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A Portrait of the Pitcher as a Young Man MAG
Grass and red pasty gunk that somehow passes for regulation “dirt.” Diesel and garbage. A feast for the senses. Who decided to put a field here in the armpit of New York City? A chain-link backstop, torn and rusty, an accident and a tetanus shot waiting to happen. “Field 52” on a crooked green plate just above the ump’s head. Regal signage for a regal pastime.
They say that, don’t they? Baseball is the sport of kings? I look quite kingly out here, I believe. I walk out slowly for effect. No need to rush when you can scare the other team with apparent lethargy and ambivalence and a magnificent vocabulary. A sizzling fastball thrown by a walking thesaurus. What do you say to that, Mr. Massive Cleanup Hitter?
Reality check: He says, “Watch while I hit that nerdy fastball a massive four hundred feet into the right center gap.” I shouldn’t have put that one anywhere near the plate. But that was so last inning. If I spent all my time regretting the pitches I’d hung in the wheelhouses of bodybuilding first basemen, this wouldn’t be much fun. I prefer to view it in a more positive light: I’ve set the bar so low against him that even a standup triple would look good the next time around.
The first hitter. An excellent opportunity to push the boundaries of human strength. Put some hiss on the ball. My fingertips drag on the seams just long enough; the ball nips me playfully and slices down and away. Deadly. I hope that looked half as impressive from the sidelines as it did from here. I do it for the fans, really. Mostly for the blonde standing at the end of the fence, but in principle for all of them. Whose sister is she, anyway? Irrelevant, I suppose. Irrelevant if I can’t sit this chubster down!
A breeze rustles my scarlet sleeves, bringing with it a truly impressive stench. Seriously, who decided to build a field here? A dump on one side and an asylum on the other. The scent of decomposing banana peels in left field and one or two legitimately deranged fans in right. Speaking of fans, we have quite the turnout today. Even better, most of them appear to be family and friends of the players and not mental patients wandering the island on their day out. The ump says 3-1. I must admit I love it when a man I’ve never met shakes the backstop and screams for me to throw the knuckleball. The coaches always wind up shooing them off, but I really don’t mind. Takes insane fanaticism to a new, literal level. I don’t throw a knuckler though. Sorry to disappoint the schizophrenics.
My fastball misses by a hair. Or so says the ump. I personally thought it was an excellent pitch. Painting the black, they call it. Throwing a two-seam right on the outside corner. Or was it right off the outside corner? The ambiguity is nice, but I prefer when the interpretation goes my way. I’ll give Blue a little bit of stare for that one. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. That should be enough. He’s actually doing an excellent job. He’s been giving me a generous amount of vertical leeway in the zone. Just figured I would play the tough guy.
Unfortunately, this tough guy just walked the leadoff hitter, which is not a good sign. The statistics are tragic! Walk the leadoff man, and he scores 37.8 percent of the time. Yes, Coach, I understand: Just throw strikes. What helpful instructions for a pitcher. As if I were up here this whole time not trying to throw strikes! Well, people have recovered from much worse than leadoff walks. In the grand scheme of problems, this ranks somewhere between a blown fuse on a strand of Christmas lights and a dog eating a single chocolate chip. Earns a healthy “whatever.”
I settle myself on the mound. This is more difficult than it sounds. Actually something of a balancing act. The opposing pitcher has dug a massive trench in front of the rubber, making it impossible to comfortably arrange my cleats in any position conducive to the smooth execution of my delivery. I consider it sabotage. He probably blames it on me. This is sacred ground! I wouldn’t dream of desecrating it. What a tragedy.
From the stretch I navigate the dark chasm beneath my feet. Drop two splendid heaters on the outside half. Strike one. Strike two. Now this is the place to be. There’s no feeling like an 0-2 count as a pitcher. The world is my oyster. Unfortunately, while I was throwing those two lovely strikes and marveling at the depth of the Grand Canyon here, that leadoff walk stole second base. Classy move, sir – running when my back is turned. He’s no agile gentleman either. Yes, Coach. I really should have kept an eye on him. But I only have two eyes. One on the plate, one on the crowd. Really, whose sister could that be?
0-2, what shall we do? The catcher flashes two fingers. Ah yes, the deuce. I’ve been waiting for this moment for five long years. I remember my first curveball. Don’t we all? The curveball was Little League’s forbidden fruit, every coach’s worst nightmare and every young pitcher’s greatest aspiration. Hitters could never touch it, and there was a certain evil stigma surrounding it – medical journals and sports magazines were loaded with horrible stories about child ballplayers throwing curveballs and damaging their arms for life – and thus a corresponding level of bad-assery attributed to the dominant few who mastered its vile secrets at a young age.
