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The big kid, Delaney, went into his long, slow windup. Too long for the purist in Michael Flood. Too much arms and legs, too much excess motion that could throw him off kilter. But Delaney was getting the full ride to Notre Dame, Delaney had the big league scouts showing up at his games with their JUGS guns and their little notebooks. Notre Dame! Jeez, that really peeved Mike Flood. The Notre Dame coach never responded to his son Matty’s letters and highlight tapes, wouldn’t even pick up the phone when Mike himself tried to call.
   
But Delaney had the size, six-three at least, and that’s what they all wanted these days. His Matty started small but had grown steadily, reached a solid five-eleven and one hundred eighty pounds, with skills, real baseball skills and smarts. Did those ignorant coaches care about that? Christ. Whitey Ford himself never broke five-ten and that was in his cleats. But Delaney had the size all right, and, Mike had to admit, the big kid threw freakin’ hard.

He studied the Saint Michael’s pitcher for any sign of fatigue or overthrowing. Nada. Delaney’s right arm unfurled smoothly back toward center field, then whipped forward with a pivot and a grunt and launched the ball at the batter, tensed and ready at home. Matty, in his wide, left-handed stance, drew his hands back, took a small, up-and-down timing step with his front foot, and froze.  It was a fastball, dead red, thigh high on the outside. The umpire balled his right fist and bellowed, “Stee-rike.”
   
Mike cursed. “What was that, Blue?” he yelled at the ump. It probably was a strike, he knew, and just outside Matty’s power zone, so the kid was right to take it. But that didn’t lessen Mike’s simmering sense of injustice, his rage at the ump for putting his boy behind 0 and 1, advantage Notre Dame Delaney, who already had all the advantages he would ever need. Mike had nothing but bile for the clowns who umped Matty’s high school games. He often umped himself, wore the patch and the pads for sixty-five dollars a game, up and down the county, hardball, softball, scholastic, and recreational, sometimes three games a day on hot summer weekends, to make ends meet between construction jobs, which were harder and harder to find now that the market was down and he’d pissed off so many of the crew bosses, leaving work to see Matty’s games. Mike knew everything there was to know about the cheap vanity and technical shortcomings of the men who umped schoolboy games, and he hated the fact that Matty’s hopes rode in their uncaring hands.
   
Mike bounced on his heels to relieve his pent-up nerves. He couldn’t smoke on the field, had to hike up behind the parking lot to catch a butt between innings when he knew Matty wasn’t due to hit. Couldn’t smoke, couldn’t yell at the ump, not the way he wanted to, anyway, couldn’t make a scene, distract Matty in any way. He had been warned by the boy himself. The other parents knew to keep a wide berth during Matty’s at-bats. The moms clustered together, laughing and chatting on the bleachers or in adjacent folding chairs, oblivious to the game half the time, which to Mike was unforgivable. Matty’s mom, Nora, his ex, wasn’t there. She had given up trying to attend her son’s games because there was no joy in it, she said. He, Mike, sucked the joy out of everything. The dads stood in small, attentive knots, muttering to each other between pitches. Mike stood apart, on his own little patch of worn turf, with a clear sight line of the pitcher, the batter, and the ump; all he had to do was shift his eyes ever so slightly to take in the whole sequential drama of each pitch. He focused so hard that the veins throbbed in his neck and his breath came in nicotine-constricted gasps.
   
Delaney went into his long, elaborate windup. Any baserunner with half a brain could steal on him standing up, Mike thought bitterly. Didn’t those scouts who fawned all over him recognize that? He glanced out past the pitcher to Mercy Prep’s expansive outfield. Three hundred forty nine freakin’ feet to the right field pole, the fence bellying out from there to Christ knows how far in the right center power alley, where Matty’s best shots tended to go. A high school field bigger than most major league parks – how fair was that? Sure, the kids got used the metal bats these days, but they were still kids. In four years of watching Matty play at Mercy, Mike had seen maybe five balls hit out, and none of them to right field. Other schools in the conference played in band boxes, where a pop fly and a soft breeze meant a home run. Some of their big hitters had 10 or 12 jacks by now, while his Matty had only two, both of them on the road. How was he supposed to compete for the awards and the newspaper clippings and the scholarships when he played in a park the size of freakin’ Yellowstone?
   
Delaney dropped down off his kick, and the arm snapped forward. Mike saw the hand turn over as he released, breaking ball all the way. Drop the curve in now and it would be 0 and 2, batter’s back against the wall, a near fatal disadvantage. Mercy already trailed by a run  in the 5th inning of the Catholic prep semi-finals; there was one man out and nobody on. Should Delaney get by Matty and then Mercy’s number four hitter, Schmidt, only two innings would be left, and it could be all downhill from there. Aside from the big pitcher, Saint Michael’s wasn’t much of a team; but if they started feeling confident, and Mercy tightened up with the knowledge of time running out, the big right arm might be all they needed. Matty’s whole body followed the flight of the pitch, bent with it as it broke down and off the plate. Good boy! He didn’t bite. Mike’s eyes fixed on the ump, anticipating the blown call, praying it wouldn’t come.

