Sunday, September 20, 2009

National Pastime: Batman

Ron Reed, Milan, hits baseballs at Elbel Field in Ann Arbor earlier this month. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

The following is the final installment of a two-part series on our national pastime. The first part, "Arms Race" dealt with my decision to coach my son's Little League team. This story "Batman" is about Ron Reed, a 61-year-old Milan man who enjoys nothing more than hitting baseball after baseball in an empty park.

There was nothing special about last Thursday as I drove down Hoover Street in Ann Arbor. Just another summer day like any other.

Sunny, fairly warm, puffy white clouds dotting the sky. A good day to get lost in a daydream, which was exactly what I was doing when it was interrupted by a loud CRACK!

I’d heard that sound a million times before. It was the unmistakable sound of a baseball being hit hard with a bat, and not just any bat- a wooden bat.

Soon after, another loud CRACK filled the summer air, then another … and another. I spun my car around and drove toward the source of the sound, which turned out to be nearby Elbel Field.

There in the field, well off in the distance, a solitary older gentleman was tossing baseballs in the air and whacking them across the field, one after another - CRACK! … CRACK! …CRACK!

I’d heard tell from some of my baseball friends about an older fellow roaming around local ballparks, smacking balls into the distance for no apparent reason. They said he was strong as an ox with forearms bigger than Popeye’s, toting a bag of baseballs on his hip and a wooden bat on his shoulder. Apparently his goal was to pick out a target several hundred feet away and proceed to pepper it with perfectly hit baseballs.

Up to that moment I thought he was just an urban legend, but it had to be him. Who else could it be?

Even from a distance I could tell he was older, and he sure enough had a bag of baseballs hanging from his hip. I couldn’t really tell if he was aiming at anything in particular, but he most definitely was making solid contact with each and every ball he tossed into the air and smacked into the field.

Quickly, I parked my car on the street and set off toward the middle of the field. Needless to say, the older fellow was surprised to find a guy with a camera walking toward him.

I arrived at his small grouping of well-placed baseballs sitting in the middle of the field before he did, so I reached down and scooped up a few. When he got closer, he put up his hand and signaled to me. I tossed him a ball which he effortlessly caught and deposited into the bag on his hip.

“I’ve heard about you.” I said. “You’re the old guy my friends have told me about - the guy who loves to hit baseballs.”

The old man smiled and held out his hand.

“Ron Reed.” He said, introducing himself.

“Hi Ron, nice to finally meet you.” I replied.

I shook Ron’s hand and immediately wished I hadn’t. My hands aren’t small, but Ron’s large, powerful, meat hook swallowed my hand whole, grinding my knuckles into powder with his bone-crushing handshake.

“You’ve got a pretty strong grip there, Ron.”  I said, freeing my pulverized paw, then rubbing it to try and bring it back to life.

Ron held out his hands and began to examine them. The top of his hands were raw and cracked, the undersides were a mountain range of thick calluses.

“I do have strong hands,” Ron said. “you wanna know why?”

Before I could guess, Ron gave me the answer.

"It’s from being a tradesman for 32-years – that, plus I hit 500-600 baseballs a day.”

“That's a lot of baseballs." I said.  

For the next five minutes Ron, a 61-year-old from Milan, went on to tell me how God had blessed him with a very special skill and that very special skill was his ability to hit a baseball with both power and precision.

His voice became excited as he talked about his hitting prowess.

“I still got a lot of major league skills.” Ron proclaimed. “I can really thread a needle, in fact, God has blessed me so much I can stand right here and drive a ball up into that light post.”

Squinting in the sun, I looked up to the light post some 300-feet away and nodded politely, but I was somewhat skeptical.

“That’s pretty intense, isn’t it?” Ron said.

Again, I nodded.

Then he promised to put on a show for me.

“Let me warm up, then we’ll have good time.” He said.

After scooping up the remainder of his baseballs, we walked over to the far side of the field where Ron had a blanket laid out in the grass. On the blanket were five brand-new Louisville Slugger baseball bats, a Rawlings glove and an equipment bag.

It was a strange site to say the least. The bats were fanned out in a perfect pattern on the blanket as if they were sunning themselves - much like the co-eds not far from where we were standing.

All the bats were long and skinny – they were, in fact, fungo bats. The type of bat a coach uses to hit fly balls to outfielders during practice. The five bats sunning themselves on the blanket looked as if they’d never been hit. The same couldn’t be said for the bat in Ron’s meaty hands.

“Look-ee there,” Ron said, pointing to the barrel of the bat, “I’ve hit the sweet spot so many times the bat is starting to splinter.”

