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Baseball Fiction

First Start
By Tom Snee

The sun slants across the Fenway Park infield and leaves the pitcher's mound half in shadow as Alex climbs to the rubber and begins his warm-up pitches. This should be a good thing, I explain to my wife, Kathy, sitting next to me in the seats down the right field line. The difference between sun and shadow will make it more difficult for the batter to see the ball and give Alex an advantage in the first inning.

But Kathy only smiles dimly and says nothing, too nervous to speak at the thought of her son's first major league start.

"He'll do great; he'll do just fine," I say as I take her hand. She gives mine a strong, confident squeeze in return, but her clammy palm betrays her nerves. The stadium announcer is reading the Red Sox' starting lineup and I half-listen, paying just enough attention to know when he comes to the last spot, the pitcher's spot. Then I close my eyes and concentrate on the voice, ignoring all the other senses and putting all my energy into my hearing.

"Pitching today for the Red Sox," the voice says, drifting into the corners of the stadium and echoing back off the Green Monster. "Number 38, Alex DeBow."

The name sinks in: Alex DeBow. My son, the pitcher. The major league pitcher. Alex DeBow.

"DeBow," the stadium announcer reminds us and I smile as my son's name, my name, wraps itself around the 33,000 people who wait anxiously for the game to begin. I'm not kidding myself about the glory of all this-I realize the name Alex DeBow means nothing to the other 32,998 people in the stadium, none of whom have come to see the first start of a rookie pitcher from New Hampshire. But then again, the names Babe Ruth, Sandy Koufax, and Lou Brock once meant nothing too.

On the mound, Alex is going through his pregame warm-ups: fastball, fastball, curveball, curveball, changeup, changeup, curveball, fastball. It's the same every game, this ritual, fastball, fastball, curveball, curveball, change-up, change-up, curveball, fastball. The same every game, the same every inning. Alex has very few routines in his life, but this one he has worked on carefully and follows precisely; he arrives at the mound, squeezes the resin bag, walks once around the mound, squeezes the resin bag again, kicks the rubber, then stands motionless for four seconds before tossing his warm-up pitches. Then he rearranges the dirt in front of the rubber, walks once more around the mound, squeezes the resin bag one last time, kicks the rubber again, and he is ready to pitch. His routine didn't appear in this form; it evolved gradually since his days in Little League, the pattern altered, the elements rearranged, some added (the resin bag, for instance, wasn't added until high school because most Little Leagues and junior high leagues don't have resin bags), others dropped (spitting toward the outfield at the start of every inning, throwing a handful of dirt in the air, genuflecting at the mound, which, as I recall, lasted only two or three games before ridicule prompted him to scrap it). Neither of us knows what the symbolism of any of this means, but ballplayers are too superstitious to let reason alter a routine.

Behind him, his defense warms up throwing easy, high-arching lobs while two Oriole hitters kneel in the on-deck circle, each on one knee, waiting to take their cuts. These last few moments before a game are always a strange time, murky and indecisive. It's relaxed yet tense, the loose feel of the pregame warm-ups giving way to the focused and serious job of the game the players are paid millions of dollars to play. The fielders start to think two pitches ahead; the pitcher and catcher try to find a groove; the hitters study the pitcher for his movements and rhythms; the bored umpire counts to eight. It's like those few minutes of dawn, when it's neither day nor night and the air is heavy as if time has stopped until the sun slides over the horizon and the umpire yells "play ball" and everything moves forward again.

The giant video screen on the scoreboard flashes a digitized picture of Alex and his career statistics: 0-0, .000 ERA, 0 games pitched. I nudge Kathy and point to the screen.

"Look at that," I say, smiling and motioning to our son's disembodied face hovering over tens of thousands of people.

"Oh, my God," she shrieks, shrill enough that several fans sitting around us flinch. "Oh my God, that's terrible. Is that the best picture they have? I have better pictures than that in my wallet."

She's right that it's not a very good picture. He is tight and scowling and looks as if he has a very bad stomach cramp, and the digitizing process has made him look even more alien, moving his eyes closer together and widening his nose. In fact, as I look more closely, I wonder if it's really Alex at all.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 1999 issue.

TOM SNEE is a native of Duluth, Minnesota, and currently lives with his wife in rural western Illinois. He once lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for two years, a mere forty-five minutes from Fenway Park.

© 1999 Tom Snee

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