Sep 24, 2006

Pick-up park ball

Devan was at bat. He shifted his front foot. He shifted his back foot, pivoting it from the toe and letting the turn work all the way up his leg and into his shorts. He put his bat on his back shoulder and picked it up again. He tapped the corner of the plate and put it back up and moved it around and around.

He was a fidgety kid.

He was wearing his Giants cap backwards so the adjustable snaps were leaving red dots on his forehead. Most of us were wearing Giants caps. Chauncy had a Bulls hat. Chauncy was a Samoan, I think. I never asked. He could hit pop flies up over between the right fielder and the center fielder so they'd both look at it and look at each other while he ran really slowly around the bases without even looking at the ball.

I had an A's hat with a bent bill that always had people starting arguments with me about Jose Canseco. That was the year of the battle of the bay, though. I didn't really care if Canseco was an asshole for stealing too many bases too flamboyantly or if the A's were or weren't better than the Giants and I didn't even get into the arguments. I liked my hat. I liked my hat and I liked having a team and I liked playing baseball in the park.

We were all on the pee wee teams, playing in that suburban league between t-ball and little league. We'd seen the T-ball games and some of us had played but nobody would have admitted that because T-ball basically wasn't baseball. And you were playing with kids that didn't even know the rules and would sometimes run around the bases backwards. Every inning, it seemed like, some kid would hit the T and tip the ball off the top and think that was a real hit and start to run and when a coach sent him back to try again he'd cry. It was stupid.

We were all on teams but this was outside of that. We'd played in the morning with the team, on the Saturday wet grass marked in diamonds by orange cones, with the parents coaching and watching from blankets on the sidelines. We'd play in the morning and then go home and eat popcicles out of the chest freezer in the garage and then get bored and get kicked out of the house and wander down to the park, with gloves and bats and balls. We just liked to play.

We weren't looking forward to little league, though. In little league you didn't play with your buddies from the neighborhood. In little league the parents, the dads, were really involved. Rich kids dads would sink money into a team and all of them would come out wearing white cotton pants with the strap around the feet and they'd have silk shirts and custom-fit hats. The dads would bribe kids in the try-outs to get them on a certain team and coaches would scream at you if you lost and the whole thing got really serious in little league and no one just wanted to play ball.

Heeee-ey, batter batter batter batter batter batter, Cogan yelled. Cogan was the short stop and probably the meanest short stop ever. He'd try and trip you. And he'd yell at you when you ran by. Once he threw the bat at the pitcher, but he missed. The way we played, there were no penalties for missing.

There were two sets of rules, the way we played. There were the real rules and then the ones we added. None of us ever remembered even learning the real rules. Strikes and outs and balls and innings just came naturally. The other rules were re-negotiated every time we played. Basically they were always the same, but if there weren't enough people for two teams the rules about ghost men might come up and sometimes we'd allow replacement hitters, but only if it didn't change things too much.

We didn't have umpires to call calls so we had to make them by consensus. If the third baseman said the runner was safe then he was definitely safe, but if he said he was out then both teams would have to come over and confer and we'd defer to the person who was closest who seemed to be making a call out of something other than self interest. Same thing with the runner. Both teams normally had a guy who all the other guys trusted to make a call against his own team if that's the way it really was. We didn't have a name for that guy, but you had to have him or the whole thing would end up with fights and posturing and people try to yell their way into the 10th inning and we didn't want that. We just wanted to play.

I stood up, pulled off my hat so the wind came through my sweaty buzzed hair. I put it back on and pulled the bill low so I was seeing through the green arch was it was stained brown by my hands. Let's go, I said. Let's play, I yelled.

The first ball was a ball, going too high like about at Devan's eyes but he swung anyway so it was a strike. Cogan laughed. Devan picked it up from the fence that was our back stop and threw it back to Chauncy. We didn't have a catcher. The second ball was a little tight but he tipped it with the bat down where he had it in a choke. It went straight down into the home-plate dirt and exploded and bounced back behind him. We called it a strike without saying anything and Devan underhanded it back to the mound. The third ball went straight through and zang off the fence and bounced back to him. It hit his foot.

He looked at it. Three strikes. He stood still, looking down.

He bent over and came up with it in his left hand while the bat was out in his right and he popped it up, a little, hopped it up and pulled back the bat and whacked it. He came up on the ball out of a crouch when the ball was falling down and the bat thwacked and the ball went spinning out in a straight line over Chauncy's shoulder.

Jesus, yelled Cogan, and he took off his hat to watch it fly. The ball went up and hung there. We could have called it there. Illegal, obviously. Don't be a poor sport, only girls and babies get four strikes. Three strikes and you're out. But we waited. You had to see what it was going to do and it hung there, spinning, and came back down. We watched it. Devan had started to run to first but stopped and was just standing there on the base line.

The ball came down, dropping and dropping and the kid from the apartments across the creek who's name I don't remember but who's older brother was in a gang, he moved out after it. He tried to place himself under it and we watched it, and watched him and watched Devan watching.

Three strikes man, Cogan said. Three strikes.

The ball smacked in the kid's glove. He didn't always catch and sometimes he would throw off his glove and try to get it with his hat like he was in the grand stands instead of the outfield, so it was good he caught it. I caught it, he yelled and he held it up and grinned.

Cogan laughed. Shut up Cogan, I said.

I just wanted to hit it, Devan said.

I think that was the last game before little league made it so we couldn't just play.