After too many balls went out and never came back, we went out to check. It was a long walk–he always played deep. Finally, we saw him, from a distance he resembled the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.
It was hard to tell how long he’d been lying there, sprawled on his face. Had he been playing infield, his presence, or lack of it, would, of course, have been noticed immediately. The infield demands communication–the constant, reassuring chatter of team play. But he was remote, clearly an outfielder. The infield is for wisecrackers, pepper pots, gum-poppers; the outfield is for loners, onlookers, brooders who would rather study clover and swat gnats than holler. People could be pretty much be divided between infielders and outfielders. Not that one has a choice. He didn’t so much choose right field as accept it.
There were several theories as to what killed him. From the start, the most popular was that he’d been shot. Perhaps from a passing car, possibly by one of those gangs. Or maybe some pervert with a telescopic sight shooting from a bedroom window, or a mad sniper from a water tower, or a terrorist with a silencer from the expressway overpass, or maybe it was an accident, a stray slug from a robbery, or a shoot-out, or an assassination attempt far away.
No matter who pulled the trigger, it seemed more plausible to ascribe his death to a bullet than to natural causes, like, say, a heart attack. Young deaths are never natural; they’re all violent. Not that kids don’t die of heart attacks. But he never seemed the type. Sure, he was quiet, but not the quiet of someone always listening for the heart murmur his parents repeatedly warned him about since he was old enough to play. Nor could it have been leukemia. He wasn’t a talented enough athlete to die of that. He’d have been playing center, not right, if leukemia was going to get him.
The shooting theory was better, even though there wasn’t a mark on him. Couldn’t it have been, as some argued, a high-powered bullet traveling with such velocity that its hole fused up behind it? Still, not everyone was satisfied. Other theories were formulated; rumors became legends over the years. He’d had an allergic reaction to a bee sting; been struck by a single bolt of lightning from a freak, instantaneous electrical storm; ingested too strong a dose of insecticide from the grass blades he chewed on; sonic waves, radiation, pollution, etc. and a few of us think it was simply that, chasing a sinking liner, diving to make a shoestring catch, he broke his neck.
There was a ball pinned in the webbing of his mitt when we turned him over. His mitt had been trapped under his body and was coated with an almost luminescent gray film. The same gray was on his high-top gym shoes; as if he’d been running through lime, and it was on the bill of his baseball cap–the blue felt one with the red C that he always denied stood for the Chicago Cubs. He may have been a loner, but he didn’t want to be identified with a loser. He lacked the sense of humor for that, lacked the perverse pride that sticking with a loser season after season breeds. He was just an ordinary guy, .250 at the plate, and we stood above him not knowing what to do next. By then some guys from the other outfield positions had trotted over. Someone, the shortstop probably, suggested team prayer. But no one could think of a team prayer. So, we all just stood there, silently bowing our heads, pretending to pray while the shadows moved darkly across the outfield grass. After a while the entire diamond was swallowed and the field lights came on.
In the bluish squint of those lights, he didn’t look like someone we’d once known–nothing looked quite right–and we hurriedly scratched a shallow grave, covered him over, and stamped it down as much as possible so that the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, wouldn’t trip. It could be just such a trivial stumble that would ruin a great career before it had begun, or hamper it years later the way Mantle’s was hampered by bum knees. One can never be sure that kid beside you isn’t another Roberto Clemente, and who can ever know how many Great Ones have gone down in the obscurity of their neighborhoods? And so, in the catcher’s phrase, we buried the grave rather than contribute to any further tragedy. In all likelihood, the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, would be clumsy too, and if there was a mound to trip over he’d find it and break his neck, and soon right field would get the reputation as haunted, a kind of sandlot Bermuda Triangle, inhabited by phantoms calling for ghostly fly balls, where no one but the most desperate outcasts, already on the verge of suicide, would be willing to play.
Still, despite our efforts, we couldn’t totally disguise it. A fresh grave is stubborn. Its outline remained visible–a scuffed bald spot that might have been mistaken for an aberrant pitcher’s mound except for the bat jammed in the earth with the mitt and blue cap hooked over the handle. Perhaps we didn’t want it to disappear completely–a part of us was resting there. Perhaps we wanted the new right fielder, whoever he’d be, to notice and wonder who played there before him, realizing he was not the only link between past and future that mattered. As for us, we started to walk back, but by then it was too late–getting on supper, getting on to the end of summer vacation, time for other things, college, careers, settling down and raising a family. Past thirty-five the talk starts about being over the hill, about Nolan Ryan still fanning them as if it’s some kind of miracle, beating the odds. And maybe the talk is right. One remembers Willie Mays, forty-two and a Met, dropping that can-of-corn fly in the ‘73 series, all that grace stripped away and with it the conviction, leaving a man confused and apologetic about the boy in him. It’s sad to admit it ends so soon, but everyone knows those are the lucky ones. Most guys are washed up by seventeen.