EDITOR’S NOTE BY LEIGH NEWMAN
At first glance, “Miller Field” is story about baseball. A wild talent of a kid trains under an aging, broke, once-famous high school coach. The coach refuses to recognize the greatness of the kid; the kid refuses recognize the greatness of the coach; and so rivalry — and conflict — are born. In the process, we readers get an insider’s trip through the sport, born of Sage’s natural authority in describing, say, “skimming a clunk of ball” or “roping it” or “the crisp hit of a well-hit ball pushing us back towards the fence.” This world is so authentic, so detailed that you live it from the first paragraph and believe that Sage had to have played ball himself. For the record: he didn’t.
But his sentences and his specifics draw us in and bewitch us, whether we want to be so affected or not. Along the way, he ups the stakes, using baseball as a vehicle to mourn the blindness of young arrogance and the grief of middle age, as well as to examine the nonsensical human predilection to fear both success and failure at the same time. All this, of course, is enough for any story. But as I read on, considering “Miller Field,” I thought a lot about “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean in which the narrator invites us in similar, obsessive way into the world of fly-fishing. In both cases, the narrators consider a sport a spiritual experience, and their language and ideas about this experience become a different-but-related spiritual experience of reader. I have never asked Sage or Maclean what they were trying to accomplish by expressing such obsessive, addictive reverence for their particular physical activity. But I feel — loudly, emphatically, though also without any proof — that both writers were using their examination of the sport to examine writing, to grabble with a life spent in the pursuit of art — the fear and triumph, the failure and freedom, the burdensome “curse that’s easy and pure and true.”
Author of Still Points North
by Tyler Sage, recommended by Leigh Newman
During my last two years in high school, our hitting coach was a man named Stubbs Chapman. He appeared in our small town one spring and volunteered to work with the team, a short man with a big belly and a square, doughy face, a wearer of khaki pants and windbreakers, a cigar smoker with a strong sense of the metaphysical and that easy, relaxed feeling of camaraderie particular to ex-athletes. No one was quite sure what he was doing in our town, but he enjoyed a brief moment of legendary status because he had played in the big leagues and because of the things that happened when he hit a baseball.
On occasion, in the course of his instruction, Stubbs would step into the old batting cage at the public field where we practiced. He would ask one of us to get ready to operate the ball machine, which meant plugging the heavy cable into the outlet on the side of the concrete machine shed, and would then begin to make fine, abstruse points about hitting in his Mid-Atlantic drawl. When he nodded at the kid with the power cord the machine would start its old grinding hum and the balls would begin to zip past, one after another. He ignored them at first, continuing to talk, gesturing with his hands, discoursing on timing, or the rotation of our hips or the path of the barrel of the bat. As each ball passed, we listened less closely, and become more and more anxious for him to hit one. Even our head coach, who taught history at school and was a Little Bighorn buff, would drift over to watch. Finally, his delicate castle of hitting knowledge constructed, Stubbs would shoulder the bat and wait casually and easily for the next ball to spring forth. And when it did, he destroyed it. He still, at sixty years old, had such enormously fast hands that he could wait for what seemed like an eternity before beginning his swing. Then he would flick his wrists and that sound would ring out across the field. He hit them where he wanted, pull or opposite, driving them back at the machine or lifting them into the netting; and it was not just the smoothness of his stroke that stayed with you, or his perfect balance, or even the speed of those hands. It was the sound. So much in baseball is encapsulated in that sound. We had long ago learned in the outfield to base our first pure instinctual reaction on it: the pure crisp click of a well-hit ball pushing us back towards the fence, the skimming clunk of a ball that would try to die in front of us, the faint sliding hiss of a ball that was going to slice away towards foul ground. But we had never heard anything like Stubbs Chapman. He hit a baseball with a crack that was final and without reverberation. It was the most perfectly wooden sound I have ever known, a sound natural and grained, hard and in no way touched by a human hand. If I am struggling to describe it here it may be because, like so much in baseball, it is a sound of youth and thus always residing in some golden and useless past that can never quite be reclaimed.
Stubbs lived in a room in Dan Smiley’s grandmother’s house and drove a beautiful old diesel Mercedes and was almost perfectly out of place in our town, which comprised wheat farmers and refinery workers and their families. He was there for two springs (no one knew where he went for the rest of the year) and he stopped coaching us after the penultimate game of my senior year. It was always unclear whether he left town because Dan Smiley’s grandmother threw him out or because I humiliated him with the ball machine.
That machine had been donated to our town park by a nearby AA team several years before and I spent a fair amount of time in the cage that spring, not really working on things so much as just enjoying the feel of hitting. I was going to be drafted that summer, I knew, and I liked to imagine one of the pitchers I watched on TV trying to blow a fastball past me, and me turning on it and smashing it down the line into the left field stands. Stubbs watched some of these sessions and tried, at first, to offer me his wisdom. I had little interest. I hit .636 that year, and had never hit lower than .500, except for my .494 as a freshman. What I would have liked was for Stubbs just to stand there and admire what I could do, and perhaps even complement me on it. But he tried to change things–pulling my hands in to shorten my stroke, reducing what was a rather grandiose leg kick–and then, when I would not listen to his instruction, he took to simply standing and watching, his cigar in his mouth, and giving an occasional grunt, as if he’d yet again seen something that confirmed his analysis. And when he got in the cage himself, he made sure that we both knew how much better he was than I. He did this by completely ignoring me. He included the other kids in the points he made, singled them out for criticism or praise, made eye contact with them as he talked. But he ignored me.
