Sidearm Jeff Burt
Coach and I hit it off right away. The first thing he had our team do was to lie on the grass and look up, and he talked about having gratitude for the men and women who prepared the field in late winter, who fertilized, watered, and mowed the grass, who prepped the mound, who made sure the stakes were sturdy for the base bags, who lined the field before the games, who ran the snack bar, and the umps who called the games.
I got it, because I loved how the field expanded from home plate down the lines like a large fan, how different parks had different fences, some zigzagged across the outfield, some arced as if drawn by a compass. And the chalk. I had always wanted to be a catcher who scratched and removed the inner lines of the rectangle of the batter’s box, who kicked up chalk. Catcher—that was the position I most desired.
In the last week of practice, coach called each of us aside to tell us what he was going to work with us on one special thing. He said he was going to teach me how to run. I told him I was hoping to learn to be a catcher first, and that I could pitch, which wasn’t really true. I had no fastball, but could throw a sidearm curve that was so large in its arc other players laughed at it, made their friends try to hit it. It was a blooper pitch but on its side. But Coach said it was more important to learn to run.
At practice I ran with one other guy, Erik, while the team took infield and outfield practice. Coach ran with us, telling us how to stretch our legs, how to land, how to pick up our feet. He taught us how to get a good jump, how to stand or squat with our feet to get the best advantage.
Then coach told me I could learn to be a catcher. I was bad. I was clumsy, stiff. My hands were slow. I dropped many pitches. I could not get out of the catcher’s squat to go after a bunt. But I kept at it, thinking I would improve. I did, but not much.
I griped about my parents a lot, but Coach told me I needed to be patient, that being a single mother was difficult, being poor was difficult, but at some point in the future I could leave that behind me.
We won more games than we lost. We were tied for first going into the last two games. My knees had taken a bad turn and I could barely do my three innings in left field.
In the top of the fourth, coach told me to put on the catcher’s gear. We had our fastest pitcher on the mound. I thought the coach had made a big mistake, putting me behind the plate with our best pitcher and needing a win. I was wrong. Carl threw fast. Most kids never swung. In the fourth he threw twelve pitches, three balls and nine strikes. I dropped half of the pitches. In the fifth he gave up one hit, and I let two balls pass, but no runs scored. I led off the bottom of the fifth and coach told me to eliminate the rest of the chalk in the batter’s box, which I had to do before the ump showed up. I made a whirling cloud of white, beautiful dust.
In the top of the sixth, the first two batters hit come-backers to Carl, but the last batter hit a dribble down the third base line. All those practices on how to run, how to leave the squat—I stood up, I took long strides, I got the ball in my bare hand, I spun, I threw to first. The batter was out.
The next day my knees hurt so bad I could barely walk.
The last game I played for two innings in left field and could barely stand. We were losing by nine runs, with no chance to win. Coach told me I could pitch the last inning.
He told me before I went to the mound to never throw my sidearm curve twice to the same batter. I walked the first two hitters, got a foul ball out to third, walked another. The next batter lined one into my glove. Then came the kid they called Farm Boy—he had forearms bigger than my thighs. I threw two fastballs that he took for balls, then two more that he pulled foul. I threw a sidearm curve that he barely nicked, and the ferocity of his swing knocked his helmet off. People laughed. I threw another ball, then threw eight more slow fastballs that he fouled off. Coach came out to encourage me.
I wound up, took the exaggerated stride toward third, and delivered the sidearm curve. Farm Boy started to swing early again, but caught himself, and had the time to re-cock the bat, swung dead legged and flat-footed, and hit a tremendous home run over the left field fence. It was the longest home run anyone had ever seen in Little League. We were all struck with admiration. Coach left me in, and I got the last out.
We finished second. Our season was over. But that home run enjoined me to a story that lived on, a story of perfection.
Coach gave me a catcher’s mitt at the celebration. I clung to that catcher’s mitt after the season. I pounded it when I was mad. I carried it around like a bear’s paw on my left hand. I mounted it on a bookstand. I oiled it every spring. I took it to college. When I fell in love, I smothered my face in it and yelled.