Left Field and the Zen of the Glove Man
I played organized baseball in my late forties for a Men’s Senior Baseball League 26 and over team, the Indians. We played our home games at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, not far from the house my grandfather Elmo built in Elmont, but we played all over Nassau and western Suffolk Counties. The baseball field at Sewanhaka is cut into a corner of the campus with right field ending at a wall bordering on Monroe Street. Twelve feet high of ivy-choked concrete (since replaced) was all the protection given to the school’s residential neighbors and often it wasn’t enough. Not from me, though. I hit right-handed and what power I possessed manifested itself to center and right-center, which is Floral Park’s take on the Gobi Desert.
I was a doubles guy when I was on, becoming triples when the planets aligned. Its center field provided a large drop zone for my hitting style, but left field is the trademark feature at Sewanhaka. The location of home plate brought the football field end zone and the running track around it within the range of a baseball well-poked to left, as well as constraining the playing area of left field itself. In order to protect students and local citizens who might be using the track, the high school installed in left field layer upon layer of chain link, thirty feet high if it were a foot. I walked off the distance from home plate to the foul pole in left and it was 220 feet. If Fenway Park had been designed as a prison yard, its left field would resemble Sewanhaka. The fence stayed at that height, angling away from home plate to a point just right of dead center, and then dropped to four feet into right-center, where it didn’t matter anymore if there was a fence. It was set so deep you’d get homesick chasing down any ball that managed to roll through.
I was a good defensive player. I used to be fast and being fast forgives a lot of baseball sins. Plus, playing well in the field is mostly mental preparation and reaction and I will never lose those until I lose it all. Throughout my playing life I worked the left side of the diamond. Mostly left field, some center, and a little third base. Someone cracked the glass in a few emergencies and stuck me at shortstop, always a one-off. I caught one inning of a game in my twenties, because we all had jobs and neither one of our catchers could get off work in time to start the game, scheduled for noon on what turned out to be the hottest Saturday of the year. I had a full beard at the time and I was dying behind the borrowed mask. To make matters worse, the pitcher, my running buddy from childhood and whose pitching I faced more than any human other than his brother, couldn’t get untracked. He let me call the pitches, which was our first mistake.
The opening inning felt like it lasted an hour. I dug more balls out of the dirt than a Golden Retriever, and missed a lot more. We never made it through the second inning. One of the absent catchers showed up and came out with the manager to lift us both in the middle of a rout. We walked together off the field, into my car and down the road to a convenience store to get something cold to drink. I apologized to my friend for letting him down. He wouldn’t hear of it and took all the blame, which I appreciated. I wasn’t built to be a catcher. Catchers have an arrogance different from mine. I think I know it all. Catchers know they know it all. Still, I wanted to be a positive force defensively for him and my teammates. I wasn’t on that day. So when I say I was a good defensive player, the jury is still out on catcher. But I was a very good leftfielder.
Left field at Sewanhaka presents outfielders with many of the same issues as Fenway, the only real difference being that balls bounce aggressively off the wall in Boston, while the chain links are momentum-killers. On a normally-proportioned field, the three outfielders position themselves according to several factors, one of those being the distance between them. Some potential overlap is optimal, but on both fields left field is so shallow, and right-center so expansive, it’s imperative that the centerfielder cheat towards right field. The distance to the fence down the right field line and running left along Monroe was reachable but still comprised a sizable space to cover compared to left field. I played right field there a few times and it felt like a completely different ballfield. So, the leftfielder is on an island, anything in the air from the foul line to the left-center alley reserved for him. Between innings warmup catches are strictly between leftfielders and bench players, because the centerfielder and rightfielder were playing in a different zip code. Infielders on the left side rarely bother going after popups drifting beyond the skin of the infield because even if the leftfielder could feel the fence at his back as the pitcher made his delivery, he could reach any short fly ball at a gallop before it landed.
Certain elements still apply regardless of field dimensions. I read somewhere how Willie Mays, the greatest fielding outfielder of all time, could track a fly ball with his eyes closed, guided strictly by the sound of the bat making contact with the baseball. A wood bat speaks to the quality of contact and an experienced outfielder can react to its particular tone. A ball hit off the bat end makes a hollow pop (and often fractures the grain). Off the bat handle, the sound is like a hailstone on a shed roof. Solid contact makes a shocking sound; quick, like a slap to the face. In the age of the aluminum bat, sound no longer provided much help. The metal bat sounds nothing like those things. It has a bigger sweet spot. It pings. Different metal bats may ping at different frequencies but, for the outfielder, there is no longer meaning in the message. I was never Willie Mays, but I could use every bit of help, even without his aural acuity.
Beside sound, outfielders rely on keen eyesight and good foot-speed to play the position. By the time I put on the Indians uniform, my eyes and legs were both suffering the effects of age. I was striking out more often than I used to. One time, I scored from first on a ball driven into the Gobi, falling onto home plate as my legs gave out from shear exhaustion. I was getting old and my defense, my strength, was being threatened. I could no longer outrun my mistakes and misjudgments, even on a short field. I had to be right, right from the outset, otherwise I was a detriment.
I improved my methodology — first, by keying on the shortstop, because he was picking up the catcher’s signs and positioning himself accordingly. I would follow his lead. I started playing shallower than normal, exploiting the close fence, and positioned my body to run back and toward the gap for left-handed batters, toward the foul line for right-handers. And then, in my quest to gain any advantage, something happened. I began to see the play just before it occurred. The pitcher’s motion, the ball in flight towards the plate, the batter uncoiling, this was information that, properly analyzed, promised a fairly predictable result. I found I knew instinctively when a ball was going to be hit in my direction before it was hit. I was always ready. My defense did not decay any further. It got better, despite my growing physical limitations. I was in perfect harmony with the opposing motions and all degrees of difficulty were reset to zero. It turned into a perfect summer in left field. I hung up the spikes permanently at the end of that season, because the offensive demands had become difficult, but if they ever create a position of designated leftfielder, I’ll be ready. I’ll never lose that until I lose it all.