SMALL TOWN HERO

by Garry Eaton
seventh inning stretch...
the ex walks by
with the new boyfriend

It's the bottom of the ninth, and we're in a classic, clutch situation. Trailing by two, with two on and two out, it's our last at bat. A double would tie it, and a homer would win-and winner takes all. But fat chance! I'm up, and I haven't hit a homer since Little League. Besides, I'm tired. I've pitched to about fifty batters since lunch. But having used all our players today, we've nobody fresh to pinch hit, so…. Stepping into the batter's box, I tell myself I have plenty of good excuses. If I fan, at least nobody will be surprised. And if I come through with any kind of a hit, or even draw a walk, it'll be a bonus. Can't lose, really. So relax!
 
I whiff on the first pitch. Too eager. Likewise on the second, and all hell breaks loose. The drunk in the stands laughs hysterically, and bawls out for the hundredth time today the old cliché: "He's swinging like a rusty gate!" There's a long series of boos from what must be THE biggest set of lungs north of the 49th. And then the opposing catcher, a spry farm boy and a merciless heckler full of forced irony, sensing victory hollers to the pitcher, a guy as big as a grain elevator, "Take it easy on him, Bud! He's such a little feller!" But the unintended pun on the name of my hero, the great Bob Feller, like most pitchers a notoriously weak hitter, comes to me like a gift, and suddenly my mood changes. My mind clears. I feel strong, and I focus in…I am alone…waiting. The pitcher can sense the increased tension, and waits a minute too, eyeing me. Then he rears back for his third pitch and let's her go. It's a nice, fat fastball, exactly where I like them, low on the inside. I hitch my swing, to avoid hitting foul, and pick it out of the air with my best cut, smacking it high toward left field. And we're off! But the feel of the bat tells me something. Damn! I haven't hit it very well. Glancing up as I run to first, I see the ball floating uncertainly, a long, high pop-up that hangs there, hesitating before deciding how far to go or where to fall. Suddenly, all eyes are fixed on its path...

twilight double header..
a huge fly ball,
or is it … the moon?

This is small town tournament baseball, Alberta style, played by farm boys with a few weekends to spare before harvest begins, by roughnecks recruited during breaks from the oil rigs, and by clerks from short, dusty main streets. They unpack spikes and gloves a few times a summer for some semi-serious competition, and after collecting enough to make up a purse for the winners, travel with wives and girlfriends to various surrounding towns hosting tournaments. Fans and spectators climb the bleachers in a holiday mood. Some bring picnic baskets. Others stay in the comfort of their cars lining the outfield, to drink beer and relax while perusing the action. And every play, good or bad, and plenty of them are bad, is applauded or jeered with long blasts from a veritable orchestra of car horns.
 
After the day starts cool and rainy, a steady, warm wind begins to blow, clearing the sky by game time. But then it continues to blow, turning gusty in the late innings, blowing dust across the field from behind home plate. Thus, as I run to first a faint hope rises in my mind. Yahoo! That Goddamned nagging wind that's worked against my pitching arm most of the game might turn into a friend after all! And not long before I've rounded first for second, the thing is decided. What started life as a poorly hit fly ball, and an easy out on a normal day, has been floated by benign design of zephyr far beyond its wildest dreams, out over the snow fence marking the left field boundary, and right into the back seat of an open convertible parked there, with a notable looking blonde sitting at the wheel. A home run! We win! $50 dollars each!
 
Crossing home plate amid the blaring horns, greeted by my happy teammates and the excited crowd, it occurs to me that the money won't matter much, in the end. For small town heroes, and real baseball fans, it's primarily about the bragging rights, after all. And at the dance that night, when the blonde from the convertible, who also turns out to be the town mayor's daughter, approaches me with congratulations, she easily squelches my insincere humility, and helps me see that the wind that made possible my big hit today is as inconsequential in the true story of our victory as the wind that helped Nelson to victory at Trafalgar, or that speeded Lindbergh on his way to France. Whatever its influence may have been, I'm the hero of the day!
 
As we dance, she coyly tells me she has no intention of giving back the baseball, her souvenir. But she's willing to trade something for it, and she slips me her Edmonton telephone number! "Just in case, "she murmurs, "you're ever in the city."

across the dance floor
the ex......I ignore
her glances

(First published as Saturday's Hero, vol 3, no 2, June 2007, revised)

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