A slight breeze blew out toward the grandstands. I stared in toward home plate and picked up the catcher’s sign. I raised my right arm, hardball in my hand, and eyed the batter. The count was three balls, two strikes, two outs in the ninth inning, bases loaded. The fan roar grew, their rumbling gaining speed and might. Yet in my mind, silence reigned. My total focus concentrated on the batter, his bat cocked, as he waved it back and forth and looked out at me. Runners on each base danced to distract me. The infielders pounded their gloves, bodies taut, and leaned in on their toes, waiting, waiting. Time stood still. I had time in the palm of my hand. I twirled the sewn horsehide to find the right grip. The catcher readied his mitt for a low and outside pitch to just catch home plate’s corner. The umpire waited for me to hurl the ball, his hand on the catcher’s shoulder.
My arm flew forward, the ball spinning towards home plate while the batter readied his bat to swing. A little boy in the stands behind home plate had his hands on his face as if to keep it held together; his father held onto him tight to prevent him from flying off. The woman next to him screamed with her mouth open wide. The ball sailed in, the bat came round. With the ball one inch below the bat, it caused a wind splash as it smacked the catcher’s mitt. The umpire’s hand raised. Strike three.
Game out. Inning over. My brother Greg stared at his Wiffle bat in disgust, as if the ball had sailed through a hole in it, then stared at me on the pitching mound. I stood on the mound, marked by a rock, and looked around at the nonexistent bases and runners in the yard around us. The stands faded, the fans’ cheers diminished, the stadium disappeared, and there we were in the backyard, home plate a piece of trudged-on cardboard between the sandbox and our tetherball pole, first base a piece of granite sticking out of the ground, second base a baseball cap, third base slightly down a slope, which led to a chugging run up into home plate. The Wiffle ball lay in the grass behind the catcher-less plate. That was our diamond, our Land of Hardball. The ballpark was smaller than major league regulation, but we proudly claimed it as our own.
“Game’s over,” I said. Greg shrugged and agreed. I had won two out of three. This time. Our wins seesawed back and forth between us. We both recorded the two hits, walk, and three outs of the half-inning on our score sheets.
Greg was my partner. A year older than me, Greg was ever easy-going and gracious. He carried a more tranquil sense than I did. He accepted the ebbs and flows of the games; one day you are hot at the bat or pitching a gem, and the next day you wonder why you are weakly grounding out to the pitcher every time at bat or, as a pitcher, not being able to get the ball over the plate. For me, every game was a grudge match, to prove myself and my worth to the world. I stewed silently every time I made an error, or made an out in a crucial game situation while up at bat, or gave up a long bomb homerun with men on base. We approached the world around us differently. Still, we were both committed to play the game right. We praised one another when the other struck out the side or made a brilliant catch or stroked a double down the line.
“It’s six o’clock. We can go in now. Shall we figure out averages after dinner?” Greg asked. I nodded. We headed indoors for a quick supper, and then spilled into the playroom to sit at the card table, our score sheets and player rosters spread out. We dove into post-game calculations for each imaginary player on our teams, as we figured out the earned run averages for the starting pitcher and each relief pitcher, and the batting averages for each position player as well as any pinch hitters that came in during the late stages of such a close contest. As we were fifteen games into the season, we added all the day’s stats onto each player’s season output, and recalculated the batting and earned run averages by hand, erasers handy. When the graph paper got too messy, we’d neatly copy it over onto a spanking new sheet. We immersed ourselves in doing the math for the next thirty minutes, and upon finishing up, showed our respective computations to each other to determine if there were any shifts in the overall standings of the highest batting average, home runs, runs batted in, earned run average, and win-loss records.
