When there are only nine boys in your high school class, sports are not always optional.
My friend Archie approached me one day during lunch period.
“You want to play baseball this year?” he asked.
“No, ” I said. “I’ve never played baseball in my life.”
“We need you. We’ve got eight players, but we need nine.”
“But I’m already doing cross country and tennis.”
“You can just come to practice a few times and show up for games. None are on weekends, and we get out of class early.”
This was sounding better.
“What do I need?”
“We’ll go to Wal-Mart after school and get you a glove. We’ve got all the rest of the stuff.”
“What about cleats?”
“You can just wear your tennis shoes.”
Archie and I drove to Wal-Mart after the last bell, and I purchased the cheapest glove they had. It was purple nylon with REGENT written on it. When we got back to school, I saw the rest of the boys gathered half-spirited at the corner of the soccer field. Andy Burris seemed to be getting them organized. I assumed he was the team captain. Andy was the best athlete of us all and captain of every team sport.
As we approached the group, I asked Archie who the coach was. He pointed to an old man sitting high above the soccer field on a hilltop, sipping from something in a paper sack. “Him, ” Archie said.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never met him.”
The boys were relieved to see me and found new energy knowing they could finally field a team.
“Just stand out there in right field, ” Andy told me. “If anything comes your way, Hank will run over from midfield and catch it.”
“Fine, ” I said. “What about batting?”
“No problem, ” he said. “Just stand there and strike out.”
“So basically, just stand around.”
I was starting to like baseball. It sounded like I got to skip class to hang out with my friends and do nothing.
For a few weeks I stayed after school, slipped on my purple glove and hung out with the boys on the soccer field. Sometimes the coach was on the hilltop; sometimes he wasn’t. He never said a word to us. Andy told me his name was Mr. Wasp, but I never heard him called that. I never heard anyone speak to him at all. But I shrugged it off and reasoned there were just a lot of things about baseball I didn’t need to know.
Our first game was against J.U. Blacksher, a rural school in Monroe County. We got out of class at about 2 p.m. and boarded the old ragged-out sports bus. I was surprised to see Mr. Wasp sitting behind the steering wheel. We filed past him and took our seats. Mr. Wasp closed the door and mumbled his first words.
“Big game, boys, ” he said.
The baseball field at J.U. Blacksher had no wall or back fence. Corn grew right up to the edges. And the J.U. boys were the biggest boys I’d ever seen. Farm animals. Most of them had mustaches and seemed like they should be fathers. They didn’t smile at all, and it was obvious they took baseball very seriously.
Our team spent most of the time in the outfield as the J.U. boys scored run after run. Most of their balls sailed or rolled into the cornfield, and there was nothing to do but stand there and watch the runners lap the bases. I had a couple come my way, and if Hank could get to it, he would. Most of time it went into the cornfield with the others.
Finally, my turn at bat came up. By this time I was getting a little bored.
“You mind if I just try to hit it?” I asked Andy.
“Sure, ” he said. “Why not?”
The J.U. crowd seemed to like it when I walked to the plate and picked up the bat. By now, they were onto me.
“Hey, Tennis Shoe!” one of them shouted from the stands. “Hey, boy, gonna mess you up!”
I wanted to turn around and smile and explain myself. Surely they’d like me if I let them in on the joke. But everything was happening too fast. The pitcher was already starting to wind up. And then, suddenly, I heard the ball slap into the catcher’s mitt, and the umpire yelled so loud I thought I was in trouble.
Holy crap! I thought. No way in hell anybody hits that!
“Come on, Watt, ” I heard one of my buddies laugh.
I didn’t think it was funny. I was terrified of getting a hole in my chest the size of a grapefruit. The ball was so fast that I couldn’t even follow it, much less try to get out of its way.
“How you like that, Tennis Shoe!”
I tightened my grip on the bat and braced myself for instant death.
The pitcher fired another white streak past me. I didn’t know what was worse, the supersonic pitch or the umpire yelling at my face. I just wanted it all to be over. And in a moment, it was.
On the ride home I noticed the team didn’t seem too discouraged. In fact, Archie told me the only time they’d ever won was due to a forfeit.
As we filed out of the bus, Mr. Wasp nodded to us. “See you at practice, boys, ” he said.
Keeping to tradition, we didn’t win a game the entire season. In fact, we didn’t even come close. But sometimes, you just have to take one for the team.
Text by Watt Key