Monday, April 03, 2006

Opening Day

Today is opening day for Major League Baseball. In celebration of that, here’s a story about the great American pastime. Parts of it are true. Parts of it are fiction. I'll leave it up to you decide which is which. Enjoy!

* * * *

There’s a field down by the Mill Creek where we used to play ball. It was not unlike many you’d find scattered across the United States. There was a large worn patch in the center where the pitcher stood, an outfield fence comprised of a collection of bushes and neighborhood backyard fences, and three small craters for the bases connected by a path of dirt that had been trod over so many times throughout the years, it seemed not to fade even through the toughest of winters

It was here that my friends and I spent the majority of our time as children. We were always there. During the summer, of course, we’d be at it from sunup to sundown, sweating it through the hottest parts of the day, always trying to squeeze in an extra inning or two before the sun finally caught up with the western horizon. When school was in session, we’d hurry home, do whatever chores there were to do, and then we’d hurry to the field. I even remember playing once on Christmas morning. My friend Adam called everybody to tell us he’d got a brand new glove, and we thought there was no better time like the present to test it out.

There were no particular teams, no umpires, and the score always seemed to change from inning to inning whether or not there were actually any runs. We didn’t care. We were playing ball and that’s what mattered. And we were always on the lookout for another player. So when, late in the summer of 1990, Chris Stoppard asked us if he could play, we agreed.

Chris was the new guy in town. He was a little taller than the rest of us, and from the looks of him, I’d guess he was a good twenty or thirty pounds heavier as well. He made up for this advantage, though, with a complete lack of athleticism. If having two left feet is the curse of the clumsy, this guy must’ve had three. Normally we’d love to have a new kid play – the more the merrier and all – but you could just tell by the way he walked, the way he moved, that God hadn’t graced him with the skills necessary to handle a bat much less run down the occasional fly ball.

He’d moved into the old duplex on Bachman Rd. about mid-July. We’d all seen him around the neighborhood at least once or twice, sitting out on his porch in the evening or walking his dog around the block, always making sure not to let it take a dump in the Meadows’ yard. Mrs. Meadows was proud of her landscaping and was always on the lookout to test the strength of her broom handle on some punk kid who made an errant step in the wrong direction.

As July turned to August, he started hanging out around our field. At first, he just sat with his dog in the shade behind third and watched. But, after a while, he grew bold, sitting behind the fence and even talking to some of the players as they warmed up. He didn’t have any friends; that much we knew, because anybody that was anybody was already at our field. Like most people in our neighborhood, both of his parents worked full time jobs, so all he had to keep himself company that summer were his dog and his thoughts.

That and his three left feet.

On this particular day, we were short a player. Josh Paoletti, a short, toe-headed kid from Bayham Drive, was sick with the flu. His older brother Jeff had spent most of the summer working at a Boy Scout Camp but had to come home early when he threw up in the pool, and the whole family ended up getting it. We stood around home plate, trying to decided whether to call Tim from Pritchard St. or play with a ghost man, when Chris spoke up.

“You…you guys mind if I play?” He sounded like a little kid asking his mother for a cookie he knew he’d never get.

I hesitated, hoping I’d imagined it. We were genial enough in most situations, but this was baseball. This was serious business to the kids from Burley Circle. After a full minute of silence, I answered him. “Can you hit?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Can you field?”

“Yeah.”

I looked around at the other guys, hoping for some excuse to turn him away, but when I found nothing, I told him to grab his glove and come on.

The first couple innings went by easily. Both teams scored a few runs here and there, and besides Scott Woods twisting his ankle on a slide into third base, it was an uneventful game. After he shanked a few easy grounders, it was obvious that Chris had lied about his abilities, so we stuck him in right field and hoped that anything in his direction would be short enough for the Brandon at second base to get on a long run. Things seemed to be going along nicely, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t stay that way. When you’re dealing with kids, social dynamics have a way of changing on a dime.

Sean Hinken was pitching for the other team, and while he was a great guy off of the field, on the field, he as nasty as they came. He constantly talked trash about whoever was batting, calling them names to their faces and making announcements to the infield about how they didn’t need to worry about fielding anything from this guy.

“Don’t worry about this one boys,” he’d say. “This guy couldn’t hit the nuts off of a dead dog. The inning’s as good as over.”

What really got you, though, was that he had the skills to back it all up. He was very good at making a person take a wild swing at an inside fastball or a nasty splitter. He’d then follow it with a big, “Shitchyeah!” which made it that much worse.

When Chris came up to bat in the sixth inning, Sean threw a bean ball right at his head. Of course it hit him, and of course we all charged the mound.

“What’re you doing, fatass? You threw it right at his head.” said Adam.

“He was crowding my plate.” Sean replied with a grin. “I had to show him who was boss. Got tired of watching him strike out each time. You guys are making it too easy for me. I gotta challenge myself somehow.”

Adam leapt at Sean, who sidestepped just in time to watch Adam go face first into the dirt on pitcher’s mound. The fight would have gone further if Brian Woods and I hadn’t held them back.

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” said Adam.

“I’d like to see you try,” said Sean.

“I wouldn’t,” somebody yelled in the background, “you'll probably lose your foot.” We all laughed at that except for Sean, who turned and threw the ball in the direction of the voice, and ended up hitting Scott Woods in the temple. Scott just wasn’t having a good day.

The joke brought a little bit of lightheartedness back to the game, but the tension still remained. Each at-bat was more important than the last, and we argued over every close play. Neither team wanted to lose the game at this point. It was honor. It was bragging rights. It was war, as much as can be had with fifth graders, anyway.

