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At the first suggestion of spring this year, my niece, Leigh, who was two months shy of her fifth birthday, and I traded the foam balls we had been swatting around the basement for plastic ones. Leigh, stretching out to her full 3'10", dug in for her first outdoor batting practice.
Her stance needed a little fine-tuning. I first explained that she shouldn't stand facing me. I positioned her feet in line with her shoulders. I then showed her the advantage of having one's hands back and cocked, ready to swing. Soon she was getting good plastic perhaps a third of the time.
Leigh is, in the biased opinion of her mentor/uncle and the unbiased opinion of her pediatrician, an exceptionally strong and well-coordinated little girl. She's also exceptionally willful and possesses what the extremely mellow headmaster of her preschool describes as an overly developed competitive nature. Thus our batting practice is a useful outlet for her natural resources.
Working with her, I began to understand more clearly the primordial pleasure derived from hitting a ball with a bat. The aggression and violence that adults sublimate while engaged in sports were openly displayed in her innocence.
The line between physical ability and desire, so murky in older players and almost obliterated in professionals, was also very clear. Leigh either really wanted to play, or really didn't want to. Swinging the bat even once beyond her attention span was a major chore and one sure to result in a whiff. The ability to concentrate and see the ball became for Leigh the most arduous aspect of hitting—no manner of discipline comes easily at five.
"Now look," I said, holding the ball. "Watch it all the way." And because I believe that baseball tradition is as important to teach as good mechanics, I added a few venerable clich�s. "Keep your eye on the ball. You can't hit what you can't see."
She did appear to be predisposed toward several good habits. As naturally as she had taken her first steps, she held the bat with an ideal grip and swung with neither hand overpowering the other, doubtless because at her age hand preference is still ill-defined. More important, and much to my amazement, she seemed to have conquered some of the most difficult elements of the swing. Leigh instinctively shifted her weight properly, extended her arms and exhibited a follow-through that would be the envy of many an older boy I'd coached. She was also in the blessed state of not knowing what a home run is. Children need to be protected from some of life's realities, and I intended to shelter Leigh from the aspects of the game that corrupt the conscience and swing of more worldly hitters. She had also never been observed by her parents, worn a uniform or kept score—a hitter of pure innocence, an athletic Eve before the Fall.
Or, at least she was. My own season was about to begin, and a few days after Leigh's first outdoor b.p., I was taking a few practice swings in the yard. She returned from school and wanted to join me. I didn't want to deny her, but I really did want to knock the rust from my game. I compromised and told her to get her bat and ball.
When she returned, she had brought not the hollow plastic ball, but a squishy rubber-coated softball like those used by the young girls' teams that play on the common behind our house. It had been a gift from Grandma and had previously been used only as an all-purpose plaything, but it seemed suitable because I could also use it to hit flies to my dog, whose retrieving instincts have long since been molded to outfielding.
I hit a few. Leigh hit a few. Doc, the dog, fielded for us. I was in an easy groove, tossing softly underhand. The plastic bat was overmatched against the heavier ball, but Leigh wisely compensated with more hip movement and earlier preparation. A hot grounder bounced through me, a nice liner fell far to my right. A few misses went unremarked upon.