Bill Lee is not pleased. The Red Sox veteran is pacing around the on-deck circle with a deliberate, agitated gait, waiting for his first at-bat of the game, and he's talking to himself. "There's nobody on base," he says, changing directions in front of the backstop, bat in hand. "I wanted to have a base runner when I'm at bat."
It's a sensible request when your teammate is a former pro. Except that he's mistaken. There is a base runner. Our second baseman just hit a single up the middle, and there he stands on first in his white uniform, against a field of gray-clad opponents. Lee just doesn't notice him. But why correct him? The pitcher, eccentric enough to be long known as the "Spaceman," has always revolved around the baseball world in his own peculiar orbit.
Then again, it's remarkable that anyone here manages to concentrate, especially when the donkey starts braying, a wedge of honking Canada geese flies low over the outfield and a yellow Lab named Snoop chases the pig behind the backstop.
At Doubleday Country Inn and Farm, distraction is part of the game.
All summer long, fans of baseball past, like me, come here to hit, catch and throw with former major-league stars. They exit the Pennsylvania Turnpike, drive north across Waggoner's Gap and descend onto this field of dreams, built on a cow pasture behind a Civil War-era farmhouse, cradled like a knuckleball amid the ridges and valleys of south-central Pennsylvania. They come to little Landisburg, Pa., to don 1930s-style uniforms and play ball the way it was played before gloves had webbing, and long before steroids and nine-figure contracts.
"Once you walk onto the baseball field, it's like its own different world. Nothing else matters," says owner Brad Shover, who built the field on this 90-acre farm in 1997 after selling his insurance business. Red, white and blue banners hang from the dugouts, and the grass smells freshly mowed. Even the ads on the outfield fence, like Kessler's hot dogs and Spanky's Auto Sales ("The used car giant"), meld into the rustic charm.
Every summer week a professional ballplayer pulls on his old cleats to join a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs for up to three games a day on Wednesdays through Saturdays. Over the past four years, Lee has been a fixture on Doubleday's mound during one of those weeks. For Lee -- who rails against the designated hitter and artificial turf, and once said, "You should enter a ballpark the way you enter a church" -- this must be a shrine to baseball purity. Maybe -- Lee just says it reminds him of home. "I live up that ridge, about 300 miles," he says, pointing to the mountain ridge behind right field that extends roughly toward Vermont and his own farm.
As for the paying players, some days the teams are made up of groups of friends or co-workers. Other days, solo fans sign up to play, meet the pros, joke about their hitting or just feel the revered dirt beneath their spikes. One teenager exclaims from the dugout to no one in particular: "I wanna live here! Wouldn't it be sweet to just play baseball every day?"
For most games, enough paying players appear to field two teams. When they don't, Shover calls up locals to come play for free.
Families come, too. And for those more interested in leather saddles than leather gloves, Doubleday has a stable of horses for trail riding, plus a barnyard full of pygmy goats, chickens and ducks, one pig, two donkeys, four Labrador retrievers and a llama.
Me, I've come for the baseball. Unlike many of the lifelong devotees here, I haven't played since I was 12. It's been more than 25 years since I've stolen a base or leapt for a line drive. But I want to get a hit. Badly. More than anything. I'll take a single, a ground ball even, but I want it like Barry Bonds wants his 756th home run. And it won't come easy.
Before the game starts, I watch the Spaceman warm up on the mound. Now 57, Lee has tousled gray hair protruding from his ball cap and a stubbly beard that's more stubble than beard, betraying his bohemian past. The southpaw still throws the same arsenal of pitches he had during his 14 major league seasons, mostly in the 1970s -- including his signature "lollipop curve," a slow curveball that veers toward the strike zone like a Stinger missile. "Pitching is like boxing," he says later. "You have to get in there and mix it up with the guy, find out what he's got. It's a Zen thing. The game demands total attention."
When the game begins, Lee has the Zen thing going. He's pitching for my team and he's allowed almost no base runners. The other pitcher is hurling a good game too. There's no score when I step up to the plate in the third inning to "squash the bug."
That's the metaphor used to teach young ballplayers how to start a baseball swing, which I've been practicing in a batting cage for the past week. First, twist the rear foot into the ground (or squash the bug). Then as the heel pivots backward around the ball of the foot, the knee turns in, rotating the hips forward, prompting the abdomen to turn and a whip-like rotation of the shoulders. This simple torsion unleashes the explosive power of the baseball swing.
Did I say simple? Many say hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, flummoxing little leaguers and major leaguers alike. Mastering these mechanics means the difference between a batting champion and a .250 hitter, between Ty Cobb and Zip Collins. (Zip who? Exactly.)
Once I'm in the batter's box, I square off against the pitcher, a young right-hander who throws like he must have pitched in high school. I watch the ball rocket over the outside of the plate for strike one. The next pitch is high, and I inexpertly flail at it without contact. Strike two.
Then fortune smiles. If this were a baseball movie, the action would switch to slow-motion and the Aaron Copland music would start. The third pitch is low and over the middle of the plate -- precisely where the pitching machine in Arlington had mechanically served them up all week. I whip the bat forward and stroke the ball cleanly, a line drive over the second baseman. It's an easy single, and I sprint to first. Victory dances are frowned upon for base hits, so I stand on the bag, quietly ecstatic.
The game keeps going, and then a second game starts, as the sun sets beyond home plate, as a horse whinnies from the paddock behind third base, as the smell of burgers wafts across the field from a barbecue grill, as mayflies flutter in vast hordes under the lights. Lee switches teams, and now I'm facing him as a batter. Waiting for my first big league pitch, I felt like I had never swung a bat before. The fundamentals came back, but his balls just moved too much. I never got a hit. But I couldn't care less. I'm at Doubleday, and I'm playing baseball again.
Later, after pitching both games, Lee eases onto the porch swing of the farmhouse, now a seven-room inn where we are both staying the night. And the Spaceman speaks. On politics: "I'm a traditionalist. I'm a true conservative. All conservatives are liberal." Huh? But there's no time for questions, the stream of consciousness keeps flowing. "I'm a compassionate misanthrope. I love rocks and trees."
On playing baseball: "I want to play until . . . " His voice trails off, as if contemplating his last ballgame is too disturbing. "I have miles to go before I sleep. Who wrote that?" Frost, he's told. "Yeah, Robert Frost. I took the road less traveled by, and now I'm frickin' lost." Lee laughs. "I always finish everyone's work wrong."
Lee leans back on the swing and exhales with satisfaction, two Labrador retrievers lounging at his feet, the farmyard and ballfield behind him.
"I want the world to be like this," he says. "Just like this."