I got the call again that night. It was getting easier to manage the big league stadium factor now that I’d made a few trips to the mound. I wasn’t comfortable by any stretch, but I did make it through the eighth inning without much trouble, which gave me some confidence that I was improving. I felt like I’d found my command again. I felt like I’d remembered my delivery. Maybe it was calmer nerves. Maybe it was Frenchy’s pep talk. Whatever it was, I didn’t dwell on the issue. After punching out the next two hitters in the following inning, I got back on the mound ready to face Andre Ethier and finish my first real appearance as Dirk Hayhurst, San Diego Padre.
I knew what Ethier was capable of, the year he was having, and, most importantly, who was on deck behind him. It’s funny how so many threads of life can intersect on a baseball field. In this forgettable game, one where the home team cheered more for the Dodgers than their Padres, one that I was allowed to pitch in because we were losing by a jagged number, so much of my life hung in the balance. Baseball revolves around what a player is able to repeat: throwing balls or strikes, getting hits or making outs, wins and losses, success and failure. I finally had a chance to repeat success. I could finally tune out the crowd long enough to hear my teammates cheering. I could even hear Balsley, a voice I would never be able to tune out, telling me to keep it up.
Pumping in strikes like the Dirk of old, I got Ethier to swing at a hook. I aimed it for the bottom of the zone, a plate topper that would look like a fat, juicy strike leaving my hand but fall deceptively short of hittable. When done right, bats are drawn to it like a tractor beam and Ethier’s bat was no exception. He made contact with the top tenth of the ball, enough to send it sputtering on the ground between Adrian Gonzales at first and myself.
It was a “tweener,” a groundball so slow and awkwardly placed it commits both the pitcher and the first baseman. I chased the ball, but, realizing I wouldn’t get to it in time, broke off and headed toward the bag ready to take Adrian’s throw. Ethier was right behind me, bolting down the line, unwilling to concede the at bat as a failure. Adrian, unwilling to concede it as a success, scooped and flicked the ball to me in stride. I stuck out my glove while breaking down to hit the bag, and in the rumbling of my footsteps and Ethier’s, I lost the ball for a split second. It deflected off my mitt, hit the dirt, and Ethier crossed the bag safe.
There was a collective groan from the audience, which only served to punctuate the one in my soul. I’d worked on that play roughly a million times in my life. It was a play that pitchers made
so many times they universally hated practicing it for its monotony. It’s the one play coaches tell us we will never get beat by because we work too hard to make sure we don’t . . . and I just did. Now, as a punishment for my crime of poor coordination, I would have to face Manny Ramirez.
I returned to the mound with the weight of my own self-loathing fresh upon my shoulders while one of baseball’s all-time great sluggers, not to mention one of this season’s hottest, strode to the plate with the carefree bounce the world had come to know him for. His pants were so baggy he looked like one of MC Hammer’s backup dancers. In fact, the way his uniform billowed around him, he looked more like a gray trash bag with dreadlocks and a Dodgers’ cap than a uniformed player. This was all part of his charm, and the roar of his fans nearly blew me off the mound. They kept chanting his name, screaming how much they loved him while tugging at shirts that bore his name—some even wore fake dreadlocks in imitation.
I stared him down from my elevated position. I told myself he was nobody special, that he was just another player. I told myself to not be intimidated by his legacy, or his horde of screaming worshipers. I told myself he was a clown, that he made the game look bad with all his antics, and that I would put him in his place by getting him out quickly and quietly. Then, as I watched the third pitch of the at bat sail over the right field fence, I told myself I hated the game of baseball, the big leagues, and Manny Ramirez.