COULD A 45-YEAR-OLD WRITER WITH NO BASEBALL EXPERIENCE BEYOND SEVENTH GRADE, ARMED WITH ONLY DESIRE AND AN OBSESSIVE WORK ETHIC,GO DEEP IN A MAJOR LEAGUE PARK?IT WOULD TAKE A HELLUVA LOT OF SWINGS TO FIND OUT
OTHER THAN the wind whipping from the south, you couldn't have asked for a better scene. Crisp California sky, vast green outfield, iconic names and numbers on tarps covering the upper deck in left: HENDERSON 24, JACKSON 9.... A few nights earlier I'd dreamt of hitting a baseball up to those names, some 600 feet away—but right now I'd settle for one that hooked inside the foul pole at the 330 mark, the shortest distance to a home run at Oakland Coliseum.
I'd traveled from L.A. to the Bay to go yard, to take one deep, to hit a baseball so hard into the sky that gravity couldn't push it down before it cleared the fence. I wanted to do what major leaguers such as Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton do routinely, and what NFL stars like Calvin Johnson and Julian Edelman have done taking guest BP before games. I wanted to do it for the same reason that that latter group stepped to the plate: to see if I could.
Except I'm not an NFL receiver in his 20s. I'm a 45-year-old father of three who hasn't played baseball since middle school. Among the few things I had going for me was that I'd been training for this arguably pitiable, definitely middle-aged quest since Feb. 17, the week that pitchers and catchers reported to spring training—in 2016. Now, here I was, 400 days older and 15 pounds heavier, standing in the righthanded batter's box, wearing sweat-soaked batting gloves that covered peanut-sized calluses on my palms, taking the biggest hacks that my aging body could muster.
The A's were on the road. The team—quite possibly out of compassion, but more likely because it self-identifies as a scrappy underdog, down for whatever—had agreed to let my personal BP pitcher, Bill Ballas, and me into their ballyard for exactly one hour. I had put in the work, training four-to-six days a week, practicing both off a tee and against live pitching. I had hit in cages, in high school ballparks, into a portable net on my family's sloped, 29-foot driveway. Yes, that Coliseum crosswind was troubling. But I wasn't going to leave without hitting one out.
Then again, my hour was almost up. A handful of injured Oakland players who'd stayed home to rehab appeared on the dugout steps, joining a dozen lookie-loo groundskeepers and p.r. staffers. Middle infielder Marcus Semien, wearing a soft cast on his broken right wrist, approached the on-deck circle to constructively suggest a bat bigger than my 33-ouncer. But there was no time for that now. And I was coming pretty close with the one I had.
Twenty-five minutes in I'd one-hopped the leftfield wall, near the corner, earning the stunned attention of the pitchers playing long toss nearby. ("If that had any height it would have been gone," Ballas, a 32-year-old high school coach, said from behind his L-screen.) Four minutes later—thwack!—I'd lifted another of his 70-mph pitches toward the same corner. (On video, Semien can be heard off-camera declaring "that's gone" before the ball short-hops the wall at a slightly deeper spot.)
Swinging a bat as hard as you can every five seconds is exhausting. By this point in my session I'd already taken 100 cuts—the equivalent of 100 max-effort burpees—but my training was paying off. My batting gloves were soaked and slipping, my face was dripping sweat despite the 20-mph wind whipping from foul pole to foul pole—but I still felt fresh.
And then it happened. On my 135th swing of the day, my hips, hands and bat combined to produce a different sound, one I'd come to cherish for its scarcity, a sound I'd chased for more than 14 months, like a surfer seeking the perfect wave. Craaack! "Get the f--- outta here," I growled through clenched teeth as the ball hissed toward the outfield. "Get the f--- outta here." The trajectory was perfect, but it was also headed toward the deepest part of left. Did it have enough juice? Would the wind leave it alone?
