They say it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. It’s a nice little phrase but, in truth, it falls woefully short of accurately painting the whole picture. A certain level of humidity is tolerable on a relatively cool day. On a scorcher, it will drive even the sanest to wit’s end.
It’s an 80-degree day and this thought enters my head as I step into the batter’s box down 0-1 in the count to Jennie Finch, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist and one of the most highly decorated hurlers in softball history. It shouldn’t be there, of course, because the challenge of hitting a nearly 65-plus mph fastball thrown from 43 feet requires complete concentration. But it’s there.
Finch’s heater is fast, the equivalent of a baseball pitcher throwing 95. That much should be obvious. The real problem, at least as far as I can tell, is the optical illusion presented as it comes hurtling toward the plate. If it were coming in slower, it might be possible to guess correctly. One issue amplifies the other.
Finch’s first pitch started around mid-thigh but was a few inches above my belly button as it zipped by my bat. It allows for precious little time to react. I anticipated as much. What I didn’t account for is the optical illusion presented. One must start swinging as the the ball is released. But where? Where to swing?
It’s like a calculus story problem. And once the batter starts doing math, the fate’s usually already sealed. It’s the speed and the movement. They go hand in hand to create misery.
Fourteen years ago, Finch embarked on a tour across Major League Baseball. The purpose, ostensibly, was to showcase her pitching skills for a regular This Week in Baseball segment. Humiliating the best hitters in the sport was surely just a secondary benefit.
And that’s just what Finch did. Only two hitters –Scott Spiezio and Sean Casey — managed to even make contact against the lethal combination of her rising fastball and Bugs Bunny changeup.
The failure to connect was more inevitability than a shortfalling. Finch has made fools of both journeymen infielders and Hall of Famers alike. Her list of fanned batters include the likes of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and the brothers Giambi. Defenders feel comfortable dropping their gloves and picking dandelions when she gets competitive. There is no risk of a ball being hit in their direction.
Today Finch has a chance to settle an old score with Casey. The .302 lifetime hitter, now an analyst with MLB Network, is stepping into the box against his old foe at a New Jersey Little League field an episode of Play Ball, airing June 24 at 10 a.m. EST.
The first offering zips across the plate, just high.
“It’s a lot faster than I remember,” Casey remarks.
Pitch No. 2 rises above Casey’s bat and sails over the catcher. He read it as a strike and it ended up way out of the zone. Having to reaction so quickly makes this a common problem. Finch floats in a changeup just low then follows with a fastball across the belt.
Casey takes issue with the call but, in reality, couldn’t have hit it anyway. Finch reaches back and rockets one wide to pull the count to 3-2, setting up the payoff pitch, which is a blistering fastball far too quick for Casey’s bat.
Revenge, a dish best served cold, is finally plated after sitting out in room temperatures for 14 years.
“I’m not going to lie,” a vindicated Finch says. “I was pretty bitter that he was the one to make contact me so it would be terrible if he did it again, so at least now we’re even.”
“I don’t know if I’m older and slower or if my fast-twitch muscles aren’t there anymore, but I thought it was gasoline,” Casey says.
Seeing a professional hitter fail miserably has diminished any lingering hope that I, a slight-of-build sports blogger whose ceiling is hitting .302 in an over-30 men’s league, will be able to make contact. If watching the previous at-bat taught me anything, however, it was to lay off the high ones. As with a riding heater in baseball, it is extremely difficult to catch up to anything above the belt.
That was the gameplan. The execution did not match the best laid plans.
It is at this time that I tell you, dear reader, that the impossible was almost achieved. Finch’s first pitch toward the plate was about belt-high and my reaction was swift. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking but it felt like I almost had it. The end result, granted was a mighty swing and a miss.
If my first cut was impressive, the rest of the sequence went along way in exposing both myself as a fraud and Finch as an impossible task.
Pitch two sailed head-high for a ball. Pitch three was a changeup that elicited a comically earlier swing/wave and a guttural moan. Some face was saved when I resisted the urge to swing again as it bounced short of the plate.
Finch put me out of misery with her best riser. What looked like a pill at my waist ended up cap high — a realization made far too late to check my swing. And that was it. I suffered the same fruitless end as so many others who tried to hit Finch, and looked awful doing it.
Like the mighty Casey, I too had struck out.
With Casey and Finch now even, the obvious question lingers. Will there be a rubber match in 2031?
“In 14 more years I think I’ll need a chiropractor,” Casey, who has grown accustomed to the studio, laughs.
Finch, a youth softball ambassador for Major League Baseball, is equally non-committal.
“No promises,” she says. “We’ll see if he can still hold a bat and I can still hold a ball.”