got a bit older and those older relatives weren’t around as much, I’d enlist (beg) a variety of friends.
The good news was, I could usually get one of them to go with me to “the school” — our term for Riverside Grade School, the institution of learning in our immediate neighborhood in Milwaukie– or on occasion Concord School a couple miles away, on the other side of McLoughlin Boulevard.
That bad news was, it was usually just one of them, meaning we spent as much or more time shagging balls as hitting them. But it was better than nothing.
In high school, with a fair degree of frequency I could get small groups of friends to join me for games of home run derby at various locales, the two best ones being Oregon City High School, with its tall, stone-built outfield wall — the Rock Monster, we called it — and this park over in tony Lake Oswego, where we likely stood out as members of the proletariat from across the river.
While at Oregon State, I didn’t do a lot of hitting except for this game, which involved a tennis ball, that my roommate Chris Jarmer and I played in the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall next door to our apartment. If memory serves, I think we actually used the KH for a combo backstop/strike zone indicator; if we antagonized the Jehovah’s Witnesses who attended there, they never said so, and we really did mean no harm.
A decade or so after graduating, having joined the Men’s Senior Baseball League, I spent 2-3 years pining after this Jugs pitching machine in the Baseball Express catalog that showed up in the mail every couple months. The machine and automatic ball feeder together cost nearly $2,000 — way more money than I had to spend on such things.
Finally one day my father-in-law Bob Sager said to me, “Just order it. I’ll pay for it.”
So I did, and for the two years I had the machine before Bob died, I know he took great pleasure in the fact that I took hundreds of cuts every single week, year-round, in our barn.
You’d think for all the BP I’ve taken in my life I would just rake in the senior league, but I don’t. Oh, I hit all right, but no one would look at me and say, “Wow, I bet that guy has a pitching machine.”
Then again, while all those swings haven’t made me an old-guy superstar, likely they have at least helped me maintain a degree of proficiency.
And beyond that, batting practice is just plain fun for me.
I really could hit all day.