THIS PURSUIT wasn't about me as much as it was about what's possible for any of us. Those athletic feats we watch the pros execute effortlessly: How hard are they for a layperson to pull off? How much work is required to even come close to landing a triple Axel? If your tax-attorney neighbor trained hard enough, could she hit a contested three in a WNBA game? Could she hit five? Would she raise "three goggles" to her eyes and jaw at her defender as she backpedaled on defense?
But more than any other demographic, this Home Run Project was for overwhelmed, underrested parents such as myself who wonder, What could I have accomplished had I chosen a more athletic path? It's for those among us who yell at our TV screens—You can't take that pitch! You gotta crush that!—forgetting how impossible it is to swing a round bat and strike a round ball snaking by at 90 mph.
At the outset, I felt I had a decent shot at this. I'm not big, per se, but at 6'1" and 185 pounds, I'm not small, either. My legs and hips, the foundation of any power hitter's swing, proved mildly explosive when I dunked on a 10-foot rim a couple of years back (SI, June 1, 2015). But I hadn't touched a bat in 15 years, since setting an unofficial record for pop-ups in a Hermosa Beach softball league.
That's where I was physically and mentally on Feb. 17, 2016, the day I walked into the South Bay Refinery baseball facility in Torrance. A friend had referred me to this converted warehouse that abuts the town's 750-acre petroleum refinery and adjoining train depot. Several big leaguers were working out as I strode across the FieldTurf—including Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki—but I was there to meet Shane Schumaker, the Refinery's proprietor, who 15 years earlier had finished with a .357 average and 15 homers at UNC-Greensboro, then dedicated his waking life to building better batsmen. I had described my mission to Schumaker over the phone, and now he was handing me a wooden bat and lifting the net of a cage. I hit a few balls off the tee for him—most of them embarrassing choppers to the left—while he muttered semisupportive phrases like "a little better than I thought" and "not a totally lost cause" and "What the hell was that?" Afterward I asked Schumaker about the framed poster of Cardinals-era Albert Pujols that hung nearby.
Schumaker folded his arms and regarded the future Hall of Famer—ample hips fully rotated toward the pitcher, right elbow buried in his ribs, bat barrel flattening a pearl-white ball. "To me," Schumaker said, "this is hitting right here."
Pujols's right elbow, he explained, was bent 90 degrees in what hitting coaches call the Power L. I'd always thought a slugger's arms were extended at the moment of impact. This was Lesson Number 1.
Sensing my fascination, but unable to foresee the desperate, all-consuming quest yet to unfold, Schumaker offered me "anything you need, for as long as you need it."
There would be weeks of tee work first, Schumaker explained, to drive home the "elbow slot" and "bat path" required to take one deep, followed by batting practice, where I'd marry what I was learning to live pitching. He suggested I buy a portable net so I could hit at home, along with my own tee and a bucket of balls. (I made these purchases that night.) He let me keep the 33-inch Glomar bat he'd loaned me for our first lesson—but my shoddy swing cracked it the next day against one of the Refinery's seven pitching machines.
I spent the next few weeks flailing away off the tee and against those seven Iron Mikes, which creaked and groaned like the trains crawling past the Refinery's open cargo bay. The Power L and bat path were my focuses, though I barely knew what they meant. Schumaker advised me to keep it simple by staying inside the ball—firing my hands between my torso and my white spheroid target—and swinging hard. "We're not trying to make you a .300 hitter," he said. "All you need is one."
Schumaker didn't coach me over the next 14 months as much as he strolled by, watching, smirking, offering suggestions. He had a business to run, after all, and a wife and kids. So I was on my own, which was how I wanted it. Videos of Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz and an array of other righthanded sluggers would provide my coaching.
I did, however, need a ballpark. Dodger Stadium, 30 miles northeast of my home, was my first choice. My initial email to the team last May was met with a positive response and a suggestion that "the off-season would be best." Fine by me.
Based on my first six weeks of work, I figured I'd need until November, at least.