Our teams, during this stretch of years, were terrible. When I was a freshman we nearly won a state title, had two seniors drafted, and sent several more on to play college ball, but by the time I was a senior we were headed towards the bottom of our conference. We took regular beatings from all the other teams and there were only two of us who would go on to play past high school. In our second-to-last game of the year, we were three-hit by a lousy pitcher. All of the hits belonged to me, two line drive singles and a long home run.
Often, when we lost games like this, Stubbs started off practice with a hitting lesson. As I’ve indicated, these were imperious and wordy and I usually did not understand (or listen to) them, because for me the act of hitting was not something to be tampered with or even discussed. It was a magical, reflexive, purely physical act, and I hated to see someone try to reduce it to ideas or language. I also hated to lose, at anything, and I hated the feeling of not understanding something. And so the Monday after the humiliation, I snuck over before warm-ups and disabled the governor on the ball machine. This was a safety device that the town had installed to ensure that the balls coming out of the machine did so at no more than eighty-five miles an hour. We had figured out within a week of its installation, of course, how to disable it. Ungoverned, the baseball popped out of that machine at something over a hundred, from a distance of fifty feet, and there was no warning other than a simple click. There were simply the spinning wheels, then that click of the ball dropping out of the chute, and then the ball ripping through the air and striking the netting, and the faint spinning trail of our bats in its wake.
When Stubbs arrived at the field on that Monday afternoon, I’d already taken the governor off, and was stretching with the rest of the team. He stood for a moment talking to the coaches. The other men nodded seriously, and Stubbs assumed a distant look, somber and meditative.
“My grandmother was screaming at ol’ Stubbs last night like you wouldn’t believe,” said Dan Smiley. “I think she kicked him out.”
We turned, interested. Dan had moved here from Oklahoma at the end of middle school, and he still moved and talked even slower than we did. He squinted out at the mountains.
“Money, I guess,” he said after a moment. “My mom says he’s broke.”
“Maybe he got your grandmother pregnant,” someone suggested.
“Maybe you can go fuck yourself,” said Dan slowly and equitably.
The head coach shouted across the field at us, circled his hand above his head, and pointed at the batting cage. We ambled over, one of the freshmen running ahead so that he could be the one to plug in the machine when it was time.
The coaches came slowly across the field. Whatever it was that Stubbs had been explaining to the other men, it seemed to have no effect on him. There was no lessening of resolution in his stride, no erosion of that pervasive and rock-like certainty. Stubbs took the cigar out of his mouth and dropped it in the trash barrel next to the shed. He paused to look out at the mountains, like we all did from time to time, hanging there green and white over the edge of the yellow wheat horizon, and then reached down and took a bat from one of us.
“Boys,” he said, “what happened Saturday, and what I’ve been seeing all season, sitting up there in the stands as I do with all of your parents and the folks that love you and the one or two college scouts that may,” here he paused to look us over, “or may not have been in attendance, and may, or may not, have been so disappointed that they won’t ever pass through this town again, what I’ve been seeing might be described as a spiritual failure.”
He gripped the bat with both hands and held it in front of him for a moment as if he were measuring it, or weighing it, or assessing some other value we could not fathom.
“Let me emphasize this,” he said. “I’m not talking about dropping your elbow as you come into your swing, or waffling the bat head coming through the zone, or keeping your head still, or your hands still, or even about the fact that a pitcher like that one on Saturday, on an oh-oh count, or a three-oh count, or an oh-two count, on, let’s just be honest, every goddamn count, is going to throw what passes for his fastball because has no other pitch that he can put into this county, let alone this strike zone, and yet all of you were up there sitting back like you were worried about not getting out there ahead of his curve, a curve, as you might have heard me just mention, that he did not even possess.”
Stubbs did not look at me. Every time I’d come up on Saturday I’d known what the pitcher was going to throw, and I hadn’t let him off the hook even when he once tried to walk me: one of my singles I’d had to golf from about six inches off the ground, because I knew he wasn’t going to give me anything to hit. But Stubbs did not acknowledge this.
“No,” he said. He raised the bat in front of him for a second examination, sad and contemplative.
“The deeper failing around here is the spiritual one. Hitting a baseball is a mechanical processes–that’s true and will always be true. But it is also a spiritual process. Hitting is a kiss. It is a caress. It is an act of violence. All in one. All united. Have you ever seen the ball floating towards you and reached out and kissed it with the bat? Have you ever asked it to fly for you, not told it, asked it, and in the following instant, as the ball took flight, understood that you were indomitable? If you have not, and I would say from Saturday’s evidence that you indeed have not, it is not because of a failing of the hands or the hips, or even of the mind, but of the spirit. This spiritual failing, before all else, is what you need to think about.”
He undid the horseshoe latch and stepped into the cage. We watched him.
He turned back to us and leaned for a moment on the bat as if it were a cane.
“So how can you begin to address it?”
We waited. It was a perfectly clear late spring day. The sky was empty and from the playground we could hear the faint shouts of younger kids and on the horizon the snow caps were like the crystals of some distant chandelier.
He smiled, faintly and with a touch of bitterness. “To correct the spiritual, you must engage with the spiritual.”
He nodded at the freshman, who reached down and plugged in the big power cord. The twin wheels of the ball machine began to spin, and the balls rattled down the chute. The first passed behind Stubbs like a rocket. He did not turn, but he must have been able to hear the difference, in the higher-pitched whine of the wheels, and in the shortened interval between the pop of the ball being released and the hiss and rattle of it being received by the old mesh backstop. In my memory, there is the faintest hitch in the smooth flow of his speech at this point, but I do not truly know if this is real or something I’ve added. In my memory there is that faintest acknowledgement of it in his posture, a stiffening, or bristling, as if he is aware that a gauntlet has been thrown down. But I do not know if this is real. What I do know is that Stubbs continued to talk about the swing of the bat as a singular, time-defying, space-compressing, spiritual act that is the closest we are, any of us, allowed to a true perfection, while behind him the balls passed, one after another, in a ridiculous blur. And watching this, a terrific apprehension came over us. His speech on spirituality, his thoughts on the nature of hitting, whatever wisdom it was that he was offering us, went unheard.
Then he turned and stepped across the path of the balls and took his stance. He shouldered the bat and made a final, fine point, and we leaned forward and someone, I think it was Drew Pearlman, reached out his hand as if to say Wait! and the ball exploded out from the spinning wheels. Stubbs swung. He swung late, and he missed. A silence seemed to fall over the park. There were no bird calls, no sound of wind, no rushing of traffic from the highway. There was only the whining of the wheels. Stubbs’s eyes hardened and he reloaded the bat on his shoulder, flexed those old hands. Another ball came and he swung again and missed again, and the machine began to make the clicking sound it made when it was empty. No one spoke or moved.
He twisted the bat in his hands and regarded the machine. He turned and looked exactly at me.
“James,” he said, “be so good as to put another bucket of balls in the hopper?”
It is a strange and terrifying thing to see human decline made manifest, to watch a moment of public humiliation. Stubbs managed to foul a few of the next bucket off, and even to drive one with the old clean perfect cracking sound. But when he missed he did so more and more awfully, taking huge awkward cuts, falling off balance, all of his mechanics exposed. He was an aging man, small and with an oversized belly, still tied to his silly dreams of the child’s game. And it was not so much the ball machine that did this too him. This was worst of all. It was a thing inside of himself. It was the despair and frustration visible in every inch of his clenched jaws and jittery feet. It was the clarity with which he perceived himself in that moment, and the clarity with which we witnessed this perception: the fear of age and incompetence and loss, the shirttails pulled free of his trousers, the sweat on his forehead, the tap of the bat on the ground as if he were at a real plate again, playing again in a stadium before thirty thousand fans, and then another overmatched swing, another overmatched and desperate grunt.
I will mention my own baseball career only briefly. It began with me being drafted in the eleventh round and deciding instead to go to college, as more and more good players were doing, on the chance that I would be drafted again and make more money. It ended over a decade later with me striking out in a small stadium in North Carolina on three pitches against Ricardo Suarez, a nineteen-year-old kid who talked to himself incessantly, wore a stringy, gallivanting mustache, and was seemingly headed for the bigs. He pitched me inside-out, starting me with a back foot breaking ball at which I flailed miserably, following that with a sneaky little backdoor curve, and finishing me, after a long enough look that we both knew that I knew what was coming, with a belt-high fastball. I took my cut, knowing somewhere in the course of that swing that it was the last I would take, and walked back to the dugout. I’d never been able to hit Suarez. He had my number and we both knew it and he stared me down all the way off the field.
At the beginning, though, I was cocky, and I was talented, and I was lazy to the point of contempt about my talent. What was there I could not do? I could hit and throw and field any position. The game was easy for me, easier for me than it was for almost anyone I ever played with, including the men I knew who went on to have long major league careers. The problem was that it took me too long to understand about fear; and by the time I did begin to understand, my career in the minor leagues, increasingly filled as the years went by with frustration, incomprehension, and rage, was over.
I am not speaking only of the fear of failure, although that is a part of it; in some nearly indescribable way I was also afraid of joy. I was afraid that the joy involved in the act of playing would be lost through trying too hard to manage or craft the act, and then I would have neither joy nor ability; I was afraid that this joy was the most pure of all the things I had, and that it was not enough. I was afraid that someone like Stubbs might not only be better at it than I, but might be better exactly because he did not love it as much or as purely. And the more I focused on this, the more the joy slipped away. I was afraid that it was not enough, and it became not enough. With each at bat that ended in a strikeout, with each coach adjusting my swing or my stance, I watched the joy and the ease slip away, and I watched the fear grow; and with each incremental increase in fear it became more and more difficult to remember how it had felt to not be afraid.
