Hitting with Jason Hart

Image courtesy of http://www.comc.com

Jason Hart knows hitting.

“Whenever I visited a new stadium, I had a personal goal to hit a home run that they talked about in that stadium,” Jason said.

When Jason played for then-Southwest Missouri State University, he hit a home run at Meador Park that sailed more than 550-feet, which brings to mind Kevin Costner’s epic line from Bull Durham, “Anything that goes that far ought to have a stewardess on it.”

(My very last at bat in a competitive game was at Meador Park. I was a pinch hitter and flew out to the warning track as my team lost the championship game. I wrote a poem about this game, posted below.***)

In his first year of minor league ball, Jason played for the Southern Oregon Timberjacks in the Northwest League, the Short-Season A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. He told me the story of his home run off the scoreboard against Boise. “No one had ever hit the scoreboard before,” he said. I wish Cut4 could have shared video of that Ruthian blast.

Within the first month of the season, Jason earned Batter of the Week honors for his performance at the plate. Over the course of one week, “he was 10-of-29 (.345) with four home runs, a double and a triple. He drove in 12 runs had an .862 slugging percentage and a .367 on-base percentage.” At the end of the season, Jason was chosen by league managers as the league’s MVP as well as securing a spot on the all-star team.**

Jason kept hitting throughout his 8-year minor league career and his 10-game call-up with the Texas Rangers in 2002. His career in MLB was ultimately sidelined by a brain tumor. He told me that story and showed me the scar when we played catch last year (Day #254).

Jason still looks like he could hit epic home runs at every stadium he visits. Now the hitting coach for the Frisco RoughRiders, his home field is Dr Pepper Ballpark which sounds like an ideal place to practice swinging for the fences. As hitting coach, Jason gives the young ballplayers all the information necessary to help them succeed. “But the hitter has to buy in 100%, or there’s nothing a coach can do.”

Jason helps his players make the most of their talents, fine-tuning their swings for the day their call comes. With the RoughRiders in town playing the Cardinals, I asked if he had any advice for making the most of tryouts this fall.

“Be as relaxed as you can. Use your first swings to get the timing. Hit it back up the middle, line drives over the second baseman’s head. With your last swings, swing for the fence. Take it yard. Show off your power.”

I’ll be lucky if I still have warning track power.

Jason told me of the importance of routine and walked me through the routine he had every time he stepped in the box — two digs and a swipe with his right foot, a swipe with his left, and drawing a line in the dirt right back at the pitcher. “It kept me focused on hitting the ball up the middle, even though I was really a pull hitter.”

He shared a few of his practical superstitions to help with hits on game day, including his lucky t-shirt. “I wore it any time I really needed a hit. It was an old A’s t-shirt, and I wore it even when I played for the Rangers.”

“Most of all, respect the game. Respect your opponents. Respect the umpires. Respect your teammates. This game is so humbling, you have to respect it.”

If I make the cut, he promised a free lesson at CY Sports to help shore up my swing, which might be the best thing anyone’s promised if I actually make a team.

Now, to go find a lucky t-shirt.

**Many thanks to Tim Trower for tracking down Jason’s stories with the Timberjacks. Both stories were written by Greg Stiles and published in July and August of 1998 in the Mail Tribune of Medford, Oregon.

***

Last game of the season

championship game

winner takes all game

feels like destiny game

this is why we play game

adrenaline woke me up game

trophies on display pre-game

played on the collegiate field

with brand new baseballs,

rubbed down with Missouri mud.

Benchwarming duty anticipated,

responsibility accepted.

Not one single foul ball lost.

Scorebook kept accurately.

In-between inning foul poles ran passionately.

Played catch with left fielder faithfully.

Last inning, pinch hitter

“Swing away, Slick.”

Ball one outside.

Strike one, even farther outside?

Fastball inside, barreled to the gap.

Digging for three

from step one.

Time to start a rally.

Centerfielder pretends he’s

Willie Mays.

Parents of both teams

tip caps and cheer.

Head hung while other team

celebrates on field.

“There’s always next year, boys.”

Unknown at the time,

it was also the last game

of my career.  

Baseball Cinematic Universe

David knows all things movies and is writing a book about all things movies. Thanks to David, I have spent an inordinate amount of time this last week thinking about baseball movies and baseball scenes in movies. The following post is inspired by David.

On August 4, I want to walk in to the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League tryout like Geena Davis in A League of Their Own — relaxed and cool and confident of my own abilities. I know there’s not space for everyone on a team, that “some of you’s are gonna have to go home,” as Madonna said. And it’s not that I wish ill of anyone else, I just don’t want to be one of the going-home-yous.

I fear my tryout will be a little bit like Major League. A comedy of poor throws and bad swings and former knee and ankle injuries wreaking havoc. I’m thankful for the couple months I have to try and get my body ready.

The Rookie is one of those movies that, if I’m channel surfing and come across it, I’ll stop channel surfing and watch it until it’s over. I love the tryout scene in it when Jim follows through on a commitment he made to his students while dragging his children along. “Don’t hurt yourself,” the scout says. These are the words that now catch my attention as I think about tryouts. Don’t hurt myself. Jim only tried out because of a promise he made to others and it radically changed his life as well as inspired millions. Baseball tells the best stories.