JULIO FRANCO, a hitter of about my height and weight, was almost 49 the last time he went deep, in 2007. Last summer, seven weeks into this project, then-42-year-old Bartolo Colón, who is not close to my weight, hit his first big league homer. I leaned on these precedents as I woke up each Monday, Wednesday and Friday and made the 12-minute drive to the Refinery. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I hit off the tee in our driveway. Sundays were for rest, although I'd squeeze in a bucket or two if I came across a particularly moving clip of Josh Donaldson or Dustin Pedroia.
The only break in this schedule came in mid-May, when I traveled to Baton Rouge to visit the bat makers at Marucci Sports. I didn't just need bats, I had decided—I needed the best bats in the world. And if Pujols, David Ortiz and Anthony Rizzo are to be believed, those bats bear a cursive M on the barrel.
The Marucci story began in a Baton Rouge tool shed 15 years ago, when LSU trainer Jack Marucci lathed a wooden bat for his eight-year-old son, Gino. One bat became several, until one of them landed in the hands of Carlos Beltrán, then with the Mets, in the spring of 2006. Beltrán went deep 41 times that summer, still his career high. The company and its reputation took off like one of the 425 homers that the now-40-year-old Beltrán has blasted.
I knew none of this when Marucci VP Kyle Ourso handed me a glossy Beltrán model in his company's showroom; the CB15 simply felt better in my hands than the 20 or so other Maruccis I swung that day. I'd always thought that bats were all alike. But these seemed different in the way that a samurai sword differs from a butter knife.
Jack Marucci's shed is now a complex of warehouses wallpapered with images of big league clientele: Harper, Bautista, McCutchen.... Thick uncut dowels extracted from Pennsylvania maples lay stacked floor to ceiling. Ourso pointed out the skinniest grains along the bat's length and explained how these tightly packed lines, the hardest part of the tree, are positioned at the point where bat most often meets ball, about an inch from the label.
It wasn't until I'd arrived at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International for my flight home that I learned my tall box of six clattering CB15s had to be checked. According to TSA, bats "can be used as a bludgeon." I could only hope.
Back in L.A., I took some advice from the Marucci guys and opened my stance, aiming both eyes and both hip pointers at the pitcher. "Harper and Stanton and those guys have elite strength, sure," Schumaker said as we consumed MLB.com videos in his office, "but what they really have is elite timing." When 99th-percentile timing teams up with a quick, slightly uppercutted swing, the result becomes audible, and tangible, before it becomes visible. "You feel like you're hitting a stick of butter," Schumaker said of the tactile sensation that signifies a well-struck ball. "It's like you're hitting nothing."
He has a phrase for it: violent peace.
I learned the hard way that the inexperienced should not seek this rapture with a $300 Marucci. Adirondack maple is tough, but it proved no match for my swing, which produced contact either at the handle or at the end of the bat more often than on the barrel. Each time I shattered one of the Maruccis I'd taken home, I felt as if I'd broken one of my femurs.
Other challenges surfaced. Among them: I found it impossible to time my swing against a pitching machine. And while the tee may have helped refine my stroke and build muscle memory and endurance, it too was a poor substitute for a pitched ball. Professional hitters are fragile beasts who need constant reassurance that they can accomplish—at least 25% of the time—the task that many sports scientists believe is the hardest in sports. They need to hit against people. They need to see a human body folding and unfolding before them. They need the visual of a front foot landing and a ball rolling off fingertips.
Schumaker wasn't available to throw to me at the rate afforded by my expense budget: $0.00 per hour. A harsh reality hit me like a fastball to the helmet. I hadn't thought this through.
That's when Ballas, a wiry, amiable assistant coach at Torrance High, ambled over and introduced himself. I'd noticed him throwing to a few Double A guys in another cage at the Refinery, never realizing how much they valued him. One of those young players, second baseman Trent Gilbert of the A's system, had told Ballas what I was up to.
"I'm happy to help if you need anything," he said.
"How's your BP?"
"Best in the South Bay."
