THE GOOD SHEPHERD
by Miles Ryan Fisher
The frail boy cried such big tears in his tiny uniform.
At first I didn’t even notice. Our game had just ended in a very anticlimactic ending, and after addressing the team, I tended to the baseball equipment, picking up what was always scattered here, always scattered there. I was on one knee, shoving my bat, the wood one I used to hit the kids infield practice, into my baseball bag when I heard something slight, something soft that sounded like it came from off in the distance. I looked up and dropped my bag, my bat only halfway in.
I walked a few steps up to the chain link fence, the one that protected us from errant baseballs flying into our dugout. The boy stood there, his fingers curled around those chain links, clinging to them.
I looked to the boy’s mom, and she turned to me, keeping a hand on her little boy’s back as it pitched up and down. The softness in her eyes didn’t appeal for help; rather it bespoke the consoling words she was probably offering to her son. But she was his mother. She was mom. She was the place he ran to when the world grew scary.
She was only able to hold him, though. She was only able to take him in and hide his eyes from what frightened him. That’s why I walked over. Because I was the one who could protect him. I was the one who could erase his fear.
At first I wasn’t so sure why he was crying. Even though our game had just ended in a loss, the players were all smiles during it, running the bases and playing the field. He didn’t make the final out so there was no reason to think the little guy believed the loss was his fault. And let’s say he did make that final out. I would’ve patted him on the back and smiled, telling him, “Oh buddy, we needed more runs than just you!” And he would’ve understood. And he would’ve been okay.
“Is this about …,” I asked his mom and gestured toward the ball field. She nodded, her lips pressed together. I laid a hand on her shoulder and mouthed the words, Let me talk to him.
“I’ll wait for you over there, Evan,” she said to her little boy while motioning toward the bleachers.
Evan. That name simply sounded like the name of a boy who had trouble just lifting the bat he was expected to swing. It reminded me of a book a friend gave me to read a few years before. In the book, a feeble boy named Owen struck a ball so hard that the ball ended up killing some unfortunate spectator who wasn’t paying attention. But that was a book. While this—this was real life. A place where the boy’s name was Evan, and Evan wasn’t able to hit a ball hard enough to kill somebody. Because he couldn’t even hit the ball at all.
“Hey buddy,” I said to my whimpering ballplayer, his shaggy blonde hair falling from beneath the sides of his cap. I hunched over, my hands planted just above my knees. “So what’s up?” I asked with some lightness to it, a little ‘it’s okay the sun is shining and you’re in the hands of a coach who truly cares.’ But Evan didn’t realize how rare that can be. All Evan knew was—
“I …,” he sniffled, “I keep striking out.”
Striking out. Ah, yes. The most humiliating, most degrading part of such a lovable game. Swinging and completely missing the ball was bad enough. Watching the ball cross the plate and not trying to do anything about it was even worse. But then being forced to walk in what felt like slow motion back to the dugout was an experience that distorted this lovable game. And this little boy, my last-in-the-lineup right fielder, was starting to feel the fangs of a game that was supposedly made for children.
How foolish of me not to have realized. Many of my players struck out. Okay, all of my players struck out at one time or another. But Evan, he must’ve struck out every time. Didn’t even put the ball in play? Not once? I could’ve sworn I saw him on first base at one point in the game. Maybe I hadn’t though. I wasn’t keeping precise track. Not while I was responsible for corralling twelve ten-year-olds. Specific details are less important. Individual at-bats are less important. A single play in the field is less important. Making sure all the players are in their proper positions and know how many outs there are and remember when their turn is in the batting order—those things are what’s important.
And then I had the one player whose face swelled with tears. It was a different player, a different reason, but it happened every game. When I saw the tears crop up, those things that were important suddenly became unimportant and that one player—that little boy—became what’s most important. Because when he cried, I looked into his eyes and saw his pain, his fears. But within those tears there was something more than that. I could see something more than that. Something that the little boy himself couldn’t see.
I peered into the fat, black rims of Evan’s glasses to see the reflection of what threatened him. For I’d learned to see things years ago, a time long before this little player was born. Because when I was younger, what threatened to come for him … had come for me.
“Again, Grant!” ordered Stein to his second baseman. The high school varsity coach slammed another ground ball across the gym floor right at the little second baseman, so small that every jersey he’d ever worn was the exact same number—number one—because it was always guaranteed to be the smallest jersey. And in Grant’s case, also the dirtiest one after the every game.
Stein’s ground ball skipped across the hardwood floor, and Grant shuffled a few steps to his left, staying low to the ground. He opened his glove wide, held it out in front of his body as he squatted down, keeping his throwing hand above it. He took in the ball, and without breaking his motion, he transferred it to his throwing hand and tossed it across the gym.