While this may sound unique, and maybe even grandiose, it is neither. Ballparks are littered with old players who have stories like these, ghosts and fears and tics that in the end were simply too much to overcome before age took its toll.
A year ago I came to this city, perhaps without knowing or remembering that it was the one in which Stubbs had been born and raised, and I ran into him again. We were both in the stands at a city-league high school game.
It is a poor city, and one of the few in our country that is shrinking. There are no grand projects, no urban renewal success stories. The fields are not well maintained, the uniforms are often secondhand, and it is a long, long way from the bright high-definition lights of the games on television, a long way, even, from the college campuses with their green lawns and winding paths and brick quads, their clean spacious stadiums and training rooms done out in team colors, their hallways featuring framed photos of All-Americans. The fields here are like gladiator pits, I found myself thinking one evening in a set of mostly empty bleachers under moist gray skies, full of bile. Gladiator pits where year after year they come and they struggle and one or two make it out while the rest end up on the corners and in the bars, driving delivery trucks and working as steamfitters, with that great green dream still hanging over them, in front of them. At this point, I thought I heard my name being called.
I turned. Several rows behind me, also sitting alone in the bleachers, was Stubbs. He was old and frail and wearing his windbreaker even though it was a warm spring night. His head was bare and his hair mostly gone and was still smoking a cigar, that might, for all I knew, have been the same one he’d been smoking the last time I’d seen him, sitting in his Mercedes after practice on the day he was defeated by the ball machine.
“Hello, Stubbs,” I said.
“You must be scouting,” he said. “And you must not be that good at it if they’ve got you all the way down here.”
“You look a lot older,” I told him. “And not all that healthy. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
He stood and, instead of stepping down over the rows empty of benches, walked all the way out to the aisle and down to my level and then came in to sit next to me. His composure and grace had grown fragile but were still there like an afterimage.
“I followed your career a little bit,” he said.
“ch as it was.”
“So you haven’t gotten over it.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“There’s no shame. You should be proud to have made it as far as you did.”
“You don’t have anything else to do with your time these days?” I burst out. “Just come and sit alone and watch the kids play?”
He ashed his cigar carefully. He still had those same hands, strong and alive beneath that spotted papery skin.
“I organize a little, old-time league,” he said. “Ballplayers who come out just for the love of it. I’m always on the lookout for new players. Same as you.”
“I’m not scouting. I’m out of the game.”
“So why is it that you’re here?”
There was the ping of a metal bat and a foul ball was lifted into the air towards us. We turned to watch. The ball clattered into the bleachers.
“You were a wonderful talent,” said Stubbs.
“There were a lot of us who were.”
“I snuck a double off of Sandy Koufax once,” he said. “He tried to come inside on me and I pulled it down the line. I was a talent, too.”
“Then what the hell were you doing out there?” I asked. “How did you end up in a town like that with all your talent, coaching a team like ours?”
“Clarissa Smiley. She was one of my chickadees. I had them all over, from my playing days. There was a time there when I just drove around visiting them, seeing who still had time for me.”
“You were broke.”
“Don’t tell me that you didn’t pick up a few chickadees? All those little towns, all those long trips?”
“You were broke.”
“You never had problems?”
“I never hung on like that.”
He laughed. “So that’s why you’re sitting here. Because you’re over the game. I’ve seen you here a couple of times, you know.”
There was nothing I could say.
“Why don’t you come out and play with us Sunday?” he asked. “Four o’clock. It’s an old-timey thing, like I said, you know, Miller Field, there’s not much there anymore, but we got some ballplayers that come out. Four teams in the league, pretty good action. I always like it when good players come out.”
“I don’t think so.”
He examined his cigar, exactly the way he used to look over the baseball bat when he was giving a lecture.
“You scared?” he asked.
“I think you are. I think you’re scared of a bunch of old men, and you with that sweet stroke of yours.”
“You really want me to come out and run around with a bunch of geezers.”
“It’s not all geezers. There’s a couple of young fellows come out. A couple of kids with futures. And I’ll tell you what–I still got contacts with some organizations. You come out and play, and I’ll make a couple of calls. Smart as you are, I bet I could get someone to take a look at you. Scouting, maybe something in the front office.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’ll look for you this weekend.”
“I can’t make it, Stubbs.”
He shrugged and stuck his cigar back between his teeth and we watched a catcher throw the ball into centerfield as a kid stole second.
The truth is that I wasn’t all that surprised to see Stubbs, because I seem to be plagued by people from my playing days. I ran into Teddy Grovatt once at a dump outside of a town in Ohio. I was throwing away a couch and stopped to check in at the trailer on the way up to the pit and there he was, sitting with his feet up on the desk, his fingers stretched across the mouth of a mug like it was a baseball, a distant look on his face. I’d seen him take a home run away from Jose Canseco once, when Canseco was a star doing an injury rehab stint: Grovatt climbed an outfield wall in South Carolina and grabbed the ball just before it touched the hands of a little kid in the stands. It was one of the greatest plays I ever witnessed. Grovatt never got past AA ball. I caught a glimpse of Emilio LaPorta, the definition of a crafty left-hander, washing the windows of a bank in Milwaukee. I looked up and there he was on that platform dangling down the outside of the building, grinning in through the glass, pointing at me. Emilio whom I’d played with for parts of three seasons, and who hadn’t made it through his single inning in the bigs, giving up a pair of doubles and a home run and getting sent down the next day. Even Ricardo Suarez, who ended my career–I found him dead drunk on the back of a commuter bus late one night in New Jersey, disheveled and stinking and with a bottle of booze rocking back and forth in his hand on the turns, who’d had filthy stuff but who had completely fallen apart every time they pushed him up even as far as AAA. He was snoring and with his fly half undone and those old fingernails that he used to dig so sharply into the ball were long and untended. I got off at the next stop without waking him.
