Thursday, June 18, 2009

...Summer Days

The ball sailed wide left, bouncing against the backstop and out of play.

“Ball one,” the heavyset umpire mumbled.

The batter threw me a quizzical glance, then stepped back into the chalked box, lazily swinging his metallic bat while squatting into position. He was at least three inches taller than me. A blue wrist band adorned each of his forearms, drawing my attention as he slowly eased his shiny aluminum bat into position for my next pitch.

“Biggest kids in the league on all three levels,” was what everyone was saying about Big Prairie’s baseball teams this year. If their lead off hitter was any indication of what was to come, I assumed the Holmes County Rumor-Mill had been correct this time.

I took a deep breath, trying to keep my eyes from locking onto the glistening sparkle bouncing off the batter’s bright red helmet due to an intense array of limitless sunshine.

“Blow one by him, Kaufman!” Coach Stutzman hollered from the dugout, his hands clapping in support.

Kicking up my left foot in a frenzied rush, I wheeled and fired my second pitch. I knew the moment the ball left my fingertips that I had rushed my delivery.

The ball glanced off the diamond about two feet short of home plate, bringing up a cloud of dust as it skipped into my catcher’s chest protector with a deadening thud.

“Ball two,” the uninspired umpire croaked.

I didn’t understand why I was so nervous. It wasn’t like this was my first time standing on the pitcher’s mound. In fact, throwing fast balls by my team mates during practice had pretty much become commonplace over the last several weeks. I had in fact grown quite comfortable with the spotlight. So why freeze up and wimp out now?

I took my eyes away from the action at home plate and studied the crowd sitting along the bleacher sections behind both the first and third base lines. Perhaps that explained the army of ravaging butterflies beating against the walls of my stomach.

Parents and siblings. Grandparents and neighbors. Everyone who boasted of knowing one of the players from either team, clapping their hands together and shouting out support for their loved ones on the field. While I couldn’t piece together each of my teammate’s families, I did recognize some of the same adults who had attended my team’s games from the previous year.

I turned back to the batter. He was poised, intense, awaiting my serve. Below him, nestled into a crouch, my catcher, Jeff Miller, opened his mitt as wide as possible, providing me a target with which to shoot for.

As everyone had predicted, Bruce Yoder had made Coach Hummel’s Little League team as a nine year old, third grader. A feat very rarely achieved, but understood throughout his fellow team mates. He was talented, perhaps one of the best ever. Moving him up early had been the right move.

While Jeff was nowhere near the catcher Bruce was, he was adequate, and good enough for me. We had spent the past couple of weeks working together, learning each other’s techniques, what worked, and what didn’t. We both felt pretty good about one another as we prepared for competition. He was a year younger than me, but had the experience of working alongside Bruce for the past two years, learning the art of successfully manning the ever important position behind home plate. All I really cared about was whether or not he could handle my fastball. The rest was up to him.

“Stop rushing,” I mumbled to myself. “Breathe. Calm down.”

The ball sliced through the air and finally landed in Jeff’s mitt this time, but a good five inches outside the strike zone. The grinning batter never moved, his bat resting lazily upon his shoulder.

“Ball three.”

I walked in a circle around the pitcher’s mound, gripping the ball in my right hand, trying to squeeze it as if it were made of rubber while kicking up a small cloud of dust with my cleats. My arm felt stiff. My heart continued pounding against my chest to the point where I began wondering if anyone could actually see it pulsating through my red ball shirt.

“Calm down Kaufman! You’ll be fine, son,” Coach Stutzman exclaimed from the dugout.

Striding back atop the dusty mound, I reached up with my right hand and tugged on the bill of my cap. That dazzling glare bouncing off the batter’s helmet was causing my eyes to tear up. At least that was the excuse I was planning on using.

The lanky lead off hitter stepped into the batter’s box once again, not bothering to take a practice swing this time. The weight of his bat rested upon his shoulder. He had no plans of swinging at my next pitch.

“He’s struggling, Travis!” the opposing coach hollered. “Take a pitch or two!”

I reached up and pulled my cap down further still, my frustration building. I definitely did not want to walk the first hitter I’d ever faced.

As I tightened my grip on the baseball while keeping it nestled inside my ball glove, I spotted a small group of Amish boys standing together behind the backstop. They looked like the same trio who had watched me pitch for the first time during Spring tryouts. While their homemade denim pants were identical to the ones they wore the first time I’d seen them, this time all three boys had on short-sleeve, button down shirts under their denim suspenders, rather than the warmer long-sleeve version which was spun of the same heavy fabric. That was a sure sign.