“No!” Stein shouted. “Like this!” He held out his hands, spreading them open with both palms facing up to show just how he wanted Grant to field a ground ball. He slammed another grounder at the Grant, and once again Grant fielded it just as routinely as he’d fielded the previous three.
“You shit! You little piece of shit!” Stein yelled. “Keep doing it that way, Grant, and I’ll sit your ass on the bench!”
‘But your way is the wrong way,’ Grant thought. ‘I learned it one way—the correct way—and practiced it so much that the proper techniques are ingrained in me. Glove down. Top hand. Bring the ball in with both hands while transferring it to your throwing hand. Step and throw. You’re teaching me the wrong way.’
“Now do it again!” Stein ordered. “No, wait. Step aside and let Drover go. I don’t want to see your face for a while.”
Grant couldn’t understand it. He’d worked so hard for so many years developing the proper technique, chucking rubber balls against a wall so he could practice his fielding when they bounced back to him. Over and over. While other boys his age were out socializing. Over and over. While other boys his age were out dating girls. Over and over. While other boys his age were doing anything but what he was doing, he’d stand there in the cold, in the rain, in order to get it right.
“Okay boys,” Stein said, “let’s finish off these winter workouts with a little competition to see who the best fielder is. Everyone form a line. I’m going to hit a grounder, you’ve got to field it cleanly and make an accurate throw over to Coach Bryan. If you screw any part of that up, you’re out. Now who’s first? McCallister, step up. Show them how it’s done.”
Grant watched McCallister clap at the first ground ball, the ball popping up into the air. McCallister reached out and snatched the ball before it hit the ground. He threw it to Coach Bryan and got back in line.
“Dude, you’re out,” Whitey, the team’s first baseman, said to McCallister. “He’s out, Coach. He didn’t field it clean.”
“I said, ‘no drops,’” Stein said. “He didn’t drop that.”
“That’s some bullshit,” Whitey said.
“What’d you say, Whitey?”
Stein hit grounder after grounder to player after player. One by one they got eliminated. A grounder dropped by Wrightstone. A bad throw made by Lentz. A grounder completely missed by Rudolf. Then one Johnson brother. Then the other Johnson brother. Followed by Recker. The number of players dwindled, and those that remained in the competition looked side by side to see who were left in the line. The backup second baseman, Drover, fell. Then McCallister. And Ricci.
“Down to five,” Stein said after Dubek juggled a ball he usually fielded.
Stein then hammered the next ground ball harder than the rest. The ball skipped along the floor on its way to the gym wall until a glove flashed in its path, snagging it. Grant took the ball from his mitt and tossed it to Coach Bryan in such a perfunctory manner it made the play look far more routine than it actually was.
“Well at least you know how to backhand a ball,” was all Stein offered.
Stein continued through the line. Whitey gone. Then again through the line. And then again. Gallagher gone, Hamilton gone. Until all that was left was Grant standing a head lower than the team’s third baseman: his best friend Jackson Bradley, who everyone called J.B.
“Alright, let’s take a vote” Stein said. “Who do you think’s going to win?”
The same name echoed through the gym.
“Nobody thinks J.B. is going to win?” Stein asked.
“Alright, I’ll take J.B.,” Whitey said. “My bad, G-Man.”
Grant smiled. “It’s all good.” He meant it, too. Whitey was the first baseman who’d played alongside him ever since they were learning where to throw the ball on the diamond. He’d been one of Grant’s closest teammates, which was why Whitey took it upon himself to step outside the others and into J.B.’s corner.
J.B. and Grant rotated through ground balls. One after the other. Flawless. Almost as though they’d go through the night and into the morning without a hiccup.
“This shit’s gonna go on forever,” Whitey said. “Just miss one, J.B. You ain’t gonna win.”
“But you picked me to win,” J.B. said.
“More like I picked you in order to lose.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Life don’t,” Whitey said.
The chatter faded in Grant’s ears as he crouched down, ready for the next grounder. But this one shot off Stein’sbat—a hard one hopper. Grant got in front of it and felt it sock him in the chest with a thump. The ball dropped right in front of him, and he picked it up off the hardwood floor and threw it across the gym.
“Alright J.B.,” Stein said, “you field this one, you win,”
“No way! That don’t count!” Whitey protested. “That was so hard G-man he couldn’t do nothin’ but knock it down.”
But Stein didn’t reply. Instead, he hit a ground ball that bounced a couple soft, routine times. J.B. bent his knees and lowered his glove, not needing to lower it much. He caught it and fired a perfect throw across the gym right into Coach Bryan’s chest.
