I Sense Much Fear In You There In the Batter's Box

February 17, 2016

It began as a sort of joke, that I, old Bill, would try out for the Cyclones. Me and Jaime and Dexter, sitting around Dexter’s apartment drinking about it. Last time we'd played together was high school, ages ago. Jaime: shortstop. Dexter: mean left field. I did all right at second, good enough for a year of college. Now I was living with my sister and her kid. Our senior year, we’d sworn to each other that we’d sign up, give minor-league tryouts a chance. Every year they opened up the ballpark, one day only, and anyone could go through the paces alongside the real prospects. We missed the date, said we’d try again the year after, but excuses found excuses and got married. I'd just turned thirty-six. Sometimes, Dexter’s wife let him out long enough to go to a Mets game.

I’d had one Miller High Life too many and we’d been talking about the good times, which is when I stood up and proclaimed my candidacy. It is time, I said, for gods to be men, and men to be gods, and for us to forge a new way in our lives. I was gesticulating with the sticky empty. I’m tired of sitting around, of taking it lying down, I said. I was sort of shouting. Jaime and Dexter were egging me on for once. I’m going back to the promise of yesteryear, I said. Dexter grabbed his wife’s laptop and handed it to me. We found an address somewhere for an assistant player development executive at KeySpan. I didn't think about it until the next day. The email came just before my practically teenage boss dropped by looking for me, and that's the last thing I'll say about her. PCs on floor thirteen, she said. That's the IT life, that's me—but for once I wasn't paying attention, and it wasn't just my usual rudeness. I stared at the screen and tried to wave her away. Bill, she said. Bill—are you all right? Is everything okay?

***

You have to understand, I hadn’t touched a ball in—had to be ten years. One summer I played with the work softball team, IT guys vs. security guards, but I didn’t like mixing the beer with the playing. It seemed unholy-like. And it was the same goddamn softball fields we’d played on in high school, had to sprint through a seven-inning game so the old-timers with their softball shirts and bellies could get on the dirt at five-thirty. I didn’t want to be part of that. I joined a gym, then didn’t go.

I told my sister about it at breakfast. She’s a night nurse and I only see her in the mornings, which is for the best. The living situation comes rent-free, as long as I watch the kid after I get out of work.

The Cyclones, she said. They still out there? Coney Island?

Well I guess they just made it, didn’t they, I said. Made it into the twenty-first century like the rest of us.

She looked over at me poisonously from where she was stirring oatmeal at the stove. We could’ve left a few behind, she said.

Then the kid came in, her little pudgy fingers rubbing at some shit in her eyes. Her Jedi Knight pajamas all bunched and wrinkled. In two steps I was in front of her and gobbling her up.

She was laughing. Uncle Billy, put me down! She was the only one I’d let call me anything but Bill.

Leave her alone, said my sister. She needs to get to the bus on time today. Don’t you, Gloria.

The kid ignored her, like she always does, and moved her little chair over next to mine. I want whatever Uncle Billy’s having, she said.

Oatmeal, I told her. Make you strong. Except I elongated the “o” in strong and sort of roared it like a bull.

She giggled. Stroooooooong, she repeated.

Hey kid, guess what, I said, opening up the email on my phone. Uncle Billy’s got a baseball tryout next month. There was the email, the official decal on the bottom, the cartoon roller coaster and a baseball swooshing off the rails.

For bocce? she said. It was one of her new favorite words.

Baseball, I said. Only sport in the world.

You tell your boss about this? my sister asked. She didn’t turn from the oatmeal. You taking that day off?

Well that just about riled me. Yeah I’m taking the day off, I told her. I’m a grown man. I’ll take what days I want to.

My sister said: So you didn’t tell your boss.

Nobody said anything. Grooooooown man, lulled the kid.

This is serious stuff, I said, putting my jacket on to leave. This is professional baseball. Professional, I added.

***

Jaime came down to the field with me to start getting me ready. You look good man, real good, he told me. I was squeezing into an old bit of Under Armour.

That’s not helping, Jaime, I said. Meant it too. Game’s ninety percent mental, if not more. I could lose a few pounds, who couldn’t? We couldn’t all be like Jaime, same rail-thin bod he’d presented to the world for the first time his senior prom.

