The Stricken Out
by Sam Kean
The week Brian's parents left town, he did not try to stay up too late nor watch too much television. He tormented his babysitter instead by rising very early in the morning, before the sun, and slipping out the door for the baseball fields.
He needed arrive at them before the fog lifted: that was crucial, for he was not a very good player, and fog preserved his illusion. The park was situated next to a lake, and he rode the distance on his bicycle, with a wooden bat balanced on the handlebars, a baseball in his back pocket and a cap on his head. The glove was open and rested on top of his cap like a helmet. After riding between the fields to make sure he was alone, Brian stashed his bicycle and proceeded to home plate with the bat and ball.
He dug in as deep as a slugger, threw the ball in the air with one hand, grabbed the bat with the other, and took an epic, head-and-body-spraining swing. He missed.
He tossed again, and he missed again, and this repeated itself over and over and over. Yet Brian was oddly patient, and the World Series was not going anywhere.
When at last he made a hit, the ball disappeared into the fog. Brian could thus imagine it streaking, and the runner he had dreamed up, moments before dancing on second base, now tore away for home. Daniel, a little surprised, took off for first base. He watched his teammate make a deft turn at third, and he could almost imagine him slicing under the tag at the plate.
He never made it. As Brian watched, a thrill and joy unlike anything he'd ever felt swelled up and threatened to overwhelm him. He felt undone and utterly unlike himself. As if stunned, he turned before reaching first base safely, and ran to gather up his bat and glove. The ball he abandoned.
The next morning, the scene repeated itself. There was still a runner on second, still two outs and the World Series still hung undecided. Brian took mighty cuts and missed every time---he had a gangly swing, for his father was a painter and had never taught him the correct way---until at last he connected.
Instead of making for first base, Brian ran straight ahead, over the pitcher's mound, past where the ball had landed, and arrived at second. Once there, he pivoted and scrambled for third, pretending that he had only then heard the crack of the bat. Today, he was to play the runner; it would be his turn to slice under the tag at home.
He pulsed with excitement as he neared third, but got his feet tangled trying to make the turn. Although he managed not to fall, it broke the spell. Going from home to second---then back to home via third---was a long sprint, and his legs lumbered and his chest began to tighten and burn near his throat. He tried to slide as he'd imagined it so many times, in a great, daring leap. He ended up short of home with a bruised thigh. Knowing now he lacked the dash of the great base-runners, he left the ball behind and pedaled sluggishly home.
On days three and four, he decided to be more impartial and removed. Emotion, he had decided, was a scourge. The third time he connected, he dropped the bat and ran around behind the dugout. He crossed his arms, furrowed his face, and frowned at the sudden chaos on his field. He started to waddle out like an owner should, to join the players that made him wealthy near home plate---but stopped and immediately returned to his home.
Similarly the next day, Brian took two dignified steps backwards and stood impassive behind home plate. He had switched to a black cap that day, and after watching what had once been his teammate slid in beneath the tag, he paused for a moment before bellowing, "Safe!" Then he stepped aside and dusted off his shoes, congratulating himself for remaining above the passion surrounding him. Brian then withdrew for real, riding home discouraged and confused.
The following day was almost a rainout, and by the time Brian took the field, he decided it was not emotion he had to avoid; he had merely pursued the wrong kind. Sorrow, he was sure now, would prove the richer course. He brought his glove onto the field for the first time, and as soon as another ball had disappeared, he quickly turned his hat backwards and slipped on his mitt. There was a second ball inside, which he bounced off the ground to himself and scooped up just like a catcher would. He was on the other team now, and he practiced making a lunge and a beautiful, sweeping tag---even though he knew he would be too late. It was a perfect, and perfectly futile gesture.
He repeated it over and over, almost until the fog lifted, thinking that if he could feel it one more time that he would know how right it was for him. But it was not, and he rode home lower than ever.
The next day, he returned to the winning team. It was his best hit so far---he knocked it all the way to the outfield---but instead of dropping his bat, he retreated to the on-deck circle. Kneeling down, nervous, he then sprang up as if a teammate had just made the winning hit. He dashed to home plate, in view of the incoming runner, and began to fan both arms up and down. Soon his whole body had joined in this sympathetic magic, as if by making it more impassioned, he could help his teammate slide. As low as he'd bent during the charm, he leaped just as high when it proved successful.
It seemed a perfect non-Faustian bargain: he did not have to test himself, yet he could still participate in the joy. He could always claim later that he would have done just as much had he been given the chance, and in the elation nobody would try to argue against him. It was impossible to prove this wrong, but Brian's conscience would not let the reasoning stand. He broke off and went home.
For the seventh day of the World Series, the boy tossed ball after ball into the air and missed them as usual. When he finally hit one, he ran to the dugout. He gripped the chain-link fence and leaned on it, watching intently. When he heard the hit, he pounced to the edge of the field to watch. And when they won, he jogged to join his far happier teammates.
He had given up all the other roles and titles to be this: the stricken out. He was the opposite of the man on the on-deck circle: he had been tried and found wanting. Moments before, with only one out and a runner on second base, he had struck out. It was only after a long moment that Brian was able to give into the joy around him. He was at last able to admit he'd been unable.
About the author:
Sam Kean is currently a student in Johns Hopkins' graduate writing program, and has previously published work in Eclectica, Bewildering Stories, Avatar Review, Smyles & Fish (forthcoming) and McSweeney's (forthcoming).