Read the First Chapter of The Pitcher

The Pitcher | Chapter 1

I never knew I had an arm until this guy calls out, “Hey you want to try and get a ball in the hole, sonny?” I am only nine, but Mom says, “Come on, let’s play.” This carnival guy with no teeth and a fuming cigarette hands me five blue rubber balls and says if I throw three in the hole, we win a prize. He’s grinning, because he’s taken Mom’s five bucks and figures a sucker is born every minute. This really gets me, because we didn’t have any money after Fernando took off, and he only comes back to beat up Mom and steal our money. So I really want to get Mom back something, you know, for her five bucks.

I take the first rubber ball and throw it over my head and wham! The carnival guy looks at me and laughs. “Whoa! A ringer. Let’s see you do it again, sonny.” It’s like something happens when I throw a ball. My arm windmills over the top then snaps down like a rubber band. It’s like I’m following my arm. So I throw the second ball and he mutters, “Alright, let’s see you get the next ball in.” I mean we’re Mexicans, and I think this guy figures he’ll put one over on us.

I throw the next two balls and they go wild. I hit the top of the wood circle with one and the other one flies completely over the game. The carnival guy is grinning again because he knows I have only one more ball. I wind up like I had seen pitchers on television and wham, right in the hole again. He hands Mom a big white polar bear and takes the cigarette from his mouth.

“That looked like a sixty-mile-an-hour pitch to me,” he says.

“I don’t know,” I reply, shrugging.

He nods and picks up the rubber balls.

“You should pitch, buddy,” he says with one eye closed. “You have a hell of an arm.”

I feel good about that, but I have never known a pitcher, except for the guy across the street who lives in his garage. When my friends come over, we lie on his driveway listening to ball- games like the ocean in the dark. Sometimes we listen to the Cubs when my man Zambrano is on the mound. It is cool lying on his drive in the Florida night listening to the game, because this dude pitched in a World Series. He beat Bob Mariano in the ’78 Series. You can check it out on YouTube.

Joey, my best friend, likes to throw stuff under the garage to prod his dog to come out. The Pitcher has this chocolate Labrador, Shortstop, who sleeps on his driveway. That’s the thing—he never opens the garage door all the way, just enough for the dog to slip under. You can see his white ankles and hear the game, but you never see the rest of him. We throw all sorts of stuff under his garage: rocks, sticks, oranges. Sometimes we sneak up and roll an egg under there. Shortstop eats the eggs and oranges, which really kills us. Joey and I figure the Pitcher is a drunk because his garbage can is full of this beer called Good Times. dude … who sits in a garage and drinks beer called Good Times?

Anyway, we usually end up playing ball in front of his house.

Joey says I have the fastest arm he’s ever seen and that makes me feel good. I’m not so good at other things, like school, because I cannot focus and I give the teachers hell. Everything buzzes right over my head. Mom says I’m … well I don’t like to say it because it bothers the hell out of me. Let’s just say reading is hard for me because the words jump around. So we go to these teacher conferences where Mom loses it. She’s half-Puerto rican and charges in there in her Target uniform and wants to know why the hell isn’t anybody helping my son.

So when I found out I have an arm, I was like, wow, I’m good at something. A man at the police station timed me with a radar gun and all the cops crowded around. They had me throw a baseball five times and just shook their heads. That guy at the carnival was wrong about pitching sixty miles an hour, because the little numbers flashed 74 and 77. So after the cops timed me, we scraped up the money to join a team. I got a uniform with a couple different jerseys. A lot of people send their kids to camps and these baseball clinics and are on travel teams—but not us. We ended up in our neighborhood when Fernando was working and now Mom says we’re just hanging on.

“Come on, bring it, Hernandez!” Joey shouts down the street.

He squats down in front of the Pitcher’s house and beats his mitt. I bring the heat and sometimes I hit his glove but it’s like I have this rocket with no guidance. When I draw back, this wild beast zings the ball through the air at seventy plus. The thing is, I don’t have a change-up. A good change-up comes like a fastball but is about fifteen miles slower. With me it’s all about heat. I only know one way to throw and sometimes Joey grabs it, but most of the time he chases it down the street. Here’s my play. If I keep throwing in the street, maybe the Pitcher will come out. You know, just tell me how you control a pitch, because, really, I have no idea.

So one day I’m batting the ball in the street with Joey. It’s one of those super-hot days in Florida where you just want to hide in the air-conditioning all day. The street is so hot we can feel it through our tennis shoes. I smack a low grounder to him that hits a station wagon, then shoots past Shortstop and under the Pitcher’s garage. That’s what we call him, the Pitcher, because that’s what Joey’s dad called him when he told us he won the Series. Joey’s dad said he thought he was in his late
fifties. I guess that’s pretty old, because Mom is in her thirties and that seems old.

