We got to the game the other night a little late. Well, we really weren’t late. They started early to try to beat the rain, which it never really did fall. Anyway, the top half of the first was finished and we sat down just in time to watch our guys make their last out in the bottom half. The night was already over for the Home Towners, though. THEY had scored six runs in the top of the first. Their pitcher struck out the last man, one, two, three. Since nothing else was going on, I thought I’d pay attention to this next time. It would be about another ten minutes before I got a chance to watch the other guy pitch to the home team. I could wait.
That’s baseball, ain’t it. Time. Waiting.
I like watching pitchers, the only gunslingers left in the world I think. And this guy had John Wayne and Gary Cooper and little Alan Ladd in Shane written all over him; except that he was really the Jack Palance character in that film since he was in my town and killing my team. (Quick, what was that guy’s name?)
The team is from New Jersey, a place I just dissed in my last little burp here, so I guess what he did to the Home Town boys that night was in some way God’s allowing all the pancakes butter and syrup in the Great Boarding House of the Universe to even out.
They wear gray uniforms, those fellows, the Sussex Timber Wolves or something. New Jersey, you’re gasping? Timber Wolves? Go figure. I should shut up, now or more bad things will happen. Our guys wear camouflage uniforms. Don’t ask.
This guy, their pitcher, was everything a gunslinger should be, tall, lanky and spare of movement. To use a word that’s suddenly become popular among some people I know, one might even say he was subtle. There was no dramatic wind-up, no rearing kick, or quirky motion, or beady-eyed stare. He didn’t stalk around the mound, spit, flip the rosin bag off the back of his hand. He was no gun twirler. He might have been moving cans of hash around on the grocery store shelf back in Cornhusk, NB for Mr. Stubbs, the kindly old grocer, when Johnny Badly rode into town and began his reign of terror. He was, if anything, a sodbuster…until someone stepped into the batter’s box and looked his way
He looked down from the mound at each batter as he might look down the barrel of his single action Colt after Johnny and the boys had finished trashing Stella’s Saloon opposite the store and were making their way across the street to empty the shelves. He paused for a second or two as the catcher made google eyes and waved fingers and did all the things catchers have to do before they resign themselves to probably getting a bat across their brains; maybe whisper “Please don’t let this be the one!”
Like I said, no big deal. It was as if nothing much was going to happen at all. With him. The batter tensed, of course, dug in a little, waved the tip of his bat like a cat’s tail twitching before the pounce. The Ump, after rummaging for his glasses, bent low over the catcher. I’d like to say a hush descended over the stand and a tense riff from the brass and strings in the studio orchestra thrummed behind everything. But, nah, that’s too Hollywood.
No, he simply threw the ball; stepped off a little with his left foot and threw the ball with a kind of half-hearted side arm motion down toward the plate. He threw it so slowly that you could have had a sandwich, sent out for pizza, taken a shower, played a hand of cards down at the plate waiting for the thing to get there. And, with that side arm thing going on he threw it low. I mean it was cheap low, on the dotted line, at the bottom of the page low.
Plus, it was no screw ball, but it was so slow it looked like it wobbled on the way and would drop to the dirt and lie there sleeping just before it got to the plate. It was a ball out for a stroll. If it was a bullet the bad guys would laugh at it and smack it out of the way.
Not our guys though. They were so desperate to hit something, they were practically running after these dribbles, leaping across the plate, calling a cab to meet them halfway. And, all they got was a few squibbles along the ground. We got lucky late, too late, and got three runs back. By that time though we would have needed an even dozen to win. What a laugh.
About half way through the game, when I had stopped wondering if our side was ever going to get to first, and hoping for a bright spot in a dark time I figured I needed to turn my mind to other things. So instead, I got to wondering about the art of things like this; ball playing, anything worth doing. I started looking for the moments of grace and purity. Honest to God, I did!
It started somewhere in the fifth, when one of the Jersey’s hit a screamer to second and our shortstop broke to his left, covered about twenty feet in a millisecond, grabbed the ball in a long leap, turned in mid-air and threw a rope down to first to get the out. Could Balanchine have choreographed something like that? Could Lennie have orchestreated it? (I like the typo. It stays.)
And, here, in a small town, in the same park where artists like Campanella, and Robinson and Newcombe broke into the game, this happens, and I’m lucky enough to be there.
That inning ended, and out he came again, this matter of fact killer of batters. And, as it might have been written in Genesis, “The third out came, and another inning followed.” The last inning of the game I spent watching nothing but him, and what he did throwing. And I thought of all the things that look beautiful when they aren’t trying to be beautiful. Oh, stuff like the different colors of pebbles on a beach, the sway of a hummingbird’s body as it dips in and out of some bright red flower, a little kid bending over to pick up a dandelion, the most beautiful flower in the world.
Like a sine curve across a long time this guy’s arm drifted out from his side and sent the ball down the alley toward home.
There was no joy in town that night as the ball park emptied, but I slept with a smile, anyway; and a memory of all good things.
By the way, the name was Jack Wilson, the “low-down Yankee liar.”