A baseball-themed horror story.
Number Eleven stepped up to the plate, scratching the dirt with his cleats as he gripped his bat. The pitcher was a rookie, a kid just up from Triple-A, but he was hot, fanning everybody with his slider. There were two outs. No score. Bottom of the eighth inning. Two batters had already returned to the dugout, kicking walls and throwing snack bags, showering their teammates with sunflower seeds.
In the stands, the crowd seethed. Come on! Get a hit! Stop chasing that pitch, you dumb-asses! What a loser team!
Number Eleven waited. The rookie went into his wind-up and released the ball. Number Eleven focused on the ball until there was nothing but him and it. His jaw tightened. Heat rose in his chest and a faint buzzing sound rattled his brain. The ball slowed down until it hardly moved, just rotated very slowly on its axis as it hovered in the air.
The red seams on the ball made a U-shape, which Number Eleven knew was a two-seam fastball. He released the tension in his jaw and then suddenly, the grass, the stands, the crowd, they all flooded back into his field of vision and the ball raced back to its normal speed. He swung, following through with his shoulders and hips. When the bat hit the ball, he felt it all the way up to his elbows. The ball screamed down the third base line, past the diving third baseman and into the outfield where the charging left fielder scooped it up. Number Eleven raced to first base to beat out the throw.
As he reached first base, he heard it: bang, bang. He always heard that sound in his head after he shined the ball. (He called it “shining the ball” because it reminded him of the deadball-era guys, like Cicotte and Danforth, who would rub paraffin wax on one side of the ball to make it land exactly where they wanted it to.) The bang, bang sound was metallic, like his mother used to make when she beat on the trashcan lid to scare feral cats out of her yard. He hated to have that sound echo in his brain and his batting helmet made it worse -- as if the hard plastic kept the sound from escaping. But at least it faded away after a minute or two.
The next batter struck out and Number Eleven trotted silently back to the dugout.
After the game, Number Eleven changed into a crisp, blue-striped button-down shirt and jeans. He glanced at his reflection in the small rectangular mirror that was mounted on the inside of his locker door. He combed his hair to hide the thin strands of silver that were beginning to appear. At least he had his hair, and the gray ones stayed hidden as long as he kept everything in the right place. He took the plastic cap off a small can of hairspray and surreptitiously spritzed his hair and then tucked the can back into his locker before any of his teammates noticed it.
Number Eleven heard someone say his name and he turned to see the right fielder standing a few feet away with just a white towel wrapped around his waist. He was a few years younger and had the sort of chest that girls loved to paw, yet he was the only guy on the team without a wife.
“How did you hit that ball? You’re the only batter who got a hit off that kid today.”
Number Eleven shrugged. “It looked like a good pitch, so I swung at it.”
“I can’t believe that kid almost no-hit us,” said the third baseman.
“Well, the scouting report did say he was unhittable in Triple-A.”
“Right, Triple-A! Not the majors! That kid must have some kind of supernatural powers.”
“Nobody has supernatural powers,” the manager said, his baritone voice breaking through the chatter. “You all just didn’t have it today. Get some rest, because we have another game to win tomorrow.”
When he returned to his building, Number Eleven stepped into the elevator and shut his eyes. How did you hit that ball? He couldn’t tell his teammates about shining the ball because they’d all want to be able to do it, and he couldn’t explain how he’d acquired this power.
Power. If he had real power, he’d be able to make any pitch hang in the air long enough for him to hit it out of the park. He’d bat 1.000 if he had real power. But he could only slow the ball down for a few micro-units of time, just long enough to see which way the seams were facing and guess which way the ball might go. If the seams made a U-shape, it meant a two-seam fastball. If the seams were two concave lines with their backs to each other, like the symbol for Pisces, that was a slider. Pisces flipped on its side was a four-seam fastball. A sideways U was an off-speed pitch and if it was upside down, it was a curve.
The system wasn’t right all the time. He still swung at pitches that looked like fastballs but turned out to be breaking balls. Umpires still caught him looking now and again and sent him down on strikes. But his average had broken .300 for the first time in two years. It wasn’t enough to make him Babe Ruth, but it had moved him from batting ninth to batting fifth.
