Sure As 6-4-3
by Cate Lycurgus
There comes a point every year when I can no longer wait. When the hackberries whipping their switches against the gray-slate sky again are more than I can take. When the indigo leech of rock salt stains the walk a Fun-Dip hue, and blue backstops stuck out like tongues still taunt me as I sprint. The final stint of spring—before the green sets in and chalk lines billow down the dirt—positively hurts. October set so long ago, the last day of baseball season when I annually go into mourning. Not because my team has lost, or because I don’t have things besides Atlanta Braves’ radio to fill my evenings, but because the saga of the team, the cadence of the days falls still, and I feel I ought to hibernate. The world is put on pause. I can distract myself a bit with college football, but by Christmas I’m counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report and the windup begins again.
I grew up in California, where baseball starts New Year’s week. After I moved back from the east, running by high school cages in the mornings, I realized I had forgotten the sound of rain dripping through redwood feathers, the soft pings of bunt drills, thunks of balls back to their buckets. Even as a five year old, my little brother was out there rolling ankles in the turf, staggering under pop flys, staying low on gritty grounders. The kids had try outs for Little League and practices were in full swing by February—three times a week, games on Saturdays, doubleheaders even, with parents in the stands scorekeeping and razzing volunteer umps. Ranch flavored seeds. Pouches of Big League Chew strewn across the parking lots like confetti. Blue, the best flavor of Fun-Dip.
Our family adored all things baseball—my Mamma grew homesick for Georgia voices, and those on Turner’s Superstation always brought her back. They slowed the pace down for us, as my brother and I would spend Saturdays inventing cheers for every player and singing them while imitating each man’s stance in our living room. We had a tomahawk victory dance, we planned our vacations to watch the Braves’ series when they came West—Denver one year, San Diego the next. Before he could read, my brother would get the paper himself and sit at the table reading boxscores, waiting for Mamma to wake and make waffles. He decked himself in red and blue, refused to wash his jersey if the team had hit a streak. Sometimes suspense got so intense, he’d have to go out into the yard and toss the ball to himself to hit. When he broke three windows and shattered the glass picnic table, Mamma asked him what in the devil he thought he was doing, but I knew—switch-hitting, like Chipper.
I think Tim played 55 games a year by the time he had turned eight. By then I was a teenager, and even though baseball was the soundtrack of our house, I only came to really know the game as my brother learned to play. I’d sit in the stands doing calculus homework and keeping score on the side.
Baseball scorekeeping is the practice of filling in a scorecard, recording each play as it occurs with a shorthand designed to designate how each player advanced or was retired. Each position is assigned a number and in this way a scorer, or a fan, can record the action player by player till the box for each at-bat fills. For example, a runner who chops a ball to the shortstop and is thrown out at first would be marked as 6-3, with the shortstop being the 6th position and the first baseman the 3rd. One writes the play in the mini-diamond box by the player’s name; it’s a way to keep up with the action, note nuances of strategy, and track a player’s stats. In addition to the dates and scores, the MLB scorebook I’ve accumulated from professional games I’ve gone to has scribbles from those who cheered with me—funny quips and exclamation points for bizarre occurrences, ticket stubs stapled up top.
In retrospect, my Little League scoring was probably good training, because I marked down odd plays that would never happen in the major leagues—anything was possible with third graders. The coaches stayed patient, for the most part, but sometimes I would catch them snap. Guys, come onnn, Coach Steve would bark. He taught them a lot of discipline, but he himself went nuts sometimes when the game plan went awry—longing for players to hit a pitch he’d thrown them a million times.
At the end of one championship game, with one out, kids on first and third, and a 2-2 count, Coach Steve could no longer wait. I think the seven spot was up and the clutch at-bat far from certain, so he decided to make things happen. Luckily, the timing was right; he signaled for the runner hugging first to take a massive lead. My breath doubled back on itself—this kid was no blue streak. When the pitcher threw over to first, instead of diving back into the bag, the runner fell five or ten feet behind it. The baffled first baseman turned around to make the tag, and, while his back faced the infield, another guy, helmet too big for him to even see, sprinted home from third. The stands went wild, boys fell to a dog-pile over the plate, wriggling and whooping till the kid who scored got his glasses cracked, and the umps had to break it up. I may watch baseball my whole life and never see a better time for that play to unfold.
