We grew beards first. It took two weeks for the fuzz to turn into dark scruff, but when it did, I couldn’t stop looking in the mirror. I was seventeen, but looked thirty-five, the curly thistles covering my pimples and the chubby cheeks I couldn’t shake off no matter how many sprints I ran. I touched the beard for hours a day, sometimes even stroking it with a grooming brush, and I started understanding why the revolutionaries all had one. If you looked different, you could act different.
It worked for Gary, too. He’d always been a pretty boy, but as soon as the patches of hair came together and swallowed his Calvin Klein jaw line, he stopped smiling. Grin gone, he walked with a purpose, chest out, chin up, as if heading toward his final mission.
We studied the literature like loyal subjects during those two weeks, reading up on guerilla tactics and denouncing the capitalist ways that destroyed the souls of even the strongest men. The team had lost six in a row during that stretch and it fueled our rage even further. Our goal of overthrowing the current regime, we were sure, was noble and righteous. The season was still young, salvageable, but we’d been led astray by materialistic brutes who were more concerned with looking good than winning ballgames. A season earlier, we were one game shy from going to States, but everything changed when the school hired James Parker. He was all about the homerun, the cheap win. The little things, the intricacies of the game, meant nothing to him.
“Just a few guys buy into the system and the team is ours,” I told Gary.
We were floating in my pool a day after an embarrassing loss to a district rival. Gary had been lit up for his third straight start, allowing four runs on eight hits in two innings of work.
“He’s ruined my stuff,” he said. “I can’t even break off my deuce anymore. I’m washed up now. He’s taken my curve away from me.”
“You let Parker razzle dazzle you,” I said. “It’s what charlatans do, man. They take you in with their bullshit. He adjusted your mechanics and now you’re getting lit up like a Christmas tree.”
“What was your record last season?”
Gary went under at that point and I convinced myself right then that I had the gift, that I could be the charismatic one. My words could shake worlds and stir men up. We were young and impressionable, victims of divorce and of having too much opportunity and little ambition. We blamed the system, we blamed capitalism, but most of all, we blamed America. I was convinced that my father had left my mother because work had become his new priority. Then Mom flipped out and bought a new pair of boobs and started playing the field, doing the 21st century thing as she liked to call it. So in an attempt to look for answers, I did the only thing I could do: Read the books that gave nothing but answers. I found the texts that suited me, the ones that bashed the status-quo that had evicted me from my old life. I read the existentialists, the nihilists, and then I picked up Marx. Gary and I read Marx together, which led us to men who had attempted to put the ideas into action. The beards followed, and it would’ve stopped at that, but the last thing that was ours, baseball, had become a chore.
Gary came up and said, “I was undefeated.”
“Parker stands for everything that’s wrong,” I said. “He’s destroyed the game we love. I won’t let him take it away from me. Are you in?”
We shook on it. Our beards glistened in the sun.
* * *
It started on Monday. The plan was to be subtle and pick up an ally in that first week. Winning ballgames and taking control of the team would take time, but we weren’t concerned with a flash in the pan type revolution, we were looking for Castro-type longevity. We had our senior year to think about and running the team in our last season was the ultimate goal.
I started laying the groundwork that first day. During batting practice, I sprayed balls from gap to gap, focusing on solid contact instead of trying to pull everything over the leftfield fence. Infield practice was all about getting dirty and busting up my pants, which dotted the diamond with bits of polyester. I sprinted on and off the field during every water break, the glove hitting my face a couple times from pumping my fists so hard.
At the end of practice, Parker pointed me out and said, “Bobby’s got the fire I was talking about last week. He came out today and tore it up, really made some of you guys look bad. That’s the kind of intensity everyone needs if we expect to compete against Gulliver on Thursday.”
Walking back to our cars after practice, Gary couldn’t stop smiling. He pitched, so running around like a crazy man during practice wasn’t an option for him. His days were all about throwing bullpens and hitting grounders to the infielders.
“First day and he’s already praising you, Bobby,” he said. “By the end of the week, he’ll be ours. We got him, man. He’s weak just like you said.”
“Slow and steady,” I told him. Harnessing Gary, I knew, would be the key to our success in the end. “You need to expend some energy tomorrow, Gary. Do everything hard.”
“Pitchers don’t do shit all day. You know that. What do you expect me to do?”
“You know how things get done. You read the books, too.”
