The summer I turned thirteen Coach let me pitch.
I got to do all those things a shortstop never did: Spit on my hands and rub the moisture into the smooth white leather of a new ball, kick the soft dirt from in front of the rubber before I dug my foot in, look over at the third baseman and grin, and most of all, lean over at the waist and squint at our catcher Ray’s wiggling fingers giving the magic signs.
Everybody – the fielders, the batter, the coaches, the scrubs on the bench, the umps and whatever few parents stood under the trees down the right field line, everyone – waited for the pitcher to lean over for a few seconds, nod at the catcher, finger the ball in his glove, rise back up, glance at the field a second, and if there was a runner on a base, stare him down. Then he’d rock back and bring up his arms and step toward home plate. His arm would coil like a whip and flash past his head and he’d lean over when the ball left his hand like a white dart, his front leg kicking up dust as he followed through and landed as the ball disappeared into the catcher’s mitt.
Time had stopped the moment before and when the ball flew forward, we all breathed again.
If the batter hit the ball all the players moved like precision parts connected by an invisible wire The left fielder scooped up the ball and looked up and saw that I, as shortstop, had shifted to a point in line with second base with my gloved hand raised like beacon, knowing the second baseman was standing hunched beside the base as the runner cut the right angle at first base and was drawing bead on the sack; it took half a minute for the play to unfold, from the time the ball left the bat to land in the outfield and for the fielder to catch and throw the ball and for it to arrive at the moment the runner started a slide and the second baseman leaned into the throw and braced for the tag, the shouts of the players being swallowed in the rising cheers from the sidelines, the slapping of spikes in the hard ground lost in the dust that rose when the runner threw himself toward the base as the ball arrived and the ump yelled, “Safe!” as he waved his arms to his sides. Then the dust and the shouts settled out and the kid on second base looked over at his coach and gave a little smile while he brushed his pants.
Might not seem like a big deal, being allowed to pitch in a summer league baseball game, but for us, summer was the game and the game was our summer, what we lived for.
Our town was not that big, but it was spread out and we could go all summer and not see any of our friends. Anything could happen, like the year when we moved from sixth grade to the middle school and found out only when we got back to school that Jackie Dennis, the girl everybody on the baseball team wanted to take to the movies because she was like the prettiest girl in three counties, like we knew girls in three counties, but you know what I mean. Anyway, she had moved because her father, who was a minister, had been transferred to a church in, like, Iowa. We didn’t even know that minsters got transferred. I mean, all the ministers in all the rest of the town’s churches were old like they founded the church or something.
But anyway, we only found out Jackie Dennis had moved when she wasn’t sitting in the second seat of the third row in homeroom. That’s where she always sat, between Allan Anderson on her left, whose name was always second behind Brenda Ades, and Eddie Madden, who was always in the second seat of the fourth row. I always sat in the fourth seat of the fifth row and had a perfect angle view of Jackie Dennis. She had the blondest hair. It shined like it absorbed the sunlight, and she had a soft, round face with green eyes and a pretty little crooked smile.
You know who sat in her seat now? Frankie Earl. I didn’t like Frankie Earl.
It’s not like I would have had a chance with Jackie Dennis anyway. She was too perfect. She moved with a confidence that I could never figure out. Her friends were all smart and she always gave the speech at graduation or at the Memorial Day parade, and read the notices during homeroom.
She knew my name, and would always say “Hi, Smitty,” when we passed in the hallways, but I’d never have a chance with her.
That’s why getting to pitch that summer was such a big deal.
I was just a kid from the outskirts. We lived with our Mom who worked in Syracuse so sometimes it seemed like we raised ourselves. Most of the other kids on the team had played in Little League while I learned how to play by slamming a tennis ball off the cement front steps. We called the game “Home Run Derby” because if the ball came off the steps just so and landed across the road in the air and was not caught, it was a home run. Sometimes it happened a lot. The field across the road had tall grass and stumps and branches, and well, you get the idea. If the ball made it past the fielder on the fly and he had a chance to catch it, it was a triple. If it landed in the road on the fly it was a double, and everything else was a single. If you caught the ball it was an out.
Might not seem like a big deal, but a couple of years of snagging line drives off those cement steps made me pretty quick, both ways. Coach said I had soft hands. I guess I was an okay player.
