The coach sent me behind home plate,
Had me crouch and catch for his son
All through the warm-up before each game.
Did I say I had to catch without a mask?
His son’s name was Jerry. I could hear—
The whole team could hear—how buried
In the coach’s calls behind the backstop,
Behind my back, he was ordering Jerry
To hit me. It’s hard to say how I heard
That message laced into his thick voice.
But it was there, a command as greasy
As spitball shouted in each attaboy.
Jerry heard it too, and, a good son, obeyed.
With each pitch, the white jet of the ball,
Unscrewing its way through the air
Until it smacked into the fat-lipped
Catcher’s mitt I had to wear. By now,
You’ve guessed the coach hated me
For good reason. I was useless. Standing
In right field praying—actually praying—
No fly would find me, and when the Lord
Refused those prayers, I would hang
My mouth open as the ball rose and grew
Overhead like a day-moon, crashing
To the earth. Do I need to say what
Happened? The ball before the sun, the mitt
Before the ball? My eyes behind the mitt?
You see, the coach was fair-minded
With his hatred: Judicious in fact in how
He gave it where it was earned and scowled
Until I went to kneel behind home plate.
Now, Jerry was something else: The screw,
The fast, the curve, the changeup, the palm-ball—
Each left his hand like a Homeric bird.
When it spanked inside the catcher mitt,
It sent another batter out. Even I spied on
The grace of his windup without a doubt:
Here was an Achilles with horsehide
And nightly the whole team watched him
Knock runs beyond perfection. Of course,
This meant we never spoke (he and I),
Stationed far apart on the bench or if
We chanced to come too close, the coach
Was there to throw his shadow in between.
He knew uselessness was catchy, kindness
Arcane. A kid sent out by a single mother
For an afternoon divorced from television,
Was the stuff defeats were made of.
It was only those afternoons when I went
Without a cage before my eyes, cap
Turned around, the mitt held up to block
The blow of every pitch that sailed
Toward my head or sailed toward my crotch—
Jerry and I looked each other in the eyes.
What did I catch? the nod, the wind-up,
The pitch thrown hard and true for love.