Out of Control

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Out of Control

What could be more gruesome, more spectacular, than a baseball bat to the face? The bone-crunching impact, the obscene amount of blood gushing from every orifice, the pained whimpers seeping through a row of busted-up teeth…

Karen Shaw didn’t worry like all the other moms she knew. So often, as a single parent, she’d thumb her nose at the helpless blubbering and general bitchiness of her more principled child-rearing friends. Whenever she’d hear about some kid who’d refuse to eat the right foods or go to bed on time or perform a mindless task for no other reason than because Mommy said so! – Karen would funnel that brow of hers and let rip a few choice alternatives:

“Let the sucker starve!”

“Feed the runt tree bark!”

“Make the little shit sleep outside!”

Of course, most of her friends thought she was joking; they never went so far as to test the true effectiveness of Karen’s no-nonsense approach. Put two and two together and maybe they would, but Karen wouldn’t bet on it. No parent likes being blamed for expecting too little or coddling too much. Not ever.

And especially not now.

In a parking spot along the third baseline, Karen angled the rearview mirror at her five-year-old son sitting in back; her elephant gray eyes tried reading the blank expression on his face. What was he thinking? What was he feeling? She looked at him and she dreamed backwards.

It was early evening and the empty diamond appeared raked and untouched; the April sun, having dipped beyond a tall line of maple trees, casted long shadows across the field’s freshly mowed grass. Charlie unbuckled his seatbelt and popped open his door, while Karen reached in back for his bat, his mitt, and the ball. The ball – where’s the ball? In a panic she stretched out and swiped a hand across the rubber mats, searching, checking under both seats, until at last she remembered they didn’t need a ball. A smidgen of relief pulled at the corners of her mouth.

“We can do this,” she whispered to herself.

All around the schoolyard she could sense pressure in the air. Blackbirds floating, dragonflies swimming, her son skipping like a rock across the plush green outfield… He was heading for the playground on the other side of the brick building when his mother whistled for him to stop.

“Get your butt back here,” she shouted. “We only got twenty minutes before everybody starts showing up.”

At the team’s first practice Karen had learned there’s only one good way to fix the problem. The coach, after dropping his mitt in front of the tee, had instructed every kid to rest the bat on top of it.

“After you swing,” he told them, “I want you to drop the bat on top of the glove. Okay? Is everybody listening? Swing, drop, run. Any questions? Good. Now get in line.”

His instructions seemed simple, so simple that Karen was sure there wasn’t going to be a problem. Not for Charlie. Charlie was great with following instructions. And besides, up to that point, he wasn’t the one throwing the goddamn bat. It was that other kid – Atticus – the one who preferred picking boogers and dandelions over catching fly balls, the kid whose over-protective mother expressed shock after learning the league wasn’t using “softer” bats.

Now Karen dropped Charlie’s mitt on the ground and told him to line up at the plate. She handed him the bat, then helped him adjust his grip and stance. The bright orange tube of aluminum stemmed from his hands like a lit fuse. Watchfully, Karen inched away from the batter’s box and then spoke through the backstop fencing.

“All right, Charlie, go ahead and swing. But don’t forget to put the bat down on the glove, okay? Just like Coach Gary taught you, remember? You remember what he said?”

“Mom?”

“Yes, Charlie.”

“Did you bring my water bottle?”

“Don’t worry about your water bottle, Charlie. Just swing the bat.”

Charlie lined up his feet and faced the pitcher’s mound. Karen could see his mind was processing. He bent his knees, shifted his weight, swung, then gently set the bat down on the mitt.

“Good,” his mother told him. “That was good. But next time I want you to swing harder. You need to keep the bat up or else you’ll hit the tee every time. You understand what I’m saying, Charlie? Imagine the tee’s in front of you and take a good hard swing. Really crush it. Don’t be afraid to use some muscle.”

Charlie nodded, then turned back to the plate. After a deep breath he lifted his front leg and swung the orange bat with a hard step forward. It was a solid cut, right at belt-level, but this time the bat flew out of his hands and sailed down the first baseline; it whipped through the air like a helicopter blade before cart-wheeling across the section of grass typically crammed with parents and their collapsible chairs.

