Thumbs define us as human beings. They are a metaphor for everything human. From sayings such as ‘under my thumb’ to gestures such as thumbs-up to the unique fingerprints each thumb leaves, thumbs open doors into worlds within worlds within other worlds.
In the world of baseball, we catch a ball, throw a ball, and hit a ball thanks to our opposable primary digits. We also communicate in the game with signs that require use of our fingers and thumb. The act of batting itself is an extension of our defining attributes. The thumb allows us to grip a bat, thus extending the power of our forearms to swing. Long ago, when we humans were first behaving as humans, we gripped clubs to kill our food, to protect ourselves from predators, to threaten our enemies. We spoke softly, or not yet at all, but we carried big sticks. In baseball, too, we carry big sticks. And we do not speak as much as we communicate with our hands – often using gestures that feature our thumbs, such as fingering our ball cap brims or pinching our earlobes.
“We can effortlessly swing our thumbs across the palms of our hands to meet our small and ring fingers, the fourth and fifth digits,” writes Chip Walter in Thumbs, Toes, and Tears – And Other Traits That Make us Human. “Nothing like this exists anywhere else in nature. It is called the ulnar opposition, and this seemingly simple ability gives our hands the power grasp and grip, turn and twist, manipulate and touch in ways foreign to other creatures. Because of this ability we can pick up and use a hammer or an ax, or turn a stick into a lethal club by cupping it in a position that extends the power of our arm, and, with it, the force of the blow it delivers.”
This applies to swinging a baseball bat as well. Because of ulnar opposition, we are able to cup the bat in a position that extends the power of our arm, and, with it, we can knock the snot out of a baseball.
“Ulnar opposition also makes all of the difference between simply grasping a tree branch the way a chimp does when it swings through the forest, and precisely grasping miniscule objects with precision,” continues Walter. Like the bill of your cap to indicate your teammate should steal second base. Or like placing a pinch of chew between your cheek and gums before you hit the pitcher’s mound to throw a curveball. By the way, if you find fame throwing curves, you will be known as a thumber.
Stephanie Derouin may not be famous, but the slender 33-year-old baseball player is a thumber nonetheless. Not only do her thumbs throw curves, but they manage the Washington Stars women’s baseball team, as well as alternately play pitcher, catcher, shortstop, and second base.
With no interest in softball, Derouin has lived in a typical diehard hardball player’s orbit. A shorthand résumé might read:
- Learned to throw before able to walk.
- Grew up in baseball family – Grandfather drafted by NY Yankees. Uncle played Major League Baseball.
- Has picture of self as baby, sitting in walker, wearing baseball hat, holding huge glove.
- Started playing baseball at age 5.
- Tore ulnar collateral ligament of left (catching) thumb, summer 2007; played rest of 2007 season with thumb taped forward.
- Underwent ulnar collateral reconstructive surgery, February 2008.
DEROUIN 11: White letters and numerals fan across the back of her green Washington Stars jersey. “OK,” the pony-tailed blonde with glacier-blue eyes says to catcher Veronica Alvarez, “Imagine the ball is a doorknob.” The two players huddle in the dugout, shaded from Tucson’s blast of mid-morning sun. “With a slider, grip the knob thumb-down, as if you’re facing the door. With the curveball, it’s as if you’re coming at the door from the side. The thumb rotates up. Here, let me show you.”
Minutes later, the Washington Stars shoot onto field No. 4 at the Kino Sports Complex, home to the 2008 Roy Hobbs Women’s National Championships. A 90-degree breeze exhales earthy scents of mown turf, watered dirt, creosote bush, and Cleveland sage. Ferny guajillo, sweet acacia trees, and desert willow perfume the air, and spidery ocotillo shrubs wag their red-tongued tips. In the distance, violet mountains jag into wide, thirsty blue sky.
Two and a half hours pass. It is the seventh and final inning of the tournament’s semifinal. Derouin’s Stars are pitted against the California Sabers, a team that defeated them in earlier tournament play. Derouin will not be thumbing curveballs in this game, however. Instead, she’s covering second base.
Wearing SUZANN 21 on her Stars jersey, Suzann Lankford from Everett, Washington, stands on the pitcher’s mound, her peripheral vision reminding her of the runners on first and second base.
With one out, this California team can easily come back from behind and win. The count is 2-1 – two balls and one strike. Lankford knows, one way or another, she needs to earn this out. The 27-year-old Stars pitcher cannot afford to walk another runner and load the bases. She can’t afford to throw an easy-to-hit pitch either. This batter has been hitting well in previous innings, and no way does Lankford want to hand this slugger a meatball.
She flashes back for a moment to this same field No. 4, two days earlier, to a similar situation in a game versus the San Diego Bandits …