First at Bat

by Philip Rivera

It was the bottom of the ninth, and you could scoop the tension off the floor with a spoon. It had drizzled to the ground back in the 7th inning when my high school team broke the mercy rule and extended its lead past 10 runs. By the bottom of the 9th, we were up by 12 and this caused a shift in the athletic universe.

Much like lunar eclipses, 12 run leads allowed for strange circumstances on my team. This was when athletes with potential, such as myself, were put in the game for some real life experience (without causing too much damage). I was placed in the clean-up spot in the lineup, which, for those unfamiliar with baseball, is where the teams power hitter strikes. Of course, that only matters when its toward the beginning of the game and there’s still strategy involved.  At this point, it may have well been the mascots position in the lineup.  No matter The Coach has me in clean up for a reason, I thought can’t let him down. 

Two outs and I’m up.  Wally Fong, aka the Flying Fongster, had just hit a hard ground ball down the third base line and bolted so fast his feet seemed to hover over the dirt path, narrowly missing the tag at first.  I stepped up to the plate and peered at the third base coach from under my brim for the secret signal.  Would he ask me to bunt to move the Flying Fongster to second? Perhaps take the first pitch to allow him to steal?  Or maybe release a power swing that would shred the ball to pieces over the outfield? I waited¦ and looked but all I got in return was a blank stare, a shoulder shrug and hand gesture that implied what?! Go bat!

The Go Bat signal, I thought, and gave him an approving nod as I turned to face the plate. Since most people had lost interest in the game at this point, I imagined my own background chatter, complete with peanut vendors and the occasional female cheer.  I eyed the pitcher and took my battle stance. He wound up and released a sling shot of a fastball that zipped inches from under my elbow and smacked into the catcher’s mitt.  Clearly a ball, I told myself.

RAHHHHH!! came the guttural sound of umpire.  My ear was not fine-tuned to umpire-speak, so I had no idea what he said, and of course, one does not simply turn to him and say, Can you please clarify if that was a ball or strike, my good man?  I would follow my own judgement; confident the umpire was in sync with my accurate assessments.

I brushed off the close encounter and prepared for the next showdown.  Again the pitcher kicked up his leg and whipped his hand toward me like a medieval catapult attacking a castle wall.  I squeezed the bat and swung, waiting for the distinct clink of aluminum I had heard from so many others but all I heard was another punch of leather as the ball somehow evaded my power swing.

Ok, now you know what he’s got, show him what you’ve got.  One ball, one strike, it’s time for glory.  In the stands, people were standing to their feet; whether it was the electricity in the air, or wanting to avoid parking lot traffic, I wasn’t sure. I mustered up my hardest look and beamed it at my opponent on the mound.  A warning of things to come.

He yawned and glanced over his shoulder to check the Flying Fongster, who was spitting into the dirt and mixing it into mud with his cleats. After a quick nod at the catcher, he leaned back, wound the catapult back again and released another searing shot which whizzed just below my elbow.  From behind me came the guttural  RAHHH! of the umpire followed by other random rumblings I couldn’t make out. He was obviously afraid of the power I contained and wanted me to back away from the plate with another ball.

Determined to be the last man standing, I once again took my position on the battle line and stared the pitcher down. But this time, he looked back at me with a quizzical look. Obviously, I had worn him down with my look of steel, so I waited for the kill like a lion on the prowl.  And waited but he didn’t wind up.

Then I realized there’s only one thing worse than striking out when the game is on the line

Soon came the now distinct even paternal, voice of the umpire. Not now, sir ,not when I had the pitcher on the ropes. Son you’re out.  That was strike three!

and that’s not knowing you’ve struck out.  Since exposing the umpire’s error by slamming my helmet on the ground would only have increased the awkwardness, I simply started the slow, embarrassing walk back to the dugout.

In the distance, I could hear crowds booing, hissing and rioting at the call and demanding a do-over or maybe it was the sound of the mower as it smoothed out disheveled gravel from the game.

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