“Oh now that’s some bullshit,” Whitey said.
“That you’ll have to swallow,” J.B. said.
“I’m callin’ for a re-do.”
Grant watched them go back and forth until he felt the hair on his neck prickle. He turned and saw Stein standing right behind him.
“I knew you wouldn’t win,” Stein said and walked away.
“How’d practice go, honey?”
Grant heard his mom before he could see her. He dumped his baseball bag and backpack in the front hallway and walked into the kitchen. “Just like the others,” he said.
His mom stopped stirring the sauce and laid the wooden spoon against the edge of the pan. “You mean how Mr. Stein’s treating you.”
“I don’t know why, Mom. I don’t know why he doesn’t like me.”
“Have you talked to him about it?”
“When he hates me so much?” Grant said. “I was one of his best students a couple years ago, and I thought it was gonna be so great to have him as a coach now. I’m doing everything I can, but he just wants to berate at me. I hate it. I just … fucking hate it.”
His mom frowned. “You know, I really think I should speak with the principal about this.”
“Then he definitely won’t play me. And you can’t make him.”
His mom bit her bottom lip, and Grant could see how difficult it was for her to watch this and know that he was right—there was not a thing she could do about it.
The winter wore on, and Grant continued practicing, continued preparing for the spring whether that meant swinging a bat in weather that stung his hands, throwing a ball in snow that nipped his neck, or jogging several miles into wind that burned his face. He refused to let a few abusive winter practices prevent him from doing as he’d always done. He loved the sport—he loved being good at the sport —for way too long. So he battled through the elements to make himself as good a player as he could be once springtime arrived. And all the while he hoped that maybe, just maybe, the winter practices were some sort of inexplicable aberration.
When March arrived, the team started with a round of tryouts even though many of them already knew they’d make the team. Grant was one of these players. Still, he went through the tryouts as if they were true practices, and he did so without considering the possibility that Stein might cut him from the team, not because he wasn’t talented enough to be on it, but because Stein simply didn’t want him to be on it. Perhaps he was young. Perhaps a little naïve. But either way, it didn’t occur to Grant that someone could harbor such unprovoked desire to harm. So when Grant made the team, he did so unaware of exactly where it would lead him.
The day following the last round of tryouts, practice assumed a much more formal, more serious tone. It was time to unify. It was time to prepare for the competition that was preparing for you.
“Everybody out to your positions,” Stein ordered. “We’ll start off with some fielding, then go into hitting.”
The players jogged out to their positions, Grant stopping right at the second base spot where he’d be the first to go. Just as Whitey did for first base. And Dubek for shortstop, and J.B. for third base. They already knew they were going to be in the starting lineup, so they naturally went first, the backup players falling in line behind them. As Grant turned toward home plate, he noticed not one but two players following him out to second. Originally Drover was the only other player who played second base. But now there was another player. McCallister. The team’s six-foot-three starting pitcher who, for the past two years, played outfield in the games he didn’t pitch. But this year something must have triggered an urge to play infield. Maybe he felt bored with playing the outfield. Maybe he believed he was the best second baseman. Or maybe Stein told him to shift from the outfield to second base. Whatever the reason, Grant wasn’t concerned about the added competition because he knew he was the team’s best fielder.
Stein hit fly balls to the outfield before pounding grounders to the infielders, working his way across the baseball diamond. Third. Then short. Then second. Then first. As always, Grant scooped up the ground ball and made the play with a motion more mechanical than graceful. Then went to the back of the line at second base. But suddenly, after years of this methodical system, his quiet, diligent approach wasn’t the model example anymore. No, for Stein the little second baseman with sure hands appeared more like a disobedient player who’d strayed too far from where he was supposed to be.
“You … go again!” Stein shouted.
Grant turned and saw another ground ball already coming at him. He stepped up quick, crouched, and fielded it.
“Wait! You wait right there!” Stein bounded toward Grant, metal bat in hand. He thrust his snout into Grant’s face so that when he barked, saliva sprayed onto the boy. Stein pointed the barrel of the bat so that it was just inches from Grant’s hairless chin. “You listen to me you little shit. I’M the coach. You listen—to ME. And if I tell you to do something, you better fucking do it. When I tell you to field a ball like this, I better see you field it—Like. This.”
Grant stood still. He didn’t say that the way Stein was instructing players to field was wrong. He didn’t point out that aside from McCallister, all the other fielders were also ignoring his instructions. He didn’t ask why he was being singled out. He didn’t even wipe the spit that wet his face. Instead, he just stared into the gaping black hole of Stein’s mouth, a hole surrounded by a set of teeth that appeared to grow sharper with each incisive remark. He just kept staring and staring, wordless, watching the hair on Stein’s unshaven face begin to bristle as the pupils in his eyes began to dilate.