Maybe some form running, Jaime said, kidding. Go to hell, I told him, and went to jog around the field. We were at the baseball fields off Shore Parkway, not too far from where Jaime lived. Weekdays, there weren’t any club teams around, and there was an hour or so once the high school kids left and before the sun went down. You could track its progress over the Verrazano Bridge. We had maybe an hour. I lay down behind the pitcher’s mound and started to stretch.

One two three, one two three, Jaime was singing. He was doing some sort of dancing motion, his idea of stretching. He was a sous-chef down at Cappuccino’s; never dated, still partied like a kid. It looked like waltzing, around home plate. I always hated shortstops.

You ready yet? I called out to him. My arms felt strange and long in the tube-like Under Armour. Let’s try a toss, I said, and we got our gloves. The ball was nestled in mine carefully. Put it in my hand, and it felt heavier than it should have. But my fingers naturally felt for the right grip. That old horseshoe. Split fingers.

Let’s go, tiger, Jaime said. He held his glove up like we were playing target practice. I did the motions slowly, but once the arm came around, you couldn’t help but snap. Thwack! Right into Jaime’s glove.

He looked surprised, a little. All right kid, he said. All right. He sidearmed it nonchalantly back.

We took it slow. We got farther and farther from each other, so far we couldn’t hear what the other was saying even if we wanted to talk. Jaime started one-bouncing it over to me but I kept gunning it to him, no hops, hit him in the chest. I got looser and looser until it all felt normal and good as hell.

***

The babysitter wanted extra paying. You were two hours later than normal, he said. He was an annoying piece of shit that my sister had found. He’s from the neighborhood, she’d said.

You ever had a hope or dream or something, I asked him? Ever wanted anything in life? Ever reached for something?

I want an extra ten dollars, he said.

Forget it, I told him. Here you go. I handed him a five. It seemed to work. See you here tomorrow, Mr. Bill. Yes, you will, I said.

The kid was standing in the living room with her hands over her eyes. When I turned around she shouted. Peekaboo! she said.

Where’d you go, I asked, fake bewildered. Where’s the kid? Hey! Gloria! I faked stumbling into a chair, arms out, doing like asteroid monster, her favorite.

I’m right here, she yelled. She waved her hands around frantically. So what was I gonna do but grumble her up again. We did horseyback ride for a little. Then I sat her down on the couch.

Movie or something? I asked.

Why were you late today, she said. Kid doesn’t miss a thing. Should I tell Mommmmmmy? she said.

No, I said, getting right down in her face. Then I made a funny face with some fingers, and she laughed, which was the point of it. It’s our secret, I said. Uncle Billy’s doing something for himself for once, how bout that?

She nodded. You mean like taking your own bath, she said wisely.

Exactly, I said.

Let’s watch Star Wars Episode One The Phantom Menace, she said.

That’s my girl, I told her. I put the DVD in and started doing pushups. Then I stretched. The kid knew all the words beginning to end, and it was like I was watching it even if I was looking at my feet, stretching those calf muscles out. Gloria started at her favorite part, even though it was in the middle—she wasn’t interested before Anakin showed up.

His midichlorian count is off the charts, she said, mimicking. Off the charts, she said again. And then she giggled, while Obi Wan’s face got big and nervous on the screen.

***

Next day was agony. It’s hard to walk when muscles you didn’t know you had decide to stop working. By the afternoon the boss had looked in and said to take off a little early. Slow day at the office. You don’t look so good, she added. Coming down with something again? she asked.

Dexter came down to the Shore Road field too. His wife was with the kids at a movie. Some kid shit, he said. Let’s see The Rookie, he said, collapsing into a foldout chair that he kept in his car.

Jaime hit me ground balls. The first one I had to let go by. My legs sort of didn’t work. What happened, he shouted out to me. It was a little windy.

Couldn’t bend down, I said. Gonna take me a minute. He shrugged and hit another one, but I had to let that one go by too. No bending? he asked. The next one I got my glove on. The one after that I bobbled a little. We getting somewhere, Dexter said from his folding chair.

