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Big League Dreams: A Sunday in Turlock

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POSTED July 2, 2009 1:52 a.m.
There’s something poetic about 12 beer-guts a side at a wooden-bat league baseball game on a Sunday in Turlock.

The men that play range greatly in age, some are 20, some are nearing 60. The game has passed them by, but life hasn’t, and that’s why they still play.

They have duct-taped cleats and hole-ridden uniforms, but pristine leather and flawless, shimmering maple, custom-made and flown in at added cost from Louisville.

They use wooden bats, because that’s what ball players do when they’ve reached their last stop.

It’s the wood that makes the trip to Turlock special.

The crack of a wooden bat on a tightly-wound, leather-wrapped baseball is unlike any sound in the world. It’s pure, clean and crisp and instantly ignites vivid memories of simpler times. In the big leagues, it’s followed by thousands of unified voices declaring either grueling disappointment or uninhibited joy and loss of self. But some prefer the sound in Turlock on a Sunday. Besides the lazy murmur of dugout chatter, there is nothing to inhibit it from treating the few ear drums in attendance to its full and intended effect.

Every at-bat has meaning in Turlock.

Each is a duel over a nearly-forgotten dream.

The craft lefty on the hill has a hitch in his wind-up, which is why he can’t break eighty-one on the gun, but his hook is decent, and, every once in a while, filthy.

The batter is a slow-footed singles hitter with exceptional discipline, but not an ounce of pop.

If you squint from the bleachers and let your eyelashes blur the action ever so slightly, the southpaw’s wind-up sparkles maroon and golden yellow in the mid-morning sun.

The release.

It’s the hook.

The batter recognizes it and decides to lay off. The piercing crack of leather on leather echoes up the green backstop and rustles through the oak trees behind the bleachers.

The batter, who sports the No. 44 on his mesh jersey, steps out of the box and kicks around the dirt beneath his feet. A dusty amber cloud escapes and gets stuck in the stagnant, 104-degree heat.

The batter looks up from his laces and toward the dugout. A teammate sitting on a bucket of balls claps his hands twice and offers a supportive nod. The batter turns from the teammate and toward the pitcher. He inspects him closely, searching. The pitcher has wandered off the hill. For a breather, the batter thinks.

The heat is working him over pretty good.

The batter asks blue for the count.

A terse reply.

“2-2.”

The batter takes a step toward the box and eyes the pitcher from head to toe. He’s removed his cap and is wiping his brow with a glistening forearm.

Throw that curve one more time, see what happens.

The batter taps his toes with the barrel of his hickory.

Out on the bump, the pitcher has both feet on the rubber. He locks eyes with the batter. The batter chomps on Wrigley’s pretty hard, which is easy to see, because it causes his wispy gray mustache to undulate like a freshly-patted water bed. He’s digging in pretty good, and his hands are ringing the bottom of his wood, just behind his right ear.

The catcher offers two digits.

No, he wants the hook. Look at him. He knows I have one to waste.

The pitcher shakes his head.

The catcher makes a fist and flashes two digits angrily.

The pitcher shakes again.

The batter removes a hand from this wood and flashes a palm backwards.

“Time!”

The blue waves his hands in the air as he stands and steps away from the catcher.

The pitcher exhales, looks back down and steps off the rubber.

The blue kneels in front of the dish and removes a brush from his belt. He wipes the ground briskly and a radiant white plate emerges from underneath a light sheet of speckled mahogany.

The pitcher steps back onto the rubber and the batter digs in again. The umpire finds his place behind the catcher and the battery-mate flashes one digit between a rickety and impatient pair of knees.

The pitcher nods and swirls the ball in his leather. He finds his grip and takes one step backward, forcing his body to rock back ever so slightly. The other foot pivots lengthwise with the rubber and digs into a worn grove in the earth. The duct tape ignores gravity and ascends toward the heavens in a fluid, momentum-building thrust.

The ball leaves the pitcher’s glove and juts backwards awkwardly, the noticeable hitch.
Back and then upward the ball travels as the momentum of the pitcher’s lower body pushes forward.

The ball races around the pitcher’s head and is finally released.

As the pitcher grunts and falls off the mound, the batter takes a quick step forward, the first in a journey toward immortality.
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