Life's a Pitch

You know those moments when all your senses open like a flower?
Picture this: West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium in mid-March, a tidy little ballpark, swept and green and balmy. Nolan Ryan is on the hill wearing that gruesome blaze of Astro orange and yellow across his chest, and he's zinging aspirins past the Expo hitters like they're little boys. That's Luis Pujols behind the plate, nodding happily at his tall, sweating pitcher and sometimes grinning. Because he's amazed. An hour from now, Luis will have his mitt hand in ice, swollen and ugly, but right now he's enjoying every split second.

Because The Express is unhittable today. Zip. Tim Raines goes down swinging, complete with an audible grunt. Pffft. Cromartie takes a called third strike on the corner, cemented in his cleats like a statue. In our close-up first-base seats, Henry scrawls another "K" in the book and scratches his head. "Unbelievable," he says. "The man is still the best." Out at shortstop, Craig Reynolds pounds his glove, chews his cud and tries to look interested. The Expos haven't managed a hard ground ball in three innings. So where are we having dinner tonight, Craig has to be thinking. Man, it's hot.

So what is this? 1982? '84? Somewhere in there. Has to be: That's Joe Niekro cantering along the outfield fence. And Nolan Ryan is throwing that scary heat, and the senses have opened up, and the dazed Montreal fans, pasty and pale after the long black winter in Trois Rivieres and Victoriaville and La Tuque, are sprawled under alien sunshine in their red, white and blue "Camp D'Entrainment" T-shirts, amazed that, yes, there is a sun. They're slurping from big cups of Molson and talking baseball in a bedroom language. Oui, Ryan est un beau lanceur. Best under the sun. Le soleil. Down here in belle Florida. At spring training, you can sit anywhere and watch an artist at work. Le grand Nolan Ryan.

Out in left, Terry Puhl gazes straight up into the burnt-blue sky as a lone white gull wheels by. Pujols sinks back into his squat now, and Ryan mops his brow with a sleeve, all business. But for a moment, between pitches, Puhl is a Little Leaguer again, staring into a cloudless heaven, full of dreams.

All right then. Dawson steps in. Zero for the afternoon until now, but if anyone can get to Ryan, it's probably the Hawk. Look at those wrists. Loose. The toes pointing in, the cocking of the left knee. And his Louisville Slugger, a black dangle of ash. Dawson is so relaxed up there, so muscle-ready and loose, that a little girl could knock the bat out of his hands in the instant before he coils, grips and rips. The Hawk is poetry.

Ryan winds. Henry sticks his pencil behind his ear, turns toward me, and before a syllable can get loose, it's suddenly on the way, magical, a little spinning blip blurred off the meat end of Dawson's bat, now hooking and darting straight at us and getting bigger. At that instant, all of baseball comes flooding in--the sprained ankle at nine, ballooned and blue-gray, and Tom Seaver, right hand nut-brown against his starched cuff, waving through the white storm of tickertape, and Jackie stealing second at Ebbets, and the sting of the brown deli mustard on the char-wrinkled frank, and gravely playing catch at dusk with Danny, both of us full of ice cream, and that time--much, much later, going full out to the scant, slick track, spikes skidding on the pebbles, and slamming chin-first into the chain link as the ball caroms crazily off the thumb of the big Wilson and skids away, and Johnson over there, grinning as he gambols after the rolling thing (a time bomb ticking) in that easy, big-muscled way of his, and him picking it up and sailing it in to third on a perfect, painterly, sun-drenched arc so beautiful it would break your heart if you saw it. Half a second late for the tag.

Now Henry has the ball.
In his big brown hand, Henry has the remains of the heater Ryan threw, that Dawson nicked, and he is beaming into the stitches of this instant holy relic. He holds the thing like a succulent orange, as if to take a bite out of it. Official Ball. National League. Hey. In the split second, Nolan gives Henry a glimpse, eye to eye, and the Hawk, too, decorating his with a flash of grin. Nice catch, rook. With the surprise object in our possession, tamed now, oddly still but for the seed of memory growing inside, more baseball floods through the mind. This, of course, is always a welcome intimacy, like a pal who drops by the house with a quart of Scotch under his arm, or the voice of an old love on the telephone.

It's--what? 1983? Johnny D., ex-fighter pilot, utility man, master of understatement, is buying rounds in a Phoenix jazz joint and gazing coolly at a blonde. No line, no stupid act, just profound appreciation. The cool gaze. When in walks Ron Swoboda, heftier and jowlier now, with lacquered sportscaster hair. For all time, Ron's a .242 hitter who is remembered for exactly one thing--his diving, ninth-inning grab of Brooks Robinson's liner in game four of the 1969 World Series, preserving the win for the Mets. Swoboda works his way to the mahogany, slipping in next to us, and orders a drink.

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