Crazy squeezes aside, I came to predict the way a game might go. I soon could find subtleties in a pitch, soft spots in a line-up, and speculate ways the team could capitalize on chances to score. So much in baseball comes down to timing. At the plate, how important it is to control one’s stance and during the stride, to maintain position regardless of pitch, holding the stepping pace steady. Or in the field, the difference between reading the ball right off the bat and breaking over a second too late could result in extra bases. Even when Tim stopped playing, my family re-hashed details endlessly. How could the decimated Braves gain six games on the Nats? Was there time, before the All-Star Break, to narrow the widening gap? Would Chipper come back for another year? Who might step up in the rotation and fill a veteran void? We ached for the pennant, almost bought tickets—knew this was what we wanted. The getting there was so uncertain, and yet we never questioned what champagned success would taste like.
According to Major League Baseball, a perfect game is a contest in which no more than 27 batters hit and 27 are retired—that is, no opposing player reaches base for any reason. Only 23 perfect games have occurred in 130 years of Major League history, and only twelve in my lifetime. A perfect game is thrilling to watch in the same way you might watch a child ferry a glass heirloom across a slip and slide, over asphalt. The pitcher has total command of the zone, his movement and velocity spot on, the tempo entirely his. But perfection also relies on the others—the whole team must execute flawless defense and stay perfectly in sync. Furthermore, a perfect game is only perfect for one team; the other must give up a run at some point for the contest to end. Despite how rare perfect games actually are, every team takes the field with this plan of 27 outs in a row.
Even off the field in those Little League days, the perfect game plan was clear to me. Though no one stated it overtly, there were definite ways to win. I focused on math and science in high school, so by the time I was a junior, on afternoons I wasn’t scoring, I’d drive up to a Stanford professor’s lab and work with his research team. They were studying multiple sclerosis, the disease my father had. I planned to major in chemistry and someday come up with a drug target, maybe for MS. I thought I’d have Ivy League reunions, be the love of somebody’s life. I knew that before I turned 30 I would have earned a Ph.D., be tenure track, or have something even more spectacular warming up on deck. This was sure as 6-4-3. But even then I should have known, double plays aren’t certainties.
The closest thing to a perfect game I saw in person was at Wrigley Field—I drove five hours from my school in Indiana to see the Braves play the Cubs. I parked and got to the stadium, but by the time I bought hot coffee, it was already the end of the third. The game flew by, and while talking in the stands, I missed the one error past first that let an unearned run score. In under two hours I was headed home, for another five hour drive. Perfection is interesting because it is unusual, but it wouldn’t be riveting all the time. To get out of the inning, I’d take the grounder with the bases loaded, or the play at the plate, any day. And most teams don’t care about literal perfection if they still have perfect timing—if hits and strikeouts come right on time, exactly when they’re needed.
One trip coming back to school from California, I had a layover in Atlanta and rushed from the airport to Turner Field to catch the Braves. I had already changed to shorts in the stultifying cab, checked my bag with the Red Cross station, and found my seat when I saw people pouring out of the stands—rookie pitcher Tommy Hanson had given up eight runs in 1 2/3rd innings. I didn’t know when I might see the Braves again, so I salmoned down the aisles with a cold beer, both of us sweating. I tried to ignore the heat and just bask in the field’s bright, in smells of popcorn and tense bodies, hot metal and sunscreen. By the ninth only a few thousand crazies remained, but sure enough, pitch-by-pitch, things started shifting. A walk. A passed ball. Slow bloop hit. Ever so surely, the Braves began to chip away, as the stadium mustered a smatter of tomahawks and rally caps.
They’d worked it to 9-6 with one out and lefty slugger, Jason Heyward, at bat. Heyward struck out, leaving the bases loaded and Brooks Conrad, a no-name pinch hitter, up. I could hardly breathe, but whether from humidity or suspense, I couldn’t pretend to say. On a 2-2 count, Conrad found a fastball he liked and sent it deep to left-center. The stadium leaned its shoulders out, willing the ball to carry. Conrad started leaping as he rounded first, and we erupted—a walk-off grand slam to end a seven-run ninth and vault the Braves over the Reds. Guys in the stands behind me rushed over to fist pump, then lifted me up, and ran me through the aisles. Ushers threw out red vines, everyone whistled, hugged. And I caught the next plane to Indiana.
But that day stuck with me, after I’d stuck it out. I had witnessed the largest comeback in franchise history, and only the second time ever, in all of baseball, that a pinch hitter had hit a walk-off grand slam to overcome a three-run deficit. In an interview, Conrad said he was “just trying to keep the ball off the ground, to stay out of the double play.” Just trying to keep it going. The team was down to the last inning, out, strike, against all odds, when he took the swing of his season. It wasn’t the star who came through that day, but the unknown man who saved it. It was his moment; he came through just in time.
