Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Joy of Imagination

I Struck Out Johnny D'Amato

by Paul Nichols

More thrilling fiction from my forthcoming book, We Found the Vacuum Cleaner.

I was the best pitcher in town! I struck out Johnny D’Amato!

It didn’t matter anymore that Johnny’s team was in first place. It didn’t matter anymore that he had smacked three long home runs off me earlier in the season. It didn’t matter anymore that he got on base every time he came to bat. I struck out Johnny D’Amato!

By the time we were twelve, and in our last year of Little League baseball, Johnny had already developed into a young man. He was tall and muscular; his upper lip was showing interest in a mustache and his voice no longer sounded like the rest of us. “He’s about the biggest twelve-year-old boy I ever saw,” my pop said more than once. “Somebody oughta check his birth certificate,” Pop joked around town. “He’s probably married and got kids somewhere."

Well, if you ask me, you didn’t joke around with Johnny D’Amato. A couple of years earlier, in the fifth grade, Ricky Worth teased him during recess.

“Johnny D’Amato, Johnny D’Amato

His sister Julia is a T’Amato!”

Johnny got suspended a week for starting a fight. Ricky got a big black eye, a bloody nose and a split ear lobe. He was embarrassed the rest of the year.

Nobody teased Johnny D’Amato after that. I think Julia was flattered, though. She sat behind me in fifth and sixth grades. I avoided her a lot in case Johnny thought I needed a black eye, too.

I suppose that’s what made Johnny so intimidating on the ball field. It wasn’t him, really; it was the vision of Ricky Worth bending over, bleeding and bawling. We knew what Johnny could do to us, so we threw him pitch after pitch that went sailing somewhere far.

Until one day I overheard a man tell Pop, “I’ve always figured if you concentrated hard enough, you could do just about anything you want. Just close your eyes and see it happening.”

“Hmm,” I thought. So when no one could see me, I did a few blind practice pitches without my ball or glove. Sure enough, I could see a fast inside curve ball go gliding and sliding right past the batter. “Stee-rike one!” my imaginary umpire yelled.

Every day at every quick opportunity, I practiced a few pitches with my eyes closed. Then I enlisted my big brother to play catch while I tried it for real.

After the first pitch he said, “I’m not chasing that! Go get it yourself!”

For a month, I tried again and again. I pitched to my brother. I threw at targets. I pitched at the garbage can. I threw at the gate. I threw rocks down the streets and up the alleys. I thought about it in school; it kept me awake in church services; I laid awake in bed dreaming about it. I went to the Little League park and practiced alone. I learned to throw with my eyes closed, then open them to watch where the ball went.

To tell the truth, I missed many more times than I hit. But I could feel it. I could feel it. That man was right: it really was possible to throw strikes with your eyes closed.

When the Little League season started I pitched in our second game. I lasted two innings. Those batters blasted baseballs every which way. I felt lonely after Coach Weldon jerked me, but he said I could have another chance. Pop gave me a hard time on the way home.

I got my chance a few games later. I pitched in relief in the fifth inning. I threw a letter-high fastball to Johnny D’Amato who promptly sent it two counties over. We lost that game by several runs.

The season moved into June, and it didn’t matter whose team faced Johnny D’Amato, he was batting a thousand for the year, showing off from base to base every time. He swung only at high pitches, I noticed. I closed my eyes and imagined my pitches gliding and sliding just above his knees.

Our team record was six wins and seven losses when it was time to play Johnny D’Amato and the Cougars again. “Now we want to finish up even this year,” Coach told us. “You boys can do it. Don’t worry about who you’re playing against, just get out there and get ‘em!”

Most of us were silent, unenthusiastic. “We can win if we concentrate,” I said hopefully, pounding my glove.

“That’s right!” Coach went on. “And speaking of concentrating. You’re pitching today,” he told me. “You’re the only pitcher I got, so no matter what happens, you’re out there for the long haul. The rest of you guys help him out. Work together! Team work! Let’s hear it!"

We all said, “Rah. Blazers.”

“I can’t hear you,” Coach mee-howled.

“Rah! Blazers!”

I cornered myself in the dugout till it was time to pitch. I imagined every pitch I was going to throw. Every one a slow, low curve ball to Johnny D’Amato. If he hits it, I thought, at least he’ll hit it on the ground.

