The Sweet Spot

Joshua Dolezal Click to read more...

Joshua Dolezal is a Montana native, a sometime wilderness ranger, and a teacher at Central College, in Iowa. His essays have appeared most recently in The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, The Gettysburg Review, and Ascent. He also serves as an associate fellow for the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska.

When I suited up for Little League at age ten, shrugging into a maroon nylon top and pulling on my gleaming white pants rimmed with thick elastic at the waist, I distinguished myself by carrying a wooden bat to the plate. It was a thirty-two inch Worth cut from a blonde ash tree, and with its thick handle and barrel it likely weighed at least two or three pounds. This was an odd choice for a Little Leaguer, since lightweight metal bats had more pop and far more durability. But I was a purist. Wood was what the pros used, the kind of bat that met the ball with a gut-tingling crack, unlike the ping of aluminum, which sounded more like a sound effect on a video game than a good, honest hit. I knew my bat could break, and every time I caught a pitch off the tip or close to the handle, the vibration stung my hands. But when I found the sweet spot, when a pitch came in at belt level and I got good wood on it, the shock washed over my whole body like I’d jumped into a lake.

I needed that feeling for more reasons than I could express, and I gave it my whole attention, the way I forgot everything else while eating huckleberry cheesecake. It was a form of love, that sweet contact, like the bliss I’d seen on other people’s faces in church, hands raised skyward, tears streaming down their upturned cheeks. And when I knew the ball would clear the fence, when I saw the pitch fly from the barrel and felt the echo in my chest and knew, it was a form of truth.

Baseball was my father’s game, one of the few things we had in common and the only exception he made to banning television from our home. Every fall when the World Series began, he borrowed an old black and white set from my grandfather, and we propped it on a chair in the living room, where we fussed with the antennae until the grainy picture snapped into focus. It was there on the calico rug, lying on my belly with my chin in my hands, that I watched my team, the Mets, win the 1986 World Series. And two years later on the same tiny screen I saw Kirk Gibson hobble to the plate for the Dodgers, my father’s team, and launch a game-winning home run against the Oakland Athletics despite a pulled hamstring and aching knees. For a few moments as Gibson limped around the bases and we jumped on the dining room linoleum to high-five each other, dishes rattling in the cupboard, my father and I were one. He coached each of my teams from the pee-wee league through Babe Ruth, managing even the All-Star teams. Every time I stepped to the plate, I could feel him watching from the third base coach’s box, and I wanted to get that feeling back, knowing if I hit a line drive or a long ball, all my errors would be forgiven and he’d give my shoulder a squeeze.

There was no way for me to know when we first began playing catch on our lawn around my fourth or fifth birthday that my father was trying to get back something he’d lost. But in the next few years, as I started tee-ball and he began grooming me for Little League, I knew he expected more than I could give. He often urged me to throw harder, frustrated by my noodle arm, but arm strength is one of the raw talents only nature bestows, so my earliest memories of catch are laced with a sense of struggle against my body, against myself. Our yard was a steep hillside flanked by an apple orchard and a vegetable garden, an excellent sledding hill in the winter but a poor stand-in for a baseball field with its uneven footing. More often than not, I tripped over my own feet while trying to get under a pop fly that my father tossed overhead, losing my bearings while running uphill. The grounders he threw came at me like curveballs, angling downhill as they bounced my way. My errant throws, which increased the more he hollered for me to put some heart into it, usually landed in a bank of tall grass behind the raspberry canes. My father was not a patient man, and the longer it took to hunt for a lost ball the sharper his return throw would be, increasing the odds that I’d miss it on a short hop and have to chase it down the hill into the ditch, where a row of birch and fir trees fronted our country road. No matter how angry we’d get or how many minutes we wasted wading through the grass, we kept at it until dusk, calling it quits when the air began to pulse with crickets and we could no longer see. These marathon games of catch, though they often felt like failure, were my father’s best attempts at love. I would later suit up for football and basketball and even dabble in tennis, but there was never any question that my first loyalty lay with my father’s game.

He was a second baseman, small for his age as a child and still short as a man, though his chest and arms filled out enough to give him power at the plate. After dropping out of junior college in Arizona, where he’d gone to play baseball and failed to make the cut, he transferred back to Montana to study civil engineering. Schooled in the science of land surveying and longhand drafting, he was more at home with a stack of maps and a calculator than with a novel. He read the Bible aloud every day before dinner, a chapter at a time, in the same methodical way he wiped the table down after we finished the meal, yet faith was more than ritual to him. He’d been swept up in the Jesus People revival in Seattle, where he learned to speak in tongues, a form of ecstatic utterance some Christians believed allowed the Holy Spirit to take control of a person and speak through them in other languages. I struggled to reconcile my meticulous father, the man who triple checked his calculations after packing his yellow surveying tripod around the perimeter of a property boundary, with the man who could surrender control of his own tongue and speak in a stream of what sounded like gibberish to me.

