The Sweetness to Come
His arm still aches when the air is cold. The shoulder tightens, the muscles tense as though they still have a job to do. He finds himself holding it with his left hand, rotating it slowly back and forth, flexing the hand that wants a ball in its grasp. Wanting the feeling of the stitches and leather pressing into his skin. His grip tightens on the phantom ball, his body remembering the intricacies. The small details that made him great, that made him better than other kids his age, better than his college teammates and made him – for a sweet, brief time- a professional in the first thing he can remember truly loving.
He kicks the dirt under his feet, the mound feels the same as it did when it was his. His arm longed to work. It didn’t remember that it was nearly forty, that the glory days of victory were long behind him. The muscles wanted to move in the controlled, yet fluid movement that they had trained to perfect. The tendons wanted to fire and snap his arm back where it started. His mind began filing through the potential pitches, a brief lapse back to when he was young and purposeful. When all of his strength and his focus belonged to the next pitch, the next pitch, the next pitch.
This dirt was the same, the habit of kicking his toes in it, impossible to break. He could hear the echo of the crowd that disappeared before he was ready to be alone. They would be here soon, too and although smaller than before, they still cheered.
The fences in the outfield were laughably short. He could have thrown a ball straight over them from the mound twenty years ago. With the snap of a pitch, the ball would have taken flight. The thought made him strangely lonely. He shoved his hands in his pockets and let his eyes relax out of focus, his mind softening to remember the rush of it all.
He had been so young, firm in his belief that he never imagined it working out differently. This sport had been what his days centered around. He had a slider that made fools of batters, a burning work ethic that pushed him to pitch more. Get more precise in his ball placement, get stronger to throw harder, focus on film to learn more, more, more. It was never work, it was his life force, as much a part of him as the blood pumping through his body. It was, quite simply, his love. And the game had loved him in return.
Until it was over.
There was no tendon-snapping like he had seen in so many other pitchers. There was no other catastrophic injury that he couldn’t come back from. It had simply been a softening of skills. A gentle release of the relentlessness of the many years. It was the gentleness that shocked him the most. He couldn’t fix or control it. He could feel it leaving him one day, a looseness, a weakness that he had never known. It slipped away and he was landlocked as it abandoned him.
The sun was shining in his eyes and he adjusted his hat lower, smoothed his jersey over his chest. He could hear the crowd coming in now, the chatter of the players in the dugout. He kicked the dirt again, dug his right heel into a small, familiar groove. The rubber felt good under his left foot. His hand was empty.
He stumbled around for some time, until he met Elise and she had reminded him that there was a life outside of baseball, not just an existence. He was grateful for that.
The sounds were louder now. More voices, more noise reaching him in the middle of the infield. He knew he had to talk to the players. A game required a plan and he would give them one. He glanced once more toward home and massaged his shoulder as he walked off the mound again.
He made his way into the dugout where the players were scattered in chaos. He stared for a moment, and when they took no notice he gave a sharp whistle through his teeth. Their faces snapped toward him and he held up his palms. They took their seats on the small wooden bench and quieted for a moment. He could see the fidgeting feet, the nervous hands and knew he wouldn’t have their attention for long. He felt his own stomach clench with opening-day nerves. It was a beautiful, familiar feeling.
They whooped their response when he asked them if they were ready. Their clean jerseys that matched his own would soon be stained with dirt. The beauty of the possibilities of those perfect, unmarked uniforms were not lost on him. He gave the team encouragement, reminded them of the basics and clapped as they made their way to the field, excitement propelling them forward. One player remained seated. He had had a feeling about this one. He sat down close on the bench so they couldn’t be overheard.
“What’s wrong, kid?”
Silence. He waited a moment, knowing a response would come.
“I know you are. I always was, too. But you have to remember that being nervous is a part of it. So being brave always has to be the other part.”
A nod, shuffling feet and a fist in a glove.
“Everyone will see me when I make a mistake.”
He nodded this time.
“Yep, they will. You’re on the mound, in the middle of it all. But you know what else that means?”
A shake of a head, but raised eyes. Eyes that looked like his, eyes of a shocking blue, Elise always said.
“It means they’ll see when you throw perfectly, too. And usually they cheer a lot louder than they boo.”
A smile from his daughter as she picked up her glove and wrapped her arms around his waist in the sincere way of seven-year-olds. Confidence restored, she pulled her hat lower on her head and the motion rendered him still for a moment. She began to make her way toward the field, rotating her left arm in the familiar way he moved his right.
“Do you love it? I mean, it’s not just for me, right?”
A smile that was all her mom’s, a light in her eyes, a distinct hardness that he remembered, a purpose becoming real.
“I love it so much.”
He nodded, a release in his chest, and she left to climb the mound, to hear the cheers and feel the limber muscles of youth find a rhythm, a purpose, a love of the work. He sent his strength with her, felt the excitement through her and thought about all the sweetness he had never imagined for himself. The sun was brighter now overhead, and the players took the field. A new game was underway.
Cory Essey lives in Pittsburgh. Her work has previously appeared on Discretionary Love, The Write Launch, and Two Sisters Writing and Publishing.