My freshman year of baseball in high school was the first time I remember having to grow up. I walked into the gym with my chest out and told the varsity baseball coach that I was a catcher. He told me to go grab some gear and go stand by the pitchers and wait for further instruction. Baseball practices in Pennsylvania are all indoors the first few weeks of the season, and I couldn’t tell if the buzz in my head was from the lights or me being excited to have a job none of my other freshman teammates had.
As a freshman, this duty basically entailed crouching down for an hour and letting three strong-armed upperclassmen sling a ball at me. Coach told them to throw at fifty percent. It was, after all, the first day of practice. Much to everyone’s chagrin, however, one senior wound up and uncorked a throw that popped into my mitt with an earsplitting crack. It sent a radiating shock through my newly surgically repaired thumb that sat snugly inside my own personal catchers mitt. As a powerhouse baseball program (by Northwestern Pennsylvania standards), we had a Jugs gun that measured pitch speed. One of the pitchers waiting in the queue for his innings happened to be monitoring that particular pitch and motioned for me to come over. I hopped out of my crouch and jogged over to him. He turned the gun to me.
“Not senior league anymore, is it?” he said. 87 MPH had registered on the gun.
Once our team had the opportunity to practice outside, I fell in love. It was the sound of metal spikes on a concrete floor. It was as soothing of a sound as I had ever heard. It was the sound of spring; outside practice. It meant diving in the outfield grass and slides into second base. It was a beautiful thing to listen to an army of a dozen ballplayers march out of the locker room with cleats clicking rhythmically. It was a sound of change. No more kiddy cleats. No, this was it. You received special footwear that neither football players nor basketball players got to wear. You couldn’t wear metal cleats in Little League because, clearly, you weren’t grown up. And it was something that, in my first year of playing varsity baseball, I didn’t have, but I now desperately wanted.
Like clockwork, my dad had purchased me new cleats. I got a new pair every year whether I needed them or not. My dad would’ve given up his meals for a week if it meant strapping a fine pair of spikes on my feet. Sadly, however, not realizing the beauty of metal cleats on concrete (as well as the walk up the asphalt parking lot to the field), I choose more comfortable molded plastic ones. They were new and nice and not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. They dug in the dirt just fine, and I still glided to fly balls in the outfield like I always had.
But they didn’t make that beautiful sound.
That freshman year passed by in a blur. Fun runs and bullpens every day. I learned how to [try and] catch a knuckleball and that you could raise the seams of the ball by pressing them against the edge of a building. It made the ball much more knuckle-friendly. If you were desperate, you could chew the seams too. I learned that you should never, ever forget your cup to ball practice.
I didn’t get a single varsity at bat that year. I hadn’t even noticed. When coach pulled me into his office after the last game of the year, I thought I was in trouble for something. With a sheepish look, he apologized for not getting me in a game somewhere.
I walked back out into the locker room. Everyone had showered and left to go watch the volleyball match in the gym. I was alone with the dripping from the leaky shower heads. I was heavy-chested. I knew that was the last time I’d hear those cleats that season. I took my rubber cleats to the back door to bang off the excess dirt.
Chunks of dirt and grass spit everywhere and I listened to the molded plastic thud together. Not too far from the surface, something told me the following year I would be one of the players making beautiful music with my feet as well.