Greg and I constructed a stadium and ballfield most anywhere—a tennis ball thrown against the back kitchen steps, Wiffle ball in the backyard, rocks or snowballs thrown at a tree, darts and a dartboard hanging in the garage during winter. Each form of baseball had its adaptations and rules that took into account the conditions and materials we were using. All we needed was our imaginations and something to throw and hit. In winter, when our fingers were cold and stiff, our pitches with darts and snowballs were wilder, which resulted in more walks, higher game scores and earned run averages.
We developed rules for every situation, given there were usually only two live humans and a multitude of imaginary players. If a ball was in play, the batter ran the bases until the ball was cleanly caught, fielded, retrieved, or hit over the imaginary fence, and then we determined whether the play was an out or a hit and if so, how many bases awarded. All the other runners were invisible except to us. We had rules for in what situations a single advances the runner on first to third instead of second, how far a fly ball had to be for it to be a sacrifice fly, when a runner got knocked in from third, or what constituted an error rather than a hit.
Each three-game series, we took turns being teams in the American League, with one team always being our beloved Boston Red Sox. We used the 25-man roster that each team had at the time. We changed players as the real major league teams did, which led to endless discussions about who should be brought up from the minors, who needed to be released, and who should be replaced. We were managers extraordinaire, freewheeling players in and out of the line-up and games, making the real managers look silly with their conservatism. We were always clear that if we were hired together to co-manage the Sox, even at ages eight and nine and a half, they would be on top where they belonged and finally win that long-lost World Series title.
When a real Red Sox game was in play, whether we were working, walking to Friar’s country store, out in the backyard, or in our bedroom, our transistor radio was tuned to the game. Dad was a Sox fan as well. Working out in back of the barn, Dad walked by, “Down two and they left the bases loaded last inning. Couldn’t get the clutch hit.” Greg and I wondered, “How the hell does he always know what is going on with the Sox?” We never saw him near a radio nor a TV tuned to the game, but like us, he was an eternally hopeful fan who experienced annual disappointment. Every spring was a new year replete with anticipation and conviction that this was their year.
We umpired as well. Baseball is best played fair and square, a clean game, even if a close call went against you. If you knew you were out, you said it ⸺ no fighting about it, that’s the way the game should be played. Every game was hard fought, we put every ounce of effort into it, whether we were the Yankees that day or the Sox. We took pride in the way we played the game.
Baseball was honorable, even if life wasn’t.
Baseball was our saving grace, how we got by, how we managed the cacophony in our lives. Dad’s alcoholism, rage, and violence, the product of a World War II infantry veteran who fought on the front lines in Europe, liberated a concentration camp, and brought the war home with him at a time when society had little capacity to treat or support returning soldiers who had severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Our older brother Tom’s daily assaults on us, his response to never getting the outward expressions of love that he so desperately desired from a father who had been rendered incapable of giving that type of caring. Mom’s non-presence in our lives as she was rarely home, the only strategy to keep sane as a young mother of five young sons who had been left by her husband to marry her best friend, my godmother. The swirl of chaos always hovering over us like a dark cloud before a downpour.
We created and transported ourselves into another world that shut out the static that danced around us daily. For those moments, we controlled this world in which we made the rules, where we treated each other with respect, kindness, and comradeship, qualities not always present in our everyday world.
To this day, many decades later, Greg and I are still the only ones in the entire family of siblings, which grew to nine brothers and one sister with two sets of parents, who love baseball and sports in general. We still text, email, talk on the phone and in person regularly, analyze every move the Red Sox make and suggest others, absent the imaginary games. We are disappointed and critical when the Sox don’t take steps to be on the front lines of social justice and equity issues, such as Black Lives Matter, and celebrate when they do. While we are a little less forlorn when the Sox have a bad season, courtesy of their four World Series championships in the 21st Century after an eighty-six year hiatus, we still enduringly enter every season with the mantra that this is their year. Baseball gave us a sense of resilience, perseverance, fairness, hopefulness, and most importantly, joy and exhilaration.
Dan French began writing creative nonfiction after a career in public education supporting the creation of high quality, equitable public schools. He is currently working on a memoir.