The fans are shocked. I’m shocked. It’s not like this happens all the time, but I’m doing it. I make my way through them, nudging shoulders and excusing myself as I approach the boy. The other children swarming around me beg for the ball in my hand. Some attempt to pry it loose, their little fingers picking at the lock of my grip. I don’t let go. I have earmarked it for someone else.
I have tossed plenty of baseballs to eager, little hands. Unfortunately, though it makes one child happy, it makes others miserable. Souvenir lottery always yields more losers than winners. Some are so upset at this, they call names that would earn a spanking if said in any other context. But I’m a player, and part of the price I pay for my jersey is taking insults when I don’t meet fans’ expectations.
Though it’s hard to know who deserves a ball, it is my choice. I make it the best I can.
Tonight it’s the boy in the wheelchair. The stadium architecture prevents him from coming to me, so I go to him. I’m not a saint for doing this. I’d like to believe anyone would, but my costume makes me the center of attention for better or for worse.
Two steps from him, I notice he is strapped into his chair. Then I notice his eyes; though everyone else’s are stuck to me, his are distant and unconcerned.
I’m unsure if my presence registers. He never makes eye contact. No smiles, nothing. His head just lulls from side to side, eyes focusing on things around me, as if I were invisible.
I hold the ball in front of him, expecting him to take it, but his bent hands and crooked fingers make no attempt, continuing to trace convulsive pattens in the air. So many children would have instantly snatched that ball from me, but to him, it was an abstract material with no value or context.
I kneel before the boy, awkward and shrinking under the eyes of the crowd I had pushed through to reach him. This wasn’t the magic moment onlookers are used to seeing come from the people in uniform.
His sister steps in, explaining to him, in a sing-song voice, he was in front of a player who brought him a ball.
“Look,” she said, “It’s a real baseball player! Way cool, huh?!”
His face does not react to her melodic excitement. It contorts in a language no man could translate. Not pain, not happiness, just ambiguous expressions in a face that would not cooperate with its owner.
Sister smiles sympathetically, takes the ball on his behalf and thanks me. She tries to hand it to her brother, but he can’t receive it. Her attempt meets the same fate as mine.
Looking back at me, she shrugs. I soon realize she was trying to give her brother the ball so I would feel good. So that those around would feel good. She knew the game and its most revered artifact were rendered meaningless by his disability. She had known it for years, reinforced every time she had to dress him, feed him. Known it because circumstances didn’t change his personality. Known the hardship of trying to share something close to her heart with a brother that could never relate. And now, I’m before him, trying to play hero.
His sister remains kind, accepting of my attempt at goodwill despite the unnecessary attention it brought to her and her brother. I apologize and turn away.
I can’t shake any magic out of my uniform for this child. No smile is going to beam across his face while I play benevolent baseball star. I might as well have given the boy a stone.
Walking back to the locker room, I am ashamed. I could have given that ball to other children. Each one would have accepted it with the excitement I’ve become accustomed to, minus the drama. But I wanted to give it to the boy in the wheelchair.
He’ll never get to stand along the fence and call for a ball, play catch or hold one in his twisted hand the way it was meant to be.
He’ll never understand why other kids fight so hard to get one. I wonder now, darkened under the cloud of cerebral palsy, what value that ball will hold in his life? What value should it hold in my own?
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