My new short story concerns a big-league pitcher afraid of getting hit by a batted ball. It’s published in Aethlon, a literary sports journal.
THE FEARFUL HURLER
He ambled in behind his Oakleys. The noise level lowered like an officer had entered the enlisted men’s barracks. The starter had arrived in the clubhouse.
No one could see past his tight smile. No one could see how scared he was.
Nate Burnam saw himself as a soldier and the playing field as a war zone. The fear was everywhere. Any sane person would be afraid. Any pitcher, anyhow. Most of the other players didn’t have a clue.
Catching Jefferson’s eye across the room, he nodded and proceeded to his locker at the end of the row. He undressed, cinched a towel around his waist and went straight to the trainer’s room.
He spent fifteen minutes with his arm in the cold whirlpool. He could feel his body waking up. When Jefferson appeared, he dried off and stretched for a few minutes, getting the blood moving in his back and shoulder. The trainer helped him reach further and hold longer than he could by himself. Jefferson gave him some soft tissue massage, concentrating on the tightness in his elbow. The soreness retreated.
His throwing arm felt like glass. Nate was careful not to bump it.
Back in the locker room, he always got his space. Other players left him to himself. The starter’s due.
He smoothed lather on his face and shaved, his habit before every one of his games. Others affected the two-day beard, trying to look tough, but Nate liked to be clean and neat. For him, a smooth chin was part of being prepared.
Most days he was able to forget about his dread, to fill his mind with all the details he needed to master before he took the mound. But some days he couldn’t stop thinking about it and this was one of them.
He knew why. He stared at his face in the mirror. Jackie Favrel.
It wasn’t the game that frightened Nate. He loved the competition, looked forward to it. It wasn’t the pain he knew he’d have to push through on every pitch. He was used to that. It was the risk of getting hit. Anyone could see it, if he knew what he was looking for. Whenever the batter swung, Nate flinched and brought his glove in front of his head.
When he finished his follow-through, Nate was fifty feet from the plate, off-balance and totally exposed. The ball came back at more than 100 miles per hour. Pitchers were struck by batted balls every season. It was one thing to deflect it off your back or your foot, even your knee. But pitchers got it in the face. They got concussions. They got their noses broken, their teeth smashed, their careers ruined. Not often, but it happened. Too often.
Nate assumed that most, if not all, hurlers felt the same way he did. He’d seen others ducking or trying to protect themselves when they saw the bat come across the plate. He knew they were terrified. He’d seen some of them trying to dull the edge later with booze or drugs or girls.
But they never talked about it. They never admitted it, not even to each other. So much of pitching is mental. The man on the mound could never show his fear. He had to dominate, to be superior, to sneer at every batter. Certainly not to cower.
You can cut yourself to ribbons when you take a razor to your jaw, he thought, but you shave anyway. You keep your cool. You try to be careful. You get the job done.
He wiped the lather off his face, went back to his locker and dressed. Slowly. Methodically. Making sure his stockings were straight, he pulled them up outside his pants. He tucked in his shirt. He checked that the stripes on his uniform trousers were straight.
He found a cup of coffee and Maxie, his catcher. Did he suspect? They spent a half-hour going over the hitting charts again, talking about how they wanted to attack each hitter. Who’d been hot lately? Who was a first-pitch swinger? Who took a lot of pitches? What did they strike out on? Did they stand in the front or the back of the box? Slow hands or fast hands?
Then it was onto the field for warm-ups. Nate jogged to center and back to the dugout. He did a few wind sprints and then a couple longer ones. Some dynamic stretching of both arms and legs, loosening up.
He paired up with a reliever to play catch. Starting close, about 45 feet apart, they threw soft line drives to each other. They backed up until they were long-tossing the width of the outfield. Nate could feel his arm coming alive.
He went to the bullpen, where Maxie was waiting, and took the mound. Starting easy and gradually throwing harder, he threw his fast ball, focusing on location and command. He went to each of his other pitches — the curve, the slider, the sinker, the change — thinking about his mechanics, his release point. He knew that a scout from the opposing team was watching. He tried to convince him that he had all his weapons for this outing.
