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PHILIP MARTIN: Chasing the baseball dragon

One of the dragons I've chased for decades is the soft sensation of occasioning square contact between a length of ash and a horsehide-covered baseball. I am just old enough to have used a wooden bat in Little League and high school.

In the former, aluminum bats were seen as expensive but cool; to use one was to advertise one's social status. Most of us hit with old sticks our coaches toted in a dusty blue body bag, some of which were repaired by tapped-in brads and finishing nails then wrapped with electrical tape; the aluminum-bat kids brought their own and shared reluctantly. ("Only so many hits in a bat," the centerfielder mused.)

I went a third way. I had my own store-bought bat that was wood and specific: a Hillerich & Bradsby Louis-ville Slugger C-12 model with Nellie Fox's name branded into the barrel. Fox was a Hall of Fame second baseman who'd had his best years before I was born. He died at 47 of malignant melanoma when I was a high school junior.

The C-12 was notable for its thick Coke-bottle handle, which helped Fox, a confirmed punch hitter, control the balls he sprayed to all fields. I didn't know it at the time, but Fox's model had essentially the same specifications as the ones Detroit Tiger second baseman Charlie Gehringer used in the 1920s and '30s. Rogers Hornsby may have used a similar, if not the same, model.

I do not know if the Fox bat was genuinely my preference or if it was an affectation. I honestly liked the way it felt; it was chunky and filled my grip. After my father pointed out I'd get more bat speed, and hence more power, if I used a thinner handle, I tried Hank Aaron and Tony Oliva models, as well as a Willie Mays Adirondack Big Stick, but didn't like them. (I should have listened; in 1963, when Fox was finishing his career as a member of the Houston Colt .45s--as they were known before the Astrodome was built--he advised a diminutive rookie second baseman who'd grown up idolizing him to switch from the C-12 bottle bat to a model he could whip. That rookie was Joe Morgan, who'd go on to be one of the best power-hitting second basemen in MLB history.)

Something about the thick handle felt safe to me. I seeded it with superstition.

But I was not a singles hitter like Fox or Gehringer. I raked it into the gaps. At 11 and 12 years old, there was something loose and silver in my swing. I rang line drives off chain link outfield fences. Occasionally I even hit one over those fences.

Physics argues I would have done better with an aluminum bat; in the 1990s the insurance industry reckoned that, under the same conditions, the average aluminum bat produced batted balls traveling about 20 miles per hour faster than a typical wooden bat. The bats I had access to 20 years earlier probably wouldn't have all been that much hotter than my C-12. Metal bats kept producing faster "exit velocities" every season until 2011, when colleges and high schools set limits on the "coefficient of restitution" of bats approved for play.

These days the metal and composite bats used in high school and college games are about 20 percent less potent than they were at their peak, which means while they're still better tools for baseball-smacking than their wooden counterparts, their main advantage is durability.

While a ball struck by one of these bats can still kill or maim a player (or a spectator), they might be slightly safer than wooden bats which, while not as hot as metal bats, have been known to splinter and send sharp shards of wood spinning through ballparks. Balls off wooden bats have killed people; so have thrown balls. There are inherent dangers in baseball.

I didn't think about those dangers when I played, though I still remember a moment in high school when I distractedly walked between two teammates loosening up in foul ground. I heard the ball sizzle as it flicked my hair. That might have been the closest brush I've ever had with catastrophic injury.

I don't know what became of my old bats. I started out with 32-inch models and grew into the 35-inch adult model. A couple probably cracked and were discarded, there might be one somewhere in my mother's garage or attic. I've seen several on eBay with opening bids ranging from $24.95 to $275. (I bought my bats for $6.99 each, but may have paid less. In the late '60s you could get a Fox signature C-12 for less than $2. These days wood bats start at less than $20; an adult "professional" model will probably run more than $100. Top-of-the-line Louisville Sluggers go for about $150.)

I can remember how the bat felt in my hands, the peculiar heft and balance. Remarkably, I can remember how it felt to hit--the sensation of my hips opening and back shoulder firing, the big muscles in my legs and torso pulling my arms and hands. Our coaches talked "throwing your hands" to the ball, but it never felt like that to me. When I was hitting well, it always felt like my hands lagged behind the rest of my body.

And when I made good contact with a pitch, I heard a crack (never a ping) but felt only the merest click.

I haven't felt that in nearly 40 years, and still crave it. It wasn't available in softball where we hit pillows with metal clubs, or in the brief season of over-30 baseball I played a couple of decades ago (where I used a high-tech metal composite bat). About the closest I've ever come to the sensation is the buttery plop that comes with nailing a Balata-covered golf ball with a forged blade. But as good as that feels--Ben Hogan wrote that a "well-hit golf shot is a feeling that goes up the shaft, right through your hands and into your heart"--it's not the same as hitting a pitched baseball.

Some old athletes say they miss the competition, the camaraderie or, if they're being particularly candid, the attention they received during their playing days. I don't miss any of that. But I still dream of hitting.

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

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Editorial on 04/15/2018

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