One More Game
Dirt. Sweat. Pounding. Yelling. These are the only things that reach my mind as I run. My cleats kick up the dirt, each step digging into the ground and propelling me forward. The sweat is from the strain of doing so, rivulets of the stuff streaming from my brow, soaking my vision in a stinging blur. The pounding is my heart, fighting desperately to supply oxygen to my muscles. The yelling is from all the people around me, alternatively rooting for me, booing me, and egging me on. Time has slowed to a crawl and ceased to exist, at least from my point of view.
Then, as if on cue, it speeds up again. I slide for the base, grinding over the rough ground. A crunching noise telling me that the second baseman has had the same idea. My foot touches the base, and his glove smacks down on top of it. I’m safe. More cheering, but I don’t listen. I’m focusing on getting up.
It’s bottom of the ninth. The Denver Daredevils and I are trailing the visiting team, the Penguins, by two points. My robbery of the second base has me on second and a teammate on third. One out, two balls and one strike. The batter gives me thumbs up and prepares again for the pitchers already set throw. I lead off the base slightly, but not like I’m going to steal. Our man on third does the same.
My leg develops a tic. The pitcher has a curve hold on the ball, and I curl my hand into a U shape. Our batter sees, gives a minuscule nod, and gets ready to swing slightly inside. The pitcher doesn’t seem to notice, and goes into his windup. The ball streaks through the air, and our batter swings to meet it. Another two seconds sees it soaring over my head, heading for center field. The outfielder catches it on the bounce, but what he does after that is lost to me. I’m already running.
Our man on third is on the move too. He reaches home about the same time I reach third. Tied. The coach standing nearby is wind-milling his arms toward home, so I don’t stop. The pounding is back, and the dirt, and the sweat. I can make out the shouting coming from the outfield. Something about “catching him at home.” I know what that means. I pour on all the speed my legs can muster. I hear a smack from behind. The ball just hit the third base mans hand. I’m close enough to home now to hit the dirt and slide again, and that’s exactly what I do.
After the considerable amount of dust clears, and the catcher gets his elbow out of my stomach, the verdict of the umpire is yelled out in his booming voice.
One word, and the stands erupt. Cheering, yelling, more and more and more. They think the game’s over. I dust off and walk to the dugout. Words of compliment spoken. Hands smacked against my back. I plop down, and watch the rest of the inning unfold in front of me. The guy who hit the ball that sent me on my merry way has made it to second. Our star hitter is up to bat. The rest of our team is muttering about how the game is practically ours.
The other team, visible in their own dugout, is busy rubbing their temples and kicking the wall. The general mood over the spectators seems to be that of resignation to the outcome of the game. A few people are packing up already. The pitcher, up until this point engrossed in watching second, has come back to the present and is just starting his windup. Our guy on second, already having signaled to our hitter the fastball coming his way, has started to lead off. Our hitter gets ready to sweet spot that ball into the heavens.
The ball is on its way. So is the bat. A deep thump and an exalted cheer later, our man on base is past third, halfway to home, and clear for landing. Another game down. As the team sprints out to the plate to give the winning run a group hug, I smile and think out loud.
“We really are starting to make a habit of this.”
Later, past the after-game celebration, past the surprise Gatorade dump, I’m walking home, thinking. That had been the latest in an unbeaten season of games. If we kept this up, the Denver Daredevils would be a name to be feared. Only one more game. One more game.
The last game is scheduled to take place in the largest stadium in Denver. It’s called the Stanley Ballpark. Legends have played there, but every year it’s reserved for the local baseball championship. This is going to be the most heated championship in the last decade. The Daredevils and I are going to be pitted against the Boston Bayries. It’s a huge rivalry. And no matter who wins, the rivalry is about to become even bigger. Whoever wins gets to claim the 1-foot-in-diameter Ballpark Cup. Every practice that preludes our big game, I get more and more nervous. There’s a lot riding on this.
The last practice before the game comes and goes far too quickly for my liking. The eve of the championship is on us like lightning. I lie on my bed, contemplating. I get a text on my phone. It’s the star hitter. We talk, but we’re so nervous the conversation peeters out after a minute. I flop over onto my side and glance at the clock. It’s nearly 10:00. It takes another hour before I finally fall asleep, fantasizing of holding the Ballpark Cup over my head, the stands roaring around me.
