Circular Tides


Major Leaguer

by Jerry Buckley

The heat of midsummer baked the South Georgia red clay into hardened bricks of cracked earth. Knee-high beggar weeds stood thick across the field out past the old, weathered barn. The tree line that separated the wide expanse of pasture grass and dog fennel from the tangle of thick woods beyond stretched around three sides of the field. It had once been a grazing spot for the old man’s cattle, but it had the vague feel of something else. Closer in, the unmistakable angular outline of an infield.

The farmhouse and its outbuildings stood empty; the sale would be finalized next week. A man in his late thirties and a young boy stood in the shade of the wide veranda gazing through the shimmering heat at the scene before them. The man had grown up here on this ten-acre swath of land south of Traintown. His father, the boy’s grandfather, had worked the land, been a railroader, and played baseball. “Hardball, by God,” as the old man used to say.

“So, do we have to sell Granddaddy’s place?” the boy, soon to be twelve, asked his father.

“We don’t have to sell it, no. But there is no need to keep it either. It’s like cleaning your room or doing chores, it’s one of those things that must be done, even though you don’t want to do it.”

“Is that what Granddaddy wanted you to do?”

“Yes, it was Hack’s idea,” the man said referring to the old man by his nickname. “He thought it would help pay the hospital bills and other stuff.”

The boy stared at the ground contemplating his father’s answer.

“When your Granddaddy knew his illness was terminal, he talked to me about how he wanted his affairs handled, and a lot of other things too.”

“Did he talk about me?” the boy asked, turning wide almond eyes, like his mother’s, upward to look at his father’s face.

“He sure did Ethan; said you’d be the first major leaguer in the family.”

“Daddy, what’s terminal mean?”

“Son, it means when you’re sick and there’s nothin’ they can do to make you better.”

“And then you die?”


“Does everybody get terminal?”

“In a way, we are all terminal, son. We all die at some point, it’s the rules of the game.”

Sweat dripped from their hands and brows as they gazed at the overgrown ball field. On the ground beside them was a worn equipment bag with a tangle of bats, gloves, and catcher’s gear emptied out on the ground beside it.

“Ethan, when I was just a little younger than you are now, Hack and his old buddies from the Sally League, played here on the weekends in the off-season. The field was in pristine condition in those days. They had the infield chalked off and it looked like a minor league ball field.”

“You see out there,” the man said as he pointed at a huge pine tree that towered over the others that lined the outfield.

“Hack hit one that was still risin’ when it clipped off a good-sized branch from that big one and kept going. They never found that ball. Liked to have seen ‘em put a tape measure on that one. Of course, there were a fair number of rattlesnakes out there in them days, in the woods, past the tree line. I recall nobody looked too hard for that ball.”

The man paused, as he remembered those times, bittersweet memories, of the wide-eyed wonder that a young boy had for the seemingly heroic feats of men who played baseball. He knew, without a doubt, that he would be a big leaguer when he grew up.

Ten years of perseverance and work rendered meaningless in the blink of an eye. It should have been the best summer of his life. Fresh out of high school with a baseball scholarship to the University of Georgia. The car plowed into him as he made a turn, catching the bike behind the forks of the Kawasaki 650, shattering his left knee, and throwing him twenty feet onto the grassy strip between sidewalk and curb.

Six months and two surgeries later he could walk without a cane. Up in Athens, they’d been sympathetic to his situation. Said they’d wait a year, see how his rehab went, hold that scholarship for him. If he’d been a first baseman or an outfielder, it might have been different. But he was a catcher. The wear and tear on a healthy pair of knees is tough, but on the mangled, reconstructed remains of his knee, the demand was too much.

He’d tried. Hell yes, he tried. He’d never quit at anything in his life, Hack taught him that. His doctor was amazed that he walked without a discernible limp. The knee would remain a weak link; he would not play major league baseball.

“Life can throw some curveballs at you, son,” the man said as he let the memories of the past fade.

“Daddy, are we gonna throw some or not?”

“Yes, I was just thinkin’ ‘bout something.”

The man pulled a catcher’s mitt from the pile of equipment, then a chest protector, and mask. A breeze began to stir as they stepped from the shadows of the veranda and walked toward the faint outline of a batter’s box overgrown with weeds.

Exactly sixty feet, six inches from where they stood was a rounded, grass-covered rise with a half-buried two by four that had served as the rubber.

“Take a couple of balls and get on the hill,” the father said as he slowly brought the old-school mask down over his Braves cap, now reversed in the time-honored tradition of catchers. The man thought of his gear as armor of a sort, some extra talisman of luck for the warrior who waged nine innings of baseball from behind the plate.

The boy moved smoothly, without the clumsy puppy motions of some boys his age. He slipped his own broken-in, well-oiled glove on his left hand. He tugged his cap down low across his forehead, stared at his father behind the plate.

The man hunkered down gingerly, finally managing a semi-squatting posture. He felt every inch of his body sweating like a pig in a poke. Rivulets ran down his face and dripped off his nose. He slapped the forty-year-old catcher’s mitt, realizing that there was even less padding than he remembered.

“Easy batter, easy batter,” he called out, letting the boy know he was ready.

