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A Clean Break

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 1, 2013
pp. 136-152 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0010

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Photo by Frank Pierson

One month before I ran from the police with my mother, I threw a baseball for the last time. I was twelve years old, in the eighth grade, and I had been cut once again from the middle school baseball team. Surely this was a reflection of the coach’s poor judgment, not my skills, as I intended to prove that late spring by digging my toes into the batter’s box for the town recreational team. There, I would send red-laced balls arcing through the sky on such a preposterous trajectory that they would crane the necks of the opposing outfielders—from neighboring Connecticut towns—who, seeing how far they’d have to chase my blasts, would simply give up. Just drop their gloves beside them and take a seat on the grass, awed and frustrated by the fact that I was—would be—what they could only dream of.

I admit that I had an active imagination back then. But this was different. I’d never had to try to imagine these things; this fantasy somehow predated my awareness. I had never not known myself as the boy who would grow up to be a major league baseball star. It was not a dream but the premise of my young life. As long as I kept taking the field, the inevitable would eventually happen: the players, the coaches, the crowd, the world would see in me what I had always known was there. That me inside me, defined, for now, by his latent greatness. The real me. Waiting to break out.

Unfortunately, our team—the rest of our team—was not even good enough to be bad. They proved this especially well one particular home game in May. By the fifth inning we were losing by such a margin that the score was beside the point. Our catcher was pitching; it didn’t matter anymore. This was about enduring, not winning. I know that now, but at the time every toss from the mound was still a possible prelude to greatness—a full-extension diving catch, a rope of throw to nail the runner out at home. And so, the score be damned, I embraced the onslaught. Poised in left field with my legs spread shoulder-width, leaning forward, rocking on the balls of my cleated feet, I eagerly awaited my opportunity to wow as, pitch after pitch, the ball was sprayed across the diamond in every direction but mine.

Then our catcher, my friend Owen, went into his pudgy-armed windup once more.

The batter hit the ball so squarely that it echoed the perfect ping. I stepped back. Then back some more. Then back back back back back. And still it was over my head. But the wind had held the ball up some, slowed its flight, and when I got near the rolling white dot parting the ankle-high grass, I glanced over my shoulder. The runner was only rounding second.

I plucked the ball from the grass and turned toward home. It was forever away, but that didn’t matter. I’d made this throw before, even if only in my mind. There was my cut-off man, running out to shallow left field to relay the ball in. But I didn’t need him. My fingers found the stitches. I crow-hopped, then leaned back so far, coiling my arm, that my knuckles almost hit the ground behind me. There was the plate. There was the plate. Watch this throw to the—

A splintering shock cut through me. And the ball dribbled to a stop only twenty feet from where I fell in the outfield grass, clutching my right arm at the shoulder. I didn’t yet know what had happened, but I knew I wanted to cry. So cry I did, in a way that was disproportionate to the pain.

My mother drove me to the ER. She was—in this moment and in general—too scared to smile, too proud to show her fear. And though she was a terrible driver under normal circumstances, the crisis seemed to give her focus, steer...

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