Thurs 7pm–We’re a baseball family: Shortstop (thank you!) and we play at the next level…Select. Tonight we’re in Grapevine, TX and sitting the bench because we’re out of uniform: no cap. no play. We’ll ride the pine like a beetle unless things get out of hand or Mom shows up with the cap . It’s the fourth inning and things are out of hand: 8:2 and we are not the 8. Here she comes!
We wear #42 and we have earned it over seven years of youth baseball. We are about to earn it again. There are 2 outs and one man on second with a run to score on third. In a minute he will be coming home. We also wear #42 because we have earned this position in the game.
We wear #42 because we are history and proud to represent that history. We have read about #42 and the struggle is in our blood. It is in our face that looks back at us from the mirror and from the framed pictures on the wall and the photo albums. We wear #42 because he has been dead four times longer than he played the BIG game. We wear #42 because the field of youth baseball today looks pretty much the same as he saw on his field in April 1947 when he, Jackie Robinson, took the field for the Dodgers.
We are at bat and watch the first pitch slowly fall away to the right. We like it falling away because we are big in the shoulders and thick in the hips . We are long and strong in the arms and like to dig that right foot into the dirt. Digging that foot serves two purposes: stability for the swing and a good push-off. We are masters of that push-off. Actually, we launch, catapult…fly. We also have a reputation for this moment. It has been building for seven years. This pitch has been falling away for a tenth of a second. It won’t be falling for an eleventh.
We listen for the sound of our father’s laughter. He taught us the trick of this moment while playing a card game called Tonk. It’s a gambling game. Strategic. Get rid of all your cards before the other guy. You both get five, but if you can do it with a sixth card you double your score. We play with a special deck of Black Heroes from all walks of life. Jackie Robinson has a card in that deck. If The Jackie Robinson card is one of your six winning cards then you win 50 points. We’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how far behind we are during the game… we wait for “The Jackie” moment.
Pitchers never hear that hard chuckle from the stands behind the plate. Even if they could hear it they would misunderstand. Those other parents say that he’s making fun of their kids. Some say that he is an intimidator of children. We ignore all of the “encouraging words” from the well wishers and hope builders in the stands: “Get a hit” “You GOT THIS!” “Make contact” “Let’s Go 4.2.!”
The score board says: 8-to-2. Ball: 0 Strike:0 Outs:2 We turn and get the sign from Coach. We are the only player to get this sign. Holding up his beefy fists all four fingers on the left flare up into view. On his right he throws up the pinky and ring fingers before shouting, “Now EARN IT!”
At the plate we are remembering different numbers. It is the year 2014. The Great Jackie Robinson passed on October 24, 1972. Which means he has been gone for the same number of years as the number that is on my back: 42. I have to earn it this year…especially this year.
This pitch has been falling away for a tenth of a second. We hear that laugh from behind the plate and know that this one is going to land in the gap. We plant that toe hard and swing into that dropping ball with the intent to hear the seams pop, then watch it sail over an outstretched glove and land in the gap. Out of respect for Jackie Robinson, we never, ever stop at first base. We’ll see you on second base and will look for a chance to reach third. I slide in and hear that ball slam into the baseman’s glove before the Ump shouts, “Safe!”
The celebration dies down and the pitcher checks my position and steps into his windup. The field goes silent, except for a whimper on the May wind. Wait, that’s no whimper. Dad just chuckled…We think third is open for “TheJackie”!