I was 16 when Barty Robbins told me I needed to relax.
“Tommy,” Barty said. “You’re anxious, and you’re thinking way too much.”
He climbed into the batting cage opposite me.
“And your hands, they’re dragging.”
He paused, and I shifted my weight back and forth.
“You’re anxious,” he repeated. “And that’s making your hands drag through the zone. They’re way too slow.”
He stepped back out of the cage.
Later, Barty played with the Blue Jays for a season or two but spent most of his career in Vero Beach—the other Dodgertown—locked in irons at triple-A. He had a couple of shots in Los Angeles, but every time he was up, he’d bat the interstate and back down he’d go. That cycle repeated itself four or five times until the Dodgers gave up and dealt him to Toronto.
“Seeds, Tommy,” Barty said. “Seeds. You need ‘em. Chew ‘em, spit ‘em. Whatever. They’ll help you not think so much, try so goddamned hard. Hell,” he added, “you’re stressing me out.”
There was a smile behind his comments, and like always, I knew he was trying to help.
I was in the cage, and Barty was outside, his long, piano-player fingers laced in the netting that mostly kept the balls inside. Carl Hasbro was throwing, and his lean, 6’4” frame cast an absurd shadow from atop the pitching platform. Carl had a cutter, one that would break toward right-handers but away from lefties like me. It was consistently 91 or 92, and back then 91 or 92 was fast, really fast. Everybody thought Hasbro’d be a Yankee, and he probably would’ve if he hadn’t gotten himself killed. He was that good.
But being good didn’t matter when Hasbro hopped in Jerry Rollins’ Camaro. Rollins was all shined up and probably Hasbro was, too, and the cops said that based on the skid marks and the way the wreckage scattered Rollins was probably going 100 when he lost control and flipped the Camaro a half-dozen times. They added, as if to make things better, that Carl was probably already dead by the time he flew out of the vehicle, and the fact that he was found without his head was a result of the impact; decapitation wasn’t, they reported, his cause of death. I worked hard as hell to believe that.
I loved hitting off Carl Hasbro. His pitches were like poetry, and not the open-mic kind. He was left-handed, and his wind-up was the kind of thing you might have expected from a figure skater. Because he was so tall and lean, his process seemed to take all day, which was frustrating as hell for hitters. After our junior year, he became nearly unhittable. Scouts came in droves, and not just the bird dogs or area guys; the real deals came, too—the guys who didn’t even bother to introduce themselves since everybody knew they were somebody, somebody who made or broke whole careers, whole futures and families and future families. Those were the guys with the golden tickets, the real-life Willy Wonkas.
Hasbro’s cutter was a money-maker—or it should’ve been—and Barty Robbins was co-opting it to help me out. Robbins knew if I could somehow learn to be quicker I might have a shot at going pro. Barty Robbins hadn’t given up on me yet, and Hasbro’s cutter was the perfect foil. I was stronger from the left side of the plate, and if I was actually going to have a shot, it was as a left-handed hitter. Hasbro’s cutter broke away from me, and Robbins knew that if I wanted to hit it, I’d have to make my hands quicker—shortening up my swing wouldn’t be enough. And so Hasbro threw me cutter after cutter after cutter. And I hit them, mostly, but always late—an inside-out swing aimed at a left-field knock. My swing, I suppose, seemed lazy, but it wasn’t. Maybe, I thought, my hands really just weren’t quick enough.
Barty tried just about everything: closing my stance, adjusting my weight shift, opening my stance back up, tilting my bat like Rod Carew. He tried everything. Still, I kept pushing the ball—left field, left field, left field.
Over the next two years, I became more and more frustrated; I internalized the issues that plagued my swing. I can’t say things got worse, but they definitely didn’t get better. My window began to close. By the time I got offered an independent league contract out in Montana—a place I’d never been—I’d pretty much accepted the fact that I’d never make it; my hands just weren’t quick enough. Everything about my decision not to go to Montana felt and looked a lot like giving up. I like to think that maybe I just found a way to be honest with myself. Back then, I wasn't sure there was a difference.
Recently, though, I’ve realized there is a difference—a massive, important difference. Now, I'm not even sure it's possible to give up. Things happen, angles change, trajectories move and cross and get tangled, but no one ever really gives up.
Even more recently, I've stopped worrying about my hands. I don't wonder anymore whether they’re quick enough. And not because of baseball; my career ended with that independent league contract in Montana. I know my hands are quick enough because my quick hands grabbed my son. They grabbed my son and picked him up and got him out of the way of that car that drove into my legs and could have driven over him but didn't because my hands were quick enough.
My hands aren’t the quickest, but they don’t have to be.
Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. Tommy’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the “Best of the Net” anthology. His stories and nonfiction have appeared (or will appear) in issues of The Southwest Review, Two Cities Review, Palaver, Pithead Chapel, and Per Contra. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes A. Moonlight Graham, Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He's working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling, and he released a new record, Youth or Something Beautiful, on April 5, 2019. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts.