29 Nov Strike Three by Ben Wrixon
Before he died, the last time I spoke to my father we were broiling underneath the August sun in section 126 at the old ballpark. All the covered seats at the diamond had sold out, but, despite knowing we’d inevitably get sunburnt, my father had insisted we celebrate my eighteenth birthday with a baseball game. I still have the foul ball he caught me; it’s front and centre in my memorabilia display. However, a decade later, what I really remember from that afternoon is being sweat-soaked and furious when My Team lost.
Now, my father is gone, but Opening Day is here again. I’m on the clock counting down the minutes until the first pitch of the season. Bringing that baseball he caught for me to work has become a personal tradition: it reminds me of simpler times, of days from my childhood when we would drive my mother crazy by pacing around the living room during intense duels between pitchers and batters. When my shift finally ends around six, I sprint to my car, holding my lucky baseball like I’m stealing second base.
I wonder if Dad ever did this? I ask myself.
He always liked watching the sport, but what he loved was taking the train into town, scarfing down two footlong hotdogs, and drinking piss-water beer. None of that superficial stuff brings me enjoyment unless My Team wins. We always used to fight whenever they lost because I’d get into a foul mood regardless of how much fun we’d had. A few hours after he caught the foul ball on that scorching August afternoon, I blew up on him because he started using his therapist language on me. Watching My Team lose in extra innings had me in no frame of mind to be lectured about “black-and-white” thinking or “catastrophizing.” I was so angry at his condescension that I almost threw the ball in the trash.
When I get home from work, the ball is right there on my mantle. I sweep my negative thoughts aside and park my butt on the couch in the room Abigail calls my ‘mancave,’ then turn on the game just in time to catch the team introductions—not that I don’t know every player already. It’s quite a boring game until the sixth inning when My Team’s best hitter crushes a huge home run with two runners on base.
“FINALLY!” I scream.
Eventually, Abigail comes downstairs asking me to lower the TV volume; I tell her the score, brimming with excitement. Her smile is tentative. She watches a few pitches with her hand on my shoulder, then goes back upstairs to bed.
When we win the game, I hop on Instagram to relive it all. The official MLB account posted about how well we did. They made a cool edit of the home run where the bat looks like a lightsaber. After watching that several times, I read through some analysis written by fan accounts before finally joining Abigail in our bedroom.
She’s already dozing off under the covers. Our bedside clock reads eleven-thirty; I must have lost track of time scrolling. I brush my teeth, undress, then climb into bed with my wonderful girlfriend. She’s warm. I don’t mind that she doesn’t nuzzle her head into my chest tonight—it’s late, and she’s on call at the hospital tomorrow, after all.
“Did they win by a lot?”
“Just by three,” I say. “How did you know we won?”
She falls asleep without answering me.
My Team wins eight of their first ten games.
At the end of April, we’re in first place with an 18-10 record. The online discussion surrounding the team is refreshingly positive—my father never liked how negative fans and columnists were after a loss. He never believed that one game could be meaningful in a 162-game season. Obviously I know they all matter.
Being atop the baseball world propels me through my shifts; the annoyances of office work become tolerable. I proudly keep my co-workers—the fair-weather fans who don’t actually watch the games—updated on scores. On casual Friday, I wear a baseball cap sporting My Team’s logo without shame.
Abigail and I really get along when My Team wins. I’m more motivated to cook dinner when there’s an exciting game right after as a reward. I have more energy to listen to her problems when My Team is good. She gets annoyed when I insist on watching the post-game coverage, but reliving each sweet victory is better than having the same-old sex.
May isn’t good for My Team.
I’ve taken to throwing the TV remote. The first time I did, I nearly hit my memorabilia display. The second time, Abigail came downstairs right as My Team’s pitcher gave up a grand slam to lose the game. She claimed to have heard me shouting all the way upstairs in our bedroom. I tried telling her that it’s not my fault we have thin floors or that the paint on our walls is so easily scratched, but she didn’t buy it.
We agreed I’d sleep on the couch that night.
It would have been a one-night thing had My Team not departed on a two-week-long west coast road trip the following day. Whenever they play in California or Seattle, the games don’t start until ten o-clock our time, which means I can’t go to bed until one in the morning. I’m on the couch for the fifth night in a row because it works best for us both. We’ll get back to sharing a bed soon; baseball ends in September, but Abigail is around all year.
We start winning again in August.
I’m back sleeping with Abigail. She seems happier since the hospital started giving her weekends off work—they hired a new nurse, apparently. When the anniversary of that afternoon in section 126 comes around, she offers to watch the game with me. I take the foul ball out of its case to teach Abigail about pitching while we do.
“This is a four-seam fastball,” I tell her, demonstrating the grip by holding my pointer and middle fingers across the seams. “You want to throw them early in the count.”
