I was, in my youth, not much of a ballplayer—no hit, no field, no arm. As a result, the highlights of my career were few and dim: an occasional pedestrian defensive play, a rare scratch single, just enough to save me, usually, from the ignominy of being the last one chosen in a pickup game. A scouting report, if ever there had been one, would have buried me in the "Talent, Natural lack of..." file. The truth is, fairly early in life I realized that nothing I could do to a baseball would hurt it half as much as the things it could do to hurt me. This awareness bred in me the sort of caution that is incompatible with the reckless scooping up of hard-hit grounders bounding across lumpy infields, or the fearless standing up to large, youthful, incredibly swift but woefully inaccurate pitchers.
Add to that a tendency to daydream. Because much of my time was spent in rightfield, few matters requiring my direct attention were likely to occur, and there was ample opportunity for the mind to wander. Undoubtedly a study somewhere proves that not only the most but also the best baseball fantasies have been produced by dyed-in-the-wool rightfielders. Like my fellow fantasizers, I'm sure that a fair amount of my time was spent imagining spectacular leaping catches, arrowlike throws from the edge of the pasture to the sweet spot of the catcher's mitt and other feats of wizardry afield.
But there were few or no dreams of home runs. I doubt that I ever saw myself doffing my cap to the thundering crowd at Briggs Stadium (I had thrown my lot in with the Detroit Tigers early, for reasons no longer remembered) as I trotted across home plate, nor did I have the fancied satisfaction of seeing outfielders drift backward, closer to the fence, as I stepped into the batter's box. I don't even think I saw myself appearing in any sort of official baseball uniform; maybe a sweat shirt, a pair of rolled-up jeans and genuine spiked shoes, but that was all. What I did imagine, and still do, was hitting foul balls.
Not one or two every now and again, but hours of them, pitch after pitch, sprayed, popped, bounced, dribbled anywhere in the park except on the field of play. Hoppers down the third base line picked off bare-handed by a grizzled coach; towering shots that ricocheted off the press box; long, lifting, line-hugging flies that drifted into the stands a split inch beyond the outfielder's glove; screaming liners that cleared the dugout; all makes, sizes, shapes and modifications of the unplayable foul, cracking off the bat of a gangling, ununiformed and apparently uncoordinated nobody. Weary pitchers trudged dejectedly to the showers one by one (my fantasy has never taken into account the possibility of an intentional base on balls), sportswriters nodded off over their typewriters, umpires sagged and wilted along the baselines, fielders' eyes glazed, crowds toddled homeward in dismay and the momentum of the Great American Pastime wound down to something like suspended animation and froze at the final frame. And there it was: Lights glared on an empty stadium, where the lean, hard-eyed but perplexed pitcher (Hal Newhouser? Maybe even Warren Spahn?) glared at the even leaner, soft-eyed figure (me, of course) slouching beside the plate and smiling.
It's not hard to imagine what the psychological folks might make out of all this: deep-seated latent anarchy at best, out and out disrespect for the American way of life at worst. Foul balls? What properly motivated young person would prefer a foul ball to a four-bagger? At times, even I've wondered.
But in more detached, analytical moments I can now muster up explanations enough. First, given my athletic prowess, it was easy to conclude that while foul balls were somewhere within the realm of possibility, home runs were not. Besides, there is a great deal of charm in the foul itself. To me the best of all baseball sounds was not the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the umpire's bellow, the third baseman whistling through his teeth. It was instead the distinctive thunk of the lofty foul landing on the roof of the green wooden grandstand, followed by the soft rumble of its roll to the roofs edge. Beyond that there was the stirring sight of a catcher, mask off, head back, armor clanking, scrambling madly toward the screen in pursuit of the towering pop; the scene offered as fine a glimpse of momentary suspense as a game built on such glimpses could ever provide. There was also the subtle drama of the frustration factor at work; one watched the glowering man on the mound bedeviled by the innocent foul.
And always, if pressed, I could turn my daydream into something moderately legitimate by invoking the spirit of Eddie Stanky, the Brat; the legendary Eddie Stanky, foul-ball hitter without parallel, who drew walks like the fish market draws flies, who drove pitchers mad and survived in the major leagues for 11 years, not on the strength of an overwhelming talent but on guts, a good eye and the uncanny knack of getting an edge of the bat on the side of the ball. Guts and the good eye were always widely admired by aficionados, but it was the other attribute I found most endearing. Stanky, the master of the errant ball, the slice-pop-tip-dribble craftsman, the super-skilled practitioner of the waiting game. Time was suspended on the green as Stanky worked on his walk.
No matter that his goals and mine were miles apart—he fouled just long enough to force a base on balls; I, forever, for the sheer joy of seeing that small white sphere go everywhere but where it was supposed to go. It was not the end that made the difference, but the moment—that timeless interval when the game could neither advance nor retreat but was obliged to hang somewhere beyond the reach of clock and scoreboard, swinging gently in the summer air, going on and on and on.
Time suspended; it is, I think, the aim of all our fantasies.