Our church was the kind with loud preaching and dancing and tambourines jingle-jangling through the worship service. We gathered in an abandoned Forest Service building on a hill overlooking the town of Troy, a space we shared with a Catholic church which met early in the morning and dispersed an hour before we arrived to set up a hundred metal folding chairs in a half moon, facing a piano and a large screen where the words to our worship songs appeared, magnified and bathed in light.  It was there I heard stories about revival meetings where a woman with the gift of tongues might speak in Chinese, not understanding a word coming out of her own mouth, learning after the service that a man from the Sichuan Province had heard God speaking directly to him, in his native dialect, in her voice. It was frightening to imagine the voice of God rumbling through my own vocal chords, but it seemed like a super power, a way for the body to feel proof of what the spirit believed. I clapped and sang along with the others, waiting for the spirit to take possession of me, but this seemed beyond my strength, like the games of catch in the backyard, where I could never quite throw hard enough.

The sermons at the Troy Christian Fellowship were much like my father’s coaching, impatient with mediocrity, constantly calling us to higher living. One morning the preacher worked himself into a sweat, pacing before us as if the church were a giant dugout, our buttocks clenched against the hard chairs. There was no stage, and he was not a tall man, but he seemed to tower above us. His text was the book of Exodus, where God delivers the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and calls Moses up Mount Sinai to receive the commandments the people are to live by. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the preacher quoted from memory, his voice rising to a shout as he finished the verse, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.” He stopped to let the words sink in, a vein bulging from his shiny forehead as he stared us down. He went on to tell the story of the golden calf, how even as Moses stood on the mountain receiving the bedrock of Hebrew law directly from the mouth of God, the people grew impatient and melted their own earrings and made a golden calf, which they worshiped as the god that had brought them out of slavery.

“Imagine,” the preacher hissed, his voice fallen into a whisper, “Imagine yourself as a father who has brought up his child in the truth, only to watch him turn away, only to watch him destroy his life at the card table or cast all his passion into gathering riches or grow so proud with learning that he says, ‘There is no God.’” The preacher clutched his Bible to his chest and crouched as if he’d caught a hard grounder in the groin.

“You would not give up on that child,” the preacher went on, his voice building once more into crescendo, “because the love of a father is a jealous love, jealous for its own flesh and blood the way God is jealous for his chosen ones, ready to let loose his wrath on them if they waver in what they know is the truth.”

I considered myself a believer then, not because I felt at home among the faithful straining forward in their chairs, but because I felt the power of those sermons every week and lived in fear for my soul. I looked at the faces around me on Sunday mornings — women weeping with what seemed to be joy, arms raised as they stood and swayed to the music, men shouting amens to the other men who marched before us possessed by the Word and the Spirit and the great urgency of sharing the bad news of human nature and the good news of God’s chastising rod — and I could not consider myself one of their number, even though I believed. I knew the rules of the game, but as I grew into a man’s body and felt more enraptured by a woman’s bosom bouncing at the front of the church as she shook her tambourine than by the words in the song she sang, it seemed certain I wasn’t helping the team. My father sang with his eyes closed, rocking in his cowboy boots with his hands cupped at his sides as if he were waiting for rain, and my mother pounded out chords on the chipped yellow keys of the upright piano. I believed they had a grip on something real, a sensual spirit force that slipped through my fingers and left me feeling empty and cold as I sang the words on the gleaming screen, watching the tambourine player shake her whole body, breasts bobbing beneath her blue paisley dress.

But when I wrapped my hands around the handle of my wooden bat and ripped a pitch into the outfield, the crack echoing down the barrel into my chest, it was like the voice of God in my throat, and my body and spirit flew together down the baseline.

 

When I was old enough for Little League, my father drove me to Libby for that year’s draft. Libby was twenty miles away, which meant an hour round-trip most week nights through the summer, but it was worth it because the Libby All-Stars could go all the way to the Little League World Series if they were good enough. Troy had an unsanctioned league, where the uniforms featured business names like Acco Cable and ASARCO, the local silver mine, but in Libby the teams were named for professional clubs, and the draft for rookies – that year’s pool of eligible ten-year-olds – was meant to mimic a major league tryout.

