Whoosh! Smack! Each hurl of the ball rips through the air like the sound of far off firecrackers cracking in the wind. There's no mistaking five ounces of high-velocity leather snapping into a catcher's mitt.
"What's the speed on that last one?" Nicky asked, removing his cap.
"97!" the assistant called back as he looked again at the number on the speed gun.
"Damn! That's fast!" Nicky scratched his head. He spit a wad of tobacco on the ground and then slipped a tin of chew from his training jacket. He placed another pinch inside his cheek. "Play some college ball, Son?"
"No, Sir," I replied, shaking my head. "I did play in high school, though..."
"Pitcher?" he quizzed.
"Nope.” I gestured, thumb down, digging my foot into the bright red clay behind the rubber.
"That's hard to believe. Who could have missed you... And a Lefty?" He continued muttering, "Impossible, I would have dragged you..."
Nicky was still shaking his head when my throw interrupted him mid-sentence. Whack! The echo signaled that it was fast.
"That was 99!" the assistant called out.
"Bo Garrett, right?" Nicky asked, checking his clipboard. You're a local kid?"
"Yeah.” I nodded. "Portland, ninety miles up the road."
"I love Maine,” he said. "The seafood, the microbrews; you know we've got Double-A?"
I nodded. "Sure do, the Sea Dogs, Mr. Cantor."
"Kid, my dad was Mr. Cantor, call me Nicky. None of our scouts ever took a look at you?"
I shook my head. "They came by, watched our games, but I didn't play much. I guess I was easy to miss, Nicky.” It was tough calling the great pitching coach by his first name.
"Well, you're high and outside,” he hedged. "Unorthodox style."
"I'll take anything as a compliment,” I thought as I stepped back to the mound.
Nicky squinted. "Do you think you could settle down? I'd like to see you pitch to a live hitter."
"You've got plenty of raw speed,” he reeled off. "No mechanics, but plenty of speed." He scratched his thoughts onto the paper clamped on his clipboard.
"Alright," I agreed.
Nicky motioned to a batter who was warming up near the dugout. The catcher ripped off his mask and ran up to me.
"You don't have to rush. Take your time,” he said.
"He wants me to pitch to that?" I motioned to the big man in the circle. He was swinging the bat as if he wanted to kill something with it.
"It's Bo, right?"
I nodded. "Yeah, you're Billy Gaines. I feel like I know you."
He chuckled. "Yeah, television, ain't it something?"
"Yeah, I guess," I answered with a wide-eyed nod.
"Listen to me, Bo, you've got a weird spin on the ball, he ain't going to like, trust me."
Nicky's back was to us as Billy continued, "We're not in a game right now. There's no runner on base. It's all about him, understand?"
He motioned his chin toward the batter. "You're off balance. Stand tall and take a full windup, then step bigger toward the plate."
"What if I hit him?"
"He's sized you up. You're fast, but wild. Use it to your advantage."
"Got any other tips for me?"
"Take your time. Square up and aim for the outside."
"I'll try, Billy."
"Don't worry. Just let it rip. I'll catch it,” he spoke with the confidence of a three-time golden glove known for hitting home runs.
Billy tapped my glove. "Bo, be sure to keep your head still, take a long stride toward me, and then release, fingers on the top of the ball. Throw through me, man!" He finished and placed the ball into my hand before returning to Home plate.
'That spin, he won't like it.' Billy's words stuck with me as he got in position and shot a look at the batter stepping into the box.
Nicky's son spotted me at the Fryeburg Fair. He insisted he wouldn't let me out of his sight until his dad saw me throw. It was the end of a perfect day, dusk, when we turned off food row onto the darkening midway – strings of flickering bulbs lit the wood shaved path.
We were munching Kettle corn when a carnival barker hollered out. 'Win one for the pretty lady.'
Sally wandered over, turning to encourage me. I motioned for her to come back, but her enthusiastic smile gave me no choice but to follow.
"Bo, I love turtles, try!" she pleaded.
"One of those?" I teased, pointing to the overstuffed green smiley faces with ET eyes.
She nodded. "Yes." Beaming, she pulled her blond hair back into a ponytail and twisted half way around. "Win me one." She encouraged me, waving her hand, ‘Come on,' to get me to play the game.
I pulled a five-dollar bill from my pocket and plunked it down onto the shabby wooden counter. The Carny scooped up the money like it might sprout wings, replacing it with three rubberized gray balls on a spot long in need of a paint job. He appeared to be middle aged, but desperate to look younger. Signs of a hard life and the sun had betrayed him. Blond streaks running through rusty brown hair portrayed either a free spirit or proof of madness.
Drawing a half breath from his cigarette, he coughed. "It's easy my friend, throw two and guess the third. If you're right, the lady gets choice."
"Her choice?" I asked.
"Anything from the bottom shelf," he said.
"That figures. There's always catch." I turned to Sally. "This could take all night."
The look on her face said, "Aren't I worth a thousand turtles?” That look convinced me to give it my best shot. I reasoned that I might even win because I'm the luckiest guy in the world. After all, I had my wife back.
Gabby told me to imagine the strings of a golden harp, each playing a unique but perfect melody.
"Think parallel universes," she told me. "All possibilities exist in the mind of God."
She explained that I'd jumped a strand. "Bo, it's your life, only different." It was my Heavenly Father's gift to me. I don't understand it, but I cherish having Sally back.
To some people, there's nothing bigger than baseball. I'm not exactly that die hard, but I still know all the players. Living in Maine, the northern heart of Red Sox Nation, we're bombarded with Red Sox news. From the end of spring training, right up to the playoffs, the local news keeps us informed, blow by blow, of our team's fortunes. Nicky is well known in the nation. I've seen him taking the call for a fresh pitcher after a string of walks or a home run.
When we were kids we played baseball all summer. I remember my mom saying, "You'll have fun, Bo, wait and see."
That was the day she sent my dad to Bradlees’ to buy me a baseball glove. It was tan with dark laces. I remember it from the pictures. Mom took Polaroid's of everything. Many of my life memories would be lost without the photographs she took. We still have her boxes we've never gotten around to putting into albums. Mom had no storage cloud and no cell phone to store and upload pictures.
Her idea of technology was the phone man installing a new jack in the bedroom. "Having a phone upstairs will be so convenient.” She nudged my father. Not to be outdone, Dad installed a cord in the kitchen that hung to the floor. With it, Mom could do dishes, cook meals, and iron all while talking on the phone. I can still see my mother stretching that cord to the hilt, pulling it straight out the back door to call us in for supper.
I pawed at the clay with my left cleat. The high mound, crosscut grass, and perfect rows of oak seating stretching back to the bleachers all seem to be saying, "You don't belong here. What gives you the right to come in this late in the season and have a tryout at, of all places, the shrine of baseball, Fenway Park?"
I concentrated and pictured the ball, fueled by a big hit, sailing over the top of the Green Monster. I pictured everyone being polite as I'm escorted off the field.
"I have to get hold of myself and do this today. I've got to settle down." I squared up and focused on the outside corner of the plate. I'm here to throw the ball with everything I have. I rolled the ball around in my fingers, took a big leap forward on the center stage of baseball, and sent the ball careening towards its target. It flew out of my hand, heading straight for the batter's head. Oh, my, God it's going to hit him...
Just beyond home plate, there is a flash of movement. My eyes fix on the area, but nothing's there. The guys getting ready for batting practice, Billy, the ball, all appears frozen in time.
"This can't be happening –