Alone in the company of 45,000 screaming people, a man stands on a hill. The balmy night has brought a sweat to his brow that has soaked his wool cap, making it smell like a wet dog. The cowhide enveloping his right hand has turned his fingertips into ghastly white prunes and his left hand has become slippery from perspiration. Most of the feeling is gone from his left arm and the side of his left foot is raw from the strip of hard rubber atop this hill.
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The enemy is all around him now; there is one to the left, one to the right, and yet another behind him. This is what his years of training have taught him to avoid. This is also what they have taught him to overcome. Two men have faced him since he found himself in this situation, and two men have walked away in shame. Just one more, one more and he will be free.
The first man who dared to stare him in the eye and walk away in defeat was a small, wiry man who crouched like some kind of mistreated feral beast, poised for a bite to the jugular. He wielded his bat high above his head, ready to cut a swath through anything in its path. As the pitcher fired his weapon, the small man swung his wooden claymore, hitting nothing but air. The gravity of the effort distended the man’s diminutive frame and, for a second, it appeared that he might spiral to the ground. The ritual repeated itself twice and the tiny man returned to the bench with his head hung low.
The next batter to step up did so in a flamboyant fashion, exciting onlookers and enraging the man on the hill. The pitcher had little tolerance for dandies and decided to do away with the whelp as quickly as he could. The pitcher kicked and hurled a dancing pearl toward his adversary. The flashy batsman swung and made contact. The sphere flew high into the air, but what the arc had in height, it lacked in distance. Infielders and outfielders quickly gathered under the white speck in the night sky, like ravening wolves eager for fresh meat. As it fell to earth, the ball was snatched from the air with great zeal and the batter’s trot up the first base line swerved toward the dugout.
Now, another stands in the batter’s box. This new hitter’s reputation for might has preceded him. His bulky mass moves effortlessly; muscles flowing like molten steel under his bronze skin. His meaty hands strangle the bat and the pitcher imagines sawdust leaking from between the man’s fingers. The pitcher turns his back to the plate and sees the infielders have backed up to the grass and the outfielders are almost in the stands. A single drop of sweat runs down the pitcher’s nose, reminding him that this one will not be easy.
He turns his body toward first base, his head toward the plate. His eyes fix on the catcher’s crotch, where he is signaling for a split-finger fastball, low and away. No, that’s not right, the pitcher thinks and he begins to shake his head. Before he can signal his disagreement, he stops himself. He is thinking, and thinking is nothing but trouble for a baseball player. Clear the mind; throw the ball.
He stands straight, makes a casual glance at the first base runner, and turns his head back to the catcher’s mitt. His eyes become like a sniper’s scope and lock on the thick leather pad sixty-one feet away. He puts his left hand around the ball, the first two fingers straddling the crimson stitching. Keeping his throwing hand obscured with his glove, both hands drop ever so slightly below the buckle of his belt. Low and away, low and away.
His lungs fill with the hot air of summer. His right leg kicks high and force is exerted on the rubber with his left. There is a whooshing sound as his arm slices the air. Time slows and the ball slips from his fingertips, floating to its target with the perfect amount of backspin. His left leg comes to rest in front of him and he watches the ball. Low and away, low and away.
The batter raises his left foot and steps into the pitch. He twists, hips before hands, in that way that power hitters do. The bat blurs as it reaches its apex across the plate. The ball swerves away from the impending collision and comes to a stop in the safety of the catcher’s mitt, four inches above the earth. Strike one!
The ball arcs its way back to the pitcher and the dance begins again. This time, the catcher calls for a slider, high and outside. If thrown properly, this will cause the ball to make its way to the plate on the far side of the strike zone, and dart over the plate at the last second. Now, if he can just throw it…
The problem with sliders this late in the game is that they hurt like hell. Pitching coaches are often reluctant to teach the slider to young players, due to the damage it can cause to the connective tissues in the forearm. That kind of injury can put you on the disabled list for at least a month, or it could end your career.
The pitcher shakes the horrible thoughts from his mind. This is not the time for thinking at all, especially not of those kinds of things. Clear the mind.
Hiding the ball in his glove, the pitcher places his thumb along the stitches and grasps it with his index and middle fingers. He gives the obligatory look to the runners; they’re not going anywhere. He kicks and fires.
The ball flies as it is intended to, but something is wrong. The batter is well seasoned and can see the rotation of the stitches; he knows what’s coming. A shock of horror runs through the pitcher’s mind and his heart sinks to depths it can only reach in late-inning failure as a crack like a gunshot rings through the stadium. His eyes play the cruelest of tricks as, for an instant, he sees the ball sailing over his head. Wait, not over his head, but back. The batter’s swing was a fraction of an inch too low and the ball achieves the altitude to land in the upper deck behind home plate. Strike two!
The sound of that foul tip puts the fear into the pitcher. Self-doubt surfaces and breaks his Zen-like state. That last pitch was too close. If the batter had only raised his bat a hair, then…no, don’t think about it.
The catcher senses the pitcher’s internal struggle and signals for a fastball right down the pipe. The pitcher assumes the pre-pitch position for what he hopes will be the final time of the evening. This time, he doesn’t even bother with checking the runners. They were there a second ago, and he’s pretty sure they’re still there. No time or energy for the pageantry, just throw the ball.
The leg kick and the push off of the rubber. His arm flies over his head like David’s slingshot, sending a well-aimed projectile at Goliath. A grunt escapes his lips as the ball flies from his hand.
The ball sails overhead and into the night sky, becoming one with the constellations. Since there is no point in looking for the ball, the pitcher allows his eyes to drop. They fall upon a lone figure, running hell-bent for the outfield wall and looking over his shoulder to the heavens.
Spiked feet touch the dirt of the warning track and, without turning his eyes from the sky; the running man leaps up the wall. His right hand grabs the top of the wall and his leather-clad left hand goes over it. A small white comet flashes as it clears the dark green wall.
As the outfielder succumbs to gravity and returns to the playing field, the pitcher hears a roar from the stands. He sees his teammate toss the leather-covered pearl into the crowd in celebration; the game is over.
The pitcher stifles the smile of relief before it can spread across his tired face. Maintain composure, he thinks to himself; pretend that you planned this dramatic outcome. He knows that, should the lens of the sporting press catch a whiff of weakness, it will be all over the papers by dawn. He meets his catcher halfway to home plate and they shake hands. As he enters the clubhouse, he is thankful for the few days of rest he has earned tonight, but his mind begins to wonder about his next game, which is 5 days away.
"It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything."