I look over my right shoulder. At third base is Tooth. Next to him at shortstop is a wrinkled man in red suit shorts, penny loafers, compression socks up to his knees, and a pink Polo shirt. He leans heavily on his black shillelagh. How he could possibly catch a grounder and throw it to first base is a genuine mystery.
I look over my left shoulder. At second base, a woman wearing corrective sneakers whose everything is sagging picks at the webbing of her glove like an ape grooming flies. At first base is Annie, pounding a fist into her freshly purchased softball glove and glaring toward home plate with staunch determination.
The situation in the outfield is almost as bad. In left is stringy pastor Jeb. In right is an ashen, lumbering woman who appears to have been hijacked from a George Romero production. In center is a Thurston Howell-type dressed in white slacks, navy jacket, and a sailor captain’s hat.
As I approach the pitcher’s rubber, I feel like a genuine God. On this team, everything I do will spawn adoring awe. Even in defeat, I personally will win by virtue of just being so dominant in comparison to my teammates. Selfish? Yes. But foolproof.
Or so it would seem.
Patch comes up to me before the first pitch.
“Gotta warn you,” he says. “This first batter hits it hard right up the middle, so be ready for something right back at you.”
“No problem,” I say.
“No, really,” Patch says, his voice laced with meaning. “He hits it hard.”
I put out my arms. “Look at the team around me,” I say. “We want this guy to hit the ball up the middle.”
Patch thinks about it. “Good point,” he concedes, and returns to the plate.
A large man in a tank top, backward baseball cap, and basketball shorts comes to bat. Readying myself, I give a confident nod to Shannon and the kids sitting in the stands. Shannon and Dev each offer me a thumbs up signal while Edwin and Fiona bicker over a sandwich bag full of goldfish crackers. Bill is there too. When I told him about the team and its problems, he said he had to “watch this train wreck.”
I do a little Elvis-inspired hip wiggle before my first pitch. I’m not sure why. Probably because it will make me look like an even bigger jackass after what happens next.
With a smooth upward motion, I float the first offering into the air. It’s a beauty, rising like the moon against the evening sky. It spins ever so slightly. I admire the high arc of the ball for what feels like an eternity. My slow motion appreciation of myself allows me to completely forget about Patch’s scouting report.
Right up the middle….right back at you.
I hear only the dry crack of the aluminum bat vibrating the night air. A split-second later, the ball pounds my chin like a sledgehammer, the force cantilevering my full jaw back into my throat, sending an electric pulse through my ears, both of which pop.
Everyone watching looks stunned. Even the batter cringes and fails to move.
For a moment, time stands still.
When the batter realizes I’m not dead, he begins sprinting to first.
Now deaf, I cannot hear the people around me telling me to pick up the ball, but I see them pointing to the ground at my feet. I find the ball, pick it up, and raise it behind my head to throw to first.
I have plenty of time to make the play. I can see the hope and amazement in everyone’s eyes – my ability to perform in the face of such brutal physical punishment astounds them. I can feel the effect of my own virility pulsing across the field. I am the Golden Child – the first of many building blocks to make this team what it can someday be.
And then it hits me.
The true damage of the impact to my chin comes on me all at once – my vision dims, my head spins, my jaw wobbles, and my ears make a noise submarines make in the movies just before they implode at crush depth.
The ball drops from my hand and I topple like the AT-AT walker Luke took out with a grenade in Empire.
My face collides with the dusty earth, sending up a cloud that hazes my vision further, obscuring the appearance of the ethereal figure before me. He glows, and despite the blur and dust, I think I can make out that he’s wearing his home whites. He might even have wings, but I’m not sure.
“You alright, Doug?”
That Indiana drawl is unmistakable.
“Larry?” I say.
“I’d prefer Mr. Bird,” he says.
“Yes, Mr. Bird,” I say.
“Just kidding,” he says. “Larry’s fine.”
“What are you doing here?” I say.
“You idolize me, remember?” he says. “Who else would you see when you’re near death?”
“Death?” I say, coughing into the dry infield dirt.
“I know. Tough break,” Larry says, “but don’t quit.”
“Don’t quit?” I say. “I can’t feel my face, I can hardly see, and I think the only reason I can even hear you right now is because you’re a…” I try to remember the word. “Phantasm.”
“Doppelganger is a more compelling term,” Larry says. Apparently in my imagination, Larry Bird possesses book knowledge.
“Did I quit when Dennis Rodman blocked my shot with 5 seconds left in ’87?” Larry says.
“What did I do?”
“You stole the ball,” I say.
“What? I didn’t hear you,” he says.
“You stole the ball,” I say a little louder. Or maybe I just think it a little louder.
“That’s right I did,” Larry says. “Did I quit against the Pacers in 1991 when my face slammed into the parquet floor?”
“What did I do?”
“You scored 32 points on 12 for 19 shooting.”
“That’s right,” he says. “Now get up, Doug. It’s your destiny.”
When Larry Bird tells you to get up, you do it, even if you think doing so may cause your head to explode. I rise slowly by my own power. Tooth, Patch, and Annie all stand around me.
“You ok, Doug?” Tooth says. His voice is muffled, like he’s speaking to me from a distance.
I nod, opening and closing my mouth to get my ears working again.
“You sure?” Patch says, holding tight to my wrists like a trainer trying to assess the condition of his boxer.
“I’m fine,” I say, pulling my hands away. “I can keep going.”
As I pick up the ball and return to the rubber, I look over at the stands. Shannon is pressed up against the chain-link fence, her hands clenched to the metal links. Devlin stands next to her in the same pose. Edwin and Fiona continue to bicker over goldfish crackers.
With the man-woman rotation, a female batter is next to the plate. As if out of mercy, she taps a timid grounder to my feet on the first pitch. I throw her out. Despite the runner on first reaching second, the play shows a hint of Doug promise.
As the next batter steps to the plate, the ancient second base woman with corrective shoes steps to my side. She has a bewildered, urgent look on her face.
“Hey. We played this team last year,” she says. “You need to be careful. This guy hits it hard up the middle too.”
I recall what Tooth told me about her.
“Don’t you have…like… memory loss?” I say. “How would you even know that?”
Her expression remains unchanged.
“Hey. We played this team last year,” she says. “You need to be careful. This guy hits it hard up the middle too.”
She wanders back to her position.
“You just…told me that,” I grumble.
This time, I don’t admire my pitch. This time, I am ready.
The bat cracks and the ball screams at me – toward my bare hand. Without the time to extend my glove, I try to catch the screamer with the gloveless hand. My fingers crunch and contort on impact, and again I am on the ground, squirming.
Larry returns instantly. This time he’s on all fours, his head the directly in line with mine.
“That looked painful,” he says.
I check my fingers. They’re swollen, turning purple, and stuck at curious angles.
Larry winces at the sight. “You know what?” he says. “I’m going to give you some advice I’ve never given anyone before,” he says. “Quit.”
I lift my head slightly off the dirt, shocked.
“Et tu, Larry?” I say. “Et tu?”
“I know,” Larry says. “Look, quitting was never my style. But I think for you it might be a good fit.”
“I can still move my fingers,” I say, showing Larry the bulbous collection of uncooked sausages loosely attached to my palm. I move them forward and back as far as I can, about an inch. “I can still pitch.”
“Look,” Larry says. “If you need someone to encourage you to keep playing beyond all logic and reason, then you need to hallucinate Brett Favre.”
I can’t let this statement go.
“Larry, I worship you and everything, but those last couple of seasons after you threw out your back-”
“Really?” Larry says, his voice low and fierce. “With all the joy my career has given you, you want to go there?”
“Favre could say the same thing, right?” I ask. “You’re the one who brought him up, so I figured-”
“My cameo’s over,” Larry says, and evaporates.
I feel people lifting me by the arms. Patch is on one side of me, Tooth on the other. I look up at them.
“I can still go,” I say in a weak, shaky voice. “Larry’s wrong. He’s totally wrong.”
Tooth and Patch escort me from the field, my legs dragging and my head slumped.
The crowd noise fades as they take me to a quiet area of grass. They drop me onto my belly, lifeless and spent.
“Well, back to the drawing board,” I hear Tooth say.
“Yup,” Patch replies.
They walk away, planning future moves.
“Who else is there?” Tooth says.
“Maybe that guy from the tailgate we met last week,” Patch says.