No one gave me a hard time because I was the only kid on the team who didn’t have spikes. I played in sneakers. Sometimes a player on the opposing team would say something, but after I threw him out on a ball hit deep in the hole at short, I’d look at him as if to say, “Hey, look. No spikes. You’re still out.”
Got a little off topic here, but it’s like what happens after a pitcher walks two batters in a row, and we all go to the mound and tell him to knock it off.
Anyway, until Coach let me pitch, the summer had been about as interesting as playing right field, where they stuck your little brother so he wouldn’t get hurt.
After that, everything changed and filled with possibility, like waiting on a hanging curve ball with the bases loaded.
We got out of school in June like always, and said good-bye like always to the kids we wouldn’t see until fall, you know, like it was then end of the world. And as July dragged into view about the only thing that was different was the farewell speech Mr. Winterby, the junior high principal, gave at the end of the school year. We were about to become freshmen in high school, or as Mr. Winterby put it, “step into a new frontier.” What did he know that we didn’t? I mean, how different could it be?
I know one thing that wasn’t different. Sandy Miller hadn’t gone on a date with me. Of course, I hadn’t really asked her, but I was thinking about it. We’d talk on the phone a couple of times a day, and at the end of the second call, her voice would go all soft and hinting-like and I would try to say, “Wanna go to a movie?” But my voice would go all thin and watery and we’d just hang up. We did meet at the theater a couple of times, you know, me with Jimmy and Ray, and she with Gloria and Judy. We’d just sort of bump into each other in the lobby in line for popcorn and talk a little and make eyes at each other, and well, that’s not really a date.
You know what I mean? It was that kind of summer.
But maybe it was because Sandy and I were pretty good friends. We were in a lot of classes together and sat with each other on the bus to church choir.
We were part of the same group of kids. We had known each other since like second grade and through those years drifted in and out of each other’s circle and sometimes sat together at lunch. She was always borrowing a quarter from me.
One time we were at a party at some friend’s house and we left together. We walked along the street and she’d run over to one of her friend’s houses and look in the front windows. She’d grab my hand and drag me over. And I’d be like, Jeez, what if someone looks out, and she’d laugh and say that’s the point. After one stop, we held hands for the next block or so, and kind of slowed down. She was cute, not Jackie Dennis beautiful, but sweet and pretty. Maybe Jackie Dennis was too perfect and knew it. When we got to Sandy’s house, we stood under the maple on the front lawn for a long time and looked at the stars. I wanted to put my arm around her waist, but just took her hand. Sandy held it for a second and then pulled away. I wanted to ask her to go out, but just said, “That was fun.”
She turned to me and smiled. Even in the dark I could see her dark eyes lock on to mine, see her face soften and her lips form a thin smile. “It was,” she said.
She turned and ran to the house, but stopped half way. “Oh, Smitty, my Smitty,” she said and ran into the house.
I ran all the way home and lay awake for hours. Smitty, my Smitty.
Even the day the New Kid hit the home run didn’t seem like anything special, until he hit the home run.
After that it was like it was after the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan for the first time. There we were one day just doing what we did best, playing baseball. The sky was blue with some clouds drifting overhead like a big fat white armada and the smell of the chocolate cooking over at the candy factory making the air seem heavier than it was, like living inside a cup of hot chocolate. You know, everything the same. Then the Beatles arrived and next thing we knew we all wanted to be rock and roll stars.
Just like that, like nothing would ever be that simple again.
That what it was like after the New Kid hit that home run. Everything we knew changed in that instant.
Our heroes that summer were Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax and Al Kaline, and every day we gathered at that old field behind the candy factory where the company that plowed the employee parking lot dumped the snow and tried to be like them. I had read somewhere that somebody famous said that if he’d had a choice, he would have been one of two people: Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Ted Williams, Teddy Ballgame. The Splendid Splinter. That was us, I guess, little Teddy Ballgames.
Ray was our catcher. He was a small kid who spent most of the next year growing out his blonde crew cut. Tommy was the biggest of us, 180 pounds of red hair, freckles and glasses. He looked like an owl when he squinted into the sun for a pop fly. He never played with us again after football season started.