If Babe Ruth had been able to shine the ball, they’d have thrown him out of the league.
The elevator door opened slowly and he stepped out onto his floor. He listened at the door before he went in. His wife liked to play music on the enormous stereo she’d bought and he needed quiet. He didn’t understand the music she liked: men with robotic voices who sang over heavy bass. It didn’t even have a beat you could dance to, just bass that made your body vibrate It wasn't good for his head.
Inside, the white marble kitchen countertops gleamed and the TV news blared. His wife was asleep on the couch. He’d wanted a house outside the city, someplace quiet. She was the one who’d pushed for the condo. All she talked about was the view. The outer wall was one huge pane of glass that made them feel like the whole city was their living room. He didn’t see why it was so great. Sure, at night it was nice, because the city lights shimmered on the river, and streetlights below twinkled like a blanket of stars in reverse.
But in the daytime, it wasn’t so pretty, and the farther you looked, the worse the view got. There were weedy lots overgrown with sunburnt grass, and houses with sagging roofs. One house had black streaks on the asbestos siding and fresh rectangles of plywood nailed to the windows. He pointed it out to his wife as an example of how ugly the view was.
“So, stop looking at it!” was all she would say.
Rain delayed the next game. Number Eleven sat in the dugout with his teammates, watching the drops hit the blue tarp that the grounds crew had hurriedly rolled over the outfield grass.
Today’s scouting report didn’t tell them anything new. On the mound today was a pitcher who’d been in the league for almost two decades and even though he was older and slower, he still knew how to screw up a hitter’s timing. Last season, during a game in August, Number Eleven stood at the plate, facing this pitcher. Two pitches missed outside, and Number Eleven fouled off two more. When the pitcher threw the 2-2 pitch, Number Eleven felt his chest warm, and heard humming, as if everything had gone quiet except for the electricity coursing through the stadium, and the ball stopped. Number Eleven froze and heard the ball smack the catcher’s glove. The umpire called him out on strikes.
During his next at-bat, it happened again: the world dropped away, and the ball was almost motionless except for its spin, and this time he swung the bat and hit a double to left-center field.
Gradually, he learned to control the power and slow the ball a little bit longer. Only then did he realize he could see exactly which way the ball was moving, that every stitch on the ball stood out in bright red relief. He spent the rest of that season decoding the positions of the seams and learning how to time his swing so he wouldn’t miss the ball after it roared back into real time.
The rain dissolved into a fine mist and the tarps disappeared from the field. The opposing team hit a home run in the top of the first inning. The leadoff hitter drew a walk to start the bottom of the inning, and then it was Number Eleven’s turn at bat.
The mist clung to his face as he waited for the pitch. On the mound, the pitcher hid his face behind his leather glove. He wound up and pitched. Number Eleven summoned the heat and the humming, and everything vanished, and the ball was suddenly nothing more than a simple shape drawn on a vast, white sheet of paper.
Sideways Pisces. Four-seam fastball. His deltoids, lats and pecs all tensed as he swung the bat. The crowd thundered as the ball reached the seats in right field. Number Eleven trotted toward first base.
It was louder this time and it kept going as he reached second.
He felt his batting helmet squeeze his skull and he fought the urge to rip it off of his head.
When he crossed home plate, he glanced up at the scoreboard. They were now up 2 - 1. He tore off his batting helmet and slumped down onto the bench in the dugout.
“What’s the matter? You just homered!” the right fielder asked.
“It’s just my head,” said Number Eleven.
“You need to see the doc?” the manager chimed in.
“No,” Number Eleven said. “It’s fine.”
Somebody handed him a cup of Gatorade and he stared down into the cup of electric blue liquid. He decided he was done shining the ball for the day. After all, he’d just hit a two-run homer.
He struck out in his next two at-bats.
At home, he heard his wife’s music through the condo door. His head throbbing, he sank down to the carpeted floor and sat in the hallway, under the flickering overhead light. Maintenance said an electrician would be out to fix it, but that was weeks ago, and still, the light went on and off as if some poltergeist was playing with the switch. He’d paid over three million dollars for the place, and there was still no sign of an electrician.
