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FICTION

I Believe in the Lord
By Andrew Bomback

 

Bull Durham was playing on cable television last night, on one of those channels that don't allow cursing and replace phrases like "the cock" and "the pussy" with "a man" and "a woman," spoken in some stranger's voice, so it was hard to sit through the whole thing, also because there were commercials every ten or fifteen minutes, but I watched a good hour or so of the movie, which is one of my favorites or, I should say, was one of my favorites, back when I was a ballplayer—back when I was a sinner, but I'll get to that in a little while. Anyway, I really just kept the movie on until that speech Kevin Costner gives to Susan Sarandon, the one where he talks about how he believes in the soul and the cock and the pussy and hanging curveballs and good scotch. And he says there should be a constitutional amendment against AstroTurf and the designated hitter, an amendment that, although I no longer think of myself as strictly a ballplayer and stand before you as a reformed man this morning, I still nonetheless would wholeheartedly endorse, because AstroTurf and the designated hitter have no place in the game of baseball. He talks about believing in opening your presents on Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve, and he ends by saying he believes in long, deep kisses that last for three days. Then he says good night to Susan Sarandon.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I could have recited that speech by heart. You know what—I probably still can recite that speech by heart. I practically just did. But when I was in the minor leagues, there were plenty of long bus rides, and I must have had a hundred conversations about Bull Durham with a hundred different ballplayers. And no matter who I was talking to, we pretty much always got back to that speech. Because that's the kind of thing every ballplayer wishes he could say to someone in his life. That just about sums up what it means to be a ballplayer, I think, and back then I used to sit on a bus and deliver the speech, standing up on my seat, imagining that I was Kevin Costner, and I believed every word I said.

Now, today, although I still have strong convictions about natural grass and the American League, as I've said already and I'm sure I'll say plenty more times, I'm a changed man. And if I ever have the chance to deliver that kind of speech, a chance which might even present itself this morning, if I'm lucky, then all I'd have to say is five simple words: I believe in the Lord.

Let me tell you how I've come to say these five beautiful words.

 

The rain started in the top of the sixth inning, which turned out to be one inning too late, because if it had come in the top of the fifth, then it would have just been some rain; it would have simply been water and not a whole lot more than water. But those first few drops in the top of the sixth inning were not just water. I didn't know it at the time, of course. No one could have known it, I suppose, unless he was already a true Believer. Which I surely wasn't.

And although the events that transpired starting in the bottom of the fifth would come to change my life, would make me into a Believer, I can still say to you in complete and absolute faith this morning that I would be happier if the rain had started in the top of the fifth and come down so hard that the game was called, so that the bottom of the fifth never happened. And I am certain that a statement like that doesn't make me a non-Believer but, in fact, a better Believer. Still, the truth remains that in the top of the fifth the Dodgers went down in order without a single drop of rain, and there surely wasn't a cloud in the sky when I came to bat in the bottom of the fifth. And that must be the way the Lord wanted it to be.

 

It was my eleventh day of a scheduled fifteen-day call-up to the majors, prompted by a nagging hamstring injury to the Braves All-Star second baseman, Alfie Castillo. I was doing okay in Triple A ball up in Richmond, but I had Alfie in front of me, and he had another eight or nine years at least, so I always figured that my first stint in the majors would be with another team, after a trade. I was a decent prospect, after all, or so I had read in more than one baseball magazine. I was only twenty-one at the time and didn't feel any real pressure to get to the majors the way some of the older guys in Richmond did. It was all they talked about, but, as I said, they were older, some of them had wives, a few even had children, and I guess they were feeling a different kind of pressure than I was at the time. Because I always knew I'd get a shot in the majors. This fifteen-day call-up just wasn't exactly what I had envisioned.

That night, stepping to the plate in the bottom of the fifth, I knew that we needed a hit. The game was tied at one apiece, and our pitcher was throwing a hell of a game, only to be matched by the Dodgers pitcher, but now thanks to a walk and a passed ball, we had a runner on second base with two outs, and it was up to me to get this guy home. We really needed a hit, because the way their pitcher was throwing, we didn't know when we'd get another chance like this. So I stepped to the plate and tried to keep my heart steady and took some deep breaths and stared into the pitcher's eyes, trying not to show him how badly we needed a hit.

And how badly I needed a hit, too. My average before the game was .210, and I had already gone oh for two that night. Even though I wasn't a math whiz and will never be one, I knew that my average, by the time I stepped to the plate, was already under .200, which is just an embarrassment for any ballplayer, even for someone in his first go-around with the big club. I was in a tough position, granted, called up too early to the majors because of Alfie's injury. And Alfie wasn't just a good second baseman; he was an All-Star; he even had received some MVP votes the year before, and all the newspapers said that he was the Braves clubhouse leader and that the team was really going to struggle without him in the lineup, which was true; we were struggling, and those same papers said that even though I was a nice young prospect, there was no way anyone, especially a minor league call-up, could replace Alfie Castillo. Plus I had everyone—my manager back in Richmond, my new manager in Atlanta, my old and new teammates, my father even—telling me over and over that this was just a stopgap thing and that I wasn't ready for the big show but someday I'd be back for good and I shouldn't get discouraged if I didn't succeed up here my first time around, because hardly anyone does. So I was sort of set up to fail, and with my under .200 average by that time, I had obviously done my best to live up to those expectations, or lack thereof; but here was salvation. A runner on second in a tight game, and one hit would bring him home, give my team the lead, push my average over .200 again, and probably get me onto the highlight reel, assuming we held on to win the game. So I needed a hit, and I was resolved to get one.

The first pitch was a fastball at my knees that I took for a strike. The second pitch was a curveball that missed low and inside. The third pitch was another fastball, this one too high. As for the fourth pitch, I've gone over it so many times in my head, and I still can't be sure that it was a slider, which is what all the sportscasters would call it. And, sure, it looked like a slider on television, and, after the game, the pitcher said it was a slider, but I had read the scouting report up and down before the game, and he only had three pitches. A fastball, curveball, and a changeup, so it couldn't have been a slider. Even now, I still think it was a fastball that somehow took on a life of its own as it neared my bat. With the count two and one, I was expecting a fastball, I was sitting on a fastball, and I admit that I had resolved to take one of those monstrous hacks, those swings that coaches yell at you for and say that you're an idiot just trying to hit a seven-run home run, but it was two and one, and he had to throw me a fastball, and I wanted my first major league home run to be meaningful, so I was going to swing at anything fast. And that fourth pitch came in fast, it was a fastball for almost all of its flight, and then it hooked a bit, veered off toward the outside corner of the plate, and I still swung as hard as I could, but the ball kept veering off, headed down the first base line but going foul, going fast and foul, and I always know when I've hit a foul ball and usually don't watch to see where it lands, but that pitch had fooled me so much, had just jumped away from my bat at the last split second, that natural curiosity kept me standing at the plate, staring at the flight of the ball.

And so I saw that ball fly into the stands and hit a four-year-old girl smack on the side of her head. And I saw the blood instantly run out of her nose. I saw her drop into her father's arms, and then I saw the backs of five or six people huddled around her fallen body.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2005 issue.

—EFQ

 

ANDREW BOMBACK lives in North Carolina, where he is an internal medicine resident. His stories and poems have recently appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Pindeldyboz, Hobart, Crab Orchard Review, New York Stories, and Diagram.

© 2005 Andrew Bomback

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