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Baseball Fiction

The Fan
By Hannah Wilson

Six months before her seventy-fourth birthday and the same six months, she later discovered, before the first game of the '98 World Series, Brinn Meacham became a baseball fan. It was a week after the season opened, a Sunday, daffodils plump and daphne scent overpowering, when she found herself collapsed in a wing chair inside the shaded Ridgeview Community Center lounge, her eyes fixed on a ball player become an aerial gymnast-she didn't quite know where she was, what she was watching, someone had to tell her later it was Ken Griffey, Jr. leaping up, shaving the outfield fence. She had never before seen anyone suspend the law of gravity. He rose as if he himself had hold of an invisible pulley's rope, he hung in air, he arched his body while his arm rose higher still, and back, to reach behind the wall, to catch a ball that everyone in the park but he had thought was gone, gone, gone. Gasps from people in chairs next to her, shouts from inside the television, the announcer's "My, oh my," and Brinn rose from her exhaustion.

She had chosen Ridgeview Center as the turnaround on her two-mile walk because she needed some place to rest. After her first week of chemotherapy, the doctor had warned, "Don't push it. Start with a stroll to the corner." She accused him of trying to coddle her, of trying to get her to coddle herself, and two days later, felt vindicated. She walked a half mile out and the half mile back to her house, and after a nap felt wonderful. The next day, halfway back toward home, Brinn had had to sit on the curb with her head between her knees and tell the worried stranger who stopped, "No, no, I'm waiting for someone. I'm fine." She slept through dinner that night, got up at ten o'clock, had a glass of milk, and went back to bed. The Ridgeview Center was always open. No one there would question an old woman coming in to sit down.

At home that next Monday night, flipping through channels looking for an old movie whose end she'd forgotten or a mystery peopled with lopsided faces she might care about, Brinn paused at a baseball game. The Yankees she thought, or maybe the Red Sox, names she had heard forever without any conscious sense of who or what or why beyond New York, Boston. Somehow, from her dad, a college game or two, the one Little League season her son endured, Brinn had absorbed the rules of the game. She recognized that it was the fourth inning, two out, the score tied, two each. A huge man came up to bat-Brinn doubted he could move that mass with any speed until she saw him swing, connect, the outfielder's vain jump. Four to two. The next player flied out. She made herself a cup of tea during commercials and came back to see if the other team could get back those runs. Two innings later, they did. A brand new ball game. She went upstairs for her wool throw-her treatments sucked the warmth from her, she thought-and came down to see who would break the tie.

Like words to a song she hadn't sung in decades, the basics came back to her: four balls, three strikes, foul balls and fair. Those plus the announcer's patter and the cameras' eyes, their instant replay-she didn't need to know more, drawn as she was by the uncertainty of outcome. It was live drama, better than a mystery, no ending already on a page in a director's hand. It really was never over till it's over.

She began to watch whatever games she could. Led by the fans at Ridgeview, she noticed nuance: the angle of a pitcher's arm, how high he kicked his leg, how far a runner on first danced off. The first time she saw a shortstop jump and throw to execute a double play-he looked like a modern dancer, his knees and toes at impossible angles-she applauded. Craig, sitting next to her, said, "You should have seen Ozzie Smith do that, a regular Nureyev."

She rooted for whichever team was behind in the early innings. When she began to remember players' names and positions and care enough to learn how to read box scores and check out The Boy's First Book of Baseball from the library, she chose sides: Seattle, not because it was the home team, but because no matter how far ahead Griffey put the Mariners, the bullpen might blow their lead. Baltimore, because she wanted Ripken to show all the Sit-down Cal's how wrong they were. By late summer, she wanted Sosa to beat McGwire to the record, and after the playoffs, San Diego to win the Series against New York. The first Series game, October 17, her birthday, she went to Ridgeview Center to watch it on their big screen in the company of those who had coached her in the art of fundamentals.

"I'll give you good odds if you take San Diego-four to one." Craig had one hand on the right arm of her chair and was leaning down to make his offer. "Pick any number up to ten. Dollars. Dinners. Bottles of champagne." Brinn remembered her father's advice: Always bet against yourself. If your team loses, your winnings will console you. Her father had bet she wouldn't marry Jimmy, and a half dozen years later, that she would marry Norman. Both times the money consoled him.

"Five to one? Six?" Craig stood there until the Yankees' pitcher began his warm-up pitches. Then Brinn waved her hand slightly as if Craig was blocking her view, and he moved away.

David Wells, the Yankee pitcher, looked like a rumpled sack of striped sheeting. She hadn't seen him pitch his perfect game early in the season, but the day after it, Craig read the New York Times account to the lounge crowd. By the time he got to the eighth inning, Brinn was clenching her fists, pumping for Wells as if the game hadn't already been played. Now she watched him shamble around the mound, pull at his shirt that was barely tucked into his barely belted waist, and saw a medieval still life, a subliminal wave of entrails on an oak plank, a hound at the table's leg.

The Padres' pitcher looked to her like a Christ lifted off a cross, his aim on some other-wordly strike zone. The broadcaster said that he was suffering from a sinus infection, and in the second inning, when a Yankee batter lined a fastball straight back against his shin, Brinn thought a haloed trainer might trot out. She hadn't been a fan long enough to favor low-scoring over high-scoring games, to know whether she admired pitching more than hitting, to second-guess the manager. She just breathed easier when Kevin Brown, looking more gaunt each inning, came out of the game with a five to two lead, and even when she saw seven Yankees cross home plate, she thought, It's just game one. She had seen Brown work wonders in the playoffs. Give him a chance to get some rest. Not until she woke at 2:00 a.m., chilled and sweating and scared, did she think, They did it in the seventh; the Yankees came back in the seventh inning. It's never over. . . .

Craig drove her home. They both pretended it was courtesy that led her to wait for him to come around and open the car door for her, to take her arm up the few steps to her porch, to unlock her door, turn on a light, guide her to the couch. Brinn nodded thanks, then waved him away as she had before the game started, and though she suspected his conscience troubled him-what if she took sick while she was alone?-he left.

Norman and Betty, his second wife, had left a simple Happy birthday, Brinn. We love you, on her machine. In his card, Norm had written, "I can come over any time you need someone in the house, even sleep on the couch. For old-time's sake."

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2000 issue.

HANNAH WILSON writes about baseball at least once a season in honor of Ebbets Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers, minor league ball and the Eugene Ems, and her grandson Nate's mighty swing. She has also completed a novel, in prose and poetry, imagining Penelope's life while Odysseus was off in his Elysian fields.

© 2000 Hannah Wilson

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