He took off his cap, rubbed his face. “It’s all about having brass marbles.”
I pulled him in close and whispered, “It’s about making a way where there is no way. I know you got the nuts, now find a way to raise your intensity. Step it up.”
“Right on. I will. Fuck Parker.”
* * *
Fidel got cut by the Washington Senators and took up communism, grew a beard. Hitler failed at his artsy fartsy stuff and started hating everything, fashioned a tiny mustache. And me, I met Joseph Robinson. After Mom purchased her boobs, it only took two weeks for the men to start coming around. I don’t know where she met these aging Casanovas, but they plopped their fat asses on my couch and preached. Real estate this and real estate that. Stocks and bonds and mutual funds. The ones that didn’t ignore me slapped me on the back and pretended to give a shit about my existence. But after the third exchange with one of these guys, I started walking around in boxers. I scratched my balls and smiled at them, blew them kisses. Blow a kiss at an old dude, he’ll think you saw something gay in him. Then wink. Trust me, wink at that bald bastard trying to plow your mom. But then Joseph Robinson came around, all tan and blue-eyed, smelling like the inside of a Macy’s. The dude was fifty, but wore Abercrombie shirts. Abercrombie!
I winked at the guy, but he didn’t miss a beat. He winked back, twice, and gave me a high-five. I was so confused that I actually slapped hands with him.
“Joe,” he said.
So what happened that night? You know what happened. Joe taking off that Abercrombie shirt and showing my mom his glistening old man pectorals. My mom rubbing them with her hands and running her acrylics across his back. Me? I covered my ears at first, but then I let the rage fuel me. I took it all in and did pushups while they fucked.
I woke up early the next morning—to take a leak—and Joe greeted me in the bathroom. The guy was only wearing boxer briefs, and he was shaving, humming some tune as he worked the blade around his neck. He turned and smiled, pointed at the toilet.
“I don’t mind,” he said.
I turned my back to him and pulled it out. He hummed. I couldn’t go. Joe kept humming. I still couldn’t go. Finally, I closed my eyes and took a breath. Another breath. Then I turned around and saw it: Joe lathering his chest with shaving cream. I stood there for a second and watched him massage it in. He looked at me and winked.
“Gotta keep it smooth,” he said.
“I guess, man.”
“Take my word for it, son. The swimmer’s look is in these days. Look at me.”
I looked. The man was hairless. I almost puked, but I knew right then that I’d grow a beard and stop trimming my pubes. I wanted hair to sprout out of my ears and take over my face. I wanted to turn into a walking jungle, the fleas and ticks flying off me and latching on to Joe’s glistening body, ripping at his flesh. As I walked out, he stuck his hand out and smiled.
I smiled back. “Fuck you.”
I grabbed his hand and squeezed. He tried squeezing back, but I was too strong for him. I looked at his chest and squeezed harder. We made eye contact.
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“Get out of my house.”
He didn’t bother wiping off and walked out, puffs of shaving cream floating past me as I followed him toward the door.
* * *
I busted my ass harder on Tuesday, even broke up a double play during a four inning intra-squad game. It had only been two days, but the coaching staff, especially Parker, looked taken aback. Our teammates, led by All-State catcher Lou Tate, didn’t know what the hell to think. Overnight, the light hitting shortstop with soft hands had turned into a Pete Rose clone. And Gary, well, he ran with the position players after practice and beat every last one of us on every sprint. He puked at the end, smiling as he cleaned up. Sucking for air next to me, he said, “We’re playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. Old school, Bob. None of this white collar pansy garbage.”
He was right. The system did value white collar approaches and the mentality had infiltrated the game. “Don’t wash your practice gear,” I said.
“It’ll be our uniform. We’re taking it back, refashioning it in our own light. Like fatigues.”
The subtlety was beginning to disappear, but my confidence had multiplied tenfold.
“Blue collar,” Gary said. “I like it.”
By the end of Wednesday’s practice I was depleted and sore, my eyes watery from how bad I smelled. Gary’s practice pants were dirtier than anyone else’s, but I hadn’t seen him dive, so I figured he’d rolled around in his backyard. I was calmer than ever before and ready for the game. I knew I would get two hits, just like I was sure that Gary would strike out six and walk none.
Before Parker dismissed us, Tate called a team meeting—his only discernable perk as captain. He took off his catcher’s gear and said, “We can make a choice, fellas. Our record can get us down and we can throw in the towel, or we can start again tomorrow. It’s as simple as making a choice.”