But by the time we got to hitting, I was in the zone again. It’s a feeling that comes over your body, warm inside, none of the pains and creaks of tomorrow’s middle age. Jaime perched on the upturned bucket next to home plate, the balls arrayed at his feet for soft toss. I’m ready, I said.

All right Barry, Dexter cracked. Barry Bonds! But I just ignored him.

It was a wooden bat—heavy, not like the space age stuff the kids use in college these days. Jaime had found it in his foyer closet. Intruders, he said, explanatorily. There was a chip off the barrel that, who knows, might have been someone’s head. But I closed my fingers around the handle, lined up the old door knockers. It’s so simple, so simple.

Thwock. Thwock. Thwock. Still had that surprising power, up the middle and opposite way. I didn’t dare try to pull the ball, but hey, I’d been a second basemen. Thwock. A few balls careened around the outfield.

Dexter was quiet for a while with Jaime tossing ball after ball. Lemme get in there, he said eventually. Jaime counted at his feet. Ten left, then we gotta pick up. That’s fine, Dexter said. That’s enough. And we shared at-bats, the three of us taking turns, until the sun went down and it got too dark to see.

Back home, I gave the babysitter a ten before he could open his goddamn mouth. All right all right, I said, and shut the door. The kid was on the couch, one arm dramatically over her brow. You’ve abandoned me, she said, one eye open, trying to trill. So what else could I do but go pick her up and swing her around upside down for a little while.

Why’re you so happy today, she said afterwards.

I just smiled at her. A real big smile, when you try to show everyone that everything’s all right, but it’s not even that you have to show them, because actually, it could be. I grabbed her and hugged her real close. Don’t ever change, I said.

I won’t, she said. Unless Darth Maul comes, then I’ll need a disguise.

It’s true, I said. That’s a good point.

When she went to bed she asked me to show her my muscle flex again, and I did, and it was better than usual.

***

I was getting better, better every day. First time in a while I was putting my mind to something. Baseball’s not even about your body so much, more the way you can do weird things with weird equipment, but even still my physique was looking better too. Shoulders flaring out a little, not like they used to, but a little, and what they say about old man strength is true—I was starting to get it. Years and years of bench press, even through the dry spells when I’d only do it once a week. That stuff builds up thickly, like walrus fat. Even if you’ve been sitting in a desk chair for the past ten years.

Everybody was looking at me different. Jaime and Dexter. I caught Dexter’s wife sneaking a peak at the triceps, but it’s ok because Dexter didn’t. The boss, who came over to my cubicle more and more instead of just emailing. Sure, I was wearing tighter shirts to work, shirts I hadn’t dreamed of wearing in years, at least not since Angie broke up with me, and let’s not get into that. Yellow shirts, colorful shirts. I felt like a ballplayer again.

The weekend before the tryouts, me and Jaime and Dexter had been to the Mets, just to see what the game looked like for the young bucks these days. High up in the cheap seats section, in the new Citi Field. Jaime wore dress slacks and sunglasses, Dexter had put on his “I’m calling it Shea” T-shirt over his work shirt. I had an old Edgardo Alfonso jersey on, from back in the day. Way up there, the baseball looks like it’s on tracks below you, but the game play all looks good and manageable, like maybe even I could do that.

Back at Shore Road we got pretty cocky, or at least I did, showing off my range. Like I was that new kid Tejada, although I think he’s supposed to be nineteen. Try me one more, I yelled to Jaime, and that’s always the kiss of death, the “one more” game, because it was a nice medium bouncer that I should have been able to get in front of no problem but last second it took a bad hop in the shit dirt they kept there in the infield, never bothering to rake it, and bounced up and cracked my nose. Snapped my head back a little. The blood went down my throat, and I could feel it conglomerating there.

Dexter drove me over to Lutheran. We waited twenty minutes with more serious cases trickling by one by one, but it’s hard to be generous when you feel like you’ve got a box on your face. There was some pain connection between my upper teeth and the nose. Finally they got me in to a doctor after I refused the nurse, just a doc please, and the doctor poked around in a haphazard way and cleaned out the blood. Ice and pain relievers, he said, dismissing me—but it was a good scare, because any second there I was expecting him to say no athletic activity for the next few weeks, to give it a chance to set. Maybe he didn’t because he wouldn’t dream that I’d be involved in athletics anymore. By the time we got out of there and Dexter dropped me off at my truck, my teeth had stopped pounding. It was only then that I checked the clock. I floored the Belt Parkway home, figuring I’d be owing the babysitter something like a hundred dollars.