“For most pitchers, it’s their best pitch,” I explain. “You want to throw your best pitch early so that you can get an advantage on the batter. If you throw strike one, that means you are putting him on the defensive. Good pitchers always attack.”
“How do you strike batters out? With curveballs?”
“Yeah, curveballs can work,” I say, working my fingers into the grip that my father taught me years ago in our backyard. “Or sliders… sometimes changeups.”
Abigail puts on her thinking face. Her squirming tips me off—something uncomfortable is coming. “Okay… well, unfortunately, I need to throw you a bit of a curveball here: I’m going away for a few weeks.”
“Going away? Where?”
“I’m going to go stay with my parents for a while.”
The last time Abigail visited her parents was five Septembers ago while My Team made a fruitless push toward the playoffs. They blew the season by losing their final five games; I was too furious to talk about anything when I picked her up from the airport.
I take her hand. It’s cold. “Can I ask why?”
“Well, I haven’t seen them in a while, and my dad isn’t doing great—I know you can understand that. Besides, I figured this was a good time because you’re going to be pretty wrapped up with the end of the season, right?”
My Team does have a good record at 80-67. We’re in a prime position to make the playoffs if we play reasonably well over the season’s final weeks. She’s right; I’ll probably spend most of my free time in-between games stressing over predictions.
“That doesn’t mean you need to leave.”
She sighs. “Yes, it does.”
Living alone again is a mixed bag.
I like watching the game with the TV cranked loud enough to shake the house and having the freedom to scream without judgement. What I don’t like is having to feed myself—cooking every night is exhausting. My father used to keep a book of easy recipes for the nights when my mother had to work late, but I’ve forgotten most of them. The UberEATS boxes are piling up when the final week of the season rolls around.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my father a lot.
In the fallout of our fight on my eighteenth birthday, he refused to watch a game with me again. He swore off baseball entirely. He forced my mother to drive me to college alone and didn’t hug me goodbye. He spoke through her from that day forward; she told me about his cancer diagnosis, and he never once called to update me. We became so distanced that it didn’t feel appropriate to speak at his funeral. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that these are the type of baseball moments I always wanted to share with him: Our Team only needs to win three of their next five games to clinch a playoff spot.
When My Team loses game one, I don’t throw the TV remote—the batteries rolled under the couch last time, and I haven’t cleaned the floor since Abigail left. Instead, I slam it into the couch cushions to blow off steam. Fortunately for my sanity, winning the next two games puts us in prime position to finally end the playoff drought. I can taste the champagne on my tongue until My Team loses the fourth game in humiliating fashion.
I fall asleep in an empty bed, shivering.
In honour of the final game, I take the foul ball out of its display case. I squeeze it tight with excitement when My Team takes an early 1-0 lead on a first-inning home run. The crowd looks electric. I’d do anything to be back roasting in section 126—even eat one of those disgusting hot dogs my father used to love.
My phone rings. I ignore it.
My Team falls apart in the middle innings. Our pitcher loses his release point and coughs up the tying run. They’ve been struggling to hit since the first inning, while the opposition has gotten into a confident groove. The other team scores another run in the eighth off our bullpen pitcher to put the game in jeopardy—we only have one inning to come back.
My phone rings again, so I check it. Abigail.
As the game cuts to a commercial break, I scurry upstairs to take her call. “What’s going on?”
“My dad had a stroke.”
My heart drops. “Oh, God… is he okay?”
“I don’t know… I—I’m just so—why didn’t you answer me?”
I swallow hard. “I was watching the game.”
“The game? You ignored my calls for the game?”
“It’s their last one, I—”
She hangs up.
I call her back. No answer.
She ignores my second call as I go back downstairs. When I get back in front of the TV, I curse to myself, realizing I missed the majority of the ninth inning. I sink into the couch right as the opposing pitcher throws a fastball by our last batter for strike one. I tighten my grip on the baseball my father gave me when the batter swings and misses for strike two.
“Here comes the curveball—”
The batter at the plate is just a kid; if we were watching together under the sweltering sun in section 126, my father would have pitied him.
“—No balls, two strikes… the pitcher is ready.”
Ball game. Strike three looking.
Anger consumes me; I want to throw the baseball at my TV screen until it shatters into a million pieces. I cock my arm back like a shortstop about to throw, but then I’m transported back to section 126. I’m smiling ear-to-ear as my father hands me the foul ball he just caught. I’m back in the crowd arguing with him as we’re leaving the stadium. I’m in my mother’s car thinking about him on the way to college. I’m feeling embarrassed that the baseball is in my pocket at his funeral instead of the words to a speech.
My phone rings again.
I set the ball down, and then I answer.