I’ll jump in here in mid-week, an event becoming more and more rare as Stu and I seek to plumb the very depths of a seemingly bottomless pool of work.
I suppose it was his doing, in a way. I was churning along in fine form yesterday afternoon when I heard the generator shut down and the supply of portable power to my workstation some 40 feet in the air was abruptly halted. And I leaned over the lift and with a sweetly rendered “ ‘the hell?”, I inquired as to just why this had occurred.
He was calm. “Because it’s time for the game,” he said.
Stu occasionally accompanies me to see the Eldest play the fastpitch high school softball thing. He dotes on Beth just as a Dutch uncle should, making her laugh with his teasing and buying her flowers at odd times. Or rescuing her from the clutches of her father with a more lighthearted approach than your author might take. It’s a natural role for him to take (and he does it with all my kids) and she reciprocates the affection and reflects the limelight that he casts her in so well.
‘The Game’ in question here was a playoff game. Do or die. Winner will advance. Loser shall not.
When you’re a senior in high school, loser-shall-not means putting a period at the end of the sentence and closing the book of dreams. Beth is seeing the end of things, that certain startling time when the certainty of high school passing by sets in, that feeling of melancholy when you progress from February’s wailing of “Will graduation ever get here?” to late May’s somber “oh God, I’ll never see or touch or feel this again. Not ever.”
The Game was a chance, in a way. A chance that all players of games take when the end of the season is near. To advance and prolong, to keep things alive, to keep doing what is loved and sweated over. To not have an ending.
I’ve been watching her all season, this senior of mine. With that look, the awful one that adults acquire after having gone through the pain of things over the years. I watch her jog to the outfield (“ . . .and doesn’t she just glide, that effortless smoothness of limbs trained for moving without ever appearing to touch the ground . . .”) and shag the warm-up balls and the thought just keeps running through my head “It’s closing in on her. Last game’s coming. Her last game’s coming and there’s nothing on earth that can stop it.”
I suppose I was ruminating about it, far too much, even for a doddering old-timer. I didn’t let on in her presence because, after all, what good would it do her? It’s been a helluva ride for her, all the way back to 7th grade when she started this school team thing, and long before that in the little girl leagues.
So I was in a predisposed funk all the way from the jobsite to the ball field. And it didn’t help matter much that they were playing the awesome team. The team that should, without much difficulty, be state champions this year. This in a state which breeds many awesome teams.
Stu and I set up shop along the right field line, which happens to be where Beth plays. Right field in other baseball-type games is usually reserved for the weaker players, the ones you pray don’t get their hands on the ball lest a merry-go-round of scoring commences. But in the fastpitch world, a strong armed gun from right field can catch a runner at first for an out. And Beth has just such a gun.
In the fastpitch world, scoring even one run can be enough to win a game, and the awesome team did just that right from jump. It’s a habit they have, getting an early run and letting their pitcher do the rest, slowly forcing the other team into a mental submission as the innings go by.
Beth and her mates got into that submission. Approach the plate, swing mightily at the high speed pitches and whiff, or hit weakly back to an infielder. The lights came on and the sky darkened and the game was settling into that brisk pace of three up - three down that fastpitch often does when good teams play their 7 innings of defense.
It was in the 6th inning when the awesome team sent their powerhouse to the plate and she promptly cracked a clean hit toward Beth. It was long and deep, off to Beth’s right side and she was like wind on an off-shore breeze, a blur of motion, catching the ball on one hop and loading the gun at a dead run. “Get her Beth!” I screamed in unison with the crowd and the scorching throw was on target from my little one.
In a game where inches and fractions of seconds count and umpires are good at what they do, it wasn’t enough.
Two batters later, another run scored for the awesome team. With a 2-0 lead, they looked to be as untouchable as the press had claimed all season long. With Beth’s team having no luck at the plate, and down to their last at-bat’s, there was a palpable sense of yearning coming from the fans on our side of the field, even as there was rejoicing and smiles on the other.
It’s only on these green fields, and there are many green fields just like this one, where the feeling of finality near the end of games comes washing over and makes the sadness or joy real, when the lump in your throat for the end of things won’t go away, and the passing of one day or one sort of life for another is a finality not easily faced. In the way that sports gives you a set time frame and a laundry list of things to do in order to succeed, the end is never anything but the end.
But it was the top of the 7th, and Beth was due up.
She had already struck out and popped up, a season of hard hitting eluding her in this duel with the awesome team and their ace pitcher. I was too far away to see her expression but I couldn’t miss the deep breath, the wriggle of shoulders as she dug in for the last time. One last time. The pitcher was a smirker, a girl certain of herself, and was three outs away from glory. They had barely touched her for anything all game long.
On the third pitch, Beth shattered that.
It was a hit that had clean air and sudden screams driving it and it rocketed past the left fielder on a bounce that tore grass from earth. Beth was on full motor around first and pulled up at second with a double that suddenly, and electrically, had 200 people on their feet. I slumped against the chain-link as Stu pounded my shoulder and yelled unintelligible things and it was, as they say, a ball game yet again.
Gina came up next and the pitcher was smirking no more. Because Gina was feared, and she was grim. An all-state senior, and Beth’s particular buddy in the halls of the high school they claimed as their own.
Gina took two pitches, and they were wild ones, as the awesome team began to feel the mental stress they had avoided all game. She fouled one back, for emphasis. On the fourth, she blasted a shot to center field and Beth was off to third where her coach windmilled his arms and sent her on the way.
To home. To a 2-1 score. There would be no shut-out here, on this cool spring evening, and the two seniors had become the warriors of this particular match.
It would be the better ending to write that Beth paved the way to a shocker, to an upset of the team thought unbeatable. Things that end, and end well, sometimes need that happiness to put right the long days of effort, the battered leather softball glove, the streaks of dirt on spotless white jerseys.
But the next three batters went down, and there were three outs, and things just ended in an aching and quiet fashion. Stu muttered to himself, something about how wrong it seemed, how the gladness was made hollow.
Beth and her team were in the dugout a long time, unseen by their fans, and they began trickling out in a sporadic and teary eyed way to the hugs of a Mom here, a Dad there.
She was the last one out, my team captain, my small one grown tall. She walked with a slow shuffle and a downcast face, accepted a hug here and there as she made her way over to me, the bag of bats heavy on her shoulder for the last time.
And she looked at me, and I swear she was blank, it was that look of knowing something beyond herself, that spring would not mean the same for her again. That there would be good and bad days forever but not one like this.
I pulled her close to me and whispered to her. Only for her, so that only she would hear. “I love. Watching you play. I love that.” And I kissed her cheek and the tear came, and it matched the ferocity of her hug and the sob that was quiet in her voice. “You’re the best, Beth. The best.”
And that was all. It was the end, and the end is what will be the Beth that makes me proud on another day.
On grass fields, on carpets of things lush and dreamfilled.
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