He’d always had the fastball.
It was, according to the second-tier phys ed teachers
And young, un-tenured math instructors
Who comprised the area’s high school coaching community,
Unlike any pitch they’d ever seen, and the hapless shortstops and left-fielders
Who meekly waved in its general direction as it crossed the plate
Simply shook their heads, glared out toward the mound,
Or, in the case of one chunky red-haired clean-up hitter from up in Clearfield,
Threw a bat at him in a mix of embarrassment and frustration.
(He’d simply stood on the mound,
Grinning as the piece of wood sailed harmlessly by,
And he’d yelled back in at their bench, Listen you bunch of woodchucks,
Ain’t nothing you can do to me with a bat in your hands no way no how.)
His success was uninterrupted, unparalleled,
With no taint of failure or adversity
(He’d always told the scouts who asked him to pitch from the stretch
Mister, when I’m pitching, ain’t nobody gets on base.)
And when he’d signed his contract,
Which included a bonus of twenty-five hundred dollars
(Little more than chump change to the ballclub,
But all the damn money in the world to him),
He’d figured it was just the first step in an inexorable process to the big time
The possibility that he could be no more than an afterthought
Never so much as crossing his mind,
But though he had the fastball, it was no more imposing
Than several dozen other pitchers in the organization,
And it had the tendency to be straight as a string
On its journey to home plate,
Easy prey for players who had grown up
Facing good pitching twelve months a year,
And his other offerings (the notion
That he might need a Plan B on the mound
Having scarcely occurred to him) were rudimentary things,
Child-like roundhouse curves,
Change-ups which announced themselves
Long before they ever left his hand,
Plus lacked what the scouts and developmental types
Liked to call a “projectable body”,
No six-foot-six, no frame that spoke of growth and untapped power.
He still had the dream, but offered the big club little to dream upon.
He spent a couple of years in short-season ball in Upstate New York,
(In a small, down-on-what-little-luck-it-ever-had city
Where the right field fence butted up against a maximum security prison),
Cleaning up the messes in blowout losses,
Soaking up innings on cold, damp early June evenings
In places like Watertown or Little Falls,
Where the threat of frost lingered almost until the summer solstice,
So those arms which were part of the big team’s future wouldn’t be put at risk,
Spending his late mornings and later evenings
In any number of identical shopping malls, Super 8’s and Comfort Inns,
Bars named The Draught Dodger or Pub-N-Grub,
Where the women of one A.M. appeared to be intoxicating, glamorous,
But were all dark roots and crow’s feet in the grainy light of early morning,
Pale tell-tale halos on the left ring-finger,
The redhead of Erie indistinguishable from the blonde in Oneonta.
He knew that he was simply a spare part, a body to fill out a roster,
But come his third spring with the organization,
He’d asked—begged, really— for another full season,
One last chance to make it, one final shot to make good,
But the farm director just sat back and smiled ruefully.
Son, he said after a seemingly endless pause, we’re all pretty much day-to-day.
After a few weeks back Upstate (he’d only pitched once, to one batter,
Who he ended up walking on four pitches),
A new crop of polished collegians and high-school hotshots
Were signed on the dotted line and ready to roll,
And one night, just before the team bus was leaving for Batavia,
He was called in to the manager’s office, where he heard what he had dreaded,
But knew was coming as sure as sunrise—End of the line, kid.
We have to let you go.
So he went home. He’d laid low at first,
Dodging the polite small talk or wordless looks
Which all boiled down to What are you doin’ back here?
Eventually, he emerged from his old bedroom at home,
And if someone at the Market Basket or the bar at the Kinzua House
Asked him tentatively what went wrong,
He’d shrug and say he’d got caught in a numbers game,
Or it was politics—Get a millon bucks,get a million chances, y’know?
But he knew that for those kids who had never been good enough to dream,
The notion that Bobby Rockett couldn’t make it
Said something about their own futures
Which was too bleak, too awful to contemplate.
A couple of weeks after he was home, his official release arrived in the mail,
The ballclub’s logo all but jumping off the envelope,
Bold , bright gold star with one point tailing off
In a hail of inter-stellar dust, comet-like, into nothingness.
He hadn’t bothered to open it before he chucked it into the trash bin
(Though he almost immediately regretted its loss,
His playing career already a different life,
With few tangible bits of proof to prove he’d been someone, something.)
He supposed he’d go get a job at the mill,
Or maybe go into selling insurance with his dad,
And there was always a pretty good semi-pro league in Pittsburgh
If he got the jones to do some pitching
(Still, that was a two hour drive each way,
And somehow he never just got around to doing that.)
Some nights, just before sunset, he would drive out to the high school ballfield
Glove and bucket of balls in hand,
And, wearing a good landing spot with his battered spikes,
He would throw (the motion so easy, so clean,) pitch after pitch across the plate,
Aware that his velocity was more or less undimmed
Though such knowledge,
Which once upon a time filled his heart and mind
With visions of endless blue-sky afternoon games,
Backslaps and the security of tomorrow being even better,
Caused him now to smile grimly, almost conspiratorially to himself
As throw after throw rattled the backstop,
Sounding for all the world like so many metallic crows
Settling into a grove of scrub trees on a late August evening,
The nights growing imperceptibly longer
As they proceeded inexorably toward autumn.