Head Down nad-22Stephen King
( Nightmares and Dreamscapes - 22 )
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am breaking in here, Constant Reader, to make you aware that this is not a story but an essay – almost a diary. It originally appeared in The New Yorker in the spring of 1990.
‘Head down! Keep your head down!’
It is far from the most difficult feat in sports, but anyone who has ever tried to do it will tell you that it’s tough enough: using a round bat to hit a round ball squarely on the button. Tough enough so that the handful of men who do it well become rich, famous, and idolized: the Jose Cansecos, the Mike Greenwells, the Kevin Mitchells. For thousands of boys (and not a few girls), their faces, not the face of Axl Rose or Bobby Brown, are the ones that matter; their posters hold the positions of honor on bedroom walls and locker doors. Today Ron St. Pierre is teaching some of these boys – boys who will represent Bangor West Side in District 3 Little League tournament play – how to put the round bat on the round ball. Right now he’s working with a kid named Fred Moore while my son, Owen, stands nearby, watching closely. He’s due in St. Pierre’s hot seat next. Owen is broad-shouldered and heavily built, like his old man; Fred looks almost painfully slim in his bright green jersey. And he is not making good contact. ‘Head down, Fred!’ St. Pierre shouts. He is halfway between the mound and home plate at one of the two Little League fields behind the Coke plant in Bangor; Fred is almost all the way to the backstop. The day is a hot one, but if the heat bothers either Fred or St. Pierre it does not show. They are intent on what they are doing.
‘Keep it down!’ St. Pierre shouts again, and unloads a fat pitch.
Fred chips under it. There is that chinky aluminum-on-cowhide sound – the sound of someone hitting a tin cup with a spoon. The ball hits the backstop, rebounds, almost bonks him on the helmet. Both of them laugh, and then St. Pierre gets another ball from the red plastic bucket beside him.
‘Get ready, Freddy!’ he yells. ‘Head down!’
Maine’s District 3 is so large that it is split in two. The Penobscot County teams make up half the division; the teams from Aroostook and Washington counties make up the other half. Ail-Star kids are selected by merit and drawn from all existing district Little League teams. The dozen teams in District 3 play in simultaneous tournaments. Near the end of July, the two teams left will play off, best two out of three, to decide the district champ. That team represents District 3 in State Championship play, and it has been a long time – eighteen years – since a Bangor team made it into the state tourney. This year, the State Championship games will be played in Old Town, where they make the canoes. Four of the five teams that play there will go back home. The fifth will go on to represent Maine in the Eastern Regional Tournament, this year to be held in Bristol, Connecticut. Beyond that, of course, is Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where the Little League World Series happens. The Bangor West players rarely seem to think of such dizzy heights; they will be happy just to beat Millinocket, their first-round opponent in the Penobscot County race. Coaches, however, are allowed to dream – are, in fact, almost obligated to dream.
This time Fred, who is the team joker, does get his head down. He hits a weak grounder on the wrong side of the first-base line, foul by about six feet.
‘Look,’ St. Pierre says, taking another ball. He holds it up. It is scuffed, dirty, and grass-stained.
It is nevertheless a baseball, and Fred eyes it respectfully. ‘I’m going to show you a-trick. Where’s the ball?’
‘In your hand,’ Fred says.
Saint, as Dave Mansfield, the team’s head coach, calls him, drops it into his glove. ‘Now?’
‘In your glove.’
Saint turns sideways; his pitching hand creeps into his glove. ‘Now?’
‘In your hand. I think.’
‘You’re right. So watch my hand. Watch my hand, Fred Moore, and wait for the ball to come out in it. You’re looking for the ball. Nothing else. Just the ball. I should just be a blur to you. Why would you want to see me, anyway? Do you care if I’m smiling? No. You’re waiting to see how I’ll come – sidearm or three-quarters or over the top. Are you waiting?’ Fred nods.
‘Are you watching?’
Fred nods again.
‘O.K.,’ St. Pierre says, and goes into his short-arm batting-practice motion again.
This time Fred drives the ball with real authority: a hard sinking liner to right field. ‘All right!’ Saint cries. ‘That’s all right, Fred Moore!’ He wipes sweat off his forehead. ‘Next batter!’
