HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
March 26, 2006

I’m an aging slugger, hacker

By Matt Kane

There has been a lot of tubby talk around the Twin Cities over the past few days.

And speaking of tubby, I worked out with the Delano High School baseball team two days last week. I figure, with my amateur baseball season just over a month away, I better chip as much rust as I can off my rapidly oxidizing baseball abilities.

I’ve never been a natural at baseball, but I usually brought at least a little ability to the first day of practice. On Monday — not so much.

I remember hearing that an athlete reaches his prime around the age of 27, but why does the decline of his skills have to be so drastic in the three years following that so called prime?

I am 30 years old now, and am finally realizing my prime is in the rearview mirror, not the side mirrors, because my skill are definitely not closer than they appear.

A guy works his butt off honing the skills of a ballplayer for the first 27 years of his life, and then at the age of 30, BOOM!, that butt comes back bigger than ever and, with the wind of a fart, it blows away all the grace and coordination once celebrated on the baseball diamond in his glory days.

OK, so the words “grace” and “coordination” probably aren’t the best describers of even my best days as a ballplayer (I know my friends and former teammates would describe my game differently), but I definitely was better in my younger days than I was the last few days.

Defense. That’s was always the better half of my game growing up. Idolizing my birthday buddy Kent Hrbek (we were both born May 21), I was a first baseman from Little League on, and I took pride in knowing I could do what I called the “Hrbek Stretch” in an attempt to gain microseconds on a throw from across the diamond on a bang-bang play.

I’m pretty sure I can’t do the stretch, which is actually doing the splits while keeping one foot on first base, on purpose anymore, but I still know my way around the bag even though my footwork may be slightly slower.

The defensive drills at my recent workouts were fine. Like riding a bike, once you know how to catch and throw a ball, you never really lose the abilities. It took some time to loosen up my right arm the first day, but once I got warmed up I found I could hit my target with my throws on a consistent basis.

And then there was hitting.

I’ve always struggled with consistency in my hitting, and it was evident last Monday when I took my first few hacks at the ball, some of which were resting peacefully on a tee. I truly mean hacks, too, because what I was doing should not be called swinging.

All those sayings I’ve used to heckle teammates and opponents about ugly swings, I should have yelled to myself.

“Take the kids off that swing;” or “Put a Band Aide on that cut” would have been appropriate.

It seems, as the numbers of my belt size grow, the number of my batting average shrink.

Actually, my hitting ability probably isn’t too far off from where it was at the end of my amateur season last summer. Broken bat bloopers were my specialty — in batting practice.

But, hey, not everybody can be Tony Gwynn (.338 career average) at the plate. I’m more like Mario Mendoza, who, according to one theory, is the subject of the infamous Mendoza Line, which is the batting average of .200.

The one credit I give myself is that at least I am making an effort to become a better hitter. It’s better to be Mendoza than Bill Bergen.

Bergen finished his 11-year career (1901-1911) with a career batting average of .170, the lowest of any player with 2,500 or more at-bats.

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