John A. Ward
I’m at bat and I’ll strike out. This is what I worry about at 10 years old. It’s not the same thing I worried about at 8 and 9. I’m not good at sports that require skill. It’s all right when I’m just playing in the cow field with the other guys and the bases are squares of cardboard. We never have the same team from day to day. We just play for fun. Nobody cares. But when my father makes a donation to a team, the Frank Smith All Stars, my life changes.
I don’t know who Frank Smith is. The All Stars are in last place all season. I have a uniform, number 37, my Boy Scout troop number. They play me in right field. That’s where they play the slugs. It’s much more serious now, because I’m on a regular team. I ooze self-defeat. Instead of going to the plate determined to get a hit, I go there not wanting to strike out. The coach knows this and tells me to draw a walk. I scrunch up. The strike zone is from the armpits to the knees. I try to shrink it down. This is a challenge. I have to discover the point of returning diminishment because if the umpire thinks I’m deliberately shrinking the strike zone, he estimates where it would be if I was standing up, stretching even, and he calls the pitches on the basis of that. It happens to me a few times until I wise up and figure just how much I can telescope my body. It helps that my uniform is too big and I can almost squat in it without him seeing that my knees are bent.
This works. I don’t have to worry about striking out. If a pitch comes down the pipe, I just have to foul it off. Fast balls are trouble because they can blow by me before I know it. That’s no problem on the first two pitches. I’m not allowed to swing on them. I get good at this. I can foul off anything near the strike zone if I pay attention. The opposing pitchers start walking me because the game will be called if we don’t get three innings in before dark. I don’t get a hit all year, but I get on base a lot. Then the coach puts in a substitute runner, because if I stay on first I’ll get picked off. I become a specialty player, a walker, just like they have place kickers in football. I don’t worry about striking out anymore. It’s a distinction to do what I do.
John A. Ward was born on Staten Island, attended Wagner College in the early ’60s, sold his first poem to Leatherneck magazine for $10, and became a biomedical scientist. He is now in San Antonio running, writing and living with his dance partner. E-mail: jaward[at]stic.net