Our teammates clapped. Gary and I scratched our beards and hissed under our breaths.
“So it’s a new season tomorrow, boys.” Then Tate looked at us and said, “Do you need to borrow one of my razors?”
Gary grinned and said nothing. He looked at me, showing the rest of his teeth. I nodded and pulled the hair on my chin, yanked a few out.
When we broke and practice officially ended, Gary grabbed my arm and said, “We need to take him out. He’s Parker’s biggest pawn. We won’t win another game if the team listens to more of his bullshit sessions.”
I stared at Tate, his spotless uniform a beacon for my rage. “All we need to do is sever the head. But we’ll be smart about it. Strength in numbers, Gary.”
“How? They’re brainwashed, every last one of them. They’re just concerned with looking good and getting laid. Fucking Hedonists. This should be about the team, Bobby. The community.”
“Action will get their attention. We just need the proper tactic.”
Gary showed me his fists and threw some stiff jabs into the air. I could’ve told him to attack Tate right then and nothing would have deterred the onslaught. We weren’t powerless anymore, at least it didn’t seem that way. I knew about guerilla warfare tactics, I’d studied them while my mother paraded around town in a miniskirt. It was time to do something and make our presence known. I believed everything I was saying.
* * *
I came up in the top of the eighth with Gulliver leading 2-1. Runners were on first and second, so I knew the bunt sign was coming. Parker never dedicated practice time to bunting, but come game time, he expected us to put one down and get the job done. I walked toward the box, and sure enough, he touched his belt twice. Everyone knew the bunt was going down, especially Gulliver’s third baseman, who was so close that I could see the color of his eyes.
Parker clapped and said, “It only takes one, Bob. Make it happen.”
I dug into the box and got extra close to the plate. Gulliver’s ace had been painting the outside corner all day, but if he was to come in on me by any chance, I’d wear one on the shoulder and take the free pass.
The tall right-hander went into his windup, and without thinking, I showed bunt. My instincts had taken over, but I pulled back at the last second and let the ball pass. It had been a fastball right down the shoot, so as a formality, the blue said, “Strike.”
The third baseman crept in closer and Parker touched his belt twice again.
“Get the job done,” Tate yelled from the dugout. “Put it down, Bobby.”
If they weren’t sure before, Tate had given it away. Everyone knew I’d be sacrificing myself so the big bat—Tate—could drive the runs in and take all the glory.
I had to be smarter. I needed to make a way where there hadn’t been a way before.
I showed bunt again, just as the pitcher went into his windup for the second time.
The middle infielders yelled, “Bunt!” The third baseman crashed so hard that I could see him coming from the corner of my eye. It was another fastball, letter high, a perfect ball to bunt. I waited and I waited some more, pulling my hands back just before the ball reached the front of the plate. My bat came up; I loosened my hips and swung. Solid contact was made and I saw the third baseman’s eyes widen as the ball zoomed past.
Running toward first, I heard Gary above everyone else. “That’s how it’s done,” he kept repeating. There was a mixture of excitement and confusion in the dugout, since they all knew I’d missed the bunt sign, but we’d taken the lead 3-2 after my double.
I stood on second and Parker gave me a fist pump. To the fans, he’d just masterminded a comeback after an exquisite coaching display. I nodded and smiled, threw a fist into the air too.
“Great job, Bob,” he said. “That’s how you play the game.”
I looked in the dugout and even saw smiles on a few of the benchwarmers’ faces. Gary, however, was sitting on the bench, psyching himself up and getting ready to finish the game off. He’d pitched eight innings of scoreless ball, the two runs coming off a throwing error, Tate’s.
I was stranded on second after a blooper to the shortstop closed out the inning. I saw the pitching coach sit next to Gary and pat him on the back. Gary threw his hat, and then tossed his glove to the corner of the dugout. “I feel good,” he said. “Let me close it out.”
Pitching Coach Pete said, “The pitch count, Gary. You’ve thrown over a hundred today. It’s time to shut it down.”
I made it to the dugout and pretended to look for my glove, waiting for Tate to toss in his two cents. Then I drank some water from the cooler, my face turning away from Parker who’d just entered the dugout.
Tate, putting on his gear, hadn’t said a word, but I knew he was staring me down, wondering why I’d missed the sign. He’d wanted to drive in those runs and look like the stud again.
