It was the sort of field you would expect to see behind an elementary school: the ferrous chain-link backstop, splotches of crabgrass masking divots in the clay. The playground, ordinarily teeming with playful shrieks and children’s arguments, today fell silent; the wind brushed the leaves of the trees lazily in the summer sun. In front of the backstop, the earth had worn down by a hundred children digging their toes into the earth, emulating their favorite heroes. The rubber bases were placed in rough approximation, second base located perhaps a shade too close to third, the diamond more of a rhombus. I leaned forward into the stretch, rolling the white plastic wiffleball between my fingers, shaking off a nonexistent catcher. The six year-old boy fidgeted the oversized orange bat, tense with waiting.
Between classes and readings for graduate school, I spend my time with a before and after school program at a nearby grade school. Ordinarily, there are twenty or thirty children, but today is the last day of school, a half-day, and most of the parents have come early to pick up their children and begin their summer vacations. For the handful that remains, only I and six hours stand between them and their freedom.
We play with rules that have been engraved in the rules of the sandlot since ages past: the pitcher’s hand, the ghost runner. Children lead off despite my warnings, and I whip my arm in a fake throwing motion, sending them sprawling back to the bag. There are no walks, and five strikes to a batter, and too many times I have to remind the younger boys and girls not to stand on the plate. We track the runs, not because anyone is keeping score, but because the teams switch sides after five runs are scored; without gloves and with the tentative fingers of first basemen, outs are rare.
The innings and the hours pass. Occasionally, my phone will ring and a child will be sent to their waiting parents; otherwise I continue with my rubber arm. Years of pitching wiffleballs have honed my skills, and nearly every pitch I throw is a graceful, twelve-six curve at the knees, the kind that would make Tewksbury proud. I mix in an occasional Quisenberry or a Sewell, but the batters refuse to swing. They tell me to pitch normal. I throw a fastball by them, and grin, and they snarl with sharp little teeth.
Eventually there are only two boys left, Neil and Elliot, a pair of seven year-old identical twins. The game has gone on for hours and the heat swims around us, but they insist on continuing. “One more inning,” I croak, as the Neil steps to the plate. The wind has stopped, and the world, like the game itself, seems to wait for the next pitch.
“What’s the score?” he asks.
I haven’t been keeping score. “You guys are winning by one,” I lie. “Twelve to eleven. Ninth inning. Let’s go.”
Alone in the field, I still manage to put the boys away quickly in the top of the ninth: a couple of infield flies, a tapper back to the mound, and Elliot is on to close. I wave at a couple of pitches, put a runner on, mask the fact that I’m throwing the game. Then, with two down, I hit a grounder toward shortstop and pretend to stumble out of the box. Elliot retrieves and hurls the ball fifteen feet wide of first. Neil gives chase while I run the bases as slowly as possible, but in their panic the boys have lost all sense of accuracy. At the plate I hurl myself in the path of a wild throw, miss, and accidentally land on the plate, winning the game.
The boys, usually reserved, turn on each other, crying unashamedly. “Why did you throw that?” one demands, but as they tangle I can no longer tell who it is. “Well, why didn’t you throw it to me? Why did you try to hit him?” I stand by, helpless. I am a terrible father figure. I have ruined summer and baseball and America.
“Guys,” I blurt out, desperately. “The game’s not over.”
“That was the ninth inning,” one cries.
“But… this is your school. You go here, right?”
“So you must be the home team, right? And the home team always bats last.”
The boys pause, sniffling. They think about this. They smile. “Yeah. Yeah! Of course it does!”
The game resumes, and with a little help, Neil crosses the plate to score the winning run. Elliot rushes in to hug his brother, and they laugh and cheer while I round up the bases. We go back inside to celebrate with ice water.
Later, their mother arrives to take them home for the summer. “Mom! Mom!” they cry, hugging her legs. “We won! We beat Patrick.” Baseball and the summer were saved.