To kick off Major League Baseball’s season of glory: a short story about baseball featuring steroids, breast milk, and courage. From Guts, first published by Atticus Review September 2012.
That sweet curving thumb of mine put a wild spin on every ball I threw. Curveballs, sliders, pitches that dropped four inches just before the plate. Northern Leaguers called it “the plunger”. Batters coiled up, twisted backs, pulled muscles, quit the game in frustration. Those who caught a piece of my fastball felt it in their teeth. Lefties, righties, the umps called them out one after another.
Stonebriar College offered a scholarship. I wasn’t interested in school, self-improvement, baseball, any of it, but the sad twinkle in my father’s eyes prompted me to accept. He was a lonely man on a pallet jack filling orders from the nation’s grocery chains at the Sweetlife Food Depot, a man of no ambition who instilled no ambition in me. I saw that fleeting glimmer of hope and pride and for once had the courage to achieve.
Twenty batters reached base during my first season. Ten the next. My third season opened with back-to-back no-hitters, all of it thanks to the plunging pitches that rolled off my twisted thumb. All of it thanks to Turfle and Harbinger and that middle school courage to defend Alan Cheeks. Nine after nine I climbed the mound. I didn’t even see the batters. I read Hemp’s signals and threw exactly what he asked for. Nine after nine I dealt strike after strike. I was a sure thing for the Majors, if.
“If you were a little bigger.”
“So I’m not cut out for the Majors.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You can tell me, Doc.”
“Ever hear of-?”
“-Never heard of it.” The quarrelsome guys on the team, quarrelsome, irascible, the Dickey Harbingers and Mike Turfles full of aggressive talk and big ambitions, they used performance enhancing drugs like HGH. They didn’t fit into their bodies. They were bigger than their bodies and bigger than their uniforms and their aluminum bats made hollow pinging sounds in the cold twilight of early spring baseball.
I calculated my chances of making it without steroids and left school. Why put my body through all that–break down, rebuild, pool, sauna, weight room, mound, bus, bench, sprints, squats–just to wind up at a dead end? I could dictate my own dead end and no more break down, rebuild, pool, sauna, weight room, mound, bus, bench, sprints, squats.
I returned home and went to work at the easiest thing I could find: stocking shelves at the Super Food Mart. Game over. No more striving. No more anxiety. My biggest dilemma was whether or not to open a box with 12 cans of Manwich when the shelf would hold only seven. Simple problem. Simple solution. Nothing in the world was going to change because of it. I saw all the days of my future rolling out before me next to Laughing Brook Park, and the nights at the Super Food Mart putting cans on the shelves.
Until the morning I met George’s mother. Her first words to me: “It was my fault.”
“Are you ok?”
“It was my fault.”
“My daddy… My daddy…”
“Is there someone else in the car?”
“I’m sorry, I-”
“Doesn’t look like you’re bleeding. Do you want an ambulance?”
“I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m…”
She insisted on making it right. Insurance gave me a bit of money for the pickup. But insurance wasn’t enough. It was a fatal collision–we were married inside the year.
The pumping and the plunging are synchronized. George drains the bottle at the same time as his mother shuts off the pump. She holds up the bottles and squints closely at the contents like a scientist recording measurements in a beaker. She clucks, dissatisfied.
I lift George, set him bent-backed on my thigh, and beat him softly with the open palm of my hand. His bald head bounces with each gentle pat. He stares downwards with glazed eyes, his useless little hands balled into fists.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” George’s mother says.