There’s only so many fiery pep talks you can give when the talent isn’t there. Sometimes that’s life. There’s no victory in sight. You just pray for a miracle.
I try to put the games St. Regis lost behind me and focus on right now. Bottom of the ninth, two outs. Down by two. Bases loaded. With zero wins and thirty-eight losses, we need a success to hit the reset button.
Danny Fierce is on the mound, a long-armed sniper. Though really, he’d never hurt anyone. He’s an outspoken pacifist, a factor that seriously complicates my plan: If I can just convince Rusty to step into the pitch, we can get to the top of the lineup and clean house. We need a win bad.
The first pitch flies, and Rusty chops the air. Strike one.
I call time and gesture him over.
Rusty, I want you to step into the pitch.
It’s our last shot. Do you want to be the reason we lost our last game of the season?
You’re insane, he says.
Look if you get hit, what’s the worst that can happen? We charge the mound. We can kick their asses. We need the morale, Rusty. Now listen, you have to make it look like an accident, otherwise it’s a strike.
That’s a nice bit of info, he says.
If not for me, do it for the nuns.
He looks over. They’re doing the wave. They’re nowhere near as encouraging as real cheerleaders, but they’re less distracting.
You’re really sick, he says.
If being a sick is an illness, I tell him, winning is the cure.
He steps back to the plate, shaking his head.
* * *
They started out just kids. During spring training, they used to break into spontaneous play. Now I feel like they’re a troupe of old men aging before my eyes. Talking about health insurance and social security, annuities. More focused on dying than the game.
The president of St. Regis hired me as head coach. I’m supposed to lead by example. By our twenty-seventh loss, our pitcher went to the doctor and got a vasectomy. His bold action persuaded a few others on the team to do the same. It’s a simple procedure. Local anesthetic. The doctor makes the appropriate incision in the scrotum, isolates the vas deferens and ties them. Quick and easy. From what I’m told, most of the guys didn’t even know it was over.
The left fielder tried to gas himself in his car and claimed it was an accident.
At a certain point, I stopped giving pep talks and we all just bent our heads and prayed for a miracle. Most days I just prayed for the game to be over.
Teams punished us mercilessly for believing we were good enough to play on the same field as them. I tried to shake another coach’s hand after a game once, and he stared through me like glass.
Rusty rakes his cleats in the sand like a gamecock and blows a bubble. Fierce throws the pitch, high and inside.
Ball one, the ump says. Don’t crowd the plate. This is your only warning.
You asshole, I think. Act like a man. Take one for the team.
The next pitch, Rusty swings and connects. My heart leaps when I behold the white ball sailing into the distance like a melting snowball. But a second later it veers into foul territory. One ball, two strikes.
Not a single parent or fan sits in our bleachers. Only the nuns. We’re like refugees no one else in the world wants to take in.
This season, some of the team became more religious, attending more masses. Mostly infielders. They took on community service projects. Putting up birdhouses in parks. The second baseman didn’t show up to practice one day. That night we saw his face on the news. Breaking and entering an old brownstone. He was shot trying to escape.
In the bathroom of a Burger King, I heard voices. I thought it might be God. When I went to the chaplain, he told me God was like Beauty and the Beast. God was the beast when you reject him and the moment you let go, he transforms. God is the light and we’re all looking through a kaleidoscope at him. God is everywhere, he said. God is our team and their team. Drunk on metaphor, the priest kept going.
Hold on, father, I said. Let’s not get carried away. If you start telling our team that the other team are their equals in God, they’re going to lose all their fighting spirit.
I’ve never been a “nice” person, but as my mother always said, I’ve always been an “interested person.” A backhanded compliment, for sure. My job as coach is to note every physical object in the world as a sign or portent, an exploitable edge or a disadvantage: the bounce in a guy’s step, the wind patterns, etc. I even get phone updates when these guys’ girlfriends break up with them.
But I also know it was my mother’s nice way of saying I just wasn’t any good. That’s why I became a coach.
I call one more time-out. I gesture for Rusty. The ump looks at his watch disapprovingly.
I’m a shade in trouble, I tell Rusty. I need you to do this for me or I won’t get rehired. We need this win bad. I haven’t paid off my car.
He chews his bubblegum and stares at me.
But after this game, there’s the next game, and the next game, Coach. Where does it end? You have a problem. Maybe God is trying to tell you something.
You need to learn how to lose.
Don’t try to teach me life lessons, kid.
My father’s in the stands, Coach. He drove from Cleveland to watch.
I locate him in the bleachers: a gray little man, who looks like an exhausted cat.
I nod to Rusty, and give him a pat on the rump as he starts for the batter’s box. I must be going soft. Normally I’d send in a pinch-hitter.
* * *
I think about what Rusty said. Real wisdom for a guy who shares a name with my sister’s golden retriever. I want to tell him that everyone needs a goal in life or what’s the point? The man digging for gold or the man digging to get out of jail, it’s the same in the end.
One night I screened Angels in the Outfield during a mandatory fun night. So many walked out.
I’m sorry, I said. Did I do something wrong?