There was Donald, our pitcher, who hated being called Donny. He was a thin, exact kind of kid. He was always moving his infielders around before throwing a pitch as if he was going to throw it RIGHT THERE and have the batter hit the ball RIGHT TO THAT SPOT. I mean, really. Then there was Micah, Danny and Ron — we called him Rhumba because of the little dance he did while waiting for a pitch — a couple of guys from the other side of the river, and me, Smitty.
I played shortstop.
And then there was the New Kid.
The New Kid moved into town in March. His real name was Steve, but try as we might, when he wasn’t with us, we called him the New Kid. We weren’t being mean, really. He was a nice kid, sorta smart, you know, in most of our
classes. But he kept to himself a lot. I guess being new in town, that was natural. I tried to call him Steve, but it never worked. The New Kid played center field.
It had to be hard to be the New Kid. He said he moved around a lot because his Dad was in the military, which was different from all of us. We had known each other since our early days at school and sort of formed up into a group.
I watched the New Kid a lot. He seemed really confident. Maybe he would have been the kid who took Jackie Dennis to the movies, but he was different than she was. She was unattainable; the New Kid seemed okay, like all that moving around had given him a shell that protected him from all the other stuff that got in our way.
But he could play. At bat he whacked the ball all over the place and in the field during batting practice, would run down all the balls and spin like a dancer and throw strikes to home plate from anywhere. Sometimes the throws were so straight and perfect, we would just stand and watch like being dragged behind the ball on a string.
So anyway, we were sort of an all-star team, the town not being a large enough place to have lots of different leagues. We played teams from out-of-town, or pick-up teams of varsity scrubs. Who we played wasn’t a problem. Coach brought the equipment every day, and we played ball.
The name of the team was the problem. Darren the Pizza Baron’s Red Riders. The name was so long when they stitched it on the back of the jerseys, the letters formed a complete circle. They put the numbers in the center of the circle and from the rear we looked like those little receipts you get while waiting for your food at Darren’s. There was a reason they called us “checkout.”
But what the heck. Each spring Darren paid the cost of getting the field back in shape after being buried under ten feet of snow. In return, he got to have nine little billboards on the field.
I don’t know if the coaches had planned on letting me pitch that summer, or if the opportunity just presented itself. Donald, our regular pitcher, threw a curve ball. It was a wicked pitch. Donald was taller than most of our players, and really thin. He sort of towered over the pitcher’s mound, and when he threw the ball, his arm was so high, it seemed like the ball came out of the clouds.
Maybe that’s why he was that way, always explaining how to grip the ball –even just walking down the street — holding out his hand and saying, “Now if you’re going to throw a fast ball, you need to spread your fingers apart. But for the curve (or the ‘yacker,’ as he always called it), you slide your fingers together to one side like this, cock your wrist when you bring the ball back behind your head, and snap your wrist hard downward just as you throw the ball. The ball should break like it was dropped off the edge of a table.” And then he’d throw it. The ball would break like it was dropped off a table. And we couldn’t hit it. Maybe that’s why none of us really liked Donald.
Anyway, on this particular day, I was out at short just minding my own business and kicking at the ground — infielders just naturally do those kinds of things between pitches. Of course on our field, it was self-defense. Sometimes the ruts in the base paths eluded all of Darren’s good intentions and by mid-summer were hard as a rock. The ball sometimes hit the edge of a rut and rocketed over your head, or somebody, usually the visiting team’s shortstop, stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle. Or worse, the ball could hit one of those ruts just right, and
POW! you’d look like Tony Kubek in the ’60 Series in Pittsburgh when that ball jumped up and hit him in the throat. And then Mazeroski hit that homer.
Me, I played deep. I had a good arm.
Anyway, next thing I know, Donald, the old curveballer, is standing next to me trying to hand me the ball.
“What’s this for?” I asked. I mean I didn’t know.
“You’re pitching,” he said.
“Sure I am.”
Donald stuck the ball in my glove. “You are. Go ask Coach. I’ve developed a blister. ”
And sure enough, right there on his middle finger, right near the first knuckle, was a blister. The skin had pulled away and a little blood had collected on one edge. The middle of it was a deep pink and that skin seemed to be torn.
