The Ethics of Pitching Jesus High and Tight
Jesus was at bat.
This wasn't unusual in the Texas-New Mexico League, farthest from the white balls and bright lights of the major leagues while still drawing a paycheck. Latin players on their way up or Mexicans on their way home would often end up here, dabbing the sweat from their eyes as they stared into the sun. There were no lights at any of the parks in the league. The sun darkly pounded them into submission, stuff no one could hit.
The grass was dead in patches. Once they tried painting it green and gave up. Two parks gave up the illusion and stripped the field bare to its naked red dirt, raked into neat soft piles that would swallow up grounders and mark balls indelibly. He'd heard a coach saying the only soil he'd ever seen so red was out back of Ty Cobb's place. Even this wizened old man wasn't old enough to remember Cobb, let alone find the red dirt of his fertile rich past. Cobb never drove a Corvette.
And Jesus was at bat. I stepped back off the mound again, pulled off my hat and used my sleeve to wipe the grit and sweat and...whatever off my forehead, just inches and gravity from blinding me and running down to water this soil. I'd heard Todd Obadal, the ballpark's announcer whose voice didn't sound natural unless it was cheaply echoing off three poles and into the echoes of the aluminum bleachers radiating the late summer heat, say his name as he walked up to the plate. Todd carried a battered old Macmillan's up with him to the press box every day, reading and memorizing in between batters.
Jesus was new in the league, his uniform still white and no name across the back. It took two weeks to get the uniforms back from the sporting goods store in Roswell that would stitch the name on tight. There was a joke that everyone was on tryout until the name got there. The whole league used the same place, central and cheap, run by a fan that gave the owners a deal in return for seats in the shade and a sign in left. I looked out at the sign, easier to do than look at Jesus or my manager.
The name still echoed somehow, the flat land running to the mesas in the far hazy distance under the meadow of white clouds playing tricks with my ears or maybe the rattle of the bleachers forming some primitive recording, playing it back. "Now at bat, Jesus." He had a last name, but that didn't register. Martinez? Lopez? Rodriguez? Something common. Worse if he hadn't been Latin. Jesus Smith. Jesus Johnson.
Because he wasn't Hay-soos, he was Jesus. The only times he heard it pronounced that way were in Sunday school or Sunday afternoon with the coaches yelling at him. "Jesus H. Christ," they'd yell as if the H stood for something, "keep the ball down, kid. You ain't got the stuff to blow it past these guys like you did back in high school. If you could you wouldn't be here, playing in Big Springs." He'd never seen a spring.
The manager had heard it too, the name, Jesus. Announced by Todd, rattling off the bleachers and rolling off into the desert, Jesus was coming to bat. The hair on his ears practically bristled, a stark white against the leather of his red neck. Literally red. Not sunburned now, but baked to a perfect brick red by years, decades, eons of standing where he stood and not budging, not backing off because some sun was pitching him inside.
"Did he say Jesus?" the manager asked no one in particular. "What in hell's bells is that boy thinking? How many Hay-sooses we got in this league and he goes and calls this one by the name of our Lord and Savior." No one in particular responded, immune to these monologues, only attuned to their name or ducking if he threw the water cooler like he would do occasionally. I'd seen him check it once, seeing if it was empty enough to pick up without straining himself and still full enough to make a resounding crunch and splash as the top came off.
"Boy," he said, pointing to the batboy, a twelve year old taking vocabulary lessons all summer after a season of Dixie League ball had someone won him some prize. Prize, as if serving some halfwit no-talent ten-games-back ball club was anything worth winning. His eyes lit up anytime he was spoken to and no one told him his prize wasn't...prizy. What's the word? "Boy, go tell Obadal that Hay-soos up there didn't walk on water or die for his sins." The boy wasn't quite sure what to make of that. A flick of the manager's head told the boy he was serious enough and off he ran, across the line of spit and seeds and boys spitting them there, through the maze of chain link at the edge and out. His cleats -- cleats! -- crunched in the packed gravel of the ground and rang out like the devil's piano as he ran up the nine levels of bleachers to the press box.
