It was Saturday; game day in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I put on my jeans, sneakers, and my Kansas City Royals jersey. Although I called it a jersey, it was really just a white t-shirt with short yellow sleeves and the Royals’ logo on the front. By adding the blue baseball cap with the letters KC on it in white, I was in uniform. I grabbed my old beat-up baseball glove, long since lost, and told my mother I was ready to go.
My dad was doing his weekend Naval Reserve duty and my younger brother and sister were with my grandmother in Denver. It was just me and Mom today. The sky was overcast and the air was uncharacteristically cool, with amazingly little wind for Cheyenne. It was the kind of weather I love. I climbed up into the front seat of our GMC Jimmy while my mom stepped into the driver’s seat. I was never nervous about a game, mostly due to the fact I rarely played any more than one or two innings of a game.
I had a not-so-rare talent for the game of baseball: I was not any good. I had many a splinter in my butt from sitting on the ancient wood benches in the dugouts. Even so, at least one parent of mine was at every game. Every once in a while, at bat, I would hit the ball and sometimes make it to first base. More often than not, though, it was three swings and three strikes. Little did I know when I arrived at the baseball fields that this day would be far different than any previous game day.
The baseball field’s outfield was marked by a four foot high chain-link fence. There was a much higher fence behind home plate that was in place as a vain attempt to protect parent’s cars from foul balls. The entire infield was dirt that on windy days kicked up and filled one bench or another’s mouths with grit. The outfield was grass except for the three worn ovals of dirt where kids over the years had played left, center, and right field. On the pitcher’s mound was a blue pitching machine with two white wheels that shot the baseball at the batter at thirty-five miles per hour. There were also dugouts along the first and third base lines. Each dugout had one long wooden bench, a chain-link front, and wood backs and roofs painted blue so long ago the paint was peeling and chipping. Behind the tall fence were fiberglass seated stands for the parents to watch their children play the national pastime.
My team piled into our dugout along the third base line. After dumping our gear we stepped onto the field to warm up by playing catch. We were playing the St. Louis Cardinals this morning. I was glad because my friend, Pat Morris, played for that team. As we warmed up, the opposing coach came over to speak to my coach.
The other team only had eight players and would have to forfeit unless one or two players from my team played for the Cardinals. My coach hollered out Jake and my names. He told us we were on the other team today. Being the worst players on our team, Jake and I were the obvious choices to send to the other team. At least I would be with my friend, Pat. Our new coach informed us that Jake would play the first three innings and I the last three. I took my familiar spot on the bench while my new team took the field.
The first three innings went fast. When my new team took the field for the fourth inning, I was in the Bermuda Triangle of right field. It was a Bermuda Triangle because no hits ever came to right field. I could have played the position in a lawn chair. After three quick outs we came up to bat. The first two batters got on base. Then it was my turn.
I calmly stepped up to the plate. I watched the man put the ball in the pitching machine. As the ball came at me I did everything my dad taught me: Watch the ball, step, keep my hands and elbow up, and swing. Strike one.
Jimbo Tanner, on my regular team, yelled. “Good job, Chris.”
Another pitch came. Strike two. I could hear my usual team congratulate me. Then, strike three. A cheer erupted from the Royals’ bench. As I walked back into my dugout I could not look at the other players. I was sure they felt I struck out on purpose.
The fifth inning in right field was again uneventful and fortunately I did not get up to bat again when my new team was at bat. I stepped onto the outfield grass in the top of the sixth inning just happy the game was almost over.
The Cardinals were leading by one run. The Royals had two outs and two players on base. The Royals’ best player, Jimbo Tanner, was up to bat. If he could get a hit and let the two players on base score, the Cardinals would have to bat again with me leading off.
Jimbo hit the first pitch foul. We all watched the ball clear the tall fence and we listened for the tell-tale bonk that told us someone’s parent’s car had a brand new dent. The second pitch sailed foul over the short third base line fence. With two strikes Jimbo hit a pop fly high into right field.
I saw the ball falling at me. I was confused. No one hits to right field. I put my glove up with my right hand there to make sure the ball would stay in the glove if I caught it. I felt the ball smack my glove and I closed it tightly with my right hand. I had won the game for the Cardinals. As the teams walked past each other for the handshake I could hear my Royals teammates tell me I should have dropped the ball. My dad had taught me sportsmanship well enough that that thought never even crossed my mind. Even the Cardinals coach shook my hand and congratulated me on my sportsmanship. When I think back on that game I know on that summer day in Cheyenne I was the best baseball player on Earth.