Authors: Chris Lynch
When we were behind the stone home plate set into the ground of the old field, Vinnie painstakingly bent and forced my body down into the classic catcher pose. I held it, frozen like a baseball-card photo, while Vinnie went to the mound to pitch to me. Problem was, I had to hold my breath. Because if I let it out, my balance was so touch-and-go I knew I was going to roll backward.
I had to do it. I exhaled. I fell backward.
Vinnie didn’t see it. He got to the mound and picked up the ball. When he spun toward me to start pitching, I was already laid out looking for the high fly ball in the sun.
“What are you doing?” he asked with what was quickly blossoming into full-flowered hatred.
“I’m stretching,” I said. Fighting my chest protector, shin pads, and loose mask, I managed to roll onto my side, stand, and squat again.
He went into his windup. In the middle of it, at the top of his motion, I stood up.
“Time out,” I called, my hand and mitt out in front of me.
“Jesus,” he yelled, cutting his delivery in half. “What is your problem?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot manage that position. I’ll just keep bowling over.”
Vinnie slammed the ball into his mitt, then slammed the mitt down on the mound. He marched toward me like a batter charging the mound, only in reverse.
” he barked, putting his hand on top of my head and pushing me down. He folded me again into a respectable catcher pose, then just before time ran out on my balance, he grabbed my right leg and yanked it straight out to the side. I was still crouched, but the extended leg stood out there like a brace. I tried leaning on it. It held, despite a creeping pain coming on in the hip socket. I didn’t feel like I was going to tip over anymore. I had never had my leg out in that direction before, didn’t even know it could be done. Except with a Barbie doll.
“You look good,” Vinnie screamed from the mound. “You ready?”
I nodded, lying without even speaking. Vinnie reared back; his foot went way up in the air, above his head. His face disappeared behind his shoulder. He coiled, spun, unfolded toward the plate, slung the ball with a wicked snap of the wrist.
It was, judging from its behavior, a curveball. I watched it come toward me, spinning, humming. It started out way over there, came over here, went right on past over to there. The ball and I never met. It didn’t get in my way, and I didn’t get in its. I remained frozen in my perfect catcher’s pose as the ball hit the backstop.
Vinnie glared toward me. Words failed him. Then he stormed off the mound, spitting, muttering, “... not putting up with this crap... not chasing balls all over the damn place all morning...”
He returned with a tin bucket filled with baseballs. “Crash course,” he said, and went to work like an automatic pitching machine.
Vinnie was a guy who did not waste his few words. When he said, “Crash course,” it was a gesture of sincerity. After an hour, I was no more prepared to catch a game of baseball than I had been when I first woke up that morning. But I was well prepared to get pelted by baseballs.
“Block the plate, kid. If nothing else, remember that blocking the plate is the bottom line of your job. You don’t let the ball get by you, and you don’t let a runner cross the plate without a rumble. Whoever or whatever tries to get across, you use... that body of yours to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
By now Vinnie and I had established a relationship where we could be frank with each other without jeopardizing our friendship.
“Now see, that doesn’t make any sense to me at all. All my life I’ve been taught to get out of the way of speeding hard things that might kill me, and you think I’m going to start doing the whole opposite thing now?”
He whistled the ball off my chest protector. “Yes I do,” he said.
The balls bounced off my shin pads—god, I learned to love those shin pads—off my mask, off my unprotected shoulders, and occasionally off my glove. Against my better judgment I learned to aim my body at the ball when I saw it coming, to the point where better than fifty percent of the balls didn’t get by. I got a lot better at it when I realized it was much more exhausting to chase the ball to the backstop every time than to just let it thunk into me.
“Fine, you’re ready,” Vinnie said when his arm started to tire and yet another of my throws landed softly in the turf six feet short of the mound.
“That’s it?” I asked, gratefully stripping the mask from my baking face. “You going to throw me batting practice now? I can’t hit, either, you know.”
“Did you bat earlier?”
“Three pitches. Five counting the two that hit me. I thought maybe you’d show me more.”
He looked at me as if I’d just asked him to cook me dinner. “What are you,
? You had to learn to catch so you didn’t hold up the game. Hitting? Just take your cuts and get the hell outta the way.”
