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As Jake and I talked, Jack Baile (the other J) stood at the front of the booth juggling baseballs and chattering nonstop to the prospective customers. "Easy does it, step right up, no waiting, throw the baseball, pitcha pitcha!"
Above Jack's juggling act, tacked to the top of the cage, was the game's leader board. The speeds of the week's fastest throwers were logged by age and sex. William Forney, in the 16-to-19-year-old bracket, topped the male ledger with an 82-mph throw, and Teri Leatherwood led all the women with a heave of 62.
"Dad, how fast can you throw?" Matt asked.
"Oh, I don't know, somewhere between Bill and Teri, I guess," I said and nodded toward the board. Jack reached up, plucked one of his juggling baseballs out of the air and tossed it to me. "Here, give it a try," he said. I hot-potatoed the ball to Matt, dug into my pocket and pulled out a couple of quarters. "I think my son wants to give it a shot," I said.
While Matt fired up several dollars' worth of 30-to-35-mph fastballs, I began to feel a bit queasy. Call it radarphobia if you like, but I was caught between a notoriously weak right arm and an ego all muscled up and ready to throw. In one ear I could hear a replay of Harry Lambert, my old high school coach, critiquing one of my patented rainbow pegs to second base. "Cairns, that's the first time in baseball history that an infielder had to flip down his sunglasses to take a catcher's throw," said the voice from my past. Then I heard Matt saying, "Come on, Dad, I did it, now it's your turn."
I started to walk away, but the old moxie from my carnival days erupted again. I parted the crowd, handed Jack the Juggler 50 cents and heard myself say, "I'll throw, but you can forget about fastballs. I'll be playing the game to win."
From this moment on, my memory is something of a blur. I can recall staring in at the canvas catcher and reading the sign that said HOW FAST CAN YOU THROW? And that's when my strategy went kaflooie. Before you could say "changeup," my left leg had kicked up at the leader board, and I was coming over the top, bringing the fastball. Thunk went the horsehide into the canvas catcher. The display board clicked, and through foggy eyes I read my arm its last rites. The readout said: 51.1 threw again: 49, and again: 52.
"Come on, Dad, there are three girls up there who threw faster than that," Matt said. I reached back for a little extra. Only the sweat came faster. How long the embarrassment continued only my son and half the population of my hometown can say. But when I topped out with a blistering 55, my arm was heavy and my wallet considerably lighter.
"Good job," Jack said. "Try again?"
"That's enough," I mumbled, and with the double fives still flashing in my head, I put my aching arm around Matt's shoulder, and we walked off into the lights of the midway.