A Little League game. The crickets are out tonight. So are the yellow flies. And the mosquitoes. Welcome to West Florida. If the insects don’t get you, the snakes will.
The game just ended. The Little Leaguers are doing what every boyhood team has done since the creation of mud. They form a single-file line, walk past the other team, and give high-fives.
They say “Good game,” to each player.
The kids mumble this with the same sincerity it would take to scratch their hindparts. But the point is: they say it. And I hope this tradition never dies.
I was not a good athlete. I was a chubby child with red hair, my only gift was sarcasm. Also, I could make noises with my armpits.
Our third baseman—who I’ll call Gary—was a true athlete. Sports seemed easier for Gary than for others. He was all business when it came to baseball.
Once, my cousin Ed Lee brought a package of Red Man chew to the field. During the seventh inning, he gave every boy a pinch. But Gary wasn’t even interested. He was only there to play.
“Keep it in your cheek,” my cousin told us. “Whatever you do, don’t swallow your spit.”
When I got up to bat, I was in a stupor.
“What’s wrong with you?” said the coach, who also happened to be my father.
I took one swing and spun so hard that I swallowed the tobacco. That was a pretty bad day.
That was the same game when Gary hit a grand slam. My father was so proud that he lifted Gary onto his shoulders and marched him around the field.
I disliked Gary for this. I disliked him a lot.
Because I could never impress my father the way Gary always did. Gary could swat anything with a bat—including some species of gnats. He had me beat by a country mile.
I remember after one particular game, my father noticed my sour face and said, “What crawled up your nose and died?”
Only he didn’t say nose.
So I told my father how much I disliked Gary. My father said nothing in return. I felt foolish for admitting it, but jealousy makes a boy do foolish things.
The next day, my father picked me up from school early. Which was bizarre because my father never picked me up from school.
“Hop in,” Daddy said, patting his passenger seat. “We gotta give someone a ride to tonight’s game, and I want you with me.”
We drove to a rundown part of town. We arrived at an ugly house that looked like it was about to fall sideways. It was covered in mold, the lawn was overgrown, the windows were broken.
Daddy rapped on the door.
A man answered. The man was unshaven and smelled like a distillery. He said, “What do you want?”
“Howdy, Fletch!” said my father, pumping the man’s hand. “Is Gary ready for the big game?”
My father would have made a great politician.
The big man practically snarled. Then he screamed, “Gary! Get your lazy butt down here!”
Gary ran down the stairs, already wearing his uniform.
My father said, “I promise I’ll have him home as early as I can.”
“I don’t care what you do with him,” said the man. “Keep him, for all I care.”
We won the game that night. And it was Gary who won it for us. He hit a triple in the ninth inning. And when the evening was over, my father took us out for ice cream.
Only Gary didn’t eat ice cream. My father bought Gary a hotdog instead. When Gary finished that, my father bought him a hamburger and fries. I’ve never seen a kid eat so fast.
That night I felt awful about myself. I finally told Gary that I was sorry for being a jerk, and that I thought he was one of the best ball players who ever lived. And I meant it.
“Thanks,” he said.
And it only made me feel worse.
We rode to Gary’s house in silence. And when we pulled to the curb, Gary seemed like he didn’t want to leave my father’s truck. So Gary stared through the windshield at his own dilapidated home in the distance. We listened to the crickets.
Gary said, “Thanks for the food Mister Dietrich. Thanks for everything, I just love you both so much that I…”
Without warning, Gary hugged me. Hard.
At first I was surprised by this awkward embrace. Then I decided to hug him back, just as tightly as he was holding me.
I’m not sure why I told you all that. Maybe I think about that boy from time to time, and wonder how he is.
Just like I think about you sometimes. I don’t know where you are in life, and I don’t know whether you’re winning or losing. Either way, I believe in you. With all my heart, I believe.
In fact, you’re on my mind while I sit at a Little League field. Also, I have something I want to tell you.