The fly ball

Owen The Adventure stood on the mound last Saturday morning at Nieman Field by Fort Snelling. The sun was still rising as airplanes ferried their passengers to and from nearby Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.

Owen fingered the baseball nervously and looked to first base, where an opposing runner danced. Then he looked to third base, where another gnat in a batting helmet hovered.

Owen’s team, the LARC nine, was beating Van Cleve 15–8. Steady Sam had given the team three-and-a-half solid innings, and Henry The Southpaw Fireballer had thrown his arm out trying to protect the lead. Now it was up to Owen The Adventure — a relatively untested pitcher with a penchant for throwing perfect strikes or nowhere-close backstop-rattlers — to seal the deal.

It has been said that 13-year-old boys are little more than amped-up bodies walking around without brains attached. If that is true, then 13-year-old boy baseball players are lobotomies in need of a coach who knows what he’s doing, or who can at least fake it long enough to get a chance to win.

Win. The word that is not supposed to matter, the word that gets in the way of the main word, Fun, when it comes to little league. But in seventh grade, winning starts to matter more. Plus, the coach and many of the LARC players had endured a basketball season that saw their team get crushed by an average of 30 points a game.

There were two outs, bottom of the last inning. The coach told Owen to forget about the runners and concentrate on the hitter.

Lukas The Warrior was behind the plate. The kid had spent the entire morning in the catcher’s gear and in the dirt, chasing various errant pitches and foul balls. He, too, told Owen to forget about the runners and concentrate on the hitter.

The hitter, twice as big as most of the kids on the field, strode to the plate with his long black hair gushing out of his helmet, looking like a mini Manny Ramirez. The LARC coach, who spent many long innings as a LARC outfielder decades ago, and who more recently spent hours of practice time hitting fly balls to the new breed, told his outfielders to back up.

Colin The Kid, a fifth grader who joined the team only because he happened to be hanging around the park the first day of practice, was in right field. Aidan The Fleet was in left. Emmett The Afterthought, who rode the bench with Colin for much of the game and who kept asking the coach when he was going to get a chance to play, was in center field.

Owen The Adventure looked over to first base one more time, then he whistled a fast ball towards mini Manny.

When the ball hit the aluminum bat, it made the sound of a hammer hitting a church bell.

The ball rose up in the bright blue sky, well past the infield and deep into center field. The runners took off. Both benches emptied to watch the ball’s flight as it went higher, higher, higher.

Emmett The Afterthought, like many of the LARC players, was not wearing a baseball cap because he’d forgotten it. His stringy brown hair bounced in the breeze as he tried to collect his frail frame and coordinate his muscles. As he wobbled under the ball, the coach whispered to himself, “Catch it.”

Emmett The Centerfielder went back, then forward, then back again, and then he caught the ball and raised it up and the ump screamed “You’re out!,” and the dugout erupted and the LARC nine jubilantly ran off the field with its first win of the spring, and only two players asked the coach if they’d won or lost.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.