Submitted by David Ng.
It’s four-thirty in the morning in Omaha, Nebraska. In a quaint hotel room, Jesse Byrnes lies on a bed next to the balcony. Unable to sleep, he and the white ceiling exchange stares. He seems to be at peace but this peace is belied. On the other end of the room, his roommate Rudy lies asleep, sporadically erupting in fits of snoring that shatter the silence. Jesse picks up the wireless phone to his left on the nightstand and immediately puts it back down. “Probably not up,” he whispers to himself. Biting his lower lip, he closes his eyes tight and tosses and turns in a futile attempt to sleep. The phone beckons him. He picks it up and dials a number before heading out the sliding glass balcony door.
It’s an unusually brisk night. Jesse shivers a little bit in his white shirt and blue pajama pants. He admires the army of luminous stars under the crescent shaped moon, its effulgence often spoiled by the magnitude of New York City lights. Wishing his dad would pick up, he is not surprised to hear the weary voice of mother Byrnes.
“Hi, ma. Sorry to wake you.”
“Jesse! It’s three in the morning! Did something happen?”
He hears the distress in her voice, something he didn’t appreciate until he moved out.
“Everything’s fine. Listen, I know you watch when it matters, but uh, did he see what I did?”
“Oh! You’re talking about the game the other night? How many did you strike out? Twenty right?”
Jesse nods his head proudly, albeit momentarily. “Yeah.”
“Those sports guys on TV said it was the most this year by any pitcher! Congratulations! I called you, but no answer.”
The enthusiasm in her voice was flattering to him, even if it was artificial. She knows nothing about baseball. What’s the difference between a fastball and a curve? She couldn’t tell. A towering foul ball is the same as a homerun in her world.
“Thanks, ma. The guys were partying hard after that. Sorry I didn’t pick up. Did, uh, did he watch?”
“… He did.”
“Ma, don’t lie to me. I know when you lie. That stuff worked when I was a kid. I’m not little anymore.”
“He was too focused on Randall. Said he needed two more to break Pete Incaviglia’s all- time record. 3 seasons, 100 homeruns,” she sighed.
“Your brother got injured yesterday, did you know that?”
“Of course I know. I play for the opposing team. Are you guys heading out to Omaha to watch me?” he asked.
“Your dad lost interest.”
“Because of Randall’s injury?”
“Yes. Don’t be upset.”
“I’m not upset, just disappointed.” His eyes draw away from the stars down to the balcony. A look of dejection creeps across his face. He wonders if his father would care if he jumped fifteen stories down.
“I think he loves you, Jesse.”
He lightly pulls his black shoulder length hair.
“You think? That’s reassuring. Listen, I gotta go.”
“Don’t be like that, Jesse.”
“Good night, ma. I love you,” he hangs up.
He punches the guardrail with his left hand. After walking back into the room and closing the balcony door, he slams the phone back onto the nightstand. Rudy’s snoring instantly ceases.
Jesse sits at the edge of the bed, facing Rudy, and expecting him to turn over, which he does. But he looks pissed.
“What’s your problem? I dreamt I was in the majors catching for Schilling and Lincecum,” he complains while turning on the light switch.
“They’re not coming to see me,” Jesse utters.
Jesse nods his head and slouches.
“That blows,” Rudy says while rubbing an eye crust off.
The room grows silent. A light wind rustles the leaves outside.
“I need stories, Rudy.”
Looking at the canvas of dejection on Jesse’s face, Rudy livens up.
“Disney lands don’t sell chewing gum in their candy stores.”
Jesse wipes his nose and looks up. “Really? Why?”
“Cuz Disney don’t wanna piss off their guests when they step on gum that were bought in their stores.”
“I wish they did that in baseball,” Jesse said. I get gum in my damn cleats all the time.”
“You watch movies, right?”
“Well, did you know that the Oscar awards were made from plaster due to metal shortage in World War II?”
“The average adult laughs 15-20 times a day. That’s interesting. So laugh up, cuz I never see your ass laugh that many times.”
Just like that, Jesse’s face is repainted by Rudy’s useless yet entertaining trivia. The laughter drowns his sorrows.
