General Fiction posted May 29, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
An unforgettable day in the cage

the routine

by gene roush


I could feel his eyes on my back -- examining the thickness of my neck, and the breadth of my shoulders. What he couldn't see, were my bulging forearms. "Popeye." That's what the players around the cage called me.

I flipped my thirty-five inch, Al Kaline model, Louisville Slugger from palm to palm as I walked. "I belong here."The words were my mantra, whispered to myself. It was all part of the routine. Today, I couldn't let anything alter my focus.

Maybe it was okay to be a little humbled by all this. Stepping into the cage with Pop Williams was a rare event for a kid my age. The last guy as young as me to be invited into the cage with Pop was Eddy Garrett. Three years later, Eddy was a Bonus Baby on his way to becoming the American League Rookie of the Year.

I stepped to the plate, clawing the dirt with my right foot. I lifted the bat over my head and stretched my shoulders -- the routine. He was just another coach tossing batting practice. I gripped the handle of the bat in both hands.

A "Kaline" has a thin handle and a club for the end. When you hit a ball on the sweet spot, the bat caresses your palms and lashes the cowhide. I rolled it in my hands putting the label up and aligning the sweet spot. The sweet spot on this bat was stained with wear. I focused on it as I stepped in and tapped the center of the plate. The routine guided me.

I stared at his glove -- visualizing the yellowing practice ball deep in the webbing. The red seams were aged and tattered. He spit.

The black tobacco juice flashed through my view and drew my eyes to him. "My God!" I was standing in the cage with Pop Williams. He'd won two Cy Young's, and been in the dugout for three World Series. What was I doing in this cage?

I took a deep breath and released my right hand from the Kaline. I extended my left arm -- pointing the club end at him. My fear was subdued, with the routine's comforting embrace. All the hours spent alone in the cage, tossing balls in the air and finding them with the sweet spot again and again. All the bloodied blisters, and over-lay blisters, weren't mine, they belonged to the routine. "I belong here!" The whispered words swelled my chest and straightened my spine.

He wiped the thick, black drool from his unshaven chin with the back of his mitt. My heart was racing. Each staccato beat pounded in my ears. My vision was fading. I could step out. That's what I'd do any other time. I stepped out three times against Jim Wilson, and he was in the rotation at Arizona State. I should step out. I definitely should step out.

He rocked back -- drawing his hands together. It was too late to lose my courage. The glove rose above his head, and I focused on the red laces buried inside. I brought the bat back -- slipping my right hand above my left. I twitched my right shoulder, and locked my left in place -- the routine.

He pirouetted. His back was to me, hiding the ball. The gray jersey hung loosely from his hunched shoulders, but strained to cover the backside of his pot belly. I strummed the Kaline, loosening my grip, relaxing my wrists to release my powerful forearms -- staying with the routine.

The spin is quick. His empty glove slashes between us, but I watch the faded red laces spinning from his bulging fingertips. Now, there is only red stitching. The mantra of the routine no longer has words. My hips, hands, and head are still. I am a spectator of the routine.

The tattered stitching, dull with age, and frayed with wear tumbles toward me at ninety miles an hour. My response is no act of will. I become it and it becomes me.

Sixty feet and six inches separate Pop's fingers and the waiting Kaline. I am an instrument of its will.

I watch the stitches bore up and in. My hips, hands and head are still -- ready to respond. But there is no response. The cowhide buries in my cheek, snapping my head back. My cleats spray me with dirt as I spill backward into the dust.

The taste of blood and throbbing of my visionless left eye rouse me back to consciousness. A shot of black spit grazes my nose and pools in the dirt just below my right cheek. The smell stirs me to sit.

A growl turns my head and I squint up at him. A wicked grin creases his leathered face.

I don't belong here.

The Cage contest entry


The Cy Young award is given to the best pitcher in each of the major leagues.
Before the institution of the major league baseball draft, highly paid young prospects were called Bonus Babies. Some were as young as sixteen.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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