He threw the last ten pitches from the stretch.
He put on his jacket to keep his arm warm, had a long drink of water and ate a few aspirin. Then he took a seat on the bench. He was the only one there.
He thought about which pitches were working today and which were giving him trouble. How did that change the game plan?
His mind drifted to Jackie, his one-time roomie. They’d played together in the minors before his friend was traded to Texas. Fresh out of school, their first time in pro ball, they’d relied on each other. They’d been so close, they’d shared almost everything. He should’ve kept his mouth shut about some things.
The only person he ever told about his fear was batting against him tonight.
* * * *
The anthem over, thousands settling into their seats, Nate led his team onto the field. It was mid-September, late in the season, and the fans were excited. Nate ascended the hill and Maxie tossed him the ball.
It fit his hand like an eye fits its socket. It calmed him like a musician picking up his instrument. His fingertips tingled, rotating the ball, feeling the seams, putting it in position.
Nate took a big breath. He bent his head back and rolled it back and forth. The crowd noise receded. He took his place on the third-base side of the rubber. He believed it gave him a better angle, more of the plate to work with. He put his ten warm-ups in the middle of Maxie’s mitt to show he was ready.
As the first Ranger stepped into the box, Nate stood alone, hardly hearing the clamor surrounding him. This was his moment. This was his game. He glared down at the batter.
Maxie signaled for the heat. Nate brought his hands together in a set position in front of his chest, pumped and raised his hands over his head, leaning back and bringing his leg high. Then he rolled forward onto that same leg, his arm trailing his torso, his elbow in a contorted position. He pushed down with his index finger and snapped his wrist, spinning the ball and releasing it, as his other leg whipped around and his hand nearly touched the ground.
For an instant, pain blanked everything else.
The batter swung and Nate winced behind his glove. The ball scooted toward third, where Jose scooped it up and threw across the diamond to first for the out.
The first inning is the most vulnerable time for most pitchers, as they struggle to get each pitch to work, to find their control and to learn the ump’s strike zone. It was no problem for Nate. Not tonight. He struck out the second hitter and got a soft fly to right from the third.
Favrel was the second batter next inning.
Nate sat by himself, while his team had its ups. No one spoke to him. He went over Jackie’s tendencies. The Rangers shortstop had always liked pitches low and inside, where he would turn on them and pull them into left field. If he knew a curve was coming, he would time it and scald the ball.
Back on the mound in the top of the second, Nate couldn’t do anything with the first batter. Four pitches in a row missed Maxie’s mark by two inches. A lead-off walk.
Nate chalked it up to distraction.
Favrel stepped up, knocking dirt off his cleats, snugging his batting gloves, taking fierce practice cuts. Not looking at Nate. He dug in with both feet and swiveled his hips into a comfortable position. Only then did he finally turn to the mound and he flashed a wide-eyed, slack-mouthed zombie stare, just for a split-second – they were both avid undead fans – before his game face snapped into place.
Nate was startled, a little disarmed. He couldn’t smile at his opponent. He knew he was live on the local sports channel. He covered his mouth with his glove and walked down the back of the hill. He picked up the rosin bag and shook it, looking toward the outfield, the stands a blur in the background.
Regaining his position, he put his foot on the rubber and stared in. Jackie cocked his bat, and Nate noticed he kept his rear shoulder down. That meant he was looking for something low. He stood with his feet together, set to hit toward left.
Nate shook off Maxie’s call for a curve. He wanted to throw number one. He reared back and put everything into it, loosing a vicious fast ball that started at mid-thigh and rose as it approached home.
Jackie swung under the pitch and Nate jerked. He wondered if his old friend even remembered his fearful secret.
He arched his back, hitched up his pants and returned to the rubber. He agreed with his catcher, a breaking ball away. Nate wound up and delivered a sweet spin, but the pitch didn’t clip the outside corner, as it was supposed to. It slid into the heart of the strike zone.
