Hurtling plateward at 93 miles per hour, rubbed up with ol’ Lena Blackburne’s rubbing mud before the game, just introduced into the game by the 24-year-old umpire with the 19-year-old face...
The instant before the clean white sphere is bashed off of the Mama Louisa’s Pizza billboard on the left-center field wall, 381 feet away from home plate.
The instant before the dream dies for Lucas Pegram, the pride of Leightonville.
It is the fastest fastball Lucas Pegram will throw this season, the pitch clocked as high as 95 miles per hour in high school, the pitch that earned him a $150,000 signing bonus, and the pitch that registers only at 89 or 90 miles per hour in the Dakota League.
But on this June day, a day with at last no rain in the forecast, Lucas Pegram feels good again, as good as he felt on any day in high school. His arm feels loose. His warm-up tosses feel great. The familiar confidence returns.
He winds up, nice and slow, stepping back with his right foot, swinging his right leg expertly into the air, stepping toward the plate, whipping his arm around, wrist snapping the ball toward home. It comes off his fingers just right, spinning perfectly toward his target, set at the outside corner, the soft catcher’s mitt set forth to offer a welcoming embrace.
At the plate, a skinny 5’10 shortstop named Manuel Baez, who smiles when the roster lists him at 6’0, waits with bat poised behind his left ear. His eyes widen. He swings with all his might.
A sharp crack echoes through the half-empty park. Lucas Pegram has never heard a crack that loud before.
The pride of Leightonville cranks ‘round his head.
His teammates patrolling the outer garden in left and center sprint back, back, back. The ball thwacks off the Mama Louisa’s Pizza billboard. The man from left field reaches the ball first, collects it on two hops, flings it back to the infield.
Manuel Baez stops at second base. He claps his hands together.
Lucas Pegram retires some two and a half years later. The decision shocks his friends, stuns his family, surprises his teammates. What happened, they wonder?
What happened, Lucas never tells them, is that a skinny 5’10 shortstop bashed his very best fastball some 381 feet off the left-center field wall. It’s enough to kill anyone’s dream.
There is a new pride of Leightonville, a flashy outfielder named Ricky Pollock, and Lucas goes to see him play every now and then at the high school when not working at his successful auto dealership. He goes with his two boys and they listen to the Reds on the radio as they drive to the games.
Lucas’s boys may still be quite young, but they know their baseball and know that it’s perfectly within reason to boo when the Reds’ struggling shortstop whiffs to quash another rally. There is talk that the shortstop will be sent back down to the minor leagues soon. He’s been yo-yoing between the minors and the majors for quite some time now, a tough life for a veteran, going back and forth like that and taking abuse from the fans at every stop.
Between his sons’ boos, Lucas Pegram wishes, not for the first time, he could trade lives with Manuel Baez.