ERROR ON THE CATCHER
I wonder if in the legends of the great baseball players, there is a part when they mention the first time that they wound up with their dirty underwear exposed to the world, Andy thought to himself. An image of Joe DiMaggio in his pinstripe s with polka-dotted underwear spewing from a hole in his pants appeared in his mind. Andy had nearly smiled before his anxieties returned to him in a great wave and he had to jerk himself back into his own humiliating predicament. Andy sat alone in the darkness falling on the spring evening, a scrawny figure of 14 whose bright red hair seemed to illuminate the whole dugout. Amongst the debris of sunflower seeds and gum, a slight uncomfortable chill along his backside had alerted him to the fact that he had accidentally pulled an old pair of torn baseball pants out of his drawer to use that day. This was the most important game of his eighth grade travel baseball season. Coach Peterson guaranteed everyone on the Oakland Middle School team at least one start each season. Andy was a weak hitter who had barely made the cut, so this chance would be all he would get. Even more important was the fact that that this would be a night game under the lights. This kind of privilege was usually reserved only for the high schoolers. He simply had to play. Andy looked out at his friends in the outfield throwing warmup in fourteen pairs of pristine pants, happy and carefree. “How am I supposed to hide ripped pants in a game that’s 90 percent squatting?” he asked aloud. The question echoed throughout the empty dugout in all its profundity. He looked out over the field and watched the numbers beginning to spring to life on the scoreboard. The last rays of sun were retreating over the trees behind centerfield. Andy balled his shaking hands into fists and attempted to gather his courage. He did not have long before they started to realize his absence.
Keeping his legs close together, Andy scampered up the steps of the dugout and darted around the back. He peered down, nearly sticking his head between his legs to examine the damage. The rip was invisible from the front, running only from below his zipper and back several inches. He would be playing center field, meaning that there was a reasonable chance that nothing would get hit to him. Beyond centerfield lay the town dump or “recycling center” as the parents liked to call it. There would be nobody else back there at this point. On defense, he just might be able to manage to get through the game without anyone discovering his secret. Andy then spread his legs out and bent down into his batter’s stance. His heart sank. The tighty-whities were there for all to see, now stained slightly with the dirt from the dugout. The players in the opposing dugout would surely see the glaring contrast of the white underwear against the black pants. Andy stood there thinking frantically. His mind suddenly settled on a memory from several weeks prior. While Andy was mainly an outfielder, he also served as a backup catcher for the team when necessary. At an away game, he had noticed the batting stance of a shortstop on the opposing team. The boy’s legs had leaned in instead of remaining angled straight like most batters. Andy had thought this was a ridiculous stance that could not allow for any power hitting, until the player had slashed a triple in his first at bat. He stepped back through the gravel path toward the parking lot and looked at his reflection in one of the cars. He tried the newer stance. Andy’s gangly figure danced on the side of the car door at many different angles as he caved his knees inward, but there was no sign of underwear exposure. It was a desperate situation, but one Andy thought he could endure in order to get through this emergency. The sun had finished setting behind the trees. The players on the field cheered as the field lights suddenly enshrouded the field in their glow. Andy turned and raced out of the parking lot. His steps crackled over the gravel path near the dugout before he slipped around the fence to the infield. He felt the comfort of his metal spikes digging into the soft grass and nearly forgot the time bomb of embarrassment that lay between his legs.
The best laid plans of mice and men are often destroyed by regurgitated cafeteria curly fries. Mikey Paddington had forgotten to take out his chewing tobacco, a banned substance for middle school players, before getting setup in his catching gear. He plopped down into his squat, his short figure bouncing with excitement as he and his teammates came to their positions. Danny, the starting pitcher, was a large black-haired boy with sharp eyes who worked quickly on the mound. Mikey realized his serious mistake as his mouth began filling up with juice and Danny put a few pitches in the dirt to his side, forcing him to hop over to make the block. The liquids were swimming about his mouth with each bounce. Desperately, Mikey began removing the mask to discreetly readjust the tobacco juice in his mouth at every pause in the game. This caused quite a bit of a delay, as he would then have to arrange his long mane of curly hair within the helmet. He soon he attracted the wrath of Coach Peterson.
“Mikey, you fffffffrrrrrigggggin, frick!” he roared from the dugout in confusion. As coach, he felt it was his duty not to swear in front of the teens, and met any such indiscretion from them with a loud “Eh watchya lips!” He was a corpulent, bald man with a military background who commanded a great deal of respect from his players. But no amount of pressure was going to keep Mikey in this game for long. Soon, an errant changeup from Danny forced to Mikey to lose concentration on his chewing tobacco problem. He dove and was able to make the stop, but could no longer contain the tobacco fluid in his mouth. Mikey coughed and stood like a boxer attempting to shrug off a crushing blow. He wobbled and stumbled toward the dugout as the other players watched. The umpire put his hand on Mikey’s back to steady him. Mikey shrugged him off and staggered forward. For a moment he stood up firmly, turned back and walked back towards the umpire as if he had recovered. He gave a thumbs-up before spewing the contents of his stomach on the grass next to home plate. With a roar like a speared beast, Coach Peterson was next to home plate in seconds and had his arm around Mikey. He half led, half dragged the dazed teenager to the parking lot to be purged of the rest of that day’s lunch. As he left the field Coach Peterson turned, pointed at Andy in centerfield, and jerked his thumb toward the dugout. There was no need to clarify. He was needed behind the plate.