“What’s the problem here?” Parker asked.
Pete checked his pitch counter again and said, “He’s hit the limit. A hundred and fifteen pitches to be exact. Gary did a great job today, but I don’t think he should go out for the ninth.”
Gary, hat and glove retrieved, stood at the edge of the dugout, ready to go out and shut the door on Gulliver. “I’m fresh. Let me put the hammer down.”
I put my glove on and turned around, saw Parker stroking his chin. He turned to Tate and said, “You’ve been catching him all day, Lou. You think he should go back out? How’s his stuff holding up?”
Tate stood up and said, “Bring in the closer, Coach. Gary looked tired last inning.” Then he jogged onto the field.
I finished my cup of water and hauled ass to shortstop.
Long story short—the bottom of the ninth took twenty minutes after our closer walked the bases loaded—we got left on the field. Gary disappeared after the first batter walked and didn’t even show his face when we shook hands with Gulliver after the game. Parker ended up praising us during the post game meeting and gave us the next day off. “Men,” he said, “we’re getting there. Progress takes time, but it’s definitely being made.”
Four slices into our after game dinner, Gary finally spoke. The pizza joint we went to after games had the best waitresses and Gary liked to wear his uniform inside, looking all Major League. He wore shorts and sandals that night.
“It’s this damn system,” he said. “It destroys everything from the inside. Kills all the humanity, man.”
I finished off my slice and said, “It was the pitch count. Parker thinks all pitchers die out after a hundred pitches.”
Gary bit down on the cup as he drank some Coke, his jaw muscles clenched so hard that I expected plastic to ricochet off my face at any moment.
“Don’t sweat it,” I told him. “You were on today, looked like Clemens out there.”
He gently placed the cup on the table and took some short breaths. “They treat us like machines, man. This is baseball, not some assembly line where people do the same thing no matter what. Baseball is about instincts, it shouldn’t be run like some corporation. All these fucking codes are driving me crazy.”
“They’ve forgotten the game is about the personal struggle between men,” I said. “A pitch counter can’t measure heart or guts. Baseball isn’t a mathematical equation.”
I wanted to stand up and preach, but people were too distracted by their garlic rolls. I moved my plate away and leaned in close. Gary did the same, dropping his empty cup on the floor, not picking it up.
“What do we do?” he asked. “My next start is against Pace. They’re tops in the state. I can’t let Parker hold me back.”
My Che Guevara was sitting right in front of me. He would listen, but I had to make him want to do something. One of the books had mentioned that great leaders inspire and do not force.
I said, “Do you remember what Tate said in the dugout? When Parker asked him how you were throwing.”
Gary shook his head, smiled. He was waiting for more fuel. “I was too pissed off. Tell me what he said, Bobby.”
“I don’t know if I should tell you if you forgot. I don’t know, Gary.”
“Fucking tell me.”
“He said you looked dead the previous inning and that your fastball was flatter than a pancake. But you do remember what you did in the eighth, right?”
He took another slice and bit into it, jerked his head so fast that my neck hurt. “I struck out the side. Had my best inning of the night.”
“There you go.”
He leveled his eyes at me. “What now?”
“We need to get him on the bench.”
The pizza was finished, only a few splotches of tomato sauce dripping off the pan.
Gary stood up. “I’ll take him out.”
* * *
As I had anticipated, someone defected the next day. Gary and I were eating lunch in the parking lot when Todd, the back-up catcher, tapped on the window. I rolled it down halfway, shook his hand.
“What’s the deal?” I said.
Todd was a freshman, a weak kid who’d made the team because every squad needs a bullpen catcher. He said, “There’s a team meeting today after school.”
“I thought we were off today.”
“We are,” he said. “But Captain Tate called a team meeting, players only.”
Gary, next to me eating a sub, said, “Does he make you call him captain or is that a choice you make?”
Todd said he had to go, but I grabbed his arm and brought him close. The bell rang.
“What?” Todd said. “What?”
“Get in the back.”
He got in and went for the seatbelt.
The second bell rang.
“Guys,” he said.
Gary looked back. “Shut up.”
“Do you like being a secretary, Todd?”
He’d put the seatbelt on. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do you like being Tate’s bitch?”
He unbuckled himself. “I’m just being a team player, guys.”
“You’re the bullpen catcher, a glorified waterboy. But I’ve seen you during practice; you’ve got the tools, the talent. A feel for the game.”