As a writer, I have plenty of years of practice being my own worst critic. I think I have a pretty honest assessment of my skills and limitations. I know that, should I make the cuts and be on a team, there’s a good chance I’ll be a benchwarmer. I have a lot of benchwarming experience. I know how to be a good teammate: warming up outfielders and cheering on my friends and keeping track of gloves and hats in between innings. And benchwarmers are important, too. Just ask Homer Simpson.

If I was given the freedom to write the ending for this baseball story, it wouldn’t end with a game-winning home run like The Natural. I don’t stand a chance hitting a ball over the 16-foot tall fence at U.S. Ballpark. But how cool are those Knights jerseys?

It wouldn’t end with a dramatic bunt like in Major League.

It would end like Field of Dreams, with a simple affirmation that I was good. Not that I was the best or great or an All-Star, but that I was a good ballplayer, and the silent acknowledgement that the real work I do as an author makes a tangible difference to friends new and old.

Only 100 days until tryouts.

Infield

Whenever I kneel or squat or bend my right leg beyond what is required for normal perambulation, my knee sounds like Rice Krispies or the white noise pops of a vinyl record.

The sound effects are courtesy of an ACL-meniscus-cartilage surgery that took place two days after I turned 30. The doctors I’ve consulted about the sound effects say it’s perfectly normal.

“Crepitus. As long as it isn’t painful, you’re fine. Happens to a lot of people.”

I was taking infield practice with the baseball team in Clever. Coach Justin Snider invited me to field grounders and take some swings with his team.

“Just a light and relaxed day,” he said, looking sharp in his powder blue hat and windbreaker.

Coach Justin lied. It was a light and relaxed day only if you were under 20.

The first infield drill positioned us squarely on our knees. As I knelt down, I tried to hide my old-man grimaces and grunts that happen instinctively. I think my practice partner actually heard my knee and had the courteous grace to not say anything.

The purpose of the drill was simple: To focus on developing soft hands, working from down to up when fielding ground balls. Start with the fingertips of the glove on the ground, positioning eyes behind the glove and pressing through each fielded ball, then gathering the ball at the belt buckle in anticipation of taking hops and making a strong throw.

My back was to Coach Justin as he continued to talk and offer encouragement throughout the drill. I’m pretty sure his words were just for my sake; it seemed like all of the other infielders were fielding cleanly and quickly.

After the drill, we transitioned to a more traditional infield practice of ground balls and throws to first. Coach Justin had just mowed the infield grass and it was beautiful. It looks nothing like my wild-onion-and-wildflower filled backyard at home. I fielded some of my grounders cleanly and some off of my chest and made relatively accurate and strong throws to first. If the person running to first base was my age and had a crepitus knee or two, there’s a good chance I would’ve thrown them out.

The infielders then went to the batting cages to do tee work while the outfielders took their turn on the field. I got my swings in after everyone else was finished. Tee work is fun and therapeutic. It allowed me a little time to breathe and focus. Then back to the field for live batting practice.

Again, I hit last, and took my turn with an aggressive mindset. Kinda like Vlad Guerrero. “If you throw it, I can hit it.” Inside. Outside. Low. High. I swung at everything. I think this mindset comes from time in the Fun Acre cages. Only 5 pitches for a quarter, I don’t want to waste a pitch.

I’m pretty sure Coach Justin got a good laugh at my swings.

Using a cracked bat didn’t help my cause any, especially after watching the others hit hard line drives and blistering grounders I decided not to attempt to field.

No cup checks. No broken teeth. My first day of infield practice was a success.

Completely exhausted after two hours, I got a quick picture with Coach Justin and his beautiful field. Thank you Clever Baseball Team for the invitation and welcoming me on to your field!

Courage

I was 9 when I first learned about Jackie Robinson. My family owned a series of hard-cover books published by Value Communications. Each book celebrated a different person whose life illustrated a noteworthy value. Hans Christian Anderson and fantasy. Beethoven and giving. Marie Curie and learning.

Written by Dr. Spencer Johnson, Jackie’s story taught the value of courage. I started reading the book one night before bed and became completely obsessed with it. The book stayed next to my bed for weeks. I’ve been drawn to Jackie’s story ever since.

Jackie courageously dared to keep playing baseball through countless death threats, antagonistic opponents, ambivalent teammates, opposing pitchers who sought to knock his head off, and hotels and restaurants who denied him service in every city. Words cannot effectively capture the degree of hatred and animosity Jackie experienced. Even so, Jackie played with a perpetual chip on his shoulder determined to prove that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” Through baseball and his civil rights work, Jackie truly made this world a better place.

Last summer, as part of Catch 365, my family visited Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the home of the Daytona Tortugas. On March 17, 1946, this field in Daytona Beach, Florida was the first venue to host an integrated game as part of affiliated baseball. Jackie then played for the AAA Montreal Royals and wore number 9. Each year, every major league baseball team honors Jackie by wearing his Dodgers number 42. The Tortugas celebrate — shellebrate — by wearing number 9.

