He stands, trembling slightly, on the mound. He molds one hand to the feel of the ball. The other hand, which we don’t see, is probably streaked with perspiration inside the leather glove that covers it. His face, also dripping with sweat, is twisted into a grim expression of uncertainty and what appears to be anguish. Everybody knows that this man will go down in History as one of Baseball’s most charismatic pitchers. I met him, whilst doing an assignment for the local newspaper. I was writing an article on local heroes. It had come across as a big surprise to me, when I discovered that a Baseball legend was living right here in Baltimore.
Nobody knew he lived here. Nobody had seen or heard of him, ever since he left playing baseball whilst at the peak of his career. He virtually disappeared off the face of the planet. No one knew why, where he’d gone or what he was doing. He led a sudden departure from the ‘centre stage’. One evening after I had finished Uni. , I had time on my hands so I decided to get the article over and done with. I cycled the distance from my house to his. He lived behind the church, a huge grey stone-pile on the hill that shone from its huge windows like a benevolent stone beast, the tower of the crematorium an ominous shadow in the background.
His house was a low bungalow in the shadow of this domineering building. I checked the number on the door, then knocked. The door was answered by him, an old man in his mid seventies, wearing black trousers, a T-shirt commemorating a charity fun day and thick glasses. We introduced ourselves and he led me into the front room. At first sight he made me think of a sepia photograph I had seen in a museum. It was of a fake mermaid “found” at the turn of the century. A monkey’s head and torso had been crudely stitched onto a large fish’s tail. The spinal cord of this ‘made up’ creature was prominent and long.
It’s vertebrate showed through the thin skin and its body was twisted awkwardly. It was this posture that was so similar to his, as he sat in his wheel chair with his two club feet protruding from the bottom. His torso was free from the chair, however, and his arms were curled tightly up to his chin, his hands twisted into loose fists – like a boxer on guard against his world. I said hello and sat down. Time was running out by the second, even though for him 10:00pm was not too late. He answered my questions by writing on a pad of paper, which he held beneath his right hand, using a biro lodged between his second and third fingers.
His hands shook uncontrollably throughout, so that by the end of the session the underside of his forearm was scribbled in black ink where he had missed the page and written on himself instead. The shapes he had managed to make on the pad where at first indecipherable to me, but I soon managed to make quick work of translating them. The skin on his hands was raw and flaky as if exposure to the air had harmed them. We did this for about an hour. He shook his answers on the page, with me asking the questions in a high clear voice.
As I spoke I became aware of an increasing embarrassment on my behalf. I felt that my health was an insult. I had come in from the cold night, flushed and steaming slightly from the exertion of the bike ride. I felt over burdened with health and clumsy with living compared to the fragile aura of the man in front of me. He bought his old baseball cards out to show me. He had hundreds of them perhaps thousands. He remembered how no one could resist that smile of his – confident yet not arrogant, one that reflected relief and true pride even after years of pitching, and it never appeared exhausted.
The impish grin on his face as he juggled those baseballs was simply priceless. He didn’t live alone though, he employed a full time nurse – Josie. After the questions I stayed for a while. I watched as Josie carried out the practical part her job – lifting him. Josie showed me the technique she used to lift him into his bed. Herself at his head, her left arm around his neck, gripping him tightly around the shoulder, with her right arm slid under his waist. He looked amazingly light it was as if Josie was lifting a child.
Josie reversed the action to roll him onto his bed, and then a series of jerks and lifts, which bought coughs rattling up his throat, to get him into a sleeping position. When she had finished he indicated for the writing pad, which Josie fetched and held beneath her hand, placing the biro between his fingers. I watched as he carefully scrawled a T on the page, then looked up at me and laughed. I was still confused and had to look to Josie for help. “It means Thank you. ” said Josie. “Well done. ”
Minutes later I was outside on my bike again, passing the bright windows of the church, windows which I would pass many more times over the next year, on my way to work or on my way back from Uni. I would pass them in the grainy light of early morning, and in the dark of night. In all those cycle journeys though, I never felt like I did that first time I left his house stepping out into the sharp autumn night. I never felt so displaced again, so clumsy and so ridiculously glad to be alive, after suffering the shock of sudden exposure to a harder, more real world.