We weren't quite yet old enough for a high school reunion, and not quite close enough to become Facebook friends or follow each other on Twitter. And yet, here we were. Jack had been one of my best ... [+]
It was the first time that I had ever hated the sound of my own name. "Tommy, you're up," the coach had yelled down from the entrance of the dugout. I was sitting on the end of the bench next to my best friend Alex, surrounded by a picnic of sunflower seeds, strawberry/grape Nerds, and my favorite flavor of Powerade, blue. We had been in the middle of our own game, playing tic-tac-toe on the dirt floor of the shelter using the edge of our cleats to draw a grid and place our letters. As usual, I was X's and Al was O's; I was up three games to one.
Now, with all eyes fixated in my direction, I was staring back into the faces of nine angry Boise Bee's. I heard an, "Awe man," followed by a, "Not him." None of them wanted to see me in the game. I slowly pushed myself up from my seat, casually dragging my foot over the temporary board, and headed towards the other side. The swarm parted to let me through, but their prickly glances stung, making it hard to swallow as the lump in my throat began to swell. What's going on? Why are they putting me in?
After grabbing my bat and squeezing into a helmet, Coach Willy dropped to one knee, squatting in front of me. He said, "Billy Rifkin's grandmother just died. His parents are taking him home."
I looked around. Through the fence I saw Billy walking towards the parking lot, his mom's arm draped over his shoulder, pulling him tight. Ahead of them, his dad was running towards their car.
Coach Willy grabbed me by the shoulders, gently shaking me, "Billy's gonna be fine. Okay?"
I nodded my head, the weight of the helmet exaggerating my understanding.
"There's two outs. We just need one hit." He pointed to second base. "Bring Jason home."
Again, I nodded in agreement.
This was the most important game of the season, and suddenly Coach seemed deflated, like an old tire. He forced his pursed lips into a smile. Patting me on top of the head, he said, "Just do your best son." Then he smacked me on the backside and sent me out into the world—on my own. Although rather supportive, his words did little to help me. Standing in the doorway of the dugout, I took a deep breath. The two hotdogs I had eaten before the game were twisting themselves into a knot at the bottom of my stomach. Billy's misfortune had begun to feel more like my bad luck. Maybe I need to go too. Had anyone even bothered to check on my Me Maw? I looked to my left, into the stands, and saw my parents waving. Guess not.
The night air was stagnant. I stepped out onto the grass, stumbling over the raised threshold, before finally catching myself. It was turning into a field of nightmares for this Iowa boy. The bright lights lit up the entire diamond; there was nowhere to hide. Alex cheered me on from his seat. Why couldn't they have put him in? Sure, he was the only player worse than me, but this was life and death we were talking about. Walking towards the plate, my pulse quickened, while my pace slowed. Does a cowboy run towards his own hanging? Off to my right was the concession stand, the scent of its finest delicacies wafting through the air: popcorn, cotton candy, and burgers on the grill. None of it smelled any good.
Arriving at the dish, the ground changed from grass to dirt; I heard the click–clack of my spikes digging into the earth. I took a few practice swings; the bat seemed heavier than usual.
"Are you ready number three?" asked the umpire.
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out, so I just got into the batter's box, gawking into the distance.
There he was, Anthony DeLuca, the Dragon's best pitcher, or "Big Tony" as he was affectionately called by the grownups. He was a mountain on top of a hill. Even at forty-six feet away, he towered over the field, his shadow reaching halfway to home. From his summit to his base, he was rock solid, shoulders wide, with an angular face that sloped into a jagged jaw line with a dark shade. Rumor had it that he had already started shaving and weighed over a hundred pounds. Triple digits! He wore his socks stretched high, just below the knees; his cap was pulled down low, forcing those big ears to stick out even more than usual. An enormous snot locker separated his two beady eyes, and he had a belly that hung down over his belt, stretching the fabric of his green jersey to its very limits. He was also the meanest kid that I had ever met. We quietly referred to him as Dumbo.
Dumbo smiled, leaning in, and looked at the catcher. He appeared confident; he actually seemed to be enjoying himself. How could this be? He, just like me, had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
I wrapped my hands around the handle so tight that my knuckles began to turn white. Straight and tall, my legs felt like they would give way to the eighty-two pounds that they were supporting. How can I possibly do this? If he hits me, I'll get to go to first base. My mind told my body to move closer to the plate, but my feet wouldn't listen. I was torn between the pain of being struck by a pitch and the pain of humiliation.
The pitcher began his wind up.
Finally, I inched forward, hugging the dish.
His body swung back towards home, releasing a white streak. The spinning ball, leaving his right hand, sped towards me. Closer and closer, it was aiming right for me. No, no, no. I pushed my body outward and hunched over, hoping, no praying, to avoid contact; at the last moment it curved back over the plate.
"Strike one!" yelled the umpire.
I backed out of the box, beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead, my entire body thumping to a racing pulse that clogged my ears. My heartbeat sounded like the footsteps of a giant. Struggling for air, I pulled out an inhaler from my back pocket. Two pumps. Whisp-whisp. "Ahhh."
DeLuca yelled from the mound, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Hey somebody call an ambulance for Wheez!" then turned and laughed with the rest of his team. He had nicknamed me over a year ago. A combination of asthma and the lack of a growth spurt, which my mom promised would be here any day now, had led to his realization that I was the eighth, missing dwarf, Wheezy.
Hearing boos and jeers rain down from the stands, I wanted to curl up in a ball right there on the field. Even some of my teammates began to heckle. I was never really sure if they liked me. But listening to their taunts, I realized it wasn't me they were aiming for; the pitcher was the one in their sights. I'd never heard anything like it before. Nobody ever stood up to this guy. He pushed everyone around, literally. Sometimes he forced them into lockers, or trashcans. Once he even shoved a guy into the girl's locker room. But they were actually on my side. On my team. It had always been him against me, and that never turned out well. Now, something was different. Was it the uniform? Was this really just a question of laundry?
Whether in a moment of weakness or strength— I'll never be sure— I joined in by yelling, "Where's your magic feather?" His eyes shot over in my direction; I dropped the bat, covering my mouth with both hands. Where did that come from? It was a veil reference to the movie Dumbo, but it got a good response from the dugout. For the first time all season, I felt a connection with the guys.
Behind me, a low chant began; it was Al's voice. It spread from one end to the other, turning into a chorus. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Coach kneeling in the entrance, the guys hanging on the fence, little hands and feet poking out of the chain-link. It was being repeated over and over. "Let's go Bee-ees, let's go!" clap-clap. It even got picked up by some of the parents. I felt my mouth stretch all the way to my ears; for the first time that night, I smiled. This thing was bigger than just me. I held up the bat and dug back into the batter's box, kicking up a cloud of dust. The smell of soil mixed with the odor of freshly cut grass. I kept the barrel high, and my chin tucked. It was time to slay this Dragon.