THE FIELD OF PLAY
By Mike Sharlow
Our world revolved around “the field.” It was about fifty yards wide from the street to the block wall of St. Dominic’s Convent and about two blocks long. In the spring and summer, we played baseball there, and in the fall, we played football. In the winter it hibernated under deep snow.
We had enough kids in our neighborhood to have five guys on a team, if everyone came out to play. Today, we had everybody: Matt, Tim, John, Larry, Joe, Joey, Paul, Eric, Todd, and me. Matt and John were usually captains. John was the best baseball player. My brother Matt wasn’t even the second best, but he always bullied his way into being a captain. He wasn’t the biggest, but he was the meanest. It could have been easily argued that Eric or Joe be a captain, but Eric didn’t want to be a captain, if he couldn’t be on John’s team. Joe quietly deferred to Matt because he was presently best friends with him, and he didn’t want to get beat up.
“Pick a number between one and ten,” Larry called. He was the fat kid in the neighborhood. He always wore white t-shirts in the summer. By the end of the day his round belly looked like a globe of the world with stains, dirt, and grime representing countries and oceans. “I got the number.” He pointed to head.
“Write it in the sand,” Matt ordered. Larry plopped down in the sand and drew a 7 and covered it with his hands before anyone could see it. “I pick five.” Matt blurted.
“Six,” John said.
“It’s seven!” Everyone called out as Larry lifted his hands.
Pissed off, Matt rubbed out the number with his feet.
“Eric,” John picked first.
Larry had turned his back and was trying to hide behind the rest of us. He didn’t want to be on Matt’s team. Most of us didn’t.
“Joe.” Matt pointed. Joe was probably a little bit better than me, but also a year older. He was a better hitter, but I think I was a better fielder. Joe was the rich kid in the neighborhood. His house was the biggest and right across the street from the field. He also had the nicest newest Schwinn bicycle, a shiny blue five speed with handlebar brakes. The only thing wrong with him was that he had a bit of a lisp. Other than that, he was a nice-looking polite kid with thick brown hair and a fortunate smile. He had it good and he knew it.
“Mick.” John picked me, and I could tell it bugged Matt. He hated to lose, but he hated to lose to his brothers even more. Not to say we were going to win, but things were looking pretty good at that point. I was thinner than Matt and, even at the age of nine, it was evident that I was going to be taller than him and a better athlete.
“Paul,” Matt snapped. He looked like Moe from the Three Stooges when he scowled. He even had the haircut and hair color. My brother Tim and I had similar cuts, the Beatles bangs, but my hair was sandy blond, and Tim’s was almost white.
Paul ran over to Matt’s side. Paul’s dad was a big, bald, muscular construction worker, and Paul was a smaller version of him except his head was a buzzcut. His dad was a prick to him, so Paul felt comfortable being on Matt’s team.
John picked Larry. Matt should have picked Larry before Paul, but Matt didn’t like Larry.
Then Matt picked Todd, Eric’s brother. He struck out a lot, but if he connected, he usually laced a line drive into the outfield. Todd was imbued with a fearless and wild athleticism. He was constantly hurting himself, but he was stoic, and his body was built to take the punishment. At nine years old he was muscular and strong. By the time he hit high school it would all come together, and he would be hurling eighty-five mph fastballs.
John picked Joey. He was a sticky, wet, mess. His fingers were constantly in his mouth, as he voraciously gnawed on his fingernails. An intermittent stream of mucous drained from his nose, until he wiped it away with his hand onto his pants or shirt. When he took his fingers out of his mouth to talk, an overflow of saliva coated his tongue and lips until he spoke, and then his words were accompanied by a burst of spit. “Say it don’t spray it!” everyone always said.
Joey was the better choice, as in it was better to get a cold than the flu. If the ball came at Joey, he either jumped out of the way, or held up his glove in a defensive posture to protect himself rather than catch the ball. If he happened to make a catch, it was a complete surprise to everyone including him. At bat, a skinny lid with weak arms, Joey rarely made contact, but if he did, he had a bad habit of throwing his bat about as far as he hit the ball, which was never very far. Everyone yelled at him for it, because it was hard to catch a ball when a bat came flying at your head. “That’s an automatic out next time you do that!” Matt threatened, unless Joey was on his team.