Jackie watched it go by for strike two.
Nate knew he’d gotten away with one. That pitch could’ve gone a long way. The throw hurt his elbow, but not nearly as much as the heater. That had lit up his entire arm.
Two wasted throws, one in the dirt and the other way wide. He held back on both, guarding his arm. An easy toss to first.
Then a slider tailing in, a dangerous choice to Favrel. He took a rip (Nate ducked), but he barely clipped the ball. It was a routine grounder to second that turned into a double play.
Nate turned away and walked around the mound, avoiding eye contact as Jackie trotted back to the dugout.
The next batter popped up on the infield. Nate could tell by the sound that the ball was not solidly met.
* * * *
In the third inning, Nate had given up a double and a two-run homer. The Rangers were ahead 2-0.
He was angry at himself, but he wasn’t about to let that interfere with business. On the contrary, Nate became cunning. Pitching is upsetting the hitters’ timing. He became a consummate clockmaker.
A breaking ball that snaked backward and crossed the outside corner at the knees. A filthy slider to the batter’s back foot. A little more speed. A little less. Nate rode his rage to get an extra two or three miles per hour on his heater on selected throws. Using assorted arcs and angles, he delivered the pitch to the spot, a square inch in the center of Maxie’s mitt, again and again, as precise as an arrow. He made quick work of the first two hitters in the top of the fourth.
Then Favrel settled into the box and it all went out the window.
A wave of fatigue swept over Nate. He was tired. Beyond tired. He’d never pitched so many innings before in a single season. Skip had really leaned on him in the last half of the season. He fought to keep his focus.
As he watched Favrel go through his routine, images flickered through his mind. They’d been inseparable, the shortstop and the pitcher, for the two years they’d played for the double-A San Jose Giants. They’d bunked together. They’d eaten together, partied together. They’d gone over the opposing teams together, talking deep into the night about each player. The two friends had expected to climb the ladder together, but Jackie had been traded to Rangers. Nate had made it to the San Diego Padres seven months later.
They hadn’t seen each other since then, nearly two years ago, their busy lives taking them in opposite directions, their teams in different leagues. Now their careers had intersected again.
Favrel looked out at the mound and raised his eyebrows. Well? What are you waiting for?
Attuned to non-verbal communications because he couldn’t hear much on the mound, Nate snapped out of his reverie. He consulted with Maxie and then went into a big windup, all arms and legs, and released a fat one heading right for the center of the plate. But it was a change-up, slower than it seemed, a tease to an impatient batter. Favrel swung before it got there.
Nate felt another twinge in his elbow. He shied when he saw the bat move.
Favrel cocked his head and narrowed his eyes at his former roommate. Still spooky on that swing, huh? He looked down at the plate and shook his head.
Nate quick-pitched him. Without waiting for Maxie, without a full windup, he hurled a stinger right down the middle for a second strike.
Favrel backed out of the box. He took off his gloves and carefully put them back on, adjusting each finger. He took two practice swings. He’s trying to aggravate me, Nate thought. It wasn’t working.
Nate tried a sweeping curve, ignoring a lance of pain, aiming for the outside corner. Maxie caught the ball and stood, ready to walk off the field, but the ump missed the call. He signaled that it was a ball.
Favrel smiled at the plate. Nate looked toward the sky. He plopped his glove with his fist, turned around and walked to the mound, his head down, thinking about the next pitch.
The stadium noise was deafening. Tens of thousands of fans were screaming at the top of their lungs, but few of them noticed the game within the game. The Padres infielders caught on. Maxie knew there was something going on between his pitcher and this hitter. He called for a high, hard one, like the one that struck Jackie out in the second inning.
Nate tried to comply, but it got away from him. The catcher had no chance. He had to chase the throw to the backstop.
The count was two balls and two strikes. Favrel grimaced.