Dave Mansfield, a heavy, bearded man who comes to the park wearing aviator sunglasses and an open-neck College World Series shirt (it’s a good-luck charm), brings a paper sack to the Bangor West-Millinocket game. It contains sixteen pennants, in various colors. Bangor, each one says, the word flanked by a lobster on one side and a pine tree on the other. As each Bangor West player is announced on loudspeakers that have been wired to the chain-link backstop, he takes a pennant from the bag Dave holds out, runs across the infield, and hands it to his opposite number.
Dave is a loud, restless man who happens to love baseball and the kids who play it at this level. He believes there are two purposes to All-Star Little League: to have fun and to win. Both are important, he says, but the most important thing is to keep them in the right order. The pennants are not a sly gambit to unnerve the opposition but just for fun. Dave knows that the boys on both teams will remember this game, and he wants each of the Millinocket kids to have a souvenir. It’s as simple as that.
The Millinocket players seem surprised by the gesture, and they don’t know exactly what to do with the pennants as someone’s tape player begins to warble out the Anita Bryant version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ The Millinocket catcher, almost buried beneath his gear, solves the problem in unique fashion: he holds his Bangor pennant over his heart. With the amenities taken care of, Bangor West administers a brisk and thorough trouncing; the final score is Bangor West 18, Millinocket 7. The loss does not devalue the souvenirs, however; when Millinocket departs on the team bus, the visitors’ dugout is empty save for a few Dixie cups and Popsicle sticks. The pennants – every single one of them – are gone. ‘Cut two!’ Neil Waterman, Bangor West’s field coach, shouts. ‘Cut two, cut two!’ It’s the day after the Millinocket game. Everyone on the team is still showing up for practice, but it’s early yet. Attrition will set in. That is a given: parents are not always willing to give up summer plans so their kids can play Little League after the regular, May-June season is over, and sometimes the kids themselves tire of the constant grind of practice. Some would rather be riding their bikes, trying to hang ten on their skateboards, or just hanging around the community pool and checking out the girls.
‘Cut two!’ Waterman yells. He is a small, compact man in khaki shorts and a Joe Coach crewcut. In real life he is a teacher and a college basketball coach, but this summer he is trying to teach these boys that baseball has more in common with chess than many would ever have believed. Know your play, he tells them over and over again. Know who it is you’re backing up. Most important of all, know who your cut man is in every situation, and be able to hit him. He works patiently at showing them the truth that hides at the center of the game: that it is played more in the mind than with the body.
Ryan Larrobino, Bangor West’s center fielder, fires a bullet to Casey Kinney at second base. Casey tags an invisible runner, pivots, and throws another bullet to home, where J. J. Fiddler takes the throw and tosses the ball back to Waterman.
‘Double-play ball!’ Waterman shouts, and hits one to Matt Kinney (not related to Casey)
. Matt is playing shortstop at practice today. The ball takes a funny hop and appears to be on its way to left center. Matt knocks it down, picks it up, and feeds to Casey at second; Casey pivots and throws to Mike Arnold, who is on first. Mike feeds it home to J.J. ‘All right!’ Waterman shouts. ‘Good job, Matt Kinney! Good job! One-two-one! You’re covering, Mike Pelkey!’ The two names. Always the two names, to avoid confusion. The team is lousy with Matts, Mikes, and guys named Kinney.
The throws are executed flawlessly. Mike Pelkey, Bangor West’s number two pitcher, is right where he’s supposed to be, covering first. It’s a move he doesn’t always remember to make, but this time he does. He grins and trots back to the mound as Neil Waterman gets ready to hit the next combination.
‘This is the best Little League All-Star team I’ve seen in years,’ Dave Mansfield says some days after Bangor West’s trouncing of Millinocket. He dumps a load of sunflower seeds into his mouth and begins to chew them. He spits hulls casually as he talks. ‘I don’t think they can be beaten – at least not in this division.’
