It is like shaking hands with a bag of oyster crackers;
Joints sprained, ligaments torn, fingers fractured
And splayed off in several different directions
Like a weathervane that has had a rather nasty shock, indeed.
The whorls of his fingertips, the odd and uneven rise and fall of the knuckles
Are a table of contents for a travelogue of a lifetime
Spent in towns not quite ready for the big time:
Olean, Oneonta, Visalia, Valdosta, a dozen more besides,
A million miles on buses of uncertain vintage and roadworthiness.
Each scar and swelling, each uneven path
Between base and fingertip has a tale of its own;
The ring finger on the left hand first broken
By a Bob Veale fastball that was supposed to be a curve,
Later snapped again by Steve Dalkowski,
Who, drinking quite a bit by then—when ol’ Steve
Had put away a few, you didn’t want to hit him, catch him,
Or be in the first few rows behind the plate—most likely
Never saw the sign indicating slider instead of high heat.
The index finger on his throwing hand? Well, that was from
A foul tip in…Wellsville in ’59? Walla Walla in ’62?
When you’ve bit up by the ball as many times as I have,
You tend to forget what you tore up when.
Ah, but no such problem with the right pinkie;
That was snapped one football-cold night somewhere between Winnipeg and Duluth
When, with a big pot in the balance, a backup infielder
Produced an unexpected and wholly inexplicable king seemingly from nowhere.
But those hands! They were, in the lexicon of the scouts
(The same ones who labeled him with dreaded tag “good field, no hit”)
Trolling the sandlot parks and high school fields of his childhood, “soft”;
Indeed, he could cradle a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball like an infant
And, with the gentlest and most imperceptible of movements,
Turn the wildness of a nineteen-year-old phenom into an inning-ending third strike,
And even now, two decades of bad lighting and jury-rigged equipment
Having turned the topography of his digits craggy and asymmetrical,
They are suddenly smooth and supple as they were at nineteen,
With all the strength and unsullied smoothness of the youth
As he grips an unseen bat in the course of relating how
During his one brief, glorious spring in camp with the big club,
How he doubled to the gap off none other than the great Whitey Ford himself.