For a moment Karen stood frozen, overtaken by the imagery unfolding before her bewildered eyes… A curled-up body, a bloodied face… children screaming, parents swarming… emergency technicians racing back and forth with their bright orange tackle boxes in hand…

“Oops,” Charlie now said with both arms outstretched. “I didn’t mean to do that. That was an accident.”

Karen blinked behind the backstop fencing. “No, Charlie, that was no accident. You need to tighten your grip and focus on what you’re doing. Swing hard, but not so hard that you lose control. You understand me?” She jogged over to the bat resting in foul territory. “You need to be more careful. You could’ve really hurt somebody.”

“But I didn’t mean to,” Charlie said.

“Really?” This made Karen scoff. “Try telling that to their attorney.”

She picked up the bat and wiped clean the taped grip with the hem of her sweatshirt. All the while her stomach was clenching, her teeth were grinding… She looked up at her son who was pointing over her left shoulder.

“Behind you,” he said. “Isn’t that Coach Gary?”

Karen turned in time to see a blue minivan pull into an empty parking spot. The rear door slid open and half of Charlie’s team spilled out.

“Shit,” Karen said. “They’re early.”

His team’s sudden arrival had Charlie sprinting out to join them in the outfield. Karen saw no choice but to let him go. With the orange bat in her hands she slumped her shoulders, then surrendered a full swing across home plate. She followed the natural motion with her eyes, both pleased and perplexed by how easily the bat remained in her hands.

“Way to lean into it,” Coach Gary said from the dugout bench. He winked at Karen when she looked over. “You got a batter’s build.”

He dropped a nylon sack of helmets on the ground and pulled out a wooden clipboard. A dry-erase marker he uncapped with his mouth and then used to ink a laminated lineup sheet.

“Afraid we got our hands full tonight,” he said. “We’re hosting the Giants and half our team’s out with head lice. Their coach is a real hustler. Damn bastard’s got his team stacked with second graders.”

“You think we’re ready?” Karen said.

Coach gave a smirk. “We got a choice?”

Karen reached down and snatched Charlie’s mitt off the ground, then went around to where the coach was standing.

“Actually,” she said, “that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You know the drill you were doing the other night – the one where you had each kid swing and drop the bat on top of the glove? Well, I think Charlie might’ve gotten the wrong idea.  Could be a stretch, I know, but he’s been acting quirky ever since – like he’s lost complete control of his motor skills.”

Coach Gary kept his eyes on the clipboard, mouth stretched with the pen’s plastic cap lodged in the corner. Then, looking out toward the diamond, he cupped one hand around his mouth and shouted to his oldest son, Max, who had ripped second base out of the ground and was now chasing his younger brother with it in small circles.

“Hey Max!” he shouted. “You put that back, NOW! You wanna play ball tonight? Huh? You’re gonna be riding the pine with that kind of attitude, Mister!”

Max responded to his father’s threat with a careless shrug, then flung the base in his brother’s direction. Coach Gary, none too pleased by this, set down his clipboard and started for the outfield.

“Excuse me a moment,” he said.

Karen waited by the bench and let her eyes drift. By this point more cars had arrived and players of the opposing team, dressed in black, had begun stretching along the left-field foul line. Pregame warm-ups were now underway. Coach Gary tried gathering his team for some kind of fielding exercise, but quickly grew flustered. He looked like he was chasing squirrels around the schoolyard. Meanwhile, the other team’s coach – a real drill sergeant – was going over potential game scenarios with his attentive players who were hanging on his every word.

It was a beautiful night. As Karen stood alone, watching other parents pick their spots to sit and watch the game, she noticed Atticus’s mother unfolding her chair in the exact spot where Charlie’s thrown bat had landed. Seeing this made her eyes cringe. Her mind was busy arguing charges of negligence when another parent walked up beside her and said, “Line-drive to the trachea, you wanna make a bet?”

Karen exchanged wary glances with the middle-aged man, a father she’d never seen before. “I was just debating whether or not I should tell her to move.”