As accurate as Ballas's deliveries were, his right arm snapped my bats like a timber harvester. I saved my three remaining Maruccis from this fate, if only temporarily, and became a regular at local sporting goods stores. Wood bats aren't cheap—$40 at the low end, a price that feels especially ludicrous when you're 45, you have no clue what you're doing and your job requires that you justify expense reports to an editor.
I loved my Maruccis, but for BP I began swinging just about anything wooden between 32 and 34 inches. I thought I'd gamed the system when I found an online deal that got me six 34-inch Louisville Sluggers for 19 bucks apiece—but then their sharpened barrels began helicoptering through the Refinery's cages, exercising Ballas's reflexes more than my own. By the end, the Home Run Project would relegate 27 snapped bats to a corner of our garage that my daughters began to call, uncreatively, Bat Graveyard.
IN 1993, LSU righthander Brett Laxton set the still-standing College World Series championship-game record for strikeouts with 16 against Wichita State. Today he's an energetic bear of a man and a Marucci bat maker, and in Baton Rouge he had advised me to "get out to a field as soon as possible and see where you're at. You don't realize how hard it is till you get out to a big league yard and see how far off that wall is." Ballas suggested we use the scruffy field where Torrance High's freshmen play. What it lacked in landscaping it made up for with its MLB dimensions: 330 feet down the line, 350 to straightaway left.
Our first day there was May 18, 2016. My performance was hideous. Over the course of 75-odd swings, two balls might have rolled to the track. A sad parade of choppers and Texas leaguers sprayed from my new Maruccis, one of which, of course, broke. (That left two.)
My stadium search, meanwhile, revealed that major league clubs don't exactly roll out the red carpet for writers eager to get their bat-flip on. I'd received no word from the Dodgers, a silence to which I took no offense. They had bigger priorities than a scribe with a home run jones.
While I waited, I watched a video Ballas had sent me about "bat lag," a technique in which the wrists are loosened, allowing the barrel to lag behind the hands as they fire forward. The barrel desperately tries to catch up, creating the bat speed from whence dingers derive.
I set up my $89 Bownet in the driveway and, with bat lag in mind, hit about 100 balls off the tee. Cowhide flew off the barrel; it sounded like a gunfight. But my hands were still straying too far from my body, still reaching for the ball instead of staying inside it.
The guys at the Refinery said my swing was improving (and they'd laughed at me enough times to make clear that my feelings did not inform their input). But they also said my lean writer's frame needed to get stronger, heavier. Less Pablo Neruda and more Pablo Sandoval.
Ronnie Lopez and Chris Pascual are the Refinery's resident strength coaches, and without our thrice-weekly appointments, which focused on adding body weight and building power from the legs up, I would have never come close to Oakland's outfield wall. This saga within a saga could be a violin-scored Ken Burns documentary unto itself, but for brevity's sake I'll point out that baseball is a sport of maximum-effort explosions separated by lengthy rest periods. The event I was preparing for—essentially a 60- to 90-minute home run contest in which I was the only participant—did not allow for rest. Our training reflected that.
I hadn't realized it yet, but in addition to a more Paul Bunyan--like body, I also needed a daily hitting partner, a professional I could emulate and from whom I could siphon some wisdom. Instead I got three.
Torrance High has put a few guys in the bigs over the years, the most notable being catcher Jason Kendall, a three-time All-Star who played between 1996 and 2010, mainly for the Pirates. More recently the program has produced leftfielder Angelo Gumbs, a second-round Yankees pick in '10; Tyrone Taylor, a tool-rich outfielder and Brewers second-rounder in '12; and the aforementioned Trent Gilbert, who starred at Arizona from '12 through '14. These were the guys Ballas threw to every off-season, from November to April, three to five days a week, in exchange for an occasional case of Stella Artois, maybe some MLB gear. Mainly, Ballas does it because he loves baseball, his participation in this very project offering irrefutable evidence of this fact.