As I stood back on top of the mound, I glanced in. The manager was standing on what would have been the top step of the dugout, if there'd actually been steps. It was ground level, the line between gravel and dirt being some agreed upon line between dugout and field. He wasn't looking at me and wasn't looking at Jesus either. He was glaring at him. The salt bit into my eye even though I'd just wiped it away. I refused to blink it away and it came out the other side like a tear.
Jesus had one hit on the day, a double down the right field line in the first inning. Marsh had thrown a good pitch, a slider down and away that stayed up just enough for the right-hander to push it the other way. In the third, he'd hit one while our manager was warbling about the name that I'd thought was going out to dead center, the death valley of the ballpark marked 400 because that was as high as someone could count. The heat or the wind or the sheer height of the ball brought it down as Crowell had one foot on the warning track. Jesus smiled as he turned back from near second, his trot never changing on the route from home to first, first to near second, and near second back to the dugout. He sat down, away from the others, his face obscured by shadow and chain link from me.
I'd come in for the sixth, a reliever in all senses of the word. The heat had broken Marsh's slider into hittable pieces and his fastball lost the spots it was supposed to go. He left the pounding isolation of the highest point on the field and was seated next to the water cooler, the sweat of the two mixing as he sat bare-chested and used his uniform to mop his bald head. Now here in the seventh, one out away from leaving a man on and stretching as tradition demands, I was debating the ethics of pitching Jesus high and tight.
It came in reverse, the batboy clanging down from the press box, across the rows of people sitting, off work from the factory or the fields, back across the grey dusty gravel that would leave a chalk on your black cleats or pickup truck. He skidded as he turned, snaking back in the dugout and running back up to the manager. "Obadal says that the manager from the other team told him that the name was Jesus, not Hay-soos and that Jesus ain’t Mexican."
"Ain’t Mexican, he says?" The manager adjusted a seed in his mouth, his tongue a size too large for his lipless mouth and the wrinkles taking the expression out of his eyes.
"Yessir, Obadal says he's from Colorado and that his name is Jesus." The boy spoke with a rote cadence, as if the message he carried was much more important than it was. It was Jesus or Hay-soos and either way, he was coming back to bat soon. I didn't see in the first or second times he was at the plate that he would smile while he was up there. His back was to me, of course, as I sat in the dugout and now, thinking back to the batboy looking up, breathing hard, waiting for the manager to say something, I was sure that Jesus smiled in the dugout waiting for his next turn or smiled as he stood in right field, a million miles away in the gray gravel dust and wavy heat lines of the afternoon.
He'd said nothing, the manager. He looked up and down the row of players scattered lazily across the bench, waiting for the next seed to come floating heavily, arcing to the dank gravel of the dugout, inches from dirt. They'd occasionally play a game of trying to be the closest to the line. The rules would change, mid-game sometimes. Going over, into the dirt, was no good or some arbitrary points were set as too far right or left. I was never good at the game or at spitting seeds. My teeth would never crack them open, unthinking like so many that had spent so many hours learning a skill, if you could call it that, becoming a pastime.
I leaned forward, taking a sign that the catcher didn't show me. My leg came up as I drove forward, the ball in my hand asking where to go, what to do and I let fly. My head snapped over, losing sight of things for a moment and when I righted myself, Peters, the catcher, had the ball in his glove, holding it. Jesus hadn't moved despite the ball having to have come close enough to ripple past the white polyester folds of his uniform, ticking past the stitches of the interlocked A's over his heart. The smile hadn't changed either.
Now, the manager was looking out at me. My fastball, intentioned as it was, may have been tight, but not high. "Bubba," he said to me, though my name nor anyone else's on the team was not Bubba either, but seemed to be his preferred name for all that were not Boy or, for our oversized first baseman, an adoring "Big 'Un." He was close enough for me to feel the sound as much as hear it. "Bubba, I want you to go out there and when Jeeeeeee-zuz," dragged out in derision, "comes back up, you put one right in his ear. You hear me?"