Gary turned his head and slapped one of Todd’s knees. “Wake up, Toddy. You’re better than Tate. That’s why he’s bossing you around. Let me guess, he told you you’re his protégé or some shit.”
Todd went for the door.
I locked it.
“Todd,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s what he said.”
“You buy that crap?”
Todd didn’t know what to say, but the kid wanted to be a ballplayer, came from a family of ballplayers. He busted his ass day after day, but hadn’t gotten an at-bat all season. His folks came to all the games anyway, clapped for him when he picked up bats or helped Tate with his gear.
“I’m just a team player,” he said.
I turned around and faced him. “Just answer this question, Todd. Do you want to play?”
“Good, because you’re better than Tate,” I said.
Gary and I got out of the car and Todd followed. He trailed behind us like the runt he was, but I knew he’d be the perfect informant. If the books had made one thing especially clear it was that the lower class was the most desperate of the classes. They’d do just about anything to come up and take power. Circumstances, however, needed to be just right for a charismatic leader to convince them. The team was eight games under and most of our starters weren’t producing. I was ready to lead, and with Gary by my side, Parker’s days at the helm were numbered.
“Do you think I should be starting?” Todd asked.
“Todd,” I said, placing one hand on his shoulder, “can I be perfectly honest with you?”
“A few guys on our bench should be starting right now.”
Gary got in Todd’s face. “I want you to be my catcher against Pace High.”
I said, “The real team meeting is being held at the basketball courts today. I trust you, Todd. Bring the guys who you think should be playing. Tell them I’m the new team captain.”
“Who do I tell?”
“I’m delegating that responsibility to you. Catchers lead, kid. Show me what you got.”
Todd shook my hand and ran off, sprinting toward the school, toward whatever class he was already late to. Gary laughed and clapped, saying, “Brilliant. A rousing speech for the ages.”
“We’ll see who shows,” I said.
* * *
The truth was I knew exactly what was happening, how the possibility of power had clouded my judgment. In bed at night, I thought about putting a stop to all of it and just playing the season out, but I couldn’t shake my contempt for Parker. It wasn’t about baseball anymore, not in the slightest. It had taken just a few days for me to turn the war of aesthetics into a full-fledged revolution. When I closed my eyes I tried picturing myself turning double-plays and hitting lasers into the gap, but Parker was all I saw. I dreamt of Parker telling me to shave, to shine my shoes before a game. He smiled at me with that cocky grin, assuring me that the team would get hot if we followed his plan. I saw him kissing my mother too, grabbing her waist and showing her how to bunt. Worst of all, my mother liked it, followed all the orders, and even let Parker slap her ass after she successfully put one down.
So when Todd and six of the team’s backups showed up at the basketball courts, I saw an army. They sat down at my feet and listened, Gary pacing behind them with his arms crossed. In total, there were nine of us, a perfect lineup, all we needed. It was all I needed.
“Do you want to play?” I asked them. “Do you think you deserve to play against Pace High?”
They said yes.
“We have three practices before the game, gentlemen. If you do as I say, every last one of you will at least get some playing time.”
Gary slapped an outfielder on the back of the head and said, “Look up. He’s trying to help you. Show respect.”
The outfielder looked up and apologized. He said, “I just want to play. I want to win.”
“That’s the attitude I’m looking for. My ass in on the line here. This is for the team, for you guys. Are you ready to win some ball games? To kick Pace’s ass?”
They said yes.
Gary clapped and slapped the outfielder again, told him to stand up.
The outfielder stood up, hands in his pockets.
“How bad do you want to play?”
“My dream is to be a Major Leaguer.”
Gary pushed him. “Your dream should be about the team. Your dream should be about the group.”
We had to break them down and mold them back up in our image. Make them stronger, valuable assets to the cause. I gave Gary the sign, two taps to my belt area.
“Prove it to me that you want to play,” Gary said.
The outfielder shrugged. “How?”
“On the floor. Face down. I want to see your lips kissing the pavement.”
The outfielder obliged.
“Now roll,” Gary yelled. “Roll and get dirty. No pretty boys here. This is baseball the way it was meant to be played. Roll! Roll! Roll!”
Gary and I watched as the rest joined the cause. A group of students had gathered around, but the seven rolled from one end of the basketball court to the other. They bloodied their knees and dirtied themselves, but they only stood up when I told them to stop.