Andy trotted in, trying to maintain his tight legged stance. His steps felt heavy and he nervously searched the field for the slightest indication that his teammates had noticed his ruined pants. The turn into the dugout to pick up the spare catching gear was the final refuge. Andy sat on the bench, the cool feeling of the aluminum bench running up his rear end once again and snapped the shin guards into place. The feeling now only seemed to taunt him. Why this game, you moron, he thought ruefully, slinging on the chest protector and mask on before taking a quick leap up the steps and onto the field.
Danny and Andy had been friends since preschool. Their parents had begun setting up playdates as soon as their mothers had arrived at the end of the first day to find them in a classroom corner playing with blocks together. With the start of middle school, Danny made many friends and always excelled at math and science. Andy was quiet and drifted toward English and history. Despite their differences they remained constant companions over the years, often meeting up on the weekends for Danny to practice his new pitches. Even though he hit his growth spurt early, Danny could not reach the same pitching speeds as his peers, instead relying on offspeed pitches that he had developed much earlier than other boys his age. For Danny’s start, Andy knew that he would normally be as good a person as any to catch. He had memorized all Danny’s pitches down to their last breaks. But in ripped pants, Andy knew he was set to ruin his old friend’s big moment.
Andy lowered himself as slowly as possible his stance, keeping the glove open as wide as he could to block all view of the rip. He prayed that somehow the hole had not spread too far up towards his front. The batter stepped up to the plate. A giant of a boy, he was actually taller than the umpire, and already had a beard. His shadow under the lights stretched all the way across home plate and into the opposing batters box. Andy’s hands were shaking as he stuck one finger down and called the first pitch: fastball. Danny shook his head, his eyes shining intensely down the pitcher’s mound. Andy dared to hang on to the hope of not having his secret discovered and moved on. Two fingers: changeup. Again, Danny shook his head. Now was the time for the advanced stuff. Three fingers: curve. The best pitchers his age only threw it with two strikes on the batter. Danny shook his head again. Andy searched his mind desperately. He had a terrible thought that perhaps there was another pitch Danny could throw that he had forgotten. But Danny’s head kept shaking even as Andy’s hands were still. To his horror, he realized that Danny was just generally shaking his head. It was disbelief, not shaking off the pitch call. He was staring down at Andy with the look of a man seeing something of almost divine absurdity staring back at him. At that moment, Andy looked down and saw the pale whiteness of his underwear emerging from inside his pants. He froze as white shock went through him like a flame.
The baseball gods work in strange and sometimes violent ways. That day their instrument was a teenager recovering from an episode of vomiting who was taking a walk around the parking lot. Mikey felt lighter, cleansed of all the unnatural and evil substances he had consumed in the middle school cafeteria. Coach Peterson was still keeping an eye on him, but had moved away from the parking lot and was standing back behind the dugout to watch the rest of the game. Mikey took the opportunity to run back inside the dugout, take out his bat, and start to work on his swing. Earlier that week, he had read a Sports Illustrated article about the end of the age of bare-handed batters. The article said that the older greats had not had the luxury of batting gloves and their inclusion in the sport had fundamentally corrupted the game. Today, Mikey would take it upon himself to reverse that trend. While Danny got set to make his first delivery to the batter, Mikey drew a batter’s box in the gravel outside the dugout and tapped his bat on the opposite side of an imaginary home plate. He gripped the handle tightly, enjoying its rich simplicity in his naked hands. He stepped and took a vicious cut at an invisible fastball. For a split second, baseball history froze in Mikey’s eyes as he felt the bliss of a swing without the impure, profane disturbance of batting gloves. He felt himself among the legends of Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb. He was so powerful now that the bat felt almost weightless in his hands.
Suddenly Andy heard what sounded like the wings of a helicopter high above his head. An object seemed to be flying up towards the lights, something heavy. All eyes around home plate looked up just in time to see Mikey’s bat strike the light above the umpire. The light exploded in a shower of sparks and glass. Andy, the giant batter, and the umpire all ran for cover as thousands of glass shards rained down on them. Andy heard the sound of the umpire calling the game. It was his salvation. Tears of joy came to his eyes and he made a break for the dugout before his confused teammates could meander in. There would be no team cheer or game recap tonight. In the dugout, Andy shed his gear and slung his equipment bag over his shoulder. As he exited the dugout and reached the parking lot, he could hear that Mikey was enduring a dressing-down that would likely reach a mythical status among Andy’s teammates. Profanity was spewing from Mr. Peterson’s mouth that most of the players had not even heard of while Mikey stood looking on in horror. But Andy had no time to watch. He reached his bike on the rack and unfastened the lock with trembling fingers. A full half of the parking lot now had no light thanks to the destruction of the one above home plate. Most of Andy’s teammates were still stumbling through the dugout to collect their equipment. Andy leapt onto his bike, still largely hidden in the dark, and began pedaling for his life. The tear in his pants had by now completed its full development, reaching from the lower part of the zipper to the elastic in the back. His pants could barely even be called one piece of clothing any more. He took one last look back as he made his way away from the field toward the sidewalk and his route home. Danny was standing alone just outside the dugout. He watched Andy disappearing into the night like some masked vigilante who had just escaped the clutches of death once again.
Stephen D’Alessio was born and raised in Glen Rock, New Jersey. His ancestors come from Avellino and Bari. He attended the College of William and Mary, where he graduated summa cum laude with a double major in English Literature and Government. He currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as a paralegal for the Department of Justice.