Maybe it was because my father had been a good Finnish baseball player, and had even been on the winning team of an all-Finland sports camp back in the day, or maybe it was just because I was pretty good at catching the ball in pesäpallo, but I always thought I’d be great at baseball.
So when a teammate once told me after a hockey practice that he played baseball in the Finnish league, I said I wanted to play, too.
He said they did need players, so one evening a few weeks later, after the hockey season was over, Leppä, my friend, and I drove to a sports park to take part in our first baseball practice with the Expos. Did I mention this was the top Finnish league?
It was a nice spring evening, I was wearing a track suit, and my Toronto Blue Jays baseball hat, the one with the text “Party on, Wayne!” in the back,that I had got from a Canadian friend who thought Leppä and I were like Wayne and Garth of “Wayne’s World.”
I was ready to become a two-sport athlete, like I had been as a kid when I played hockey in the winter and soccer in the summer.
We started our practice by warming up a bit, then went on to throwing and catching the ball before grabbing the bats.
Now, in the Finnish baseball, pesäpallo, the pitcher and the batter stand next to each other, with the plate between them, and the pitch goes straight up, instead of it coming straight at the batter. We, the Expos, practiced our batting, the proper stance and the hip rotation, with a friend on his knees next to the batter tossing the ball up, and the batter taking a swing at it.
A few swings into the practice – no hits – it got dark, and we couldn’t really see the ball anymore. It wasn’t the first time it had happened and the coach had a solution to the problem. We drove our cars a little closer and practiced our swings in the headlights of my white Peugeot 205, and the other players’ cars.
Still no hits, but no matter, I felt I was ready for my first game – just a few days later.
I arrived to our home field early, parked my car next to the other players’ cars and walked up to where I saw the rest of the team already warming up. I was wearing the Blue Jays hat again. We didn’t have a big game plan, and as soon as the umpire was ready, and the bases were where they should be, the game started.
I don’t know how it happened, probably because we didn’t have a game plan, or maybe the coach had seen some promise in me in that late night batting practice, but somehow I ended up being the fourth batter.
(Usually when I tell this story, I tell people that the bases were loaded, but I don’t think they were. We weren’t that good. We would never have got all three first players onto bases. We did have one.)
But, batter up. Me.
I was focused as I took the few steps next to the plate. I dug my feet in, I kicked some gravel and I adjusted my helmet. It was a little too big but since I had never tried it on, I didn’t know that. I was too late to do anything about it anyway, because the pitcher was getting ready for his first pitch.
“Bend your knees,” somebody shouted at me.
“Bend your knees,” I muttered, and held the bat up.
“Bat up, don’t rest it on your shoulder,” somebody yelled.
I lifted the bat up. I kicked the gravel some more. I thought about pointing to the stands but then decided against it. I was humble. Besides, there weren’t any stands. Nobody watching, either.
The first pitch was already hurling towards me. I took a big – huge – swing, my hips rotated, my knee snapped, my shoulder cracked – and I missed.
“Too bad, too bad. Take it easy,” I heard somebody say.
The next pitch was a ball. It was so wide that I just couldn’t have reached it even if I had tried. The third pitch was another strike, which made me nervous. How hard can it be to hit a ball, dammit? I stepped back a few steps, and stared at the gravel in front of me. I took a few deep breaths, trying to get into that calm mental space in which everything happens in slow motion. Maybe then I could hit the ball.
I stepped back up to the plate, and the pitcher started his wind-up. With knees bent, a loose grip of the bat, my helmet just right, I saw the ball coming towards me, but then again not. It was going to be a ball. No, it was going to hit me! It was coming at me fast, but it was also going to pass me behind my back!
Happy to see the ball go wide, I straightened my back to make sure it wouldn’t hit me. I heard the ball swoosh. Then I heard a ding and I felt something hit the bat.
With a big smile on my face, I looked at my teammates, expecting them to be happy for my shrewd way to take out that pitch. Instead, they were shouting, and jumping up and down.
“Run! You hit the ball! The ball hit the bat! You MUST run,” they screamed.
“What? I didn’t… Why?” I said.
“RUN! RUN, RISTO!” they all yelled now.
And I ran. I ran as fast as I could, then I realized I was holding onto the bat and that I should probably have left it at the home plate, so I took a few steps back to leave it.
I turned around and ran. And when I looked up, a few steps later, I saw that the ball was already at first base, so I jogged the rest of the way like a loser. The other Expo, who had made it to the first base, now wanted to get back to the first base, but got caught between the first and second basemen trying to tag him, and was then out, too.
I returned to the “dugout”, threw my helmet onto the pile, put my Blue Jays hat on and took my position way out in the outfield.
Yes, we lost the game. And the next one in which I spent most of the time “a little farther” out in the field.
We then had a two-week break and Dave, a Major League Baseball consultant, flew in from California to give us tips, and to spread the gospel of baseball. I learned how to hold the ball, and how to catch it using “soft hands”, but even more fun for me was to drive Dave around the city for a few days.
A couple of weeks later I played my third Finnish league baseball game. We lost and I don’t think I registered a hit. I knew that my baseball career had come to an end.
But every once in a while when Leppä comes for a visit, we go out and play catch. I wear my Blue Jays hat, and our hands are soft. We never run.