“Gentlemen,” I said, “you will still listen to Parker and the rest of the staff during practice. It is my job to get you into the starting lineup. Do you understand?”
They said yes.
“Just play the game the way it deserves to be played. Disregard your bodies like you’ve just done and Pace doesn’t stand a chance.”
They clapped and waved their fists, bumped chests repeatedly. Bloody and dirty and proud, every last one of them.
“Guerilla,” Gary said.
“Ours,” I said.
* * *
At practice the next day, Tate asked us why we’d missed the meeting, but the guerilla, as they had been told, focused on baseball and baseball alone. We stretched in our own circle and looked more cohesive than most Major League outfits. Parker looked on from the dugout with the rest of the staff, but they didn’t care what the benchwarmers did. The guerilla, like all great tactical units, wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
But then Tate asked again, demanding to know what the hell was going on. He confronted me, hands on hips, and told me to stretch with the rest of the team.
Gary pushed me aside before I was able to speak and said, “Look out for yourself, Tate. Stretch those little chicken legs of yours out. We wouldn’t want our captain to pull a hammy before the big game.”
“Just stretch, Gary. I know you’re a lazy ass pitcher, but stretch out anyway. Maybe you won’t tire out like you did last game.”
The guerilla had started stretching their arms, occasionally looking back at me, waiting for me to give a sign. I knew better than to try and control Gary, so I did nothing when he took his hat off and dropped it on the ground.
“You know something,” he said. “I’m starting to think you and Parker have a little conspiracy going.”
Tate took a step back, smiled. “Big word for a bearded douche bag like you.”
The guerilla was finishing the stretches, shaking their arms out and hopping up and down. The starters looked on, ready to step in at any moment if something went down.
Parker and the rest of the staff had gotten up and were making their way toward us.
“Look,” Gary said, “next time you tell Parker to yank me after I’ve had my best inning, I’m gonna fuck you up.”
Tate smiled that shit-eating grin again and said, “The pitch count, man. We play baseball here, not some bush league garbage.”
I stepped in at that point, grabbing Gary’s shoulders. Parker was steps away and told us to take a knee. The guerilla hustled up and made it to Parker before anyone else.
After Parker’s five minute pep talk, the guerilla took the field as a collective force, in silence. I’d never seen that much intensity on a field in my life. Occasionally, one of them would look up and nod, their eyes red from all the clay they’d been kicking up during practice. Parker ate it up, probably thinking that his pep talk had inspired the sorry lot’s newfound intensity for the game. We practiced so hard that Parker let us out early, promising that serious lineup changes would be taking place against Pace.
The guerilla, in unison, thanked me with their eyes, looking at me as if I was their savior.
“The lineup,” Parker said. “The new lineup will be posted after practice tomorrow. I’ve seen some guys step it up around here and it’s time they’re rewarded.”
The guerilla’s excitement was palpable as they followed me to the parking lot. Todd, almost miraculously, had grown some stubble overnight. He’d busted up his knees during practice and the blood had mixed with dirt, turning his ravaged skin into the most gruesome, beautiful thing I had ever seen.
He approached my car before I left and asked if he could talk to me.
I looked down at his knees and nodded.
“Sir,” he told me, “I don’t think Gary will be starting on Monday. Tate was ripping into him during our blocking drills.”
I told Todd that he’d stepped it up tremendously and shook his hand. His mother honked twice. Todd sprinted for the minivan, hobbling with his bag thrown across his body.
I looked down to the field and saw Tate having a little pow-wow with Parker. I was glad Gary was gone. It wasn’t time yet. My orders still hadn’t been given.
* * *
I woke up three times in the middle of the night and thought I heard my mom crying. She’d been talking late into the night those days, all high school like. There was nothing sadder to me than two old people talking like kids. They wanted to connect, but for some reason, it could only happen after the rest of the world was asleep. The third time I woke up, I got up and walked to my mom’s room. I placed my head against the door and listened. I held my breath.
“Joe,” she was saying, “please. Baby, I need you.”
I cringed. That was how I talked to girls when I wanted to be with them. I grabbed the doorknob.
“But Joe, please. You know how I feel about you. Let me see you again. Just come over right now. Please.”
I squeezed it.
“I love you. Please.”
Silence. Then tears. Sobbing. This was my mother. Fake boobs and all, I loved her. She was trying to transform herself, but she couldn’t get away from who she was. She wanted a man. She wanted hairless Joe.
