“You don’t get in shape for baseball by playing it.”
As I watch the right outfielder trot back to his normal position, I chew that over for a minute or two. We’d just been treated to one of those insane bursts of speed that outfielders are called upon to make, from time to time, without much warning. They go from idling to flat-outting in less time than it takes me to squint and say, “Where is it?”
But outfielders aren’t thinking about where the ball is. Once in motion, they’re charging—not towards some predetermined, agreed-upon, clearly marked spot, but towards some rendezvous point that exists only in their mind’s eye view of their future desired state. To some point where the ball will be, or so they hope, based on a trajectory calculation undergoing real-time updates as the wind plays with the ball’s flight.
Then, at the last minute, if they’ve misoverestimated the rendezvous point, they reach back and catch the ball practically blind, or twist around and do their own squinting into the sun. Ballparks are positioned exactly to put the outfielders at this disadvantage in a typical afternoon game.
Or, if they’ve misunderestimated the ball’s path—or estimated it exactly correctly but been unable to get there in time by staying on the ground—they leap through the air, stretching out their gloved hands, achieving full horizontality just before executing a full-frontal smackdown on the ground. More often than seems reasonable, or even possible, they then hold up that gloved hand in triumph. Got it!
And then they trot casually back to their starting position, where they stand around for the rest of the inning. And, maybe, the next.
It is this disparity between how ballplayers spend the bulk of their time on the field—standing around—and those occasional out-of-the-blue, bat-outta-hell races to a rendezvous with, they hope, a catch, that has caught my friend’s attention. He’s exactly right: They can’t get in shape for those bursts of effort—they can’t develop the cardiovascular capacity, the leg strength, or the agility—by just playing the game.
It seems sort of silly, in a way. Shouldn’t simply doing an activity also be enough to prepare for doing it? Yes, if I ruled the world. But it is not so: not in baseball, and not in life.
Having never been physically active, I don’t put high demands on my body. I don’t call on it to suddenly sprint across an outfield or to run cross-country for a few hours. It doesn’t need to lift great weights or to climb great heights. It can even get by, year after year, without balancing on a surfboard in a crashing wave, or on a narrow ledge without crashing into a precipice.
So I had calculated, maybe subconsciously, that doing the things I enjoyed—gardening, walking, and kayaking now and then—would be enough for me to continue doing them. Crouching down in the garden and getting back up, as many times as it took for the spring and fall clean-ups. Levering myself up and over boulders on that hiking path without losing my balance. Helping to lift that kayak up onto the rooftop carrier and then down from there and into the water.
And if I realized that those recreations might one day be beyond me—that they one day would be beyond me—it still didn’t occur to me that I had to make a special effort to go on being able to climb the stairs in my house without thinking about it. To squat to retrieve things out of low kitchen cupboards. To lift the groceries out of the cart, into the trunk, out of the trunk, and up the stairs from the garage into the house. Because to go on being able to do things, it should be enough just to do them, right?
Not so much. And so much for intelligent design, if we needed any additional evidence.
Recent rudeness from my shoulders and knees—and the muscles or lack thereof surrounding those joints—has caused me to recalculate my trajectory. I can see one possible future careering towards me and I don’t like it. But how to avoid that unwanted rendezvous?
I’ve never been physically active—I think I’ve mentioned that—so it takes something to get me moving in the sense of really working. Enter, stage right, my will-you-still-need me, will-you-still-feed-me birthday. Yes, as you read this, I have just celebrated my 64th birthday. I am now in my 65th year. I can see 70 standing just over there, smiling and waving, and then having to sit down, pooped from all that unaccustomed exertion.
And so I now embark on a six-year project to get stronger. To change my trajectory, since 70 is inbound at a pretty predictable rate. My commitment to myself is this: At 70, I will be—if not exactly sinewy—then at least fitter. If I can’t be fitter than I am today—if the wind gusts in unexpected ways, changing what’s possible for me—then I will at least be fitter than if I hadn’t started.
To keep myself honest, I commit to recording my progress at least semi-annually, in an ongoing documentary. Herewith, the first episode.
Because life, like baseball, is a game I can’t get in shape for just by playing it.