Thirty minutes later, the music went off, and Number Eleven went inside. He went straight into the bedroom, shut off the lights and crashed down onto the bed.
The team rose in the standings and Number Eleven’s average went up along with it. He tried to use his power sparingly, but the more games they won -- and the more home runs he hit -- the more the team and the crowd expected, and the more he needed it.
And each time he used it, the banging got louder and lasted longer.
At the end of September, the team made the first round of the playoffs. They lost the first game, won the next two, lost the fourth.
In the clubhouse, they gathered around the manager. He rubbed his hand over his beard before he spoke. “Game five, boys. If we want to keep going in this post-season, we’ve got to win tonight. Play this game like it’s for the championship because it is. We don’t win tonight, we don’t get a shot at the trophy. Whatever you’ve got to do to get on base tonight, do it. Whatever you do to get hits and make plays, do it more. Play like it’s the last game of the season because it will be if we lose.”
Number Eleven knew that he’d have to use his power on every pitch. He was batting clean-up.
On the mound was the same rookie, the one who’d come up from Triple-A in the early part of the season. In the first inning, he struck out the first three batters. Number Eleven led off the second inning with a single, hit softly down the third base line.
The first base coach said something to him, but he couldn’t hear it over the ringing of the trash can lid in his head.
He took a lead off of first base. The clanging metal was louder, nearly drowning out the crowd. The pitcher looked in at the catcher, then whirled around and whipped the ball to the first baseman. Number Eleven turned to charge back to first base, but it was too late. The first baseman had already stepped on the bag. He was out.
In the dugout, the manager spoke, but Number Eleven didn’t hear it.
Bang, bang. Bang, bang.
It took another inning and a half for the cacophony in his head to die down.
In the seventh inning, the game was tied, and the bases were loaded when Number Eleven stepped up to the plate. As the first pitch hurled toward the strike zone, Number Eleven called on his power.
The ball slowed down, but then -- bang, bang.
Startled, he swung and missed.
“Strike!” the umpire shouted.
A cold bolt of fear ripped through Number Eleven’s body. This can’t be happening now.
The pitcher wound and threw the second pitch.
Bang, bang. The ball didn’t even slow down. Bang, bang. Bang, bang. It hit the catcher’s glove and the umpire called it strike two.
The banging didn’t stop. Number Eleven stepped into the box and waited for the third pitch, but the metal trashcan lid went on crashing. The pitcher wound up to throw the third pitch, but the banging grew louder and louder until it was all he could hear. He ripped off his batting helmet but the pain, like a squid’s tentacles wrapped around his head gripping, squeezing, crushing, didn’t stop.
Bang, bang. Bang, bang. Bang, bang.
He crumpled and went down on his knees, his fingers digging into the dirt around home plate as if he could burrow away from the noise.
“Take your base!” the umpire said, thinking he’d been hit by the pitch. The manager raced out from the dugout.
“Where did it hit you? Do you need to see the trainer?”
Number Eleven couldn’t answer.
“It didn’t hit him,” the other team’s catcher said. “He went down before the ball came over the plate. I think he needs a doctor.”
The manager tried to help him up, but Number Eleven’s body was curled into a tight ball and he couldn’t lift his head. Two paramedics raced across the field and loaded him onto a stretcher.
At the hospital, the squeezing slowly stopped and the pain faded away. The sound inside the MRI tube was as loud as the banging in his head had been. The doctors cleared him to play in the next game, but he knew there wouldn’t be one.
A few days later, he stood at the window in his condo, staring down at the burned-out house on the other side of the river. His phone rang. He knew it would be his agent before he picked up the phone.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Number Eleven said before his agent got a chance to speak. “I’m done with baseball. I’m out.”
He hung up the phone and turned it off.
A few raindrops struck the glass and the sky turned a darker shade of gray. Soon, the rain came down harder, until water cascaded down the glass and blurred everything on the other side of it. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Bang, bang, he thought.
Thanks for reading Not A Little Lamb! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.