“That ball is gone, bro,” Joey says, shaking his head.

I stare at the dark opening and can hear a ballgame.

“I’m getting it,” I tell him, walking toward the garage.

“You’re crazy man!” he shouts. “He’s going to go psycho on you.”

Yeah, I’m scared, but it’s our last baseball. So I’m almost to the garage and my heart is bamming away in my chest when the door starts clanking up. Joey bolts across the street and I’m thinking about running too when I see the ball in the middle of the cement floor. It’s just sitting there like a snowball in the dark. I’m staring now because there’s a bed, a refrigerator, a desk, a lamp, and a television with a game on real low. Cans of Skoal go around the a La-Z-Boy like green buoys next to a stack of Good Times beer. There’s even a microwave with beans and spaghetti on a board over a slop sink.

“What the f—,” Joey says, coming back across the street.

Mom says I can’t use the F-bomb, so I have to abbreviate. Anyway, like I said, none of us had ever seen the Pitcher before, but we didn’t think he had his bed in the garage. We assumed he just hung out there to watch his games.

“I ain’t going in there,” Joey says, shaking his head.

He looks at me with his big dark Mexican eyes and shaved head. We had both shaved our heads against the heat and in our white T-shirts we look like brothers. Except Joey is older than me; everybody is older than me. I turn fourteen in September. Mom always said she should have held me back. I don’t know, man; I would have felt pretty stupid in seventh grade instead of cruising toward high school.

I stare at the baseball just sitting there and I can feel the cooler air of the garage. Like I said, we didn’t have another one.

“Yeah … I’m getting it,” I mutter, taking a step toward the garage.

Joey’s eyes turn into fireballs.

“You go in there and that dude is going to grab your ass!”

Maybe the Pitcher is setting a trap, but I want our baseball. So I walk in. There’s some old ratty fan whirring in the corner. The garage smells like dirty socks and cigarettes. The television murmurs … full count. Baltimore ahead by three … I turn back to Joey in a patch of sun. He looks like he’s a million miles away.

“Grab the ball and run, bro. Get out of there, man!” he shouts.

I walk farther into the garage with my heart slamming against my chest. Cigarettes are stubbed in cans, on paper plates, even on the floor. The Skoal cans are everywhere. I reach our baseball and take another step, then stop and stare at these pictures. The Pitcher is on the mound in his windup. Then he has a bat over his shoulder like one of those All-American guys on baseball cards. Then the dugout pictures with one leg up, standing with other ballplayers. I just stare at these faded pictures tacked up in the garage while the baseball game plays. Some of the pictures are black-and-white and some are color, and this is my dream, you know. I want to make the high school baseball team in the fall and one day, I want to pitch for the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field.

We used to live in Chicago and Mom says you can do anything if you believe it enough. I believe I can make the high school team, although only thirty guys make the freshman team out of one hundred. League ball ends after eighth grade, so you got to make it or you just disappear. Guys have been training for years to make the team, with lessons, travel teams, camps, and personal trainers. Everyone knows high school ball is the cutoff.

You don’t make the high school team, then it’s game over.

I keep walking along the garage wall between the rakes, brooms, and shovels, and I can’t take my eyes off the pictures. The Pitcher is looking sideways, one leg up, his body pivoted, with the ball cocked back. I wonder if he feels the way writers and painters talk sometimes—like the way I do, like you aren’t even there. That’s how I feel when I pitch; it’s like I wake up when I hear the ball smack the catcher’s mitt.

“Get the ball!” Joey calls again, taking another step toward the street.

I turn back to the wall and stare at this one black-and-white picture. The Pitcher is jumping into the arms of his catcher with his legs up. The catcher has his mask off and he has his mouth open and the Pitcher is yelling to the sky. He just won the World Series against the Cardinals. The World Series. I lean close, hearing the fan, the ballgame, the heat, trying to feel what he was feeling as he jumped into his catcher’s arms.

“C’mon, Hernandez!”

I leave the wall and step over the Skoal and walk past the pyramid of Good Times cans and pick up our baseball. Then I turn and walk real fast out into the sunshine. And that’s when the garage door starts rolling down. Joey bolts and runs down the street and I whip around, thinking the Pitcher is behind me, with my heart bam bam bamming. The door drops, then goes back up a third, and then just stops. And the dog, he just groans and rolls over like nothing ever happened. And the ballgame gets turned back up like it never stopped.

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