The first time I walked onto the baseball field at William and Mary, I thought I had just entered Yankee Stadium. The grass was tight, the football field provided a bit of architecture, and the outfield seemed like it went on forever. I was ten and that day only a few kids showed up to practice, so we took batting practice off the pitcher’s mound and tried to hit home runs over the backstop. The baseball spirits were with me that day.
“All right, get in there. Who’s up? A little hustle, fellas.”
Years later my high school coach would have practice under the stadium. A batting cage hung under the bleachers and getting some batting practice there seemed like a cool thing to do. Each crack of the bat would echo like a gun going off and buckets of balls would stir up the dirt into a poor man’s version of the Dustbowl. We saved the tattered and soft balls for practice in the cage.
“Keep the elbow down,” Coach would say. I would listen and do the best I could, but hitting was not my strong suit on the field. We were about a five hundred baseball team and like most places the heat on our coach grew with each season. Williamsburg was a small town then, but the perception of the town was that we were something big. When the season ended, a group of us would continue going to the cage to hit. The days were usually just dusty, blister forming affairs.
Then one day…
“Brad, you throw first,” said Ted. “We’ll take twenty cuts and then switch.”
Ted was a tall, skinny kid who could hit the snot out of the ball. If he could have thrown he would have been a solid major league prospect, but he was looking at a small college career somewhere in the wilds of Virginia. On this day, really everyday, he wanted to hit first. After he got his mammoth cuts, he would find a bucket to sit on and pack the thickest dips while the rest of worked in the cage. I never really noticed how lazy he was, but on this day I had my eye tuned to him.
“Who’d you do last night, Sam?” I asked.
“Aw man, Brad, you missed it last night. It was crazy. You’ve got to get rid of that job of yours.”
Sam and I had known each other for a few years. We had been on the same team since we were in eighth grade. Now, in the summer before our senior year, I was looking at the most important player on our team with a contempt that was really hard to hide.
“I hear you.” My first couple of pitches were not of batting practice quality. Then I found a groove and started serving up balls like a father pitching to his son. Sam would send them back up the middle forcing me to dive behind the pitching screen for protection.
“Why’d you kiss her, Sam?”
Sam was known as a player and he really didn’t have any respect for anyone when he set his sights on a girl. He had made a play for a girl I had gone out with a couple of times. We weren’t really dating, but the code was not to hit on a girl someone else was trying to go out with.
“Aw, come on man. You know what I’m talking about. Why’d you kiss, Tina? You know she and I have been out a few times.”
“Brad, I didn’t mean anything by it. Just having fun, you know.”
I kept throwing him those fat pitches, but now he popped them up or swung through them. He knew what he did was wrong and it bothered him that I brought it up, but said nothing else. He stepped out the cage after his last swing and went over to his bucket for his customary dip. We rotated, Joe pitched, and I hit. Nobody said a word. After a few times around, I guess it got to be too much for Sam. While I hit and he spit, he offered his back stabbing logic.
“You know, she kissed me back, too.”
“If you hadn’t been at work, that would have never happened.”
I took another cut.
“How did you even know?”
I never looked over. I was focused on each pitch. I wanted to see the stitches and the spin of the ball. I drove into each ball and rolled my wrists at impact just like the coaches had trying to get me to do forever. I had never hit mad before. I had also never doubted my teammates because I saw them like brothers. We always talked about “team” and for the first time in my life reality had struck into my naiveté. People could be scum no matter how well you thought you knew them.
“Does it matter how I knew?” I asked.
Joe must have thrown the worst ball in the bucket because when I hit it the cover came right off. This was not some Natural moment, but it was a surprise to all of us that kind of broke the tension that was developing. I was done hitting, Joe was done, but Sam wanted one more round. I stood at the end of that cage looking at him with about as much contempt as I would ever have for anyone. I fed him hittable pitches and he was back to hitting crisp liners again. An athlete’s mind has an ability to block everything else out. Sam had moved on.
I was not an athlete anymore.
“One more, Brad. We’re cool, right?”
I didn’t answer, but went right into my pitching motion. My fastball was not fast, but when placed in the right spot any pitch can scare the snot out of a batter. This pitch had a little extra on it and probably missed Sam by more than I wished, but the message was sent.
“Yeah, we’re cool,” I said. “See ya, fellas, I’ve got to go to work.” I left without helping pick up the balls or giving Sam one last ball to hit. The year would go on and he and I would have one of those friendships that happens because of small town living, more proximity than anything else. He was kind of around, but he was never on my radar after than. I stayed away from the batting cage, preferring work over practice. As for Tina, she and Sam hooked up at some point, but it didn’t matter since I was done with both of them.
The aura around the field at William and Mary began to diminish after that. I was asked by a couple of drunk college students to judge a beached whale contest in the bleachers overlooking the stadium. Their big bellies, complete with blow holes, was funny enough to have me thinking about a life away from sports. Then my old coach from the golden afternoon practice back when I was ten was arrested as a child molester. That sealed my fondness for the old ballpark.
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