But Blue got it right this time, called the ball, and Mike rode a rush of relief that quickly shifted into something else, a mounting excitement, a kind of elation building up inside him. Now the odds had turned. It was 1 and 1, a fair enough hitter’s count. And Delaney only had two pitches, the heater and the curve.  Better still, from his stewing and stamping on the sideline, watching every move like a hungry hawk, Mike knew that the big kid never, ever doubled up after missing on his curve. The next pitch was going to be fastball, he’d bet a month’s pay.  Would Matty know it, too? Had he been watching, like Mike had taught him, told him over and over in the car rides after countless games ever since T-ball? “You’ve got to watch, you’ve got to think, you’ve got to know every freakin’ thing that’s going on. Otherwise, they’ll sneak one past you, they’ll steal what’s yours. That’s your edge, kid. Never give nothing away.”
   
Delaney took the sign, rocked back, swung into his motion. Mike squashed his urge to scream, “Fastball!” Instead, he whispered to himself, “This is it,” as Delaney kicked, drove, and delivered. “This is it. Now, Matty, now.” He watched his son lock in on the pitch, back elbow cocked, the little timing step, and then the smooth ripple of torque driving up off the plant foot, rotating the hips and shoulders, whipping the hands through and lashing the blur of the bat into the path of the ball. The pitch was knee high and middle in, lefty meat. Matty connected with a sound Mike hadn’t heard before -- “Wha-HUNCK!” – a sound that turned every head on the field and the sidelines, snapped every eye onto the flight of the ball. It wasn’t the usual sharp “crack” of a well struck ball; it had an extra element on top of that, like a bass note, like the explosive whoosh of air from a man’s lungs when he’d been perfectly gut punched. It was the sound of superior force, of something being overpowered completely.
   
“This is it, this is it,” Mike kept mouthing as he sighted the ball, a rising line drive to right field, already high against the late afternoon sky and gaining fast. He could swear he saw little streamers coming off the ball as it soared, higher and farther, and then he saw the speck of white framed against the green of the tall trees that lined the steep hill behind the field. When Matty had first tried out at Mercy, Mike had skipped work and watched from under those trees behind the chain link fence in deep right. The varsity players seemed so big in those days, like grown men, because of the weight training and vitamins and all those other opportunities that hadn’t existed in Mike’s day. The best that scrawny little Matty could do, his very best shot back then, fell 20 yards short of the fence and bounced softly in the thick grass.
   
But now, could it be? Could it really carry? Mike’s eyes pulled off the ball momentarily, took in the fence and the right fielder, to see how he was playing it, to make sure it wasn’t just another crushing lie, a loud fly ball ready to settle into the kid’s glove. No, the right fielder was frozen, hands at his sides, neck craned, looking up. Mike picked up the ball again, the tiny white sphere framed against the green, just before it disappeared into the trees. And then as the shocked silence gave way to a slow crescendo of voice, as Mike’s whooping was drowned out in the rising tumult and Matty raised his fist as he swung wide around first base, the rest of it didn’t matter anymore. The moment was everything, fresh and clean, with no weight, no history, no anger. It didn’t matter, all the crap that had gone before, and it didn’t matter, not really, that Mercy would go on to win in extra innings and then win again in the finals two days later, and that Matty would get his scholarship after all, to St. John’s, where he would sit on the bench freshman year and then blow out his shoulder the next spring, fight back through three surgeries and rehabs, but never start a regular season game again. And it didn’t even matter that a year after that, Mike would have a heart attack that would take him out of work for good, leave him in front of a TV tuned day and night to YES and TNT and ESPN, with an oxygen tank and a six-pack and a phone that almost never rang. It didn’t matter because that moment, that memory, the streaming white ball against the green leaves, was forever for Mike; as long as he lived, it would never fail him, even as he dozed and stirred in the flickering darkness, until the last of his stations signed off for the night.


Mark Deitch lives in Ossining, New York with his wife Diane. He received the 2009 James J. Nicholson Political Poetry prize and his fiction will appear in The Westchester Review and The Medulla Review.

 


Two things I wanted to capture in this story were 1) the beautiful, fine-grained detail of baseball: the practice, planning, and explosive possibility made manifest in every pitch; and, most importantly, 2) the consuming emotional investment that some parents of aspiring athletes make in the game, so that each of those pitches carries potential judgment on their own hopes. Special thanks to my son Josh and daughter Ariel, whose games I watched with pleasure and pain for 20 years.

 





  


Copyright 2009