“Your dad doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you. Forget him. You were crapping bricks the other day cuz you thought you were going to pitch against your brother. He’s injured now. Nothing to worry about.”
Jesse turns off the lights and throws his blanket over himself.
“Hey, Redneck. Thanks. You got quite the tongue. Maybe you should run for president.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna want a redneck as president. Now shut it. We got a game to win in the afternoon and I’m trying to sleep.”
Jesse grins and diverts his attention back to the nocturne sky. The stars shine. He hopes to do the same in Game 2 of the World Series. If his team doesn’t win, they go home. The gentle wind lulls him to sleep.
Thirteen hours pass before he wakes. His light brown eyes open to the setting Mid-western sun shining through the window and Rudy smacking his forehead.
“Gad dang it! I ain’t ever seen anyone sleep so much before a big game. This is the last time I’m carrying your ass onto the team’s bus.”
Jesse apologizes and yawns.
“You’d sleep through a dang earthquake. Warm up and brush your teeth, unless you want to punch out batters with your breath!” Rudy storms out, leaving Jesse as the sole person on the bus. The bus had parked behind the stadium, by the locker rooms. Having caught a cold prior to game 1, Jesse had never seen the ballpark before and, still in his pajamas, decides to trot around it.
Making it to the front, he notices a bronze statue of three baseball players hoisting up a teammate in celebration of a victory. Behind the statue are long concrete steps that lead to the front entrance. Above the entrance doors are a series of mirrored rectangular windows. The scene is unimpressive to Jesse but as the blaze of the sun starts to die, the stadium’s lights begin to sparkle. A collage of white and green paints the stadium and yellow lights beam across the stairs as they illuminate the statue and handrails. The resplendent aura catches his eyes. “So this is where the championship is held every year,” he says to himself.
Inside the messy locker room, his teammates are relieved their best pitcher is ok.
Finding his duffel bag that Rudy left for him, he takes a seat on the bench and puts on his jersey. Putting it on invigorates him and confidence fills his veins. It is number 51, Randy Johnson’s number. After putting the baseball glove onto his right hand, he is ready to warm up in the bullpen.
Awaiting him there is the slim-figured backup catcher, Nicholas Sheets. Jesse waits for him to crouch but Sheets scratches his beard instead.
“You all right there?” Jesse asks as he puts a piece of gum in his mouth.
“This is so irritating!” says Sheets.
“It looks like a bee hive. How about I up the offer to 150 bucks? Will you shave it?”
“No way! Had this for four months. It gives the team good luck! Give me some pitches.”
“McCallum is still wearing his jersey backwards?” asks Jesse while pitching.
“Oh that’s right, you were sick. Yeah. He’s getting fined 100 dollars per game. It’s not stopping him. He did well yesterday.”
“That 100 bucks is probably coming out of his parents’ pockets. He’s getting a free ride to Columbia University for god’s sake.”
A familiar voice calls out from the distance.
“Jesse! Jesse!” the person yells from the first base line. It’s mother Byrnes. His cheeks fill with excitement as he scurries out of the bullpen.
“You guys made it!” His mother, still beaming at her age with her light blonde hair and fair blue eyes, genuinely looks happy to see him. Presenting a stark contrast next to her is his father. With a thinning hairline, a greying scruffy beard and crossed arms, he gives Jesse a cold, “Hi.”
“We took an early flight,” says his mother. “… Your father came to see you play.”
“His father shoots up from his seat, taps his mother on the shoulder and points to the Florida State dugout.
“There he is! Randall! Over here!”
Randall, who was taking pictures with fans, hears him and runs over.
“Here’s a real baseball player. Strong frame like me,” his dad says to his mom. “You got the frame of your mother,” he tells Jesse.
He became the subject of ridicule and just like that, the balloon of exuberance Jesse felt when he first saw his parents, burst.
“Don’t be mad,” his mom urges Jesse.
But Jesse’s father got to him and all that anger he held for years was itching to surface.
“You came to watch your favorite son sit on the bench?”
“I’m playing today,” answers Randall.
