‘He Hoped Baseball Would Fix What Was Wrong With Him’ by Alex Dela Cruz

Baseball
Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Baseball was his first love.  In his second year of little league, Allen improved, becoming the best player on the team.  He ran down ground balls like his favorite Blue Jays. Roberto Alomar Jr. and Tony Fernandez were like acrobats snagging the ball out of the air with incredible precision and coordination, making throws to first, disappointing the opposing player’s futile attempt to reach base.  Grounders, pop-ups, one hoppers …  Allen emulated the heroes he saw on TV for his own team.   He was surprised at his progress.  He was having fun, more fun than ever.  Each game, every practice, he was learning more and more.

 

Year One: 

His father took Allen to the store to pick out a baseball glove.  They were at the counter to pay.

‘Ok, where’s your money?’

Allen looked at him.  He didn’t have any money; did this mean they had to go back home without the glove?  His father laughed before taking out his credit card.

Coach Capobianco was around the same age as Allen’s father. He was soft spoken, very helpful, but didn’t yell and scream. He told the new players that if the ball is hit towards them, to use their body to form a wall; if the ball doesn’t go right into their glove, it will still be blocked and they’ll have a chance to make a throw to first.  Allen thought of him like a baseball Santa Claus without the beard and with an immense amount of baseball knowledge.  His son was friendly, and one of the best players.  Allen wasn’t.  He was in the bottom of the lineup, starting in right field, where the ball is hit least often.

Allen moved to left field as he got better, then to center. By the end of the year, Allen had played at third base.  Sometimes, he was moved up to fifth in the batting order.

Coach Capobianco gave out game stars for good plays during a game to be sewn onto the uniform.  Allen had two red stars for fielding and a white star for hitting.  The best player on the team had seven stars.  Coach C’s son had six.

 

Year Two:

Tony was Allen’s new coach.  He was lanky and thin, but athletically built. A vibrant young man with a few scarce pimples, he carried the energetic maturity of a college student.   He liked being called Tony, not coach. He was like a cool older brother who knew a lot about baseball.  Players did what Coach C said because he was old and wise, they listened to Tony because he was cool and smart. He was a person the younger kids wanted to hang out with.

 

The Day Tony Helped Create a Monster: 

Batting practice.  The worst part of Allen’s game: hitting.

He got some hits, and walks to get on base once, rarely twice, each game during his first year. Most of the time, he’d take a swing and the ball would land safely in the catcher’s mitt.  Allen hated swinging at air but, dejected, had gotten used to it.

With a watchful eye, Tony spoke to him,  ‘You’re seeing the ball OK, but you’re late on your swing. Put your elbow higher.’

Allen’s swing was pretty good.  Coach C gave some good tips the year before: a wide stance gives better balance, put your weight on your back foot, watch as the ball comes in, and transfer your weight.  All these small details.  When Allen watched the Blue Jays on TV, he saw how they did all these little things perfectly.  Fundamentals, Coach C called them.

Tony, however, was good at finding details unique to each player that would help them.

‘Elbow up, like this.  See, when you swing, you bring your elbow up even when it’s down at your waist.  If it’s already up, it’s ready to hit the ball. Try it out.’

Allen took a few practice swings.  It felt different.  Faster.  He walked up to the plate.  Mike, the best pitcher on the team, gave an easy toss.  Allen took a swing . . . and missed the ball by a mile.  He looked at Tony. Weird, Allen thought to himself.

‘Ya, you were way out in front of that one,’ said Tony.

The weird thing was that he had swung at the ball way too early. After a few more pitches, he couldn’t miss the ball.

‘Hey, Mike!’

‘Ya, coach?’

‘Enough with the easy stuff.  Let it rip.  Let’s see how he does.’

Practice was one thing, but an actual game?

The ball cracked off the bat.  He learned how to throw all his power into a good pitch, pulling the ball to left field into gaps between the outfielders, or simply over their heads.  If a pitcher threw a fastball that was hard to catch up to, he swung defensively to deflect it into gaps on the field.  He could see the ball clearly and figure out what to do depending on how good the pitcher was.

Allen was always on time to practice.  He could pick who he wanted to start warm up and drill with.  When he was early, he had a better chance to practice with someone he liked: someone who was cool and had good skills, not someone who was too good for practice or who just sucked.

Now he was batting in the heart of the line up.  He had decent power and often got on base.  He didn’t have the power of some other kids, but he regularly crossed the plate, scoring runs thanks to his teammates’ great hitting.  The practice was paying off.  Sometimes the ball seemed like it was in slow motion as he snagged it in his glove or bounced it off his bat.  Good times.