The next morning at 7:00 sharp, we pull up outside the stadium. Once inside, everyone starts stopping and starting, stalling just to get a good look. It’s a beautiful stadium, with soaring outer walls and well-swept steps. The inside is similarly majestic. We pile into the professional dugout, dump our stuff, look around and wait. A few spectators have also shown up. Another three or four minutes see the Bayries trudging in to plop down in their dugout just the same.
At this point there’s a steady stream of people. The stands are filling up fast. The umpires walk out of some sort of service hallway and go to both our coaches, and then both of the other teams coaches.
“Not too long now.” My foot is twitching, developing that infuriatingly persistent tic. Our dugout is in roiling anticipation. Three kids are tapping their bats together. Another three are doing some sort of hot potato game. Others, like me, simply wait for the inevitable. The umps finish talking, confer, and then head to the home plate.
The now three-quarters-full stands hush slightly. One by one, we all rise to gaze out from under our dugout roof. The Bayries do the same. The umps both take out their brushes in a ceremonial flourish, and dust off the plate at the same time. Here we go.
Our star hitter walks out to open up the game. Their pitcher walks to the mound. Our hitter sets up. The pitcher does the same. He winds up, pitches, and follows through. Our hitter swings. A ringing smack. Line drive. The hitter gets to second, where I replace him as a substitute runner. The game is under way.
The innings pass in a blur. I’m put out as substitute runner more times than I can count. The score fluctuates wildly, one team leading, and then the other. 1:3. 5:4. 7:7. After eight innings, the tension is higher than ever. The other team is getting desperate, and unfortunately for us, it pays off. They load the bases. A lucky hit sends them all for home at a sensitive point in the score. We are now trailing by three points, in the bottom of the ninth. No room for error. If we don’t get a perfect, bases-loaded home run, we are doomed.
I look around our dugout. I whisper my plan to three people, including our star hitter. I suit up for the plate, and head out to bat. The pitcher has an odd glint in his eyes. I tense slightly, trying to look as if I’m preparing for a fastball. I have a feeling I’m about to get a knuckler. The pitcher follows through on my hunch. I can only rack up first base.
The next hitter gets the same treatment, but doesn’t take it as well. He strikes out. There’s a slight groan from our dugout, snuffed quickly and reciprocated with back pats and condolences to the struck out batter. I start to develop the tic. The next hitter gets a single, and I can run to second. One more single and I’m on third. Bases loaded.
That was the easy part. Our star hitter isn’t up yet, and one more strike out is served to our team. At this point my leg is jiggling all over the place. The star hitter steps up to the plate. Our man on second watches the pitcher like a hawk. My mouth is dry, and my heart is beating faster and faster. Our hitter gets the signal, and prepares for a fastball.
Suddenly, the pitcher switches his hold and starts to wind up. Our man on second can only manage the signal for a switched hold, rather than the specific hold. The hitter shifts his weight into a more general set up, and watches the ball. Just like the stress point in our last game, time slows down. The pitcher goes into his sluggish windup. The ball drifts with a purpose toward our batter. He slowly swings. The ball is feet away, inches away, centimeters, and then…
A deep, vibrating thump. That kind of noise is reserved for the best of the best hits. The noise tunes my mind, and I know. If we were to ever get a home run, that was the kind of noise you wanted to hear to herald it. Sweet spot. The ball soars, and by the time I start to move, it’s clear where it’s headed. Our star hitter put his all into that swing, and his all is a considerable amount.
The ball lands in the stands, and the cheer that erupts deafens me on my trot to home.
“Home run! Home run! Home run!” I walk across the plate. We’re trailing by two. The next runner follows. One. The next runner. We’re tied. Our star hitter jogs to first, second, and finally third. The last few yards, he walks. He pauses in front of us, one pace away from winning us the game. We hear crunching noises behind us. The rest of the team groups around. Our best hitter looks at us, looks at the throngs of cheering spectators, looks at the plate, and steps over it.
I don’t remember much of the aftermath. There was a lot of cheering, even after we had left the stadium. There were also a few tears on the part of myself, but they were for joy, and didn’t stop the euphoria. A day later, I was standing in front of the trophy case in our areas Rec and Ed center. The shelves that held it required reinforcement, and it was polished to a gleam by the team. Our pride and jewel. The result of weeks of practice. And after all that work, all that sweat, all that exertion, we had brought it home. Ballpark.