Authors: Kevin Richey
The sun is killing me today.
I pull my cap down over my eyes and try to concentrate on the game. I thumb the baseball against my palm, feeling its smooth surface and rough stitches, and glance across the field. White puffy clouds linger in the sky. The air is crisp, and the young grass so bright it almost hurts my eyes. My teammates are silent and stock-still in their positions, all faced toward me, their faces dark under the shadow of their caps. Everyone is watching, waiting for me to throw the ball.
I am the pitcher. I am the youngest varsity pitcher at my school in almost three decades. Everyone in Mayfield is expecting me to live up to that promise. It’s a small town, and people don’t have much else to do except root for the local high school team. And this is the last practice session before our first big game tomorrow.
It doesn’t help either that my dad is the coach. If I screw up, not only will my teammates be pissed, but I might not get a ride home. My dad’s not the just-do-your-best type. He wants me to win. He expects me to win. Because if I lose, there are plenty of people in town who will say he only let me on the team because I’m his son.
Little do they know, he’d never do that. He’d much rather be a good coach than a good father.
I turn to where he’s standing behind the batting cage, and his face is so tense with anxiety that it’s making me choke.
I can’t look at him. I close my eyes and inhale slowly, letting the clean air fill my chest. I can do this. It’s simple. I’ve trained for this. I begin the motion of the throw, and the instinct that comes from a thousand practice pitches in the backyard takes over.
My left foot lifts and I touch the tip of my toe to my right shin. This is to provide balance as I lean my shoulders back, my right arm extending behind my head. Then, as fast as I can, I throw my left foot forward and use the momentum to heave my torso forward into the throw. My elbow practically snaps as it bends to keep up as I whip my arm forward, uncocking my right forearm as I fall into my stride. I fling the ball out as if throwing a fireball that will burn me if I hold it a moment longer. It leaves my fingers in a blur and my hand is left pointing with two fingers and a thumb toward home plate.
The batter, Bobby Duko, doesn’t have time to blink before I hear the thud of the ball in the catcher’s mitt. Duko swings a half-second later as I step back onto the mound, regaining my balance.
It’s quiet. Everyone’s mind struggles to catch up to what just happened. I’ve just thrown the ball really, really fast. Faster than they’d ever seen a ball thrown before.
My dad is the first to react. “Throw the ball back, Johnson,” he shouts at the catcher. Everyone else is stunned by my pitch, but my dad’s been the one practicing with me in private. No matter how fast I pitch, according to him, it can always be faster. It can never be fast enough.
Aaron Johnson tosses the ball back to me. Duko knocks the end of his bat on the home plate, sending out a white cloud of dust. His teeth are gritted as he sets his shark eyes on me, and I know he’s going to aim to hit the ball right at me.
Duko’s had a grudge against me since last fall, when I outshone him as quarterback, even though I was on the JV team and he was on varsity. Word around school is that his parents even held him back in middle school so that he’d be bigger for the team, and it worked: he’s huge: 6’6”, built like a tank, and mean. But I was the star of last fall, and the talk of the town. And now I’ve beaten him again, taking the position he was hoping for.
I pitch again, and he swings at the air. He lets out a shout of rage as the ball is thrown back, and I ignore him. I breathe in, close my eyes, and strike him out. Before he can have another tantrum, my dad calls out for us to switch positions. Duko throws down his helmet on the ground like a toddler, and stomps onto the field as I walk toward the bench. He growls at me as we pass, but I’m not scared. He wouldn’t dare injure the star player the day before a big match, right in front of the coach. He’s dumb, but not crazy.
The rest of my teammates are buzzing around me as we near the bench, chuckling with anticipation for tomorrow’s game.
“Jackson High is going down,” grunts Johnson as pass him for the bench. I nod to him, but I’m still too tense to share his glee.
I can feel my dad’s eyes on me.
The other guys bat first. I look over at my dad, and see him take a roll of Tums from his pocket, and place one in his mouth. His stomach has been bothering him the last few months. My mom thinks it’s an ulcer.
I’m roused from my thoughts when it’s my turn up at the plate. I put on my helmet and pick up a bat. Bobby Duko is our alternate pitcher, and there’s a sneer on his face as he twists the ball in his fingers. He winds up and tosses his pitch.
