Bottom of the ninth and two outs. There was a runner on first and a ghost runner on third, and Moose, the neighborhood meathead and opposing team's best hitter, was at the plate.
Filthy, drenched in sweat, and a tightly wound bundle of nerves, I stood on the mound (which was actually just a chalk line drawn on the ground)—the loneliest kid on earth.
All the catcalls of "Heeyyyy batta batta batta" or "pitcher's got a rubber arm!" had coalesced into a deafening cacophony of white noise, yet I could distinctly hear the rhythmic "thump, thump, thump" of my heart as I stalled the inevitable, wiping my clammy hands on the front of my shorts.
Moose (real name escapes me) was the biggest kid in the neighborhood. No one believed he was only 10 years old, and my friends and I often joked that his dad must have been a Sasquatch. He clearly had the small brain and massive fists to make this theory plausible. However, if there was anything he could do well, aside from hand out random beatings, it was hit a fastball.
I thought long and hard about this very fact as Moose sneered at me from the plate. Maybe if I just tossed him a grapefruit and let him annihilate it I could avoid his ire for a few extra days.
But then again, how sweet would it be to strike this behemoth out? I'd be a king, the local David slaying the big dumb Goliath. However, I had barely escaped goat horns as Moose had hit my two previous pitches a mile, though just foul. So what now, tempt fate again? The decision was clear.
I'd been working on this pitch ever since I watched Tom "Candy Man" Candiotti completely baffle my beloved Blue Jays when the Indians came to Exhibition Stadium a few months previous. Since I spent so much time at the school library hiding from Moose and his goon squad (they NEVER went in there; books were like kryptonite for those idiots), I read up on the knuckleball and about guys like Phil Niekro and Eddie Cicotte.
David had his slingshot; I had my knuckler.
Now, with my foot set on the mound, I gave the obligatory look off to the runner on first. Fingers firmly sunk into the ball, I then lifted my lead foot, swung my arms behind my head, and, in an exaggerated arching motion, threw my wrist forward, releasing the ball.
Time slowed to a crawl as I watched my pitch dance and jig its way home like some kind of drunk butterfly. Moose's eyes went wide with glory lust as he tightened the grip on his bat and lifted his elbows.
No longer able to watch, I closed my eyes tight and waited for the inevitable crack as the ball was hurtled into the cosmos to join its brothers. If God created Heaven and Earth, then Moose created the stars with poorly located fastballs.
Then, nothing. No cheers, no jeers, not even a distant car horn. Just silence. Was I dead? Did Moose hit my pitch so hard that it came back and slammed into my skull? I dared to open one eye, just one, and take a peek.
What I saw was perhaps the most beautiful thing I could possibly imagine. The ball was sitting on home plate, and Moose was crumpled on the ground with his legs twisted like a corkscrew and a look of profound astonishment on his big dumb face. I did it—I struck him out!
Screeching with the kind of joy only a child could muster, my friends and I danced and jumped and yelled like fools for what seemed like hours. I knew I'd most likely take a beating from Moose for this, but I didn't care. I'd take a thousand beatings if that was the cost of feeling what I felt then. It would be worth it.
In my neighborhood we called it Birby, although you may recognize it as Stickball or Wallball. Wherever you grew up and whatever you called it, this game was a rite of passage for thousands of kids when I was growing up in urban Toronto.
As an adult, it's easy to become jaded with professional sports. Million-dollar athletes who refuse to sign a child's ball, small-market teams relegated to mediocrity, greedy owners holding cities and fans hostage for stadium deals, etc.
However, remember that around the corner from your house there's a group of kids playing Stickball for nothing other than the sheer joy it brings. No salaries, no agendas—just innocent childish fun.
Once upon a time that used to be you. It may be time for some perspective, a cleansing. Call some buddies and dust off that old Darryl Strawberry Rawlings glove you have in the basement. Now all you need is some road chalk, imagination, and a lack of ego.
Go break a sweat, and remember: Above all else, baseball is still just a kid's game.