Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Daylight Fades

There was magic in the feel of the wood in his hands, 33 ounces of perfection from the barrel to the knob. He smiled as he gripped the bat in both hands, feeling the tackiness of the pine tar sucking at his batting gloves. A few quick practice swings, and he could feel the catch in his right shoulder, a now constant reminder of thousands of previous swings, a ledger of games and times at bat that stretched back more than 30 years.

He could hear his name now, echoing from the speakers scattered around the ballpark. There was a smattering of applause, an uneven sound so unlike the roar of frenzied crowds that had once chanted his name. Late afternoon shadows covered home plate as he stepped into the batters box. The catcher gave him a nod as he dug into the soft dirt with his right foot and raised his bat above his right shoulder. With a tilt of his head, he eyed the pitcher standing atop the mound, bathed in the fading light of the last day of the season. His bat twitched as he breathed deeply of the cool autumn air.

This was so familiar, this ritual.

“C’mon, Jimmy! Take it for a ride,” his father shouted, and he was seven years old again, his batting helmet sliding up and down on his head as he waited for the pitch from a kid who seemed to be twice his size. It was his first organized baseball game, his first time at bat, and that feeling in the pit of his stomach - what was it? Nausea? Butterflies?

He saw the pitch all the way in, that was the thing that amazed him. He swung, and he knew (knew!) he would hit it. With a ping, the baseball jumped off his aluminum Little League bat (the red one with the black rubber grip), and he was running, as fast as he could, toward first base. Safe! And as he turned around, he could see his father and mother standing in the bleachers, shouting his name and clapping.

“Strike!” called the umpire, his right hand firing out to the side for emphasis. He hadn’t seen that one well at all, the collision of shadows and sunlight masking the speed and slight movement of the fastball. Now that was unfamiliar; doubt. Where once the baseball had seemed as fat as a basketball coming toward him, more and more it seemed to disappear, as if taunting him.

He stepped out of the batters box, pounded the bat on the ground and then swung, hard. His bad shoulder barked at him, and he grimaced. The pain, he hoped, would help him focus as he stepped back in. He smiled grimly at the pitcher, crouching in his stance.

“Hey rookie! Don’t smile at the pitcher,” the manager yelled, the words piercing the cloud of tobacco juice spewing from his mouth. Why not, he wondered to himself. The answer came as a fastball aimed just behind his head, sending him sprawling in the dirt.

So many rules to learn in rookie league ball; so many of them unwritten. He didn’t know yet what he didn’t know, but there was one thing he could guarantee: he would hit. A lot.

Now the pitcher was smiling, as he stepped back to the plate, his white jersey now striped with dirt from the brushback. His bat quivered over his shoulder, barely able to contain his anticipation, his raw energy as he awaited the pitch. Fastball, dancing over the inside of the plate.

Crack! and the baseball arced high and was over the right field wall before he could drop the bat and run. “Not bad, kid,” the manager said as he trotted back to the dugout. He felt an afterglow of pure joy as his new teammates slapped him on the back, a feeling he would know again and again across the years.

“Strike!” His swing, a thing of beauty, compact, powerful, was now a beat or two slow and came up empty as the ball popped the catcher’s mitt. He cursed himself, silently. He’d seen the ball well that time, but missed badly on the slider, which had been so easy for him to hit for so long. Stepping out of the box again, he pulled off his batting helmet and wiped the sweat from his brow with a forearm. He paused for a moment, squeezing the bat in his hands. He still felt the magic, but now there was something else there. Was it fear?

He carried this new feeling, along with his bat, back into the box. One last chance.

“We did it Jimmy!” He heard his teammate Andre’s voice, but couldn’t see him with the champagne stinging his eyes. “Champions, baby!” And he had gripped the trophy like it was a life raft. Was he floating? All he could feel, there in the midst of the clubhouse celebration, was the joy, and a feeling of certainty that all this would last forever.

And now he was swinging, the certainty gone, chased away by fear, and the realization that he was overmatched by this young pitcher. His shoulder screamed with pain, and he cried out as the ball thumped into the catcher’s mitt again.

“Strike three,” called the umpire, needlessly. He stood, almost in shock, in the batter’s box, and all those cherished moments, all those triumphs came rushing back, an athlete’s life flashing before his eyes. He looked down at his bat again, and he knew the magic was gone.

He walked back to the dugout, and sat quietly for a long time, his eyes staring but seeing nothing.

It was over.


Postscript: This was another exercise in Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.


Alice Audrey said...

I get the feeling it's been over for a while now.

Great use of three words. I hope you'll check out my attempt.

Sheilagh Lee said...

Aw how sad. Great story the descriptions made it very real.