Invisible Baseball.

I started wearing “Roast Beef” my freshman season of baseball. I wasn’t actually wearing deli meat. It was maroon t-shirt with the words “New England Roast Beef” over the heart in a faux-cursive font. The shirt was from my favorite sandwich place in Worcester. I wore it under my jersey for my first JV game and went 2-3 with a double, plus completed some plays in right field including a diving catch in foul ground. Like most idiot baseball players I decided it was a good luck charm and wore it for every practice and every game of baseball for almost four years.

Sure I didn’t have a stellar game like that one every game. That wouldn’t be baseball. All-Stars get three hits every ten at-bats. But I felt like it gave me a certain mojo. It also gave me a certain fungus on my chest and neck, that still recurs from time to time on my 31 year old body.

Early in my senior season we had lost a couple of close games and were really not playing to our full potential. Our coach held a team meeting after practice. We always had these to discuss the pitching rotation and expectations of the week. He also had a suggestion: sacrifice “Roast Beef.” He said that possibly the mojo had changed. That maybe Roast Beef was too old now and its magic worn. I told him I agreed.

We had a team barbecue at my parent’s house and sacrificially burned the t-shirt. Then on a rainy morning with two freshman teammates, we spread the ashes at each of the bases. Climbing back up to the top of the hill that overlooked our home diamond and screamed, “RIP ROAST BEEF,” we swore we heard thunder clap immediately after.

Things like this are why I love baseball. Sure, the game is fun, but what about the character? What about Mark Fidrych yelling at a baseball? Or Benny Agbayani tossing a ball into the crowd with runners on and only two outs? Or Jose Canseco’s existence?

That same team that agreed to burn a smelly t-shirt for the possibility of winning more games had other little quirks that season. We had all of first and third plays in Spanish, because most of our opponents were lily-white suburbanites. We sprinted for every run we gave up after a win or a loss. And we warmed up, before some games, without a baseball.

Most youth and high school baseball teams have this warm-up ritual called “Infield/Outfield.” Essentially a middle-aged coach wears tight baseball pants and hits fly balls and ground balls to the starters and bench players at their respective positions. The outfielders will hit their cut-off, which is then relayed to one of the bases. Infielders throw to first, turn a double play; simple ways to make outs.

It happens all over the world. It is a warm-up for the team and a way to showcase your team’s talents. Our team would play pretend.

We would go through the motions of the stereotypical “Infield/Outfield” down to the very physical stances and movements you would need to catch a fly, throw a ball or field a grounder.

The coach would toss up an invisible ball with an actual bat. We as a team would simultaneously watch this invisible ball soar into left field and get “caught” then “thrown” to the shortstop who then “throws” it to the second baseman then over to the third baseman and home to the catcher. The catcher then flips that invisible ball back to the coach and we do it all over again.

Because there isn’t a ball, the players could have very much gone through the motions of this warm-up. But we stretched it to its limits. We all watched and reacted to this non-existent ball at nearly the same time and tossed it around with the precise timing professional ballplayers would. We dove for this ball like it were glass and would have shattered if it hit the turf. We scooped “low throws,” leaped for “errant throws.” We would pick on one of our teammates, Joe, to throw the ball away. We watched as it soared over the third baseman’s head and we’d yell, “Come on Joe!” Then the third baseman would run over beyond where his position was to go get that that invisible ball.

It was like improvised dance, that was also somehow completely choreographed. It was the most in-sync a baseball team could be. Sometimes, if were feeling extra cocky the catcher would pretend that the coach whiffed and the ball landed at his feet. The catcher would pick up the ball and hand it to the coach and say, “try again, coach.” And is if to anticipate this feigned frustration whoever was supposed to field the ball next acted as if that ball was hit hard, either over the outfielder’s head or a speedy grounder to an infielder.

It helped us with our mechanics. We had to make our body still do the thing to field or throw the ball. It helped us with our communication. We had to, as a team, yell where that invisible ball was going next. It loosened up our demeanor and remind us that baseball is a game and that this game is so much fun.

I coached high school baseball for 7 years and employed this warm-up to my team. There isn’t a more beautiful thing to watch than 15 teenagers all stare up at the sky at a pretend baseball.

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