He pauses and watches as Mike Arnold breaks toward the plate from first, grabs a practice bunt, and whirls toward the bag. He cocks his arm back – then holds the ball. Mike Pelkey is still on the mound; this time he has forgotten that it is his job to cover, and the bag is undefended. He flashes Dave a quick guilty glance. Then he breaks into a sunny grin and gets ready to do it again. Next time he’ll do it right, but will he remember to do it right during a game? ’Of course, we can beat ourselves,’ Dave says. ‘That’s how it usually happens.’ And, raising his voice, he bellows, ‘Where were you, Mike Pelkey? You’re s’posed to be covering first!’
Mike nods and trots over – better late than never.
‘Brewer,’ Dave says, and shakes his head. ‘Brewer at their field. That’ll be tough. Brewer’s always tough.’
Bangor West does not trounce Brewer, but they win their first ‘road game’ without any real strain. Matt Kinney, the team’s number one pitcher, is in good form. He is far from overpowering, but his fastball has a sneaky, snaky little hop, and he also has a modest but effective breaking pitch. Ron St. Pierre is fond of saying that every Little League pitcher in America thinks he’s got a killer curveball. ‘What they think is a curve is usually this big lollipop change,’ he says. ‘A batter with a little self-discipline can kill the poor thing.’ Matt Kinney’s curveball actually curves, however, and tonight he goes the distance and strikes out eight. Probably more important, he walks only four. Walks are the bane of a Little League coach’s existence. ‘They kill you,’ Neil Waterman says. ‘The walks kill you every time.
Absolutely no exceptions. Sixty per cent of batters walked score in Little League games.’ Not in this game: two of the batters Kinney walks are forced at second; the other two are stranded. Only one Brewer batter gets a hit: Denise Hewes, the center fielder, singles with one out in the fifth, but she is forced at second.
After the game is safely in the bag, Matt Kinney, a solemn and almost eerily self-possessed boy, flashes Dave a rare smile, revealing a set of neat braces. ‘She could hit!’ he says, almost reverently.
‘Wait until you see Hampden,’ Dave says dryly. ‘They all hit.’
When the Hampden squad shows up at Bangor West’s field, behind the Coke plant, on July 17th, they quickly prove Dave right. Mike Pelkey has pretty good stuff and better control than he had against Millinocket, but he isn’t much of a mystery to the Hampden boys. Mike Tardif, a compact kid with an amazingly fast bat, rips Pelkey’s third pitch over the left-field fence, two hundred feet away, for a home run in the first inning. Hampden adds two more runs in the second, and leads Bangor West 3-0.
In the third, however, Bangor West breaks loose. Hampden’s pitching is good, Hampden’s hitting is awesome, but Hampden’s fielding, particularly infielding, leaves something to be desired. Bangor West puts three hits together with five errors and two walks to score seven runs. This is how Little League is most often played, and seven runs should be enough, but they aren’t; the opposition chips stubbornly away, getting two in its half of the third and two more in the fifth. When Hampden comes up in the bottom of the sixth, it is trailing only by three, 10-7. Kyle King, a twelve-year-old who started for Hampden this evening and then went to catcher in the fifth, leads off the bottom of the sixth with a double. Then Mike Pelkey strikes out Mike Tardif. Mike Wentworth, the new Hampden pitcher, singles to deep short. King and Wentworth advance on a passed ball, but are forced to hold when Jeff Carson grounds back to the pitcher. This brings up Josh Jamieson, one of five Hampden home-run threats, with two on and two out.
He represents the tying run.
Mike, although clearly tired, finds a little extra and strikes him out on a one-two pitch. The game is over.
The kids line up and give each other the custom-ordained high fives, but it’s clear that Mike isn’t the only kid who is simply exhausted after the match; with their slumped shoulders and lowered heads, they all look like losers. Bangor West is now 3-0 in divisional play, but the win is a fluke, the kind of game that makes Little League such a nerve-racking experience for spectators, coaches, and the players themselves. Usually sure-handed in the field, Bangor West has tonight committed something like nine errors.
‘I didn’t sleep all night,’ Dave mutters at practice the next day. ‘Damn, we were outplayed. We should have lost that game.’
