The Swing of the Bat

There are things that are essential to a baseball-loving 12 year old.

There is the hat. Which can’t be flat rimmed. Or snap back. Or worn backwards. It cannot be washed during the season or worn outside of the game. There are the pants, and the preference for short, to the knee, Jason Veritek old school. Or long and hanging over the cleats, ala Manny Rameriz bad boy. There is the shirt, tucked in at the belly, and — for the reckless — left long in the back. The glove, big if you’re a first baseman, smaller for a middle infielder. Slept on at night with a ball in the pocket and an ace bandage holding it tight. These are all necessary for the game. They are the basics. Don’t show up without them.

There is the language. Dinger, danger, jack (back to back if the pitcher is throwing BP). Meatball, gas, high and tight, brush back, throwing heat. Pickle, rundown, airmail. To name a few.

There are the traditions. Greeting your teammate at home plate after a dinger is hit. Jumping up and down, smacking his helmet in a show of solidarity. Encouraging your pitcher through each pitch, especially when he throws a strike that is called a ball. Tapping each other, glove to glove, as you head off to field at the end of the inning. Lining up to shake the hand of the opposing team, absentmindedly chanting “good game.”

But then there is the bat.  Nothing. Nothing. Is as sacred to a Little Leaguer as the all important baseball bat. In my dad’s day — even in my brother’s day — that bat was wood. Maple or Birch, a hard wood oiled at night and known to break with a hard hit. Worshipped, yes. Named, perhaps. Nestled away in a closet somewhere, definitely, to be presented to a son at too early an age.

Today’s Little Leaguer continues that love affair. And settles for nothing less than composite — reinforced poly fiber, stronger than aluminum and rumored to outperform wood 10 to 1. Many a day, a week, even an entire offseason is spent selecting the perfect stick. The right size. The right weight. The right color. The right grip. The sweet spot that gives the batter that sought after pop when the ball is hit.

And along with the perfect bat comes the perfect insult. From one 12 year old to another.

“Your bat is corked.”

Corking  is the hollowing out of the center of the bat and the replacement of the internal wood with, well, cork. A corked bat is a lighter bat. A lighter bat gives a hitter a quicker swing and, presumably, helps with the hitting. There is a big problem with this insult given by today’s Little Leaguer. A metal bat cannot be corked. There is no inside to hollow out. They are already as light as they can possibly be.

Every baseball parent knows this. Every baseball kid denies it.

I explain it to my son, the lover of the “your bat is corked” insult. You cannot cork a metal bat, I say. They are hollow.

Yes, he says. You can do it. They do. The home run hitters. They do.

The home run derby is part of the town Little League championship. Although my son is chosen to participate, a great honor in itself, the elusive home run, well, it continues to elude him. He gets 10 hits. Each hit that isn’t a homerun is an out. He gets 10 outs.

He is not alone, as batter after batter just about clears the fence. Then the big guy gets up.

21. That’s what the winner hit. Twenty one home runs.

21 corked home runs, my son says. They don’t count.

We talk about sportsmanship. Good losers. Trying your hardest. Practice.

No, he says. Corked.

We google it. Wikipedia. Youtube. We review the nuances of corking a bat. It is only possible with a wood one, I say. See? The metal ones are already light.

No. If you get cork in there, the ball flies. That kid? The one who hit 21? Mom. It was corked. No lie.

And so I surrender. Because he is the youngest of my ball players. I know. The quest for the corked bat ends with that Little League career. He will learn, like the others before him, that the hands, the swing, the eye on the ball, the meat on the bones? All of this will give him the home runs.

And until then, I vow to remain silent. Silent. During those 12 year old corked conversations. Because when they are over, it is over.  The hats are worn all day. The sweat is washed until they smell sweet. The glove is removed from its place of honor under the pillow. The pants — long or short — matter less than the fashion decisions made by the girls in the stands. And baseball. Wonderful, magical 12 year old baseball. Becomes finally and forever: just a game.

Author’s note: My patient and kind blog editor wants it known that, in fact, he would never accuse a 21 home run hitter of bat corking. That is talent. Plain and simple. Any reference to the corking of a bat in a home run derby is the work of an overly-imaginative writer willing to sacrifice truth for a better story.

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