“Sounds good to me, Coach,” I said as I settled my face in under the Gatorade cooler that sat on the bench. I opened my mouth and the spigot and let it pour in. Vinnie started walking back to the big field to carry forth the lie that I was ready to play ball.
The real pitcher, even though he was just a kid, threw a lot harder than Vinnie did. His name was Smoke. I don’t imagine that was his real name, but we never got deep enough into conversation to talk about it. Mostly we talked in signs.
I wiggled my fingers between my legs. One down for fastball, two for curve. First pitch I signaled number two. He threw a fastball so hard it took my glove off and carried it back to the umpire.
I signaled two again. Fastball. I couldn’t even catch up with it. Bounced off my shin pads.
I signaled two again.
“Time out,” Smoke called. Play was halted, and he waved me to the mound for a conference. “What the hell are you doing with your fingers down there?”
“I’m calling the game. Those are the signs, one finger for fastball, two for curve.”
“I got a sign for you,” he said, and gave me one. One finger, up. Rotating. “You’re a friggin’ backstop, kid. Don’t tell me what to throw.”
I slunk back to my station, the one cool thing about catching ripped away from me. There was nothing left but the sweat and facelessness the padding gave me, and all that work. Next to pitcher, catcher is the only one who works all the time. Catch the ball, throw the ball, block the ball, throw the ball. Even on foul balls I had to jump up, throw the mask, search the sky for the ball. Invariably, I was the last one to pick up on it, and everyone would be back in position waiting for me while I wandered around clueless like Robert De Niro near the end of
Bang the Drum Slowly
I was exhausted by the second inning. Fortunately, nobody could hit Smoke, so there weren’t many base runners to worry about. Just a couple of guys he hit on purpose. Both of them stole second, then third, one of my throws to second being so lame that Smoke caught it.
My glove hand was so pink and raw and swollen from Smoke’s perfectly placed fastballs that I couldn’t have missed if I wanted to.
In the third inning I got to hit. No, that’s a lie. In the third inning, I got to stand in the box with a bat on my shoulder. Fastball.
! in the glove. Steee-rike one. Fastball. Steee-rike two. I dug in. I was going to swing at this thing at least once. I couldn’t react quickly enough, so I had to anticipate, not wait for the ball. He wound up, came over the top, and as soon as he let go of the ball, I started my swing.
I swung as ferociously as I could, throwing myself so wildly off balance and ahead of the ball that I watched from the ground as the pitch floated about a foot outside. “Well, what do you know?” I thought, suspended in another one of life’s fabulous, cruel slo-mo moments. “A curve ball. Imagine that.”
The opposing team hooted me. I looked to my own side of the field to see my team with all their heads down as they took the field, trying not to laugh or get angry. That was embarrassing.
The thing I couldn’t seem to remember was that, with all the equipment on, I was fairly protected from a pitch bouncing up out of the dirt. Out of reflex, I kept turning my face away as I stabbed at it with the glove.
“Cut that out,” I kept hearing Vinnie scream. “Keep your eye on the ball.”
I heard him and I heard him and I heard him, but I just could not get my body to obey. In the fourth inning I paid. Smoke put a real hard one in the dirt, bouncing it right on the plate so that it ricocheted up like a super ball. I closed my eyes and turned my face halfway away as I tried to spear it, but it came up and blasted me.
I don’t know what it sounded like outside my own head, but inside, when the hardball hit my jaw, it didn’t sound any different from when the bat hits the ball. It blew me over backward, and I flopped around, mask and glove flying off in opposite directions.
I heard laughs. Not everyone, but quite a few. Problem was, I got right up. I was rubbing and rubbing at the spot, moving my jaw all around to test it. So since I wasn’t dead, it was funny.
Coach called from the sidelines, “You all right, kid?”
I nodded. He didn’t care. I didn’t care.
But the batter and the umpire came up to me, looked closely at my jaw. Their eyes were big and deep, like real human eyes. They both asked if I was all right, and they meant it. Because they had been close, and they had heard it.
Why do people have to hear the bone smash before they can care?