The guys I knew in the minors always called me Professor. They thought it was funny that I’d gone to the college I did, and used to think up crazy things to ask me. But in studying, because it had been so difficult, and because I hadn’t truly loved it, there had been no danger. There was no reaction in ideas; they did not come like a ball, smooth and fast off the bat and like magic into the glove and from the glove into the hand and from the hand to the first baseman, all without thinking. Ideas were dense and slow and impassible. There were paragraphs that I could read and reread and still not quite make the words fit together, still not quite remember the sense of the first sentence by the time I’d battled through to the last. There were whole chapters that were made up of these paragraphs, and whole books that were beyond me, entirely out of my range. But because they were difficult, and because I struggled, they were safe. I could slink around in the back row of an architecture class, the easygoing farm-kid jock, and no one ever had to know that I was trying like hell to understand every book and every slide, not just read them or see them, but really understand them. I could sit in a literature class and watch the discussion go back and forth like a ping-pong game and never let on that I was cataloguing every comment that I did not comprehend, every reference and throwaway joke, so that I could work through them after class, laboriously, one by one, edging my way towards understanding. This was difficult. There was no joy in it. Baseball was easy. And because it was easy it terrified me, and because it terrified me I loved it, and because I loved it it would not leave me alone. It would not leave any of us alone.
So I went to graduate school after I quit playing and I lived my life, was married and divorced, took an adjunct teaching job and then another, realizing at some point that I had joined the ranks of that strange fraternity of ghosts, all of us exiled from the game and gone on to different things but still haunted by the field, haunting the fields, seeing each other but not really interacting, nodding or exchanging a word or two but not really saying what it was we wanted to. The field and the flight of the ball and the dirt kicked up by a slide and the goddamn feeling of it all, the immortality. Do you remember? Yes, I remember.
Miller Field is a decaying and abandoned stadium that dates from the time when the city had a Negro League team. It sits on an industrial flat above a stretch of river choked with trees, between a defunct tire factory and what must once have been an institutional building of some sort but is now little more than a collection of toppled brick walls and empty windows covered in vines and underbrush. Across the river rises a steep bluff. One half of the top of this bluff is covered by a cemetery, and the other half is covered by row houses, from whose empty backyards a few children dully watch the games. I parked in the cracked lot and walked in through a hole in the chain link fence, past the old ticket booths and turnstiles, down a tunnel under the sagging wooden grandstand. The first thing I heard was the sound of Stubbs hitting a ball. That old, pure, perfect crack. It set my teeth on edge. The field was short to right and long to left, a patchwork of dirt and scrub grass. An old-fashioned scoreboard stood in dead center, and someone was in there resetting the numbers to zero. Men in motley blue and gray uniforms were stretching and jogging and playing catch. I recognized a couple of them: Vonn Thibodaux, who’d played for years in independent ball and had been a player/coach on a team I played on in AA, Errol Jones, who’d been a high draft pick and with whom I’d played short season before they jumped him straight to High A and he blew out his knee, a few more.
Someone was fooling around on the mound, throwing balls to Stubbs, who was lifting them to a couple of high school kids in left field, cigar in his mouth and eighty-something years old, and still with that goddamn stroke. Pure and tight and quick. There were some people in the only section of old wooden stands, along the first base line, that appeared safe enough to sit in. A few wives or girlfriends and some young kids and a few others that must have wandered in from god knows where. The sky was overcast and the light was gray and I stood watching and debating myself for a long time before I walked down past the last rows of broken seats and climbed the low railing onto the field.
When he saw me, Stubbs grinned, his cigar in one hand and the bat in the other.
“I thought you might show up,” he said.
“I’m happy on the other side of the fence,” I said, realizing as I spoke how deeply untrue that was. “I just thought I’d come out and see the circus.”
“Well,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to squeeze you onto one of the teams.”
He went back to hitting balls and I put on my cleats and threw some grounders back and forth with a kid named Tyson Henry, who was seventeen and hoping to get a look from a community college out in California. He was plenty cocky, and he moved all right and had a decent arm, but his footwork was lousy. When they saw me, Vonn and some of the other guys came over to say hello, and we fell into talking bus breakdowns and stadium peculiarities and legendarily wild pitchers and the Cuban catcher we’d all known whom no one could understand in either English or Spanish, and this kid Tyson stood to the side and watched disdainfully. He was, it turned out, a cousin of Vonn’s, and after a while Vonn turned to him and put his hand on my shoulder.
