2004 SFWP Literary Awards Program
by J. M. Schuster
From the Prologue
After six years in the minor leagues, Edward Everett Yates gets called up to the St. Louis Cardinals; in his first appearance, the team inserts him as a pinch hitter for injured Lou Brock in the bottom of the 17th inning of a scoreless game on July 4, 1976. Although the section uses the names of actual players, the piece is fiction.
The stadium came into his consciousness slowly: bending to pick up a weighted donut for his bat, he became aware first of the washed-out green of the turf; on television, it seemed like a seamless piece, but bending there, he noticed a seam, and also how the fabric was woven. He saw, too, the fading white paint that described the on-deck circle, and for some reason, his red cleats, which, although they had been freshly polished before the equipment man had given them to him to wear, were already scuffed, because he had, without being conscious of it until then, kicked repeatedly at the floor of the dugout out of nervousness. One of the other players, he didn’t know who it was, had said, ‘Jesus, kid, you trying to dig a hole in the floor? It won’t work. That wood’s an inch thick.”
He had no time to warm up. As soon as he dropped the donut onto his bat, Ron Fairly, leading off, laced a drive just inside the first base line, a ball that skipped to the right field wall. Before the fielder could catch up to it, Fairly was on second base. In another situation, Edward Everett knew, Fairly would have tried for third, but was playing it safe because the game was tied in extra innings.
Edward Everett walked to the plate, suddenly aware of an incredible amount of activity around him. In the stands, the fans began a rhythmic clapping, some stomping their feet on the concrete decking, a thunderous sound that seemed as if it would bring down the stadium around them. In the third row behind first base, a two-year-old girl wearing a too-large red tee-shirt snatched a handful of cotton candy off a stick her mother held and ate it. A row behind her, a fat man dressed incongruously in a gray suit and blue-and-silver striped tie yelled through a popcorn megaphone, “Let’s go, Birds!”
The stadium announcer said, “Now batting for Lou Brock, Ed-dee Yates,” although no one had called him “Eddie” since the second grade. He could feel the disappointment in the crowd, and their clapping and stomping quieted. It was not the reception he expected, but if he were among them, expecting an All Star to bat and getting instead a player he’d never heard of, he would have been disappointed as well. A sudden vision came to him: his redemption in their eyes, his slicing a base hit into right field to score Fairly and win the game.
Edward Everett stepped into the batter’s box, trying to shut it all out ‘ the crowd, their movement like a field of red and white grain stirred by the wind, the noise that was starting to build again, the organ playing a cadence, bum bum bum bum bum bum, Fairly at second base, taking a cautious lead, one, two, three steps, extending his trailing hand so that he could dive back to the base in the event the pitcher tried to pick him off.
Down the third base line, the coach was going through the signals, swiping his shirt, tugging the brim of his cap, tapping his thigh, slapping his shoulder. Edward Everett realized no one had taught him what the signals meant.
“Time,” he said, holding up his right hand, and stepping out of the batter’s box when the umpire gave him the time out. Edward Everett trotted down the line to meet the coach halfway.
“What you need?” the coach said, standing close to Edward Everett. His breath smelled of cigarettes and something else that was sour.
“Signals,” Edward Everett said. “I don’t know what you want me to do. No one'”
The coach laughed. “You’re the only person in the fucking area code who don’t know. Pop quiz. Runner on second, no one out, bottom of the 17th, no score. What would you do?’
“Bunt,” Edward Everett said, deflated. “Bunt.”
He went back to the plate, trying not to show his disappointment. True enough, even the Pirates knew what he was going to do. The entire infield edged closer, the first baseman and third baseman playing less than seventy feet from home plate, the second baseman edging toward first, the shortstop playing behind Fairly to hold him close. For a moment, Edward Everett thought about changing them all up, swinging away. But he knew he wouldn’t do that; he would sacrifice.
At the plate, he planted his feet and looked out at the pitcher who was rubbing the ball between his palms. He was a rookie himself, younger than Edward Everett, maybe as young as nineteen, a stocky kid who seemed more like a bagger at a supermarket or a fry cook at a McDonalds than a professional athlete. He glanced back at Fairly at second, considered him, and then turned to face Edward Everett, shook his head, then nodded, went into his stretch and hurled a high fastball that seemed directed at Edward Everett’s head. He ducked away from it, but instinctively pushed his bat at the ball, catching it just above the trademark, and sending a high pop foul behind home plate. For a moment, it seemed as if the catcher would get to it, but it barely made the box seats behind them. A thin adolescent lunged for the ball, sprawling over the shoulder of a plump woman sitting in front of him, knocking his glasses off his face, and spilling the woman’s beer, but the ball hit the concrete and bounced away.
Edward Everett closed his eyes, took in a breath, held it, then let it out, took in another and let it out slowly until his lungs seemed empty, and then took in a third breath, and stepped back into the box. Again the pitcher looked back at Fairly and feigned a throw to second, but his gesture was transparent and Fairly stood his ground.