Matt acted disappointed that he was stuck with Tim again. He struck out more than Joey, and he couldn’t catch any better. The good thing was that he could make Tim pitch. Joey would quit and go home before he would pitch. Pitching in our game was the least desired position. We played slow pitch underhand, which made our game a hitting game and high scoring. The salvo of line drives that came back to the pitcher’s mound was terrifying.
Conventionally, we did play baseball. We played three outs with all the ways you could get out. We had bases, first, second, and third, each was about a three-foot patch of sand. The area around home was a large sandbox. We typically scratched the outline of a home plate over and over through the course of a game, as it wore away. The only significant rule changes were that there were no walks, no called strikes, and no stealing.
“You guys have a better team,” Matt protested.
“You can have Joey.” John gave Joey a little shove towards Matt.
“I want Mick.” Matt pointed at me.
“No.” I stepped away from Matt. I hated being on his team. It was bad enough playing against him, but it was worse being on his team.
Matt glared at me like he always did just before he was going to pound on me.
“Let’s play!” John ran into the field, and the rest of us followed.
“I’ll pitch,” Larry shouted and grabbed the ball. He was slow, and he didn’t like to run, so he wasn’t a good outfielder, but he was a good pitcher. He could toss the ball across the plate from almost second base. The farther back a pitcher was from the batter, the less chance there was to take a line drive off the forehead.
Matt’s team was up to bat first. The batting order was Joe, Matt, Paul, Todd, Joey, then Tim.
Joe chopped at the first pitch that came in at eye level. He drove a line drive into right center between Eric and me. I was playing right. Eric got to the ball before I did, which was a good thing because he had a better arm. He threw to John, who had run to third, but the ball flew over his head, and Joe raced around the bases and scored.
Matt hit a hard grounder to center at Eric. John ran in from left to cover third. I ran to second. Eric’s throw to me cut off Matt at second. Matt kicked the ground in frustration, and a cloud of sandy dust rolled away. “C’mon Paul, hit me home!”
Paul struck out swinging for the fences. The field didn’t have a fence, but it did have a block wall about six feet tall that ran parallel to our diamond along the first base side. The wall enclosed St. Dom’s Convent, which owned the field we played on. As the wall extended, it became a left field wall, progressively getting deeper.
Joey’s at bats frustrated and lulled us into complacency. He watched pitch after pitch go by. “C’mon, swing!” Matt yelled at him.
“Swing, batta, batta, swing!” The rest of us called from the field. Joey let so many pitches go by, the cacophony of our chant probably made us sound truly odd, as our voices bounced off the wall and echoed through the neighborhood, “Swing, batta, batta, swing!” over and over.
Joey finally swung and connected. The ball dribbled between second and third directly at Eric, and the bat, traveling farther than the ball, flew down the third baseline. We had shifted in the field because Joey rarely hit the ball out of the infield. I was playing near second, and John was at first. Eric fielded Joey’s softly hit grounder, as Joey raced to first. Eric had a strong, but wild arm, and fired a rocket to John. The ball sailed over John’s leap and outstretched glove, bounded into the street, and disappeared into the lilac bushes in John’s yard. Everyone waited for John to retrieve the ball. Matt scored, and Joey got to second. After the game Joey would gloat about how he hit a double.
Tim was up next and struck out on three straight pitches.
Matt’s team scored five runs the first inning, which wasn’t nearly enough compared the onslaught our team perpetrated on them. We ran the bases for almost a half hour and scored fourteen runs. By the end of three innings, we were ahead 34-18. This wasn’t an insurmountable lead, but we had relaxed a bit, while Matt had worked himself into a fervor, as he berated his teammates. It wasn’t completely unwarranted, but the skill level of his team had to be taken into consideration. A misjudged fly ball landed behind Paul. “Come on, Charlie Brown!” Matt yelled. Another fly ball hit Joey’s outstretched little glove and bounced out. His glove was small, but the worst of it was that it wasn’t broken in and locked in the closed position. “What? Did you close your eyes on that one?” Matt’s sarcasm made John, Larry, and Eric roar. John laughed so hard he swung and whiffed on the next pitch. Larry had to sit down on second base for fear of pooping his pants. He tended to hold it rather than go home to go, even though his house was only about a block away. Sometimes he couldn’t hold it any longer, like when he laughed too hard, so sitting down helped to hold it. Joey stared at the ground and pounded the pocket of his glove.