“Did you know there’s adult kick ball on Thursday nights?” Tooth says.
“Really?” Patch says.
“Let’s think about switching to that next year,” Tooth says. “Less dangerous.”
Their voices trail off.
I realize I’m not alone. I am staring into the eyes of another man lying next to me. Like me, he is spread eagled on his stomach. Half his face his concealed by grass. The half I can see is blackened with bruises.
“You the pitcher?” he says in a gravelly voice.
“I pitched last week,” he says. “Those line drives are a bitch, aren’t they?”
Disturbed, I gather all my strength to turn my head in other direction. In my line of vision lies another man, his nose twisted and bleeding.
“I pitched for two weeks last month,” he says. “They dumped me here after I took a few shots to the face.”
What is this? I think to myself. The Island of Misfit Pitchers?
My body starts sliding, in increments, away from them.
“Hey, where you going?” one says.
“Come back!” say the other. “Don’t leave us!”
“The last thing I ate was a worm!” the first adds. “Help me!”
I look around. Pulling at my right leg is Brett Favre. He’s in a Jets uniform. I spin my head to the other side. Holding my left foot is Michael Jordan. He’s in a Wizards uniform. I turn again to my right. Favre is a Viking.
“He can keep playing,” Jordan says.
“Of course he can,” Favre says.
Every instinct I’ve ever had contradicts the one I’m having right now. Holding on to each leg is a solemn reminder of the perils of holding on too long.
I claw at the grass with my good hand, trying to resist.
“No!” I scream. “Larry warned me about you! He was right!”
“Get back in there,” Favre says, angrier.
“Show them you’re the best, and always will be,” Jordan barks.
“I can’t play anymore!” I say.
“Then why are you resisting?” Patch says.
I look around. Patch is now where Favre used to be. Tooth has replaced Jordan. Instead of grass, I’m clawing at the pitcher’s rubber. I’m still on the field.
Bill makes a stay-here wave to Shannon and strolls out to the mound. Halting next to me, he drops down on one knee and leans forward.
“How ya doin there, buddy?” he says.
I give a sausage-up signal with my injured hand, keeping the fingertips of my healthy hand clutched tightly to the half-inch thickness of rubber like I’m a mountain climber hanging onto a sliver of rock for dear life.
“You know, when I said I wanted to come and watch the train wreck, I wasn’t really expecting it to be you,” he says. “Is this because of the Celtics?”
I can feel my eyeballs flex at the question.
“Take it easy, Doug,” Bill says, showing me his open hands in a calming gesture. “I think we all want the same thing here. Let’s get you off the field.”
Delirious, I lock my gaze on Bill. “But I don’t want to tarnish my legacy,” I say.
“What legacy, Doug?” Bill says. “What are you trying to save?”
“My…dignity?” I say. I don’t even know what that means.
Bill assesses my crumpled mass.
“I hate to break it to you, pal,” he says, “but I think that boat has sailed.”
I look to Bill with a sad, weary gaze. “So is this it? Should I retire?” I say.
“Well,” Bill says, looking around the field. “I feel strange saying this given your team’s average age is 60, but yeah, I think you should retire.” Bill looks at my hand, still clenched to the pitcher’s rubber. “You’re holding on too tight, Doug. Time to let go.”
The sanity of Bill’s words washes over me, and my body unclenches. As my muscles relax and my hand drops away from the pitching rubber, I feel like something profound has taken place.
I am not, however, afforded much time to consider what that something is.
Bill immediately nods back at Tooth and Patch like a SWAT commander giving the go signal. They gather up my legs wheelbarrow style and drag me from the field. Completely spent, I have no more energy to resist.
As I slide across the ground, my eyes are naturally aimed toward the stands. Shannon and Devlin are again attached to the chain link fence in rapt attention. Even Edwin and Fiona have abandoned their fight over goldfish crackers to watch me get hauled off the field.
This is how you know you have achieved complete humiliation – when a child would rather focus on your disgrace than on a struggle to claim a bag of goldfish crackers.
Against the stunned silence of all onlookers, the sound of my body dragging across earth dominates the air. It is, in all likelihood, the final time I will ever consume the collective consciousness of an entire crowd at an athletic event.
It feels, somehow…