The Ping of a Bat, The Crash of Nostalgia

Posted May 27, 2016

There’s a sound that’s been with me my entire life that I’ll probably never hear again. It’s cacophonous and metallic, vibrating and piercing. It’s at once instantaneous and seems to float endlessly with the soft push of the wind. It can single both triumph and heartbreak at the same pitch and tone. It’s the sound of the sweltering Texas heat and freedom of college, as well as the stifling New York City summers and dependence of youth. It’s a sound that reverberated off my eardrums on a daily basis, and now seems to have faded into a distance that I can’t reach and would only be disappointed if I could.

For me, there’s always been something distinct about the sound of an aluminum baseball bat as it makes contact with the cowhide wrapped around yarn that makes up a baseball. Distinct and seemingly random materials coming together to create a perfect sound. It’s aggressive, yet somehow innocent. It’s unmistakable.

One of the earliest photos my parents have of me hanging on the walls of their apartment is of me holding a baseball bat. The pale gray, aluminum stick stretches out in front of me, its length at least twice my height. My blond hair hangs down around my ears, my bare feet press into the concrete of the city, and there is a severity in the look on my face. You’d think the photo would be one of joy and calm, but the severity is what makes the photo even more perfect.

childhood

Baseball was always serious for me, even when it was fun. I was never quite able to separate the two, which was probably one of the main reasons I didn’t wind up playing as long as I wanted to. Baseball was always a rollercoaster of emotions. One second I felt like I was on top of the world, and the next I was inside of my own head, replaying every possible iteration of the preceding events until I was sure of where I went wrong. The metallic ping always seemed to find itself at the center. I knew when it sounded right or when it signaled a failure just by the slightest difference in timbre. More often than not, as I look into the past, I knew that it signaled failure when I heard it but found no bat in my hands.

The loudest I ever heard the ping was during my freshman year of college. I had come to college as the best player on my high school team, with a number of competitive tournament appearances against top prospects, and two summers of vigorous training in California. I was ready. It was going to be the beginning of my career. Each swing I took in the weeks preceding my arrival on campus generated the sweetest tone the ping could possibly make. When you connect with a ball just right and all the torque from your body and the whip from the bat against the wind meets the bat at the exact right moment, in the exact right spot, and everything just seems to vanish. There’s no weight anywhere, no pressure. It’s like the moment you wake up from a dream and see reality around you, but still feel the buoyancy and serenity of being separated from it all. It’s the perfect ping.

After weeks of early fall practices, our coaches informed us that there would be extra batting practice at night for certain hitters. Without the words being spoken, we knew this meant practice for the players who were most likely to start. So when I stepped out of my dorm room into the falling evening hours and heard a ping ring out in the orange and pink sunset, I felt as though a tuning fork had struck on my heart, stirring up everything inside of me. The ping signaled exclusion; it signaled falling short of a goal, of missing out. With each subsequent trill of aluminum on leather, I felt a punch in the gut, and with each punch in the gut I felt a renewed dedication to create the same ping from my own two hands.

That inevitable mix of pain and ambition is what I miss most about the ping. I was so heavily invested in that sound that nothing seemed to hurt me or heal me with the same speed or power. When the friar in “Romeo and Juliet” says, “Within the infant rind of this small flower/ Poison hath residence and medicine power,” he’s talking about the ping. Within one object, within one sound, there is both the gift of life and the pain of death. I’ve never wanted something more in my life than those moments where I dug my feet into the soft clay of the batters box and silently longed to hear the ping. I’m not sure what else in my life will come close to having that much power over me.

Ambition and fear of failure are powerful enough on their own, but when you mix them up inside one thing, it becomes a weapon. There’s something about childhood that always seems to escalate the intensity of those emotions and seems to always find a way to mix the two up. When you’re young, there is no separating ambition from the fear of failure. Everything in your life is ahead of you; every success or failure is always something that can be improved on or learned from. Every moment feels more significant than the one that came before it, and, most importantly, there’s always still time. Nothing seems to have an end. The ping reverberates through the brownstones surrounding my Greenwich Village Little League field, through the corn stalks next to my Idaho summer league, the grains of sand on the California beaches where I trained in high school, and the trees that lined the outfield fence in college. It echoes through each space on repeat because it never seemed like it would fade away. In those moments, it felt infinite. Until it vanished.

Now I hear a click. A click of the pen as I grade papers. A click of the keys as I type assignments. The click of the clock as I silently wait for students to answer questions. It’s a more passive sound, a softer sound. The click doesn’t force itself into your consciousness, demanding to recognized; it lingers in the background, waiting for you to realize that it’s always there. The ping wasn’t eternal, the clock is. The clock never stops; the keyboard never rests quietly; the phone screen is always in use. The click never fades.

Even now, when I look back at photos, I can’t really hear the ping. I try, but it’s just never that clear. I remember the moments. I can approximate the feelings, and I can see all the faces, but the ping always seems off. There’s something about it that I can never quiet re-create.

Trinity

But maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be. Maybe the ping isn’t meant to be replicated and parceled out whenever I’m feeling nostalgic. The hopefulness and power of it would be perverted by the desire to not simply let it rest in the past. It exists in its time; it’s of its place. It belongs in the hands of the eight-year old boy in bare feet on the outfield grass of a shabby little league field, or in the determined grasp of the seventeen year old, dreaming of playing in front of thousands, while he endures the April frost in front of five, or in the fearful clutches of the 22-year-old who can see the finish line in sight and leans into the ping, urging it on for as long as possible.

The ping is from the moments where I learned how to set goals and that the world wouldn’t always help me to achieve them. It’s from the times when I learned that failure can teach as much as success, and from the days when I couldn’t imagine myself ever being happier. The ping is my childhood. It wouldn’t be the right sound for now, and I’m beginning to learn that that’s okay.