He was right, the barrel of the bat looked pretty shoddy - as did the handle. It was rubbed raw, right down to unstained wood from his powerful grip. Even when he was talking, Ron would grip, then re-grip the bat, grinding the handle in his powerful hands with nervous energy. I half expected sawdust to fall from his palms when he finally let loose.

After stretching a bit, Ron decided he would hit some balls from the edge of the outfield grass at Elbel’s softball field. To start, he picked out a target nearly 290 feet away – a trash can sitting against the fence separating Elbel Field from a set of railroad tracks.

“I’m gonna put this one in that trash can.” He said.

Ron reached into his bag and pulled out a brand new baseball. He put the tattered bat on his shoulder and took a deep breath before tossing the ball high in the air. As the ball reached its apex, Ron locked his focus on the ball, squatted down a bit with his muscular legs, then began his ferocious attack on the ball.

His left leg strode forward, planting firmly in the grass as he spun his hips toward the target. His shoulders began pulling the bat into position before his thick forearms took over. Before long, the lag created by the quick, unfurling of his body, snapped the bat through the impact zone like the cracking of a whip; his powerful wrists and hands delivering the 36” long Louisville Slugger onto the ball with a thunderous smack.

The ball soared high into the background of the beautiful blue sky. Ron paused as the ball kept climbing. At first he looked concerned, then he began to smile.

“That one’s a good one.” He said.

The ball started well left of his target, but soon it began slicing back a bit, and before long it was heading right for the trash can.

“I took a little off of that one to control its flight.” Ron said.

Seconds later the ball crashed into the outside wall of the trash can.

“Ohhhh!” Ron screamed. “I just missed it.”

“What do you mean, you hit the can.” I said.

“Yeah, but I wanted to put the ball in the can.” He answered.

As Ron began picking out other targets in the distance, he told me how he’d discovered his knack for hitting balls at specific targets at a young age.

“When I was 13 me and my brother Bob had just finished a Little League game and we decided to stay and play a little longer.” Ron said. “The field was by a dirt road and this old car went by and I said ‘Bob, I’m gonna hit that car right in the side’ – you know, it was all wrecked and everything – and I tossed it up and hit it … BINGO!”

Ron chuckled while recalling the story.

“Well, my brother says to me, ‘You got lucky.’ And I said, ‘No, I tried to hit it.’ So a dump truck goes by and I tell Bob I’m gonna put one right in the box of the dump truck. And I did! I mean it went right inside the box. Ain’t that cool?”

After smacking a half dozen more balls into the stratosphere, Ron and I walked out to retrieve them once more.

On the way back to the infield he showed me how he initialed all of his baseballs with the name of Jesus before putting them into play. He told me how much better he would be hitting if he had on his baseball cleats (he’s wearing running shoes) and was using his favorite bat (a bat he’s dubbed “Silent Thunder”).

Still, for the next 20-minutes Ron hit balls off the cross bars of Elbel’s soccer goals, smacked line drives between the fence and a row of light posts, and rolled balls to a stop on his blanket. It was a true hitting display - cleats or no cleats.

I asked Ron what all of this meant. He is, after all, a 61-year-old man. What was the purpose of hitting 500-600 baseballs a day?

“I’m an athlete – I’m trying to stay sharp.” Ron said.

“My aim is to travel the country putting on hitting exhibitions.” He continued. “It’s all part of what I like to call the magic of baseball.”

Magic or not, I was sold, but it was time for me to go. I said goodbye to Ron, careful not to shake his hand again, I patted him on the back instead.

I then turned and headed for my car on the street, leaving Elbel Field behind me in much the same way I had arrived - with the joyous, unmistakable sound of a wooden baseball bat smashing a cowhide sphere high and far into the air.



  1. Lon, another outstanding entry, I think you would be an outstanding sports writer. I hope you do not mind, but I am going to put up a link to you from my blog so your talent can be shared with more people.

  2. “I’m an athlete – I’m trying to stay sharp.” Ron said.

    Ooh ... that is exactly how I feel when I shadow box!! I never toss a 'punch' offhandedly, and I still won't 'tap box'. My hands aren't trained to 'play' and they only know how to be snapped out when in a fist.

    Great story!

  3. What a GREAT story!! What a great man, I love how he gives the glory to Jesus!! I'm going to remember that name, Ron Reed!! Thanks for a great story, Lon!!! Great descriptive writing skills!!

  4. This is my uncle & I'm so proud of him! Love you Uncle Ron!

  5. There was a baseball player named Ronald Reed who played for the Atlanta Braves. Is there a connection?