Breaking Ball, by Michael Snyder
There’s this ball, pink-seamed and spinning fast, its coordinates locked on the northern perimeter of my left eye socket. All the proof I need that God hates me. No surprise, as my earthly father was never that fond of me either. Synapses fire, but to no avail. The signals are jammed, my spindly legs remain planted in the dirt and seem to be taking root. All while this simple lump of cork, wrapped taut in woolen yarn then covered and stitched in rawhide, maintains both its speed and trajectory.
My pregame ritual is simple. I pray. All through warmups and the coach’s pep talk, my body goes through the motions as I silently beseech my Creator to keep my butt glued to the bench and far away from any meaningful action. Sometimes it works. Today the answer was a resounding no.
Thus, the looming missile. A cool bead of sweat descends my knobby spine.
I try to imagine what Stevie would do. But that’s no good because Stevie was just like our father. When dad wasn’t pitching he played short. He was the point guard, the quarterback, the foreman, the captain of every ship. Even at the bar, he drank the hardest and joked the loudest. And Stevie was following right along in our father’s cleated footsteps until I murdered him.
The fastest baseball pitch in recorded history was thrown by the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman. 105.1 miles per hour, on September 24, 2010 against the Padres. The kid on the mound today might be his progeny.
The shrink tells me I did not, in fact, kill my big brother. I pushed Stevie, then watched him tumble groundward out of our tree fort, saw the bone pricking the skin of his forearm, heard the doctor inform my parents that more tests would be necessary. Later I would consult the internet for words like oncologist and metastasize, then graduate to phrases like criminal negligence and involuntary manslaughter. All while I watched my brother grow skinny and bald, then wither and die.
So you tell me.
For a time, it seemed my father thought he might recreate me in my brother’s image. Thus, the batter’s box this morning, the blinding sunlight, the dirt in my nostrils, the ceaseless infield chatter, the leathery bullet, which inexplicably seems to be picking up speed.
At first, my lack of prowess merely frustrated Dad. Disappointment followed. Then he just got bored. Teasing out my potential manhood became just another in a long list of projects my father would abandon.
If I could somehow channel Stevie now I would choke up, bear down, dig in, crowd the plate, decode those spinning seams, step into my swing, and cue the launch sequence. Instead, I feel my chest clench and my bladder relax.
The average length of a Major League Baseball game is three hours and eight minutes. But it takes less than one half of one second for a pitch to cross the plate.
Mom encouraged me to sit this season out, said I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. And everyone seems to agree, my counselor included, that my father didn’t leave us because I suck at baseball. Your dad drinks because he misses your brother, they say. He only smacked you and your mom around because he’s sad. He really loves you guys, just has a hard time showing it. All of which makes me feel about like that poor writer dude in Misery. Or like Lennie Small’s puppy.
The longest homerun was pummeled by Mickey Mantle against the Tigers in Briggs Stadium in 1960. It sailed an impossible 634 feet. One time I managed to pop one of my dad’s pitches up and over his head. Barely. An easy out, for sure. My father watched my spastic celebration in disgust and deserted the mound. At least he didn’t bean you, Stevie jokes in my head.
I try to blink it away, but the ball keeps rocketing toward me, so close now that I believe I can read Rawlings in blue cursive.
My mind screams, “Swing, dammit, swing!” Regardless of how wildly I miss or how ridiculous I look trying — even if the ball remains locked on the coordinates and my head explodes like a ripe cantaloupe — at least I will have gone down swinging. I imagine my father in the stands, fist clenched, silently pulling for me. Still, nothing happens. I shoot another desperate flare heavenward, hoping that maybe God or Stevie will intervene on my behalf. But I get the sense that they’re munching peanuts and watching Aaron and Seaver and Ruth on a celestial field of dreams. My limbs fail to cooperate. Then the baseball turns translucent, each revolution revealing a glimpse of what my life might become if I can simply survive this pitch. I will graduate, start a band, kiss the girls, even survive a cancer scare of my own. I’ll marry the object of my poetic afflictions. We’ll raise three kids that will indeed play sports, but only when they feel like it. My mother will remarry and find a few glimmers of genuine peace to cherish. My father is impossible to see.
On April 17, 2012, Jamie Moyer tossed a winner against the Padres to become the oldest pitcher to win a Major League Baseball game. He was enviably ancient at forty-nine years, one-hundred fifty-one days.
The ball is screaming now, less than one foot away from my face. My leg muscles twitch in anticipation, urging my overwrought brain to make a decision. There may still be time to attempt a swing. Or to dive into the dirt. The ball seems to have developed an arc. But I cannot decide if it’s curving toward the plate, or towards my Adam’s apple. Still frozen in place, I do the one thing I can manage. I squeeze my eyes shut and pray for deliverance.
This story first appeared here.