"Yes, sir," I said. At 18 and nothing but a diploma and a fastball different than most guys I knew, I wasn't about to question the man that decided whether or not I pitched, whether or not he'd tell his scout buddies that he had a lefty with a nice screwball that he'd found pitching Legion Ball near Palo Duro, and whether or not I'd get my two hundred dollars that week.
On the mound, it was a different story. I wanted to do what I was supposed to and yet the smiling man disconcerted me. His even demeanor and bright white uniform looked not to belong. There was no name and a number -- three -- that seemed to shimmer somehow through some trick of the light. The ball seemed harder, hot from its use and the yarn digging into my skin as I squeezed it. Looking in, there was no sign. The eyes of my manager dug into the head of Jesus, willing that smile off his face, wanting to see his uniform dirty, crumpled, his name somehow changed by a hard piece of horse.
My arms stretched out and went over my head, leg high and the ball blazed, this time out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ball nearly in his face, the catcher's glove darting up out of habit. Jesus turned, quickly as only a real ballplayer knows, sending through the tight spin of the seams that it would stay straight and turning his head somehow ducked out of the way. His knees barely moved and his clean uniform barely rustled.
The umpire took his mask off and gave me a look, knowing that it was a purpose pitch. I wasn't really sure of what the purpose was. I couldn't even fake the shrug that would say it got away from me, that these things happen in baseball. The umpire knew. I knew. The crowd knew. Jesus knew.
I saw him look back at me. The sun seemed hotter and what wind there was paused. His mouth moved, almost too slow to see. My gray uniform was heavier, the grit on my face dirtier, and the ball that wasn't in my hand felt emptier. August in West Texas is lonely and hot. The fans abandon you for high school football and you're left playing a game between yourselves.
He crossed the line, stepping from gravel to dirt. Quick steps out towards the mound and a flicking wave towards the umpire. Maybe he thought that the manager was coming out to give me the what for or maybe he was just as hot and sweaty as I was under the powder blue uniform he wore.
The catcher came out as well, dumb, in the sense that he never said much. In the months I'd been out here, the catcher had said maybe ten words to me outside of 'good game' and 'right here,' his call for me to focus and put the next pitch in his glove. He was older than the rest of us. He played in Double-A a few years back, came home to work the oil patch for the winter and stayed a couple summers with his new wife and kid.
He sighed before speaking. "Bubba," he said like he was blaming me with it, "didn't I tell you to put one in Jesus' earhole?"
"Didn't I tell you to do something and here I am standing out here in the damn sun sweating and wondering why that blasphemous smiling sumbitch is still standing up there looking pearly white?" He ended it with his voice going up, like he was growing hysterical or maybe asking a question. I looked past him, past the catcher, and Jesus was standing there with the bat in his hands, smiling and looking at me when he did it again. His mouth barely moved.
The manager's mouth started to move again, but I handed him the ball and walked off. I was unbuttoning the jersey top, looking to let the sun beat down on me at the same time I unburdened myself. I winked at Jesus as I crossed the line from dirt to gravel. My glove was pointless so I tossed it to the batboy. My cleats crunched on the gravel, the white chalky dust starting to sink into the polish.
I walked past the bus, knowing I'd never get on it again, 300 miles from Palo Duro with half a baseball uniform, a change of clothes and sixty-one dollars in my wallet. I would need to stop and change my shoes but I didn't want to slow down. I wasn't sure that if I looked back the the ballgame wouldn't pull me back.
I didn't know what I was going to do next, but I had a long walk ahead of me. There would be plenty of time to make plans. It might be nice to go to college. The sun would set eventually, behind me, and I'd wake up somewhere tomorrow. There wouldn't be a baseball in my hand, but that seemed okay for now. My step was lighter and my heart unburdened by plugging Jesus with my best fastball.
Anyway, he'd whispered "I forgive you." Or something like that.
Will Carroll once wrote fiction before taking residence in the dark lands of facts and rumor. Those writings can be found at Baseball Prospectus, where Carroll writes a near-daily column entitled "Under the Knife." He stole the title for this story, but can't recall from where.