“I want him to break the record tonight. Give him two homeruns,” his dad demands.
“He urged us to book a morning ticket when the sports guys announced that Randall got better. Don’t be mad… He’s also here to see you,” says his mother.
“Stop lying for him, Mom! You’ve always wanted me to fail, Dad! Why do you play favorites?”
His dad looks down on his lap. The yellow piece of gum had slipped out of Jesse’s mouth. A heated look covers the father’s face.
“An accident,” claims the mother.
He smacks Jesse across the face.
He then spits at him. Jesse throws up his glove to shield his face and the saliva lands on the autographed portion of the glove, the part signed by his idol. His eyes fill with disbelief.
The afternoon heat swelters. Jesse hops over the stands and rubs the wet part of the glove over his dad’s face. He clenches his fist.
“Your favorite son isn’t hitting a homerun today.”
Randall is speechless.
“You were never able to get him out,” his dad retorts.
“That’s because you manipulated me. You’re disgusting!”
Rudy, who saw the incident from home plate, rushes over and pulls him away. “It’s not worth it, Jess.”
As they head towards home plate, Rudy pats his back. “Throw me some pitches, the game is about to start. Your dad, I assume?”
Jesse nods his head, scowling.
“Well, you finally said something. Good! You were gonna hit him?”
“No. I was going to punch this.”
Jesse holds his glove up. “Bastard spat right on it.”
“It’s tainted,” said Rudy while putting a catcher’s helmet over his bald head.
“It’s going to ruin my game. I barely lost since I got this signed.”
“I got an idea. Follow me.” They go into the green walled dugout. In the middle of the long wooden bench is a brown Ziploc bag.
“You remember the 2001 World Series?”
“College or pro?” asked Jesse.
“Yeah, Johnson won that game.”
“Well,” Rudy boasts “after Gonzalez had that game winning hit and everyone was celebrating, I ran to the field and stuffed the turf into my pockets. I thought I was going to be on television but I had four fat guards sit on me. Locked me up in the jail cell underneath the stadium. When my mom came to get me she said, ‘My son is such a stupid redneck.’ She never quite stopped calling me that.”
Jesse couldn’t help but laugh. Growing up in New York, his dad and brother were Yankees fanatics. When the Diamondbacks won, he secretly rejoiced.
“Anyway,” Rudy said, “in this bag is that turf. I only use it for big games. As you can see, it’s starting to run low but sprinkle some of that over the spit. It brings me good luck; it should do the same for you.”
A gentle wind breathes through the stadium and gives Jesse goose bumps as he mellows down. He accepts the touching gesture from Rudy and sprinkle a piece of history onto his most prized possession.
The stadium’s lights grow brighter as the sky loses its luminosity. The players’ shadows lengthen on the lush green grass. Jesse steps up to the mound and onto the pitching rubber. The game is underway. As the first batter for Florida State meanders into the batter’s box, the crowd roars. It’s an unfamiliar sight. Columbia is hosting but as Jesse looks around the stadium, seeing a militia of fans in Florida State gear, home field advantage proved to be ineffective. Nevertheless, he strikes out the first two he sees and gets the third batter to ground out. Leaping over the third base line and before stepping into the dugout, he is showered by a series of boos. The colossal crowd of 34,000 makes him feel small.
Rudy pats him on the head. “I told you, that dust is magic!” but Jesse stays quiet for the thought of facing his brother looms over his head.
“He’s coming next inning,” he tells his catcher.
“He’s batting cleanup. You gonna be fine. How you feelin?”
“Anxious.” He bites the bottom of his lip. To his left is a bucket. It used to hold baseballs. Now it’s used to hold his vomit. His first attack transpired when he was a kid on the field. Not knowing what it was then, he vividly remembers the world spinning as he tried out for little league. He didn’t get in but his brother, with his clean swing and fast bat reaction, impressed the coach and his dad. Everything changed on that day. As a result, Jesse continues to struggle with his father and his unshakeable anxiety.