“This here,” he said, “is the Professor. I saw him foul three balls in a row into the radio booth of a stadium down in Tennessee, because he didn’t like what the announcers had said about him the last time we came through town. Always claimed that he didn’t really mean to, but you should’ve seen those two radio men hit the deck. Once, twice, three times in a row. And then he hit that next pitch into the gap and came into second standing up. Laughing. He loved playing the game more than anyone I ever knew.”
The kid Tyson looked at me. “That’s your career highlight?” he asked. “A double in the minors?”
“Hah,” said Vonn. “Look out for this one. He’s a giant killer.”
“You better work on your feet, son, if you want to make it anywhere,” said Errol.
“What’s the matter with my feet?”
The kid swore and looked at Vonn.
“One two three four five,” said Vonn, moving his fingers like a shortstop moving to his right, collecting the ball turning, planting and throwing, all in rhythm.
We went on like this until Stubbs called softly across the field that it was time to play. He huddled for a moment with Vonn, who was the captain of our team.
“How you feeling?” Vonn asked me when he came back over to the dugout.
“Feeling fine,” I told him.
“Stubbs says he wants to see if you can still handle short. Says he’s got everything set up for you. You guys know each other or something?”
“I’m playing short,” said the kid Tyson.
“You,” said Vonn, “can play second.”
“Let this old fool play left. I can play short.”
“You don’t have the quick or the feet or the arm for short. I hate to break it to you, kid. Maybe we’ll get some double play balls and you can work on your footwork on the turn.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my feet.”
“You look like you’re wearing clown shoes out there.”
The kid swore and stalked off.
“He might actually stick at short if he can get himself to college,” said Vonn. “But he doesn’t need anyone telling him that now.”
“What did you mean Stubbs has everything set up for me?”
“He said to put you at short and he said wrangled up a special pitcher for you to play against. Old friend of yours.”
I looked over at the mound. There was Ricardo Suarez, taking his warmup pitches. He had grown a beard and let his hair get long, even though he was balding. As a young man he’d always had a haughty demeanor, aloof, like the son of some South American dictator; now that demeanor had fallen into a kind of feral and aging aggression. He was over there throwing as hard as he could, talking to himself intently; his eyes brimmed with a bright dead luster. I looked across the diamond and there was Stubbs, small and scrubby, looking back at me from the first base bag.
“Stubbs is playing?” I asked. “How the hell old is he, anyway?”
“It’s his league,” said Vonn, studying me. “You two got some history, don’t you.”
“Yeah. I knew him when I was a high school kid.”
“Looks like he hasn’t gotten over it yet.”
“Are any of us?”
Vonn smiled. “He offer to get you back in the game? Tell you about all his contacts with the teams, and about how he can snap his fingers and get you a job?”
I looked at Vonn and he laughed.
“And then you show up and he’s got you at shortstop and he’s got old Ricky Suarez for you to try to hit. That’s all he has to offer. There ain’t no mythical job out there under the bright lights.”
I looked at the field, at Suarez and Stubbs and the broken old outfield fence and I felt a feeling that had not come into me in a long time. “He’s a cocky old son of a bitch, isn’t he,” I said.
“Nine innings,” Vonn agreed. “Nine beautiful innings before we have to go home.”
Baseball players do not forget. From a lifetime built around a single, repeated encounter, we are endowed with a memory that encompasses every encounter. The pitcher and the batter stand at either end of an endlessly repeating, minutely calibrated struggle: what will he throw next, and what did he throw last time, and what did he throw the first time I ever saw him, and on, and on, to infinity. In the duration of this moment, there is only action and reflex: grip the ball and throw it, read the pitch and either swing or don’t. But this still, perfect center is gnawed on and attacked and shrunk from and battled with by the mind. The damned mind. The baseball player with no mind, the pitcher with no thought and the hitter with no memory, would be perfect. There would always simply be the next pitch, the next pure execution. But this player does not exist, and in the attempt to find him we are doomed to remember each and every success and each and every failure. Ask us to tell you the first pitch we saw in any given season, and we will be able to. Ask us to recount the sequence of pitches that resulted in a looping double off of a particular adversary on a hot and oddly humid day in April of 1998 and we will do so. A fastball inside to move me off the plate, another because the first caught the corner, consecutive sliders down and away first to try to get me to chase and then to set me up, and finally a high fastball to put me away: but in this last instant I had no thought. I was pure and perfect and I saw the pitch and roped it.
The game began with Suarez plunking our leadoff man, the kid Tyson. It was not intentional, but the ump, an old guy who looked like he’d last called a competitive game in the 1950s, gave him a warning anyway. The next hitter was Vonn. Suarez talked himself into a frenzy, rubbed the ball a few times, and sent along one of his old fastballs, which explode out of his hands late and as if he has no idea where they’re going. The kid Tyson took off to steal second and got thrown out by a mile. There was a tepid cheer from the stands. Vonn glared at him as he trotted off the field.
“Sit down,” he told him. “You run like a dope.”
“All right there, Ricky,” called Stubbs from first, “let’s make some mincemeat out of these boys!”
Suarez gave him a look and then reared back and threw a madman curve. It landed in the dirt and Vonn took a big cut.