A genuine flashback to freshman fall ball. Sam behind the plate says to throw the bender. A look of two-strike terror appears in the batter’s eyes. Not that I can actually see the batter’s eyes, but allow the flashback a bit of literary embellishment. Unfortunately, mi padre, el coach, wants all fastballs. Not this time, Pop. Consider this my first act of adolescent rebellion! I’m throwing the g-ddamn curve!
I stare down the batter and nod. Sam grins his devious grin. Slow windup. Light release and snap. Out of my hand, the ball hisses toward the batter’s head. He ducks. What an amateur! It hisses some more and begins to bend. Pops the glove right on the inside corner, strike three. Eternal embarrassment for him; eternal glory for me.
In the dugout, I’m a deity. Sam offers me a Gatorade – the first spoils of victory. But Father won’t meet my eye. “The Gateway Pitch,” he calls it. “Before you know it you’ll be throwing cutters and sliders and not thinking anything of it.” And what happens after that? “You tear something, and in the blink of an eye, amputation.”
He’s a man of the past, my father – a remnant of a noble age long lost, a time when baseball was purer; pants were baggier, socks were higher, and pitches were straighter. But is he a font of old world wisdom or merely a bastion of inhibitive conservatism? Next inning I throw three more curveballs. Sorry, Pop. After the game I chug a low-calorie, high-octane Gatorade while he nurses a tall glass of nostalgia. Welcome to the new age.
And how I’ve flourished in this new age! Eight innings of two run baseball, going on nine. My mind returns. How long was I holding the set? I rear back and snap the deuce, a movement I’ve mastered. Falls off the metaphorical table. A swing and a miss – strike three. What a feeling. The catcher whips it back to the mound, and I stab at the ball with my glove, aggressively snapping my palm shut at the moment of contact. The artificially loud pop of ball on hardened leather. Audible style points, mostly for the blonde. “One out!” echoes around. Applause from the sidelines. Next victim, please.
Look at this guy. A twig of a human being. Not that I have any right to pass judgment. I myself am no Hercules. These forearms, pulsing as they are with the effort of snapping 150 pitches, are nothing noteworthy. Just a little pitcher’s veinage.
The sign comes. One finger. The catcher gives two barely perceptible slaps on the inside of his right thigh. Outside. Way outside. What is he thinking? Why am I not going after this 90-pound bag of bones? He can hardly lift his bat! I shake my head. New sign, por favor. One finger again. Two slightly more vigorous slaps on the inside of the right thigh. Oh, okay. Sure. I’ll just voluntarily throw a ball now. Great idea. Bottom of the ninth, the losing run on second base, and we’re just giving away pitches now? I don’t think so. Not in the championship. Oh s***. This is the championship. Why did I have to remember that? Now it’s on my mind.
Butterflies. Just one or two, only beginning to emerge from their cocoons and flutter around. Still something. I nod and breathe. My heart beats a tiny bit faster. Just a tiny bit. This is an unnatural disruption. A disturbance in the force.
I don’t do nervous. At least not on the ball field. I can’t. I’ve heard people say that it sharpens reflexes, that the adrenaline makes you stronger and faster. That’s great, and I’ll keep that in mind if I’m ever trying to jump out of the way of a speeding train or beat a lion in a foot race, but on the mound composure is key. Composure to such a degree that I appear bored; composure that I’ve mastered to the point where pitching is one of the most relaxing things I know how to do. It’s therapeutic. The world shuts down and leaves you in an isolated micro-competition where all that matters is strikes and balls and tailing two-seamers. And in the grand scheme of things, strikes and balls and tailing two-seamers mean pretty much nothing. For me, that’s relaxing. Plus, the second I get a nervous rush I start overthrowing and missing up and in. So I let go, employ some practical nihilism, and pitch with removed apathy.
Why am I getting worked up over something as trivial as my catcher calling for a ball outside? I ought to just go with the flow. Think less, feel less, pitch more. But it is the championship. Maybe I’ll throw one on the outside corner. Tail it away from the batter and leave it an inch off the plate. It could still be called a strike there. And I could say that I was trying to hit the catcher’s glove, a foot further outside. That’s what I’ll do. I’m going after this batter, whether the coach likes it or not.
I come to the set. Glance at the runner on second. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I begin the pitch. Slide step. My arm whips into the three-quarter slot. The seams catch on my calloused fingertips just long enough. I watch as the ball sizzles to my intended target, just off the plate. And I watch as the measly batter I just inaudibly berated lays a perfect push bunt down the first base line. S***. That’s why they wanted me to throw it way outside.