In the fifth inning we were up 48-23. We had no outs, and it was approaching supper time. Matt’s team was ready to quit. Their body language showed they had grown weary of chasing balls all over the field and Matt’s constant abuse. Joey would usually walk off the field first, followed by Joe. At that point the game would be over, even though Paul would never quit. Taking abuse from Matt made him feel loved. If Tim even whimpered that he wanted to quit, Matt would threaten to pound him.
At my fourth at bat in the fifth inning, Matt decided that he wanted to pitch to me. I had already gotten three hits and scored three times. There were two outs, and this was his best chance for his team to get up to bat again.
“That’s not fair!” I stood back from the plate. I knew what Matt was up to.
“I can pitch if I want to. Get up to bat.”
“It’s okay, Mick. Just bat.” John said. He knew what Matt was doing.
Matt pitched the ball fast. It was way too high. The next one almost hit me. The third was right down the middle, but I didn’t swing.
“Why didn’t you swing? Afraid of striking out?” Matt smiled.
He was right. I was.
“Mick, swing quick if it’s another pitch like that,” John coached.
The next pitch was across the plate but slightly lower. I swung and connected solidly sending a hot grounder back at Matt. He didn’t get his glove down fast enough, and the ball ricocheted off his shin. He groaned then hobbled to the ball as quickly as he could while yelling at Paul to cover first. By this time, I had reached base. This didn’t prevent Matt from firing the ball, even though Paul wasn’t even close to covering. The ball hit the ground, and I had to hop to prevent it from hitting me. I knew he threw it at me on purpose. The ball bounded into the street and disappeared in John’s lilac bushes again. I ran to second.
Tim was pitching again. His arm must have been getting tired, because he was having a hard time getting the ball across the plate. Matt told him to move up.
“I don’t wanna pitch anymore,” Tim whined. So far, things had gone well for her him, but the closer he got to the batter, John, the more precarious the situation became. He took one small step forward and pitched again, but the ball dropped ineptly short of the plate.
“Move up two steps!” Matt ran over and physically shoved Tim.
Tim began to whimper. He had been here before. “I don’t wanna pitch anymore.”
“Pitch or I’ll kill you!” Matt threatened.
The first pitch dug in the sand two feet in front of the plate, like a golf ball in a sand pit.
“C’mon!” Matt screamed.
The next pitch came in low and fast but right down the middle. The crack of the bat was the first sound, and the next was not quite as sharp, more of a thwack! than a crack! as the line drive off John’s bat struck Tim in the forehead. It knocked him to his hands and knees, and then he rolled onto his back. For a few scary seconds he didn’t make a sound, and everyone was silent and frozen. John didn’t even run. Then Tim began to cry. Matt was the first one to his side. We stood around Tim like the handlers of a prizefighter recovering from getting knocked out. This wasn’t the first time this happened to Tim. It happened to me once, and I refused to ever pitch again.
Tim stopped crying and stood up. “My head hurts. I’m goin home.”
“You don’t have to pitch,” Matt said. Everything was about keeping Tim at the field now. He couldn’t let him go home alone and tell his story before Matt got a chance to tell his.
Tim rubbed his head where a knot had already risen. When he took his hand away everyone could see the marks left in his forehead that would become as famous as the signs of the stigmata, at least in our neighborhood. The baseball had struck Tim in such a way that the stitches from the baseball had embedded perfect little wounds exactly like the stitches of the baseball in the middle of his forehead.
Everyone stared in amazement in a moment of silence admiring the miracle then burst into laughter. Tim laughed too, and he began dancing around and making weird faces. He loved the attention, but his concussive state might have had something to do with his silliness.
“That’s three outs,” Matt called. This was our own rule: if you hit a line drive back to the pitcher and hit him in the forehead (always Tim), it was an out.
