OPENING DAY • by Scott Rothschild

Cal was picked to play only because none of the older guys wanted to be catcher. The older guys wanted to drink beers that they had gotten despite being underage and they wanted to make out with their girlfriends in the dugout. Catching was work, so scrawny 12-year-old Cal wearing thick glasses was catching. The arrangement was he would be the official catcher for both teams, but bat for only one. Cal didn’t mind. When it was his turn to bat, someone else would catch. Cal loved baseball. He loved analyzing and memorizing the statistics on the back of baseball cards and arguing over who was the best player. He fell asleep listening to Yankee games on the radio and ran home after school to read the box scores in the paper his Dad brought home from work. After a dreary winter, Cal was anxious to play.

Cal didn’t get up to bat until the bottom of the third when he led off. The sky was already streaked with a pink sunset. Cal’s glove hand, his left hand, throbbed from having to catch two 17-year-old pitchers who were trying to throw the ball through him. But the arms of both pitchers Rudy and Jimmy were getting rubbery. If he could reach it, Cal thought, he was swinging at Rudy’s first offering. Cal’s Dad was a butcher and told him that with some customers he always showed the best cut first because the customer would never take it and then end up paying more for a lesser cut. Cal liked reverse psychology, as his Dad called it. Baseball was full of those kinds of tricks. In the previous World Series, which he and his Mom and Dad watched religiously on television, they saw a play where the second baseman pretended the throw was coming in from the outfield, when really the outfielder was fumbling to get ahold of the ball. The runner bought the fake and stayed on second when he could’ve advanced to third. As it turned out, keeping that runner on second was a turning point for the entire World Series. “Did you see that?” his Dad said after the second baseman tricked the runner. Cal had seen it and felt proud for having detected such an important play that would never appear in the box score.

Now at bat, Cal watched Rudy heave the ball forward. Rudy had read Cal’s mind and threw a fastball down and away. Cal swung hard, stretching his arms out as far as he could but came up empty. Strike one. “Give him something to hit,” someone shouted. But Rudy was determined not to let a little kid show him up. The second pitch came in like a rocket inside and Cal swung, hitting the ball foul just above his hands. Down two strikes, Cal tried to get his bearings. The next pitch came in high for ball one. Cal knew he looked bad on his two swings, so he figured Rudy would try to embarrass him. The next pitch, Cal decided, Rudy would take something off it to get Cal off-balance, swing early and miss.

As the pitch came in, the ball seemed to float up out of the ground like a balloon. Cal had guessed right and waited for the pitch to come to him. He tensed up and had to hold himself back. Then he swung evenly and got all of it. When the bat hit the ball, it sounded like a thunderclap. For a few seconds, the players on the field and in the dugout followed the ball as it shot up in the sky. Someone said, “Boys, that one’s gone.” Cal’s head was filled with a roaring sound like a giant missile lifting off. The ball cleared the chainlink fence and bounced down the street.

When he hit home plate, the older guys slapped Cal on the back and let him take a sip of beer before he went back out to catch. It got too dark to play soon afterwards. At home, Cal told his parents about his home run. “I thought I was going to jump on that first pitch, but he outsmarted me,” Cal said.

“That was smart to look for the changeup,” his Dad said, but added, “I don’t think you should be playing with those older boys.” But Cal didn’t hear him. Baseball season was underway.

Scott Rothschild is a former reporter and communications writer from the Midwest who is focused now on writing fiction and poetry. He has had stories appear in Every Day Fiction and Litro Magazine.

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