"Like what?" I asked.
He answered, as if quoting Scripture. "A check swing. You never take a check swing on the first strike."
My senior year, I batted leadoff for our Varsity squad. A la Vince Coleman, a la Rickey Henderson, in Baseball Philosophy 101 the first lesson you learn as a leadoff hitter is that you are to always get on base - at any cost. But what you are not taught is how, if exercised properly, this philosophy will unintentionally poison other areas of your life.
Batting leadoff, you develop a hawk's eye for the strike zone. You measure. You dream in an imaginary rectangle 18 inches wide and not quite 24 inches tall - that is, the distance from your knee to your abdomen, when in your batter's crouch. You 6th-sense when the 85-mph hurtling white blur approaching you is a hoodoo curveball about to spin supernaturally back into a strike, or when the snake hasn't enough bite and will miss by a tooth. And when the pitch is to miss, you don't swing. You exercise the discipline of a monk. Bad pitches (and chance) are left to sluggers and clean-up men. There is a place in Leadoff Hitter Hell for those who venture beyond the zone. You don't strike out. You get singles, doubles, and collect walks with zeal. Your goal is to first and foremost get on base. You revel in possibility. A dragonfly on the basepads, you use lightning speed to force opposing fielders to make quick decisions and errors. And if, in the unlikely event that you do make an out, your job is to make the opposing team remember the experience - to make them endure hell for it. You leave every game with your uniform dirty. Anyone who sees you knows that you have played.
As a lead-off hitter, your thoughts are, more than any other batter in the line-up, not as an individual but for the greater good of the team. Exercising patience, you force the opposing pitcher's arm to hurl excessive pitches - weakening him for your teammates on deck. A 10-pitch at-bat is better than a 320 ft. flyout at the centerfield warning track. You are utilitarian. You fight for inches. You never dream beyond the fence. You adjust your swing's slant to hit ground balls and line drives. Fly balls are easy outs, are useless for the team. Bunting and hitting squibbles down the third base line, your glory is not in what lies beyond, but in putting the ball in the field of play.
At this point, I'd been playing baseball 13 years. Between head coaches, assistant coaches, and baseball camps, I'd had at least a dozen different hitting instructors and not once had I ever heard Paul's scripture on Swing Theory.
"Well, I wasn't sure it was a good pitch."
"Don't matter. You get three strikes. You only check-swing on the third strike. On the first two strikes," Paul said, matter-of-factly, "you swing for the fence."
I never swung for the fence. I assumed that the reason Paul hit so many more home runs (9) than me (1) was because of his size. He was 6'2", 190; I was 5'11", 145. It never occurred to me that the difference might be philosophical - in our approaches to the game. Every time Paul got up to the plate, his goal was to smash. Sure, Paul struck out a bit more than I did, but when he did hit...
Even when he didn't hit a home run, Paul frequently beamed white lasers on vectors into the vast green galaxies between darting outfielders, routinely threatened chaos in the order of centerfield's chainlink fence, 350 ft. away.
Living the philosophy of the Leadoff hitter, my batting average (hovering at .340) was nearly 20 points higher than Paul's. It also resulted in what I believed was my most impressive stat: For the entire season I'd only struck out 2 times in over 50 at-bats. But what did it really mean for me to rarely strike out?
Truth was: I wanted a clean swing-through with my bat pointing beyond the clouds. Truth was: I wanted to fly full throttle for triples uninterrupted, from pad to pad. Truth was: I wanted to bruise the rawhide's red stitches against the far left-field fence. Truth was: over the years, I'd trained myself to rarely swing that way. I batted not for the celestial glory of the beyond, but against the earthly fear of striking out.
My next at bat, I flied-out just short of the fence in left-center. But in my final at bat of that regular season - while I fell short of a home run, I swung at a fat pitch just above belt-high, just outside of the plate; I smashed a stand-up triple into the right/centerfield gap.
The question to myself: What was I really accomplishing in these, the greatest years of my youth, by playing it safe?
When Paul graduated that spring, he was drafted into the Seattle Mariners farm system.
Today, as a literary artist, the truth is: I still function as a leadoff hitter. I see the pitches coming and when they do not fall within the strike zone, I let them pass. I live in fear of striking out. Even where there is no umpire, even where there is no count. I
On this side, the inside, there is no audience - no one to witness when I lunge for a wild pitch and catch wind. Being an artist is like playing on an empty field, pitching and batting with your self.
Fourteen years after Paul's lesson, I watch another wild slider hurtling toward me. I must override the cautious impulse to let it pass. On this sacred diamond of self, it is rather noble - even vital - to reach beyond the zone; to lunge for the homerun, to take a full swing; to send the conceptual ball soaring beyond the field of play, beyond the fence and into the stands; to place Ayodelean dreams where uncharted throngs await with reaching hands.