B. L. Makiefsky
© Copyright 2021 by B. L. Makiefsky
It was the
Monroe was found dead, and Spider-Man born. It was the year of the
Cuban Missile Crisis, too, though world events were not on the Cubs
minds; only baseball mattered. The boys lived the game morning, noon
and night and what these 11 and 12-year-olds lacked in skills they
found in dreams, where wooden bats crackled like Zorro’s whip
as they smacked balls over fences, and their leather gloves—which
they slept with—snagged balls from thin air and lofty heights,
highlight reel catches that brought frenzied crowds to their feet. In
dreams they were undefeated, took the pennant, and returned to school
in the fall as tough hombres.
But here they were: Down a run in the last inning of their last game, and they hadn’t won a thing. Cellar-dwellers. The Cubs knew well the mercy rule, and mercy was just.
Through it all, loss after heart-breaking loss, failure after failure—brooding, magnificent, end-of the-world failure—failure looking back at them each morning in their reflections at the bottom of empty cereal bowls as they reached for their Breakfast of Champions, failure that hit them like a truckload of hurt each time they unloaded their equipment at practice, their bats and gloves seemingly full of holes, failure that beat the snot and swagger from them (a swagger they’d go on searching for much of their adolescence) and clung to them close and oppressive like their sodden jerseys that hot and muggy and joyless summer, lives in ruin failure—losses that they couldn’t shake off, like a tic burrowing under the skin of their wan and fragile selves to infect the whole of their lives, and no matter how angrily they might kick in frustration an empty can down the street on their walk home, or throw stones at a stray cat—with the same success they had hitting the cutoff man earlier—they failed to vanquish it, failure, and in a final act of rage and resignation they would sling their wet jerseys onto their bedroom floor all the while telling mothers and fathers or sisters and brothers everything was just fine.
Through all the battering and gloom, they knew why they lost. They blamed their coach, the unflappable Mr. Feldman. Who never said an unkind word to anybody. Not to the opposition, and never to umpires. When a call didn’t go the Cubs way, he’d say, Guys, you’ll get it back. Or get the next one. Or tomorrow is a new day. Or keep trying.
Such calm didn’t sit
well with the team, especially third baseman Mark Silver. He couldn’t
hit a lick but swung freely at the coach, low blows, all of it;
Vincent Feldman was an easy target. Apart from his smile, nothing on
his face fit or endeared you to look his way. His chin was closer to
his right ear than you’d think possible, and his nose just hung
there like a windsock on a windless day. A train wreck of a face that
made everything he did—Silver was certain—lopsided.
Feldman wasn’t about winning at all costs. He wasn’t about winning at any cost. “We can’t even win ugly,” Silver would complain to his teammates. No one laughed.
Across the diamond this last game of the season—the other side of the standings, as well—were the undefeated Dodgers, whose coach’s name no one would remember. He was built like a fireplug, but the plug loose. He badgered umpires, and ridiculed his own team when they didn’t play well. And many on the Cubs wanted to play for him. Or so they said. He was a winner, Feldman a loser. He even coached the all-stars. Vincent Feldman didn’t coach all-star games.
“Nice guys finish last!” taunted the Dodgers from their dugout. “Second place is the first loser!” they shouted. Second place? A dream to the Cubs. They were still looking for their first win. Everyone plays, was Feldman’s mantra. There’s no I in T-E-A-M, he preached. The boys came out swinging, as best as they could.
Roddy Braun was pitching for the Dodgers, he with a cannon for an arm and a quiver of two arrows, ungodly fast and dipsy doodle slow. Both lights out. He was also Silver’s best friend. Their mothers were sitting together in the stands this warm August evening.
As providence would have it—providence being as much a part of the game as the stitches on the ball—Silver came to bat in the last inning with the tying run on third, and two outs.