It’s hard to believe we are always in time. Maybe not on time, but living in time, bound by its constraints. A game can take 51 minutes, or 8 hours and 6 minutes, but time will not be what determines when your team is out of it. I’m biased after the Conrad walk-off, but am always baffled by people who leave in late innings, thinking the game is over. I know they want to beat the snake of cars, or make a break for cheaper beer, and I too in the 16th have lamented that baseball has no clock. But that also means it is limitless, and who wouldn’t champion a game like that? One limitless in possibility; also, limitless in what it demands of us, marching on, us the pendulum swinging inside it. Sometimes I think of baseball as an ideal instance of the perseverance that passing time, and passing it well, requires. To pass means to go through, or extend beyond and without the constraints of a countdown. Passing time with baseball transcends time’s confines.
We are bound by clocks, by watches, by innumerable instances of measuring our lives, to the point where how we spend it, how we save or use it, is a modern obsession, and the end of our individual time has become a cultural phobia. In passing time with baseball, we are marking it and reaching beyond the hold it has over ordinary life. Be it bridge or birding, crosswords or cycling, most people pass time doing something that helps them escape it. When baseball was first dubbed our ‘national pastime’ in New York in 1856, the nation had begun its pitch toward war—rebellions raged in Kansas, Native American massacres scarred the west, it was an election year. People needed a diversion, a way to focus on something outside themselves so as to see that this too will pass, that we are bound to time but not by it.
However strongly I thought I was bound to my perfect game plan, I was not bound by it, either. The goal has wended through so many wild pitches and innings, I sometimes wish I start it all over, and just as a pick-up game. Because I don’t think I’m the one to judge what is and is not perfect—after college I moved cross-country not to study pericytes but poetry, which I love. I didn’t really know what that meant, for my family or the future. The day of my graduation reading, I got a phone call from home that one of my dad’s infections went septic, and he might not last the night. I went home for two weeks of the ICU—a time I knew passed but can hardly recall. Then returned to finish and move—it was a period of intense uncertainty—trying to finish a thesis and close out the last semester of teaching. With no idea what loomed ahead, I rejoiced with friends getting married and accepting fellowships to write, others starting graduate life. My own months spanned blank, and I tried to see that empty sheet as a waiting scorecard replete with diamonds, but I was definitely shaken. My writing consisted of smeared lines—everything needed re-chalking. At the same time I feared I was losing a relationship, in addition to a whole community, the one I’d come to love. While I knew that I would go home, I had no idea what to do first, where the fences I swung for stood.
With each passing day, I came to intuit less and less of how to move through time. Today I will work my bartending shift. Today I will call the house. Tomorrow I will pack my things. This morning’s project is toast. I remember one of those summer nights, with my apartment a box of white washed walls and thumb tacks and can openers strewn around the floor, tuning in to Don Sutton and Jim Powell, and listening to the Braves on my phone’s radio app for nearly nine hours straight. Through a three-hour rain delay I wrote a card, tinkered with couplets, recycled some old magazines. With a little bourbon, the evening slipped—I sang along to the Blue Bell jingle, listened to bets (how many peanut M & M’s the Lemmer can eat, the number of times the camera in center will pan to a pretty girl), marveled at their quirky stats, how a daughter’s softball team fared. Wished so and so a happy birthday. During the Marathon Rain-Delay, Ms. Talbert, of Eufaula, Alabama called, and she just had to tell everyone, These uniforms? They’re pig-nose ugly. Also that the way they go righty-lefty-righty’s wrong, probably why the Braves are down, now that the game’s re-started.
I tried to stay up as long as I could—the game was tied—but didn’t have the patience. In every situation with men on base, the Braves found a way to choke. Once I finally went to bed I couldn’t sleep with worrying, so held the radio on low, and hung suspended in that one-leg-over, one-leg-under kind of rest where the covers keep the bugs off but you have to angle them just so, so the fan can catch your thighs. I let the hum of voices, their exhaustion through bonus baseball, pull me in and out, and don’t know when I woke but did, to Jim’s call like a train come close, and far off fans were exploding, somewhere—they let the noise resound. The Dodgers hit a walk-off single, one swipe in, and done. I threw the phone, it hit a pillow, muffled in the wall. The series continued that day at one; it was after four am. Last I heard, some players declined to be interviewed, they’d laid a pallet down in the clubhouse and went to sleep. Tomorrow, go at it again.
