The Utility Player, Chapter 11

That ball is way over the up’s head.

The center fielder means well by saying, “Right there,” but in truth it will land 60 feet beyond right there where the up stands with his eyes on the sky, where a ball is sailing, sailing.

The up turns and runs over patchy ground — part scrubby grass, barely scratching out a living; part bare gray hard-packed dirt — towards the eventual landing spot, where the ball will keep on rolling. The up runs as hard and fast as he can; which is to say, not fast at all, but certainly hard: indeed, as he runs he also bellows “Uhhh-uhhh-uhhh” in order to drive out pain from his knees and resistance from his hips, “uhhhh-uhhhh-uhhhhh” to focus the entirety of his physical and mental energy on catching that roadrunner baseball.

The ball eventually does slow down, curious as to what beast is laboring so noisily in its wake. Look out, baseball, it’s the up, now upon you, gripping you, hurling you 60 feet back to where the up was previously standing and where the second base player now stands, ready to take the relay that will hold the batter to a stand-up triple.

So, y’know, at least he didn’t score. And the up got to look at the sky, which he enjoys. The sky is calm blue. The baseball field is one of four diamonds in a park half a mile long and a thousand feet deep, with six tennis courts, a roller-skating rink, and a bourgeoning homeless encampment. While the up sizes up the practice swings of the next batter, he also contemplates body language in conversations amongst the unhoused, who give off a camping vibe. No one is gnashing their teeth. Nobody is running around screaming, other than the up, and that was just the once. He imagines them discussing the relative wind resistance of their tents, and where to get food.

He is part scouting, part daydreaming. Second base interrupts solicitously, “Would you rather play second?” The up presumes this is not so much because of the ball being hit over his head as because he trumpeted such alarm while pursuing it.

“Naw,” says the up, surprised by his ability to speak after all that exertion. “Estoy bien.”

This is a combination of the Joy Spanish the up bursts into whenever he is especially happy, along with the conversational Spanish appropriate for a game where everyone drinks exclusively Mexican lager, except for the up, who is daintily sipping water from a bike bottle, on the theory that sobriety encourages contact.

The very next inning he does squat proficiently in front of a single that grounds its way beyond the infield directly into his mitt, a completely unremarkable play that he nevertheless feels modest pride in completing, as compared to the utter humiliation he would have felt had it gone between his knobby knees.

Similarly, he takes modest pride in his first bona fide hit in this pickup game that’s been going on for 30 years. Perhaps one click up from modest. “Wait ’til I tell everyone!” he exults to the female companion of the encouraging shortstop, who is a teammate of the accommodating second baseman. She smiles all-purposefully, as people do to ward off other people who are shouting at them in a park.

The encouraging shortstop gets it, though. The encouraging shortstop is one of the first guys the up met back when he had just shown up at this park to play catch and wound up taking batting practice with some of these guys who told him about the Monday game. Yes, Monday baseball at 11:30 a.m., whatever you do for work the rest of the week will have to wait, Monday at 11:30 am until about one or one thirty is baseball time.

“Your first hit!” says the encouraging shortstop while coming in to run for the up, who accepts pinch-running nowadays as his due. The up is a fan of the encouraging shortstop, who looks like he works out, but not too much, might be a grad student or might be a bike courier, why not both — has straight black hair down to the middle of his back, and earlier went back-back-back on a popup and nabbed it. Not an easy play.

After the game, the up hung out with the shortstop and a couple of the other guys who were still hanging around underneath a spreading oak. The up turned to the guy next to him and said, “Dude, you hit that ball way over my head, that was amazing,” and the guy modestly replied, “That wasn’t me.” Inside, the up thought awkward but no one cared. Instead, they talked about this other player who hit bombs to right that went even further, landing amid landmarks the others pointed out but the up could not even see.

And then the encouraging shortstop lit up a big ol blunt. The up excused himself from smoking up, the more clearly to recollect the joys of drinking beers on the sideline. “Quien debo pagar para las cervezas?” he had been asking intermittently in the small grandstand after the game, getting various answers including that it was not necessario or this guy or that guy, it wasn’t really clear who. Ultimately however the up did succeed in giving ten bucks to a guy and now he can drink an Estrella de Jalisco cuando quiere.

He could not drink beer as if it were water, like everyone else did, with none of the sloppiness that typically accompanies sideline drinking in other pickup games. These guys have profound tolerance for Mexican lager. After the game, though, the up imbibed. Sure! To celebrate the single! It was his first beer opened by slamming the bottle cap against the edge of a step of the grandstand. He did not do this with the supple grace of the regulars but he got the job done without making the bottle gush. That really would have been awkward.

For the record, it was was not marijuana prudishness that pre-empted him from partaking; he simply had all the stimulus and relaxation he could handle with the non-stop norteno music blasting from a little speaker, the dustiness of the field, the heaven-like comradery, and the vastness of the encampment. It was a lot to experience, a lot to think about, a lot to feel.

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