On the day of the draft, all of the coaches gathered at the Libby baseball complex, two adjacent fields sandwiched between the Kootenai River and the railroad tracks. My father and I drove the twenty miles from Troy mostly in silence, my belly awash with excitement when we crunched into the gravel parking lot behind the backstop and joined the crowd. The coaches put us through a series of drills, fielding grounders and flies, playing catch, and taking a little batting practice, and I performed well enough to be one of the top picks, rattling several practice pitches against the chain link fence in the outfield. As in the major leagues, the worst team had first dibs in the draft, and I was dismayed to learn by the end of the evening that I’d been chosen by the Mets. But after the tears wore off and I met my teammates for practice, a group of scrawny boys nearly all smaller than me, I accepted my fate. Though my father played for the Dodgers in Little League and had rooted for the professional team ever since, it was clear my loyalty from then on lay with the Mets, and I began reading the box scores every day for Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry and Ray Knight, counting the days to the postseason, when my grandfather would lend us the little black-and-white box and I’d get to watch the pros at home.

My father began as an assistant coach for the Libby Mets, but after my first year he took over as manager, throwing all of his competitive energy into the team. He had played softball until then, his well-oiled glove gleaming in the closet, where it sat on top of his cleats. He bought his softball cleats a half size small, so he could soften them with mink oil and pack them with shoe stretchers until they fit just right. He wore them to practice to show he meant business, dapper in his grey sweat pants and sleek black shoes as he slapped grounders over the dirt infield.

My mother grew up without a television, and when she and my father married, living in a tipi for a year before building a house on the land they purchased in the Rocky Mountain foothills above Troy, they shared a vision of home as a refuge from the outside world. In our living room the couch and the wooden rocking chair faced the piano, an upright in the German style with braces beneath the keyboard, a thick back panel, and a heavy lid made for holding flowers or clocks or lamps for reading sheet music. The hallway on the main floor featured an inset bookcase, which held the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books collection and my mother’s eclectic library, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, Graham Greene’s The Wind in the Willows, James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. My father read the newspaper and the Bible and considered most other reading frivolous, rousting me from my bedroom to pull weeds when I lounged there too long with a book. Baseball was the one crack in the fortress, the one out from garden chores, the only excuse for television to invade the protective bubble of faith and homegrown food and music my parents had created for us.

The God I heard about every Sunday and in the chapters my father read before dinner might have considered baseball a rival deity, a golden calf I worshipped every summer on the field and every fall in front of the television set. And there were times when the spitting and crotch scratching cast a frown over my mother’s face. But this was an open door to the world my father allowed, one vestige from his past he did not surrender to the brave new life on the homestead. So I was allowed to worship the game in my own way, plastering the cement walls of my basement bedroom with photographs of Mookie Wilson and Keith Hernandez and Lenny Dykstra clipped from my grandfather’s castoff Sports Illustrated magazines. As I lay on the bear claw quilt my mother had stitched from old corduroy, gazing at the wall mosaic of my heroes with my hands interlocked behind my head, I dreamed of one day making it to The Show. And in a curious way this was not unlike my hope of heaven, though I gave no thought to the irony of a game – a worldly pleasure – sating my yearning for redemption.

Baseball followed Pentecostal doctrine to a surprising degree. Every game, like a church service, began with a song. The true believers, the faithful who had really laid their lives down in support of the team, were not content to sit idly by in the bleachers. When we were down, they hollered encouragement, and when we were up, boy, they banged on the aluminum bleachers and stomped their feet and carried on like they had religion.

One tenet of Pentecostal belief, which followed the doctrine of immediate revelation – the idea that God could speak directly to the individual – was the notion of spiritual gifts. Speaking in tongues was the most dramatic of these, but my father and mother believed there were Christians with the gift of miraculous healing, the gift of interpreting what others were saying in tongues, the gift of prophecy, the gift of teaching, and many others. Every time I scooped a grounder or steadied myself beneath a fly ball, it was only to get one out closer to my next at-bat, when I could dig into the batter’s box and let my true gift shine. “Don’t leave your light under a bushel,” one verse said, and I strove to obey that command every time I lowered myself into my stance. Everywhere else on the field I was a little above average – decent speed, an adequate arm, steady with the glove. At the plate I was unique, often batting above .700 for the regular season, able to launch pitches well beyond the two hundred foot fences. Our preacher described spiritual gifts as a believer’s full inheritance, recounting how he had prayed for the gift of healing, asking God for his full reward. In church I knew I’d come up short. But on the diamond, the sacred ground I shared with my father, I came into that reward.

