BERKELEY -- In late January, I proposed to California head coach David Esquer that, given the fact that this is my ninth season covering the Golden Bears on the diamond, maybe it would be fun to put me out there for a practice, and see just what 15-year-old rusty baseball skills look like. My catcher's mitt is almost as old as some of the freshmen, after all, on this team, ranked No. 17 in the nation, headed into the second week of Pac-12 play, having lost two of three to USC over the weekend.
The last time I played a competitive inning (and, let's be honest, it wasn't that competitive), was my sophomore year of high school, in a park league, after having been cut from the junior varsity squad at Camarillo (Calif.) High School. I was a catcher, and not a very good one. The only thing I could ever do with any kind of regularity was hit. 40 pounds, torn back muscles and 15 years later, I put the spikes and stirrups back on and see just what I can do on a baseball field.
It turns out, not much.
Following the Bay Area College Baseball Media Day at Stanford, both I and Cal's contingent -- Esquer, Mitchell Kranson and Ryan Mason -- raced back to Berkeley for practice. I got dressed in a Haas Pavilion bathroom. Wouldn't you know it, I was late for team stretch. Knowing that I hadn't been on a field for anything other than AEPi intramural softball over the past 15 years, that probably wasn't a great start. But, after having looked up this new thing called "dynamic stretching," as opposed to the 50-year old calisthenics I did before games and practices as a kid, I was at least somewhat prepared, medically speaking.
I signed a waiver, just in case. My editor -- Mike Olson -- said not to stretch too much. If I pulled something, this would be even better. Thanks for the support.
They put me at second base. The last time I played second base, I was probably 100 pounds lighter. No excuse. My heart was pounding. I was on my toes for every ball. It turns out, I never really could read the ball off the bat. I charged balls that were headed to short, I covered the bag on every nubber. Robbie Tenerowicz said, behind me, "Gorce, you don't have to move on every ball." Oh, right, yeah, of course. I was out of breath by my second grounder. But even then, taking balls off the chest, not getting my glove down, making errors I've ever even dreamed of, it felt like home.
I headed in to take batting practice. I had my wooden bat and my batting gloves in my car, but, of course, I forgot to bring them out to the field. I borrow a pair of gloves from Brian Celsi, and a metal bat from the rack.
The first pitch, not surprisingly, from assistant Brad Sanfilippo, sailed up and over my head. "Had to buzz ya inside," he said. Of course. Makes perfect sense. Haze the rookie. After a few choppers, I finally lined one back over the middle, over second base and into center. That was all I really wanted. Just punch one back through the middle.
Being not the tallest prospect on the board, I normally use a 32-inch bat, but no one used anything less than a 33. Until freshman Ripken Reyes lent me his stick. He has good taste.
On the third round, Sanfilippo asks if I want to swing away, or try situational swings. I've done that before, in the batting cages up in Pinole. I go at least twice a month, because nothing feels as good as hitting -- not running, not weight lifting.
It doesn't go as planned. I whiff on every single pitch.
The bags of ice I put on my knees and hips, the sore feet, the possibly-probably-definitely sprained knee ligament, it felt like a million bucks. Even after the cameraman left, I kept going. I'm just getting warmed up, I yelled, from the outfield, chattering with closer Erik Martinez and Oregon State transfer Kevin Flemer, about his older brother, Matt Flemer, and about the 2011 season that brought me back to the beat. I roamed around the outfield, waddling after balls in the gap, crow-hopping and heaving balls back to the infield. I made my way to each of clusters of pitchers gathered near the fence, talking, shooting the bull, taunting Daulton Jefferies as he sat behind the left center field wall.
I didn't have my catcher's gear (it was 400 miles away), but I asked catching coach and volunteer assistant BK Santy if I could get in on some drills. The first thing I saw Cal's backstops doing was taking shot hops off the turf inside the batting cages, and popping up to throw down to second. Not only had I never done that, I don't think I was ever capable of that.
Later, though, there was something I could do: Getting in front of things. If I'm good at anything, other than writing, it's being big and in the way.
I blocked balls at the plate without shin guards, a mask or a chest protector, took cutoff throws from the outfield, tagged phantom runners, took a few more balls off the belly. Every sting was a sacrament. Every kick slide in the dirt felt like riding a bike, even if it looked like an elephant riding a unicycle.
I took cuts during live infield, and sprinted to first twice. As out of shape as I am, I wasn't out of breath. Adrenaline: It's a hell of a drug.
Baseball is cruel; it is a game of failure. Baseball is kind; it teaches you humility. It teaches you about victory, about sacrifice, and it teaches you of unrequited love and of infinite possibilities. The beautiful part about baseball is that no matter how old or out of shape you are, feeling the spikes sink into the turf feels like heaven. I tell every player who will listen: Enjoy it while you can. Love this field, these grass stains, this dirt and all of it, as deeply as you can, for as long as you can, because one day, it'll be gone. And you'll miss it. More than you know.
Two hours after we began, players started to empty into the locker room. The sun was setting behind Edwards Track Stadium. I didn't want to leave. But, the spikes have to come off some time. The dream has to end. It was my Moonlight Graham moment, and I didn't even get to save a girl choking on a piece of a hot dog.
I stepped back across that chalk, and the illusion faded. It was back to my apartment, with my Dodger Stadium chairs, dirty home plate on the top of my desk, wooden bats in the corner, bag of ice in the freezer, glass of whiskey on the table. For one day, though -- no, really, for three hours -- I got to see heaven. And it smelled like grass and clay.
Cal (11-6, 1-2 in Pac-12) continues its season against Pac-12 front-runner No. 3 Oregon State (15-2, 3-0) at Evans Diamond this Thursday, at 7 p.m. Stop by the press box and see me. I'll be back where I belong.