The outfield stretches from the flat, dried brown grass of Fairview Park in Normal, Illinois, to the thick green behind the high school tennis courts in New Milford, Connecticut, to Furlong Field in Salem, Massachusetts, booby-trapped with gooseshit, hemmed in on three sides by an auto junkyard, a playground, and a street, but on its fourth side—is that fair territory?—sloping down into the mouth of the North River as it drifts into the Atlantic.
Its boundaries are inexact, and infinite—a state of mind.
It’s a dumping ground for the weak-armed, the unskilled, the left-handed; its grasses are littered with failures. Even Whitman, the supreme outfielder (unshaven, musing, great range) would be perplexed by grass so full of misjudgments.
The outfield is tainted with mercury and lead paint; it’s an old Indian burial ground. Ambiguous weeds make love to lost strands of grass in the shadow of an imaginary scoreboard. The brown patches where the outfielders usually stand weep like bullet holes. A hollow, anonymous voice slurs facts that pile in soggy heaps down the left-field line. Where the grass turns to yellow stalks of prairie, an ant skitters into the husk of a baseball, empty leather hide that has birthed whatever was inside it.
There are no fathers and sons in the outfield. There is, somehow, not enough room. Beyond the foul lines, there have been sightings of gnarled gods with curious, knobby protrusions and unpronounceable names—the sentimental call them angels.
The low line drive skims the infield and bounds toward you, a little to your right. Nobody on, one out. You need simply to stop the ball. The throw, which needn’t be rushed, will go to the shortstop, who is lining himself up with second base. The ball is still moving fast, but it’s on the ground. Plant one knee in the grass, the other bent, leg opening out. The glove touches the ground, your throwing hand beside it, fingers splayed. Watch the ball into the glove, closing your hand over it, getting hold of it as you push yourself up, angling your body in line with second. The arm drops and rises behind you, your glove points to your target, then falls as you shift your weight and release. Whooshhhhhh—snap! into the shortstop’s mitt. The shortstop turns and jogs the few steps to the infield dirt, watching the runner retreat to first, then flips the ball to the pitcher. Single.
Mostly, the outfielder runs to back up, to collect a poor throw, or a surprising bounce, to limit others’ mistakes, to assure everyone that things are not that bad. Hustle behind third base. Be ready for the pick-off to second, the overthrow from third to first. Mostly—and ideally—these efforts are unrewarded. The play is made, the outfielder jogs back to his post, glove unused, breath easing to normal, perhaps hollering “Good Play” or “Way to do it” as he folds into position, knees bent, hand on one knee and glove on the other. Settled, he spits, as if saying, That’s done.
If things go perfectly, the pitcher never lets the ball leave the infield. Logically, the outfielder’s ideal game is one in which he does nothing. There he is, scuffing the grass with his cleat, spitting sunflower seeds, offering some bland encouragement that the pitcher may not even hear. There he is, lying down and staring up at the empty, endless sky, the greatest outfield, uncoverable. He plucks a blade of grass and pins it between his teeth. A plane leaves a contrail that connects one cloud to another. It is just cool enough that when a breeze passes, goosebumps appear on his arms.
The outfield, even center field, is not for strivers, those cursed with ambition or pride. Lear ends up in the outfield, raging in a storm (why didn’t they call the game?), but he never imagined he would be out there, rain spilling from his cap’s brim.
The outfield is democratic. Anyone can play it, and, let’s admit, any number can play it. Twelve players on your T-ball team? Have six outfielders.
This country, drifting toward empire, more proud than democratic, has little interest in the outfield. In the major leagues, the fences keep getting closer and closer. The possibilities, the players, must be hemmed in.
Watch an infielder groom his position, bending every now and then to pick up a small rock and toss it beyond the baseline, out of play. Such fastidiousness! Obsessive-compulsive, clean-shaven or finely mustachioed, they are too tidy. Are my pants too loose? My socks the right height? Is my cap precisely centered and angled off the forehead?
What can an outfielder do? The task is Sisyphean. One can’t tidy the universe. Pick up a rock or dirt clod and move it . . . where? And what about the other rocks, pebbles, twigs? The logs and memories and boulders? A ball could go anywhere. One must resign oneself to fate—the ball will collide with what it chooses. The world will go where it goes. You are not central to its outcome. The bombs will fall, and you can do little to stop them. Back up! Always back up! Or, if the situation calls for it, run like hell, holding your glove ahead of you like an offering, or a prayer.
In a time of war, the outfield may be your only chance.
Don’t believe them when they tell you all fields have fences now. Don’t even believe them when you see the fences yourself, when you collide into them running back, back, back for that endless fly ball. There is always more air than chain-link, and some nocturnal animal will have dug a rut underneath. There must be a way out.
An inside pitch, and eight-year-old Javier drops the bat and jumps back, out of the box, pulling his chest in, his arms rising on either side like wings. He turns to his bench wide-eyed. “That ball almost hit me!” he exclaims, not with anger, or fear, but with simple astonishment that the world has the potential for such cruelty. The coach simply nods.