I went back to work and did all right. I only had a headache. The heat and the squatting and the catching and catching and catching every pitch was beating me down. I drank all the Gatorade they’d allow me between innings. There was always a line at the cooler. When it was my turn, I took my cup to the back of the line and drank while I waited for more. I heard guys around me talking baseball, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t know baseball. And I couldn’t because I couldn’t talk.
There was, unfortunately, a rally. Just as I had gotten all my gear back on, I had to strip it off again. I put on my helmet and went to the plate.
The first pitch was coming right at me. I bailed out of the batter’s box. The ball bailed the other way. Steee-rike.
The second pitch was coming right at me. I waited a bit longer this time, then fell backward. Like a bowling ball spinning across the lane, the ball went the other way again. Steee-rike two.
I could not, and never would, not if I faced ten thousand of them a day, fathom the curve ball. All I could hope was to outguess it.
The next pitch came my way, but I wasn’t going anywhere. Even when I realized it had a lot more on it than the previous two. It was going to break, it was going to break. I was not going to look foolish again, dammit. Break, ball.
Of course, it never broke. That’s what setting up the batter is all about. As a catcher I was supposed to understand that.
They say that the hardest thing to do in all of sports is to hit a baseball. I say the hardest thing to do is to get out of the way of one after guessing wrong.
The ball caromed off my helmet, back out all the way to the shortstop. Better than if I’d hit it with the bat.
Mostly I was stunned, not hurt. I trotted to first, and was pretty pleased to be there. The first baseman slapped my butt, and I felt a little bit a part of it all.
The next batter hit a rocket into the left centerfield gap. The runner scored from third. The man on second motored all the way around and scored easily.
For twenty seconds or whatever it took, I put more effort into running than I’d ever put into something physical before. The other runners were in, and there was me. I desperately wanted not to kill the rally, but I kept running and running and second base just wouldn’t come any closer. I saw the left fielder wheel and throw toward second. I chugged, feeling all the parts of my body shaking, my hat blowing off. I felt something behind me, the hitter, who was about to run up my back until he realized he had to go back.
I flopped, threw myself at the bag, kicked up a mushroom cloud of dirt as I slid facefirst. It was a mess, but I was there.
“You’re out,” the umpire said matter-of-factly. I was shocked, but apparently I was out by enough distance that the fielders were already trotting off the field when the ump raised his thumb.
It took a long time to get myself out of the dirt. It turned instantly to mud on my face, neck and arms, mixed with the sweat. Guys ran off the field, guys walked or ran on. I trudged slowly, trying to tuck in my shirt as I went, trying to find my hat. When I eventually reached the bench, the coach was strapping on the catcher’s gear.
“You want to call it a day, son?” It was not unkind, the way he said it. But it didn’t seem to come easy either.
“I guess so,” I said.
So I got my wish. The vision of sitting on the bench, kicked back, scratching, spitting, yelling “Hummm baby,” and “No batter up there,” and sipping Gatorade without waiting in line and chewing on sunflower seeds—it was mine now.
It wasn’t ten tons of fun, but it was peaceful and relaxing. I watched the final few innings, but I could not say what went on, who won, if Smoke got his no-hitter. What I could say is that the field had a strong smell of chamomile, coming from a big patch in right field, and that a total of twelve puffy clouds lazed across the front of the sun, and that two of them looked like my old fat dog Sheba, and one looked like a convertible Mustang with an infant at the wheel.
As I filed off the field, thinking this was not the worst thing that could happen to a guy, the coach—now he was the one looking wiped out from catching—called in my direction. But he was talking to Vinnie.
“Vin, put a splint on that kid with the finger. I want him back here tomorrow.”
Got transferred to a more gentlemanly sport today, baseball. No contact. Good, right? Couple of bruises anyway, because, well, I’m gifted at that. Some regular hit-in-the-coconut injuries, and some others that I can’t talk about in mixed company. You’d have to be a catcher to understand.
The bonk on the head didn’t hurt much, so don’t worry. You weren’t, were you? Worrying? Oh, good.
Did I mention that I played baseball today? A more gentlemanly sport than football, I think.
My head doesn’t hurt at all. I did get bonked, though.
How’s the wife and kids?
So I hope I can count on your support in November.
I played soccer all day today. I scored many goals. Sheba was there too.