“Mom,” I said. “Are you okay?”
I’d made the same walk as a boy, when my parents were married and I was scared of something I’d seen on TV. I used to slide in between them and smell them. I loved how they smelled. We’d cuddle and I’d fall into a deep sleep. This was the first time in years that I’d walked into the bedroom after dark, but I knew exactly where I was going. I sat at the foot of the bed.
“Just get next to me, okay. Sleep next to me.”
As soon as I got next to her, she hugged me. She cradled me and smashed her boobs into my face. This was my mother.
“I’m tired,” she said.
She squeezed me harder.
* * *
Three guys puked by the middle of practice, all of them guerilla members. It was their last chance to make an impression on Parker, so they took it to that level you rarely get to see in real life. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of it when guys are juiced up, but I saw it that morning with my own eyes. My creation, my guerilla, had become more than just a group of teenage boys. Gary, stone-faced all practice, hadn’t spoken since he’d said hello in the morning. Todd didn’t look fourteen anymore. His body had hardened, toughened up in just a few short days. By the end of practice, the team as a whole looked solid, the starters finally realizing that their jobs might be in jeopardy.
As for me, like all great leaders, I stood alone at shortstop and admired my finely tuned machine. My practice gear hadn’t been washed all week, but I wanted more dirt, more grime, so I dove every other play. I made throws from the hole that I’d never made before. My range was like Aparicio’s. I was smoother than a young Ripken. I was stronger than Honus Wagner, torque and power seeping out of my pores like oil.
So when practice finished and Parker called us in, I was ready to bleed.
Parker taped the starting lineup on the dugout and left, saying, “If you have any questions, stop by the office on Monday.”
Tate didn’t even bother looking and started for his car, cell phone already in hand. A few other incumbent starters didn’t bother checking either.
Gary pushed passed the guerilla and ran his finger down the list, slamming his fist against the wall when he was done.
“One change,” he said. “One fucking change.”
The guerilla didn’t bother looking at that point, their eyes fixed on me. I told them to sit as I checked the lineup. Parker moved me to the lead-off spot, but I knew that wasn’t the change Gary was talking about.
At the bottom of the page, it read: Starting Pitcher-TBD.
I turned around and looked for Gary, hoping to convince him that he still had a possibility of starting. However, he knew what had gone down, how Tate convinced Parker to give one of his boys the ball.
Todd pointed to the outfield and said, “Do we help him? He’s our workhorse and he doesn’t have the rock against the best team we’ll be playing all season.”
The guerilla was waiting for the go ahead, but I just watched as Gary jogged toward Tate.
“Just sit,” I told them. “Wait.”
Gary reached Tate and tapped him on the shoulder. Both of them crossed their arms and looked calm enough, nodding and talking like two old pals.
“Wait,” I repeated.
A few of Tate’s boys looked out from their cars, but they had cheerleaders to get back to. Tate waved and told them it was cool, so they pulled away. Tate was alone. Gary patted him on the back and Tate laughed. They shook hands and Tate turned around, started walking to his car.
Gary faced us and raised one arm in the air. He gave us a thumbs up. Then his arm rotated slowly and his thumb was pointing down. He knew I’d know what to do next.
“Now?” Todd asked. “Bobby?”
Gary stood there with his hand in the air as Tate walked away. I had about a minute to make a decision. Once Tate reached the parking lot, he’d be home free, away from all of us and our madness. We’d worked too hard to let him slip away, so I took a step back and yelled, “Now!”
Gary ran off immediately and reached Tate, pushing him to the ground with one stiff shot to the back. The guerilla, led by Todd, ran out of the dugout with their fists in the air, speaking in tongues as they approached Gary. I stood there and watched all of it, shocked at what I had been able to accomplish. A part of me wanted to stop the whole thing, but I waited as the guerilla reached Tate, hoping that I’d be able to make up my mind.
“Help me,” Gary was yelling. “Let’s take him in. Get over here.”
The guerilla ran faster then, kicking up a storm as they left the infield, really hitting their stride when they hit the outfield. Todd was running so fast his hat flew off and hit another guerilla member on the face. I still watched, now curious to see what kind of monsters I’d created.
Tate tried to get up, but Gary pushed him down again and kicked him twice for good measure. That’s when Tate got serious and shot up, drilling Gary on the side of the face with a right cross. As Gary went down, he yelled, “Right now!”
