112_512641405489_7081_n

“86 Pitches”

I handed the ball to my coach and retreated to the left side of the infield. I was hung-over, having only slept four hours the night before, but I can’t remember if I was stoned or not. Running on fumes, supported by legs made of jelly, I had just pitched the game of my life.

86 pitches was nothing at that point in the season. I could have thrown 110. While warming up for the seventh and final inning, my coach told me to get the ball down. He was right. Every fastball I threw came in letter high.

The leadoff hitter stood in the on-deck circle, licking his chops. I threw another pitch, up in the zone. My catcher threw the ball through to second base. At this point in the game my arm should have been spent, but all day I’d been too tired to feel a damn thing.

The first two pitches of the seventh inning were both balls — fastballs, high.

My coach called time and quickly hobbled out to the mound. We were leading 5-2. It was a weird time to visit the mound, despite those two high fastballs, It was my game to win. I had it under control.  Rarely do you get pulled in the middle of a count. Almost never do you get pulled when you’ve pitched the way I was pitching, have only thrown 86 pitches, and you’re in the middle of a count.

He told me I pitched a hell of a game. This is what baseball coaches say when they mean, “you’re done pitching today, so hand me the damn ball.”

I handed him the damn ball.

Twenty minutes later, I jogged off the infield with my teammates. We had given up five runs, and all-of-the-sudden found ourselves trailing by two, with no momentum whatsoever. We would not reclaim the lead: we went down 1-2-3 in our last round of at-bats.

112_512641400499_6898_n

I got home before my parents. I was smoking a cigarette in the back yard when my dad pulled into the drive. My mother was still up on the hill, presumably chatting with other players’ mothers. That’s right: my mother, my father, and I had taken three different vehicles on the one-mile trip up the hill to the high school. This does not speak to our relationship as a family as much as it speaks to the casual gas-guzzling culture of Thetford, Vermont.

My dad had never seen me smoke a cigarette before. He was quite aware that it was a new habit of mine, but I never had the balls to smoke one in front of him. I stood there, staring off into the distance as he approached. He pulled out a Swisher Sweet little cigar. He ripped the filter off — he always ripped the filter off — and we smoked.

My dad broke the silence, “You know, those things will kill you.”

I snickered. I did not have to articulate the irony to him – he’s an English teacher.

“Tough loss”, he tried again.

“ Yeah.”

More silence. “How many pitches had you thrown? It couldn’t have been that many, I mean, you really had it go—“

“86,” I interrupted.

“86,” he echoed, dumbfounded. “Jesus”.

He inhaled. I inhaled. We exhaled.

“Were you gassed?”

“Dad, I threw 86 pitches. I could have thrown 86 more. I wanted to beat those fuckers. I needed to get the ball down, and I didn’t do it. It’s my own fault.”

While he contemplated what I had said, I contemplated whether I was telling the truth or not. I had no idea whether it was my fault. Maybe he should have left me in. Maybe it was my game to win, or lose — I didn’t know.

What I did know was that my father knew my baseball talents (and lack thereof) like nobody else. After all, it was he who had given me the gift of baseball, something I won’t ever forget.

One of my earliest memories is of my father throwing a cheap plastic ball (not a wiffle ball, thank you very much) while me and my older brother took hapless swings with an oversized, orange, plastic bat in the driveway. I always had an arm and I was never much of a hitter. As I got older, I found space in our mudroom to throw a tennis ball against the wall, practicing my pitching and hitting. Despite that this affair seriously compromised any previous paint jobs, on top of the fact that it caused a legitimate amount of unwelcome noise in our living room, my dad encouraged me to keep playing, and dutifully repainted the baseball-asylum every summer or two. My father gave me the gift of baseball, not by sending me to elite baseball camps, or buying me expensive equipment, but by giving me the unconditional love and support that I needed to do what I loved. And from my earliest memories and onward, I loved to play baseball.

That was beginning to change as I walked off the mound that day. I was 18 on the verge of going to a liberal arts college, where my burgeoning interests in girls, pot, and alcohol would proliferate. The night before the game I had spent with drinking whiskey instead of going to senior prom. I didn’t think about baseball much when I wasn’t on the field.

My father had had this phase in his life, too. He was the rebellious one, born in between the golden child — his older brother — and the baby — his disabled younger brother. Music, women, and pot had come into his life at a much earlier age than I, back when his parent’s generation didn’t now the difference between weed and oregano. I remember asking him one time what position he played in high school. He chuckled — he had quit baseball when he was 12. He gave up on baseball younger than I did, but came back to it like he had something to prove. Every night he listened to the Indians on scratchy AM radio. Every chance he got, he drove to the most remote corners of Vermont to watch me play baseball, apologizing profusely on the rare occasions that he missed one of my games.

My father and I knew something as we smoked those cigarettes: we knew that my experiences playing organized baseball were numbered. We knew that the days were drawing to a close, the days of him driving two hours to every game just so that he could anxiously pace in a secluded area where I couldn’t see him, drinking his coffee as though it helped his nerves.

Looking back, he knew one thing that I did not: you are always too young to quit playing baseball.