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October 17, 2011
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October 17, 2011

The Invisible Fastball


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By the time of his next start only three games remained in the season. There was other pressure too; while Swift stood on the brink of history, the Marauders' magic number to clinch the pennant stood at one. He needed one more great game from that rubber arm.

The morning of Aug. 25 dawned warm and muggy. Nationally, the conversation centered on the end of the Korean War, the new Kinsey report and Marilyn Monroe, whose film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was going gangbusters at the box office. But in Marion, N.C., the world had narrowed down to one event: Marauders versus the Hickory Rebels.

That afternoon Marie Balentine drove up to the Swifts' house. Marie, the wife of Marion first baseman James Curtis Balentine, often helped Betty get her kids ready before big games. Linda was four. Jack Jr. was 1½ and doing well, though he was developmentally delayed. Rebecca was four months old; she arrived at the ballpark already fast asleep.

Betty and Marie took their customary places behind home plate. The temperature was in the high 70s. More than 1,500 fans had already arrived, paying 65 cents for admission and another 15 for popcorn. Men wore shirts and ties; women their finest hats. By the time of the introductions there was a palpable energy in the small park, and each player's name was echoed by a roar from the crowd.

Betty had worried that Jack might lose his control again, that the moment might get to him. He always looked relaxed when he played, so loose that some writers described him as looking "lazy." But what if he tightened up?

He came out throwing hard, a good sign. One batter after another went down swinging. And then something peculiar happened: All those people in the stands stopped yelling. By the second inning it was eerily still in the ballpark. "It was like there was an aura," Betty recalled. "It was just so quiet. It was like if somebody spoke, you'd break the spell." As the innings went by, Marie kept glancing over at Betty, who never said a word, only smiled. Marie understood. Don't break the spell.

Two hours and 19 minutes after the game began, Swift peered in one final time. He'd given up only five hits and had struck out eight. Marion held an 8--1 lead. This was it. This was what he'd thought about all those years while playing ball with his younger brother on the farm in Zephyr; while on the train rides to Fort Bragg; through the long hours on the air base in Salt Lake City, writing to his mom "not to worry about me, I'm O.K."; and while shuttling between Savannah and Elkin. Swift steadied himself.

This was no time for curveballs. Over the years managers had taught Swift to rein in his arcing leg kick because runners took advantage of it to steal. But who could blame him now if he kicked his left leg high? Kelly Jack Swift reached back into time, past the disappointments and the small towns and the poor tobacco crops, and pulled out a fastball as true and pure as any he'd ever conjured when his arm was young.

The umpire blinked, then turned and drew back his elbow. Steee-rike three!

There was the slightest of pauses, and then, as the Charlotte News described it, "It looked like New Year's Eve had come four months early in Marion." Men, women and children whooped and hollered. The P.A. announcer declared that Marion had won the pennant and that the historic ball would be auctioned off. (The sports section of the McDowell News later bought the ball for $50 and gave it right back to Swift; on it, in red ink, were written the words 30TH WIN.) Now Marion had its own god.

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