All the cars are gone except for two. Fearing he’s been left behind or got the day wrong, the leggy Catholic-school boy with blue eyes and string-cheese hair limps up to the dirt lot in tattered Chuck Taylors and a sweaty panic. It’s Wednesday, August 13, 1975, and a hundred degrees. The number on his itchy wool baseball uniform says 13. A lucky number, his mother says when baking, except on Friday the 13th. He only feels lucky about the pristine cowhide cleats hanging by shoestrings from his neck like fancy jewelry.
The plan was for the All-Stars to meet at the home field since the players live in a five-mile radius, then caravan an hour to the title game against the All-Stars from the state of Washington.
“You’re late, player,” the black man gruffs. He’s round-shouldered, heavy as a bull, and points to the gold Rolex which barely fits his oversize wrist. He leans against the battered white van in the abundant sunshine – the namesake of the little league, where the grass is brown from lack of rain. It’s the worst drought in decades. The rusted sprinklers don’t work anyway and there’s no warning track to warn of a chain-link fence, spiked as military barb wire. The man folds his arms, reminding the boy of his deceased father in a World War II black-and-white photo. In army dress uniform and the same tough pose, he is leaning against a sign that says AIR RAID Shelter. An arrow points the way.
The black man, sweating bullets, sports black polyester angel-flight slacks with bell-bottoms, the latest fashion. The boy wonders if there are black angels, wonders if he’s allowed to think that. Black Catholics? He’s never seen any at Mass, then recalls his book report on Hall of Fame Roberto Clemente. Born in Carolina, Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934, he was Catholic and one of the first black Latins in the white Major Leagues. He played eighteen years and was a thirteen-time All-Star – could that also be why the All-Star boy’s number is lucky? A U.S. Marine Corps Reservist and humanitarian, Clemente died at age thirty-eight when his plane crashed, flying food and aid to victims in earthquake-hit Nicaragua. His body was never found.
Like Jesus in the empty tomb, the boy thinks now.
The black man trim-fits a short-sleeve mauve-collared disco shirt shimmery as his Jheri curl and says, “I sent everybody ahead – the families, Manager Small, and the players. Even Coach Earl from your regular season team showed up. He wanted to stay behind and take you. I sent him too.”
“Sorry, Mr. Black,” the boy says, squinting and wondering if he has the right name. It seems obvious yet offensive. Suddenly he is relieved and nervous. Relieved not to be traveling alone again with pale pocket-faced Coach Earl. It’s been a year since the impromptu weekend birthday trip his mom approved of to the amusement park and run-down motel he tries to forget. But nervous about this volunteer driver he only met last week in passing when jumping with half the players into Manager Small’s van. The other half went with Mr. Black. Still, the boy doesn’t know him and is frightened by his brute size and gruff.
“My mother got stuck at work. I had to walk.” He is angry with her for it, though he knows he shouldn’t; his four older siblings rely on her to provide, and she’s working overtime to pay for the remainder of the hundred-dollar cleats. But it’s the Little League World Series!
Afraid, the brim of his hat low, he snudged through run-down neighborhoods. He even said a quick fervent prayer – the fastest Hail Mary ever. Like a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball. But growling Dobermans in spiked collars behind rusted chain-link fences made him flinch, look up into the fiery brightness, and limp faster. Weeds stood in sidewalk cracks, smelly trash was littered everywhere. Or maybe the smell was a dead cat or skunk in the gnarled bushes. Also, stop signs were graffitied in spray paint. He felt better shortening his stride passing the police shooting range near the baseball field. Until he heard canine units barking and shots fired and grew afraid again.
He lifts an arch-flat foot to demonstrate: shoes are for walking; cleats, baseball.
“Knee holding up?”
“Enough to push off the rubber?”
“Get in, Jimmy,” Mr. Black says. “Let’s roll. Change of plans. You might be pitching.”
Jimmy hesitates, sees the other remaining car at the far end of the lot, a bullet-ridden red Cadillac with flat tires, steel rims kneeing chins of dribbled rubber, taped off by the police. Do Not Cross, it says in bold black print.
It happened two days ago, back-page news, and barely a mention on TV. MURDER AT SUNSHINE. Details were sketchy, an adult body found in the parking lot overnight, suspect detained and released, a phone number for anyone with information.
Jimmy wonders if he knows the victim, though he knows few people at Little League. The mystery and shock still fresh, a violation of a familiar place, he doesn’t know why the car’s still there. It’s reposed as a tomb or casket at funerals he often acolytes in white gloves snug enough for batting, surplice and cassock heavy as a baseball uniform. Like an intentional walk or hall pass, he is excused from weekday classes to moonlight as an altar boy. He keeps a pair of black dress shoes in his locker in lieu of Chuck Taylors. For reverence, lighting incense in the thurible, carrying the Cross, holding the gold paten at Communion, and going to the burial with the priest, he earns a five-dollar stipend from the grieving family. He doesn’t know if he’s ever served the Sacred Mysteries for a murder victim. The deceased are innominate and unfamiliar. Even the elderly celebrant in coke-bottle glasses sometimes refers to the funeral card for the name. To Jimmy the deaths are sorrowful but not shocking. Quietly, he has put the proceeds from the last six memorials towards his cleats, minus three dollars for licorice and soda after Little League games.
