Two weeks of government contract lecture bliss ended Friday at noon. Kris and Zach waited for me at the doors to the school. I came out, she said, “Home?” and we left Charlottesville.
We drove about 45 minutes before Zach got hungry and we stopped at a rest stop near Woodrow Wilson’s childhood home. 5 ounces of milk, a diaper change, and a quick tour of Wilson’s life got us back on the road. We had one major stopping point on this trip. Like most Americans, we were looking forward to Kentucky.
By the time I was 13, there were two things separating me from the major leagues: skill and a wooden bat. The park leagues all allowed aluminum bats that pinged pleasingly when bat met ball. I had my own Easton 31 incher with sleek green barrel writing and four home runs to its credit, including a home run against the Northridge Park All-Stars. But I wanted to be a major leaguer and there were no pings in the major leagues, just cracks.
I played for the Cardinals that spring. Dad coached us. After tryouts, the coaches held a draft. He came home from the draft and I ran to meet him, eager to learn who was on our team, what our schedule looked like, and what was in the team equipment bag. I grabbed the equipment bag and dumped it out in the living room. It had the normal catcher’s gear, some baseballs, a first baseman’s glove, and bats of various sizes. Among the bats was a well used, but solid Louisville Slugger. It was huge, 34 inches, and it weighed more than two aluminum bats. I picked it up and swung it a few times. There was no tape at the base to help your grip and it was slick.
Jake came over and had trouble holding it. “That’s the bat I’m going to use this year,” I told him as I took it back. “Just think of the sound it’s going to make when I hit the ball.”
And boy did I try. In the first batting practice, I swung it three times and missed terribly before dad told me to get my bat. In the second practice, I swung it once. After that, nobody even pulled it out of the bag.
Until the second to last game of the year. We were winning or losing the game when I came up to the plate and got the bunt sign. I ran back to the bats, flung my aluminum Easton down, and fished the Louisville Slugger out. The pitcher reared, I squared around, and the ball hit my bat, making a soft click sound. The ball went foul, I got the sign to swing away, and the bat went back in the bag to be ignored by countless future teams.
Zach, Kris, and I pulled into Louisville. We took a tour of the Louisville Slugger factory floor and saw the machines that carved, sliced, and sanded the ash or maple into bats for Jeter, Griffey, Ruth, and the Granada Hills Park League. Zach cried at the noise, Kris fed him again, we looked at some famous bats, and we left to get back to Wichita.
Oh, and we got a souvenir. And yes, it’s 34 inches.