Grant’s teammates saw what was going on, but none of them intervened. Not even Whitey or J.B. As these attacks continued and the season neared, they’d repeat the same things to him. “Man, I don’t know why Stein’s being such a dick to you.” “Coach Stein’s an asshole. A real asshole.” “We got your back. You know that, right?” But saying such things soothed Grant only so much. Because Grant knew that just like his mom, his teammates were powerless as well.
He pressed on, however, carrying his work ethic through every practice. He avoided eye contact with Stein for as much of each practice as he could and spilled his heart onto the field, making every play, hitting every pitch, and diving headfirst into every base. During scrimmages he played the same way, starting at second base and batting leadoff in the lineup. And in spite of how Stein continued threatening him, he thought that because he started in the scrimmages everything was, everything would be, alright. But perhaps that was simply what he wanted to believe.
The first game of the season finally arrived, and as the team took the field, Whitey smiled as he tossed a warm-up grounder over to Grant, who stood at second base. And even though Grant’s stomach felt tight with game-time nerves, he smiled back.
However nervous he was, Grant came through in backing up McCallister on the mound by fielding everything that came his way. He added a couple of hits and stole a couple of bases, scoring the team’s only runs. Although they ended up losing a close game, Grant played well that day. He played as well as anyone on the field, and yet it still wouldn’t seem to matter.
Two days later, the team was poised for their second game of the season. Grant took the field for warm-ups and scooped up a practice grounder, inhaling it as if he were a vacuum, and threw to first.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Grant!” Stein yelled. “How many times do we have to go over this! Field the damn ball like …”
‘I did field it,’ Grant thought. ‘I fielded it just like I field everything. I never miss—’
“Actually—fuck you, Grant. McCallister, you’re up.”
Stein hit a ground ball and McCallister spread his palms to receive it. The exact way Stein wanted his fielders to field. The exact wrong way fielders should field. McCallister swung his hands to together, clapping at the ball. It deflected off his glove and rolled away from him. He scuffled after it, picking it up and firing it in frustration to first.
“Just like that, Grant! You see how McCallister fielded that ball? Like THIS?” Stein held his palms open. “That’s what YOU should be doing. Watch McCallister and learn.”
‘But he didn’t even field the ball,’ Grant thought. ‘He bobbled it. He bobbled it and got praised while I made the play and got berated.’ Grant felt something sweep through the air, something that made him quiver and made his stomach tighten more than it normally did before a game.
“Bring it in boys!” Stein shouted. “And listen up. Here’s the lineup:
Ricci in center leading off
(Grant’s stomach felt a sharp pang)
Dubek at short batting second
Whitey at first batting third
J.B. at third batting cleanup
McCallister at second batting fifth …
McCallister at second batting fifth …
McCallister at second …
McCallister at second …
McCallister at second …
Grant’s stomach wrenched. He felt it push up through his esophagus and clench his throat, rendering him speechless. He stared into the distance where the treetops met the sky as twilight started to set in.
“Grant!” Stein growled. “GRANT!” Stein barked louder, his eyes beginning to dilate again. “Stop standing there and sit your ass on the bench.”
But Grant didn’t walk to the bench. He simply stood there, wandering in the wilderness of his own thoughts where there was nobody to protect him. It was as if he’d awakened on a mountainside with no life in sight. No smoke steadily streaming from a chimney in the distance. No sound of voices echoing through the skies above. No path, even, to show him that somebody had at least been there before. Just a thickness of trees hovering over him and steep ground tilting beneath his feet. And once he felt the growls and heard the barks, it was then that he realized just where he was.
They didn’t attack right away. No, they skulked Grant as he hurried through the woods and gasped for air, choking on his own chest. His senses spiraled and his feet tangled, sending him tumbling. He laid there for a moment, his hands and his face skinned. He pressed his palms to the ground, pushing himself to his knees. When he looked up he saw several sets of eyes staring at him. He smelled the bile on their breaths. They circled him. Slowly … slowly. And when they lunged at him, when they finally decided it was time for their feast, Grant’s final thoughts were of the courage he lacked—and how much stronger he wished he were.
I … I keep striking out.
“Striking out,” I echoed. I looked at Evan, vulnerable as he was. Such a fragile, little boy. “Hey come on, let’s sit down.” I summoned him with my hand, come along, come along, and nodded toward the aluminum bench in our dugout. Evan followed without a word. He sat down, sucking air into his throat that was clogged from his tears. I sat beside him and hunched over so that my words were on his level. “Everyone strikes out, you know that buddy?”
