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For three-quarters of an hour, at the cost of a severe backache and a case of sniffles that was clearly snowballing into a king-size head cold, I had been the center of the small world that those six boys and I had created with a bat and a ball on that stretch of windy beach. Now it was as though I had suddenly and literally vanished into the sea. Those six boys, two of them my own sons, had eyes only for the stranger in the blue sweater.
It was one of those moments when life seems determined to impress you with its inequities. Nothing of any particular importance was at issue. In fact, under ordinary circumstances, I would have welcomed the respite that the stranger's arrival had provided. But the circumstances are never ordinary when a man's pride is involved.
I had worked hard for almost an hour to hold the attention of these boys. It didn't seem fair that this total stranger, effortlessly, unintentionally, with a couple of casual gestures as natural as breathing, should have taken it all away from me.
"You're not holding that bat right," he said as he reached Jeff. "Here, mind if I show you, son?"
Willingly, eagerly, with the sort of look in his eyes that indicated clearly how much he wished it was not a piece of mere wood but a bucket full of gold dust, Jeff offered up his bat to the stranger. The other boys came hurrying in across the beach. I followed more slowly, wrestling with my emotions, telling myself severely to stop being what my own father, when I was a boy, used to call a horse's patoot.
"You don't want to pull the bat all the way back over your shoulder like this," the stranger said, giving a perfect imitation of Jeff's stance at home plate. I winced slightly. It was the stance I had taught him. "If you hold your bat all the way back across your shoulder like that, son," the stranger said, "your swing has to travel too far. Like this." He swung at the air. "If that's a real fast ball coming at you, by the time you get this long swing around to it, that ball is four feet behind you, in the catcher's mitt. Now here's the right way to hold your bat."
A SAVAGE LUNGE
The stranger spread his legs, dipped his knees in a half-crouch, and held the bat up straight in front of him, almost parallel with the vertical line of his body, the way a proud marcher in a parade might hold up a placard so that all the world can read the glowing words that describe his great cause.
"This way," the man in the blue sweater said, "when that old apple starts coming at you, and you see it's the one you want, and you take your cut at it—" He swung, slicing the chill, damp air with a savage, whistling lunge that spun him completely around on one foot in a swift, perfect, and graceful circle. His free foot came to rest lightly in the exact spot on the sand from which his body had started moving, and he smiled at the six small faces gathered around him as he said quietly, "That one, now, that one would have been out of the ball park."
There was a pause.