“I’m the one who found the body,” Mr. Black says, driving out of the lot, leaving a coom of ashy dust. “Did you know that?”
“No, sir.” The van is hot as the gas oven his mother uses for baking.
“Monday,” he says solemnly, “driving by after work, I saw the nice car – better than mine and better than this van I borrowed for haulin’ you all – and went over because no one ever parks here at night. Random black man my age, never seen him around Sunshine. He was dressed in a three-piece suit. Took two in the head. And other places. I touched for a pulse, but he was already gone. Thought suicide at first but that made no sense. Should only take one shot. And there was glass and bullet holes and blood everywhere. He was ambushed. And so close to the shooting range no one hearing gunfire would think otherwise. Had to drag the police over. They even asked if I did it.”
Did you? Jimmy wonders, imagining him wearing a leather shoulder holster; there’s no room for a gun in his tight-fitting angel flights. There don’t seem to be pockets either and the man has thighs thick as tree trunks. Jimmy’s stomach twitches, his feet are positioned awkwardly on the floorboard about to snap off.
Then Jimmy sees the bell-bottoms and his stomach bottoms out. Ankle holster?
Mr. Black says, “Never fired a gun in my life. But they held me overnight. No one ever believes a black man.”
Afraid, Jimmy doesn’t know what to think and quicks another prayer. An Our Father.
At the stoplight, Mr. Black continues, “Shook me up, seeing somebody gunned down, killed.”
His Afro Sheen is pleasantly pungent, his breath bad, cutting through the new smell of leather cleats around Jimmy’s neck. Jimmy considers jumping in back, making an excuse about an equipment change. But the back of the van has no seats for comfort or privacy. Only corrugated metal floor and an army-green duffle bag full of bats, baseballs, catching gear, and extra used groin cups. Not wanting to be conspicuous, he stays put in the front seat and rolls down the window. He inhales the hot wind. Copiously. Then exhaling, he wonders if his father ambushed or saw anyone shot up in the war. Or came across rotten-smelling corpses or gas chambers. Must have; Jimmy’s been told he may have driven an ambulance, hauling bodies. Details are sketchy and not spoken of. And did he think he’d die by a bullet or worse? He made it home from Normandy but passed away from smoking cigarettes a year after Jimmy was born.
Passed away, an elegant expression his mother uses, dignifying his father’s death. But passed reminds him of a passed ball – the catcher’s fault. Or passed gas – everybody’s fault.
Mr. Black says, “Never planned on seeing a murder where boys play baseball.”
Mr. Black takes the on-ramp to the freeway, heads north. Already, he passes cars like they’re going backward.
Pitching? Jimmy wonders. That wasn’t the plan, either. He’s a catcher, the back-up at that. Manager Small’s hump-backed albino son nicknamed Albee – the only other Caucasian on the roster – starts, and the team has two of the best pitchers in the most populous state of the union. Four, Jimmy thinks, if you include Reggie and Ricky, both now in Juvenile Hall instead of eventually in the Hall of Fame for pitching shutouts and hitting home runs. Last week during practice, they ganged up and cold-cocked Manager Small and his walrus mustache for calling them boys and worse.
It made Jimmy sick to his stomach. Reggie and Ricky cursed right back. They threw punches murderously hard as they throw baseballs. Jimmy’s just glad they didn’t use bats. We’re all boys, Jimmy told his mother later, just a different size and color. She agreed, saying no matter who’s at fault, never swear or use a derogatory expression; it just escalates. She sounded like a nun in a habit and wimple at his parochial school. But he thought of an escalator going up to heaven but knew one went the other way too – worse than a passed ball or holocaust gas.
Jimmy’s not supposed to be playing anyway. Last season the orthopedist, after draining thick yellow fluid from his ballooned knee with a needle the size of the nails used on Christ, said he was done with sports. Even before his teens. Water on the knee means hitting the showers, washed up from too much wear and tear on the joint. But the chance to play against the Taiwanese or Japanese next week in The Little League World Series on TV is too tempting. And almost a duty, a love of nation. No matter the cost and haul. He could be Nolan Ryan, the greatest fastball pitcher ever with the killer curve. Or Johnny Bench and catch a perfect game, planning and telling the pitcher what to throw. There is a rhythm, code, and science to it: brush off pitch, curve to the outside, then sinker back inside. Sometimes he dreams it in his sleep. Sometimes he dreams he can be a hero like his father in World War II, defeating the Germans and Japanese.
“Pitching?” he asks, feeling the hot wind again and chatted up, minus Earl’s hand on his back. Heat sticks to his sunburned skin. Mostly he feels the groin cup pinching his crotch surrounded by soars oozing puss the color of what came out of his knee. And on motel bedsheets he can’t un-see.