Chris stood in the background the whole time, watching us with a bit of a smile on his face. I think he was just glad to be there.

We started the ninth inning down by three runs. After Tim and Andy went down on routine groundballs, we got a rally going, and scored two to bring us within a run with two men out and one man on. The tide was turning, and I thought we might just pull it off until I saw the next batter. Like the Mighty Casey from Mudville, Chris Stoppard approached the plate, bat in hand.

Sean breezed the first two pitches past a visibly nervous Chris, then missed outside and then in the dirt to bring the count to two balls and two strikes. As he walked back to the mound he was laughing and making his usual snide comments, but you could see the sweat standing on his fat forehead. He’d missed two straight pitches to a guy who, by all rights, should have struck out on three. There was no way in hell he was gonna miss again. No way.

“Keep your eye on the ball, Chris,” I yelled from second base. “Just watch the ball and swing as hard as you can. You can do it!”

I was excited, because if Chris could just hit it, I'd score. Then we could either hope for a single from Adam or at least a trip into extra innings with the top of our order due up the next time around. Things would be okay if only he could just hit the ball. The chances of this happening were slim, of course. He would likely either miss completely or hit a dribbler back to the pitcher’s mound, which Sean could toss to the first for the final out and the victor.. Our game would end, and that night we’d have to listen to Sean go on and on about how much we sucked. That was an idea that didn’t sit well in my mind. It didn’t sit well at all.

But a peculiar thing happened. Shawn, not wanting to walk the worst player on the field and risk giving Adam a chance to win the game, threw what is known in baseball circles as a “meatball.” It’s a pitch right down the middle of the plate that even moderately skilled players could crush into the stratosphere. Chris, knowing that Sean would not miss again, closed his eyes and swung as hard as he could. So much for keeping your eye on the ball, I thought.

To everyone’s surprise, especially the one holding the bat, the ball flew out towards center field. Sean had just enough time to say, “What the…” before the ball was bouncing next to the sunflowers in the Jones’ yard. I took off for third, rounded into home, and turned to watch Chris. He must have been surprised at his success, because he was just rounding first as I scored, and I’m not exactly a speed-demon. I saw two things very clearly at that moment. The first was Aaron Stewart getting to the ball in center, and the second was the look of determination on Chris’s face. He meant to go all the way, his athleticism (or lack thereof) be damned.

“No, Chris. No!” I yelled. Why couldn’t he just be content with a triple? At least then we’d have a chance at winning. He must not have heard, though, because he hit third and kept coming. Meanwhile, Aaron, who had a very good arm for a ten year old, had already released the ball.

“Slide!” I yelled, “Slide you bastard!”

In the movies and on television, you always root for the loveable loser, the kid who never gets the girl and always gets picked last for dodgeball. In the movies and on television, the loser always has his moment in the sun. He always hits the game winning homerun, and both teams carry him off the field on their shoulders. One of the difficult things about growing up, though, is the knowledge that movies and television all too often depict life as it should be, not life as it is. More often than not, the losers don’t quite make it. More often than not, they get the shit kicked out of them

I knew we were in trouble before it happened. Chris must have thought he’d hit the ball farther than he did, because I don’t think he was expecting a play. And judging from the look on his face, you could tell he didn't know how to slide, either. Still, the determination was there. He probably hoped that whatever god had graced him with momentary athletic prowess would continue the blessing for another minute or two and allow him this one moment of glory.

As Chris lowered the top half of his body to make the final descent towards home, his left leg remembered its old tricks, and got in the way of his right. Instead of a slide, Chris tumbled over himself, and rolled. The hem of his pants caught on a tree root, and when he stopped rolling, Chris’s pants were a good five or six feet behind him. In that instant, you could see his face change from unbelievable joy to inexplicable horror. He sat there in his underwear two feet short of his goal as the catcher tagged him out.

Nobody said anything for a minute or two. Not even Sean. We watched in silence as Chris stayed there, almost bare-assed, and tried our best not to laugh. No laugh, no matter how hearty, is worth that humiliation. Kids, however, are not adept at controlling their emotions, and the small spits and spirts of laughter quickly turned into a snicker, a grumble, and an all-out riot. We felt sorry for the guy, we really did, but seeing him there in his underwear halfway between third and home was just too much. Amidst the laughter, Chris stood up, put on his pants, and quietly walked away from the field. He never asked to play again, and his parents moved away at the end of the summer. Apparently his father was in the military.

I think I saw Chris again about a year or two ago. I was watching my nephew play a little league game in the new park behind the shopping center. The one with the brand-new chain link fences and the stands behind home plate. Our field has since succumbed to the passage of time. A city building project diverted the creek through the middle of the field, past second base, and into where Mrs. Jones used to keep her prized sunflowers. I sat with my sister behind third base, watching her son pitch in the last inning of a close game. As I looked across the field, I noticed a tall man get up to watch his son bat. When he stood, his foot caught in the chair and he spilled a bit of his drink on the lady in front of him.

The pitch came in. I watched the little kid smack a hard liner just past the center fielder’s glove. He rounded the bases like a gazelle, and, despite his coach’s warnings, took a turn at third and headed for home with the same intensity I had seen on Chris that day so many years ago. The relay from the shortstop was right on, but it didn’t matter. The kid beat it by a full step. He didn’t even have to slide.

The bench exploded with cheers, and everybody ran out to greet him, but the kid ran past his teammates, and headed straight for his father. The man who may or may not have been the three-footed kid I knew several years ago picked up his son, hugged him, and carried him to the parking lot on his shoulders with his team following in his wake.

Sometimes the losers win after all. Life’s funny like that.

1 comment:

Boxy Brown said...

You really lame, you know that?