I know he’s doing this with all his might, but as the ball comes at me, it seems slow in the air. I see it drift toward me and arrange my arms and shoulders. I feel the hot sun on the skin of my arms. The ball nears, and I wait for it to come within striking distance, my eyes locked on it, each individual stich crisp and bright in my vision. It eventually travels before me, and I swing my entire body. The bat connects with a crack, and the ball instantly speeds up into a blur as it rockets in an arch away from me and above the field.
I take a few steps forward toward first base, but my teammate on first hasn’t bothered to run. His eyes are following the streak of the ball in the air as it sails over center field. I come to a stop and notice that no one else is moving either. They’re all watching the ball. It has just reached the peak of its arc somewhere in outer center field, higher than a falcon, and keeps sailing beyond the rest of the field, beyond the fence and the boundaries of the schoolyard.
“Whoa,” I hear Johnson whisper behind me as he stands up and lifts the cage of his catcher’s mask.
Once the ball lands, no one makes any attempt to retrieve it. Instead they all turn to me with a quiet awe. Johnson is the first to break the silence behind me. He throws up both his arms, and lets out a cheer. He comes up to me and starts patting me on the back. Following his example, the rest of the team runs in from the field and rushes forward from the bench, crowding around me and hooting and laughing and cheering like we’ve just won the World Series.
Even Bobby Duko comes in from the pitcher’s mound, although he keeps his distance, kicking his foot into the dirt and not making eye contact with anyone. I think he’s just relieved everyone has forgotten that he couldn’t even swing at my pitch.
“All right,” my dad says after a few minutes, “that’s enough.” He’s still behind the batting cage, and comes forward now with an off-centered gait. He walks with a slight limp from an injury to his knee that ended his college career before it started. “Let’s call it a game,” he says. “Hit the showers and rest up for tomorrow.”
The team trots off the field, and as I pass with the guys, my dad calls to me.
“Just a minute, Sam.”
I pause and let the guys filter around me before walking over to him. He’s standing alone by home base, wearing a school jersey that is tucked under his gut and into his pants. He takes his cap off and wipes the sweat from his forehead. His scalp shines with perspiration; his buzz cut is doing him no favors as his hair thins with age. He places his cap back on, and waits until the field is clear before he turns his gaze toward me.
I can’t help it. There’s a part of me that shrinks inside when he looks at me with that grim expression. His face is set with wrinkles around his eyes that make him look constantly disappointed with the world, and deep frown lines on either side his mouth that make his lower lip protrude slightly, like an angry bulldog.
“Yes, sir?” I ask, trying not to squirm under his gaze.
“You feel ready for tomorrow?” he asks.
I nod. “Yes, sir.”
He considers me for a moment, as if trying to judge whether I’m lying. Then he continues. “I got a call this morning. A scout’s going to be there.”
“Already?” I ask. “On the first game?”
His eyes hold mine and he says, “From Vanderbilt.”
My breath catches in my chest and I’m filled with panic. Vanderbilt has been my dream school since before I was born. Their team is the top in the country, hands down.
It’s also the team my dad was on before he hurt his knee.
He lets this sink in.
“Aw, Dad,” I whine, “I wish you wouldn’t have told me.”
“You need to know,” he insists. “Fear spikes adrenaline.”
I feel sick. I just want to get in and have this whole process over with. The last few years have felt like nothing but a tightrope act that could go wrong at any moment. The closer it’s gotten to this season, the more pressure there has been to not only do well, but to be exceptional. My dad’s never said it, but I know he expects me to finish the baseball career he started. Sometimes I think that was the entire reason he even wanted a family. And now the game is coming.
“All right,” he says. “You’d better join the rest of the guys.”
I trot obediently across the field. The locker room and showers are beyond the bleachers, connected to the main school gymnasium. I push through the swinging door and my mind is churning so loud that at first I don’t even notice how quiet it is.
My shoes clap against the cold tiles of the locker room floor. I don't hear any showers, any joking or playful banter. There's nothing but the echo of my footsteps, and the dull smell of years and years of old games burned into the grey-blue walls.
I make my way around the room, past the row of lockers and peer into the showers. No one.
"Hey guys?" I call out. There is no answer.
I saw them run in here. Where did they go? Maybe there was a fire drill that I didn't know about. I walk to the far side of the locker room, and peek out the door that leads to the main gymnasium.