Two nights later, he has something else to feel gloomy about. He and Ron St. Pierre make the six-mile trip to Hampden to watch Kyle King and his mates play Brewer. This is no scouting expedition; Bangor has played both clubs, and both men have copious notes. What they are really hoping to see, Dave admits, is Brewer getting lucky and putting Hampden out of the way. It doesn’t happen; what they see isn’t a baseball game but gunnery practice. Josh Jamieson, who struck out in the clutch against Mike Pelkey, clouts a home run over everything and into the Hampden practice field. Nor is Jamieson alone. Carson hits one, Wentworth hits one, and Tardif hits a pair. The final score is Hampden 21, Brewer 9. On the ride back to Bangor, Dave Mansfield chews a lot of sunflower seeds and says little. He rouses himself only once, as he wheels his old green Chevy into the rutted dirt parking lot beside the Coke plant. ‘We got lucky Tuesday night, and they know it,’ he says. ‘When we go down there Thursday, they’ll be waiting for us.’
The diamonds, on which the teams of District 3 play out their six-inning dramas all have the same dimensions, give or take a foot here or an outfield gate there. The coaches all carry the rulebook in their back pockets, and they put it to frequent use. Dave likes to say that it never hurts to make sure. The infield is sixty feet on each side, a square standing on the point that is home plate. The backstop, according to the rulebook, must be at least twenty feet from home plate, giving both the catcher and a runner at third a fair chance on a passed ball. The fences are supposed to be 200 feet from the plate. At Bangor West’s field, it’s actually about 210 to dead center. And at Hampden, home of power hitters like Tardif and Jamieson, it’s more like 180. The most inflexible measurement is also the most important: the distance between the pitcher’s rubber and the center of the plate. Forty-six feet – no more, no less. When it comes to this one, nobody ever says, ‘Aw, close enough for government work – let it go.’ Most Little League teams live and die by what happens in the forty-six feet between those two points.
The fields of District 3 vary considerably in other ways, and a quick look is usually enough to tell you something about the feel any given community has for the game. The Bangor West field is in bad shape – a poor relation that the town regularly ignores in its recreation budget. The undersurface is a sterile clay that turns to soup when the weather is wet and to concrete when the weather is dry, as it has been this summer. Watering has kept most of the outfield reasonably green, but the infield is hopeless. Scruffy grass grows up the lines, but the area between the pitcher’s rubber and home plate is almost completely bald. The backstop is rusty; passed balls and wil
d pitches frequently squirt through a wide gap between the ground and the chain link. Two large, hilly dunes run through short-right and center fields. These dunes have actually become a home-team advantage. Bangor West players learn to play the caroms off them, just as Red Sox left fielders learn to play caroms off the Green Monster. Visiting fielders, on the other hand, often find themselves chasing their mistakes all the way to the fence.
Brewer’s field, tucked behind the local IGA grocery and a Marden’s Discount Store, has to compete for space with what may be the oldest, rustiest playground equipment in New England; little brothers and sisters watch the game upside down from the swings, their heads down and their feet in the sky.
Bob Beal Field in Machias, with its pebble-pocked-skin infield, is probably the worst of the fields Bangor West will visit this year; Hampden, with its manicured outfield and neat composition infield, is probably the best. With its picnic area beyond the center-field fence and a rest-room-equipped snack bar, Hampden’s diamond, behind the local VFW hall, looks like a rich kids’ field. But looks can be deceiving. This team is a combination of kids from Newburgh and Hampden, and Newburgh is still small farm and dairy country. Many of these kids ride to the games in old cars with primer paint around the headlights and mufflers held in place by chicken wire; they wear sunburns they got doing chores, not while they were hanging out at the country-club swimming pool. Town kids and country kids. Once they’re in uniform, it doesn’t much matter which is which.
Dave is right: the Hampden-Newburgh fans are waiting. Bangor West last won the District 3 Little League title in 1971; Hampden has never won a title, and many local fans continue to hope that this will be the year, despite the earlier loss to Bangor West. For the first time, the Bangor team really feels it is on the road; it is faced with a large hometown rooting section. Matt Kinney gets the start. Hampden counters with Kyle King, and the game quickly shapes up as that rarest and richest of Little League commodities, a genuine pitchers’ duel. At the end of the third inning, the score is Hampden 0, Bangor West 0.