Watercolor by Sophie Bryan painted during the first two innings of the game.

“Uncle E! Tomorrow is our baseball game?”

Henry greeted me with the question after hugging Jamie, asking about her foot, and getting a good look at her fancy scooter.

“I have my glove and my hat.”

Mighty Henry, nephew extraordinaire, was in town for the weekend. He would be throwing out the first pitch at his first baseball game. Multiple times throughout the day, he talked to me about “our baseball game.” In a short season like the GRBL, it is necessary and understandable to go to extreme efforts to break losing streaks. Thanks to Sungwoo Lee and the Royals, I’ve been part of an unforgettable first pitch ceremony. I was hoping Henry could impart some of his contagious positive energy on the CY Cyclones with his own effort.

On game day, I met him at the stadium, after I had stretched and helped warm up Skylar, our starting pitcher, who couldn’t throw anything straight. (That’s a compliment.) Henry looked great wearing his #Catch365 t-shirt. I questioned his choice of an A’s hat, until I remembered it was his t-ball team. The Oakland A’s have a legitimate shot at the postseason; the Cyclones needed that mojo, too. He quickly made himself at home in the bullpen and challenged me to flip the large tractor tire. I declined.

Photo courtesy Katy Oswalt

After the first game finished, we ran out on to the field. Henry loved the feel of the artificial turf as we did some stretches in the outfield and ran a couple sprints before he offered to carry my bat to the dugout. The more Henry mojo, the better. In the dugout, Henry was treated to a cup of water and a few words of wisdom from Coach Nasby.

Photo courtesy Katy Oswalt.

Escorted by Kaylea on college day at the park, Henry walked to the field for his first pitch.

Video by Katy Oswalt.

Official Grip ‘N’ Rip photographer Mike Hudgens also documented the moment, with Kaylea standing behind Henry and Henry’s hat turned backwards making him a solid, if young, doppleganger for Squints from The Sandlot.

Photo courtesy Mike Hudgens Photography
Photo courtesy Mike Hudgens Photography

It was only after Henry’s most excellent first pitch did I learn that Rylan was also throwing out a first pitch. Rylan, and his dad Chandler, were catch partners last year (Day #270). Chandler is a pitcher and off-speed specialist for the Yogis, the opponent for the day. I was hoping for a chance to stand in against Chandler’s loopy curveball just so I could see it with my own eyes.  

But in terms of streak-breaking baseball-mojo, Rylan’s first pitch rendered Henry epic effort moot.

Side note: My sister passed along this story from the stands. “You know how they play different walk-up songs for each player? Well, apparently Henry didn’t like one of them, because he turned to the loudspeaker and yelled, “ALEXA! Stop!” And then the song stopped (because the player was at bat), but I’m sure Henry thinks it was his doing.”

* * * * * * * * * *   

I have three baseball fears.

3. Losing a fly ball or line drive in the lights. (We’ll see what happens in two weeks.)

2. Getting picked off of first base.

1. Getting hit by a pitch.

Tanner was the starting pitcher for Yogis. I faced Tanner in my first at bat of the season and knew that he threw the ball hard. I spent the week taking a few hundred swings in anticipation of and preparation for his fastball. I dreamed of barreling one of his fastballs and sliding safely into second. Down two runs, I led off the top of the third and felt ready.

Tanner went into his slow wind-up and I put an excellent fastball swing on an even more excellent slider. I may have missed the ball by a foot or two, but at least I held on to the bat and my knees didn’t buckle. The second slider was considerably outside to even the count. After seeing two sliders, I took a breath and geared up for the fastball. The fastball was inside and I jumped back to avoid it. With the count in my favor, I was ready to take another cut at a fastball.

I saw it, I saw it, I started to swing and then the ball just danced or defied physics or found a wormhole. Tanner threw another excellent slider and I looked like I was trying to chop down a tree. With the count even at two balls and two strikes, Tanner went back to the fastball and it ran inside. This time, I couldn’t get out of the way.

The ball hit me square on my right elbow and bounced almost all the way to first base.

And that’s how you get revenge against ridiculous sliders. Alex Gordon would have been proud.

In the words of High Rollers outfielder Ben Hammitt, “I got a trophy.” I hoped the bruise would turn purple and green so I could brag about it.

I stood on first with the top of the lineup coming and the fingers on my right hand feeling weird. Still, I was ready to put my legs to the test; I wanted to touch ‘em all and get the scoring started. Todd, the first baseman for the Yogis and one of the few players my age, was holding me on. I told him it wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t going anywhere and didn’t have any intention of drawing a throw.

Cyclones’ second baseman Tyler stepped up to the plate. Tyler of the worst-luck, hitting balls hard and square and right at people. On a 2 – 1 slider, Tyler popped out to second for the first out. At least he made contact with the pitch.

R.J., one of the league leaders in hitting, was next. R.J. is a former catcher for Drury University. I’m amazed at how he survives these mid-90s days behind the plate wearing all that gear. With the count even at 2, R.J. hit a dribbler up the first base line and I took off. Foul ball. Try again. A curveball high maxed out the count. Another curveball and R.J. was ahead, pulling it foul. On the next pitch, R.J. connected with a towering blast. At most any other ball park in southwest Missouri, the hit would have been a home run. R.J. hit a moon shot to deep left field which was caught on the warning track.

If I would have been thinking, I could’ve tagged up and been on second. But I wasn’t thinking. Just keep learning.

With two outs, Todd stopped holding me on at first. Coach Nasby motioned to me and encouraged me to increase my lead, to get a good secondary lead. I did not want to end the inning being picked off by the catcher, so my first move was back toward first.

With the count 1 – 1 to Jared, Cyclones’ tall-sock-wearing center fielder, I took the biggest lead of my life, and quickly walked back to first on a swing and miss.

On the very next pitch, I took a walking lead and caught everyone by surprise when I bolted for second.

While the pitcher still had the ball.

I even surprised myself.

Tanner had to double-pump the ball, waiting for one of the middle infielders to get to the bag.

I went as fast as these legs could take me and slid hard and, somehow, was safe. It was not exactly how I dreamed it, but still, I was on second base.

“Attentive base-running,” Rance said on the broadcast. A generous call.

In reality, it was stupid luck.

Still, Billy Butler would have been proud of the effort. And I still need one more stolen base to catch Albert Pujols.

Jared struck out on the next pitch. I asked Coach Nasby to put Scott in right field in my stead. My fingers and arm still felt odd. (Two innings later I was playing catch. Everything is fine. Still waiting on the colorful bruise to show up.)

For the second time in four games, the Cyclones lost in extra innings. Our streak extended to 4, but not the kind of streak anyone wanted. I don’t think we’ve been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but I probably have about the same chance as growing a beard by season’s end.

I went home and comforted myself with a Dr Pepper and a Gatorade and watched Mark pitch in the 11th and 12th innings to secure the win for his team in the nightcap of the triple-header.

Next Sunday is Bark at the Park. The Cyclones play at noon against the High Rollers, which means Mark will be in the opposing dugout. I’ve caught his slider on multiple occasions and know I can swing and miss it, too. But, maybe, next week we’ll get our first W. Weirder things have happened.

What a great game baseball is.