I pulled into a spot across the street from the house. I looked up, and then the real panic started, because it was my sister darkening the door. She was almost spitting, I could see that. Turns out the shithead babysitter had a book club to get to and made the kid call my sister when they couldn’t reach me, since I was nowhere to be seen. Make matters worse, my sister had been in an operation and couldn’t get out for half an hour, and the babysitter left anyway. Gloria turned on Phantom Menace real loud and had all the lights on in the house, was clutching her plastic lightsaber when my sister got there.

When I tried to walk up the stoop my sister started in.

You’ve got to get your life together, she said. You’re worse than Jeff was, she said. Which wasn’t a comparison I relished.

It’s just a few more days until the tryouts, I tried.

Baseball, she said, disgustedly. Like that’s the problem. She had those fury lips like our mother used to, but that didn’t bear thinking upon either. I blocked it out, just stared. Oh you don’t want to talk about it, she said? Big surprise. Nice talkee talkee. She walked into the house and left the door, unlocked, swinging behind her.

I went up to the bedroom where the kid was, pretending to sleep. She was looking at the fake constellations we’d put up for her on the ceiling, reflecting a little hallway light. I’d wanted to do twin suns of Tatooine for her, Big Dipper on the side, but she thought it wasn’t a pretty enough pattern. So it ended up being big circles, swooping spirals, across the room.

Hey kid, I said. Hey Gloria. Uncle Billy hurt his nose a little. I pointed at it, thick and bulbous, by way of apology.

That’s ok, she said calmly.

Uncle Billy’s real sorry, I said. Truly. And I made the finger face that usually gets her. Gingerly though, the best I could do.

***

The hour came fast like thunderstorms, when you’re not expecting them. Or more specifically like thunderstorms when you know they’re coming, but kind of dreading, because it’s your only game that weekend and other than baseball your teenage life is drab, without direction, square. Those mornings, the feeling of: game in an hour, everything else by the wayside. Can’t think about a future longer than nine innings, that’s the beauty of the thing.

When I drove the truck past the KeySpan security guard at the parking lot, I was expecting him to say some shit like, you dropping your son off or something, but he didn’t, just waved me in. I’d got my hackles up for nothing.

Real quiet at the ticket-taker booth. Just another security guard by the turnstiles. He took one look at me with my bag over my shoulder. Hop on over, he said. From behind he shouted instructions—down the tunnel, second door on your left, you’ll find the locker room.

Can’t say I never thought about this moment—when I was just a little kid, throwing baseballs at handball court walls; back then you don’t think you’ll be doing anything but playing professional baseball with your life. You can’t see how anything could be different. Then maybe high school where your head’s more on your shoulders but you think, hell, growth spurt, you never know. College comes and now you really see the way the cards are spread, these ridiculous bruisers who are twice your size and hit three times as hard. Ain’t gonna be no debut for you. It’s a bit of a problem. But by that point you’ve discovered other things—girls, drink, being away from home. Or, in some cases, mostly the second two. Then you’re back home and, I don’t know, life begins. You’re commuting more than you’d like to. You drink cheap beers at someone’s dining room table. You watch your favorite movies over and over. You’re somebody’s uncle, how’s that for some shit? I stopped before the final double door. There was an eight and a half by eleven taped up in the middle: Cyclones Official Open Tryouts. I collected myself-like; pushed on in.

Maybe I was the last one to arrive or something, but a whole group was already there, sitting on benches, changing into jock straps. It took a second for my eyes to adjust fully to the windowless dark, to recognize more than just shapes and figures. And once I did, I swear on the kid’s sacred beating heart that I almost left and beat it right then, because—I turned on my foot a little, like enough’s enough. Then I just stood there dumbfounded until one of them upped and looked at me. Every one of them, to a man, middle-aged.

Not a single one under forty.