Roddy stared down his catcher, took a deep breath, glanced at Silver with murder in his heart, and reached back. Strike one. Hard down the middle. The bat never left Silver’s shoulder. He glanced at the catcher’s mitt to see if the ball was truly there. Should have known what was coming, he said to himself. You never even saw it, said another voice—also his. He thought about stepping out of the batter’s box, stretching, swinging his bat free and easy. But didn’t. Vik, the Cubs runner on third, was dancing down the line, daring to go home at the crack of the bat. Or wild pitch. Silver raised his bat above his head and gripped it tight, too tight. Roddy threw something outside and off-speed that he lunged at. Strike two.
Silver tapped the plate with his bat. One more strike and the long season would be over. The thought of making the last out weighed heavily on his thin shoulders. More than anything, he wanted to be a hero, drive in the tying run and do right by his team. Roddy would not quick-pitch him, and gave Silver a minute to collect himself. He wondered what their mothers might be talking about. If they even kept score. Vik stood on the bag, looking at the ground, his shoulders slumped. Their third base coach was slowly shaking his head. Maybe he could get a piece of the ball, put it in play, Silver thought. Maybe the infielder would boot it and he’d be on first, the game tied. Again Silver wanted to step out of the batter’s box, but lacked the confidence to actually do it and delay the game. Time seemed as unstoppable as Roddy’s fastball.
Scowling, arms folded, the red-faced Dodger coach yelled in to home plate, “Finish up now, son.” As if Mark Silver was making some kind of purchase, the lights dimmed and the store about to close.
The Dodger bench was on its feet, screaming for the final strike. It was funeral quiet on the Cubs side. But just as Roddy went into his windup, Feldman asked for time. The Cubs collective jaws dropped. He’d never done that. Some of them even jumped up and down, as if they’d won something. The Dodger players settled down.
Feldman ambled over to Silver, put a hand on his shoulder. “Stop thinking,” he said. “React.” Silver rested the barrel of his bat on the ground, and watched a few pigeons take flight from the roof of the third base dugout. He said that he couldn’t hit Roddy. Felt stupid trying.
“We’re all stupid,” Feldman said. “You, me, the umpire, and especially that coach over there.” He motioned to the other team without looking. “You’ve got two strikes against you. But what counts here is how we hold our heads. Not our bats.” He squeezed Silver’s shoulder. “Just hang tough,” the coach said, and headed back to the dugout.
Hang tough, Silver thought, digging his rubber cleats into the batter’s box. How do you hang tough against a fastball that seems capable of splitting you in two? Coach might as well have said hang ten.
Roddy started his windup again. The whole world knew what was coming. Silver choked up on the bat. And then it happened. As if the simple, pedestrian act of changing up his hands had also changed his mind; he stopped thinking, in other words. Now he saw the pitcher slowly bring his hands to his chest, his leg lift and stride as if in slow motion, and all as big to Silver as images on a movie screen. Next Roddy cocked his arm and Silver watched his hand come forward, then the inevitable release of what looked like a puff of smoke. A heartbeat later Silver made contact with the ball. Not a resounding crack. Not a whisper, either. A shot to the left of the mound. Vik raced home and the Cubs screamed. Sprinting to first, Silver remembered fielding ground balls like this one himself in March when the snow had melted, and how hard it was waiting for the league to start play. He wanted to beat the throw as much as he had wanted anything in life.
The shortstop snagged the ball and threw to first, beating Silver by a step, and the Dodgers erupted. The Cubs glumly watched them put Roddy on their shoulders, and parade around the diamond as if they were marching into history, that brash high step cockiness of youth who are certain their paths forward would remain undefeated and celebrated. Mark Silver remembered the swing he put on the ball, a good swing, and the out he made.
Now Mr. Feldman brought Silver his glove, though his teammates would not look at him.
Feldman smiled, his ears seeming a mile apart, that lopsided ear-to-ear smile, and in Feldman’s curve, a face so without guile and menace, Silver saw that life wasn’t always a straight line. The coach said that he hoped Silver would play for him again next year.