He was torn by the very thing he dared, by the devilish deed he was about, by the simple weight of the uniform he wore, by the silence the locker room gave him, by the bright face of Davin Croughmartin looking slyly at him from a mirror. He had been a child of wild escapades, a mixed-up hellion, a barnyard rooster, and when they moved out of the locker room into the legendary stadium under the eyes of sixty thousand fans, feeling the roar as much as hearing it, the hairs standing on the back of his neck and his heart pounding trip-hammer steady, the September air crisp as a salad, the high lights just a Milky Way of suns, Claude Martin felt as if he were reborn. He inhaled the bright baseball atmosphere, filled his chaotic lungs with ambrosia and all that he could take of excitement, and vaguely remembered a single line of a poem someone once had said about a ‘baseball sounding Spring’.
He sat in the dugout for eight innings, quietly alert to motivations and maneuverings, the speed the ball had from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove, how the pitcher’s motions were different in different situations, the crowd’s restlessness and hidden expectation, how brittle blocks of air crashed down upon him, when the pitcher made a move to first base, and when the pitcher made no move at all.
Immersed in these observations, alone in the fabled world he had invaded, suddenly wanting to give it all up, Claude Martin heard a voice cracking on the air: “Croughmartin, grab a bat and get up there!” His heart plummeted down to his jockstrap. The skin on his arms went alternately hot and cold, and in his mind one thought rose as he stood trembling on the dugout floor: I’m going to bat as a Yankee.
The murmur of the crowd, the slow rolling of a non-cadenced and soft wind-like sound, oozed out of the grandstand and the bleachers, a small sea breaking up on a small shore, an endless wave on an island solely of baseball, the sound of hope and the sound of promise, the sound of long frustrations dealt a blow, optimism’s eternal youth finding the new shortstop under a telescope. He wondered how cold the winter fjords got.
Gus Purleigh parked the cruiser in the dark of an East Side cul-de-sac quietly bumping into a handful of brownstones. His partner turned the radio down low as the announcer gave Croughmartin’s name. “I have to hear what the kid does,” said Gus. “He’s just come out of the woods Down East way. He’s got to have some guts to go up there and take his licks the very first game out. I hope he takes his rips the way I would.”
The thirty-two ounce bat felt like cement in Claude Martin’s hands, his shoes made of a sudden lead. The slow-rolling and non-cadenced crowd sound began to change, began to chant, and went Gregorian, chanting his name with a strange emphasis: Davin Croughmartin, Davin Croughmartin, Davin Croughmartin. He took it in stride, believing that he was the chanted one, and therefore blessed and strangely enchanted. He turned to face old Mississippi Mud,
the Junk man, Rag Picker and Collector of Diverse and Impromptu Pitching Skills, Never Had A Fast ball In All His Years, The Last of The Slow and Nothing Pitchers, Moved At Half The Speed That Hoyt Wilhelm Did, who turned to face the Bates College rookie. “Hey, Rook, I’m going to bust your little ass!” Then, under the eyes of sixty thousand, at the moment of challenge, knowing full well his ineptness with the wooden club but how fleet of foot he was, Claude Martin felt the surge of Yankee-Past, the Invisible Charge of Champions. He was, after all, wearing Yankee gray. “If I get on,” he yelled, flinging a wise-ass Galahad’s gauntlet to the mound, “ I’ll steal you three bases.” The words spread.
Mississippi Mud threw a ball nothing could ever fall off, neither gnat nor ant, in a slow circuitous pitch and which, though it moved nowhere in its plate-ward move, sorely tempted and tantalized the epitome of tyros. His sense of timing, and the inner sense of drama, told him he could never hit any junk ball thrown by Mississippi Mud. His swing thus was inept, at the very least; ludicrous would better describe its arc, and the fans sucked in half the ballpark air.
Mississippi Mud, as old as the hills, too-long master of the mound, pot-bellied, and spitting mad at the clumsy rookie, accepted the dare he should have ignored. “Up yours, Rook, and we’ll see what you can do.” Four pitches in a row floated in like kites had been let loose from the pitching mound, four pitches from a failing Santa Claus, four pitches wide of the mark (or on it), four pitches from the sewer side of pitching, four pitches outside for the base stealer.