“Goddamn,” he yelled at Stubbs, “where the hell do you find these guys?”
“The dust bin!” cackled Stubbs. “The scrap heap! And I give them back all of this! Let’s have some old-timey baseball here, boys!”
There was some more jawing, and Suarez muttered obscenities to himself and then missed so high with his fastball that Errol, who was catching, had to jog over to the old wooden backstop for the ball.
“That’s right!” yelled Stubbs. “Here we go!”
And then Vonn hit a one-hopper to the fat guy at third who couldn’t move at all but had an arm like an express train, and the throw came in like it would knock old Stubbs over but he took it like he was a kid, reaching forward dramatically and with his foot stretched back to the bag even though Vonn had slowed almost to a stop once he saw the ball in the big guy’s glove. And then I was up.
The old box, unevenly lined, a cheap plastic plate stained with some kind of dark rot or fungus, the old tap of the bat on the plate and the cleats. The feeling of settling in to the moment.
“I’d watch yourself,” said Errol. “I don’t have any idea where these are going and neither does he.”
“Son of a bitch looks like that Che Guevara guy, doesn’t he,” said the umpire.
And Stubbs, down the first base line, watching and grinning and chomping his cigar, which had gone out. Remembering that day in the batting cage. All of those years gone by, I saw them now, Stubbs rolling around the country living off his glory years, his good cheer and his distant stories about the men who had played it like it ought to be played, me with my bitterness and my inability to either leave the game behind or admit that I had not left it behind, and what was he after now? Some kind of revenge? Some kind of contest? Some kind of proof of age and talent? He was watching me, grinning and cackling. He was an old earnest man who had never worried about loving the game too much or not enough. The first pitch came in, a show-me fastball, and I cranked it down the line at him. It went foul. Stubbs spit out his cigar. His eyes narrowed. He slapped his fist into his glove and got into his crouch, flabby belly and his uniform sagging off his old man shoulders and a few strands of wild white hair.
“Jesus Christ, Professor,” said Errol, “you haven’t changed at all, have you.”
“Hah ha!” yelled Vonn from the dugout. “Let’s see if you can put one in the bleachers!”
On the mound, Suarez was touching the ball gently and conversing with the overcast sky. He let his attention drift back to earth, bloodshot eyes and a lank, fallen face, and stared me down for a long moment before he started feeding me all the old, nasty stuff. Pitches that bent like umbrella handles, pitches that disappeared from in front of your bat like magic tricks, pitches that you could swear were coming in at a million miles an hour and realized too late were floating in slow and gentle. And all of it came flooding back in around me. The years of it, the pain and the joy, afternoon games in the heat and night games in the cold and windy games in deserted stadiums where no one cared but the players, those long-off days on the plains with the wheat starting just behind the outfield fence and Stubbs’s speech about the spiritual. Have you ever reached out and asked that ball to fly for you? Have you ever considered that this moment is the most spiritual, the most refined, you will ever experience? And the old feeling of failure was back too, the old fear, the feeling of Stubbs and Suarez and all the rest of them who didn’t love it enough but were not somehow punished for that, and for a moment I wanted to yell: What is it you want? Isn’t it enough to just love the feeling of the bat and the ball? Why isn’t that enough? as if I were a kid again. This was my life, the joy and wreckage of it smothering me.
But if there is something to be said in the end, it is this: the game will always give you just enough to keep you coming back. It will never let you go. Because Suarez threw something ridiculous and I reached out for the ball, slipping down and away towards the earth, and I kissed it with the bat and asked it to fly over the head of the shortstop and it did.
Stubbs was waiting for me at first with a look of disgust on his face. He did not deserve this. He was old and should have been granted his revenge, should have been allowed to see me embarrass myself.
“It’s all about the spiritual, Stubbs,” I said.
He ignored me and called out to Suarez, “Come on now there Ricky, all we need is one more out, and we can clear this windbag off the plates!”
We played. Threw balls to one another and dove in the dirt, pushed our aging bodies to see what of the old lost magic they still had in them. When Stubbs came to bat, our pitcher didn’t take it easy on him, exactly, but he didn’t give him any of the really hard two-seamers he was throwing either, and Stubbs cracked a long high shot to the warning track in left, a beautiful ball that would have been in the bleachers of a lot of parks. Our pitcher shook his head and said “Nice hands, old man,” as Stubbs trotted happily back to the dugout. Even the kid Tyson was impressed. “Old father time there sure can hit the hell out of the ball, huh,” he called out to me. “Guy’s got to be one hundred and thirty-seven years old.” I grinned at him, and the next batter hit a hard shot up the middle and it was only after the play that it came to me that there had been no thought, simply the ball, hard and small and fast, taking a single skip in the dirt and me knowing that there was no chance, that it was past me but taking my steps and my dive anyway in that place where there is not time or presence or even vision, there is only feeling, stretching, attempting; and the ball is not past after all, but firm and true in the glove because space has been conquered and the impossible made possible, and the rest is easy: not even needing to rise, I flip the ball from my glove to the kid at the bag who makes his turn, nice and smooth, instinctual, and hammers the ball to first.
“Goddamn,” he said to me as we walked back to the dugout. “I got to admit that was real clean, man.”
