Back when we were eleven we had each been dumped at Creekside Park for the summer’s first Little League practice by exhausted parents in wood paneled station wagons. But Grizz had emerged from the woods alone, in a camo jacket, lumbering into the outfield like Big Foot, brown hair bushy and parted down the middle. A ratty, too-small baseball glove had dangled from the crook of one of his fingers. I think Feebs had been the first one to say it – “Look, guys! Here comes Grizzly Adams!” – and the nickname stuck. Now we just called him Grizz. He had been a legend from the first moment we saw him.
“Like where? Miami?” Zee asked. His name was long and Polish. It started with Z- and ended with -czak.
“Sure,” Grizz said. “Anywhere in Florida, probably. That, or Texas, from what I hear.”
Zee crouched into position, hand and glove on each thigh. “When do they start practicing outdoors?” His breath rolled out in thin wisps. He clenched his throwing hand against his sweats to keep it warm.
“It’s fucking year round,” Grizz said. “Imagine how good we’d be.”
The ping sounded and the ball sailed off Coach’s bat toward left-center. Zee took off in a loping jog, circling its flight path so he could catch it with his momentum going forward. He stuck his glove up over his head and the ball popped into it. Then he took a quick crow hop and drove it on a line toward the shortstop, waiting to cut if off in shallow left. Zee trotted back to the rest of us, leaping over a stubborn patch of snow-ice that still hadn’t melted. We had been chipping away at it with our cleats all practice.
“Year round? That’s bullshit,” Feebs said as he spat out another sunflower shell. Freeing sunflower seeds from their shells was the closest we could get to chewing tobacco without our mothers killing us.
I stepped forward into the same hunched waiting position, breathed heat on the fingers of my throwing hand, thought about practicing year round. We didn’t start until Spring and even then we spent the first few weeks in the gym, running suicides and four corners drills. The pitchers thumped down hard on slanted mounds built from plywood, leaving the rest of us to wait in a line outside the netted batting cage. We held our breath when we took our turns, eyeing the rotation of the dimpled rubber balls Tim Francis had figured out how to spin into the Jugs machine so they launched out straight at our heads.
My ping sounded. The ball came straight at me, worst kind to judge. First step back, the little voice in my head said, and I rotated my hips, stepping back with my right foot. “In,” Feebs muttered in the same way he’d help me from right in a real game. I saw it now, too. I charged in and caught the fly on a dead run, then stepped into my throw toward Tim Francis. Aim for the cutoff man’s head, the voice told me. With Tim Francis, that was easy. But Jonesy, straddling the bag at second behind him, shouted, “Through!” and Tim ducked at the last moment. The ball sailed over his head and one-hopped to second where Jonesy snagged it and spun, lowering his glove in front of the bag as if about to tag out some hotshot from Northview High trying to leg out a double. But no one was there except for the cold wind, kicking up loose infield dirt as it gusted again.
Jonesy relayed the ball in to the catcher who flipped it back to Coach. “Seriously,” Grizz repeated. “What would you give to move down somewhere warm and play year round?”
No one answered Grizz. We waited for the infielders to return to their positions. Feebs spit out another shell. Zee played with the Velcro on his glove. I spiked the heel of my cleat into that dwindling patch of snow-ice. The wind gusted once more and we huddled closer together. Closer, I figured, than those guys in Miami or any of them ballplayers in Texas ever would be to each other.
About the Author: Chris Negron graduated from Yale University in 1993. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Grand Central Review and Torrid Literature Journal. He has received multiple writing honors from the Atlanta Writers Club as well as the Literary Award of Merit from the Dawson Country Arts Council.
Story Song: "Old Dirt Hill" by Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
Photo Credit: Leesa Cross-Smith