I tried at baseball, over and over, and I failed at it. But Dad breathed baseball and so we did, too. We watched the Pirates when they were on TV and when they weren’t we listened to WTBO broadcasts on Dad’s hi-fi. Every winter, he played for us the radio call from Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, when Bill Mazeroski’s tenth-inning home run beat the Yankees. Dad was thirteen that year. The voices were scratchy and we knew few of the names, but Dad, sitting on the edge of his seat, the record sleeve in his hands, did a running commentary. He coached our summer-league teams and knew the rulebook better than the umpires did. He studied the scorebooks, the spiral-bound kind with the pale-blue cover. A can of Schaefer sweating on the deck table, he’d sit outside for hours, one leg draped over the other, figuring batting averages, experimenting with infield combinations until the lightning bugs came out.
One day, when I was in the fourth grade, the regular scorekeeper for my older brother Jake’s team was sick. Dad told Jake’s coach that I could do it. Since Jake’s nickname was The Snake, his teammates called me The Worm. The guys got used to me sitting on their bench, quietly watching, scribbling after each pitch. They asked me what the marks meant. They respected me because Jake was so good. They talked about girls, about drinking, cars, baseball, but never about school. Ray Spriggs, a big guy and the only black kid on the team, sang the UB40 cover “Red Red Wine.” He sang in a nice, high voice, and I remember thinking, this is strange, this large man, eighteen years old, swinging two aluminum bats, singing this song that I heard on the radio. I tried to look away when he caught me staring, but I was too late, and he smiled. Dad was always sneaking photos with one of the Times-News’ good cameras, and after the season he gave me a print. In the photo, it’s between innings, and there’s skinny, fourth-grade me, sitting on the sagging, wooden-plank bench at Allegany and concentrating on sticking the sharpened end of a pencil into the band of my white sock. It looks like I’m scratching an itch, but really I was just staying quiet and getting lost in myself, which is what I did all the time.
Jake had told me to avoid the boys’ locker room at Bishop Walsh High, but after one game, I had to take a leak. I thought it would be empty, but the football team was undressing after a spring practice. The air smelled of sweat, steam, dirt, grass, and feet. I pissed quickly, big, older boys using the urinals next to mine, and hurried out. Just before I got to the door, a tall, skinny guy blocked my way. He wore only a white towel around his waist. “Let him through,” one boy said. The guy blocking my way, a tall redheaded boy, ripped off his towel and shook his hips back and forth so that his dick slapped his thighs, back and forth. I rushed to get around him and, as I opened the outside door, I heard him cackling.
I loved the stuff that came with baseball. We collected the hats, each ringed with white bands of dried salt. We worked the bills so that they curved as our cupped palms curved, each a crescent of fabric-wrapped cardboard. We collected Pirates hats, Orioles hats, hats we got from our little league teams. When we played for the Warrior Run Lions, we wore bright yellow jerseys and white pants stained with last year’s grass, or ketchup, or blood. Mom bought us big duffel bags. When it was cold, we stuffed them with sweatpants and hoodies, T-shirts, metal spikes when we were older, and batting gloves, white and soft in the spring but rubbed through and stiff by the end of the summer. We carried packages of Big League Chew when we were younger and, later on, mangled sacks of sunflower seeds.
Some kids called their gloves “mitts” but that sounded old-fashioned, too precious. You could always borrow somebody’s bat, or even grab an old pair of cleats, but your glove was your glove and no one else’s. Jake, Ryan, and I did not share gloves. Nobody shared gloves. You had a glove and it was yours and you loved it. When I was thirteen, Mom bought me a new Mizuno, from the Sears at the Country Club Mall. It was an infielder’s glove, smaller than most. That first week, I rubbed oil into it every night, tucking it under the mattress before I went to bed. After a while, the outside of the glove took on thin, sweat-darkened grooves where my fingers went. I chewed on the dangling laces, turning the ends brittle. My glove was a thousand shades of brown, from camel to businessman’s briefcase, and, for a while, it belonged to no one else.