The next pitch was a slider, running down and away. Jackie took a mighty cut and topped the ball off the plate, a foul.
Nate found himself dipping and struggling for footing. Struck an eighth of an inch lower, he realized, a ball like that would come right at the pitcher.
Favrel glared at him and Nate felt a stab of fear. His pulse spiked. He’s trying to hit me, he thought. He’s hunting me.
He looked away and tried to collect himself. The noise from the crowd poured in and, for the first time, he noticed someone in the stands, a woman, a flash of light on her sunglasses, her smile. He sighed. She was beautiful. As she turned away, she fell out of his mind.
Nate decided to go with the change again. It’d worked before. He wound his body like a spring, uncoiled and heaved another ball that seemed like it moved through molasses. He fell into a crouch facing the plate and Jackie waited and whaled at the pitch.
The bat sounded like a gunshot. There was no time to get out of the way. Nate twisted and threw up his arm. The ball hit him high in the back and caromed toward second base. Nate went down, his leg buckled under him
The Padres shortstop managed to grab the ball in the air for the final out of the inning.
Nate felt like he’d taken a punch, a hard one, hard enough to knock him down. Son of a bitch, it hurt, but no one would know it. He popped to his feet, waving away the trainer coming up the dugout steps. He willed a casual walk off the field.
* * * *
Seventh inning, Padres trailing 4-2. Nate was working on fumes. He did not want to see Favrel again.
He knew he was near the end of his night. His arm felt like it belonged to someone else. He observed it objectively. How many more pitches could he get out of it? He knew that skipper had nowhere to go, no one else to go to. The bullpen was already overused. So was he.
He’d already been hit by a batted ball once. He ought to get some sort of dispensation, a pass for the rest of the game. But no. Here he was back in harm’s way. Unless his career was over, he had to find the grit to make another pitch.
He believed that other hurlers must feel the same way, but he still felt alone. Ashamed. Show no pain. That was the code in baseball. Show no fear. Never waver. Never admit to weakness.
He stared in at Maxie, who pushed one hand toward the ground. Keep calm? Keep it down?
Favrel brought the lumber over the plate deliberately. Once. Twice. He wore a smug smile. Nate hated him. He was afraid of him.
He reared back and loosed a high, outside pitch. Maxie had to jump to his feet to grab it.
Nate caught the return throw, took a long trembly breath. He had to recover his control. Of his pitches. Of his fears. Maybe his arm knew more than his mind, he thought. Maybe the solution to his own safety was to throw balls that Favrel couldn’t reach.
Favrel was joking with Maxie. What was that about? Laughing about his last throw? Trying to piss him off, no doubt.
Nate tried again. He quieted himself, found his poise and threw as hard as he could, his whole body straining, his arm contorted. But he was a little ahead of himself this time, dragging his arm a little too far behind as he drove toward the plate, torqueing his shoulder.
Nate gasped in agony as his back leg landed. His entire arm went numb for a moment.
The pitch went in the dirt. Maxie had to hop to the side to block it.
He trotted out to the mound. He knew Nate was hurting and wanted to give him a short break. Catchers know a lot about pain.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“Son of a bitch got in my head,” Nate answered, rubbing the feeling back in his arm with his other hand.
“Get in his,” Maxie advised.
As he settled behind the dish, he got a signal from the bench, which he flashed to Nate. Skip wanted him to walk Jackie. Then the manager would make that long trek to take his pitcher out, Nate thought.
The hell. He’d do what he wanted.
He looked in at Favrel. The batter made a face. He pawed the dirt at his feet. Any friendship was forgotten now, lost in the intensity of the contest.
Nate gripped the ball. Did he have the guts to bust him inside? Did he have the command to back him off the plate?
One more time, maybe the last time, he went into his windup, bringing his arms up, finding his rhythm. Back and then forward with the full force of his entire torso, every muscle in his being. Up and in.
Favrel threw himself backward onto the grass. The crowd roared.