I saw the ticket. This group of raggedy-ass white and graying flesh. The paunches hanging over people’s guts, old high-school hats, half of them probably didn’t even play college ball. “JV, you know.” Yeah, sure. All some PR stunt. Or maybe the team was just required to do it, a league regulation. Here we were, the greybeard regiment, looking for youth again.

I slung my bag down in the corner somewhere, next to a guy with a patched and fraying first basemen’s mitt by his side. I shit you not, he had silver hair. He was putting his Cyclones tryout T-shirt on with, I don’t know, number about a thousand on the back. Hey man, this Methuselah said, and he held out his hand thumb up for like a real handshake. I’m Anderson, he said. I guess I shook it, and got dressed as quickly as I could. Then I just stared into my locker, which had a real player’s name inserted into it. L. Dixon, it read, handwritten. My shirt was number 276, and it was far too big to fit.

***

Who’s got time for hope, dreams, thoughts of the living? While we took two laps around the outfield under the direction of, I suppose, that player development prick in a uniform and tight baseball pants, I thought about the pointlessness of it all. I’d told my boss I was taking a sick day. I couldn’t afford to lose another IT job, not again. And here I was with some other guys who couldn’t get the thirteen-year-old out of their heads. Living in a basement bedroom in my sister’s house. Soon the kid would grow up too.

Mr. Player Development gathered us around in right field and said that it was an honor and a privilege to have us folks out here today, that it was his favorite day of the year at the ballpark. Open Tryouts Day, something like democracy. He said we’d be running through a standard infield-outfield, two tries at a forty, and then batting practice—twenty swings each. Then he pulled the real coup d’day, and said that he had some helpers here to make everything run smoothly, and here they were, let’s give them a hand, your 2014 Class A Short-Season Brooklyn Cyclones.

These kids loped onto the field like gazelles.

Player Development pointed at a bucket of balls, and said, let’s loosen up those arms.

I got paired with Methuselah himself, who came over to shake my hand again before we tossed. He followed my gaze, to the gazelles stretching and scatting to themselves in Spanish, even the white guys, their couldn’t-be-older-than-nineteen muscles glistening. It’s something, Methuselah said. I’m guessing this is your first time doing this.

I scowled at him, and he smiled.

It’s a day at the ballpark, he said. Maybe this year I’ll crack one into Officer Player Development’s skull.

I at least got a little less furious for that.

Is that a smile I see fella, he said.

Gotta make the best of it, he said when I didn’t answer. You go out, he pointed. So I did.

Even after everything, it still felt pretty good to be loosening up on a minor league ballfield. The grass is just flat better, no knobs and divots for bad hops or places for your cleats to get stuck. The infield all perfectly swept and new. It was a little chilly, with the wind off the boardwalk, but the sun was there, right on top of us, a high cloudless sky. I mentally registered the information in case I got any pop-ups. Some habits, you know, die hard.

Before I hardly realized it I’d stretched our catch out to ninety feet, which was where the geezers around us found their upper limit. These guys were lobbing it in, tiny grenades, their breath laboring with the effort. Methuselah was holding his own, so I figured I’d back it up more. A hundred, 110, 115. He was bouncing it at this point, but I thought, what the hell. The gazelles were around where I was, them and me, although even I can say they were snapping the ball over effortlessly, whereas I could feel it like a shotput. The last throw had to be 125. The player development guy looked at me strangely when we jogged in.

The IO was something of a joke; one of the bigger gazelles, catcher maybe, was hitting fungos while Player Development wandered up and down the sidelines, his clipboard on his hip. There was a gazelle at each position, ostensibly to watch, I guess, but seemed more like they were on hand for CPR, you know, just in case. Lot of fumbled balls in this crowd, I’ll tell you that. I took my rounds over at second. The guy in front of me didn’t have baseball pants on, just sweats. After he went down on a knee to block a grounder, and floated it over in the general direction of the first basemen, it looked for a horrible moment like he was going to try to engage me in conversation. Beautiful day, he said, and then walked to the back of the line. I fielded my offering cleanly.