“Yeah, pitching.” Then Mr. Black says, “Catcher on his knees from behind the plate throwing out a base stealer at second has to have a good arm. And the rotation’s jacked after Reggie and Ricky went off on Manager Small. I know you can pitch, Son. I watched all your games this year. Only catcher in the league to catch and throw a no-hitter. Body of work not unnoticed. I keep a low profile, but as league director –. Wait, did you know that?” he says, keeping his eyes on what’s ahead.
“You play me for some strange, random angry black man?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.”
“Son, I had them add you on the All-Stars. Like your number, you are the one to make the baker’s dozen, the unexpected extra icing, the gravy. Plus Coach Earl from your regular season team suggested it. We’re big fans of yours. Hell, you’ve already paid off.”
“Thank you,” he says somberly. “And thank you for waiting.” Embarrassed, he could cry but likes being called son. It seems sincere and not chatting up. Son – something the priest in a black shirt and white Roman collar has called him at church. Even strangers at funerals. But something he can never recall hearing from his father.
Not voted on the team by peers wounds but doesn’t surprise. They’re 7th and 8th graders, all in public school except for Jimmy. They only know each other on the field and seldom talk – usually curt. Though, Jimmy is no longer called a white faggot after taking one for the team. Last week, he came in with the bases loaded for defensive purposes. Reggie, the day before beating up Manager Small, kept vetoing Albee’s pitch selections. He called time out, went to the dugout like some war reconnaissance, and complained. Jimmy saw it as mutiny. Still, Manager Small pulled his son and sent Jimmy in with full equipment: mask, shin guards, chest protector and a padded catcher’s mitt shaped like an inflated folded waffle. Jimmy signaled for an off-speed pitch, flashing fingers between his squatted legs, a sort of visual Morse code. Jimmy shifted inside but kept his glove outside. A trick he learned from Earl. Reggie nodded, wound up, and pitched. The batter leaned back, then lunged, swinging late at the bending slow ball, lifting a shallow fly. The center fielder caught it in step, windmilled, and threw home. Jimmy blocked the tying run from Hawaii. Took a blow from the kamikaze runner, bull-dozed really, but held on to the ball. His already ruined knee bent the wrong way. They had to peel him off the plate. First time in days he’s walked without crutches.
The van rattles on the freeway. Mr. Black keeps his meaty hands on the wheel, heavy foot on the gas, speeding as an angel in flight. Now and again he checks his Rolex. Jimmy, feeling lucky not to be left behind, can tell he won’t be touched like the body in the Cadillac or the time Coach Earl called love overnight in the motel. Jimmy, ashamed, thinking he’d pass away from all the blood and pain, never told – who’d believe him? His knee feels like hammered bone. He shakes out his throwing arm at possibilities and, removing Chucks, changes into cleats.
The city newspaper runs the story the next day on the back page of the sports section, barely a paragraph. Sunshine’s run to the World Series ends. They lose 2-0, hitting into three double plays with the bases loaded. Washington, whose only hit a two-run homer, plays the Taiwanese in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, next week.
There’s no mention of number 13 in the article. Why would there be? Jimmy thinks. First step out of the van, he collapses, the knee suddenly ballooned with fluid again, the joint locked. It was the walk over that did it, he thinks. Mr. Black helps him to the cement dugout like a wounded soldier to a bomb shelter. Jimmy never makes it to the pitcher’s mound in his cleats or even off the bench for warm-ups on the perfectly green outfield grass. His knee is packed in ice Earl scavenges from the concession stands. Then he squeezes Jimmy’s thigh near the groin cup, his sallow eyes saying, Don’t tell.
In private, stitched-up, black-eyed Manager Small asks Jimmy if he’s a wuss or can tough it out because they’re short-handed. Already stunned and feeling paralyzed, Jimmy can’t answer. Manager Small erases Jimmy’s name from the lineup card, the announcement follows on the PA system. Little reaction from the crowd in the small stadium.
Glassy-eyed, red-cheeked, hat tipped up, Jimmy keeps track, pitch by pitch, with a #2 yellow pencil in the leather-bound scorebook. Occasionally, teammates look over, nod almost affirmingly. Earl checks in, seeing if he needs more ice, anything. But inning after inning, Jimmy grows more and more upset. Angry even, wanting to shout forbidden words and names. Until Mr. Black lets him know his mom made it and is in the stands.
“You called a perfect game,” Jimmy tells Albee after, who is crying about all three double plays he hit into.
Jimmy has his knee drained again. A bedpan’s worth. He swallows yells of pain, the local anesthetic not enough. The same pear-shaped orthopedist is not pleased and threatens to leave the thick needle in because there’s blood this time. Ligament damage. Jimmy gets the message and fitted for a metal leg brace to wear for a month. But he’s still angry about not playing. And even more about the loss. And other things.
While serving a funeral, facing the wooden casket the color of a glossy stained baseball bat, Jimmy thinks, Manager Small had it coming. But God damn it, Reggie and Ricky, we needed your hitting.
Jimmy can’t stomach or watch the World Series on TV. He sees the morning after headline. Washington loses 17-0. He almost goes ballistic and confesses for what he says nastily about not being there and the result.
“My son, where did you learn such language?” the elderly priest says behind the screen.
The penance is thirteen Hail Mary’s. Plus four Our Father’s to round out the score.