Two games a week turned into five or six and by the time we were teenagers, every night we were either watching Jake’s college games or playing our own. We played in towns all over the skinny part of Maryland, southwestern Pennsylvania, deep up hollows in West Virginia, so far out there that we joked the local kids got around in Conestoga wagons. I played with that Mizuno almost all the way through, until I was eighteen, when somebody stole it from the dugout at Donahue Field in South Cumberland. I hope that glove still exists, if only at the bottom of a closet, or in the trunk of someone’s rusted-out sedan, because it’s the only part of my baseball world that still exists.
Or, the only tangible thing that still exists, because it’s true that I can still feel the rhythm of the infield drill. I did thousands of them, the movements deep inside me like the steps of a dance, like the bass lines to certain Beatles’ songs. I loved turning double plays, taking the throw from third or from short, quickly hopping backward off the bag and, in the same motion, flinging a sidearm shot to first. It was the only dance I was ever any good at. I had my own routines. I fastened and un-fastened my batting gloves, first the left and then the right. I ran onto the field and off, never stepping on the foul-lines. From second base, I did my chatter, saying the same things again and again. It was always a prayer. If I felt bad, the prayer meant: “Please don’t hit the ball to me.” If I felt good, it meant: “I hope I don’t fuck up the next one.” Always, what it sounded like was: “Hey, gimme a heater, hey, gimme a heater, hey now, kid, hey now, you got this one, you got this one, hey now.”
I swung at tens of thousands of pitches. I never, not once, hit a home run. Home runs were off-limits, undoable, like dunking a basketball or meeting the president. Simply hitting a baseball, in a game, was difficult. I said Our Fathers on the walk from the dugout to home plate. I said Hail Marys. I tried everything. I drank Pepsi but not Mountain Dew because I thought the Mountain Dew made me too jumpy. I pulled on my jersey before my pants. I heard that swimming on game days made you tired, so I didn’t go swimming. Or I didn’t say any prayers at all, or I drank only Mountain Dew, or I stepped on first base every time out. I tried anything I could think of.
I couldn’t pick up the spin of a curveball. I swung too early, pulling everything to the left, sending weak dribblers to the shortstop. I sliced pop flies to shallow right. I looked at third strikes on the corners. My hands stung. The pollen made my contact lenses stick to the insides of my eyelids. My balls felt strange inside my cup. I struck out. I went 0 for 3, 0 for 4. I cursed. I grew hot in the face, empty in the belly. I spewed hot anger at the umpires, at their big stomachs, at their big pickup trucks, at the parents in the stands. I disliked myself. It went on like that. I loved baseball but baseball never loved me back. It’s true that I wasn’t fast enough, or strong enough. I did everything right except own the thing that makes a boy an athlete. What I did instead was to spend my baseball years saying to myself, I’d give three thousand dollars to be able to hit the ball like that guy over there, or two years of my life, or five thousand dollars, or five years. I’d give up Mom’s car. I’d give a toe.
We were bad my senior year. Our second-to-last game was against Allegany, our city rivals. Ryan, a junior but one of the best in the county, was pitching. I was playing second. Before the game, we took our usual seven swings, but Allegany was running late, and so we got another seven. Then we got ten more. I found a groove, lacing flat liners to left-center, hard drives to left. We got ten more. Finally, Allegany’s bus pulled up, their guys throwing their stuff in the dugout, quickly shedding their jackets. They hurried to take the field for batting practice but then the umpires said the field was too wet. Puddles stood in the outfield. The umpires got together with the coaches and ordered the game moved to South Cumberland.
Driving slow through town, we would never again, it turns out, be quite so free, quite as on the edge of something as beautiful and deep, and strange. Way out ahead of us was the unknowable everything, but just within reach was seven innings of baseball, a game we knew better than maybe anything else in the world. Jason, Ryan’s best friend, would play third. Ryan, if he needed to, would pitch until he couldn’t feel his arm. I just felt good, young, but also not so young any more, and wiry, and strong, and alive.