I can’t say with any degree of honesty that I was memorable at the forty, but I kicked some dirt clogs back for a good showing. We did them in pairs, a gazelle on each side to clock us, and at least I beat my guy, who tried to slide into the finish line like it was a goddamn basepath. The gazelles put their hands up and yelled, “Run through!” They didn’t bother to have him do it again, and he didn’t ask. While the grounds crew pulled out the big green turtle, Mr. Player Development pointed us towards a barrel of old shitty Rawlings bats. “Unless you have your own,” he chuckled. I grabbed Jaime’s club from where I’d stood it up in the dugout.

Taking some dry cuts on the greenery, I noticed in the back of my head the sound of a few people out in the grandstands—had to be a few, because you could hear individual voices, whatever that’s worth. When I turned around to face the seats, I could see one in a particular: a little kid fully decked out in Mets hat shirt pants baseball socks, running around with a plastic glove on his fast, chanting Dad-dee, Dad-dee. Some wives I guess in the same area, smiling benevolently, swapping jokes. It sounded so pretty I could’ve cried.

Two bunts and eighteen swings, we were instructed. It took three batters to get one out of the infield on a fly—admittedly, that first fly went pretty far, but hard to tell when you don’t have outfielders. Methuselah had his turn right before me. Here we go, he said. Cooperstown or bust, he added, and winked. His bunts were weak and ill-directed, but then he blooped some liners out into center. By the end of his twenty he was huffing and puffing and sending everything as a grounder, opposite way, but what can I say. I cheered.

Then it was my turn—they called my number, not my name, and I walked towards home plate. Cheap Modell’s helmet banging over my eyes. I took it off, flung it out to the side. Got in the batter’s box, dug in. I heard that little kid’s voice again, not shouting Daddy anymore but just, Go Go Go Go. But it only took a few seconds for me to drown that out even too. I scowled towards the part-time pitching coach, as ferociously and hostilely as I could, while everything around me got quiet and numb for the baseball, its arrival, waiting for it to come in.

***

It’s some amnesia—you don’t remember much. I’m not sure I can recall a single at-bat I ever took in my life. You look at it from the side, from some sideline, even the batter’s box when it’s your turn next. How the hell is this going to be possible, it occurs to you. Ball coming in hard, straight line, round heavy bat. You’ve gotta be kidding me, you want to say. Pray to some god. Think of some ditty. But then you’re up there in the batter’s box and, who knew, you’re hacking away. And then running around the basepath and, how else can you put this, it’s like life.

They say I hit three of them over, but I’m thinking one bounced and nobody saw.

***

What to do, what luck, what new start, what fresh experience. What strange stare, what loud cheer, how calm and quiet Player Development’s office, beating heart, still sweaty palms. Looking at the video there on his computer screen, me hitting stroke and stroke like it was nothing. You’ve been doing what for the past few years, Player Development said. How not to tell him. Rescue me, I wanted to plead. Take me away from this.

What a drive home, the conquering hero. Belt Parkway never so traffic-free. Papers signed, new world beckoning, call the teenage IT boss from the road or a bus somewhere, maybe Des Moines. The old red parachute jumper in your rear view mirror something like a celebration. Here the old Home Depot soccer fields they made you play baseball on, just a little kid. Imagine then going back in time and telling them you signed a contract, mom, dad, Coach Timmy, the dearly departed—you were, no other way to say it, professional. Dreams of the majors, PR stunt maybe, a curtain call, still there’d be spring training for crying out loud! Twenty-five dollars per diem, short-season contract, no guarantee. Room and board provided by a friendly local baseball family. No problem, I’d said. I’ve boarded before.

Past the Shore Road fields, site of heroic beginnings now, part of the legend. Direct newspaper reporters there, when they asked. The sun down on the Verrazano Bridge, comforting it-like, stroking it. Let out a big old shout, best thing to do in a truck too big for the city, windows all closed, music on. Texts from Jaime and Dexter—How’d it go?? Plenty of time, plenty of time to answer them.

Driving up to my sister’s house, opening the door on her plain face, no smile, tight lips, you drinking again, she asks. But I ignore all that, the way I’ve known I was always meant to, the way I was only just waiting for. Walk right past her, into the living room, to the kid on the floor watching the television where she turns to me when she notices. Uncle Billy, she squeals, and I’m hugging her and tossing her around, squeezing her everything, stroking her hair, kissing her cheek, and it’s the only thing, the only memory, that I'll have when I say goodbye.