They let Duster throw out the first pitch by himself, leg braces and all. It drops like a duck shot out of the sky and rolls most of the way to the catcher, who had moved up to receive the throw. People in the crowd whistle and applaud as though the kid’s just made it back from the moon.
Virgil asked if it was child labor to make us play for charity. Donleavy got benched when he pointed out that wrist bands don’t cure shit no matter what color they make them.
Guys, this is about awareness, Coach said.
My uncle died of cancer, Donleavy said. Of the pancreas. I’m pretty aware of it.
This is different. This is for kids who got a raw deal. C’mon, I thought you guys were ballplayers. This is about community.
I thought it was about awareness, I said.
We’ve already been fucked over once today. We had been told that several members of our Detroit Tigers (fifth place in the American League East, but the season is young!) would grace us with their presence, sign autographs, maybe toss around the apple and talk a little shop. Here we were ready for Sweet Lou, Trammell, Sparky, Big Cecil, maybe David Wells if he wasn’t too hung over. Instead they send over a couple scrubs from Toledo and some of the lesser-known vets from the ’84 championship team (our fathers’ Tigers) who still live in the area. No Rusty Kuntz, but Tom Brookens was nice.
So it’s us Orioles against the A’s in a Babe Ruth Fourteens preseason scrimmage. The winner gets to say they helped wipe out cancer.
Jeremy Klopotoski was on our team last year. Kid couldn’t throw for shit so they put him at first base, but he couldn’t scoop for shit, either. It turned out he had leukemia, so he had to quit the team. Then we won our last six games.
It’s funny how these things come together. One kid gets a shit draw and it happens to be a kid whose dad is cozy with the City Council and Rec Department. So Duster gets his own weekend and we all perform in his honor. They’re selling t-shirts with his profile on the front for 12 bucks a pop, and you can tell by the sea of orange in the stands that people are buying them. Tomorrow they’re closing down Euclid Avenue for the Run for Jeremy 5K.
Nobody, other than his parents, calls him Jeremy.
We stand and listen to speeches from Duster’s dad and the lady who heads the Claw Through Cancer Foundation that the Tigers work with. The Tigers’ mascot keeps copping feels off the girls when they pose for photos.
Benji gives me shit for taking a plug of dip when this is supposed to be a cancer benefit. Between innings I give him a plug, too.
By the third inning we’ve plated 21 runs and it’s only because of the mercy rule that we don’t have more. But we can’t just stop playing, because then people would leave, when the whole point is to get them to stick around and buy their T-shirts and concessions so Claw Through Cancer can get the proceeds.
What do we do?, Virgil says. Chuck a few throws?
Coach doesn’t answer. He says nothing, except: You guys are ballplayers. Let’s see some hustle.
We are the favorites to go to the state tourney this year: me at short, Benji at third, Virgil behind the dish, Spike and Lorenzo on the mound, Donleavy and C.J. in the outfield. On paper we’re unbeatable.
We are clinging to a nineteen-run lead in the sixth when someone throws out the idea that we should let Duster take a hack.
He’s not on the roster, C. J. says.
It’s only a scrimmage. We can bend the rules a bit.
He doesn’t have a uniform, Donleavy says.
Oh, but magically: Duster’s still got his last year’s threads and they just happen to be in the trunk of his father’s car. It’ll only take a minute.
Coach says nothing. Nobody says anything.
This is sure to end well.
Whit, C. J. says to me. Duster’s a goner, isn’t he?
I work up a spit and give him a look like, how the fuck would I know?
I mean, it’s gotta be why they’re doing this, right?
One of the coaches on the A’s has volunteered to pitch to Duster, batting practice-style. He moves up to the front of the mound while Duster sets up in the left-handed batter’s box.
The helmet is huge on his head, his face completely shadowed by the bill.
The crowd even gets the joke when Duster does his Mo Vaughn stance, arm-flex and bat-wiggle and all, his right elbow dangling in the strike zone.
After a few pitches it’s apparent they’re not counting balls and strikes.
Spike calls out to Duster to do his Mickey Tettleton. Duster does an awesome Tettleton. He stands upright, at least as well as he can, with his feet close together, does the around-the-clock a few times, then brings the handle of the bat slowly up to his ear flap, cradling the top hand with the bottom, the barrel out horizontal.
The crowd thinks it’s hilarious, but they don’t know why.
And then, swinging with just his upper body, he gets ahold of one. The metal sings through the air. The ball is on the ground, a rifle shot up the middle that nearly Charlie Browns the A’s coach before zipping over second base and into center field.
The crowd gives him a standing ovation. As Duster remains in the batter’s box, joined by his father, they begin to chant the name that no one ever calls him.
I turn to the others. Guys. We gotta get him out of here.
They look at me, then look at each other. Then Benji says, Let’s do it.
And we are out of the dugout and onto him—me, Benji, Spike, Virgil, C. J., Donleavy—barreling past Mr. Klopotoski and hoisting his son up on our shoulders. Even with the braces Duster is not heavy. Up he goes like a balloon in a street parade. The closest field exit is down the right-field line, so that is where we head. Once we’ve made it through the crowd, with their way-to-gos and backslaps, we’ll take him someplace really nice, like Denny’s or Pizza Hut. We’ll say it’s to celebrate his hit, the beginning of his comeback. We’ll round up all of our friends and get a big booth in the back of the room, where we can have him all to ourselves and the rest of the world can’t find us.
About Neil: Neil Serven is a writer and lexicographer. His stories have appeared in Washington Square, Beloit Fiction Journal, Ayris, and Atticus Review, among other places. In 1984 he led the B-Farm league in walks for the Gowdy Park A’s in Lynn, Massachusetts, back before on-base percentage was looked upon as a valued skill in a ballplayer. He now lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with his wife and three cats.
Favorite Team: Boston Red Sox
Favorite Player: Spike Owen