Toby on Third

It was bottom of the sixth, Toby on third, the Cards down a run to the Bruins, and the sky was falling. Scoops of grim clouds were rolling in, wind kicking up dust and wrappers. They’d call the game for thunder. My ears strained for it. I’d bet Gator fifty bucks on the Cards—against my own damned kid—for gas money home. Tough loss, I’d tell him as we pulled out onto the highway, our bellies sick with sugar from the Casey’s snack aisle. And he’d feel better, or at least I would, until the next game, the next empty tank.

I edged up on the bleacher and shot off a round of claps like all the other parents, yelling, You got this, Toby!

Gator, three rows back, said it, too: You got it!

Toby glanced our way. The shittiest ballplayers squinted at their folks in the stands during games. That wasn’t Toby though, not usually, which is how I knew I’d got in his head. That we’d be driving home tonight instead of sleeping in the truck, hungry as fuck.

I hated these ballfields. There were only six diamonds at this one, but the biggest complexes had twenty. It was a racket, these leagues, forcing folks to drive clear across the state or the next one over to sit sweating in bleachers, not even a huff of breeze. Toby got recruited by a neighbor kid’s uncle, a coach who talked him up, said he had a good swing but it was wild, and the only way to tame it was to join a league—his league, go figure. He said the local rec club was garbage, and it was, no shit, but he didn’t care about Toby. He just needed bodies for the racket. And a check for the fee.

Toby wasn’t much good, not at first. But then something happened. He grew. Practiced. Improved. It got him off my tail at least. But what I wanted to do was sit him down and ask him what the hell he was thinking. Did he believe what his teammates and their dopey parents were selling? That this would get him to college, or the minors? I almost said it one day: dreams are for other people. Then caught myself. That was the kind of horseshit my daddy would say. But not me. Toby would learn it himself, soon enough. Save me the blame, the bitterness.

Toby’d got on first when the Bruins’ shortstop flubbed a grounder. Then he stole second. He was fast like his mom. Kirstine skedaddled when he was five, found a church or cult or coke habit, or all three. After that, it was him and me: daddy of the fucking year. When he stole third a glob of acid rose up in my throat.

A chubby kid came to the plate, Toby’s pal Cal. Fat kids could swing but they couldn’t run. I was praying he’d get under the pitch, pop one up to that bony Bruin in center. Then I’d collect from Gator and get us on our way. The first pitch was a swing and a miss. The next pitch fouled off toward the parking lot, where families were leaving, loading camp chairs and coolers into GMCs and Suburbans. I’d drool on my scorecard watching the feasts they pulled out of those Yeti coolers.

The clouds exhaled but still no thunder. I clapped harder, turned the screws as Toby took another step toward home. He glanced my way, squinting, his whole body cinched tight. He wanted this. If he were still five, I’d have wanted it for him, too, but neither of us were five anymore. The pitcher, a lefty, spied Toby stretching his lead. There were enough passed balls in these games that he could tie it by stealing home. But a tie was as useless to me as a loss. And when that thunder clapped and the umps called the game and he didn’t get his win and I didn’t get my winnings, well that would be some kind of cruel joke.

And just like I feared, the next pitch came in wild. The ball grazed the catcher’s glove and clanged against the backstop. Toby released, like the rubber band in him that was turned and twisted as tight as could be got suddenly free. Like lightning.

I launched up from my seat and shouted, Toby! Not like his manager coaching him on, not like some hopeful parent, but like a shitty old dad who didn’t know nothing about raising a boy. And Toby slipped. Just the littlest bit. Because he heard me. The tone, the urgency, the fear. He heard it, he’d heard it before. But there, that day, along that baseline, he stopped listening. He recovered, and ran for home. All he cared about was the plate, the run, the score. You could see it in his face. The catcher had the ball now, was squaring his hips before the plate. Two boys, unafraid.

I shouted again: Toby!

But he didn’t falter this time. He ran, ran, ran. Ran like being stranded on third was the worst thing in life. Ran toward something just as awful: collision at home. But he’d made up his mind—it was his. He ran. Thank god, he ran.