"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Hitting School

When I was at the Stadium last week with Jay Jaffe two kids, must have been about six or seven-years old, sat nearby. They were dressed in Yankee gear, down to the batting gloves. I wondered what they would actually remember of Derek Jeter or Mike Mussina when they get older. It is possible to watch so many more games on TV today, I wonder if kids of this generation will have more than fleeting impressions of the stars of their childhood.

Probably not. I don’t know how many times I actually ever saw Willie Stargell or Joe Morgan or Yaz actually play. But to this day, I can imitate their batting stance. It’s like being able to do an imitation of Ed Sullivan or Richard Nixon–it doesn’t necessarily have to be good or even competent to be recognizable. In a simple motion of twirling the bat around and shaking your ass you can instantly become Pops Stargell. It is something that you will be able to do until the day you die.

After work last night I walked from midtown through Central Park and east to the Frozen Ropes hitting cage located on York Avenue and 90th street, a place my father would have called “the ass-end of the planet.” On the way, I passed an apartment building on 89th street between 1rst and 2nd avenues where, one summer in the early 80s, my father subletted an apartment for the summer, the year the USFL folded and I became addicted to Sports Center (Remember the days when Bill “Doran” Doran, Jose “Can You See?” Cruz and Chris Berman’s other quips were something that you actually looked forward to hearing?).

Soon, I was standing over a tee with a ball on it in a mesh cage with a bat in my hands, imitating Don Mattingly’s stance and using one of Mattingly’s bats. Joe Janish, a public relation’s man for Mattingly’s line of “V-Grip” bats, met me at the hitting cage to demonstrate the product. Janish explained that when Mattingly played, he would shave the sides of his bad near the handle so a “V” shape was formed. This helped him keep his knuckles lined up on the bat and prevented him from holding the bat in the palms of his hands, which robbed him of his power and he met the ball. Later, when Mattingly saw his boys struggle with keeping their knuckles lined up properly he had the idea of designing his own line of bats.

This is the second season that Mattingly’s bats have been on the market–almost all of their business comes from alumninum bats made for kids. Joe and I had a catch and then I hit off a tee and used a series of Mattingly’s bats, as well as some regular ones–both wood and aluminum. I found the V-Grip to be perfectly agreeable.

Joe Janish is one of those resourceful men who has tried his hand at a lot of different things–editor and writer for a magazine about dogs, public relations man, writer, and web designer in the wine industry, coach and hitting instructor to young kids, Met blogger–and yet gives the impression that while he’s good at many things he’d trade it in for being great at one thing.

Janish, 38, played baseball in college and still plays in a semi pro league (19 and up), “the guys don’t really know how old I am,” he says. “During my junior year in college I had scouts coming out to see me,” says Jannish, a tall, athletic man who looks unremarkable but is not unhandsome. “Then I hurt my ankle, the scouts went away and they never came back. I was told that I was too old when I was 23. Can you imagine that? 23. I couldn’t accept that.”

So Janish continued to play baseball and has been a catcher to boot. Still is. “A glutton for punishment,” he says with a shrug and smile. In his early twenties, Janish, a native of New Jersey, caught Jim Bouton (one of his childhood heroes), then over fifty and throwing mostly all knuckleballs, for two seasons, “maybe fifteen, twenty games in all.”

I asked him if he had a hard time getting over not making it.

Jannish smiled sheepishly. “Why do think I’m still playing today?”

Most guys who continue to play hardball into their thirties, even forties if they are truly obsessed, cannot let go of the dream. The dream they once had of making it. Or maybe it was their father’s dream of them making it. I have a friend that I went to high school who still pitches on the weekends. His father drove him hard when we were young, he internalized it, and won’t let it be. He’ll continue playing until his body quits on him.

What stands out most about these kind of guys is not so much that they are resentful or even desperate, it is that they truly consider themselves ball players. Luck and health and ambition and drive is what separates the success stories from the failures when you get to a certain level. But the ones who don’t make a career out of playing the game can’t just give it up. It is still an inherent part of how they define themselves, how they comport themselves.

“I’m so happy when I’m around baseball,” says Janish. “I don’t know what to do with myself in the off-season. A day without baseball is like missing a meal. Something is missing.”

Playing baseball is something he is good at, something that makes him feel good about himself. Guys like Janish, or Bob Klapisch even, the columnist who is a committed semi-pro pitcher, feel and think like athtletes even if they weren’t blessed with the talent, health, good fortune or mental fortitude to make it to the big leagues. And just because they are not professionals who says that they aren’t entitled to define themselves as ballplayers? In fact, their commitment is almost more impressive than that of a professional because guys like Jannish structure their lives around the game, they don’t get paid, they just get the satisfaction of playing.

I like talking about the game with jocks like Joe because they are unable not to give great players their due. Janish is not a fan of Alex Rodriguez on some level, but on another level he can’t not be a fan because Rodriguez’s talent is so compelling to a fellow player.

I also liked the camaraderie of being around a jock, of Janish placing ball after ball on the tee as I drove the ball into the net, the unspoken rhythms of me swinging, him placing another ball on the tee, us chatting, and then both of us bending down and picking up the scattered balls and putting them back in the bucket.

I did not have the confidence or physical stature as a kid to be a very good player, but I always had good mechanics and could at least fake being a good player. I looked like I knew what I was doing, at least at the plate. I was far more confident in the field.

It felt good being with Joe, hitting balls for the better part of an hour. I left duly impressed with Mattingly’s bats and feeling good about hitting. Which is more than the Yankees can say. The Bombers were shut-out, 4-0, on a soggy night in Kansas City. The field looked like the Crash Davis and his pals had left the sprinklers on all night. But that didn’t stop the young and energetic Royals from giving their fans–especially the brave souls who stuck it out for the entire game–something to cheer about. According to the Post:

“You look out there and those kids are run ning around like maniacs,” [Jason] Giambi said of the youthful Royals, who have swiped six bases in nine attempts in the two games. “And we are looking like old men.”

I keep figuring today will be the day that the offense wakes up. With a weekend series in Boston looming, it would behoove our boys to shake, rattle and roll over the Royals today, wouldn’t you say?

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver