Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the batter's box. I could barely hear the crowd's cheering over the thud of my heart. I clenched the bat until my fingers hurt and held it behind my shoulder, trying my best to face the pitcher with a look of determination. I must not have been convincing, because he was grinning like a bully taking joy out of harassing a younger child. His uniform hung like loose skin off his tall, lanky frame and his beady eyes glistened. I gripped the bat even tighter.
A cool breeze swept in from left field, which brought a much-needed tinge of relief to my sweaty brow and carried the chatter of the outfielders.
"Hey, batter batter!"
"C'mon, strike 'em out!"
The pitcher leaned forward, shuffling the ball in his fingers, and nodded at the sign from the catcher. He went into his wind-up and kicked his leg high, resembling a stork on one leg, and brought that long right arm around with the delivery.
The baseball zipped by me like a white blur, and I took a swing of desperation. Not even close. By the time I actually had time to get the bat off my shoulder and around my body, the umpire had already called it a strike and the catcher was standing up to throw it back. Suddenly I felt as though the modest audience in the bleachers was a roaring stadium of a million people, and I was simply a spectacle of humiliation for them to laugh at.
"Time!" Coach Anderson's voice boomed through the air as he stepped out from the dugout, motioning to me. I jogged toward him, glad to be away from that batter's box of shame, and he clasped a firm hand on my shoulder.
"I can't hit that fastball, coach," I heaved with a sigh. "I just can't do it."
"You look at me, Jake, look me in the eyes," Coach Anderson said. "We went over this in practice, didn't we? Watch his point of delivery. Don't take your eye off that ball for one second, and if it's near the you hammer it. And holy crap son, loosen your grip a bit. You're not trying to strangle the bat!"
"But. . .I just. . .there's too many people watching."
"Well Jakey, we're not gonna' send 'em home just so you can bat in privacy. Now c'mon son, you can do this! Don't be thinkin' about those people."
"I haven't had a hit all season, Coach. It's just so embarrassing to stand up there while that pitcher makes me look stupid. He's so fast! And he's - "
"He's human," Coach Anderson interrupted. "He can make a mistake just as easily as you. And his mistake would be to throw a pitch anywhere near the strike zone, 'cause you're gonna' smother it. You can't dwell on the past or else you'll get stuck livin' there. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Now you're gonna' watch that ball all the way to your bat, and you're gonna' wipe that arrogant grin off the pitcher's skinny face, right? Right?"
Coach Anderson slapped my back with a smile and shuffled back to the dugout, while I turned to face that looming box of dread.
I quickly tightened my , kicked some dirt off my cleats, and stepped up to the plate. The pitcher was still grinning, still reveling in his confidence, and returned to the pitching rubber with the eagerness of a wild dog about to kill for sport. I hoisted the bat above my shoulder, did my best to drown out the voices of cheering onlookers and trash-talking fielders, and focused my gaze on that white horsehide in the pitcher's hand. Nothing else mattered but that red-stitched little sphere.
The pitcher went into his windup, but I didn't notice how tall he looked. He flung his arm around, but I didn't notice the smug look on his face. The ball shot towards home plate, but I didn't notice how fast it traveled. All I noticed was the baseball coming straight towards the strike zone, and I became aware of the wooden weapon I gripped in my hands. My eyes focused on only the ball as it left the pitcher's hand, as it traveled towards home plate, and as I brought the bat around my shoulder to greet it with a kiss.
My fingers trembled with pleasure for a split second as ball met wood with a crack!
Just as it quickly as it had sped towards home plate, the baseball shot away into the air. I sped down the baseline. I didn't hear the clink of my bat as it dropped to the dirt, I didn't hear Coach Anderson's roar of approval from the dugout, and I didn't see the look of shock on the pitcher's face. The only thing I noticed as I scurried towards first base was the baseball, gloriously sailing through the air and into the deep blue summer sky.