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The First Pitch of the Year

It's a good thing that spring doesn't have to be negotiated or arbitrated - it arrives in good faith, pretty much on schedule. That can't always be said about the baseball season. This page is for those who relish the mud and promise of baseball, played for fun and in celebration of spring. THE early spring sun shines down on the playing diamond, giving the shortly clipped grass outfield an emerald sheen as the breeze kicks up dust in the dirt infield.

Standing in center field, alone with my thoughts and the persistent gnats which hover around me, I feel content. Spring is here at last. Time to play ball.

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Gone are the days of competitive, organized hard ball played in full uniform and dominated by the will to win. At age 25, I am now only a weekend warrior on a slow-pitch softball team. Winning isn't so much the issue here, as much as the need for teammate camaraderie and the relaxation that only nine innings of slow-pitch can bring.

As the years have passed, I've lost a step in the speed department while gaining in the weight department. This still doesn't prevent me from becoming Willie Mays as the white speck in the blue sky comes closer and closer, as I sprint to an unknown point to meet it. Gathering it in gives me a feeling of satisfaction as I turn and jog slowly back to the dugout, to the cheers of my teammates and the sparse gathering of spectators, mostly family and friends.

Our team yells encouragement to the first hitter as he paws at the ground in the batter's box with his cleated feet. The first pitch floats in at eye level and Jim, dressed in loose-fitting gray sweats and a Mariners cap turned backward, lets it go for ball one. The second pitch is too inviting though, and Jim smacks it solidly on a line over the shortstop's head for a base hit.

Steve, our lanky first baseman, is next. Batting from the left side, he hits the first pitch like a rocket. It lands over the right fielder's head as he runs wildly after it. Rolling all the way to the fence, the ball is picked up by the center fielder, who has outraced his teammate, and is thrown back to the infield. One run has been scored, and Steve stands on third base with hands on hips, smiling smugly.

That is the only run we manage, as the next three hitters successively hit weak grounders, which the other team's infielders suck up with the efficiency of a Hoover.

Back in center, my mind wanders to the next inning, when I'll get my first chance at bat of the young season. Visions of doubles, triples, and even home runs float around in my head as the action goes on in the game.

There is something eternal about playing ball that makes it so much a part of life, and each spring that life is renewed in full. Countless ballplayers all over the country pull on their uniforms for one more season, full of anticipation and high hopes. It doesn't seem to matter if they are getting astronomical amounts of money or absolutely nothing, like me. There is a majestical call which goes out each spring, beckoning ballplayers of all ages back to the diamond.

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Our pitcher retires the side with little trouble this inning, and the teams switch sides once more. Finally, it is my turn to hit. Somehow the child in me never dies when playing this game.

THE first pitch floats in at me a little too high, but I have been waiting since last September for this moment and feel far too anxious to let it go. I swing with everything I have and feel the contact of wood hitting ball solidly - one of the best feelings in the world!

Dropping the bat, I take off, running as if my life depended on it, eyes fixed on the first-base bag, nothing else. As I close in on the base, I'm sure I have it made, when suddenly the sound of the ball smacking into the first baseman's mitt tells me I'm out number three. I run past the base and slow to a trot as I make a wide turn and go back to the dugout. Grabbing my glove, I vow decisively that I'll get on next time.

It is these ``next times'' that stopped my so-called ``playing career'' after high school; they never came. Like countless other hopeful ballplayers, the painful realization that I would never be a big leaguer became clear after many seasons of being only slightly better than average. However, it is during those early years of playing ball that the seed is planted, never to be uprooted.

The first pitch each year signifies the end of another cold, dreary winter and the beginning of months of sunshine, warmth, and days at the beach. There is nothing quite like it.

The sudden crack of the bat brings me back to the game at hand. I take off at full speed, hat falling off, just as Willie Mays used to do years ago. The white speck in the blue sky comes closer and closer.

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