“Your feet are fine when you get your balance right,” I told him. “Keep drilling the hell out of them, and don’t listen to these dum-dums.”
And when I came up again I watched Stubbs settle into his crouch, eager and believing. My wreck of a career did not matter to him. He still wanted the cocky kid who’d never listened to him, who had believed that the purity of talent was his and his alone, to be humbled. All he needed was for me to strike out, just once; and he knew the game would grant him this. But when I came up that second time Suarez left something over the plate and I slapped it between Stubbs and the second baseman for another base hit. I stepped onto the bag laughing.
“The diamond’s got a strange sense of humor sometimes,” he said philosophically.
“And I’m going to steal second, too,” I said.
I took off galloping on my old tiring legs, and Suarez’s pitch skittered away from Errol and I made it all the way to third.
Stubbs glared at me. “You’re going to pull that shit in a friendly old-timey game?” he called.
“I’m going home if old Suarez there can’t keep the ball in the bull’s-eye,” I told him.
“Bring it on,” called Errol. “We get a play at the plate and I’m still big enough to flatten you.”
“You’re right,” I heard the kid Tyson say to Vonn behind me in the dugout, “this Professor guy is real crazy about the game.”
And as each inning passed, Stubbs grew more and more frustrated. He could still hit, but most of his strength had left him. The ball still made its glorious sound coming off his bat, but it fell short now, soared more gently, landed softly in reluctantly raised gloves. The one ball he hit with authority was only a few feet to my right, and I caught it easy and smooth.
“Whatever it is between you two,” Vonn asked me as we walked back to the dugout, “you going to give him a break?”
“You think he’d want me to?”
He smiled and shook his head.
By the next inning, Suarez had worn himself out, and Stubbs brought in a skinny kid with a hipster’s mustache and a sense of humor. But nothing mattered at that point. I pulled his second pitch to deep left center. The ball sang, rising and rising as if it would never fall. I was indomitable.
“Would you look at that,” said the pitcher, craning his neck.
“You asshole, Professor,” said Errol.
I jogged down the line. The ball would have cleared the bleachers entirely and been out of the stadium and lost in the brush, maybe even the river, if not for the last and highest metal railing. It struck that railing and bounced straight up in the air and came down among the splintered wood benches. The old guy manning the scoreboard climbed up out of his chair and started over to it. At first base, Stubbs was standing with downcast eyes. He stood like a boy whose team, on the other side of the continent and relayed over an old scratchy radio set, has just lost the World Series.
And to this day I do not know if I took a bad step on the bag or if Stubbs tripped me. I’m not sure anyone in the stadium saw it, either, because there is something in a long home run that you cannot look away from, a kind of majesty or impossibility. I felt the pain in my knee, though, before I hit the dirt, and twisted so I would not land on it. I looked over and saw the ball bouncing in the grandstands, and then I looked up at Stubbs leaning over me with the overcast sky behind him, and his face was a mask of frustration and fear. Dreadful enough that it shocked me.
“You okay?” I asked him, climbing painfully to my feet.
“You,” he said, “how old are you?”
“You still got your whole goddamn life in front of you. The whole of it. I never could understand someone like you. Arms and legs made of gold and a head like a soft peach. You were so busy doing everything except just working with your talent that you wasted all of it you were given. Goddamnit it. Makes me so mad I could spit. And you still got so much goddamn time left, too.”
“Did you really just trip me?” I asked him.
He waved his hand at me. “Keep doing your little trot,” he said.
“Stubbs, I never made it. I never played a game in the bigs. Doesn’t that make you feel better at all?”
He thought about this for a while. “I ever tell you about the double I hit off of Koufax?” he asked.
I swore and turned to limp back across the diamond to the dugout.
“You want a hand there, Professor?” called Errol.
“I think we got a wheelchair here in the dugout,” called the kid Tyson.
“What’s the matter, you too good to touch ’em all?” called Vonn.
And when I came up for the final time, my knee was swollen up and Vonn was standing on second, and the game was more or less tied, because the old guy sitting atop the scoreboard had fallen asleep and forgotten to tally some of the runs. The sky was growing dark and the wives and children in the uncollapsed section of stands were on their feet. Down the line at first, Stubbs was in his crouch, slapping his mitt and speaking openly of my downfall.
“Give it up, you idiot,” I told him. “It’s not going to happen today.”
“Baseball,” he called out, “is a metaphor for hope. And I hope you strike out so bad they feel the breeze in Omaha.”
“Stubbs,” I told him, “I’m not going to hit it into the stands, because then the game would be over too quick. I’m going to knock one into the gap, so you have to watch slow-ass Vonn there crawl all the way around the bases.”
“Bring it on,” he said gleefully, “bring it on.”
And I could not help grinning at him, and the pitcher, an old guy from somewhere in the South who was throwing a knuckleball that danced around like marionette on a string, went into his lawn chair windup, and I settled into myself and waited for it, all hands and hips and nothingness, feeling the old deep groove of something that’s not pleasure because it is so much more than that, is something akin to freedom itself; and I swung the bat easy and pure and true, because, after all, it’s only the mind that’s the enemy.