Before I could say anything, the seven guerilla members tackled Tate, engulfing his body in a sea of dirty uniforms. They all went down. Gary stood up. Four guys, led by Todd, held Tate down as Gary got in his face. They were yelling and kicking dirt, waiting for Gary to get his comeuppance. Gary slapped Tate twice, once on each cheek. “Like a bitch,” he told him. “I treat you like a bitch.” They didn’t even know I was there anymore.
They picked Tate up and dragged him toward the dugout, Gary calling him names all the way. I never wanted to hurt Tate. A couple of slaps to the face wasn’t too bad, so all I needed to do was yell at him some for show and then stop the whole thing. But as they got closer, I felt fear rising up inside of me. Gary looked possessed as he yelled orders, telling the guerilla to go faster.
Tate kicked and spat, but there were too many of them. He called Gary an asshole, but that just made Gary slap him on the face again. Once they reached the infield, I knew I had lost control. They didn’t even look at me once when they dropped Tate at my feet.
His face was bloody, his right eye swollen. He said, “What is this?”
“What now?” Gary said. “We got him.”
The guerilla yelled, “We got him!”
I was a coward, so I took the heat off myself and gave Gary the thumbs down sign.
“You’re a bad man,” Gary said, laughing. “He’s a bad man, guys. To the dugout. To the wall.”
Four guys took Tate to the back of the dugout and held him there, waiting for their next order. Tate was too tired to kick anymore, his neck limp.
“Turn him around. Hold his arms and legs and turn him around.”
They did. Tate looked like a big X.
The guerilla cheered when Gary went into his bag and pulled out three baseballs.
I didn’t say a word.
“So you said I got tired, Tate. You said my stuff isn’t good. You think I suck don’t you.”
Tate whimpered, said, “No.”
“Where’s your pitch counter now? Tell me.”
Gary went into his wind up and yelled when he released the ball. The first one hit Tate on the lower back. He screamed when it bounced off his back. The guerilla cheered and some of them start digging into their bags. “No,” Gary said, “only three.”
Gary went into the windup again and yelled louder, the ball hitting Tate on the shoulder. He didn’t make a sound though, his body stiff now. Todd slapped the back of his head, told him to say something.
“Stop,” Tate said.
Then Gary hugged me and said, “Finish it. This was all you.” He pushed the ball into my chest. I took it.
The guerilla started clapping as they surrounded me, chanting, “Bobby!”
And that’s when I understood why so many leaders always left in the dark of the night when no one was around. They’d appear days later in New York City or in some sleepy town in Europe. The books always ended like that, the man alone, away from his homeland, wondering if he truly had accomplished something, or if it all had been in vain.
“You’re done, Tate,” Gary said.
“Done,” they yelled.
Know this: I ran so fast that my pants ripped. I thought I’d make it to the car, but the impact was so hard that I fell straight forward and covered up like a dog. I got in the fetal, trying to save my face, but balls bounced off my skull anyway. They called me a traitor and they only stopped when the balls needed to be picked up. I tried to escape, but Todd—always Todd—kept me down.
They finally stopped when the cops arrived, running off, yelling, “We are the starters! The starters!”
* * *
Two days later, as I nursed my injuries in bed, there was a knock on my door. I said nothing and covered my face with a pillow, but she walked in anyway, sat at the foot of my bed. She stroked my ankle with her hand, acrylics grazing my skin. As a boy, I’d loved her soft skin, how it soothed me into a deep sleep, but now, exactly the opposite was happening. The plastic, stiff and hard, like those damn baseballs, was hurting me. She started going up my legs, touching my calves, digging those foreign objects into me, until I knew nothing, not even who this woman was, and I started sobbing. She got off my bed and walked toward me, removed the pillow. I saw those nails, like a guillotine, coming toward my face.
“You’re safe now,” she said. “Your mother is with you.”
I cried harder.
“I’m with you,” she said. “We’re here.”
“No one is anywhere,” I said.
“Let’s clean you up, Bobby, wash that face. Calm you down.”
She walked me out of the room and toward the bathroom, pushed the door open. There, glistening, smiling, was Joe, holding the biggest bottle of shaving cream I had ever seen.
“Bob,” he said, “let me help you. We’ll clean you up real good.”
My mother, with that plastic, nudged me in and closed the door behind me. Done fighting, I walked toward Joe, watching him as he lathered his hand.