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Behind the Mask MAG
The sun beats down and I turn my head from the blinding light. A cloudless day promises another hot one. I slowly walk onto the field, enjoying the feel of the gravel under my cleats. I stop suddenly and inhale. The sweet aroma of just-mowed grass swirls in my head as I close my eyes with a contented sigh. Instantly a familiar, uncontrollable emotion bubbles up in my chest and I force it down. Not yet, I tell myself, not yet. But soon. I turn back to the bench to join my team.
“All in, girls!”
In the huddle, we stand side by side, arms in the center, concentrating on what’s to come. I look at my teammates’ faces, reading the same determination and excitement in their eyes that I know is in mine. I shift slightly in eagerness, trying not to bump into anyone with my kneepads. The weight of the protective equipment doesn’t bother me anymore. I grin, remembering the first time I put it on.
“Break.” The cheer goes up as the huddle dissolves. I turn toward home plate, my helmet clasped in one hand, my glove in the other. Another wave of emotion crashes over me, and this time I allow it to consume me.
I set the helmet on my head but wait to pull it over my face. Using my foot to shift the loose dirt behind the plate, I notice her walking toward me with a metallic weapon in her hand. I glance to the sky, thinking, This one’s for you, Grandpa. I grasp the mask and pull it over my face. It’s time.
I sink into a crouch. As she approaches the plate, I assess her, noticing the quick swing of the bat, her grip, and the turning of her hips. A strong hitter, I think.
As she steps into her place, my eyes wander across the field. I take note of each fielder and smile, realizing everyone is where they need to be. My eyes settle on the pitcher and I wait for the go-ahead. Then I make my first call: down the middle.
The pitcher starts her windup, and my eyes narrow on the ball. For some reason, sound becomes magnified. The pitcher releases the ball; it flies past the batter and into my glove.
I quickly chuck the ball back, not wanting to break the pitcher’s rhythm. The batter looks unfazed. All right, I think, let’s see if you’ll chase an outside pitch. I give the sign and sure enough, it comes just outside the plate. Somehow, the bat gets around in time to clip it, and it shoots foul down the right field line.
One more. I smile as I give the sign. The pitcher releases the ball, and just as I planned, the batter swings too early. The ball slowly lofts into my hand and the ump calls her out. I snicker to myself at how fun change-ups are.
I acknowledge the next batter. I notice that she is a poor hitter and remind myself never to give a poor hitter a slow pitch. The pitcher deals with her quickly – three fast balls right down the middle. Two down.
The next batter approaches and I try a rise ball. That was a mistake. I watch in horror as the bat solidly smacks the ball deep into the outfield. My mask is off in a flash as I step forward, then I laugh with relief as the right fielder catches the ball and starts to head in. One inning down.
Beads of sweat drip from my face as I try to calm down. It’s now the seventh inning, and we’re up by one run. There’s one out, and a girl is on first. The past few innings were out of control with many runs and lead changes. I settle myself behind the plate, watching the girl on first carefully. I decide she is too slow to make the steal attempt and turn my attention to the batter.
The low ball zooms in and the bat makes contact. The ball shoots toward third, kicking up dirt as is goes. The third baseman fields it cleanly and whips it to second. “Out!” calls the ump as the ball is launched to first. The hitter beats it there by half a step. “Safe!”
“Shoot,” I mumble. Fine, just one more out. I return to my spot behind the plate as the pitcher waits for my call. Looking toward first, I study the runner’s body language and the look on her face. She’s running, I’m sure of it. I am also sure that she is very fast.
The next batter steps up to the plate. I’m shocked by the sight of her. Her muscles bulge as she whips the bat around. No way she’s 16, I think. I know I can’t delay any longer, so I make the risky call: high and outside, the pitch out.
Excitement floods my very soul. Now I hear nothing but a faint buzzing. And as everyone looks at the pitcher, she looks at me. She starts the pitch. “She’s going!” Without thinking, I hop up and turn sideways, one foot back, trying to find a good grip. The pitch is perfect, high and outside, so I catch it standing. In a flash, the ball is in my right hand and I push off hard from my back foot. I hurl the ball as hard as I can, not stopping to flip my helmet off. The girl is quick, but the throw is quicker. The second baseman catches the ball and makes the tag, just in time. I let out a quick cheer, allow myself a second of pride, then race off to congratulate the fielder on a nice play. The game is ours.
Later, as I shove my stuff into my bag, I hear parents talking to the coach. “That was a close one. Don’t scare us like that again.” As I straighten up and walk away, I smile.