I’ve never seen Mariano Rivera’s cutter from this angle. It doesn’t move dramatically at the last second. Instead, it gradually disappears from the sweet spot of my bat, as it has for so many hitters these past 20 years.
The wooden bat emits a low thud and the vibrations shock my hands. I can’t square this guy up and it’s beginning to get frustrating.
This is usually the part where I get mad, where I step outside the batter’s box and unleash a torrent of non-constructive criticism inward.
But nothing about this situation is normal. It’s not normal to be taking cuts against one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history inside Yankee Stadium. And yet, here we are.
* * *
When New Era invited me to this once-in-a-lifetime event, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely there was a catch, some fine print I didn’t read. Taking batting practice against Mariano Rivera sounded too good to be true.
I’d be lying if I said I got much sleep the night before. Like millions of other little kids, I spent an inordinate amount of my time in the backyard pretending to be a Major League Baseball player. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how I remembered to eat during the first 12 or 13 years of my life, such was my zest for the game.
But like millions of other kids, my big league dreams faded into reality when it became readily apparent I wasn’t strong, fast, or skilled enough to make it as a professional. That being said, I still play. This was to be one chance to show the world I still had it.
Or so I thought.
* * *
I’m herded down into the bowels of Yankee Stadium with a handful of other writers. The excitement is palpable, and expectations are, in general, pretty low.
“I just want to make contact,” says one guy.
“Yeah, I’d like to not embarrass myself,” says another.
My goals are loftier, but they come soaring back to earth as I watch the first few hitters struggle to square up more than a couple swings each. One guy, bless his heart, fails to connect on 16 consecutive swings, the last of which ended in his bat flying toward Rivera.
Once we realize the future Hall of Famer hasn’t been injured in the lamest/most hilarious fashion possible, deep laughter fills the concrete cube. We’ve hit rock bottom as a group. There’s nowhere to go but up.
For his part, Rivera is having fun, talking a healthy amount of shit to most hitters and adjusting his pitch speed to their abilities. For a guy who always seemed so stoic on the mound, it’s surprising to hear him channeling his inner Kobe Bryant.
Finally, it’s my turn. I strap on a GoPro and batting gloves and step confidently into the cage.
“What’s he throwing, the cutter?” I ask the catcher.
“If you want him to,” he says.
I wonder how he got this gig. There are certainly worse ways to spend a Wednesday morning than catching the greatest relief pitcher of all time.
Rivera takes a modified windup from behind the L-screen and his first pitch comes hurtling toward the plate. And then away from it.
I halfheatedly check-swing. My body knows it’s outside but my mind is not entirely sure how it got there.
Rivera smiles when I motion to him that I want something I can hit.
“I like that,” he says.
I’m hoping by acting cocky I can get him to amp up the velocity. It works.
I’m late on the second pitch and hit a pop-up to second base. He’s barely winding up and barely throwing and yet the ball just explodes out of his hand.
I forget to choke up. Hell, at this point I forget my own name. I’m 8-years-old in my backyard again.
Another pitch sails outside. Where is this guy’s control? It’s almost like he’s retired and has been tossing batting practice to people of questionable fitness all morning.
I continue to be late. A hard smash to second. A lazy fly ball to right. Another fly ball to right that might be trouble if the defense hasn’t figured out how to play me by now.
I take a breath. I never want this to end. Is it possible that this can be my life now? The kid in me dares to imagine it for a split second before the adult mind takes over. There are only a few swings left, I tell myself. Make them count.
I whistle a ball down the first-base line. It feels good. Rivera is not impressed, however. He implores me to get in front of the ball, to pull it to left field.
“Here, I’ll throw an easy one for you.”
This makes me angry. Don’t patronize me, Bro.
I rocket a smash off his screen. All of my competitive juices have come to the surface.
“Last ball,” the catcher announces.
This one I’m going to yank to left with such force it splits the net. It’s going to be a carbon copy of Aaron Boone’s 2003 American League Championship Series walk-off job.
After letting another ball go low and away, I gear up and send a decent shot to right center.
My time is up. The fun is over. I look down at my hands and they’re shaking a bit. I feel a dopey grin on my face but not the urge to change it.
It just happened and yet it hardly seems real.
But, hey, there’s video proof — warts and all.
* * *
This special event was made possible by New Era, the official on-field cap for Major League Baseball. They were nice enough to give us all a Diamond Era Yankees cap to wear during warmups, and I must say it breathed much better than other fitted hats. Very minimal sweating. To learn more, check out their website.