When I was a kid we used to play baseball. We rode bikes of course, but a bike was a way to get to somewhere or a way to jump off a ramp and try to kill yourself. One of the somewheres a bike had to get you to was the ballfield.
There were lots of ballfields, but usually we played at Horn Field, which was about a twenty minute ride away. There was grass in the outfield but everything else was dirt. Since this was in Houston, it was always hot, hotter than any hot you would willingly endure in a sane state of mind, and always with a blanket of 90% humidity slathered on top.
We played in long pants because otherwise you wouldn’t have any skin left on your knees. Spring, summer, fall, it was always hot and dirty and we didn’t care. Rather, we cared, but what could we do about it? You couldn’t stay inside because there was nothing to do. Daytime cartoons only ran from 3:30 to 5:00 weekdays, and we didn’t have a TV.
Baseball was an egalitarian sport, which cycling is not. The red Rawlings glove I got when I was eight was the same glove I used every year until I quit playing baseball as a teenager. We bought it at the FedMart on Bellaire Blvd., and it cost thirteen dollars. That was a huge amount of money. Kids hung onto their gloves. After your bike it was the most precious thing you owned.
We didn’t have spikes, just ramshackle old shoes that we also wore to school; we called them sneakers or “tennies.” My brother Ian couldn’t stand shoes; he was a lightning fast baserunner with wicked high arches and if it wasn’t an actual league game he played barefoot. His Rawlings glove was black, and he kept it oiled and he broke it in so that it bent just right. Mine was always scuffed and ugly and I broke it in wrong so that it looked like a broken shopping bag or an old lady’s purse. Plus, I couldn’t catch worth a damn and threw worse.
We had a bat, singular. I don’t remember the size, but it was a Louisville Slugger. Sometimes my dad would ride down to Horn Field with us on his giant Hercules and we’d do batting practice, or shag flies, or play catch, all the time frying our fucking brains out in that raw Houston heat. I couldn’t hit worth a damn, but man could I sweat. There weren’t any water bottles or Gatorade or sports drinks, either, just a cement fountain that pumped out scalding summer water, and listen, you drank it because the alternative was sunstroke.
We were gritty little bastards.
If you hung around the ballfield for very long with a bat, glove, and ball, no matter how hot it was some other kid would show up with his glove. Then his big brother would show up, and then the brother’s friends, and then the big brother’s big brother, and then his friends. No one had a cell phone or a computer, but you would have eighteen players so quick, everything from peewees to hulking high school sluggers with hair on their balls.
No one cared if you were little or weak or scared. The pitchers threw so hard that the ball cracked in the catcher’s mitt like a gunshot. If you sucked they’d holler “Easy out!” as you walked up to the plate. If you got hit in the shoulder or stomach or elbow or knee, or even the head, you’d better not cry. Wipe up the blood and take your base; they were going to throw you out anyway the second you wandered so much as an inch off base. Even if first base missed the throw, right field would usually scoop it up and nail you before you got to second.
It was egalitarian in this way: The best players and the terrible ones got distributed fairly, and no quarter was ever given. There was never a single fight over a rule or a close call, either. The players would argue but no one ever came to blows. We didn’t need any grown-ups and they were all drinking beer anyway.
I still remember one time when I went up to the plate, like every other time, quaking. The pitcher was a kid named Joe Crake. He was fifteen, hairy, lean as a whip, a starter on the high school JV squad, and I was eight.
“Easy out!” the catcher said, without a facemask or shin guards or a chest protector or cup of course, head covered with nothing but a cap to protect his brains, face, and teeth from a slung bat or tipped ball.
Joe threw the first two pitches right down the middle, so fast I really and truly didn’t ever see the ball. It was in his hand, then thwack! It was in the mitt.
“Strike one!” followed by “Strike two!”
Joe looked at me and laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh but it wasn’t a pitying laugh, either. He wound up and threw a slow ball right down the middle. I swung and knocked it over his head, right between first and second, just far enough so that by the time they got the ball to first base I was safe.
My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would crawl out of my throat. In my excitement I led off first a step too far and was thrown out on the very next pitch. But I didn’t care. I remember riding my bike home, late for dinner and ravenous, chewed to shit by mosquitoes, covered in dirt, with my glove hanging off the handlebars. My brother pedaled next to me, the brother who never thought much of my baseball skills.
“That was a good hit,” he said.
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