Below is a chapter that appears much later in the book. To date, it was the chapter I enjoyed writing the most. There is a simple line that brings me to tears everytime I read it. I hope you enjoy it.
I sit at the end of the bench because that is where my talent has put me. Mom insisted that I go out for baseball because it would be good for me. I have made it through most of the season and I am still looking for the good. I sit on the bench with an African kid who is worse than me and I find comfort in his inability. We are on the baseball team sponsored by the corner liquor store in a league organized by the local Catholic Parish, St. Scholastica. We don’t have cool names like the Tigers, or the Indians, or the Astros. We go by the businesses that sponsor us. My team is Parklane Cork and Bottle. The uniforms are white with green piping and a baseball hat that is green in the front and white mesh in the back.
We are nearing the end of the season and I can’t wait for this to be over. The coach is Mr. Shade, a mean white haired grouch who’s the father of our pitcher Peter Shade. They are white and so is most of the league. The African (whose name I can’t say), Gilbert, the Hispanic kid, and me are the only minorities on the team.
Practices are at best humiliating. The coach rockets fly balls off his bat to the less talented kids that play outfield. I chase more balls than I catch and coach gets to prove he still can hit a baseball. Each ball I miss is accompanied with some insult from coach about how bad my skills are and how I should play the ball.
“Hofmann, you gotta get under the ball to catch the ball.” His tone is harsh and degrading and I am thinking, “if I get under the ball and miss the ball, I will get hit by the ball.” I consciously choose insults over being beaned by the hard ball.
The games are an extreme extension of practice. Mr. Shade, doesn’t let up even though family is present. I play 2-3 innings each game because the rules say I have to play. If the creators of this league had not put that rule in the rule book I would have had a permanent spot at the end of the bench. I play center field or right field or left field. This is usually the spot the African kid was playing when they pull him out and put me in.
The outfield is good for me. I have rationalized that the ball can’t possibly be hit fast enough that I can’t see it coming. This way I can either fake to go after it or move out of the way; whichever way I play it I will not get hit. As each batter comes to the plate I go over in my mind what I should do with the ball once I miss it. If someone is on first and there is a fly ball I know to chase the ball, after it gets past me, and throw it to second. I have gleaned that through the coach’s insults at practice.
Batting is a nightmare I hate to repeat. I am a small kid and I fear that ball as if it is wrapped in death. At 12 years old, some of the pitchers in this league could throw this rock hard ball through a barn door. At this age, unfortunately the strength is there, but finding that barn door isn’t always easy for some pitchers.
I bat near the end of the lineup. This means, all the good kids have batted. The African kid is before me and the skinny white kid who stands 2 feet from home plate when he bats, bats after me. No matter what the combination this group of three is not going to start a rally. There is really no incentive for me to hit the ball. If I don’t hit the ball I can go back to my comfortable seat on the bench–at the end.
The African kid is a magnet and it never seems to fail. He gets up to the plate, stands motionless as the pitcher whizzes 2 strikes by him. I say to myself: “he is 2/3 of the way, one more and he can sit down in one piece.” On the third pitch, I look away. I can’t watch. I have seen it too many times before. I am praying the next sound I hear is “strike 3” but instead I hear, “thud,” followed by a gasp from the crowd, followed by a second of silence, followed by a faint whimper. The African kid takes the ball on his left side between his seventh and eighth rib. He limps down to first base, and as he passes by our bench to first, coach yells to him “toughen up, shake it off!”
I force myself to take one step after the other towards home to go bat. My mind is fractured. When I get to home I look down at first base and the African kid’s face is painted with his tears that are still flowing. I don’t want to be him. I stand at the plate and concentrate on the ball. My eyes are glued to the ball so I know where it is and how to get out of its way. The bat rests on my shoulder. There is no way I can swing the bat and concentrate on the ball. I stand immobile waiting for 3 strikes or four balls. I will let fate decide what happens. No movement will be generated by me unless the ball is coming towards me. If it does come toward me, I may scale the backstop to get away. The pitcher sends 3 accurate balls my way and I am called out and relieved.
Dad loves baseball. He is a big Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers fan. I am sure my skills disappoint him. Dad decides being an ump would be a good way to get involved in my baseball career. The daily insults and relentless pounding of my self esteem was not enough. During the season, Dad umps several games and a few of mine. I do find that Dad and I have a lot in common when it comes to baseball. As bad as I am as a player Dad matches that with his umpire ability. I can now see how painful it must be for Dad to watch me play because when I watch Dad ump I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach right about where it joins my intestine.