In many places in America, people often watched hopefully for the first Robin to scuttle about in their backyards in search of a worm as a first sign of Spring. Still others look to the trees in hopes of spotting tiny buds peeking out from the many spores along the branches of an elderly Maple. In Holmes County my friends and I tended to watch the clothing habits of the Amish community’s younger generation. Once the navy-blue, wool caps were replaced for straw hats, and the long-sleeve shirts were stored away in favor of short-sleeves, we all knew without a doubt that Spring had arrived.

Three pairs of eyes, intense, staring directly at me as I watched them. Their expressions were hopeful, their fingers clinging onto the metal fencing which ran up along the backstop in order to protect the many cheering fans.

Just then I caught notice of the person standing behind the three boys. It was Bruce. Still dressed in his red and white pin-striped, Little League uniform from his team’s earlier game, he stood, legs slightly spread, arms down at his sides, eyes on me. His ball pants were stained a dusty brown from his left knee down to his cleat from an apparent slide into one of the bases. His face appeared weary, but his eyes were focused as they locked with mine from over forty feet away and amongst several mingling teenagers grouped nearby.

As I watched, Bruce spread his arms out from his sides, palms outward, defenseless, as if giving me a target to aim at. And then I realized his intentions.

Earlier in the day, during a heated dodgeball contest while at recess, I had thrown a rubber ball at Bruce, hitting him squarely in the chest with enough velocity behind it, that he stumbled backwards onto the gym floor, completely losing his balance. Even though he immediately jumped back onto his feet and threw me a haughty glare as he trudged off the gymnasium floor, the quick nod of his head he offered me as he joined his fellow classmates alongside the stage, whispered a different story.

Over the course of the school year, Bruce and I had become fierce rivals in whatever activity we chose to participate in. While we very rarely spoke to one another, and often sent each other intimidating scowls whenever crossing paths in the school hallway, a strange bond had been formed. We had grown to respect each other’s talents. It had in fact, become a form of quiet admiration held secretly between us. A bond. We both recognized it. Deep down we wanted each other to succeed.

Bruce knew that I always threw my best pitch when aiming for him. He saw that I had gotten myself into a pickle on the mound during my debut performance. Once again, Bruce Yoder, the most unlikely of allies, came to my aid.

My eyes never left Bruce’s presence as I kicked my leg high into the air, wound up my right arm, and unleashed a dart that sunk into the folds of Jeff’s mitt with a crack of cork against leather. The batter never moved, but neither did Jeff’s mitt.

“Strike!”

As I caught the ball from Jeff, a sigh of relief escaping through my lips, I saw Bruce lower his arms back to his sides. A playful grin spread across his face as he threw me a nod of his head, and continued on toward the school parking lot where his older brother was waiting to drive him home.

I turned back to the batter, who remained in the box, bat still resting upon his shoulder. Apparently one good pitch didn’t convince him that I had found my groove. He was trying to earn himself a lead off walk. I reared back and fired another perfect bullet straight into Jeff’s mitt.

“Two!” The umpire’s deep voice rose above the sound of the applauding faithful in the stands. I noticed that he had suddenly become more interested. His eyebrows were arched from behind his wire face-mask as he eyeballed me up and down.

“Atta boy, Kaufman!” Coach Stutzman’s guttural encouragement caused my excitement to grow. “One more! Blow it by him!”

The pitch count was full. Big Prairie’s tall, lead off hitter had lifted his bat several inches above his shoulder. His prideful sneer was nowhere to be seen. He was squatting several inches lower in his stance. From the looks of it, he was no longer expecting to be sent to first base with a walk.

Kicking my left leg high into the air as I’d seen Nolan Ryan do a hundred times on television, I reached my arm behind me like a metal spring searching for a little extra thrust, and smoked a fast ball into home plate as hard as I could throw it.

With a grunt, the batter stretched his lanky arms out and swung his bat in a wide arc, falling behind the ball’s velocity, and missing badly. The baseball had already sunk into Jeff’s catcher’s mitt before he had completed his swing.

“Your out!” The umpire hollered.

As one, the fans along the first base side rose to their feet and roared their approval at my first strikeout. I watched them, fascinated. They were cheering for me. The clapping of hands, the shouts of joy, whooping and hollering over the game’s first out, my first strikeout, would be a sound I’d never forget.

The butterflies in my stomach were gone. The stiffness in my arm had dissipated. The sweat dripping into my eyebrows from under the bill of my cap was ignored. Only one thing mattered now. I gripped the baseball, running two fingers along the nylon seams, and went to work.

An hour and a half later, as the echo of screaming fans could be heard down the block into Berlin’s town square, I successfully struck out the final batter I would have to face that day. It was ironically the lead off hitter once again.

We defeated Big Prairie 4-0 in my pitching debut. In the end I struck out nine batters, and gave up only two hits while pitching the entire game.

...those were the days