“Nah,” the man said. “Baseball’s a spectator’s sport. You’d be killing the fun for the rest of us.” He folded his arms and rocked back on his heels. “Besides, she’ll get the message eventually. One dribbles past her foot and she’ll relocate faster than a tax-dodger come Tuesday. Just don’t quote me on that – I’m the accountant fudging the books.”

Karen smiled. “You’re accountable then, not me.”

Soon a whistle blew and the game was about to start. Coach Gary had positioned his players around the field, as the visiting Giants were first up at the plate. Charlie was playing shortstop, next to Atticus who was playing third base. Neither one of them were paying attention to the batter who was about to swing.

“Keep your head up, Charlie!” Karen shouted.

“Watch out for the ball!” cried Atticus’s mother.

On the first swing contact was made; the ball split the diamond and trickled into center field. The hitter dropped the bat just inches from home plate as Charlie and four of his teammates dove and then wrestled for the ball. Parents cheered. Coach Gary shouted. By the time the ball was thrown, the hitter held up at third base and was pumping his fist in celebration.

“I hate this,” Karen confessed out loud. “These games always make me tense. It’s supposed to be fun, I know, but it never ends up that way.”

“Which one’s yours?”

Karen pointed Charlie out to the accountant. “I don’t know why I worry so much. He doesn’t care who wins or who loses. He doesn’t get embarrassed when he makes a mistake.  And here I am, his mother, a yarn ball of nerves… don’t ask me why.”

Right then the crowd cheered at another runner crossing home plate. The Giants were in command and looking unstoppable. Across the field Coach Gary told his players not to worry. He reminded them that it was five runs or three outs, whichever came first.

“Think I’m starting to see what you mean,” the accountant said. “You feel so powerless standing here. It’s like watching a dog run against traffic. The best you can do is turn your head – or hide in the parking lot.”

Karen’s eyes widened. “So you’re saying I’m not crazy?”

“No, you’re not crazy.” He half-smiled. “But you could feel more blessed. There are people who would die to be in your shoes. You have a son, a terrific son, and you get to watch him play one of the most beautiful games ever made.”

“I know,” Karen said.  “It’s shameful.”

Now the bases were loaded. Another Giant stepped up to the plate and sent a blooper into left field. His hearty swing followed by an effortless drop of the bat had Karen’s subconscious reeling. No sign of blood, no sudden gasps from the audience… Maybe the accountant was right. What kind of mother roots for accidental misfortune?

The accountant scrunched his nose at the runner on first. “Look at the size of him. He’s twice as big as everyone else. What age group are these kids anyway?”

“Age group?”  The question struck her as odd.   “You mean, you’re not a parent?”

First he chuckled, then he nodded to the playground on the opposite side of the field, where a little girl was swinging alone across the monkey bars.  “She doesn’t like baseball – or any sport for that matter. I’ve tried throwing the ball with her, taking her to the batting cage, but she’s just not interested. So we come out here and she does her thing… and I do mine.”

The little girl swung her legs over the top bar, then dropped her hands so she could hang upside-down from her knees. With her golden blonde hair spilling off the top of her head, she turned her face in the direction of the baseball diamond. Her father waved and gave a big smile to show her he was watching. Then, turning his attention back to home plate, he nudged Karen with his elbow.

“Hey,” he said. “I think your boy’s up to bat.”

The accountant was right – the teams had changed sides and Charlie was first in the lineup. The helmet he wore was too big on him and the orange bat he carried looked like a giant stick of dynamite. Karen hurried over and clung to the backstop.

“Okay, Charlie. This is the real deal. Remember what we talked about.” She turned her focus to the outfield, then to the parents sitting along the first baseline.

“Heads up, everybody!” she shouted. “Batter up! You hear me? Batter up!”

All eyes were on Charlie and that orange bat in his hands.  He choked up on the handle, dug his back foot into the dirt.

Coach Gary walked along the first baseline and clapped his hands.  “C’mon, Charlie!  No holding back now!   Show us what you got!”