Intense was not a strong enough word to describe the pressure I felt. We were one hard-fought run ahead and it was the bottom of the ninth. Joe’s Collision Shop was up to bat with two outs, but their runner on first had just stolen second.
Jordan dug in at the plate with three balls and one strike against him.
As I stood on the pitcher’s mound, I imagined myself to be Hoyt Wilhelm, the first relief pitcher introduced into the Hall of Fame in 1985, a player my grandpa was always talking about. I might only be twelve, but I bet I knew more about Wilhelm and his career—thanks to grandpa—than any grownup who claimed to be a baseball fan.
This was something I often did when in tight spots. Pretending to be Wilhelm, who pitched in over a thousand games during his twenty-one year career, helped me focus through the taunts of the Collisions, the yells from the packed bleachers, and the pounding ache in my head that had started about the top of the third inning.
Jordan backed away from the plate, giving me a moment to massage the painful cramp in the back of my neck and consider the best pitch to throw. He didn’t seem nervous. Why would he be? The count was in his favor. Instead, he took a few practice swings and then tapped the end of the bat against his cleats. Stepping back up to the plate, he settled in to a perfect stance—legs shoulder length apart, elbow up, and head in. He looked as eager for the next pitch as I was to throw it.
Behind me, over my right shoulder, the guy on second base bounced up and down smugly as if ready to steal third.
I tucked my head down so the bill of my cap shielded my eyes from the sunlight. I’d pitched many games under the sun, but it had never bothered me so much before. Today, the bright light was more than annoying, it felt painful, making the back of my eyes throb.
There was nothing I could do to protect my body from the sun’s heat. Instead, the sweat seemed to spill from my pores, especially where the baseball cap touched my forehead. Salty drops stung my eyes. I shook my head, trying to concentrate.
With my mitt up to my face so Jordan could not see anything, I let my right hand caress the ball inside my glove. My fingers cradled the ball in a variety of pitching holds. I had practiced the holds my father had taught me, getting my fingers used to some of the odd grips.
Squatting behind the plate, Patrick signaled the next pitch pointing two fingers to the ground. A curve.
I shook my head. Last time I’d thrown a curve Jordan hit a double. It wasn’t that Jordan was great at hitting curves, it was more that I wasn’t all that good at throwing one correctly. I was pretty good at a few different pitches, but the curve was one I was still practicing with my Dad.
My fingers massaged the ball’s stitching the way an animal lover might pet the silky, furry skin behind a dog’s ear. This relaxed me.
Patrick suggested another pitch, a screwball—where the ball spins kind of weird so it goes up and down and is very unpredictable. If I couldn’t throw a solid curve, there’d be no way I’d risk a screwball. I didn’t want to end up walking Jordan. That would be as bad as his hitting another double.
I shook my head again. I knew what I wanted.
When Patrick pointed one finger to the ground, then slapped the inside of his thigh, I nodded in agreement—a fastball change-up. My Dad and I spent hours in the yard practicing this one.
All I could hear was the cheers and jeers from the people on the bleachers. Normally, spectators yelling my name was like music to my ears. Normally, imagining I was Wilhelm playing in a major league stadium in the last inning of the last game of the World Series made the game that much more exciting.
Now I was just eager to get this over with.
I needed to get to the cooling shade of our little wooden dugout, but forced myself not to rush. I glanced over my shoulder. The runner on second was leading, ready to make a break for third. I could throw the ball to Tyrone, on second, and hope he’d be able to tag the runner out.
But that might backfire. The runner might sprint for third and make it. We couldn’t afford a runner on third, not with a batter who could hit a homerun on the right throw—or on the wrong one, depending on your point of view.
I took a deep breath to steady myself.
I let the ball sit deep in my palm. I wound-up and at the last second, just before releasing the ball, lifted my top two fingers off it.
My pitch sped toward the catcher’s mitt. Just as Jordan swung with enough power to knock the ball out of the park, it jumped slightly upward. His bat missed. The ball slammed into the Patrick’s mitt with a loud whumph-pop!
Cheers erupted. Clapping. Whistling. My heart beat so fast I feared I might pass out.
I took another deep breath and glanced at the bleachers along the first base line where my Mom, Dad and my eight year old sister, Brenda, sat. They waved to me. My father cupped his hands around his mouth. “One more, Mark! Throw it right to Patrick! That’s it, just one more!”
Three balls. Two strikes. Full count.
Stay calm. Concentrate. I breathed in, held it a moment, and breathed out in a long sigh.
I signaled the next pitch by touching the brim of my cap with the ball. Patrick nodded. Fastball. Anything else would be risky. A knuckle ball would be nice, but they’re hard to throw—and harder to catch. If I threw a wild ball the guy on second would steal third and maybe home, tying up the game.
So definitely, a fastball made the most sense.
I wound up, released the ball, and watched it whiz through the air. Jordan swung.
For a brief moment I thought I saw the bat connect, and thought I heard the smack of impact. But then my heart raced as I realized what had actually happened.
The sound I had heard was the ball colliding with Patrick’s mitt and the swoosh of the swinging bat as it cut through empty air.
I jumped up and down on the pitcher’s mound in tempo with Patrick’s gangly leaps, but had to stop. Fast. Jumping made my head feel as though my brain was about to slosh out through my eye sockets. I tried to stand still, but could feel myself swaying slightly as my teammates rushed the mound. “Way to go Mark!”
Jordan headed back to the bench with the rest of his team. He wasn’t looking our way. He just stared at the dirt.
The guys were slapping my back and sloppily rubbing the top of my baseball cap to congratulate me. Every slap, pat, and rub shot straight to my pounding head.
“Great pitching, Mark!” The coach wrapped an arm around my shoulder.
“Thanks.” I tried to smile, but my body suddenly felt very hot, like I might burst into flames.
I nodded—just a little nod—because my head might fall off. As I focused on his face, my legs gave out. My vision blurred. The coach’s face seemed to snap backwards. I looked toward the ground and before I could say anything, the grass rushed up to meet my face.
For a split second I saw the cleats of people around me. Then everything went dark.