BY ANDREW GRACE
We’d play baseball until the ball was black. That didn’t stop us. We threw the black ball and swung a black bat far into the darkness so that there was no limit to the game, no hits, no outs, no winning, no losing, just burning lungs and headfirst slides into sacks filled with sawdust. We’d play when the wind blew so hard it made the stones weep. The chickens were each little blizzards; the flies were immortal. If the field was too wet we’d pour gasoline on it and light it on fire. If we didn’t have a ball we’d use a pinecone or a corncob or snow. If we didn’t have a bat we’d use the stick the farmer’s kids used to scrape corn off the walls of metal silos, or we’d use rolling pins and hit one-handed. If we didn’t have a glove we’d wrap our shirt around our hand, or just use our bare palms and fingers and take the punishment of a heater, fielding raw with bone and sinew. And if we didn’t have any of these, no ball, no bat, no glove, no shoes, we’d play anyways. Our minds would concoct doubleheaders under the teeming mosquitoes, pantomime eephuses and slurves that the batter trained his or her eyes on until they unleashed their torqued torsos and outward flew imaginary grounders and loopers. It was an honor code: if a shortstop leapt to snag a screamer and came down with the invisible ball, the batter never argued that, no, it had been a home run. Our minds were in sync like herding dogs pushing ewes into the shape of a cloud trapped in a box of wire. We played ball.
When we did have a proper baseball, cowhide wrapped around yarn wrapped around a cork pill at the center of it all, the sun of the galaxy of our game; when we had a real bat, maple or ash or birch tapered down to a handle the diameter of which we recognized from axes when we would chop wood before breakfast and after dinner for our parents who were too tired after doing whatever they did to keep away the jealous god of the mortgage; when we had gloves that we had broken in by pouring a tablespoon of boiling water into the pocket and pounding it with the mallet our mothers used to crush garlic before putting a ball inside and slipping it under our mattresses for two days, when we had all of that, we’d play like fire.
We lived where the ground was flat, broken only by an occasional silo or haybarn, which were only blips of objects in the otherwise implacable horizon. Out of thin air, like a magic trick, our parents created grain, animals, wood, liquor, functioning carburetors, wearable garments, eggs. Insurance was rare as giraffes. Us kids tucked our desires, insolences and pieties into the crannies of a larger drama starring adults and acreage. We dreamt of mountains and peacocks and the insomniac sea. We dreamt of Lou Gehrig, Red Rolfe, Josh Gibson who they say hit a 700 foot home run clean out of Yankee Stadium, something Babe Ruth never did, a ball that spun at the rate of a hummingbird’s heart. Or, no, rather it didn’t spin at all and roared frozen out of the world of baseball and into the iron galaxy of the Bronx. We wanted to hit like that, to do something consequential, to lodge a legacy where it couldn’t be easily gotten rid of. When we waited for the pitch, we did so with the same calibrated patience as our fathers did when they hunted, especially when they hunted wolves, when it was not just sport but a legitimate threat to livelihood and family. We were grown then.
We’d say this one’s for my mother who fainted while canning beets this morning. We’d say this one’s for my pet raccoon Artemis. This one’s for my 12 year old brother who now has to work hustling lunch for a road crew and can’t play any more. This one’s for the bat itself, and the crack it makes which was our voice, the only language we had to say that we need more out of life and we intend to get it someday.
Our parents called us home, name by name floating past like herons returning to the rookery at dusk. We waited until the voices tipped slightly past annoyance into desperation before we relented. We weren’t selfish. We needed a base hit like our parents needed money. We were hungry, we were labor, we were in debt as red as the seams on the ball that point beyond the horizon of the white sphere like geese in formation. Baseball was not freedom as much as it was a set of rules we understood. It was a discrete and logical world, the only place for joy. Running the bases was not a pilgrimage to the stations of the cross. It was better. In baseball, stealing was as good as earning. A strike got you somewhere other than a long line and an uncle’s bloodied nose. A home run was not a return to safety but an escape from our grave, which was home plate, and we morphed from ghosts back to real children as we rounded third, coming into our lives anew as we crossed a glowing pentagon. Some think the central metaphor of baseball is about how to come home again. We knew it was about staying away as long as we could and only returning when changed.
We played all summer into fall until the field’s diamond was filigreed with frost. As harvest threw up its mountain ranges of dust around us, we wrapped handkerchiefs around our faces and kept on being Walter Johnson, Mel Ott, Mule Suttles, Turkey Kearnes and would have kept on all night if we were allowed until the sun fell and rose again and the cows lowered their heads to eat mist.