You're sitting on the dugout bench at the opposite end from the coaching staff and you have the front of your cap tipped so low that people can barely see your eyes, as if you're taking a nap, as if you're a movie star and you don't want to be recognized, and also because it looks sort of flaky and as a left-handed pitcher you have a reputation to uphold.
You're slumping, with your haggard left arm draped over the orange water cooler, which gets a visit now and then from a sweaty, smelly, bulky, doltish hitter. Your legs are crossed like a debutante's, and you're wearing running shoes with your red stirrups wrinkled low around your ankles. You have a small chew in your mouth, though you don't normally chew, and some of the brown from one of your spits -- a misfire that failed to hit the ant that was crawling across the dirty cement floor -- has stained a part of your home-white pants next to where you might normally see the bulge from your cup. But you're not wearing your cup tonight, just like you're not wearing spikes, just like you have no idea what inning it is, because you pitched yesterday and you threw a complete game and struck out 11 while giving up just one hit and more or less totally dominating the navy blue team from up north, their northern skin red tonight from yesterday's sunburn or maybe from the heat of your pitches.
And Oswald -- this fireballing right-handed pitcher who will barely scrape through college but who also has a certain tenacity when it comes to competitive events of the mind, including music trivia, which you play with him now -- says, "Donovan."
He's sitting next to you, leaning forward a little, his elbows on his knees and his fingers touching. He has scruff on his face, like you do, but his is blonde and unkempt and yours is dark and patchy. He might pitch tonight, middle relief. He looks down at the coaches to make sure they're not in need of his attention.
For dramatic effect, you wait a second, spit. You shake your head and follow with the answer. "Darrin and the Bengals," you say, totally lying since the question itself was completely made up.
"Who?" he says.
"Darrin," you say, "and the Bengals. Fucking rocked. Scottish Invasion, which followed the British one. Precursor to the punk scene."
"You're a fucking lie," Oswald says, but he's bluffing. He has no idea if you're lying. He's from Nebraska. If you were pitching to him, he would be the type to stare you down after taking a big cut, and you would respond by throwing at his head one pitch, to rile him even more, and then you would follow it with an outside change-up, tailing away, that would cast him off-balance in mid-swing and make him accidentally fling the bat down the third-base line. You'd strike him out with a fastball on the hands.
"Look it up," you say. Then you snap your fingers, as if you just thought of something. "Jimmy. Jimmy, tell him about Darrin and the Bengals. Tell him about, uh, tell him about 'Mercenary Man.'"
Jimmy, a freshman infielder who is leaning against the dugout wall, playing with the tape on his bat, turns to you. He pretends he wasn't listening, but you know he was listening because he listens to everything you say, because he is in love with you, because you are such a good pitcher and because you can get any girl in just about any area college bar.
"Oh, yeah, I love 'Mercenary Man,'" he says, pleasing you. You have been working with him on the lying bit, and he's been gaining confidence. He's a good liar. Pretty soon, you will help him hook up with one of the girls you have been nailing.
"Bullshit, freshman," Oswald counters. "Sing it. I defy you."
Jimmy makes you proud. He starts singing a song you've never heard before, a song that technically doesn't exist but one you nod your head along to, like it's something Casey Kasem has played on certain Sundays. "Mercenary Man," Jimmy sings, "don't ya got a plan. Mercenary Man, you just don't give a damn." It's sort of a mix of "Southern Man" and "Nowhere Man," so it sounds familiar.
There is a moment when the ring of an Easton bat makes everyone turn their heads to the field and watch the white ball escalate into the dark night before descending and disappearing into a dark glove just before the green wall.
"Oh yeah," Oswald says, "I think I heard that song before."
The score is 5-0, you -- second shutout in as many nights.
Everyone thinks Shark is on steroids. But no one dares to ask him. Because he is probably on steroids and thus he can be easily angered. And if you anger him, he is liable to beat you with his allegedly steroid-enhanced muscles.
You're sort of standing in center field, to the right of it, and he's sort of standing in center field, to the left of it. It's a lazy batting practice before a game against yet another northern team. They come down every year for a month when it's still snowing where they're from, and they play southern teams that have been practicing year-round. They get beaten badly because of this, and it leaves the players from your team feeling invincible with a series of 10-run-rule wins. Batting practice is merely buildup to anti-drama. It is a time to daydream and look at your arms to see if the sun you got today at the apartment pool is taking. You're not wearing a hat, the only person on the field who isn't. It's folded in your back pocket. Your hair stands up high on one side due to an afternoon nap. Your running shoes are part of tonight's uniform.
There's a peach horizon and the lights are on, giving the air above the field a strange glow of pastel and white. The grass is a deep green, glistening a little from the light humidity. No one has hit a ball your way in like five minutes and it's getting downright boring.
You look over at Shark and his thick upper body and his thin legs and his blonde mullet tail breezing out of the back of his cap.
"You work out today, Shark?" you say. The answer to this question was answered before it was asked. Shark works out every day, twice, and he drinks strange brown liquids from General Nutrition and he has forearms the size of your thighs, and your thighs are not small. He's this muscular, this dedicated to pumping iron, even though he is a right-handed submarine relief pitcher.
