Fuck off! I screamed.
My voice penetrating the “boos” that rained down upon me.
A ticker tape parade of trash, half eaten hot dogs, tin foil, burger patties.
Hoarse I was, from belching obscenities all afternoon, across the field at the opposing team’s parents.
We’d just got our asses kicked. Last hit, extra innings, a tie broken.
And their kids deserved it, not them.
“Fuck you, you loser,” a drunk dad cursed.
Drunk off cheap beer, the brown drink snuck in to be poured into those wax paper cups common at little league baseball tournaments throughout the state.
Surrounding him were other mothers and fathers, screaming, flailing like wild animals.
But they were all drowned out by this guy.
He was my focus. His glasses, his baseball cap, his finger pointing and moon-pie face.
Like the rest of this aggro hoard, he was living vicariously through his kid, tied to his offspring by the umbilical cord of parental arrogance.
And I had a message for him.
My mom said I ran like a gazelle. My legs were long, and with my white polyester baseball pants pulled high up to my belly button, it made an illusion as if I was hauling ass.
Really, I was just average.
But she felt she had to reiterate praise for the one physical attribute that was worth notice.
At fourteen, the act of playing baseball was all I had going. It was an excuse to do something. To be a part of the social fabric of my age group.
And I dove in head first.
I started collecting baseball cards.
Started to attend those professional spring training games where each city in Florida hosts its own team. The Yankees in Tampa, the Phillies in St. Pete.
Each of us kids, choosing a different city to defend to the death.
I chose the Cardinals.
They practiced in Jupiter. A city four hours south of Tampa.
I thought the locale sounded exotic. An odd planet orbiting within the flat state.
I pictured the team being made up of foreigners, strangers in a strange land.
To me, they were the odd men out, and for that, I coveted them.
This was my first instance of ownership, to connect to something bigger.
Baseball, like faith: forfeiting myself to the chosen team as a religious experience.
A convert to the clay.
I was a zealot to one of the most unexciting and uneventful avatars of team sports.
The physical act of baseball, however, remained a nightmare.
The leather bound, rock hard ball often left welts on my skin:
On missing it once in awhile on an attempt to catch a fly,
On getting walloped by an eighty mile per hour ball thrown off course by some of the more powerful pitchers.
The coaches were always made up of the best player’s parents.
With that in mind, each coach was extra critical of those sheepish devotees like myself.
I was serious about the art of baseball.
But my physical build left me inept: small, skinny, all bone and no muscle.
For that, I was an imposter.
Doing my best to ignore the variety of coach condescension, I got dealt a lot of support from fellow players.
Those kids at my local field became close friends, taking me under their wing and doing more through their instruction than any adult.
Friendship much more than competition became synonymous with the sport.
With their positive reinforcement, our last season morphed me out of mediocrity and into a string of physical luck.
I started hitting the ball.
I’d swing, sometimes blindly.
And it was never a direct connection. I’d hit it either too early or too late, consequently lobbing the ball, down either base line, just out of reach of the fielder’s glove.
My ERA suddenly spiked, and within a few games I was positioned in the middle of the batting line up.
Up to bat, I’d somehow send every kid on third base home.
Base hits had become my specialty.
Against my own will, I evolved into a decent ball player.
By the end of that last season, our team became the local champs.
We had the two best pitchers, a quick and long-armed short stop, and a sawed off lump of muscle for a catcher. He had the uncanny ability to pick any bag stealer off the clay.
It was something to have a little pride in.
Something to take down the road as a memento to youth.
And I took it, shamelessly, and was ready to run.
Until all-stars were picked.
Half of our team was carded, and I, somehow, was chosen as an alternate:
as a kid brother to the good kids, a cheerleader to the team and those friendships I had made.
I was the back up, for back up, to those on the field with the most talent.
Within a couple weeks of practicing together, I watched them stomp district.
Onto Regionals where they handled each game with ease.
And within that chain of tournaments, I sat on the sidelines mostly.
But it was ok, it felt good to watch my friends get what they deserved.
To have the honor of simply being on the periphery was good enough for me.
By the end of the post season, our picture ended up in the local newspaper.
We were celebrated as hometown heroes, a little ego boost as we prepared for State.
It had been a grueling week.
An initial loss put us in the loser’s bracket, and in that bracket, the most inopportune schedule: two games, each afternoon, for four days.
We couldn’t lose again.
And we didn’t.
By narrow margins, we kept coming out ahead.
Eight games in a row which dumped us here, hanging on, just barely, against a truly exceptional group of kids from South Florida.
Through two extra innings we kept them at bay.
But by the ninth, a single run hit home had ended things.
It was over.
I watched as my friends, with heads down, walked back to our side of the field. They cut through the parental banter, the vocal abuse, exacerbated by the adult’s inebriation.
A man in the crowd, his chubby face setting himself apart, was most vocal.
Watching him, I stepped out of the dugout.
I walked over the bright orange clay of third base.
As I walked, a wad of spit welled up in my mouth.
I swished it from cheek to cheek.
As I climbed over the pitcher’s mound, over the white line leading to first base, I finally found myself standing against the retaining wall, just below them. That hoard of parents.
Standing, specifically, below him.
“Fuck you, you loser,” he screamed down.
His moon pie face excessively round, his skin, burnt from cooking in the afternoon sun.
Heaving my chest, I pulled air through my nose.
Pursing my lips, pushing outward with every muscle in my core, I spat.
It spun slowly, turning end over end through the thick humidity of that afternoon.
In the bleachers above, the man’s drunken, bloodshot eyes dilated,
and I watched as that sugary, gelatinous mess found itself a home.
It never felt so good to lose.