I sprint toward the sideline with semi-genuine urgency to cut the ball off. I go for the bare hand. The runner blows by me as I stoop down. He kicks up bits of clay as he passes. The ball is spinning rather exotically, and it takes me a second to pick it up cleanly. Plant my feet and whip it to first. Pulls the first baseman way to his right, but he miraculously manages to keep his foot on the bag. “Out!” Thank the benevolent baseball gods.
But this is no time for celebration. The runner advanced to third on the play. The bunter is lauded back in his dugout for his noble sacrifice. Bologna. I shoot a look of disdain at the opposing sideline to convey my disapproval. Sac bunts are for cowards. Stand in the box and hit, ye dastardly knaves!
The leadoff hitter, Mr. League MVP and Division I Commit, enters stage left. Hmm. Top of the order. A consequence of existing in my own easygoing pitcher’s universe is apparently total obliviousness to offensive strategy. The bunt was just a setup. Well, what is done cannot be undone, and our bullpen consists of two juniors with a smorgasbord of torn elbow ligaments and a sophomore whose fastball maxes out at 65 mph. Straight, flat meatballs. This is going to have to be my battle.
My adversary digs into the box aggressively. Six feet tall, at least. Forearms like tree trunks. Their bench is up, screaming like lunatics, shaking the fence. Inhale. Exhale. Beat those butterflies into submission. Set myself on the rubber. Going from the windup now. Can’t afford to botch a slide step. One forceful finger, one slap, right thigh. Roughly translates to “Please throw a fastball on the outside corner, and if you leave it hanging over the plate I swear your life as you know it will be over.” Delivery. Four-seam, dead straight, good velocity. Fouled off, into the fence next to first base. But he hit it frighteningly hard. “Straighten it out!” his bench shouts.
It’s not easy to hit an outside fastball. As a batter you have to keep your weight back and your hands inside, two of the most counterintuitive motions possible. So as a pitcher, that’s where I live: the outside corner, prime real estate, the Beverly Hills of pitch locations. I’m content to watch batters swing out of their shoes trying to pull that pitch all day. They usually ground it weakly or chop it. With that approach, even if they get good wood on it they will roll it right to my shortstop every single time. But not this guy. He’s a real hitter. As he so aptly demonstrated with that screaming line drive of a foul ball, he’s willing to sit back on the ball and crush it the other way. That makes my job a lot harder.
Blue throws me a new game ball. I tuck my glove under my arm and rub the fresh white hide in my hands to warm it up, or maybe to dry it off. I’m not actually sure why pitchers rub the ball, but I saw Randy Johnson do it on TV back when I was just a wee Little Leaguer, thought it looked cool, and have been doing it ever since.
While I rub I gaze toward my sideline as if I’m trying to clear my head. But I’m also stealing another look at my mysterious golden-haired inspiration. I’ve never seen her before. I’m trying to think whose family has never come to a game. Hmm. A quick, inconclusive run through the roster. Nothing helpful. Once the ball is adequately warm and dry, I waste a pitch. Try to get him to chase, but he must not be nervous enough. Kudos to him for laying off that one.
I pace around the mound, two lengthy circuits, to look like I’m settling myself, and to change up the pace of the game. Three fingers and a slap of the left thigh from the catcher. A very specific request, two-seam, down and in, tailing toward the batter. Windup and deliver, dropping my arm to the side and whipping it across my body. Well placed. My current arch nemesis rips it foul into the fence, nearly ending the life of his third-base coach. I’m impressed, though I can’t let it show. He’s clobbered two of my best pitches. Had his timing been a split second better, this game would be over.
I can’t risk another fastball. It’s time for some junk. Curve o’clock, baby! My catcher agrees. Windup. I make sure to stay on top of this one. What a disaster a hanger would be. It stays low, floats at waist level for a second and then drops into the dirt. Check swing. Did he go? No! He held up.
Both sidelines are going ballistic. No matter. That curve felt good.
I stroll briskly back to the rubber. Catcher calls for a fastball away. I shake him off. It’s bender time. Two fingers. I nod. The windup. The pitch. It feels perfect out of my hand. I snapped it just right, felt it catch on the side of my finger just enough. This one’s a “twelve-six,” the nastiest pitch in the game. No right to left slide, just sheer vertical drop. MLB quality. Headed right to the glove on the outside corner. Unfortunately, en route to its glorious destination, the ball is waylaid by a cylindrical piece of wood swinging at a disastrous velocity. He just sits on it, keeps his hands inside, and knocks it over the glove of my leaping first baseman. The runner scores. His teammates mob him after he crosses first base.
I walk off the field. Plenty of pats on the back. “Good effort” is the resounding sentiment. I look down the left field line. She’s gone. Diesel and garbage. Whatever.