"Yeah, dude. You?" He is kidding. He knows that you have never worked out in your life. But because you are so good, it doesn't matter.
You flex your left forearm, which is smooth and unspectacular, but still capable of somehow throwing a ball 92 miles per hour on the black, with movement and a territorial hiss.
He laughs at you in a way that is not friendly but also not disrespectful. Which is interesting, because he is disrespectful to everyone on the staff, except you. You both sort of make your way to center, where you will stand and talk for a few minutes.
"What happened with you and that girl?" he says. He's talking about the party the other night.
"Which one," you say, "the redhead?" There was no redhead.
"No, the brunette," he says.
"Which brunette?" you say. "The one with the crazy eyes?"
Shark is confused. You can see him trying to remember through the beer haze: Did she have crazy eyes?
"The one with the tits," he finally says.
"Oh, with the small ones?"
"Oh, the one with the big ones," you say. "With the small big ones or the big big ones?"
"Just tell me what happened with her, you fucking fag."
"Shark, I don't kiss and tell."
"You fucking fag."
"You want her?"
"Why, did she say something about me?"
You shrug. "No. But I can make her do whatever I want."
"Then make her blow me after the game."
"I'll have her meet you at your Camaro." Shark owns a Mustang.
You both watch the hitter, this aggressive black dude who leads the team in doubles. You would start him off with two inside fastballs for strikes, because he is so cocky and thinks you would never do such a thing. Then, with the count 0-2, he would naturally assume that you would waste a breaking ball in the dirt to see if he might chase it. Instead, you would throw a third fastball on the inside corner, this one screaming with extra heat, and he would walk back to the dugout with his head down and his bat dragging. Here, in batting practice, he swings and laces one down the line. It bumps and slides into the corner of the field. No one goes after it until an assistant coach yells at a nearby freshman.
When you weren't looking, Shark eased closer to you.
"You pitching tonight?" he asks.
The team you're playing sucks; you give him a look that indicates this, and this is answer enough. He is frowning. He looks bullish, unusually aggressive. The steroids must be working. He draws a hand to the back of your left shoulder, where there's about an inch of flaccid skin. He kneads the skin between his index and thumb while sort of hovering over you. You realize that he has placed himself in perfect position, so that if you try to run he will have just about every angle covered.
"That's what I thought," he says.
He leans and sniffs the skin he holds beneath the cotton of your red warm-up jersey. He grunts.
You never know what to make of this, so you just say the first thing that comes to mind: "Don't you do it."
Shark has a reputation. Shark is called Shark because he has two giant front teeth, spaced apart and somehow sharp. And he's not afraid to use them. You actually sort of knew this was coming. Most conversations with Shark come to this. "Don't you do it, Shark."
But he does. He bites down on the back of your shoulder with those teeth and the pain is pretty much like having your arm frogged and sliced open at the same time. But it's best not to move. If you move, you admit to the pain. And you can't do that because you have your reputation to uphold. Also, Shark is sort of like a pit bull and if you just lie still, pretend like you're dead, he might let go.
A couple of other pitchers, including Oswald, see that Shark has latched on; they whistle, laugh from their random outfield positions. You stay perfectly still; you try not to grimace as Shark shakes his head like a dog tearing up a stuffed toy. It's getting unbearable, but fate intervenes: The hitter slaps a fly ball your way.
"Heads up," you say. Shark releases to find the ball. It's looping into the nearby gap to your right. You get on your horse two steps ahead of Shark. It's a slow horse, but as the ball nears you feel as though you're somehow connected to it, that the lines of destiny -- ball, glove -- have already been drawn and it is your duty to fulfill your part, to put your glove where it is supposed to be, or else everything collapses. You stretch out parallel to the ground. There is a moment where it looks as though you'll never reach it, and this, for some reason, causes panic to fill your lungs, as if you’re a dying swimmer, as if your last breath is located inside the ball. You stretch farther. The ball lands in the tip of your glove, like a snow cone, a fragile state that you watch with exceptional concern as gravity pulls you down. You land, slide on your belly in the damp grass, your glove cocked so that it barely skims the ground and the ball remains protected. As you slowly rise, you're greeted by lazy shouts and general sounds of awe. You toss the ball to a freshman on the bucket behind second. Later, your pitching coach will bore you with a talk about how you can't risk injury over a batting practice fly ball. But all you can think about is how much your arm hurts where Shark just left his bicuspid imprints.
"You fucking fag," he says. He hands you your hat, which you hadn't realized fell out of your pocket.
There is a pitcher on the team that everyone calls Redhot. Actually, he calls himself that because he likes to make up raps, and part of his rap is that he's "red hot," which is an easy rhyme with lots of things. Also, he has red hair and red freckles. He is skinny with knobby knees and elbows. To you, he is a cartoon cowboy.
Like Shark, he throws submarine relief, but he is the antithesis of Shark in every other way. Shark is strong, Redhot is not. Shark drives his Mustang, Redhot asks for rides. Shark is aggressive, Redhot is goofy. Shark listens to hair metal, Redhot likes to make up those raps about himself.