When Dad umps the games I am playing in I get the genuine privilege of sitting on the bench with coach. The coach’s son is pitching and we are in the field. As the coach’s son hurls the ball past the other team straight down the center of the plate and exactly half way between the batter’s knees and chest, Dad bellows out, “BALL.” After 3-4 batters get gifts like this the coach erupts in to a symphony of words I am too young to say or hear, “Aw, you son of a bitch, that was a damn strike, God damned blind ump.” The coach is bright enough not yell it. He says it just so only I and the other bench dwellers can hear him.
The coach doesn’t see the resemblance between the white ump and the black scrub next to him. I sit silently praying a foul ball will veer off and knock me unconscious.
I make it through the season and unfortunately we make the playoffs and make it in to the championship game. This only prolongs this never ending season.
The night before the game Mike and I are out playing and Mike suggests that I practice my fielding. We go over to Mr. Wright’s lawn and Mike hits some grounders to me and tries to get me excited about the game. We don’t even attempt batting practice. I do a decent job of fielding and the practice is called because the darkness invades our playing field. I go to bed feeling prepared.
The next day, I station myself at the end of the bench for the first 3 innings. Then after 3 innings I have to go to left field. The African kid comes out. I get no action in the field and I am excited that no one is hitting to me. I run in from left field after the end of the fifth inning. One more inning. The score is tied and I am just hoping someone ends this tie so we don’t have to go into extra innings. We are batting close to the top of the order. For the championship game coach changes the batting order. The coach decides for today to spread out the 3 sure outs. The African kid, the skinny white, and I are broken up in the batting order. I bat sooner than usual today.
Our catcher gets up and hits a single. Gilbert, the Hispanic kid, gets up and hits a single. The coach’s son gets up and hits a single. The bases are loaded. The next batter gets up and pops out. It is now the batter before me and then me. My knees are beginning to tremor and I am praying down heaven. I am pleading with God to let the batter before me hit in to a double play. This season has been torturous enough. “Please dear God don’t let me be the last out.” The batter before me swings at 3 quick blurred pitches missing them all. “Hofmann, you’re up.” Coach barks at me. The look of defeat mixed with anger consumes his face. I grab my helmet and bat and walk towards home plate. I get in position. This time I know that if I accept 3 strikes without attempting to hit the ball there is a good chance coach will kill me before I make it back to the bench.
I grip the bat tightly remembering to push my hands together. I have a bad habit of spacing out my hands when I hold the bat and coach doesn’t like that at all. I dig my cheap Beta Bullet gyms shoes into the dirt because that’s what baseball players do. I am still trying to sell the idea that I am trying. The pitcher winds up and zings a pitch at me. As it zooms towards me I realize his pitches seem a lot faster from this view. I wildly swing. I hit air. “Strike one.” The catcher throws back the ball and I am determined not to swing at this next one. The pitcher flings it at me and I stand motionless. “Ball one.” Now I am thinking, if I can get three more balls the winning run will be walked home. I can be the hero by just standing here. For once no action in a sport could be a good thing. I ready myself to not swing. The ball comes at me and I freeze. “Ball two.” I am half way there. “Please God, please.” The next pitch comes and I stick to the statute strategy. “Strike two.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now what do I do? I am panicking. Searching for a way out, but the pitcher already has the ball and he is winding up. This next pitch what do I do? Should I swing or freeze and I can’t think fast enough and I am trying to figure it out as the ball is moving closer and closer and I don’t have a solution yet. I concentrate on the ball watching it spin towards me faster than the speed of light and in slow motion. I have to decide. “Lord what do I do? Speak to me Lord.” The ball is crossing the plate and I stick my bat out. It is a compromise between not swinging and swinging. The ball hits the bat and launches in to right field over the head of the chubby kid whose talent has put him there.
I run like my pants are on fire and the coach screams at me to run faster. I round first and head for second and everyone is yelling for me to keep going. I tag second and I stride for third. I land on third as the baseball lands in the in-field. I stay on third and the crowd, my bench, my friends and my family go crazy. Three runs score and I stand on third. The emotions are filling my chest and trying to escape through my tear ducts. My smile stretches from ear to ear and I manage to damn up my tears. I got it right.
The next batter hits me home and I return to the bench a hero. Some how they get the last out on us and the game is over. We win the championship game.
We cheer, scream, and yell for the next 5 minutes because that is the only way we know how to celebrate. Coach Shade cuts our celebration short as he out yells us all. “Quiet down, quiet down we still have to give out the game ball. That was a great game, a tough game but we pulled it out and we could not have done it without… the excellent pitching of my son, Peter.” He awards his son the game ball and says nothing to me and I am glad.