The Natural

They have not yet played a game, and they are still being evaluated for positions. When Coach Shumate asks if anyone can pitch, the boy volunteers. He is picked to try out third, so he stays at shortstop while Mike Davila and Mike Sheehan each take turns pitching to a couple of hitters. Davila is roughly the boy’s height and throws a decent fastball but is known for the nastiest curveball in the league. It breaks about five feet and causes hitters’ knees to buckle.

Sheehan is more of a straight-on little league pitcher with fair to upper level speed and a modest curveball. He has long fingers that give his curveball some late life.

They each get three batters, and then Coach Shumate tells the boy to warm up on the side. The boy jogs off to the side and takes several warm-up pitches with a coach who squats in a catcher’s stance.

“Ready, Gordon?” Shumate says.

He nods and jogs out to the mound. He is a hard thrower who can’t master a curveball but is unique–he’s the league’s only pitcher with a forkball. When he throws it, the ball has almost no spin, and it spooks batters. At the last second, it drops suddenly and usually induces swings and misses.

The boy sets down his first hitter on three pitches. Then Sheehan steps to the plate. He is one of the older players on the team, while the boy is in his first year for this age group. Sheehan is wearing a hot pink shirt. The boy goes into his wind up, and just as he is uncoiling to throw the ball, Sheehan whirls around to bunt.

All the boy sees is a hot-pink blur, and, distracted, he throws at it. The ball hisses home and smacks Sheehan in the neck.

“Oh fuck!” Sheehan screams as he drops into the dirt. “I can’t breathe! I can’t fucking breathe!”

He’s clutching his throat, coughing, and swearing. The boy runs to home plate, as do Coach Shumate and his assistant. Sheehan writhes in the dirt and wheezes. “I can’t breathe! Oh fuck! I can’t breathe!”

“Cal 9-1-1,” says Shumate to the other assistant.

The assistant sprints toward the school where there’s a payphone. The players close in around.

The boy is stunned, and his heart is pounding. Tears form and he uses his wrist to wipe them away.

“Oh God!” Sheehan hisses. “I’m fucking dying!”

The boy walks away from the circle, walks past the pitcher’s stripe on the practice field, and heads to second base. He squats and picks up dirt clods. He breaks them apart in his hand and stares at the growing circle of parents, coaches, and players gathered around.

Now he hears sirens, and moments later, he sees the red and blue lights as the ambulance pulls up next to Sanders Elementary School. Two paramedics come running while a third unloads the bed from the back. Tears stream down the boy’s face. He might have killed someone.

“Oh God! Oh God!” Sheehan yells.

The paramedics part the circle and move in. The circle breaks up, and people move back. The two paramedics get an oxygen mask on Sheehan, and the third rolls up with the bed. They slide a board under him, secure him, and then lift him to the bed.

After the ambulance pulls away, the boy cannot finish practice. His mother is at the field watching practice, and she offers to take him home. The boy can barely eat that night, and he goes to bed with tears in his eyes. He lies in bed and prays that God won’t let Mike Sheehan die.

Just after nine pm, he is about to drift off to sleep when his door cracks open. “You awake, Son?” his dad says.

“What’s up, Dad?” the boy says.

His dad steps further into the room, the light from the hallway brightening the room.

“I just got off the phone with Mike Sheehan,” Dad says.

“Mike called you?” the boy says.

“Mike Sheehan, Sr.,” Dad says. “The Mike you know is like you–a junior.”

The boy pushes himself up on his elbows. “Oh. I didn’t know that. What did his dad say?”

“All good news,” says Dad. “Mike is out of the hospital and back at home. He has a big bruise on his neck, and he’s gonna miss the game on Thursday night but will be cleared to play next week.”

“Oh thank heavens,” says the boy. “He probably wants to kill me, though.”

Dad laughs. “No. His dad told me specifically that you shouldn’t worry or think about it. It’s baseball. Accidents happen.”

The boy licks his lips and takes a deep breath. “I thought he might die.”

His dad nods. “I think we were really blessed tonight. The doctor told them if you had hit him about a centimeter to the right, you might have crushed his Adam’s apple and his windpipe. That would have been really dangerous. But the ball missed all that and just got mostly muscle.”

“Wow,” says the boy.

“Anyway,” Dad says, “I’ll let you get to sleep.” He turns and starts out the door. Then he stops and turns back. “Oh, one other thing that Mike said.”

“Yeah?”

“Mike said to keep pitching. If you can throw that hard that you almost kill a kid at age eleven, you might really have a future.”

The boy drops his head back to the pillow. “I don’t know about that.”

“You don’t have to decide tonight. Just thank the Lord it all turned out well. Good night, Son.”

“Good night, Dad.”

On Thursday evening, they play their first game. Mike sits on the bench with them but doesn’t play. They win that first game, 8-5. As the boy and his mother are pulling away in the old Caprice Classic after the game, Mike Sheehan walks in front of the car. He suddenly stops, grabs his neck with both hands, and acts like he’s choking. He flops onto the front hood of their car, then pops back up laughing. He points at the boy.

“Take it easy, Laws!” he hollers.

The boy smiles.

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