The thrill of victory, the embarrassing agony of, well, not defeat exactly. More like a personal foul.
I couldn’t understand why the coach wanted me to back up so deep. Since he had also been my football coach, I thought maybe he just wanted me back so far so I wouldn’t be in position to actually make a play. That had been the reasoning behind him always making me play deep safety in football.
I spent the first moments of the inning trying to imagine what that baseball might actually look like coming at me this far out from home plate. I figured a baseball hit in the air that deep would probably look like a returning space capsule.
Rudy Kael was the batter, someone with the power to hit a ball even past where I was standing. A few years later, Rudy would sign a professional contract with the Cincinnati Reds organization, but on this day Rudy lifted a high, lazy fly deep to left field, so high and so deep that I prefigured astronaut James Lovell by a decade or so when, looking up at the rising, ever-diminishing white fleck that was Rudy’s fly ball, I said to myself, “Houston, we have a problem.”
I remember an almost out-of-body experience. My Other Self seemed to leave my actual body and take a seat in the bleachers behind me to watch with a bemused sense of impending doom as the ball reached the same apogee as Sputnik. My True Self, though, watched as the ball began descending with the full force of Newtonian physics. My Other Self in the stands looked back to my teammates in the infield, all of whom were now looking back at my True Self with a mixture of awe, dark foreboding, and a huge sense of relief that it wasn’t them standing beneath an object hurtling in full re-entry velocity.
In a final act of certain futility, I threw my arms straight above my head and, cringing, waited for death. I felt a tremendous pull of gravity hit my glove. As the sting of the fly ball ran down my arm like a lightning strike, I heard the strange roar coming from the infield.
What was strange about the roar was that it was a cheer for me.
I pulled my arms down and looked into my glove. There was Rudy’s fly ball, full of gamma rays and burn marks from re-entry, but tucked safely in my webbing. I looked back at the infield and waved the ball excitedly.
I began to feel the way Willie Mays must have felt when he made his famous catch. Though his had been impossible, and mine had merely been routine, I bet he heard the same remarks from his teammates when he got back to the dugout as I heard from mine: “We thought there was no way you were catching that.”
Unlike Mays, I soon reached the apex of my own career in baseball when I saw my first curveball. My brain registered the spin, instantly calculated the left-to-right movement of the ball, then commanded my body to hold its ground and wait for the break. My body replied, “You wait for the break, brain. I’m bailing.” I dropped straight to the ground, bat flying, arms flailing and legs collapsing, until I lay in a protective heap in the batter’s box, relieved I had gotten out of the way just in time. I gathered myself, then looked up to see the umpire with a quizzical look on his face as he said, “Strike one.”
Mays went on to the Hall of Fame and I went on to my first term as president of the Projector Club.
Reid Champagne knows of no other glory days to recall.