Inning 1 ★ Welcome Home

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The Spalding ball flew into the deep blue sky of the late summer, as if guided by the wind to find a new horizon. We lost sight of it.

All the kids around me groaned and Jimmy, the pitcher, stomped on the ground and sent a cloud of red dust flying around him.

"Damn it, Payton. What did we tell you?" he asked, flapping his arms in the beginnings of a tantrum.

I shrugged and dropped my bat, jogging at a leisure pace towards first base. "This is life, kids. If you see an opportunity you have to take it."

"But we agreed that you wouldn't hit it far! It's not fair."

"Plus," the first baseman, Kwentin, told me as I stepped onto the base. "We told you we don't have a lot of balls. You'll have to give us new ones."

A chorus of agreement rose up as I rounded my way to home. I recognize the unifying powers of adversity, so I raised my arms up in celebration and became the villain that would bring them closer together as a team. It was Sunday afternoon and school would be back in session tomorrow, so I won't have much time to coach the kiddies anymore. I hoped today's lesson would be one that serves them well in the future.

Who was I kidding, I loved being able to make that ball fucking fly.

The kids on my team gave me high fives, some lower than others because of the height difference.

"Man, why can't we keep you on our team forever?" Pedrito asked me, looking up with large dark eyes that shone with mischief. He had to learn the same lesson as the opposite team.

I ruffled his hair. "Life's unfair, my friend."

At the end of the game we each lay on our backs somewhere in the park, shouting what the highest point of our performance had been that day, followed by our weakest and where we had to improve. It became a tradition since I was a kid and part of the league, an idea Domingo had had that our coach had supported. We'd finished a grueling game where we lost 16-1 and our morale was in the dirt. None of us felt like baseball was much fun anymore if it made us cry and slobber all over ourselves the way we were. Our coach had turned then to the parents to console us, and Domingo gathered both of his sons in his arms and asked them, had there been anything fun at all during the game? They'd talked about a pitch here or a catch there, and it had calmed them down. He then asked me the same questions, and then the next kid and the next. In a few minutes we were rambunctious again. A normal occurrence when you're six years old and have the attention span of a rock.

My kids used this strategy religiously, even when I forgot to demand it of them after a practice or a game.

Dwayne said that his high point today was when he was trying to steal second base and he farted, which helped him run faster and actually steal the base. They all burst into peals of laughter and I would have liked to join, except that I was supposed to be the mature adult here. With a shit-eating grin on my face, I told him that this was inappropriate talk and proceeded to extol about my homer. Parents started to arrive to pick up their kids as they were all moaning and groaning about me and the lost ball.

"Don't forget to practice your swings!" I called out to the stragglers. The field emptied and it was just me, the hot breeze and the sound of cars driving away. I took a deep breath and raised my face to the sun. An entire summer playing ball with the pee wees, working part time at Bobby's All Star sports center and sneaking in solo sessions at the batting cage under his nose, hanging out with friends. It was heaven. It was also over.

I grabbed my bat and started practicing my swings, looking at the mound and pretending that Seb was throwing his 101mph pitch at me and that Santi was behind me to catch it. I swung, imagining that Santi's glove had remained empty because I batted the ball out of the park. Seb would celebrate my accomplishment with a shout and a jump, looking at me with his shiny brown eyes and mouth open in a mix between joy and surprise. I'd admonish him for the latter, as if he had no right at all to be shocked at my greatness. Santi would scoff at us from behind me, and I'd bet good money that he accompanied it with a roll of his green eyes.

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