“But I always strike out. I didn’t even hit the ball.” By this he meant he hasn’t touched the ball. So not only has he not hit a ball fair, he also hasn’t even hit one foul.
“Okay. That’s okay. You know why?” He turned to me, and even though we were on the same level, it seemed as if he still managed to be peering upward. “Because every time you get up to bat is a new opportunity to not strike out. It’s a new opportunity to hit the ball. And you know what? The at-bat after that is a new opportunity, too. And the at-bat after that and the at-bat after that, they’re all new opportunities to try and hit the ball. But if you go up there thinking about how you struck out in your last at-bat, how do you think you’ll do? You think you’ll end up hitting the ball?”
He shook his head.
“Exactly. Because you’re too busy thinking about how you struck out instead of thinking about your new at-bat and how it’s a new chance.” I leaned toward him. “If I tell you a secret, promise not to tell anyone?”
“Sometimes,” I leaned even closer, lowering my voice, “sometimes even I strike out. And I’m your coach! And when I strike out would you want me thinking about that in my next at-bat or would you want me to be thinking about how I’m going to hit the ball?”
“Hit the ball.”
“I hope you would!” I smiled and patted him on the shoulder.
The tears in Evan’s eyes began to clear, and I could see what threatened him retreating. So I continued moving toward it.
“You know who Ryan Howard is?” I asked. Evan nodded. Of course he knew who Ryan Howard was. Ryan Howard was one of the biggest names in professional baseball. Almost as large as the home runs he could hit. “Well would you believe that last season he struck out over 200 times? 200 times! I don’t think you’ve even had 200 at-bats in your entire life. He struck out more times in one season than you’ve ever been up to bat!”
Evan gave a little laugh.
“And you know what? He strikes out in front of thousands and thousands of people. When we strike out, it’s only in front of a few people. Just moms and dads who are here rooting for us. Not thousands of people like Ryan Howard. So we’re pretty lucky that we’re not Ryan Howard, right!”
A small smile formed on his face, and his eyes grew brighter even though the sun was falling and dusk was settling in.
“So just keep practicing as much as you can, and the more you practice, the more you’ll start making contact with the ball, okay?”
“And next game, every time you get up to bat it’s a new opportunity to hit the ball, right?”
“Give me a high-five?”
His delicate hand slapped my rough one, calloused over from throwing thousands of batting practice pitches and hitting hundreds of ground balls. I rubbed his shoulder and gave him a pat on the back as I rose to my feet. “See you at practice tomorrow?”
“Alright, buddy. Sounds good.”
He hopped off the bench, hoisted an oversized baseball bag over his shoulder, and headed toward his mom, who’d been sitting on the bleachers, her hands tucked under her thighs. I returned to packing up all the equipment. The baseballs. The helmets. The catcher’s gear. Then Evan reappeared.
“Coach Grant, do you need any help?”
I smiled. I needed more help than he had to offer. “Oh I’m good, buddy.”
“Okay. See you at practice.”
“You got it.”
By the time I finished packing up, twilight filtered onto an empty baseball field. All the parents, all the players, everybody had left for their warm homes and soft beds. I strolled out to second base and roamed the area I would’ve patrolled had I played in the game myself. I thought about Evan, how small and innocent he was. He was such a fragile little thing. A sheep who knew only what he’d been taught. How could someone ever consider treating him in a way that didn’t seek to erase his vulnerability? How could someone take a creature so tiny, so harmless and instill it with fear? And threaten it and intimidate it? To take its potential to be something good and devour it until there was nothing left to consume?
I looked above the trees and into the gray sky. They were still out there, those wolves waiting for the opportunity to attack him. And as much as I wanted to forever be Evan’s coach, I couldn’t. I couldn’t forever be there to shepherd him. I gave the dirt beneath me a few light kicks as I looked to it and bit my lip. A rage rose inside me that I could no longer suppress now that Evan was heading safely for home. I lifted my head, and my heart grew adamant. All I could think about was how a wolf like Stein would one day come after that poor boy. That he would one day be a reflection in that boy’s glasses.
I looked into the twilight that grew darker and the forest that grew thicker. I felt an overwhelming urge to travel into the night, deep into those woods. I wanted to search for the wolves that threatened him. And I wanted to show them what happens when a sheep … has become a shepherd.
About the Author:
Miles Ryan Fisher grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and currently lives in Washington, D.C. In his free time, he enjoys playing in an adult baseball league and coaching little league.