I stood at the plate - and faced Bob Gibson
With the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs (and sporting the best record in the majors), my thought rambles back to 1986, when I donned the Cardinals uniform. My brief baseball career started with a desire to sing better - to hit those high notes, and with oomph! I began taking voice lessons from Sara, who quickly helped me sing the higher notes. But she said I needed to do situps to strengthen my "oomph" muscles.
This oomph-quest turned out to be the first in a series of events that ultimately landed me in Busch Stadium, brandishing a bat at the legendary Bob Gibson.
It started with the first situp: The one I couldn't do. But the desire to sing motivated me, and within a month or so I could do a bunch of them. I can't overstate the sense of accomplishment this gave me. And confidence! And the nerve to respond to a radio ad for Randy Hundley's baseball camp for adults.
"Is the camp open to women?" I asked. The affirmative reply encouraged me to request an application.
Even though my childhood was rich with baseball, circumstances kept me from being a real participant (notwithstanding the occasional game of catch with my dad). But I always suspected that a modicum of athletic ability lurked within me; now was my chance to find out.
I knew that situps alone weren't sufficient to get me through a three-day baseball camp culminating in an exhibition game between campers and retired pros. So first, I stepped out of the air conditioning into the St. Louis summer heat. Next, I traded my sunglasses for a baseball cap. And finally, I resolved to do something athletic every day for one week. If at the end of that week I could get out of bed, I would apply to the camp.
For the next seven days I enlisted my husband, Ken, and our two then-teenage sons, Tom and Scott, to play tennis with me and throw baseballs at me. I took the dog for long romps, jumped rope, and made Sara play racquetball with me. (After all, she got me into this.) At the end of the week, I mailed the application.
For six weeks I trained. I took lessons on base-running from a high school track coach, ball-skills sessions with a college coach, and weight training set up by a college football player. I ran around a track a few times.
I learned to throw, catch, bat, and field the baseball - and to sprint to first base, just in case. I practiced every eventuality I could think of. A couple days before the camp, a summer rainstorm put a damper on my base-running practice. Tom found the bright spot. "Hey, Mom!" he said. "You can practice your rain delay!"
On Day 1 of camp, Ken dropped me off at the entrance to the stadium, where I waited with other nervous campers until someone herded us down to the dressing room. That's when I discovered that, of some 30 campers, I was the only woman.
For our first drill, we paired up to play catch. Ted Savage stood a few feet from me and watched. After a couple minutes he showed me how to position the laces when I threw the ball. I relaxed. If he wanted to talk to me about laces, my throwing and catching form must be OK.
For the first couple of hours, the coaches kept an eye on me to make sure I didn't faint or something. Some campers stopped to sit in the shade for a moment, but I knew that if I did that, someone might call an ambulance. I toughed out the heat and humidity (both in the 90s). Eventually the coaches seemed to forget about me.
They separated us into three squads. During one drill, my squad was put in deep right-center field, taking turns catching high flies shot from a small cannon on the foul line. I caught the first one on my big toe. I caught the second one on the end of my right thumb (the glove was on my left). At least I was getting closer! The third one smacked firmly into my glove, and my squadmates cheered. They had accepted me as a legitimate camper. (I would like to note that I was not the worst one on my squad.)
By the end of the day, I was getting no special consideration - except for shower arrangements. My choice: I could shower first or wait until the guys were done. No way was I going to have a bunch of men standing around waiting for me to change. I opted for the latter.
Day 2. The bat boy asked around and discovered that the umpires' dressing room was available for me to use. (That bat boy, by the way, was Randy Hundley's son Todd, who went on to make a name for himself in the majors.)
On Day 3 we played against the baseball veterans. (I called them "old timers" until I learned that some were younger than I was). I batted twice: once facing Hall-of-Famer Gibson, and another facing notorious reliever Al Hrabosky.
The first time up I hit a pop foul, which Gibson raced off the mound and caught. I started toward the dugout, but the umpire directed me back to the plate. "He dropped that ball," he said. I had seen Gibson field the ball cleanly - and impressively. Randy, who was catching for the vets, grinned at me and asked, "Didn't you see him drop it?"
They were giving me another chance. And I gladly took it!
This time I hit the ball straight - straight to the pitcher, that is. Gibson caught it and really did drop it - on purpose.
He picked it up and overthrew first base, allowing me to get to second. Another batter advanced me to third. Then they let batboy Todd bat, and he drove me in.
Defensively, my team parked me safely in right field, where I had one opportunity to field a ball that caromed off the wall. I surprised everybody by catching up with it and throwing it back into play.
My second at-bat went much faster. Hrabosky didn't horse around. I heard his first pitch - and felt the breeze from it. Joe Cunningham yelled at him from the coach's box, "Don't you know that's a woman?!" Hrabosky yelled back, "Yeah. I know a woman when I see one." And he fired another fast one.
I made contact with one of Hrabosky's pitches, and he caught it and threw me out. And that was that.
After the game, at a banquet for campers and wives (and Ken), we were inducted into Hundley's Hall of Fame. Thus ended my short-lived baseball career.
I learned that the game is both easier and harder than it looks from the stands, and the field is both bigger and smaller. Also, the dugout benches are no more comfortable than the cheap seats.
Finally, the experience helped me accomplish what I had set out to do: When I go to a baseball game now, I can really belt out "The Star-Spangled Banner."