Then he was looking in again. Edward Everett cocked his bat behind his ear. The thought pushed into his head: Four or five years ago, the pitcher would have been in grade school. Edward Everett saw him as a Catholic school student, in a white oxford and blue slacks, sitting in a. . .but then he pushed the thought from his head. The past meant nothing. All there was was this moment, the pitcher nodding, holding his stretch for a scant second, as Edward Everett slid his right hand along the barrel of the bat, noticing and then dismissing a slightly rough spot in the wood where perhaps someone had knocked the bat against the concrete lip of the dugout, cradling the bat partway over the plate.
This time, the pitch was a good one for him, on the outside edge of the plate, and Edward Everett caught it with the meat of the bat, and dropped a slow groundball that trickled toward first base. As he hit it, he was off, bursting out of the box, dashing down the baseline for the bag, wanting to make it more than a sacrifice, thinking, if this were grass instead of turf, he would beat it out as it would die in the grass, but this was not grass but turf, and here was Edward Everett and the first baseman crossing paths briefly as the first baseman came in to take the bunt. Edward Everett willed himself to go faster and he leaped for the base, urging his body to take off, to find speed and distance, hearing the ssszzzof the first baseman’s throw from behind him, hearing the slap of the ball into leather at perhaps the same moment his foot met the bag, just a touch off stride, making him stumble slightly, although he kept his balance and took his turn into foul ground, thinking he had beaten it, he was on with a single, but the umpire was throwing his right fist into the air, and grunting, “Out.”
For a brief moment, Edward Everett waited for the coach to argue the call, but he didn’t; he just clapped his hands and shouted, “Good sac, good sac.” And indeed, Fairly stood on third base. He had done his job.
Edward Everett jogged off the field. In the stands behind the dugout, he could see fans standing and giving him polite applause and then taking up their rhythmic clapping again as the next hitter was introduced over the loudspeaker.
Then it was over. With the infielders drawn in close so that they could make a play at home on a ground ball, the hitter punched a flair over the second baseman’s head that hit the turf just at the edge of the outfield, and Fairly was home, the game won.
Later, in the hotel room the team had rented for him across the street from the stadium, Edward Everett stood in the dark, looking eight stories below at the ballpark. The game had been over for several hours by then, and the infield was covered by a blue tarp that glinted under the stadium lights that were still on. In the bleachers, workers moved through the aisles, bending to pick up trash. From some blocks away, where the city was staging a fireworks show on the river front, Edward Everett could hear the muted explosions celebrating the bicentennial. Every once in a while, a red or blue trail would streak across the sky within his field of vision. He stood there until the finale lit the sky in brilliant yellows, oranges and greens, and as the last streaks faded in the sky, as the lights went out in Busch Stadium below him and all he could make out in it was the great dark gaping bowl of it, he thought about calling someone.
His parents would be at his aunt’s house for the barbecue she had every year. If he called them there to tell him about what he’d done, they would exclaim in delight. ‘Atta boy,’ his father would say. ‘Oh, honey, I’m so proud of you,’ his mother would say. They would pass the telephone around, to uncles, aunts, cousins, and he would have to repeat his story over and over for everyone, and he didn’t want to do that, not tonight. He thought of the girl he had been seeing in Springfield, a girl he had just stopped calling for no reason he could think of, just made a decision one day when he got back from a road trip that he didn’t want to see her again. For the first time since then, he regretted it, because she was someone he could call to tell, but now he couldn’t.
Stepping away from the window, he caught his dim reflection in it, and he actually seemed to be outside, hovering in a room that seemed incomplete, ghostlike. There was the reflection of the bedside lamp, a slash of the bed, the table where he’d laid his suitcase. He pressed his face against the window again. Below, a police car, stopped at a traffic signal at the corner, suddenly turned on its flashing lights and sped through the intersection. Knots of people leaving the fireworks display moved up the street toward their cars and, he knew, eventually home. He felt suddenly the fact of his being a stranger here. He was in a city where he knew no one.
Edward Everett turned from the window and switched on the television, flipping around the dial until he found a sportscast. The announcer was talking about the game that had just ended, and Edward Everett sat on the edge of the king-sized bed, wondering if he’d be mentioned.
The account of the final inning showed Brock’s catch and throw for the double play, twice’once at full speed, and once in slow motion. Then it cut to Fairly’s double to start the home half of the inning, but then it jumped ahead, and Fairly was taking his lead off of third.
“Then with one out,” the sportscaster said, “and Fairly on third, Hernandez singles over the drawn-in infield and the Cards get the win.”
It was, Edward Everett thought, like some kind of baseball miracle’there is Fairly on second and then abruptly on third, through no human agency, poof. In a way, he may never have even been there. Indeed, he knew what his line would be in the box score the next day, all zeros’no at bats, no hits, no runs, no RBI, just “Yates PH 0000″‘a miracle of nothing.