Predictably, the two of them spend a good deal of time ripping on each other. Redhot thinks Shark is too muscular to be a pitcher and sort of gay for wanting to bite people. And every time Redhot calls Shark gay, Shark chases after him until Redhot throws his glove and screams as he is being lynched into a headlock. Then Shark compares Redhot to Richie Cunningham and makes him do stupid things, like an evil blonde Fonzie might.
It's close to midnight as the bus chugs in the darkness down I-75, between orange groves and cow farms and rest stops. The bathroom door keeps opening and closing with a ragged clap and the stink from the toilet has infiltrated the entire cabin. But no one on your team seems to notice. You're returning from sweeping an in-state rival and everyone is in a good mood, including Shark.
For the past 20 minutes, in fact, he and Redhot have been trading cutdowns in front of the rest of the team. It started off with a comment about Shark's lack of a human neck, and then Shark made a comment about Redhot's penis size, comparing it to a candy Red Hot. And Redhot followed by saying at least his penis is bigger than someone on steroids, and there was this great roar from the other players, a mix of laughter and shouts indicating a riotous expectation that Shark would now draw blood. But he didn't. He came back with a pretty good one, and Redhot followed, and so on, so that each time they volleyed back to the other the length of time grew longer between each response.
Redhot gets up and walks to the middle of the bus aisle. He starts wheeling his body left and right, without using his neck. He is like a mummy trying to turn and see things over here, over there. "What am I?" he says to his audience.
"A red-hot fag," Shark says.
Redhot ignores him, turns a few more times. The look on his face is perfect: eyebrows curled into curious yearning, eyes focusing on something just out of view.
"I'm Shark on a gay beach," Redhot says.
Redhot has a high-pitched giggle. He claps his hands once. "Redhot in the house!" he says. He segues into a rap-and-dance: "Say Redhot, yeah, he got a lot/ Say Redhot, yeah, he's a sex robot." He claps his hands again, laughs, sits down.
You watch from your seat near the front, laughing a little with everyone else. You realize that you're secretly cheering for Shark. You look at him, and he's pensively wrapped in thought, hands gripped tight on top of the seat in front of him, one leg tapping nervously. He's not smiling. Things settle. People wait for him to follow with a new one, but he doesn't. It's apparent that he is dry. Redhot has outlasted him.
Then, just as a few players turn away and look for their headphones or cells or GameBoys, Shark reaches over to Redhot's seat, grabs him by a skinny arm and makes him stand next to him in the aisle. Maybe he's going to raise Redhot's arm and crown him the champ? No, Redhot looks like he's being held by a dean at school.
Shark looks at everyone, makes sure his audience is captive. He says, "Yeah, fuck you. I went to Hooters the other night with Redhot here and when the waitress asked me what I wanted, I grabbed Redhot's arm and said, 'I'll take 20 of these.'"
The bus seems to swerve slightly, a reaction to the starburst of laughter. Redhot blushes, which makes him redder. Shark bites Redhot's arm, releases. Redhot grimaces, sags into his seat, gamely beaten.
Oswald, who is in love with Shark, repeats Shark's line several times to anyone who will listen, as if he just made it up. Shark goes to the bathroom and before he shuts the door he tells everyone that he is going to take a Redhot, so pardon the stink.
Soon, the lights go out. Players slide down in their seats and start to snore. The bus drones in the night.
Nine innings, 15 strikeouts, too many walks and a fantastic wild pitch, but only two hits, one run, and the final win of a sweep on a Sunday against a team and a coach for which you hold an unusual amount of disdain. Scouts were clustered in the stands behind home, and so many radar guns were aimed at you that together they looked like a large wasp's nest. You stared at the scouts after each strikeout, as the players threw the ball around the field. Who will be the lucky one? Who will fall at your feet when the day comes? Who will draft you first?
Across the aisle, Jimmy looks at you for a second and shakes his head before pulling his hat down over his eyes. It's difficult to explain, you admit.
There was a girl. What was her name? You were with her at 3 a.m. the night before your game. Last night. Actually the morning of your game. This morning. You had jumped nude from her apartment's clubhouse roof into a pool, where she giggled and where Jimmy made out with her not-pretty friend. You had taught Jimmy how to avoid curfew. The kid was catching on; he would be a legitimate stud by sophomore year.
This season, this moment, it is you. How did you pitch so well after getting only a few hours' drunken sleep? How are you so good? And what was her name? Started with an N? What kind of girl has sex at 3 a.m. with a baseball player from a visiting team? Sure, you have a certain charm and more than a little potential and this is seen as attractive. But 3 a.m., after meeting you two hours earlier in a bar?
A thought rises in your mind and you hope you remember it when it will come in handy. Because when you are in the majors making millions, after you get married and have kids and one of them is a daughter, she must be raised to know the truth: It's important to stay away from baseball players. Baseball players are not nice people. Baseball players are a different breed. And the best ones are so self-centered that a night after they whisper how much they love you, they won't even remember the first letter of your name.
But you don't have a daughter now. You just want to get your hands on the daughters. This is fleeting; but you are free.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/allenbaseball.html]
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