The phone in the pen rings like a fire alarm, so loud we have to wait for it to stop ringing before approaching it. The home team's pen has the same phone and we can hear it go off from across the outfield. I pick ours up before it can ring again.
“Get the lefty up playing catch. If this guy gets on, get him full go.”
The phone hangs up on the other end. I put the receiver back on the hook. I turn around, and all the guys in the pen are frozen, staring at me, waiting for the message.
“Lefty, you're up and playing catch. If a man gets on, get 'er goin'.”
Lefty springs up and starts lobbing balls to the catcher. After a few lobs it turns into crisp tosses, then into mock pitches. Soon he's loose and ready to tell the catcher to get down any time.
Above the pen, eyes watch our every movement. Mobs of children dangle there, hanging on the railing. A sea of them splashing against the pen's perimeter. They squawk at us like crows, “ball, ball, ball?” This is short for, “Hey random man in uniform, give me a baseball!”
Lefty continues to pitch. The rest of us ignore the children. Earlier we said no, we said we can't give out any balls. It didn't stop them from continuing to assail us with requests. Every time we warm up the outfielders, every time the phone rings or one of our guys gets up to toss, we are peppered with requests. No is not enough for them.
A 12-year-old asks me for the hundredth time today, “Hey pitcher, can I have a ball?””
“No bro, sorry, I can't give these out.”
“I got rules to follow.”
“But you got a whole bag of them right there.”
I discontinue the conversation. I have been down that road a zillion times before. There is no answer that will make these kids stop asking. In about three minutes, the kids in ear shot will ask to see if it was just that kid I refused; maybe I've changed my mind.
The truth is, I am not supposed to give out bullpen baseballs. Technically it's a rule. However, rule or not, we still give out the occasional ball. We're human. But tonight, we haven't given out any, not because we don't have a sufficient supply, but because none of us wants to give to the annoying kids who won't leave us be.
Earlier, a group of kids was heckling us. The normal “you guys suck” routine. The lack of originality was the most irritating part. We ignored them. Then, as soon as we left a few balls in plain sight, they became instant friends and told us they loved San Antonio. “That's where we're from originally!” Sure it is.
The calls continue.
“Give us a ball, it's my birthday!”
“Give us all a ball, it's all our birthdays!”
“I'm your biggest fan!” says the boy dressed entirely in opposing colors.
We don't respond. Seven innings of this--there is nothing for us to say.
On the fence one little boy stands alone saying nothing, just watching. He's wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a size or two too big, which covers his long hair and makes him look tiny. He's quiet and easy to pick out because he's the only one not pestering us. I take notice of him and wave. He nods his head at me with a smile, but remains quiet. I feel compelled to talk to him, to find out why he's so respectful while the others peck at us like vultures. I am about to ask him what his name is when another boy pushes him out of the way. Pushes him! I grab my head in frustration and turn around before the aggressor can even speak to me.
“Hey pitcher, can I have a ball?” the boy chimes.
I don't respond. I don't want to, I am angry.
Others start up again.
“Can I have a ball?”
“Can I have that ball, over there, by those gloves?”
“Can I have your glove?”
“I'll be your biggest fan if I can have a ball.”
No response. The calls bounce off and eventually the kids relent, thought they do not leave.
The inning is over now. Lefty sits down and the phone goes off again, like a siren. I time it, then answer. The voice says Lefty has the next inning. I relay the message.
Lefty stops putting on his jacket, takes it off, sets it on the bench, and hops back up on the mound he was just at. Since we're up to bat Lefty tells the catcher he'll start throwing again after two outs, so he doesn't waste his bullets. The two outs come fast; a groundout and a pop fly to shallow right. Lefty is up and throwing again, now full steam to a squatting catcher. He was rushing because of the quick outs, but slows as the third hitter draws a walk.
Suddenly, a crack of the bat sends a long fly ball out into our pen. A home run! We've taken the lead! The pen erupts with cheers, fist pumps and claps. We are too far away for our team to hear us cheer for them, but we do it anyway.
The realization that we're winning energizes us. It's our game now and I know we can hold it. Lefty resumes his vigorous warmup. The whole bullpen begins stretching because of the adrenaline, even though we all know the late-inning lead has mapped out the next pitchers to enter into the game.
I go to pick up the home run ball. As soon as it landed, the cries for who should receive it spiked on the railing around us. In my elation at taking the lead, I didn't notice. Now, regretfully, I hear it clearly.
“Give it to me!”
“Here, here, here!”
Everyone expects the ball to be flipped over the rails. That's what happens to home runs that land in the pen. The crowd begins to push and fight for position. I hold the ball and look at the spectacle: Kids push and crush each other against the rails, some complain and yell at each other. Parents hoist their kids up over the rails and their feet kick others in the head. Something about it seems so wrong to me. If I was a teacher in a kindergarten class, would I deem this behavior proper? What should I do here?
I place the ball in my pocket and turn away from the crowd.
A few parents call after me, “Hey, what gives!? Is that his first homer or something?”
“Nope. It's actually his second of this game,” I declare.
“Well then toss it over,” says the parent dejectedly.
I don't respond. I turn the ball in my pocket with my throwing hand, tracing the seams with my fingers, finding the grips I know. I don't want to throw it over but I don't want to keep it either. I don't want to see kids fighting and pushing and screaming at each other over this stupid little white ball. I don't want to contribute to the chaos. Besides, if I toss one, to one lucky kid, it will just make for one happy person and a bunch of miserable ones who feel like I slighted them. Then there will be more asking, more fighting, more ignoring. Still though, I do want to give it to someone; it's tradition. Just not this pack of wild animals tearing at one another for a souvenir.
A grounder to the third basemen for the third out--a rather anticlimactic follow-up to a game-turning homer. Lefty goes into the game; we send him off with a “go get 'em!”
I take the ball out of my pocket, holding it with a split-finger grip, and walk over to the quiet little boy I saw earlier. As I focus on him, he is immediately crushed against the rails by a hungry mob.
“Hey, thats enough!” I shout. The kids pause. “I am giving this ball to this young man right here. The one with the hooded sweatshirt! Now back off!” The kids part around him.
The little boy in the sweatshirt smiles huge and points to himself, remaining silent, but mouthing the word, “me?”
“Yeah, you young man. Because you were the only one up here acting civil. You deserve a ball.” I felt proud saying this, like I made the right choice on some divine game show. Like I made some great children's book-style parable on manners come true.
I went to toss the little boy his ball, but before I could the little boy started to look around nervously. I paused. The others were back far enough, what was he afraid of? He took his hood down to reveal earrings and long, pretty hair for a girl her age.
“Um, I am not a boy,” she said.
“Are you, I mean, do you still want to give me the ball?” she said.
“Yeah, you're still the most respectful person here, young lady . . . Sorry about calling you a boy.”
I tried to keep a straight, this-could-happen-to-anybody face, but the crowd was laughing at me. My moment of nobility was decidedly gone.
“It's OK,” she said.
I flipped the ball up to her and walked away.
fans around her began to call after me for another ball, cawing at
me, lashing out at me for picking her and not them. I ignored them. The only
voices I could hear were the sarcastic twangs of my teammates saying,
“Smooth Dirk, real smooth.”
I smiled and put my head down
embarrassed. I am sure I'll hear about this one in kangaroo court . . .
“Come on Lefty! One-two-three baby!”