“I can’t throw the yacker,” he said, sounding worried, as if his career, or something, might be over.
I wondered as I walked to the mound if he wasn’t supposed to soak his hand in salt water or pickle juice to toughen it, you know, to prevent that sort of thing.
Without the yacker, I thought, the game will be lot quieter.
But I didn’t have time to ponder it anymore, because there I was, at the pitcher’s mound, a batter was at the plate, Ray was yelling at me not to worry, and Coach was saying to just take a few warm-ups.
It felt weird. I had never been up on the mound before, you know, as a pitcher. I mean all us infielders had been around the mound to talk to the pitcher when he messed up, or when the Coach changed pitchers. We all stood around, patted the kid on the ass with our gloves and said, “We’ll get ’em next time,” when what we wanted to say was, “What’s your problem you can’t get these jerks out.”
But then it felt great. I was the pitcher. I was the pitcher! I took the ball out of my glove and rubbed it and kicked at the rubber and looked in at Ray behind the plate. And slowly, with each action, I felt a change taking place. No longer was I the shortstop, all gangly arms and nervous feet before a pitch, rocking back and forth, waiting, waiting, then leaping to one side or another, slashing the glove toward the ball spinning away, then planting my right foot and like a dancer, turning my body as I slung my arm and threw the ball to hear the satisfying smack as the first baseman gloved it as the runner dashed by too late.
I was the pitcher. I stood on the mound and glanced around the field a moment. All the players were watching me. I had never felt so important before in my life.
I threw a couple of pitches, and it seemed okay. I mean, I didn’t hit anybody. I tried to think of how I had seen major league pitchers do it, and for some reason
thought of Whitey Ford, which was a problem, because he was a lefty, and I threw right-handed. But I didn’t have time to think of anyone else. I sort of rocked back, brought my hands together in the glove, raised them over my head and threw the ball. I followed through and landed like I guessed a giraffe might if they had arms and could throw a baseball. Ray shouted, “Yah!” as he tossed back the ball. “Alright, Smitty. Throw to the glove.” Then he slipped the black mask
over his face, crouched behind the plate, grabbed a handful of dirt with his right hand and made his glove a target for me to hit.
I looked over at Donald, still examining his hand.
Developed a blister. What are you some kind of scientist?
“Smithers, come look. I’ve developed a blister.” Right.
Coach just stepped back and yelled, “Play ball.”
That’s easy for you to say, I thought.
The batter stepped in and suddenly the target that Ray was holding up was way too small. I wanted to yell into him to get a bigger glove. All that space around home plate that I had before was gone, filled up by the body of this kid and his bat that he waved it over the plate two or three times.
I must have closed my eyes when I threw the ball, because all I heard was Ray shouting, “Look out!”
When I looked up, the batter was sitting in the dirt, trying to hold on to his helmet. He had a wild look in his eyes like he had just seen his future flash before
him. I wanted to say I was sorry. I mean, he was just a little kid. He had his whole life ahead of him. Ray chased the ball down near the backstop. That must have been some pitch. “Hang in there, Smitty,” Ray yelled, grinning. “Just throw to the glove.”
And I guess things got better, because I got to pitch a lot after that. Of course there was the time when with a runner on first, I went into a full wind-up instead of
pitching from the stretch and about halfway through thought, “I’m not supposed to do it this way,” and stopped, took my foot off the rubber, rearranged my feet to go into a stretch, and leaned over ready to throw home. By the time I got this all worked out, the runner was on third, Ray, laughing, was trying to call time-out, and Coach looked like he’d eaten something bad.
But I’d become a pitcher. And nothing was going to change that top-of-the-world feeling, ever.
Or so I thought.
Who could have figured that one hit would have made so much difference? Guys had hit home runs before. Tommy had hit five already.
It wasn’t even the game-winner. We were eight runs ahead when the New Kid came up. But something changed.
The New Kid always used this weird little bat. The first time we saw it way back at the beginning of the season when Coach dumped out the bat bag for the first time, nobody touched it. It just sat in the dust like a bone or something that just appeared, an ancient relic dug up when some runner slid into a base. It had a skinny barrel, maybe four inches around, and the handle tapered down to a little nub. There didn’t seem to be any writing on it, you know, like a brand name or anyone’s signature burned into the wood; I mean it wasn’t a Roger Maris model by a long shot. It looked like a Little League bat, except none of us had ever seen one that looked so old. Tommy said he bet that Ron had carved it from a tree branch, it looked so odd. Ronnie carried this big-ass knife and was always carving stuff.
