Behind the Mask

January 25, 2008
By
The sun’s rays beat down upon me as I turn my head from the blinding light. A cloudless day promises another hot one. I walk onto the field slowly, enjoying the feel of the gravel crunching beneath my cleats. I pass the bench without a glance in its direction and continue walking slowly but steadily onto the outfield grass. Carefully avoiding the holes in the ground, I let my mind wander. I stop suddenly and inhale. The sweet aroma of freshly mowed grass swirls inside my head as I close my eyes with a contented sigh. Instantly the familiar, uncontrollable emotion bubbles up inside my chest and I force it back down. Not yet, I tell myself, not yet. But soon. With this promise fresh in my head, turn back to the bench to join my team.

“All in girls!”

I accompany my team in the enclosed huddle. We stand side by side, arms in the center, concentrating on what’s to come. I look at girl’s face, reading the same determination and excitement in their eyes that I know is in my own. 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 in remembrance of the first time I put them on. “Break.” The cheer goes up and the huddle breaks. I turn slowly toward home plate and inch my way forward. My helmet is clasped in one hand, my smooth leather glove in the other. Another wave of emotion crashed over me, and this time I allow it to consume me. I gently 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 give one last glance to the sky, thinking “This one’s for you, grandpa.” My hand grasps the facemask and pulls it over my face. It’s time.

I slowly sink into a crouch. I watch as she walks toward the plate and assess my competition. I notice the quick swing of the bat, her grip on the weapon, and the turning of her hips. A strong hitter, I tell myself. As she steps into her place, my eyes wander across the field for the last time. I take note of where each fielder is and smile because everyone is where they need to be. My eyes settle on the pitcher and wait for the go ahead. When I receive it, I make my first call. I decide to have the first one down the middle. The pitcher starts her windup, and my eyes narrow on the ball. For some reason, sound becomes magnified, and I can hear everything. The pitcher releases the ball and I watch as if flies past the batter and into my glove. “Strike one.” I quickly chuck the ball back to the pitcher, not wanting to break any rhythm she may have. The batter looks unfazed. All right, I think to myself, lets see if you’ll chase an outside pitch. I give the sign and sure enough, it comes just outside of the plate. Somehow, the bat gets around in time to clip the ball, and it shoots foul down the right field line. One more, I think. I smile as I give the sign. The pitcher releases the ball, and just as I had planned, the batter swings too early. The ball slowly lofts into my hand as the ump calls her out. I snicker to myself at how fun change ups are. I force myself to acknowledge the next batter. I notice she is a poor hitter, and I remind myself never to give a poor hitter a slow pitch. The pitcher deals with her quickly, with three fast balls right down the middle. Two down. The next batter approaches and I try a rise ball. That was a mistake. I can only watch in horror as the bat solidly smacks the ball deep into the outfield. My mask is off in al flash and I step forward. I laugh weakly in relief as the right fielder catches the ball and starts to head in. One inning down, I think.

Beads of sweat drip down my face as I try to calm down. It’s the seventh inning, we’re up by one, there is one out, and a girl is standing on first base after hitting a single. The past few innings had been out of control with many runs and lead changes. I settle myself behind the plate, watching the girls on first carefully. I decide she is to slow to make the attempt and turn my attention to the batter. The low ball comes zooming in and the bat makes contact with it. The ball shots toward third base, knocking up dirt as is goes. The third baseman fields it cleanly and whips it to second base. “Out!” calls the ump as the ball is then launched to first base. The hitter beats it there by half a step. “Safe!” “Shoot,” mumble to myself. Fine, just one more out.

I return to my comfortable spot behind the plate as the pitcher waits for my call. I study her body language and interpreting the look on her face. She’s running, I’m sure of it. I am also sure that she is very fast. The batter steps up to the plate. I’m shocked by the sight of her. Her muscles bulge out as she whips the bat around. No way she’s sixteen, I think to myself. I know I can’t delay any longer, so I make the risky call. High and outside, the pitch out. Excitement floods into my very soul. Now, instead of the flood of noise, I hear nothing but a faint buzzing. And as everyone looks at the pitcher, the pitcher is looking at me. She starts the pitch. “She’s going!” Without thinking about it, I hop up and turn sideways, one foot farther back, trying to find a good grip. The pitch was perfect, high and outside, so that I caught it as I stood. 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 brief second of pride, then race off to congratulate the fielder on a nice play. The game is ours.

Later, as I shoved my stuff into my overly packed bag, I hear some 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. I smile because I know that you have to play someone to be someone, and that to be the best, you got to beat the best.





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