With two outs and a runner on first, Wiggington, Columbia’s third baseman, hits a pitch to left and the outfielder catches it in flight. Breathing heavily, Jesse gets back on the grass. For the first time, the brothers face each other on the diamond. Randall digs into the batter’s box and gets into his batting stance. His feet shoulder width apart, while moving the bat back and forth over his left shoulder. Jesse lowers the brim of his cap and looks fixedly at Rudy’s fingers. Rudy signals for a curveball, low and outside. Jesse shakes his head, wanting a first pitch strike. Rudy calls for a changeup. Jesse nods. He kicks his right leg high and takes a big step. With his chest facing home, he throws, his left arm over his head. The ball leaves his hand, his motions like a whipping belt. Randall is deceived by the 85 mile per hour pitch and swings early. Rudy throws the ball back to him and immediately calls for a fastball. The 95 mile per hour pitch nips the inside corner for another strike. Randall shakes his head.
“That was way inside, ump!” The umpire ignores him. Jesse gives him another fastball high and outside that Randall hits into the stands for a foul ball. Rudy signals for a curve, Jesse shakes it off. Fastball, that’s shaken off too. Rudy rolls his blue eyes and signals for another curve. Jesse steps off the hill and calls a meeting with his catcher. Rudy runs up to the mound.
They cover their mouths with their leather gloves.
“How come yer not givin this guy yer curveball?”
“Back in high school, my brother couldn’t hit the curve. My dad coerced me to give him that pitch for several hours a day.”
“You guys played on the same team?” asked Rudy.
“No. My dad discouraged me from trying out.”
“That was high school. I’m sure it was different back then. Give him yer curve. It’s yer best pitch. We can’t give him fastballs and changeups all day.” Jesse nods his head and the two get back to their positions. He grabs the baseball hidden in his glove, pinches his index, middle finger and thumb on the seams and hurls a curve ball. Smack! The ball towers to right field. “Shit!” yells Rudy. Jesse looks at McCallum, his outfielder. McCallum has a good read. Pumping his legs and running on the balls of his feet, he leaps over the fence and with the webbing of his glove, robs Randall of a homerun. Jesse pumps his fist, yelling in excitement. McCallum points to his backwards jersey and dances. Jesse looks over the first base line, finding his dad with a scowl inked on his face.
He continues to get the next two batters to pop up. For innings 3 and 4, both pitchers from each side have been perfect, especially Jesse, who struck out the last 6 he faced. These images of hitters striking out were all too familiar to Jesse. It was a reflection of his former self. Like every kid, he dreamt of hitting a game winning homerun in the playoffs. His countless failures at the plate, however, embarrassed and eluded him. “If you’re not good at one thing, try something else,” his mother would advocate. So he turned to pitching to stay in the game he adores, and eventually, it grew on him.
Bad weather creeps into the 5th inning. After walking his brother and getting the next guy to fly out, Jesse walks another. With the 7th batter up and the count 2-2, his changeup flies over the head of Rudy. Wild pitch. The runners move to second and third and are in scoring position. Jesse’s pressure spikes. He takes off his dirt-covered hat and wipes the sweat from his forehead. With a full count, the right-handed batter tightly grips the handle of the bat. Rudy signals. Jesse nods his head and fires a sinking two-seam fastball that strikes the batter out. He enjoys a brief sigh of relief as the fans shower him with jeers. The 8th batter for Florida reaches the plate. Jesse gets him swinging on the first pitch. The ball arches over the first base line and heads towards the stands. Cunningham, the team’s first baseman, snags it from Jesse’s father, who tries to deflect it. His dad attempted to sabotage him. If his brother couldn’t get the homeruns, he couldn’t get the win.
The teams reach the bottom of the 5th. The pitcher for Florida walks Columbia’s first batter. McCallum goes up to the plate. In the dugout with a dampened spirit, Jesse darts towards Lou Valentine, the team’s manager.
“Byrnes! Are you insane? It’s too early.”
“That last inning I threw was crap. I’m out of gas.”
The crack of the bat breaks up their conversation. McCallum connects and hits a soaring fly ball.
“Get out! Get out of the park!” Valentine yells.
It goes over the center field fence. Columbia’s dugout erupts with joy. McCallum dances around the bases.