Sports build character, fostering integrity and discipline . . . as they say.

 

Home:

He was a good student and teammate. At home, however, he always seemed to be doing something wrong.

‘Punyeta ka! You’re always leaving your shit around. Why don’t you try your shit somewhere else?’ he heard many times from his father.

‘You left the light on in the bathroom again.  What, are you stupid? What’s wrong with you? You left your socks on the couch.  Do you think you have a maid?’

That day, he left his bag in the middle of the hallway where it was dangerous as his mom and dad said because someone could break their neck. 

‘I forgot, sorry.’  He forgot a lot.  ‘You don’t forget things?’

‘I am tired of your shit attitude.  This is my house and if you don’t like it, you can get the hell out!’

His deep voice bellowed when he was angry. Time and again, he’d tell Allen or his sister what was wrong with them, not to mention everything wrong with the world —all the things he knew about it.  Everyone tried to tune him out, especially Allen’s mom.  He was harder to ignore when he was angry. As he raised his voice, his eyes went beady and he’d explode into a seemingly endless tirade, yelling about what was wrong with Allen and his sister and how hard he worked for everyone.

He called them stupid, lazy, and disrespectful, with bad attitudes. Why couldn’t JoAnne get good grades in school like her brother?  Why couldn’t Allen keep his room from being a ‘pigsty’ or keep the house clean like his sister?  His dad repeated these helpful reminders daily.

When Allen was younger, his father would often help remind him with a slipper.  One time, the Chinatown leatherette slipper broke in half.  Allen laughed through his tears at the look his father’s face, who was holding half a broken rubber sole in one hand, the other half dangling by leatherette straps.

He noticed that his father yelled at him more but hit him less often as Allen grew taller than him.  His sister often got yelled at too: she was a teenager who didn’t have good grades and liked long showers which wasted water.  Teenagers.   In a few years, Allen would also be a teenager.  His mom said he would even like girls.  Gross.

After they moved into the new five-bedroom house with a skylight and Jacuzzi, they didn’t have a lot of money. They were just getting by. Allen’s dad only got the new TV because it was on sale; he said Allen used it most of the time anyways. True. His dad said it was his mom who really wanted the new backyard patio but that he was the one who paid for most of it. He helped design the patio of interlocking bricks with a low wall. He was like a lord in his little courtyard villa.

His teachers wrote beaming comments about Allen’s effort and good work in class. However, they suggested that he read slower when the students take turns reading aloud. Allen had a habit of reading too fast and mumbling.  Other than that, he liked his teachers a lot.  His classmates . . . not so much.

His family had moved into a nicer neighborhood a whiter neighborhood, when he got to the new school, a classmate asked him if he was Chinese or Japanese. Allen said he was Filipino, this was met with a blank stare.

‘Oh, so are you a ching chong, ding dong, or wing wong?’

His classmates laughed at Allen and asked why he wore the same clothes all the time, or if he was poor because of his cheap BiWay clothes.  Some kids were surprised when they saw Allen go into his house and asked if he was loaded.

‘No,’ Allen said, ‘My dad says there’s barely any money after the thing called the Mortgage.’

Before baseball, Allen was always watching TV. In the old neighborhood, he hardly ever watched TV. All the old neighborhood kids would knock on each other’s doors, wanting to play, ride bikes, run around, build sand castles, and pet dogs.  In this new neighborhood, he didn’t know anyone.  His mom asked why he didn’t make friends. He had never made friends at the old house . . . he just always had them.

There was a time at the new house when Allen played ping-pong with his dad in the basement. One day, his father mysteriously stopped playing.  When Allen was younger, his dad would always win.  After a few years, his father was scoring fewer points against Allen and hadn’t won a game in weeks.  Eventually the sound of the ping-pong table could no longer be heard.    The chess set was never used anymore either.  His dad had taught him how to play chess years ago but after an older kid at school gave Allen chess advice, the beautiful hand-carved Staunton chess set his father brought from the Philippines never left the top shelf.

‘Why aren’t you doing your homework?’  Allen’s father asked him.

‘I did it already.’ It usually took him less than an hour.

‘Did you clean your room?’

‘Yes.’   Allen hadn’t forgotten to clean his room since the time his dad took everything on the floor and made him set it on fire in the backyard.

‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’

‘I did everything. What else do you want?’  He actually remembered to pick up all his shit and make sure nothing was lying around.  His school bag was neatly against the wall, not laying in the middle of the hallway where it could break someone’s neck.  No light left on.

