After I finished graduate school, I took a job teaching English at a private academy where the headmaster doubled as the varsity baseball coach. He actually scouted Little League teams and helped arrange scholarships to our school for some of the better players. He was proud of his team; they were a carefully selected bunch, and he kept their confidence high by scheduling games against smaller schools with weaker teams. Game after game they'd win by ludicrous margins: 17-2, 22-1, 29-0. The games drew big crowds. Teachers, students, parents, people from the neighborhood—you couldn't help but be thrilled by all that success.
I volunteered to pitch batting practice. When the headmaster learned I was left-handed, he was ecstatic. The one tough pitcher his team had to face was left-handed, and the hitters would have little opportunity to see his kind of speed and the kind of break that a good lefty gets on the ball. On a chilly afternoon in April, I went out to face the starting lineup.
I hadn't used my arm for anything more strenuous than erasing in maybe three years, and the rest must have done it good. I felt healthy and strong, and my fastball had the nastiest tail on it you ever saw. Maybe the kids weren't used to facing an English teacher, I don't know. I threw 90 pitches, 10 to each batter, the equivalent of a full game, and no one hit the ball fair. They were just waving at it. I was glowing. At the age of 26, I had pitched well enough to make a high school baseball team. When I was through, the centerfielder trotted up behind me and patted my arm.
"Way to go, sir," he said.
In the locker room, the headmaster asked me to join his staff, to pitch batting practice and coach first base during games. He gave me a uniform.
"I'd be honored, Coach," I said. I actually said that.
We had a season, me and my rejuvenated arm. Twice a week I pitched in practice, and for two months I felt that good weariness in my shoulder. The team went on piling up lopsided victories and steaming toward the big showdown. In the hallways, students asked me who I thought the best players were and whether our catcher would go on to play college ball.
The final game was on a bright Saturday. The headmaster had a loudspeaker rigged up so that a student announcer could introduce the players as they lined up along the baselines. Then someone from the school choir sang the national anthem, and all the players and coaches held their caps over their hearts.
We lost, 3-2, on a walk with the bases loaded, a brilliant game for high school. The opposing pitcher, that big lefty, threw hard and cannily. You had to admire the way he found spots for his curve, which wasn't all that good but which he delivered with the same motion as his fastball and so stymied the big, cocky swings of our best hitters. In the sixth, with two on and the score tied, he picked a man off first to end the inning. I'd been watching the batter and hadn't seen the move coming. I took it hard, kicked the dirt.
"I didn't hear you yelling," the headmaster said to me in the dugout. "What are you thinking about, dammit?"