Oh Javier, there is room for you in the outfield. You don’t need to wear cleats. You don’t need to wear sneakers—go barefoot. You can forget your hat in your mother’s boyfriend’s car. You can forget to pee between innings, and then, in the privacy of right field, drop your gray baseball pants down to your thighs in full view of those parents in the stands, of your own teammates on the bench, of your coach. Your only audience is yourself. You had to go bad, and now you’re going, the stream making an impressive arc, leaping into the air like a well-struck ball. A few drops glisten on the grass, rivulets putter and fade into the earth, a map of some unknown country appears and quickly recedes.
Turn to the right fielder, the young guy who is supposed to be good, the one who aches for your position, and yell “Kevin!” When he turns, open and close your mouth as if you are talking, but, rather than say words, just let out occasional syllables—Ah-Bo-Ace-Ta-Ta-Jedda.” Smile as if you’ve said something clever. Watch him smile, nod, and offer a weak laugh. What pleasure to be goofy! He thinks you’re annoying, or nuts. He’s certain you’re not as good as he is (he belongs in the infield). Lift your cap off your head, rub your long hair off your brow with your arm, then get ready for the pitch.
In the outfield, I smoked pot. I cracked stupid jokes about sex I only half understood. I rode in cars, their tires cutting the turf, making ridges in the moonlight. I stood in line, waiting for my turn, for the coach to hit me ten fly balls in a row until my arm burned from all those throws back in, until my lungs burned from all that running.
In the outfield, I composed the great song of the spheres I will never sing aloud, that I have half forgotten now, as I enter middle age.
In the outfield, worms eased between the nubs of my cleats, trying to write their damp hieroglyphics on my soles.
Yes, we were naked in the outfield, and I can hardly remember her now, but it was good.
In the silences of center field, I etched haikus on the back of my glove:
I was of three minds,
like an outfield, in which there
are three outfielders.
From a distance, the outfielder stands, small and thin, a young boy’s erect penis, so insignificant on the huge body of the field. Something passing over him that is vague, unknown, presexual, keeps him from dropping limp on the grass. The breeze? The clouds? Whitman’s trembling hand? The pitch?
The outfielder’s pleasure is simple, unencumbered by guilt or desire: See ball. Chase ball. Get ball. Throw ball. Oh, joy!
The outfielder does not wear a protective cup. He does not speak of fences.
You have taken turns on the pitcher’s mound and spent a little glamour time at shortstop, but you have always been an outfielder. When you were nine, playing in a league of nine- and ten-year-olds, you were the worst hitter on a first-place team. You spent that season excited and terrified, standing on the fringes of the outfield. Kids rarely hit the ball farther than the edge of the infield dirt. One game, the main slugger on the other team, a kid named Todd Whitehouse, hit a monstrous fly ball out toward you. You watched it. You stepped toward it. You caught it. And you were baptized an outfielder, teammates slapping your back and hollering. Since then, you’ve believed you can catch any ball you can reach, and many you can’t.
And to throw! Not like infielders, the wrist snap and quick release. Outfielders throw with their lungs, their soul, their groin. The body flings itself open, as if to hug the world, one arm somewhere behind the back, the other hanging in front, and then the swift arc of the body and arm, nearly a somersault, and the ball zings off.
A secret: true outfielders—not those who toil in the major leagues—abhor hitting. To be the spectacle—how distressingly public. And it’s so violent, brutal. Batting is something the outfielder accepts, penance for the joy of hunting flyballs, a kind of tax.
It is hardly worth running hard if you don’t get to dive, stretching parallel to the ground and falling into it at the end. The batter begins to swing, and before he even hits the ball, you’re taking a step left or right, depending on the pitch location and the speed of the swing. The ball moves up and out, and you are moving, too, your body calculating geometry on the run—the best angle, the quickest route, exactly where the little fucker is going. You’re running so hard you forget you’re running, and you lose all the awkward hitches that make you slower than you should be. Whisk, whisk, across the grass, whisk, whisk. And the ball comes down, and your body calculates again—is a dive necessary? If so, how? What angle? Off which leg? Now! The arm stretches. . . . Snap! Thud! It’s in the glove. You’re on the ground. You hop up and hurl the ball back to the infield, back from whence it came, and feel your chest rise and fall, rise and fall. When you lie down tonight, your side will be tender, and you will be unable to sleep, your chest still rising and falling, your mind chasing that ball down in the great dark field of night.
J. D. Scrimgeour’s book, Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class, won the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2005 and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2006. He is also the author of another book of nonfiction, Spin Moves, and a collection of poetry, The Last Miles. His essays have appeared in several magazines including the Boston Globe Magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is Coordinator of Creative Writing at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts, and the assistant coach on his sons’ baseball team.