Do you remember what it was like to be ten years old, to grip a bat in your hand and mimic your favorite player’s batting stance as you stared out at the pitcher? Everything stopped for that moment as you used the bat to gently stir the air behind your head and the pitcher stared in at the target, contemplating his next pitch. The beautiful thing about baseball is that most of us can relate to that moment.
More importantly, you can relate to the dream. You can imagine how it would feel to pull on a major league jersey for the first time, to step up to the plate against a major league pitcher and simply do what you’ve done hundreds of thousands of times — put the bat on the ball and run to first base. When the ball finds the grass you take a professional turn around first and then do your best to look calm and nonchalant as you head back to the bag and casually bump fists with the first base coach, all the while watching out of the corner of your eye to be sure that the ball finds its way into your dugout. And then if you’re lucky, you look up into the stands and you see your mother and father in the crowd. They’re easy to spot, because they’re the ones who are jumping and cheering with tears in their eyes, no doubt thinking of all the skinned knees, all the games of catch, all the Little League games, and all the trips to the batting cages that led to this one base hit. In that moment, it doesn’t matter if any of it happens again, only that it happened once.
There are a lot of reasons why I love baseball, but moments like these are high on the list. Basketball players don’t care much about their first basket, and I’m guessing that even quarterbacks forget their first touchdowns, but there seems to be something magical about a player’s first hit. Every once in a while, like Tuesday night in Arizona, we get to share in that moment.
I know I should be writing about Andy Pettitte’s continued success. His only trouble on the evening came when he gave up a two-run, based-loaded single to his opposing number, Dan Haren. (No shame in that, though, since Haren is hitting .452 in 42 at bats this year.) It was Pettitte’s sixth straight outing of at least seven innings, his best streak since rattling off ten such starts from July 15 to August 31 of 2005. Thinking back to April, how crazy would it have been to imagine that the two biggest question marks in the rotation (one who might be too old, the other who might be too young) would be a combined 19-3 in the last week of June?
I know I should also be writing about Alex Rodríguez. He told us before Monday’s game that he felt like his swing was getting back to where it should be, and he provided evidence by driving a couple balls to the right side of the field. On Tuesday night he picked up right where he left off, launching a home run to left in the first inning to give the Yanks a 2-0 lead, and then plating another run in the third with an absolute laser to center field. Yes, the swing seems like it’s back where it should be.
Maybe I should even write a quick something about Joba Chamberlain, who looked like the old Joba, with the velocity dialed up into the high 90s. At one point he dismissed Justin Upton with knee-high 98 MPH fastball on the outside corner. Absolutely unhittable.
But for me, the story of this game was Colin Curtis, a 25-year-old prospect drafted in 2006 out of Arizona State. He lined out in his major league debut on Monday night, but on Tuesday night Joe Girardi sent him out to pinch hit for Pettitte with two outs in the top of the eighth. The Yankees had already put the game moderately out of reach by scoring four runs in the frame, bringing the lead to 7-2, so there was really no pressure at all on Curtis. He took a ball and then a strike before launching a fastball to the wall in center field. Two more runs scored and Curtis ended up on second with a double, his first major league hit.
His eyes went to the ball, tracking it as it came in to the infield and found its way to second base umpire Laz Diaz. I’ve never been on the field in these moments, so I always wonder how it is that everyone on both sides immediately knows that the ball needs to be saved, but they always do. As Robinson Canó crossed home plate, he immediately began signaling for the ball. For his part, Diaz got Curtis’s attention, pretended to tuck the ball back into his pocket to be used again, then laughed as he tossed it towards the Yankee dugout. Curtis was suddenly eight-years-old again, and he grinned from ear to ear. The YES cameras found his family in the stands, focusing on his older brother who was high-fiving everyone within reach.
The ball eventually found its way into the grandfatherly hands of Yankee trainer Gene Monahan, the scribe who would turn the ball into an artifact, and Curtis received a hero’s welcome when he came back to the dugout at the end of the inning. Rodríguez greeted him with a bear hug at the top step of the dugout, and the rest of the team cheered him as if he had hit a game-turning home run. On the telecast, Ken Singleton began reminiscing about his first base hit, more than thirty years ago. When A-Rod hits his 600th home run in a few weeks, or when Jeter gets his 3000th hit next year, the players will all rush to them and offer their congratulations, but it will be different. Most of them won’t be able to imagine what it might feel like to reach such lofty heights, but this moment was different. There was a clear sense that as everyone was congratulating Curtis, they were also remembering their own debut. Or, if they were just sitting on the couch like me, they were remembering what it was like to a young boy dreaming of the major leagues.
After his teammates fell away and took their positions in the field, Curtis took the liberty of peeking over the lip of the dugout and finding his parents. When I was twelve years old I hit my first and only home run, and it happened to be a grand slam. My mother, who was always at every game, arrived late and missed it. I will never forget the moment when I noticed her in the bleachers, or the feeling as my hands gripped the chain linked fence while I told her the news she had already heard from the other mothers. “A grand slam, Mom! I hit a grand slam!” Curtis was much cooler than I was; he simply tipped his cap, nodded, then returned to the dugout. Even so, I know exactly how he felt.
Final score: Yanks 9, Diamondbacks 3.