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That Spring Sweet Spot: a Brand New Bat

Another season of the great American pastime is under way, but this year my family has left the bleachers and taken the field.

One of us is playing on a beginners softball team for third- and fourth-grade girls, and preparing for this commitment is no simple task. Everyone has adopted a positive outlook, resting on a solid foundation of dedication and determination.

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Perhaps most important, we have a fabulous new bat.

I know that good equipment cannot compensate for a lack of athletic talent, but a player's first bat is special. It's the key that unlocks all the excitement of the game. If the cowhide never makes contact with the big stick, all you've got is somebody on the mound playing catch with somebody behind the plate. Pitching and fielding aren't trivial, but hitting keeps players on their toes and fans on their feet.

My old bat from junior high was ill-suited for our daughter's needs. It's chipped and stained from years of hard use, and it's made of wood, a substance now confined mostly to the pros.

Bats made of aluminum or space-age materials are standard in most schools and youth leagues.

Since I know nothing about current brand names or other basic consumer information, I was planning a series of casual survey excursions to compare the stock at local sporting goods stores. But with a 9-year-old shopper involved, plans can suddenly change.

At our very first stop, my daughter reached toward a bat rack without hesitation and lifted out a beauty that fulfilled every athletic and aesthetic requirement. Thin silver lines shimmered like sparks against the deep purple background. The bat seemed charged with invisible energy.

My daughter said it felt just right, and as she took a few slow strokes at imaginary pitches, I could tell from her eyes that all the intangible features were fulfilling her unspoken expectations. It defies rational analysis, but so what? The first bat is too important to argue about. It gets used for hours and days and months to develop skills that will become second nature. Owning the perfect bat is the ultimate confidence builder.

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The perfect bat does not come cheap, so I had the clerk hold it overnight, just to confer with the rest of the family. The response was enthusiastic, and Granddad offered to pick up the $60 tab. It was truly a team effort, and the bat now rests against her bedpost.

Some people might think it's an incredibly extravagant purchase, especially for an object that is destined to get smacked, scratched, and thrown into the dirt.

But life is short. Caution isn't always the best strategy. Sometimes you have to swing for the fences.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, who lobs easy ones to his daughter Rudy in Portland, Ore., is author of "It Came with the House" (Catbird Press, 1997).

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