Here it is, first day of camp, and we're supposed to hit live pitching next. That's hard enough after five months off, never mind 23 years.
"Ten, 15 years ago, we'd hit off coaches or machines for five to seven days first," says Merv Rettenmund, the organization's roving minor league hitting instructor. "But it's not the same as live pitching. So you might as well just dive in and get started."
Rain, heaven-sent, forces a change in plans. Pitchers will throw in the indoor cages, where the light is too dim to allow hitters to do anything but stand in at the plate and track the ball.
I step in against righthander Roy Halladay, the 2003 Cy Young Award winner, who is 6'6", 225 pounds and looks capable of throwing a pitch through the cinder block wall behind the cage. I immediately realize the utter inadequacy of television to capture the power of a major league pitch. Halladay's fastball is angry, announcing its indignation with an audible hum that grows frighteningly loud as it approaches. His slider is even more evil because it presents itself in the clothing of a fastball but then, like a ball rolling down the street and falling into an open manhole, drops out of sight, down and away. His curveball bends more than an election-year politician.
I am so impressed with his stuff--it is February--that I will ask him later how close he is to season-ready velocity. Halladay, 27, tells me he's "just about there right now," having thrown off a mound six times before camp opened. Everyone, it seems, hits the ground running these days.
Miguel Batista, 34, follows Halladay on the mound. I am in a group with fellow outfielders Wells, Johnson and Frank Catalanotto, but no one moves to step in. Batista is still waiting when Wells motions to me and says, "Go ahead." I jump in, to the accompaniment of snickers.
It will not be until the next day that Wells tells me Batista hit three players in the head in spring training alone last year. So I am the royal taster. The three outfielders want me in there to gauge Batista's control. He has about eight varieties of pitches, and all of them move like a rabbit flushed out of a bush. He throws me one pitch that I swear breaks two ways--first left, then right--like a double-breaker putt in golf, only at about 90 mph.
I mention this to the catcher, Ken Huckaby, who laughs and says, "He's filthy. I faced him three times in spring training last year. Struck me out three times on a total of nine pitches."
I don't know how anyone hits Batista, and his teammates' apprehension indicates how uncomfortable he makes hitters. But Batista was 10-13 with a pedestrian 4.80 ERA last year. His gift for making a baseball dance is also his curse. He tends to get careless with his vast repertoire, such as starting weak hitters with errant sliders instead of pumping in a first-strike fastball.
Batista throws me one pitch on which, halfway to the plate, I can see a dot surrounded by spinning seams. Slider! I have cracked its code by reading the telltale dot. Then I realize something: The ball was already halfway to the plate by the time I decoded it, probably too late to do anything with it. Just by tracking pitches from Halladay, Batista, Scott Schoeneweis and Dave Bush, I have come to understand that there is a race between the ball and my mind, and the ball is winning. By the time I process speed, spin, location and probable path and decide whether to swing or not, it is too late. The ball is past me.