We can’t watch this, coach. We just can’t.
Ecstatic visions of the saints. Hunger-strikes. Out of control drug use. I watched an easy pop-up graze my right fielder’s mitt as he collapsed in unexplainable seizures.
I was alone. The assistant coach overdosed early on. Probably around our fifteenth loss. Did this have anything to do with the season? Of course. His vital functions shut down one by one. A few weeks later he died in his loved one’s arms, the best we can all hope for.
Technically I’ll add that he didn’t die from the drugs. He had a weak heart. A poverty of spirit as my father used to say.
* * *
Our shortstop converted to Buddhism, which really pissed off the school. St. Regis University already has trouble filling pews in the chapel so when the star player started recruiting players for another God, it sent the wrong message. Not to say the shortstop’s arguments weren’t compelling. He gave open sermons about loss, the intricate parallels between beauty and defeat. He switched off his phone, gave up his worldly possessions, and hit the road, spreading his message across the country like a barefoot apostle.
Good for him. Though I admit I tried to talk him out of it for selfish reasons. He was one of the only guys on the field with any real talent.
Fierce throws a slider and I watch Rusty dive into the sand. A chin-check. The count is two balls, two strikes. If Rusty had only stood still, we’d all be on our devices ordering champagne and lobster right now. But no. No one’s a team player anymore.
I stopped crying a long time ago. Now I just go through this sort of internal shudder. Everything in my field of vision flares. My blood pressure plunges. I take medication though I think my doc needs to up the dosage.
Nights I close my eyes, I’m back in the minors. I smell the dugout. The fresh-cut grass. The burp-sweat-fart cadences of the young men. I see the new sky rippling over the ballpark. Our whole lives ahead of us as we chant strings of nonsense, turning our rally caps to block out the sun. Our relentless chatter no different from the liquid chanting of prayer.
I think of my former teammates. A who’s who of failures.
One’s a mechanic in Saddle River, and not a competent one. Another sells ceramic tiles on Route 17. Our star pitcher sells insurance. He’s a degenerate gambler who only gets laid by paying Costa Rican girls. The last time I visited his place of business, his shirt was inside out.
Sometimes I remember the better days. How my father taught me to keep my elbows up at the plate. I’ll never forget the feeling under the lights of my first night game, playing second, fielding a grounder, and lobbing it to first to make the double play.
I see my mother, frozen at the window, her face grainy through the window’s bad glass. I hear the soulkilling silence each time I left and imagined I’d be doing that forever. Shooting out an imaginary line, running from one base to the next, trying to find home.
In sports, you fall back to the old clichés. Take it one day at a time. Give it your best shot. The same holy truths of life.
I tell my players if you don’t swing the bat, you can’t hit the ball. The moment you connect is like falling in love or asleep. It doesn’t cost anything. Time becomes meaningless. It’s unexplainable: like the reason why the words of a song just lay flat when spoken or why children are always running somewhere while adults can’t even make it across an intersection before downgrading to a slow jog.
During a career low, I’d charged the mound after being hit by a wild pitch. I woke up in a hospital room with the third base coach beside me. I asked if I’d killed the guy. He told me the pitcher whupped my ass.
I was benched most of that year. I read a lot of Thomas Paine, wore black, and thought of myself as a political thinker. I smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Belligerent, I’d stare at the field and recall my father’s bizarre fireside chats about how the Tower of Babel was a parable about the failure of teamwork. God hates teamwork, my father would say. It’s not American.
I think of our handsome catcher with the rocket arm, squatting in the dust, cornering anyone after practice who’d listen as he went on about how sassy his damn cat was. I had him drug-tested so many times but it always came back clean. Mostly I did it because I was tired of hearing about Snowball and her quirks, but perhaps I just envied his capacity to love.
I watch Fierce throw a burner straight down the middle. Rusty whiffs. The other team cheers. They win. We lose. I experience the usual sinking feeling. I try to take a page from my shortstop’s book and meditate, thinking of our loss as a gift to a group of strangers, but that just feels wrong.
Oh well, as usual I’ll probably just get trashed tonight and destroy the locker room. Luckily, the locker room is a piece of shit anyway so no one’ll notice.
I see Rusty trudge to the dugout. He’s a loser, all right, but I also know he’s probably good at other things, like math or parallel parking or whatever.
Bring it in guys, I say. You too, Rusty.
The team jogs over and takes a knee, emptying their minds for the lifechanging pronouncements that’ll take the sting out of their loss. They watch me expectantly.
Chances are I’ll never see any of you again, I say. Not everyone can win. All of us have a lot of damn losing ahead of us. That’s just a damn fact.
They watch me. Some have fear in their eyes. Others might already be composing suicide notes or envisioning their last breaths.
Next year boys, I tell them, next year, it’s all ours. Play ball.
Andrew Erkkila is a former Gila Hotshot and has three seasons of fire experience on hotshot crews. He is a 2019 graduate of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, and currently teaches in the University’s Writing Program. He has completed a novel about wildland fire and is at work on a novel about Jewish gangsters in early New York. He lives in Jersey City with his wife and daughter.