Mike Ketchum slept under the awning of the local laundry mat. He panhandled for pieces of clothing to wrap around him when he slept. He peed in a plastic water bottle and emptied it into the sewer drain, well aware that the smell of human urine would be a turn off to those eager to wash their clothes.
There was a time when Ketchum dreamed of playing baseball. Unfortunately, the little league coaches said his singing Donna Summer songs during games “wasn’t in the best interest of the league.” Ketchum found it hard to believe that no team wanted his services, not the tigers, brewers, angels, red sox, or even the last place Indians, none of them. And it wasn’t like Ketchum couldn’t play. He had decent range at shortstop, an accurate arm, and he hit to all fields and maybe most importantly, he could take a pitch, work on at bat, sometimes for 10 or 11 pitches and even if he ultimately struck out, he wore the pitcher down, frustrated him, and sure enough, every once in a while the next batter singled or doubled.
Ketchum wasn’t one to cry, not because he didn’t want to or need to; he simply lacked access to the mechanism in the human body that produced tears, to empty the bucket of woe, so after not making the little league, he walked to mellow the sting; he walked two towns over, to Beckum where there was a village bazaar underway….in the wide open spaces with sun, clouds, wind, and men at tables with booze breaths, selling baseball cards, old farm equipment, 45’s and lp’s, kitchen utensils, paintings, all kinds of stuff and there was a she too, suddenly appearing in the section that sold jacket patches and yeh, maybe she didn’t have the most perfect face or smooth, silky hair, but she walked on her toes.
Ketchum asked around and the dealers said she was there every Saturday, walking up and down the dirt floor aisles, never buying anything, but stopping every once in a while to stare up at the trees. if only he had confidence, thought Ketchum, he would walk over to her and discuss leaves and photosynthesis and before he could say three shots McGoo, they’d be drinking root beer at Fitzgerald’s Pharmacy. But the only date Ketchum had ever been on was with Missy Tannenbaum. He asked her to see a movie, A View To A Kill, James Bond. Bad idea because of all that James Bond macho crap. Ketchum kept quiet after that,
But this girl at the Bazaar had Ketchum daydreaming of train station scoreboards and far away destinations. Ketchum called his aunt Rose and asked how to strike up a conversation with a girl and how to hold her hand.
It was the second Saturday in March, en route to the bazaar when Ketchum spotted a man leaning against a stop sign, leaning and not moving, as still as the sign itself. The man was wearing a fisherman’s hat, long blue nylon coat, and holding a green gym bag at his side. The man rolled his fingers towards himself, a hint to follow him. Ketchum didn’t grow up with warnings to not take candy from strangers……his mom taught him that there were an endless cast of characters to discover.
the man led him to an alley behind the milk store. he removed two gloves and a ball from his bag.
“You see. You hold it like this,” the man explained. “A roll up ball. The ball starts low, then dips even lower and finally rises to the top of the strike zone, impossible to hit.”
It took a few pitches, but the alchemy came to Ketchum. He turned a flat ball into one that dipped and rose and a feeling came over him, of never wanting to die. He turned to thank the man, but he was sprinting away, soon out of sight. It didn’t matter because he had a new object of desire, to make the high school team. He forgot all about the girl who stared at trees.
Ketchum practiced against the brick wall of Dougan’s Bakery and made the high school team. The scouts came. There was a draft and a contract and an assignment to rookie league followed by A ball and many immaculate innings, but then suddenly, on a perfect blue sky day, Ketchum’s pitch no longer moved…one game after another, week after week, nothing. Ketchum met a hypnotist, tried meditation and visualization, group therapy, massage, but still no swings and misses.
there was nothing more humiliating than being taken out of a game, that slow walk a manager makes to the mound followed by a signal with his hand calling for a new pitcher, a better one, a fresher one, not prone to giving up a hit, a home run. How many times can a pitcher endure that patronizing pat on the shoulder!
Ketchum took to a life of aimless wandering, soup kitchens, loitering in libraries and sleeping under awnings. He often wondered if his life woulda been better if he had met the woman who stared at trees…..then he would have never followed the man, never learned the pitch.
Ketchum never knew the month, day or year, only if it was hot or cold. and then came a day. he was sitting lotus under the awning of the laundry mat, listening to AM radio, to a Twins game, a bottle of Wild Irish Rose rot gut wine at his side.
“Remember Lyman Bostock?” asked a lady with red hair. “Can I bum a sip of your wine?”
Ketchum smiled and looked up at the trees.