They can’t take me out now, Nate thought. Not with the fans worked up. They’ve got to let me throw at least one more.
Favrel picked himself up, dusting himself off and adjusting his helmet. He faced the mound. Nate returned his look. For a long moment, the two men stood staring at other. It had gotten personal and now everyone in the stadium knew it.
The Rangers were halfway onto the field. The umpires were screaming to restore order. The crew chief issued an official warning: a hit batter meant ejection. Or worse.
On the hill, Nate leaned his head back and swiveled it left to right, right to left. He rolled his shoulders and stretched both arms. Then he stood tall, looking down at the plate. Everyone was paying attention. It was still his game.
Favrel had his weight back on his heels in case he had to get out of the way again. He couldn’t be sure that the last pitch was on purpose.
The next pitch was head-high and Nate could see the hitter hitch, just an inch. Enough to be out of position when the ball hooked left and spun down across home. No way Jackie was ready for that strike.
Three and one.
Favrel kept one foot out of the box, fussing with his gloves, avoiding eye contact. He stood at the plate and concentrated on his own slow-motion swing.
Nate ached everywhere. He assessed his arm. Buzzing like it had been asleep, it felt elastic. If he threw hard enough, it would reach all the way to the plate. He could wait until Jackie swung and then drop the ball at his feet. He shook it and his elbow pinged. He figured he had one, maybe two throws left. He snugged his cap lower.
Unexpectedly, he experienced another flush of fear. It’d be just his luck to have lightning strike a second time, right in the kisser. He picked up the rosin bag, bought a few seconds to reset. He caught the second baseman’s eye, gave him a short nod.
Back on top, he pumped and rocked, imagining the amazing, lengthening limb, the arm that never ends, never quits. He gave it everything he had left, every ounce of his strength.
Nate’s last pitch came in with a visible spin and, for a moment, it looked like it would hang at waist level over the center of the plate. As Favrel began to move his bat forward, the bottom dropped out and the ball fell like a rock. Favrel topped a weak grounder to the first baseman, standing on the bag.
* * * *
Icing the shoulder and elbow. Getting props from the guys, pats on the back. “Way to fight.” “You kept us in the game.”
Taking a long shower. Trying to let the effort wash off him.
The Pads lost, but Nate was feeling a lot better as he toweled off at his locker. It was five days before he had to wear the target again. He could kick back.
He gulped a few more aspirin, heaped his platter at the post-game spread and sat down next to Maxie, who was carving a steak.
“How d’ya know that Favrel guy?” he asked, his mouth full.
“Played together in the minors.”
“You got some problem with him?”
“Not really. Just trying to win.”
Maxie wasn’t buying. “Not like that with the others.” He turned back to his sirloin.
Nate pushed back. Weary. Truly whipped. But the pain pills had kicked in and he felt mellow. He didn’t want to go home yet. He usually had trouble sleeping after he pitched and he knew he’d be hard to be around.
He didn’t want to go on the town either. He’d seen pitchers cut their careers short in a bar or the backseat of a car. He thought of giving Jackie a call. That lame bastard, it would be good to catch up. He knew where the visiting players stayed.
No. Not tonight. Too much energy. He needed to be alone. Take a long walk and clear his head. It was becoming his routine after home games.
He drove out to the coast and left his Porsche in the visitors’ lot at a nearby beach. It was completely empty at this time of night, nearly two in the morning.
Nate trooped up the shoreline, moving into the wind. He found firmer footing where the surf pulled back, but he had to dodge the incoming surge. His hair blowing, he pulled his jacket around his neck.
He listened to the ocean and he tried not to think. He pushed on until his legs stung from sinking in the sand and pulling up again, from dancing with the waves.
Still he kept going and after a time the throws spilled out of him, one by one rising in front of him –the happy accidents, the mistakes, the bullets that had missed him on the field of battle, the one that didn’t. He was able to look at them all and to learn and sometimes to mourn before each splashed into the surf behind him and swept out to sea.
Then he could go home and sleep.
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