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BASEBALL FICTION

Slump
By Jerry Gabriel

Brookwater's first error is impossible to forget. It came in the bottom of the seventh against Kentucky Fried Chicken—and they only had seven innings, these boys. The score was 4–3, and Brookwater's team—Rotary, they were called, after the international organization—was winning, but they were the visitors, so KFC had one last go at it, and they had baserunners on second and third and the top of their order at the plate.

With the count at 2–2, the pitcher threw a fastball strike, a meaty pitch, and you could hear the loud crack as the ball came off the bat. He had gotten all there was to get of it, and it went straight up the middle, nearly taking out the pitcher, scudding hard over second base.

Of course no one was surprised when the diving body of Sherman Brookwater disappeared into a cloud of dust behind second base and an instant later sprung upright with the ball transferring from glove to right hand. In nearly one motion, he looked back the baserunner on third, and then was taking the step toward first to make the out. The boy who had hit the ball was not yet halfway there.

But then something happened. Brookwater released the ball too late, and it flew past the first basemen wide to the left—fifteen, maybe twenty feet wide. There was a very long moment of disbelief among those watching, a real quiet spreading over the place. And then it became a foot race.

Rotary's first baseman, a kid easily twenty pounds overweight, turned to where the ball had gone and threw down his glove and started out after it; if Brookwater had run after it himself, he might have gotten there sooner. The baserunner on third scored easily to tie the game, and the one on second came rounding third for home, his coach jumping up and down, swinging his arm in mad circles like some human version of a haywire timepiece.

Through all of this, Brookwater stood where he had just seconds before made the errant toss. You could see it drain from him, whatever it was that had made him stand out. He watched as the first baseman finally reached the ball and turned to throw it home. He stood, impassive, holding his glove strangely at his side; it seemed not to contain a hand at all anymore, but some maimed limb.

The throw to home was a good one and there was another cloud of dust, larger even than the one that had begun the play behind second base. Stewart Johnson, the behind-the-plate umpire, did not need to wait for the dust to settle before making the call, however, as the ball had trickled out of the catcher's glove and rolled right up against Stewart's foot. The boy was safe, and it was odd the way everyone immediately seemed to forget about that play and remember the other one.

Brookwater was walking off the field by then. He went to the dugout where the second-string were sitting and presently the other fielders made their way in and sat as well, but all of them seemed to avoid getting too near Brookwater. He was not a big boy; nobody was ever afraid of Sherman Brookwater. It was more respect than fear that caused them to give him room to breathe.

The coach said very little to the team. "We got General Electric on Tuesday," was really all he said, and the boys dispersed sullenly. Brook-water walked to the parking lot where his parents and his little brother were waiting in their truck, and then he climbed into the cab and his father drove them away. Soon the parking lot was nearly vacant, and as those cars emptied out onto Second Street, you couldn't mistake the feeling in the air. It seemed that no one felt quite right about what had happened, not even the boys on the KFC team, who had improved their record to 7–3 and moved into a tie for second place.

I was the second base umpire that night, as I was most nights in those years. I remember that I stood next to the backstop afterwards and exchanged but a few words with Stewart Johnson, both of us, I think, a little dumbfounded by what had transpired. We didn't speak of it, though. We just looked at each other, our eyes big with surprise. We shook our heads. Stewart's wife pulled their El Camino into the lot. "See you tomorrow," he said finally. "Yep," I said.

He walked over and he threw his chest protector in the bed and got inside and they pulled away. I leaned back against the mesh fence of the backstop. The city park was nearly empty, all of those people going home to have dinner and watch television and talk about their days. I knew that at any moment I could go home myself—kiss my wife Helen, play with my daughter Jessica. I could take a cool shower and put on some shorts and maybe read for a while. There were plenty of things I could do or not do. I could go to sleep after midnight and wake up late, because it was June, and school was out.

But for a long time, I stood there, leaning against the backstop and looking out into the darkness coming on. I think I saw my life for a moment there without the blurring vision of someone living it, from a vantage point not exactly outside my life, but not completely in it, either. I saw, somehow, how it had unfolded, how I had ended up here and not there. I was still young, still close enough to the beginning to remember what some of the other paths might have been, but far enough down one of those paths to not be able to turn back, and it seemed strange to me for a moment that I was the man I was. It just seemed weird being alive. And then I began to remember my own failures, my own blundered throws and catches, things I should have said but didn't, things I shouldn't have said but did—a full, if mostly innocuous chest of misadventures and shortcomings. In calling all this up, it occurred to me that I was just as much the man who had fallen down those times as the one who'd gotten back up afterwards, that I was not just the figure masquerading through my life as me, but these other guys from along the way, too.

Inexplicably, it was the beginning of Sherman Brookwater's slump that brought me to that. I think I felt a terrible sense of dread for him that night. Being around children everyday as I am at the school, it's easy to forget the weight of it all, that immense desire to make the right choices, to separate yourself out, to become someone. His first error seemed emblematic of something much greater than it should have. I had a feeling already, that first night, that it would prove to be more than just an isolated event, that it would carry weight of its own. And as I watched the series of errors that would unfold over the following weeks, I understood that feeling no better, though I saw that it was true.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2001 issue.

—EFQ

JERRY GABRIEL is a contributing science writer for Britannica.com and BrainConnection.com, and has recently returned to the U.S. after a year in Wellington, New Zealand. He holds degrees from Ohio State University, Northern Arizona University, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of magazines, including Cimarron Review and Writers' Forum.

© 2001 Jerry Gabriel

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