I wrote a poem about Jackie and keep it on my desk in the Royals room. It serves not only as a reminder of his remarkable courage and passionate perseverance, but that baseball stories can make a difference in this world. The ripple effect of his story opened doors from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Barack Obama.

Long Ball City is celebrating one of Jackie’s most famous quotes on a t-shirt honoring the legacy of #42. This quote should be a mantra for each and every one of us.

This year, however, I’m leaning into a different quote from Jackie.

Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.

I think, if I had the opportunity to sit down with Jackie and tell him about my desire to play ball again, he’d probably get a good laugh. But it’s because of Jackie that I know baseball stories can make a difference in this world.

Take courage, friends.

Losing

“Losing builds passion,” says Olympian Natalie Dell O’Brien. She contends that losing can help athletes focus and do the hard work necessary to win.

“Find something that is worth doing so much so that you are willing to risk failing in it,” the bronze medalist challenges.

The Royals won the first two games of the 2019 season. I was beside myself giddy with hope for the Royals to surprise the MLB community. One series victory under their belt in the first weekend. My spring optimism had been rewarded on the field. And then…

They were never really in Game 3, falling behind 6 – 0 before rallying and scoring 3 runs in the last three innings.

In Game 4, the Royals were winning 4 – 3 through eight innings, then gave up a run in each of the 9th and 10th innings.

Game 5, the Royals had a 5-run fifth inning to go ahead 6 – 3. The Twins tied the game in the 8th and won in the 9th.

Game 6 — Tied through 5, the Royals lost to the Tigers by 1 run.

Game 7 — Ahead 4 – 2, the bullpen surrendered 5 runs in the bottom of the 7th for another loss.

Game 8 — A “no offense” loss.

Game 9 — Seattle hit a lot of home runs.

Game 10 — It was 2 – 2, and then it wasn’t. More Seattle homers.

Game 11 — A two-out, 9th inning home run gave Seattle another victory.

Game 12 — Up by 2 runs going into the 9th, with two runners on, two outs, and a full count, a freak accident on the warning track allowed the tying runs to score. A 10th inning home run won it for Seattle. Whit Merrifield’s historic 31-game hitting streak ended when he struck out to end the game in the bottom of the 10th.

The Royals are now 2 – 10 with a lot of hard losses.

Last year the team lost 104 games, recalling the three years of baseball comical tragedy in the mid-2000s:

2004 – 104 losses.

2005 – 106 losses.

2006 – 100 losses.

In fact, from 1995 to 2012, the team only had one winning season. Royals fans are experts when it comes to cheering on losers.

The agonies of so many defeats made the thrill of 2015’s victory all the more extraordinary.

Losing sucks. It is demoralizing and depressing, like an April blizzard in the middle of spring.

Losing at a 2 – 10 pace is historic.

“Losing builds passion.”

I’m taking out the losses on the plastic dimpled balls at Fun Acre batting cages.

There is a singular silver lining to losing:

Affordable game-day seats.

New Site

My friend Brent made fun of my old blog. I can’t say I blame him. It was cumbersome and awkward. Whenever people asked where I was writing my catch-playing stories, I often had to explain the origin of the title, “Whispered Writing.” The phrase is a tribute to someone I consider my writing mentor, Robert Benson.

My friend Byron owns a bookstore in Pennsylvania, Hearts & Minds Books. It is truly one of the best bookstores in the country. Under the “Books” header, you’ll find Byron’s email address and phone number. My dream is that Hearts & Minds Books will send my books all across the country. Byron packages each book with care and opening one of his plain-paper-wrapped book bundles is sheer joy.

In the 13 years I’ve known him, Byron has sent me a book for free exactly twice. “I read this book and thought of you,” he wrote on a post-it-note and stuck it to the cover of The Echo Within by Robert Benson. I started reading the book the day it came in the mail. It felt like Benson was sitting at a table giving me life advice. It is one of those books I’ve since purchased several times and can’t seem keep a copy on my bookshelves; I keep giving it away to friends. I’ve even checked it out from the library multiple times.

At the back of the book was a note saying that, should I want to contact the author, I could. So I did. I wrote a letter thanking Benson for his story only to receive a postcard from him the following week with an invitation to call at my nearest convenience. I called and accidentally dialed a wrong number. I called a second time and learned that Benson would be coming to Kansas City on a book tour and wanted to know if I would like to have dinner with him.

How’s that for serendipitous timing?

I picked up Benson at his hotel, we ate fantastic Italian food, and we talked for hours. After dinner, I returned him to his hotel and scribbled down some of his words on a napkin. Benson told me these words that resonated deep in my heart, “This world is desperate for good sentences, for good stories, and for those who are willing to do the hard work necessary to bring them to life.”

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” That’s what John Keating said in Dead Poets Society. As a 15-year old freshman in high school with ridiculous dreams, I believed him. We live in a storied world. We are a storied people.

Time to lace up and double-knot my shoes, stretch, and make new friends as I seek new, dream-chasing, fear-conquering stories of baseball, life, and faith.