I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big.
I like to live as big as I can. —Babe Ruth
Let me tell you—an inside pitch can change your life.
Just ask any hitter with a shattered
jawbone, busted kneecap, or broken knuckles.
It’s been like this throughout the game.
A hundred years ago, with Ray Chapman in the box,
the submariner for the Yankees, Carl Mays
rocked back, coiling into himself like tempered
steel, then seemed to scrape the stitched globe
of the ball across the grit of the mound as he threw,
the way my brother and I skipped stones
over the moonlit surface of Hensley Lake, or
out on the gravel driveway at home, that way
we pitched flattened stones with a twist so they rose
in curving arcs that buckled each other’s knees
and sent us stumbling back cursing as each stone
whizzed past. It was a practice in the fundamentals
of fear. Something I never mastered. Not even close.
But my little brother, he thrived on it, the years
breaking his teeth, breaking his nose, breaking bones,
the batter’s box become the whole world, the way
he punched a CHP officer in a dirt lot off the highway
in Buena Park, the way two men cracked his kneecaps
with a baseball bat in San Jose and he laughed about it
afterward, saying What else you gonna do? That all you got?
as if this life were a series of unrelenting pugilistic moments,
with baseball elevating it all to an artform, a combination
of speed and power and grace, something he was good at,
good enough to one day play in the minors, maybe,
he was that good, but he was better at taking drugs, and still is,
numbing the pain, I think, separating himself from his body
until the fog rolls deep in the San Joaquin Valley, erasing everything.
And I don’t know what to make of it all. I can’t seem to get the image
out of my head—as I’m reminded of it with every game I watch.
Maybe it’s the same for you. You ever notice how they switch
the ball—anytime it hits the dirt—to replace a scuffed ball
with a new one? That’s because of what happened to Ray Chapman
at the Polo Grounds on August 17th, 1920, bottom of the 5th,
when Mays shook off the sign, then reached down almost as if
dunking that ball into the midnight waters of Hensley Lake,
the same lake where I would one day pour the ashes
of my best friend after a year-long battle with cancer,
the same waters we’d all fished as kids, lifting the cold bodies
of catfish and bass from the water, slick and silver, their mouths
gasping a secret about death in our hands, same as the pitch rising
from the shadows of the mound to stun the batter, Chapman,
and everybody there, the sound of it like the crack of a bat,
and Chapman, bleeding from his ear, still trying
to make his way to first—that’s what I think of every time
the catcher hands the ball to the umpire, a new ball
brought into the game. I’m thinking of Chapman dying,
the only player to have been killed by the game, though
I know that’s not true. Because I’m thinking of my brother
in that burnt summer field, the officers gathered round
to beat him down, the men in San Jose swinging aluminum
in the darkness, the way he never steps out of the box,
the way he always leans in, the way he cocks his head,
waiting for it, waiting for the hardest pitch I can throw
from childhood, where we studied it, where we learned it all.