We all stood around it just looking at it, like we were waiting for it to, I don’t know, talk or something. Finally the New Kid pushed into the circle and picked up the little bat. He examined it end to end, banged the handle on home plate a couple of times and said, “Well, it ain’t broken. Maybe it’s got some hits in it.” Then he walked away. Sometimes we had trouble figuring out the New Kid.
How many hits that little bat had in it nobody could know. But it had one home run.
It happened in the fifth inning and we were way ahead.
Their pitcher was supposed to be some Little League ace. Well, this wasn’t Little League and we were shelling him. Not that it mattered who threw the ball.
I was on deck, just watching as the New Kid batted. He had a slight crouch and rocked his shoulders forward so that his left arm was slightly below his right when he swung. The kid pitcher threw the ball toward the plate, and the New Kid swung.
When the ball hit the bat it was the loudest crack I had ever heard, like the sky opened up.
For an instant everyone on the field except the left fielder and the New Kid just stood and stared into the sky over left. There was no sound except for the soft
puff-puff of the New Kid’s spikes pounding the dust of the base path as he ran hard. “Slow down,” someone said as he charged into second, tagged the bag and made the turn for third. “It hasn’t even landed yet.”
And it wouldn’t for several more seconds. The New Kid glanced over his right shoulder to find the ball and then straightened up; he slowed his dash to a trot, then to a walk. On third, he joined the standing players watching as the ball landed soundlessly at the other end of the park.
It hit once and rolled to a stop near the pitcher’s mound on the other diamond. It had to be four hundred feet if it was an inch.
For a moment the only person moving was the left fielder. When the ball was hit, he stood still a second — he just raised his head, trying to pick up the ball’s flight out of the blue sky beyond — and then he slowly turned and ran back. In a second he was tearing back as fast as he could, head down, arms and glove flying all over the place. When he looked up again a few steps later, the ball had already overtaken him and was still climbing in its massive arc. The fielder turned in a complete circle, looking back for the ball while still running forward, and then stumbled as he turned again running after the sphere, not to catch it, but to retrieve it. Then he, too, stopped running. The ball landed still a hundred feet beyond him. He threw his glove at it.
I had never seen a ball hit that far or that high. I was standing at attention just watching when I became aware that Ray and Tommy were at my side. The three of us stood in silent awe as the ball dropped from the clear blue sky
through a green stripe of trees and then landed and bounced once, as if dropped from a passing plane. It seemed so far away.
The ball seemed to be something other than an object struck by a wooden bat and sent sailing through the air over the park; it was more like a bird, something with an intelligence of its own, or like time itself moving as we
stopped to gaze and wonder.
After the ball landed, the New Kid stepped on third base and completed in a slow trot the circling of the bases. When he finally crossed home plate and returned to the bench, all anyone could say was, “Nice hit.” We were in shock that the ball went that far. Who was this kid, Superman? A couple of us grinned at him when he sat on the bench and took a swig of his Coke. “Way to go,” someone else said. The New Kid wiped his face with his sleeve and looked at the ground and smiled. “Thanks,” he said, and then stared out into left field where his his home run had landed.
July became August and by the middle of the month the season was over. Football practice started. The thoughts of the home run that changed the summer faded into the grunts of shoulder pads and blocking sleds.
September came, school opened and the world got busy again. Sandy Miller and I still hadn’t dated, and now that she was a cheerleader, the prospect seemed doomed. But we did talk a lot more. And walked home together more often. For a while it seemed that we would never catch up with all the
things that we had to tell people we hadn’t seen in two months or we’d never get used to the new teachers or the schedules. Or find our lockers. Or stop talking about the British Invasion. Half the time we were talking about beating Cortland on Saturday, and the other half, wondering what our mothers would say if we got our hair cut like John Lennon.