The boy responded with a relaxed, easy-motion throw that chugged in right over the plate. He was a savvy kid alright. Just warmin’ up, just getting loose.

They continued the easy game of catch as the man admired his son’s control and accuracy. He had never forced the boy to play, it had come naturally, as it had for him. Hack had been a stern disciplinarian, a man who understood tough love, but he had never forced the man to play either. Their love for the game was real. Hack was buried with his favorite glove.

The boy threw harder as a breeze picked up and brought merciful relief from the relentless sun. The man behind the plate smiled as the boy tried to imitate the Braves’ fastball phenom, Spencer Strider. He knew for the boy, on the cusp of adolescence, this was the beginning. There are no walls a twelve-year-old can’t climb, no dream too big, nothing seemed impossible.

The boy switched to breaking balls. He could bring a curve that was good enough to freeze high schoolers several years older than himself. But the kid was a catcher, like his daddy. He understood, as young as he was, that the catcher was the maestro orchestrating the team.

He had a good head on his shoulders, full of baseball lore, and knowledge of the fundamentals that many kids lack today.

Unlike his Granddaddy, he was slow to excite, slow to rile.

The man glanced at his watch. Thirty minutes crouched behind the plate felt like three hours in the July heat. His hand was beginning to sting from the repeated slap of the ball into the old mitt. He was past hot but toughed it out another few minutes to see if he could.

“Come on in, son.”

The promise he showed on the mound was overridden by his desire to play catcher. He could cover any position, but it was behind the plate that you could see the determination and the ability.

“Daddy, if you’re too tired to throw we can stop,” the boy said as he watched his father peel off the sweat-soaked chest protector and mask.

“No way, get your butt behind the plate, my turn to play Cy Young.”

The boy slowly adjusted the chest protector to fit snugly then pulled the mask over his head. He started to say something, thought better of it, then picked up the worn mitt as he placed his glove next to the equipment bag.

“You can use yours to catch me,” the father said.

“Is this old stuff yours?” the boy asked.

“No, it’s Hack’s. Goes all the way back to when he played for the Traintown Bears.”

The boy said nothing as he looked around, taking in the empty farmhouse, the barn, the grape arbor, the pond he fished in as a little kid. He knew this morning was about more than a simple game of catch between father and son. It was a farewell. A tipping of the hat to a man who had helped instill the love of baseball in a son and a grandson. Taught them to respect the rules, to play with everything they had, and to be honest.

“Cheaters never prosper,” the old man liked to say, then add, “We’ll give ‘em a little chin music next time.”

The boy chose to use the old catcher’s mitt that belonged to his Granddaddy. He understood the moment, without words, without fanfare. A moment to remember, a moment to hold close and treasure like the Mickey Mantle rookie card Hack gave him when he was four years old.

The distant rumble of thunder signaled an early respite from the baking heat. It was at least thirty minutes away though, so the father slowly walked toward the mound.

Behind the plate, the boy tugged the mask down with authority, he adjusted the strap, then said, “Bring it on,” as he slapped the mitt.

The delivery was brisk and true, crossing the plate in the middle of the strike zone. The return throw from the boy, on his knees, using only his upper body strength was strong for a boy his age. Again, the ball sailed back toward the plate with a little more on it this time. The ball smacked into the mitt with a sound that made the boy smile. His old man could still bring it. His eyes sparkled with the love that sons have for their father, love that often goes unspoken. This moment, in the South Georgia heat, would be remembered and shared for a lifetime to come. A simple game of catch that connected three generations of men.

The final pitch of the day came arcing in with heavy topspin that caused the ball to drop like an anchor, but the kid handled it. As the man walked off the mound a sonorous peel of thunder rolled above them. A billowing thunderhead towered over the woods to the west. A fast-moving squall line cast a purple curtain of rain across pineland and fields.

“Guess we better pack it up,” the man said.

As they trudged back to the truck parked next to the house the boy studied the cracked and worm mitt in his left hand. It was older than he was, and he felt the connectivity. He suddenly felt the sting of Hack’s death and his eyes filled with tears.

He felt his father’s arm around his shoulder, and he leaned into him.

The rain began. Big drops, leading the way for the gully washer to come, pummeled them like lead weights. The gusty winds that drive Southern thunderstorms whipped limbs in a frenzied dance. They piled everything in the back and hopped in the truck dripping with rain and sweat. Then it was on them, beating down, obscuring everything until the steady beat of the truck’s wipers began to provide visibility through the windshield.

The boy stared hard at the old baseball field as they drove away in the gray downpour. He fingered the catcher’s mask in his hand slowly as he decided something. As they turned onto the two-lane blacktop the boy spoke his mind.

“Daddy, I guess I’m going to be a major leaguer before I die,” he said solemnly with the wisdom of a boy who has not known disappointment or the empty harshness of calculated lies.

The man didn’t answer right away. He savored the moment, remembering like yesterday when he had uttered the same promise to Hack. He hoped the hard-breaking ball of life would be kinder to the boy than it had been to himself.

Finally, he broke the silence punctuated by hard rain and said, “I know you will, son. I know you will.”

The End.