Then, on the mound I walked the first batter, and the second batter made it to first on a botched up double play try. One out, though. David Smith smacked a triple to right and Johnny D’Amato knocked him home with a long fly ball to next week. Somehow, we wriggled out of that half of the inning, only behind by four runs. Coach, Pop and the other parents encouraged us anyway.

Amazingly, we scored seven runs the next inning and went ahead.

But wouldn’t you know it? Johnny D’Amato evened things up with a bases loaded double. He tried to get a triple, but Gus made a beautiful perfect throw to Richie at third and we tagged out Johnny by three feet.

Three outs! Jumping and joyous, we pounded each others' backs and bounded to the dugout. We got Johnny D’Amato! He didn’t score!

The Cougars were furious! I could see evil in their eyes. In their half of the inning, their first batter swung in a full circle trying to hit my low curve ball. “Strike three!” The second batter managed a dribbler to first base. Easy out. Then a foul pop-up to the catcher. Another easy out and the Cougars first 1-2-3 inning of the year!

“Let’s keep it going! Let’s keep it going!” We yelled.

It turned out to be a scoreless inning for us, too. But we were still hopped up. If we could hold them scoreless—and score a few runs of our own—we’d beat ‘em! We’d beat the first place team! They wouldn’t be undefeated any more!

Nobody sat hunched on the dugout bench any more. We stood against the protective chain link front for the rest of the game.

They scored four more runs. We scored four more. I was still pitching. Coach was pumped up! Our parents were whooping it up. There was victory in the air—we could feel it!

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Johnny D’Amato and company sent me reeling; they “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Hit. Hit. Hit. Oddly, they only scored three runs. 13-10 in favor of the Cougars. We went quietly to our dugout.

We had to score a bunch of runs in the sixth inning, or else. Three to tie; four to win. But then we had to hold them, no matter what.

Five runs! Those Cougars committed one error after another. Our team just kept trying to get on base. And we did, one way or another. Suddenly, the Cougars had to score three to win.

And for the last time in my Little League life, I went out to the pitcher's mound. Johnny D’Amato was the first batter up. It was time to really concentrate. Finally, it was time to try that man's idea. I closed my eyes and dreamed of my low curve ball quickly sliding and gliding under Johnny's

I opened my eyes and stared hard at my catcher’s glove. I closed my eyes, slowly wound up and threw the first pitch over the umpire’s head. The Cougars laughed at me.

But I repeated my ritual. I threw with my eyes closed and then watched it slide and glide right above Johnny’s knees. He swung and missed. He was so astonished that he stared at his bat to see what was wrong. Our fielders cheered and pounded their gloves.

With my eyes closed again, I threw two more balls way high and way wide. 3 and 1.

Now I was in danger of walking Johnny. Still I kept my eyes closed. I threw another curve right at the belt. Johnny hit it far—my shoulders slumped, my heart stopped—and foul. 3 and 2.

“Straighten it out, Johnny,” his fans yelled. “Straighten it out!”

I stood on the pitching rubber with my eyes closed tighter than ever before. I heard my teammates yelling for me, but I had to concentrate. I could still walk him. I didn't want to do that at all. I pictured my pitch right under his belt…no, I wanted it lower. I looked and looked at my vision till my pitch focused just above his knees. I could hear parents cheering for both of us. This time I never opened my eyes. I wound up. I concentrated on every muscle that moved. I couldn’t hear a sound. I fired a curve ball that felt like every bit of confidence I ever knew. I heard the ball hit the catcher’s glove. Hard, sharp and pure. ”Smock!” I opened my eyes. “Stee! Rike! Threeee!” The umpired danced backward, his fist clenched high and tight! That pitch froze Johnny; he never swung—and I never saw the pitch.

The next two incredulous batters hit weak grounders to our infield. Game over! I was the best pitcher in town! I struck out Johnny D’Amato! I was never afraid of him again.

For years afterward, I relived that duel. It’s one of those golden moments that live on and on to confirm that certain moments are ours and nobody can take them away. I tried closing my eyes a few other times, but the magic of it never worked again.

It almost did once, though. Soon after I got out of the service, I proposed to my girlfriend with my eyes closed. I pictured her perfect white smile, her brown eyes sparkling, her dark hair flowing forward…but I couldn’t contain myself and opened my eyes. There was my Julia D’Amato—just as I pictured—accepting the ring and the heart I offered her.

We soon agreed upon Johnny D’Amato for my Best Man.

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