Anyway, we beat Cortland 30 to 6 and the bus ride home was filled with loud cheer and happy talk. I was going over a play with Tommy — he blocked a punt and rolled on the bouncing ball in the end zone for a touchdown — when from the middle of the bus I heard Ray say, ” ... And then someone said, ‘slow down it hasn’t even landed yet.’ ” Tommy and I exchanged startled glances and then laughed as Ray’s voice and the rest of the story was lost in the swelling chatter. The home run had become a legend.
I just looked out the window at the grey landscape.
But even then, and just for a moment, I felt the July sun on my neck.
I had stayed behind after everyone went home that day.
A wind had come up and I could smell the chocolate being cooked again. It was more like I had become aware of the aroma that surrounded me as if just the moment before I had been dead.
That home run, I thought, as I gazed into left field of our diamond, then into right field of the field beyond that, and at the pitcher’s mound in the middle of the
infield and tried to see the ball landing all over again. It seemed so far away.
I had saved an old scuffed-up ball we were tossing around before the game, and I pulled it from my glove. Then I threw it toward left field. It arced through the air and plopped into the grass. I ran to where it had stopped rolling and looked back toward home plate. Not a bad toss, but I had a long way to go.
I threw the ball again and made right field of the other diamond. I guessed I could reach the mound in one more throw and aimed the ball high so it would land squarely and not roll much. That was how the home run landed — straight down like a rocket exploding out of the sky.
I walked slowly over to where the ball rested in the grass between first base and the mound and looked back into the sun, now setting near the tree line to the west.
I looked back to a spot just to the right of the plate where I imagined the New Kid at bat, slightly crouched, pointing that short, skinny bat over his right shoulder. And then he swung. I tried to follow the flight of the ball, but the sphere was lost in the golden haze as if swallowed by the sun itself. I imagined the sound of the contact finally reaching me, a soft “puck,” and saw the New Kid steaming
past first, head down, arms swinging, taking second, and only then straightening up, looking skyward for the ball, slowing to a walk and finally standing on third. After a moment he turned, tagged the base and trotted home.
Each movement was majestic, fulfilled, as if meant to be only once.
I started the walk back to my bike. About halfway back, somewhere out in left-center of the regular diamond, I stopped and looked around. I had hit a home run in a game in April that had landed about where I stood. I remember jumping in the air a little as I passed second after seeing the ball rolling away from the fielders and I knew that I would score and that my home run would win the game. My teammates mobbed me after I crossed the plate. My hit had won the game 1 to 0. I was a thirteen-year-old hero.
The next day when the score was read as part of the morning announcements and they said I hit the game-winning home run, Sandy Miller, who sat three rows in front of me in homeroom (a little to the right; I had to shift my seat around some to be able to see the side of her face) turned and smiled at me. I smiled back, but then embarrassed, nailed my eyes to the floor.
But then I remembered the day the New Kid arrived in school for the first time. Sandy was leaning on her locker, teasing me about something when he walked by. She just stared at him, and after he passed said, “I think I’m in love,” and then hit me on the arm like it was a joke. I wanted it to be a joke. We were getting closer. I was her Smitty, and she was my Sandy.
On the field I looked up again for the ball. The sun was fat and yellow, and the bottom of the shimmering circle was being eaten away by the tops of the trees, rising like so many hungry fingers to tear away the moment of peace.
I remember I looked at Sandy. Her eyes were following the New Kid as he passed down the long hallway, his head still visible above the crowd. That morning before homeroom we had stood in this spot and kissed, just a little peck. I remember her smile and feeling so special.
But now she looked back at me and maybe there was something in my eyes, but hers seemed different. She touched my cheek. “Oh, Smitty,” she said, and turned and closed her locker and moved away.
I felt suddenly confused, distorted somehow, the floor moving and me wondering why. Like I felt standing in left field replaying a moment of glory, knowing it had already been surpassed; feeling changed. Nothing was certain anymore; nothing was as black and white as I imagined it to be just that second before, now having for the first time a knowledge of grays.
I tried to find the ball sailing through that miraculous haze. I tried to find Sandy walking down the hallway. The world felt larger, growing, the hallway, the school, the sky beyond and above me as I stood on the grassy field, expanding rapidly, exploding and I standing still and small in one spot as the world ran away.
Slow down, I heard someone say. It hasn’t even landed yet.