There is not really time-out in baseball. Coaches visit the mound, there might be a little pow-wow, yes, but for the most part, players are on. The ball could be hit to you at any moment, and whatever chopper comes your way is yours alone to field. The responsibility all yours, the error, the chance to shine. There’s no predicting the timing of it—how long you may stand in the sun, how many times the line-up goes round, liners threatening to knock out your teeth. And as a pitcher, even if you plan the perfect pitch sequence to strike out the side, some batter might tip a dozen off, no real telling how many times his hips will pivot-click before he sends one soaring to the center fielder who may or may not find it. You might be able to sit a quick-minute in the dugout—if you’re lucky a rally, a pitching change, chest bumps and swigs of PowerAde, or the seventh inning stretch. A handful of peanuts or cracker jacks, and that is only today. You’ll do it 162 times again, over the course of this year. Even though I get exhausted, exasperated even, with my Braves, I agree with the song—don’t care if I ever get back—this is the stretch, and we’re in it.
Already I have the late inning feeling I’m running out of time or that I’ve somehow wasted a crucial and formative season of mine. I do not have a Ph.D, a husband, a child, a dog, or even a career one could define. The passion I have is taking its time to build into something I can offer, a means to touch people’s lives. As spring unrolls its schedule, rested players suit up fresh. But after a string of the every-day play, the bruises, aches, strained obliques, torn rotator cuffs, blisters, bruises, contusions, or worst, plain old exhaustion—wear. And yet in August, same as April, they’ll step up to the plate. There’s no glamour in routinely fielding what’s hit at you, or in going 1 for 4. Those hits add up to more.
I think of the ways Daddy keeps time. He cannot check a phone or see the oven light, or click Tivo’s remote. Often he knows the time by what program is on, how many episodes he’s watched, or by tip-off six o’ clock news. Sometimes if he has an audio book on, he’ll jolt and ask me what time it is, or what day of the week. I find it heart-breaking and hard, not to be able to tell how long it is that one must wait. And yet the time remaining changes nothing of the way he passes it, transcends it—this is the unreal patience he has—since eventually I will notice the silence and think to change the channel. Someone will lift his spasmed leg, before too long, Mamma’ll come and put something on the stove. The backyard will dial down to dark, the dog’s limbs slacken, across his. I know he must get frustrated, but in his calm despite delay, things seem to happen on their own time and always on time, too.
I’m living at home in California now, writing here with Daddy and taking this time that we have. I pray these modest days accrue; that as I get up each morning and unload the dishwasher, scramble his plate of eggs and toast, listen to Charlie Rose with him, that moments add to health. Most of what I write is in stabs and misses, trying to dig my cleats in deep, hit the heart of what I mean. Of grit and finesse surrounding me, and ways that I can speak them. And more and more, like knowing how shifting the thumb on a seam will create a whole new pitch, I’m interested in slowing down, to catch all the details. The way one shortstop bites his glove, and the batter’s hitch causes him to lope outside his range, and then, to reel the improbable in. It’s sitting in the dead of night and repeating the line again and again to get its cadence right.
The right time comes when you least expect it, Daddy used to tell Tim. I least expect it! he would scream, pan the room for something to happen. That is how I feel so much—if the ball isn’t where I’m looking for it, then there’s no way to hit, and I can’t strike out any more. Sometimes I think I can’t shake a slump, or return to the dugout once more. And yet like Coach Steve’s squeeze play, the scenarios I least expect may be timed perfectly to get me down the line. I’m coming to believe we are never out of time for the small heroics of which we are capable.
Eight. Eight ways to get to first. Obviously, a hit. That’s the only one over which you, the hitter, have total control. You can slap a sharp single to right, yank a liner to left, ease it up the middle. The second is by error. You might not have done anything remarkable: a routine out, but somebody else’s grip slips, or sun sifts in his eyes. But you capitalize on someone’s blunder. Third, if you strike out flamboyantly enough and the ball skids in the dirt, the catcher might lose it, and you might be able to take first. For the fourth, the fielder must make a choice: go for you or for the guy barreling toward him. You may end standing on first base but haven’t really gained a thing. If the ball tends up-and-in you might get beaned at the plate—that’s five. For your pain, take a base. The other ways are more obscure—the catcher could interfere, or pitcher balk, both of which result in your trotting down the line. The final, maybe most thankless way to go, is by standing, waiting. The best hitters know when a pitch is theirs not to hit, but take. And the timing of patience becomes the key to rallying, being safe. Walking isn’t glamorous, but part of the same fit-and-start game—walking the run in, taking your time and letting the pitcher get off his rhythm, fluster himself. Nothing is entirely up to you, but you must look for the chance. Many ways require luck, someone cooperating. Only one is all your doing, and it is called patience.
CATE LYCURGUS currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, The Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, West Branch, Best New Poets 2012, and elsewhere. She listens to Braves Radio and most days, takes things one pitch at a time.