The next inning would be our last. It was quickly approaching supper. The score was 62-28, a thorough ass-kicking, and I couldn’t wait to announce it to Mom and Dad at supper time. Dad would add his own special humiliation to Matt and Tim, particularly stinging Matt, very possibly making him teary-eyed. I would feel bad for him, but anything up to that moment I would enjoy. It was how our family functioned.
It was 62-40 with two outs. The 12-run rally had Matt’s team acting like they still had a chance. Our play in the field was lax at first, but when we picked our intensity we got the first two outs quickly.
Joe came up to bat, and he smashed the first pitch. The ball was hit deep down the third baseline. John raced to cut it off. The ball ricocheted off the wall about a foot from the top. John dove anticipating the angle. His long body stretched out parallel to the ground. His glove reached out and snagged the ball before it hit the ground. Rolling onto his back, he extended his glove to the sky, affirming the catch.
“Out!” Larry yelped.
Eric and I ran towards John, but he got to his feet before we reached him and trotted towards us. Eric leaped onto his back in celebration. I didn’t say anything. I stared at John in awe, while the few seconds of his catch played over and over in my head. Willie Mays was my favorite player. I had a crush on Willie. In the Scholastic Books paperback biography, I ordered through school, I wrote on the inside cover, “I love Willie Mays.” In my family no one ever told anyone that they loved them. John’s catch was like the catches Willie Mays made.
“That’s not an out!” Matt yelled. “Keep running!” He waved on Joe, who had stopped running once he rounded first. Confused, he walked towards second. “Run! Run! Run!” Matt urged.
John ran at Joe and tagged him. Even though he believed Joe was out, he knew Matt well enough to know that Matt wouldn’t give it up. Now, there was no doubt. Joe was out.
“No fair!” Tim ran over to John and unsuccessfully tried to knock the ball out of John’s glove.
“Do over,” Matt contested.
“I have to go home for supper.” Larry walked off field.
“Me too,” John gathered up his bats. “What ya doin’ after supper, Mick?”
“Come over?” I asked.
“Let’s keep playing,” Matt stood in the middle of the field. Almost everyone had run off towards home. Tim was the only one standing on the field with Matt. “Mick!” Matt yelled. I acted like I didn’t hear him and raced home to announce the score of the game and how our team beat Matt’s team.
At the supper table Matt asked Dad if the ball caught off the wall was an out.
“What happened?” Dad looked at Matt first.
“Joe hit the ball, and John caught it when it bounced off the wall.”
“On a fly. It didn’t hit the ground,” I added.
“I don’t know. Sounds like an out to me. He caught it on a fly off the wall?” Dad was more interested in how John made the play.
“He made a diving catch just like Willie Mays.” From my chair I did my best to mimic John’s outstretched body, and I almost knocked over my milk.
“Mickey!” Mom shrieked.
“It wasn’t an out!” Matt almost came out his chair at me.
“John tagged him anyway,” I said smugly.
“John tagged him?” Dad took a bite of his crispy fried pork chop.
“Matt said it wasn’t an out, so John tagged him out.”
“It wasn’t fair,” Matt growled.
“Yeah, wasn’t fair.” No one was paying attention to Tim.
“It’s never fair, when you lose, Matt,” I said.
“Shut up, Mick!” Matt nearly came out of his chair at me again.
Dad smacked Matt alongside the head, and Matt fell back into his chair. The sting and the dizzying white flash from the crack on the head was blinding. Matt began to cry, and I did feel bad for him.
Everyone remained silent until Mom said, “We don’t say shut up. We say, ‘Be quiet.’”
She didn’t mention anything about not giving your children a concussion at the supper table.
Tim’s knot on his forehead wasn’t noticed, until he took a bath and his wet bangs parted around the baseball stitched egg. “My God! What happened to you? Look at this?” She called for Dad. He knew exactly what happened and laughed.
Years later, long after the convent shut down, and the field was built up with a housing subdivision, I looked up the rule about a ball hit off a wall or fence but caught before it hit the ground, and I discovered that it wasn’t an out. That’s why outfielders let the ball careen off the wall and hit the ground. It’s easier to play it.
Still, John tagged out Joe.
About the Author:
Mike Sharlow lives and works in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a small city on the banks of the Mississippi River. He has had many publications in various anthologies, journals, and magazines. The bibliography for his work can be found at www.mikesharlowwriter.com