As a photojournalist shooting a baseball game, I’d never once considered that I could be at great peril…but I’d never photographed a game from this position…from on the mound and behind the pitcher.
I stood over the pitcher’s shoulder during his windup watching the batter – his forearms tensed and his gaze narrowly focused on the orb as it left the pitcher’s fingers.
The ball floated nearer, the wood came around, gained speed and then contacted – not with the metal pwiiinnng of today’s bats, but of the craaack of a 1976 Louisville Slugger against a leather wrapped Wilson that was sewn in the US of A.
In what I suspect was a half second later, the ball had been launched toward the outfield in a line drive that sailed about a foot from my left ear.
I never saw the ball – there was a Nikon blocking my eye – but I felt the air quickly part and maybe a hundred people in the crowd cheer.
By serendipity, I’d avoided bodily damage.
The pitcher I was standing behind was Billy Carter – captain and pitcher of the 1976 Press All-Stars (the team name changed weekly) and the batter was his brother, a politician of note, vying to be a politician of greater note.
Not being a man of the coordinated persuasion, my role at these late afternoon –early evening sporting events was usually confined to documenting the candidate for my magazine.
This however, was not the case one late summer day when I decided to join the roster and open myself to great ridicule.
With cameras safely in my bag, protecting them from the fine red clay dust of the Plains High School ball field, I took my first inning position in the outfield.
I must pause now and explain the makeup of the teams.
First, there was our team. Members of the Fourth Estate all, excepting our pitcher. Some with moderate athletic abilities, most without. Including our pitcher.
The opposing team was led by the leader of the free world – to be.
His team was comprised of several campaign staffers, a local ringer and – oh yes – off-duty members of the United States Secret Service.
These are the men who – when not protecting the President or being conscripted to play ball – are off running forty miles for the fun of it or bench pressing the equivalent of small automobiles.
O.K. – you get the idea – so back to the game…
For five innings, our pitcher – wearing a “Redneck Power” t-shirt tried valiantly to stop the shelling from his sibling’s wrecking crew – but we were down 9 – 1.
Adding to my humiliation was the fact that I’d committed an unforced error in the fourth. Something having to do with gnats and a fire ant mound, as I recall.
I’d been up three times by the sixth – missing a fourth because no one could (or more likely wanted to) remember the order.
Each of my three at-bats brought the same result.
The wind up.
By the bottom of the sixth, I was standing on home plate again and realized that there’s a point beyond which you lose the capacity to stack further embarrassment on top previously stacked humiliation.
Again, the wind up.
Again, the pitch.
Again, the whiff.
And then something changed.
The pitcher grinned at me.
I don’t know if he was trying to make me mad or if he was thinking about some Biblical passage about showing charity to the afflicted…but he was grinning. You know – that famous grin.
Again, the wind up.
Again, the pitch.
This time the ball floated. It seemed to rise and just hang in space.
He’d thrown me a creampuff. A big, insulting,”you can’t even hit this“, creampuff.
I’m certain there’s nowhere in the New Testament that says “ Whenst thy rival knoweth of your suffering, he should pusheth your face into the dirt”.
This pitch was such a creampuff that if I wasn’t going to hit that ball, I’m sure that – after 40 years – it’d still be hanging there.
I came around with the bat and hit it square on.
From the moment I contacted the ball, I knew that I’d no longer be looked upon by my teammates as a failure… a loser… a wimp.
That lasted about half a second…until I realized that my one and only success on the ballfield had just hit the next President of the United States.
Fortunately, I’d just grazed his left arm, but it was enough to leave a bruise, and secretly – after giving me that grin and a creampuff – I was glad that the next Commander- in- Chief had something to remember me by.