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Walk-Off photo

Paula’s helmet smells like a sock on the inside, and when the Diamond Darlings pull ahead to a sufficient degree that I, the youngest and shrimpiest among us, can reasonably be expected to not inadvertently derail the game with my youthfulness and shrimpiness, I am encouraged by the coach to put it on. I crouch behind the plate, taking over for Paula, softly robotic in my chest protector and leg guards. The helmet is slightly too big, and the interior foam padding is the texture of damp dough, thanks to Paula’s fat, sweaty head.

It’s the state championships, so everyone is pitching well. We are little girls, and we are very, very good at this. The ball hits my glove again and again with an animal slap, leather on leather. I have loved baseball, I realize now, not for its mechanics or symbolism, but because of how much closer to the earth it is than so many sports. It is wood and leather, dirt and grass. Rubber and plastic be damned.

We take home trophies, one each, nearly as tall as we are. Glittering spires of iridescent green, springing forth from a faux marble block emblazoned with the text: STATE CHAMPIONS.

I keep this trophy through my teens and twenties, until one day I am summoned home. My mother has died, and I am tasked with—among a constellation of worse tasks—culling her/our/my things. During those weeks, when I sleep in my childhood bedroom, this trophy lives in a kind of keep-or-toss purgatory, important but superfluous (arguably like the sport during which it was won) atop a childhood dresser, at once essential and cheap. Years upon years of treasures—photos, lamps, flatware, sheets, VHS tapes, candles, board games, tennis shoes, frames, mugs, back-up soaps, sleep shirts—are jettisoned, but I cannot bring myself to dispose of this trophy, this nonsense item, ghostly and adored like a vestigial limb.

It is difficult to justify such a large, garish, and functionless thing. It’s loaded into the bed of a newly purchased ’99 Ford Ranger, where it lives until Thursday evening. It is then that, supplanted by vital documents and baby pictures, the trophy is relegated to a cardboard box for donation. It is plastic and faux marble. It is neither dirt nor grass, wood nor leather. It is not the earth. It is not baseball.

We stop by my grandfather’s home, to say goodbye, but he is preoccupied, engrossed in the Royals/White Sox game. In the frame of his small TV, someone crouches behind the plate, nods to the pitcher, ratchets up his glove in a ready pose.

For the first time in weeks, I am not unhappy. I am wondering what the inside of the catcher’s helmet smells like, suspecting that it is not altogether unlike a sock.


image: Shea Baumgarner