A group of boys lines up on the third-base side of an overgrown ball field, kicking sneaker toes at the chalky earth and chewing on the sides of their fingers. The sun above them pulses and stares, the wind having died to nothing, but the boys stand still and content and thirsty, waiting to be picked for a team. The two captains are in front of them, assessing options, deliberating on skill sets. Choices are harder to make these days: when kids get sick they stay sick. Almost all of them have become acquainted with hunger. Some of them are no longer wearing a glove, having been forced by their fathers to barter or sell for something the family needed more desperately. The captains take all this into consideration, the myriad possibilities of an upcoming chess match. They have become expert at managing the disorder.
Nobody will be left out. That’s a rule. If ten kids show up, ten kids will play. Same rule goes for thirty kids. Fifty. They will invent a new game entirely if it means avoiding a man sitting out. (More often than not it isn’t a concern, but they have occasionally simply given up on baseball—too many players for it to even be fun anymore—and run around the field instead like maniacs, like apes, like soldiers storming the beach at Normandy.) Now and again someone brings a watermelon, pilfered from a neighborhood patch; if their numbers are few they simply smash it and feast greedily on the hunks, like lions at a wildebeest’s rib. If they are many they scratch its flesh with their fingernails and suck the pulp out from underneath. Now and again—and these are the good, good days—someone brings along a stolen jar of hooch.
They play nine innings, regardless of circumstance. Rain, snow, twisted ankle. Rotating rosters of kids going home for dinner and coming back in, kids helping put their siblings to bed, kids having to go to bed themselves. Some kids show up suddenly and join them for a single day before their families continue their migrations to wherever. Others have convinced their families to stay here simply so the game never has to end. (Parents do more these days to keep their kids happy. Nothing like a war for re-written priorities.) They play into the dusk, damn the black eyes, refusing to stop even when they can no longer make each other out. More than once they’ve lost the ball in the tall grass with no true light to aid a search; someone always produces a suitable stone to take its place. More than once they’ve seen lightning strike the backstop and slide, blue and crackling, down the pole before slamming with a zip into the earth.
A new kid is picked first every game. A new kid is picked last. These are rules. If you’ve been picked first in the last five games you don’t get picked first again. Nobody is counting; they work on the honor system. They simply hold the rules in high esteem. They are chock-full of honor. When a kid gets picked he’s expected to tip his hat. His captain is supposed to thank him for joining the team. These are rules, but they are unspoken. They believe some rules must be silent in order to maintain their dignity. Today there are seventeen kids which makes uneven teams but one kid volunteers himself to be the umpire, which is considered a position of great respect. Nobody ever questions the umpire, but nobody ever needs to. They take pains to show each other kindness, both on-field and off-, because at any point the kid they’re speaking to could be the ump, and the ump has immense power.
This particular match is looking dodgy. The weather has not been spectacular all day. They’ve pushed their ritual farther and farther into the fall, ignoring as best they can the bitter cold that sometimes comes through on the wind, the crust of dead leaves that falls onto the infield, and now the air is bursting with the heavy threat of rain—which they wouldn’t mind, but which they know makes darkness so much darker. The score is tied, seven to seven, bottom of the eighth. One team’s captain is pitching, the other is batting, and no one is breathing. Those in the field punch their palms and chatter to themselves. Those behind the fence wrap their fingers through the chain link and try to squeeze it until it bends. Daylight is long gone. The moon is helpless. The pitcher delivers and the ball lands with a thud somewhere behind the catcher’s head. —Ball, I guess, says the ump. —I can’t see shit.
They’ve never stopped a game early before. There is no precedent for this. And while none of them is afraid of causing himself bodily injury for the sake of the game, neither do any of them see the point in a blindfolded bout. It’s Russian roulette with no rules, and they don’t respect a lack of rules. They stand in their places, quietly considering options, and can hear footfalls, men chatting with each other, coming closer across the night. They recognize their fathers’ voices, but can’t see their bodies. They see flashes of light popping on the sides of the field, and then the crackle of lighted torches, and their fathers, standing in groups, surrounding them, they can see their fathers’ long faces. The men with the torches touch them to piles of wood at their feet, and the kids hear the whoosh of eager flames, and the field is visible again in the willowy orange light. Some of the men are holding bottles of hooch, some standing with their arms crossed at their chests. —Go on, then, one of them says. —Came to see a goddamned baseball game.