A spanking fresh summer afternoon, a nearly deserted baseball field in Colorado Springs, with the sun shining in the upper deck, Pikes Peak rising in the distance and Cheyenne Mountain umpiring down the rightfield line. Standing on the mound and looking something like a landmark himself is Goose Gossage—snorting and sweating and firing baseball after baseball to Steve Gossage, his brother Jack's son.
Goose is dressed in his Yankee pinstripe pants, a rubber jacket and his baseball cleats. He's wearing his pitching face, that slightly wide-eyed mask he puts on whenever he's working. Gossage is home in the Springs on this late June day because the baseball strike has put him out of work, and still he's straddling the mound as he has for 20 summers past. You can take the game from the boy but not the boy from the game.
Gossage has been working out almost daily to keep his arm loose and his motion grooved for the day the strike ends and the season begins anew. At this moment he's finished warming up and ready to "bring it," as they say. He is fingering the ball on the mound, when he glances over at you and says, "You want to stand in there for a while?"
"Sure," you say. You feel slightly uneasy without a batting helmet on top of your head and you wonder how in the hell you got into this, but you set down your notebook and head for the batter's box, forgetting the bat.
"The bat," Goose says.
"Oh, yeah," you say, "the bat."
Actually, you and the bat are merely props. You are forbidden to swing, for Steve isn't wearing any protective gear—except for the catcher's mitt—and a foul tip could maim or sterilize him. You're planning to write about the Goose, and in the interests of journalism he has offered to let you stand in there so you can see and feel what it's like from the hitter's point of view. That's how you got yourself into this.
You're standing there with the bat on your shoulder, slightly back in the box, ready to dive or bail out, when Gossage nods and you nod back and he goes into his motion. Holy Pikes Peak! He turns so that he's half-facing leftfield and all you see is his back and you think about what so many batters say they think at this moment: Does he really know where the ball is going? Too late to worry about that now.
Unraveling, he begins his delivery. Arms and legs are flying every which way when all at once the left leg kicks and the right arm whips out of nowhere and you look for the right hand so you can pick up the ball. You pick it up briefly, then lose it in the tangle of motion, and you freeze: There is a 95-mph blur shoulder high that whistles past and goes pop in Steve's glove. You bail out late and end up standing out of the box.
"I didn't see it," you say to Steve. He smiles and flips the ball back to the mound. Some high school players have wandered by to watch the Goose and you look at them and roll your eyes and laugh, but Gossage isn't laughing. He looks at you as if you're Yaz, and so you step back in the box, carefully. Four or five fastballs later you begin to pick it up better, following the ball from his hand to the plate, and the sight is at once fearful, fascinating and exhilarating. The velocity of the ball is vaguely hypnotic, but that's only part of its curious effect.
The most unforgettable impression of all is the ball's palpable aliveness, despite Gossage's assertion that it's lacking its usual pop. There is that, and the illusion that such movement seems to create. As it nears the plate, the ball takes off, and the illusion is of the ball suddenly accelerating, as if it had a booster stage that kicked in at the final moment.
You're just getting adjusted to the fastball when Gossage says, "Breaking ball." It appears to be heading toward your left elbow, and then it snakes right, but not before you have begun to bail out again. Strike! The school kids chortle, but let 'em. Some things are worth being made to feel like a damned fool over. This is one. Some 30 pitches later, Gossage strolls off the mound.
"That's it," he says. He walks over to the plate. "Think you could have hit any of 'em?" he says.
"No," you say.