Coach Murray had told us to drive straight to the field, but I stopped at the Sheetz on Virginia Avenue. We bought fountain Cokes and chips and then lingered in the parking lot. I drove Virginia Avenue slowly, under the railroad bridge that everyone called the Underpass, down through South Cumberland and its simple, worn houses with the toys in the front yards, past the bars that served draft beer and fishtail sandwiches. I took side streets, stopping for too long at stop signs. The city’s waste treatment plant towering in front of us, the smell of sanitized shit thick inside the car, I made the last turn down the gravel road and, finally, parked. Then, crunching gravel, we walked through the gate, threw our bags into the dugout, and jogged onto the field. Ryan went to the bullpen, to warm up. We took grounders or loped around the outfield grass, chasing fly balls. The air was thick, the grass green, our jerseys red as candy. Nobody, just then, had any real power over me. I was a free agent, a very young man on the cusp.
Mike Carter, a three-sport star at Allegany, was pitching. Mike threw hard, but straight. My first time up, I looked at a few balls and then knocked a fastball up the middle that missed Mike’s leg by a few inches. The immaculate white ball shot into centerfield. I had a single. My legs felt good. My hands felt good. There was no sting, only warmth.
Ryan, 17 years old, almost fully grown and getting stronger, threw well. We got a run. They got a run. My second time up, Mike kept throwing fastballs. It was as if time had slowed. I could see the red threads, the inked printing on the leather. I let the bad ones go by. Then Mike threw one down the middle, straight and flat. I drove it between the shortstop and third baseman, into left. Gone, with all that batting practice, was the tentativeness I’d always felt. I, for once, wasn’t second-guessing every pitch, triple-guessing it. Either I swung or I didn’t. I was fluid, at ease, confident, taller than I really was, thick around the chest and arms and legs in a way I’ve never been. “Yeah, Buck!” my friend, Brandon, yelled from the dugout.
I hit once more. The game was tied, 3-3, bases empty. Mike Carter was still throwing hard, straight. I fouled one off. I let two go by, for balls. I fouled another off. Often, when I’m happy, I won’t think about what happened next for six months, maybe a year. But when I’m down, I’ll find myself thinking about it twice a week. It is a moment that, among all the others, shines like a beacon.
Mike Carter grooved one, the seams spinning hard but straight. I could have said a prayer in the time it took that fastball to get to me. I swung an easy swing, but strong, and when my bat hit the ball I didn’t feel anything, no sting that shook the bones in my hands, no empty, soft feeling that meant I’d popped up. There was no feeling, only a solid crack. A streak of white shot up and to my left, and after that I was running, without noise, to first. There was no field, no bleachers, no Mom, no Dad, no Jake, no Ryan, no sound, no anything except for a screaming speck of white against all that blue.
It does not matter that the best hit of my life was not a home run. What matters is that the baseball shot out and over P.J. Yates in left. He turned and sprinted. The ball hit the fence on one hop. Later, somebody else knocked me in, and that run I scored turned out to be the winner and, after that, Ryan ended the game with a 1-2-3 double play that went perfectly, as in an instructional video. And all of that matters, the final score, the red of my jersey, the gray of Mike Carter’s, but because this is my story, it doesn’t matter as much as what I felt while standing on second base. I was a hot sliver of an eighteen-year-old boy who was one-hundred-percent alive against that sea of infield dirt, my red socks alive and my red helmet alive, my hands alive, my legs alive, my quick heart a warmed and greased machine.
Standing on second, at ease, third base ahead of me and after that home, I had the feeling that I’d found what I was looking for. I spotted Dad in the stands, clapping, and I thought: finally. And for Mom, though she’d never admit it, I thought: finally. And Jake and his buddies, visiting from college, I saw them standing and shouting, and I thought: all of you, all you red jackets and gray jackets and green and all you pairs of blue jeans, you all got what you wanted.
Photo courtesy the author