Eddie stood at the plate, a medium-sized, bookish looking boy, facing the afternoon sun. He squinted behind his large lensed glasses, with metal aviator frames, like some of the big league guys wore. The low sun glared. He moved his head down a fraction until the end of his hat blocking the sun.
Since Eddie first began playing in Little League he had trouble with pitchers. At bat, he ducked every time a ball was thrown to him. He would duck at three consecutive balls, then duck again at the three consecutive easy strikes the pitcher had to throw to strike him out. It was a problem.
Ike, his father, never yelled at Eddie from the sidelines, told him he had gotten what he called the “Mickey Mantle Treatment” from his father when he was younger. Eddie’s grandfather, a baseball nut, had forced Ike to play catch every night, throwing him hundreds of grounders, not easy ones either, and hundreds of sizzling line shots. Even when Ike was hit with a bad bounce or hurt by a fastball his grandfather never let up.
Eddie’s father sounded matter-of-fact about his baseball experience but Eddie suspected his father didn’t like baseball. Eddie had asked to play Little League in addition to Chess and Physics Clubs and his father had agreed; said he would let the game of baseball show itself to Eddie but would really rather not teach him. Said the team coach could teach him.
In the third inning of the second game Eddie’s team, Val’s Auto Body, played, the pitcher, a scrawny kid who couldn’t have weighed eighty pounds, reared back and threw the ball to Eddie. No juice. A floater.
Eddie grabbed the handle of his bat tighter, ducked.
After the game Ike said, “I know I said I didn’t want to teach you but maybe I can help out with one thing …”
Eddie stood by the wall of the garage in their backyard. Ike was five feet in front of him when he first tossed the ball, “Watch my hand with the ball,” he said. “Watch my fingers on the ball. My fingers are on the red stitches. Without taking your eyes off the ball, when I toss it, move your nearest foot a step toward me. Swing the bat, not quick. Watch the ball. Hit the ball where my fingers were. Not hard. Just move the bat smooth. Keep the bat level. Not hard. Focus on the ball. When you keep track of the ball it cannot hit you. It can’t surprise you; if it comes at you, you just step out of its way.”
Gradually Ike lengthened his distance. Eddie hit the ball half the time. Not hard. Ike threw the ball faster and Eddie hit. Not hard. His father called to him from sixty feet. “Watch the stitches. Count the stitches. Hit the ball on the stitches. Look right at the ball coming. Swing level. Not hard.”
At his next game Eddie stood at the plate, facing the afternoon sun. He lowered his head slightly until the tip of his hat brim lined up with the top of the pitcher’s head, blocking the glare. This pitcher was taller than most of the players. Eddie thought his name was Newt. Newt would move up a level next season. He kicked his leg up like a real pitcher when his arm cocked to throw. The ball came fast. To Eddie it appeared as a red-stitched daytime moon in a clear blue sky. Eddie took a little step toward Newt and swung his bat. Not hard.
The ball disappeared over the right field fence. Eddie’s teammate who had drawn a walk to first base turned his head to the sky and followed the ball with his mouth open. Even though it was a homer the coach shouted, “Run. Run. Run.”
Eddie came up again in the sixth inning. His glasses were a bit smudged. His two front teeth, usually white, had dirt on them. He stood at the plate and big Newt stared at him malevolently; threw the ball which came for Eddie’s head. He stepped back, the red stitches hissed past.
The second and third pitches were inside and outside.
On the fourth pitch Eddie saw the stitches spinning slower. He took a small step and swung his bat. Not hard. The chain link fence in right field made a clinking rattle when his line drive struck. A run scored.
The coach seemed to have caught a chill. At the end of the game he was shivering. He said to Ike, “Friday we play Bill’s Drive In,” like this meant something.
“Gee, I’m sorry,” said Ike. “Eddie has told me he won’t be able to play. He has Chess Club on Friday.”
“It’s a tournament,” Eddie said. “My team needs me to be there.”
Ike and Eddie walked toward their car. Ike had his hand on Eddie’s shoulder. His coach made a face like the one the kid on first made when Eddie’s home run went over his head.