“Flood”—Behind the Story
I love baseball. Baseball, from Little League to the Cleveland Indians, flows through many of the stories in the collection.
The inspiration for Derek, specifically his submariner way of throwing the ball, comes from a pitcher on my Little League team, the 1980 McKenna Color Photo-sponsored “Cards” (the quotes were, for some reason, part of the name in the program, as if being on a team named “Cards” was ironic or suggested the eleven of us might not be aware we weren’t playing for the real St. Louis Cardinals). I don’t remember our pitcher’s name, but we called him Quiz, after legendary submariner Dan Quisenberry. (The real Quiz was also rather funny: “I’ve seen the future and it’s much like the present, only longer.” More Quisenberry bon mots.) I remember my nine-year-old self being in awe of our Quiz’s pitching. He truly baffled the young hitters who could not pick up the ball from its down-low release point; their bats pointlessly flailed.
From a writing standpoint, I was duped by this story. Save for some minor polishing, it came out of me nearly complete (versus the countless rewrites other pieces underwent). And, for a short bit of time, I thought the more I wrote the more such inspired writing would occur. Rewriting and revising? What are those? Ha ha ha. I got lucky, it seems. No other story worked its way out of me quite like this one.
This week’s BTS picture is of me, presumably on the “Reds,” and presumably not terribly impressed by my trophy.
This story originally appeared in Southword, shortlisted in its 2014 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition.
Derek was a helluva shortstop. A seeming pipsqueak of a boy, he played full seasons at both the Pee Wee and Tee Ball divisions of the Beaverdale Little League. At seven, he played partial seasons in the Minor and Intermediate divisions. At ten, he skipped over the last two years of Intermediate and jumped straight to the Little League Majors where he competed with and against kids two and three years older. I was one of those kids and I got to witness his greatness up close.
Derek’s range at short was incredible. He could move left or right, fill the holes and gaps, dive behind second to save a hit, leap high to save a run. His arm impressed, too, in both its unorthodoxy and its strength. He threw submarine style, his sidearm motion flicking the ball to first base so quickly it was hard to pinpoint its release. He threw so hard it stung Matty’s hand, caused Matty to bounce up and down as he shook out the pain.
And then there was his bat. Ten years old, mind you, and, boy, could he hit. Fastballs, curveballs, change-ups, the pitches didn’t matter. He might let a ball or two go and slap into the catcher’s mitt, might miss once or twice, but those were elements of his strategy; he was measuring, gauging, judging, lining up his single to right, or his double to the gap in left-center, or his triple down the line. Derek told me he’d once read that Babe Ruth could read the label on a spinning record. Inspired, he would spend hours in his bedroom shuffling his albums, blindly placing them on the turntable one at a time—first at 45 then at 78—and he’d stare and follow and track until he could read every single word of every single spinning record. He owned over one hundred, purchased most of them at The ’Vous on Prospect with money he’d saved delivering newspapers. The practice took him almost a year to complete. But he said it allowed him to see the seams of the baseball spin his way at the plate, allowed him to accurately guess the pitch a split second before he needed to swing, told him where he’d need the fat of the bat to enter the plate’s plane.
Of course, he didn’t hit 1.000 or anything. He wasn’t perfect. But I sometimes wondered if those rare occasions when he struck out or grounded into a double play or flied out to center were intentional, as if he wanted to keep things interesting—not to himself, but to the growing mass of people who gathered for each one of his games.
When Derek first came into the majors at Beaverdale Little League Park, vaulting past two additional years of intermediates, there was a curiosity among the other teams’ players and coaches, among the parents who had heard but not seen Derek’s talent.
In his first at-bat, anticipation ran high. Everyone expected him to knock the cover off the ball or something equally Herculean. He struck out on three pitches, swinging wildly at the third pitch, a ball high and away. I saw a few of the parents who had gathered fall away from the fences, shaking their heads and smiling, as if they knew all along this kid was nothing worth noting.
I later figured Derek intentionally struck out. In his next four at-bats, he hit four solid singles; he seemed to command both their speed and their placement.
After the game I overheard my mom talking to other parents, some of whom had been the head-shaking smilers who left in the first inning, and she marveled at Derek’s prowess. The parents who missed Derek mourned their absence. “Don’t worry,” mom said, “he’ll be doing this all season.”
And she was right. Mostly.
For two months, Derek racked up three and four hits a game. There was a brief period when opposing coaches intentionally walked him. But it wasn’t long before the screams and beratings from the crowd, and eventually the intervention of the Beaverdale board, forced the coaches to have their pitchers pitch to him. Derek logged putout after putout in the field, his whip-like submarine throw beating runners by six, seven steps and causing more than one coach to throw his hat and yell at his team to stop hitting to “that damned kid.”
And for those two months, the crowd grew. The bleachers were fuller than I’d ever seen, and people gathered four deep behind the home plate fencing and down the short fences that lined first and third. Parents whose children played at other fields abandoned watching their own children—their limp swings and ball-between-the-legs errors devastated them—to watch Derek play.
As a team, we could have been jealous of Derek, the attention he drew. But we were as caught up in his gift as everyone else. From left field, I watched his preternatural anticipation, his effortless movement, his errorless fielding. Before Derek, I’d fielded lots of grounders and liners in left. With Derek, I spectated. He cut off every grounder, stabbed every liner. He was marvelous to watch. Plus, winning feels good, and we won. Often.
And then Derek disappeared.