It helped that there was a rerun of GI Joe playing. It wasn’t a very good episode, but he had already watched it at least three times.

‘Always watching that idiot box with your bad attitude.  Someone has to teach you respect.  You don’t have any discipline.’

Allen could tell that this particular time was more of a rant than anything really threatening . . . if he just kept his mouth shut, his dad would eventually go away.  His dad wasn’t really angry; he was in a mood for complaining but couldn’t find anything wrong today. Allen heard this a thousand times before and would hear it a thousand times more.  Only this time, there was nothing to find wrong.  This time.

‘The sun will be down soon.  Don’t forget to close the blinds.’

‘Yes, sir. Of course, sir,’ he mumbled sarcastically, like his mom.  Except his mom didn’t mumble, she shouted when she had enough of her husband’s barking commands.  For the most part, she was a stoic woman who spoke only when necessary or when pushed too far.

His dad stared at him.

Oh shit, did he hear that? Allen thought.

His father steamed a few moments in the kitchen, eventually going up to the master bedroom, the heavy footfalls of his Chinatown leatherette slippers clicking up the stairs.  The door snapped shut and Allen could soon hear the muffled sound of TV coming from above.

Tonight was an ok night. Allen could watch whatever he wanted on the family room TV. No screaming, yelling, or crying.

It was another humid Mississauga summer evening.  Allen and his father were playing catch in the backyard. They practiced, his father tossing, grounders, one-hoppers, and pop-ups like the team.    Playing catch in the yard made it easier during a team practice. His mom liked that his dad was getting some exercise.  He wasn’t rambling her ear off, nagging, screaming, or yelling.  They made it a habit after dinner most nights to play catch, hours quickly passing until the sun went down.  It was like in the old neighborhood when all the kids went inside at the sunset that always came too soon.  Where did the time go?  Father and son tossed the ball back and forth countless times. Happiness.

A few of the kids gave and amused stare when Allen came onto the field with eye black.  Two black lines, one under each eye. He always thought it looked cool when some of the Blue Jays did it. It was supposed to help with the glare.  Allen used leftover Halloween makeup, probably not what they used in the big leagues.

No one really cared about the eye black until Allen hit a double and scored a run.  He scored a few more and got to base. At bat, he hit the ball regularly now. Allen made a few good infield plays. He’d leapt at a line drive, catching the ball in mid-air before landing on his stomach, glove raised so the umpire could see it was a clean catch for the out. He loved playing second base.

‘Hey, sexy, your mascara is running,’ some kid from the other team said.  Allen had gotten another hit and was on first base, eyeing second for the steal.

‘That’s the best player on the team,’ the opposing coach said in a matter-of-fact tone to an assistant.

The chubby little Filipino kid with black lines under his eyes pretended not to hear.  Wow, he thought.

The season had come to an end.  They had a heartbreaking loss in the playoffs.  Forest Glen was usually one of the worst teams.  Forest Glen making the playoffs was rare.

 

Year Three:

Allen had struck out again.  And again.   And again.  He was now in the next age group.  The kids were bigger, stronger, faster, and had more experience. Allen showed up to practice but didn’t receive helpful advice.

Batting Practice. Vito, the skinny, left-handed, mouthy kid who somehow had a rocket for an arm, blew the ball past everyone. The coach’s son could barely throw the ball over the plate. He was always dropping the ball into the dirt just in front of, or to the side of, the plate, making it nearly impossible to hit.  Allen couldn’t wait to go home and watch TV.

The team was in last place.  Late into the season, Allen’s dad walked with him to practice.  Just before Allen headed onto the field, his dad pulled out a batting glove.  He’d been asking for one for a while now.  His dad stared at Allen for a moment before screaming, ‘HIT THE BALL!’ his brown beady eyes bulging.

Allen looked at the glove, then looked at his dad.  He wondered if Tony might find a detail that would help him hit.  He missed Tony.  He was so cool.

Allen took the glove and headed to practice.  He decided that he never wanted to play baseball again.

 

Epilogue:

Allen’s dad wanted him to get a part-time job, he hoped a job would fix what was wrong with him.

 


ALEX DELA CRUZ is an artist from Mississauga, Ontario and has lived in Montreal for the past twelve years. He has won a literature award for creative fiction way back when at the University of Toronto. This story was submitted to tackle his writers’ block and cathartic reprieve.

Copyright © 2019 by Alex Dela Cruz. All rights reserved.