Without telling me, Ballas had updated the three young pros on my progress and asked if I could hit with them. "They're in," he told me, even though adding me to their group would probably mean fewer cuts for each player.
I showed my gratitude by staying humble, making clear that I knew I couldn't even dream of going deep against a Class A pitcher. (Changing speeds? Adding movement? Forget it.) All I could do was try to hit the ball hard—really hard—which differentiated my BP from that of my new training partners. I was the anti-Ichiro. Every swing came from my heels. Anything less did me no good.
LIFTING AND hitting, hitting and lifting. Fifty dry swings in the driveway every night after tucking the girls in. Fifty more with a donut on the barrel. Strange looks from strolling neighbors. "I'm playing in a men's league," I'd say. The truth would only bring more questions.
One hundred push-ups after coming in from the driveway. Twenty minutes of foam-rolling and stretching while the wife and I watched Netflix.
Each time Gumbs, Taylor or Gilbert connected, it sounded like the apocalypse. Why did my BP still sound like I was swinging cork? What was the difference? Was any of this work paying off?
December 21 was a typically frustrating day. Minor league infielder Carlos Avila had invited my three BP partners and me to hit at his alma mater, Narbonne High. We were packing up for the day when I received an email from the Dodgers: Sorry, no.
It's said that one's true nature is revealed when things don't go as planned. If that's so, then I was revealed here to be a guy who calls in favors and offers his own children as barter. I was desperate to get onto an MLB field, even though I had yet to hit one out of the park—any park, not even Narbonne's, which measured just 315 down the line.
When we arrived for one of our sessions a few days later, Gumbs, who'd just re-signed with the Reds, dropped his big bag of balls onto the infield grass and informed me, "We're going yard today." A trickle of grounders followed, even though Ballas's pitches were right in my wheelhouse. ("You have a wheelhouse?" he joked.) BP was going on two hours, which was long for us. Ballas had one more ball in his bag.
My left foot rose from the dirt, advanced and planted. My hips turned and my hands whooshed toward the ball, my bat giving frantic chase. (Bat lag!) I'd hit the top of Narbonne's 20-foot fence before, so I was skeptical of the pleasant Crack! that broke the air. But then my fly ball vanished behind the fence, landing near the school's auto shop.
I threw my bat not in celebration, like José Bautista, but with a two-handed chest pass, like an exhausted miner who'd finally found a speck of gold and was more angry about the duration of the search than elated about his success. The moment produced an adrenaline spike as well as an uptick in confidence. I asked for more pitches and hit two of them out. There were no bat flips, but there was entirely too much cathartic swearing.
This, however, was the harsh reality, conveyed subtly by my editors: I was supposed to have been done by that point, for better or worse, but I hadn't even gotten a real shot in an MLB park yet. When January arrived, the minor leaguers stepped up their BP schedule to five days a week. So did I.
"Should I just try to do it in a spring training stadium?" I wondered aloud. "No, it's gotta be one we see on TV," replied Gilbert. I was already way over budget, physically and fiscally, so I began repairing my broken bats with wood glue, vises and clamps. Our garage looked like the prop room for The Walking Dead.
I kept my last two Maruccis tucked away while I awaited responses from a handful of teams. I had no stadium, no date—just a running appointment with failure, five days a week. My swing had dried up after that glorious three-homer day at Narbonne. February's rains had turned the white balls I'd bought 12 months earlier wet and brown. The steel frame of my Bownet broke, so I jerry-rigged it with a bungee cord. Each morning I sifted through my pile of crispy batting gloves, searching for the least-torn pair. The lefthanded ones were in the worst shape, so I turned the righties inside out and swung on, whacking concrete-scuffed balls that had frayed at the seams. My minor league buddies, one by one, departed for their assignments. It was just me and Ballas. Don and Sancho.
Then, out of nowhere, the A's gave us a date: April 7.
Butterflies flapped behind my sore ribs. BP, weightlifting and recovery sessions were scheduled down to the hour. We got rained out. A new date was offered. April 27 it would be.