Baseball is a team effort, but it is just as much an individual discipline, each fielder enisled in his own thoughts, each batter standing alone at the plate. The solitary togetherness of the sport resonated with the stamina I’d gained while sitting through two-hour long revival meetings, the comfort with my own inner space I’d been encouraged to learn through prayer. Reading was also a natural outgrowth of that life, losing myself for hours in another world between the covers of a novel, and writing would later fulfill a similar urge to the reaching out of prayer, the questioning and the crying out and the inner groping for peace. But as a child nothing made more sense than batting, where my father might be watching from the third base line, and my mother and grandparents might be cheering from the stands, but no one else could take my place between the chalk lines of the batter’s box. It was a meditative place where I stood in a half crouch awaiting the pitcher’s delivery, my back elbow cocked to keep my swing level, hands gripping the bat handle without squeezing too much, my whole body coiled and ready. The pitcher faded in my vision, the chatter from the infielders dimmed, and I waited to see the ball in flight, my legs and arms tightening in the split second before deciding to swing.

In practice I took time to think about keeping the bat level, punching an outside pitch to the opposite field, eyes following the ball straight down to the bat. But in the game I played by instinct, the sudden knowledge of whether a pitch was too high or too low or whether it was slicing in straight across the plate, belt high, in my wheelhouse. When that happened, when I felt the pitch arcing toward the sweet spot, my body twisted forward to meet the ball, arms whipping the wooden bat, eyes fixed on the blur of the pitch. There was a power rising within me, a spirit force welling up. This was my gift. This was my full inheritance.

 

As a child I felt these things without naming them, buoyed or weighed down by sudden impressions of joy or guilt rising like vapors from the stew of family life. The elation on my face when the clean shock of the sweet spot rippled up my arms into my chest surely appeared to everyone else as little more than a kid having fun, but the feeling resonated with me as proof of God’s favor, though I could not have explained why. Eric Liddell, the pious sprinter in Chariots of Fire, captured the essence of it when he explained to his sister, “God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” So when the game went badly, when I let a grounder hop between my legs or fisted a pitch into an easy pop fly, a pall fell over my spirits not unlike the nagging fear that my soul was in peril.

The morning after a game, my father would have forgotten the outcome, good or bad, but I had more difficulty letting go and often sat at the breakfast table in a brooding silence. He tried to make me laugh then, cracking jokes about how it took more energy to frown than to smile, but this only pushed me deeper into gloom, and if I sometimes poured too much maple syrup on my pancakes, it was only as a stand-in for my next chance to step up to home plate and make sweet contact once more.

When I launched a home run and circled the bases with the echo of it still tingling in my hands, my father often said, perhaps to curb my pride, “You’re only as good as your next at-bat.” I took this to heart. It was a literalism I was internalizing in church, a way of sorting the world into the clean and the unclean, trusting rituals of penance to make me whole. Like a prayer for forgiveness, which might wash away my sin for that instant alone, every trip to the plate was a mountaintop where I could not linger, an absolution pitching me back into the valley to climb out again. To my shame I can scarcely remember my teammates, so intent I was on claiming the game as my one true gift, sitting alone in a packed dugout with my wooden bat at my side. Sometimes I held it at arm’s length, studying the waves of the wood grain rippling beneath the blue Worth logo, then twisting the handle and closing one eye so I could track the straight lines of the side grain toward the sweet spot in the middle of the barrel, the place where I belonged, where I wanted to live my whole life.

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Discussion

2 Responses to The Sweet Spot

  1. Collier says:

    The relationship between the author and his father evokes a deep, but difficult, love. Combining baseball and religion seems odd at first, but the author skillfully weaves the two together in order too create an effect more powerful than the two subjects standing alone. The images are unique and vivid. I never felt out of touch with the situation despite my lack of knowledge concerning baseball. As my own father’s child prodigy, I understand the complexities of a relationship driven by success in a sport. The author pulls together a moving tale of a father and a son, a boy and his God, and an athlete and his sport. Well done!

  2. Mike says:

    This story is an interesting examination of not just baseball, but the exhilarating feeling when you’re doing something you truly love. Everyone has something they’re passionate about, sports, music, art; something that seems to stop the flow of time and allows you to briefly live in the Present, the now. It ends the constant dialogue in your head about work, school, or any other obligation, and makes you more like an animal, simply alive. The Present is fleeting though. Once you’ve experienced it, all you want to do is return, like the author, to the next at-bat.

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