REMEMBER THAT shot to the leftfield alley at Oakland Coliseum? It piffed off the warning track, bonked the scoreboard above the 367 sign and bounded back onto the field. Had I pulled that pitch, it would have cleared the wall, not to mention a few rows of seats beyond it.
Man, this park is big, I thought.
I had 15 minutes left. Energy dwindling, I took a deep breath and stepped back into the box, cocking one of my two remaining CB15s over my right shoulder, looking out at Ballas for what seemed like the 15,000th time. (Some quick math here on the Project: roughly 100 swings a day for 384 days, or 38,400 total.) Swing number 237 in Oakland smacked a heartbreaker that hit the wall near those taunting yellow numbers: 330.
After one last ball-shagging run and my 263rd swing—a grounder to short—it was over. The A's had given me 20 extra minutes. Alas, they could not gift me Khris Davis's stroke.
Afterward, two surprises emerged.
One: I wasn't frustrated or mad at all. I knew I'd given it everything.
Two: After texting my wife, Kelly ("Came up a little short but had fun. This park is big!"), she shocked me by asking which ballpark would be next?
Then my editors texted. "Might this story be about failure?"
Maybe so, yeah.
That's when the Astros got back to me. "How about May 18?"
Which is how I ended up carrying my Beltrán to the plate at Minute Maid Park, as the bat's namesake was flying home to Houston from a road series in Miami. The leftfield line was 15 feet closer in the Astros' yard than in the A's, but the wall was higher—19 feet. Ballas, thrilled just to be playing ball in another of the stadiums we all see on TV, couldn't stifle a grin.
It was 9 a.m., but the temperature was already in the mid-80s and Minute Maid's open roof was inviting the Texas humidity to play a role in our journey's end. This was it. If I came up short here, no way could I ask my bosses to fly me, and Ballas's volunteer arm, to another ballpark. What had begun 15 months earlier would end in downtown Houston, long ball or no.
I was not immune to the pressure. "Heart rate," I said to Ballas from the batter's box, explaining the deep breaths and longer-than-usual rests I was taking between hacks. We'd barely gotten started and I was sweating more than I had after an hour in Oakland. I'd made one small adjustment since then: I was now trying to overtwist my right wrist so that at contact my palm would face the first base dugout (instead of the sky), creating an increase in what's known as "vertical bat angle," allowing for more of an uppercut.
Five minutes in, on my 22nd swing, I caught one on the skinny grains and lifted it toward left. Well hit but won't have the distance, I thought. Then it landed eight rows deep.
I didn't flip my bat, I just released it, not knowing what to do. Ballas thrust his fists in the air, dropped the two balls he was holding and flung bottled water all over me, the perfect champagne for our budget. ("I brought it out to the mound just for that," he told me later. "I had no intention of drinking it.") I felt stunned—I'd struck it solidly but didn't think I'd gotten all of it—along with incredulous, relieved, grateful, the same emotions I expect most pros feel when they go yard. With plenty of time left and a cart full of Manfred-signed pearls, we kept hitting. Within 10 minutes I'd parked two more. Ballas insisted I take a home run trot, but I figured I'd disgraced the game, maybe even honored it, enough.
THOSE ATHLETIC FEATS THAT WE WATCH THE PROS EXECUTE EFFORTLESSLY: HOW HARD ARE THEY FOR A LAYPERSON TO PULL OFF?
SCHUMAKER WASN'T ABLE TO THROW TO ME AT THE RATE AFFORDED BY MY BUDGET: $0.OO PER HOUR. I HADN'T THOUGHT THIS THROUGH.
ALL I COULD DO WAS TRY TO HIT THE BALL REALLY HARD. I WAS THE ANTI-ICHIRO. EVERY SWING CAME FROM MY HEELS.
I FELT STUNNED—I DIDN'T THINK I'D GOTTEN ALL OF IT—ALONG WITH THE EMOTIONS MOST PROS FEEL WHEN THEY GO YARD.