“Byrnes!” shouts Valentine,” You have the lead now! I can’t take you out okay? Not today.” Jesse bites his lower lip. He quivers anxiously in his seat as he watches the Florida State pitcher slowly get through the inning.
As the 5th inning ends and his team up 2-0, Jesse is lethargic but shows no signs of this on the hill as he strikes out the next three hitters with nine pitches. Going back to his usual spot on the middle of the bench, he finds that all of his teammates have either shifted way right or way left. The seats around him are empty, leaving him with a feeling of abandonment. Sitting alone, no one utters a word to him in the bottom half of the 6th. It gradually becomes evident that they are avoiding him. Rudy, his confidant, is missing. Instead, he finds him all the way in the corner, sitting next to McCallum, laughing it up. The empty crumpled cups and chewed up sunflower seeds on the ground provide his only company.
Staring at his bucket, which, to his surprise is still empty, his eyes widen. The thought hadn’t struck him until now. He suddenly knows why his manager was hesitant to take him out. He is throwing a no hitter. No one dares to initiate a conversation with the pitcher as he’s on this journey. It’s one of the oldest superstitions in baseball. Only two pitchers have thrown a no hitter in college World Series history.
The 7th inning commences and the crowd quiets as Melvin “loud mouth” Rodriguez, the third hitter in the lineup for Florida, waits by the box. The pitching mound is empty. All the Columbia starters are on the field. Jesse is still in the dugout sitting slumped. He and the dark grey ground give each other blank stares as he tries to swim in his pool of angst. Valentine goes over and taps him on the shoulder. Jesse looks at him and his manager slowly jerks his head multiple times towards the mound. He grabs his glove and steps out of the dugout. Valentine pats him on the ass and claps his hands twice.
Rodriguez steps into the box. Before getting into his stance, he says, “What took you so long Jesse girl? You had to put on your makeup?”
Rodriguez was in his brother’s high school team. When Randall was too lazy to play, he’d give Jesse the opportunity to sub in for him. They got caught in a week. Randall was suspended and Jesse got booted. His lack of batting power gave it away.
“Do you need a tampon?” Rodriguez continues.
Rudy signals and Jesse puts some anger into a high and tight fastball that could have hit Rodriguez in the chin had he not gotten away. Jesse and Rudy flash a smirk.
“You son of a,” yells Rodriguez, taking a step towards Jesse. Rudy takes off his mask and gets in front of Rodriguez’s face.
“You got a problem?”
“No. I was just saying that’s all.”
Jesse had always hated his name. His father wanted a girl for a second child. Instead, he had twins. Making a slight adjustment, he changed the name from “Jessie” to “Jesse.”
Jesse works the count to 1 ball and 2 strikes. He unleashes a high arching curveball that paralyzes Rodriguez for a called third strike. Jesse wins that round but he’s in for a tougher fight, for now is the homerun king’s turn to bat. He steps off the mound to stretch his left arm. Looking at the jumbo scoreboard behind him, the giant LED lights flash his brother’s name. His eyes fix on “Randall.” In high school, he grew a mullet to be like Randall “Randy” Johnson. He built his windup and fastball to be just like him. “Randall.” He adores the name so much but it was not his. It was his rival’s.
Going back on the mound and kicking the dirt with his cleats to deepen the depression, Jesse looks at his brother, his face almost identical to his own. It was something he envied but didn’t hate. Most of the time, his sibling looked out for him but Randall always took part in his father’s verbal abuse. He was crowding the plate. Rudy calls for a high and tight fastball in an attempt to back him off. The plan however, failed as Jesse plunks his brother in the right elbow. Storm clouds loom as he writhes in pain. “You couldn’t hit Rodriguez, so you hit me instead? You’re going to injure your threats?” he yells. The home plate umpire gives Jesse a warning. If he hits another batter, he’s out of the game. Taking first base, Randall gives Jesse a malicious glare. The younger twin continues to torment the Florida crowd and strikes out the next two batters.
The 7th inning stretch arrives with a penetrating chill. As the players on each side gear up, Randall shoulders Jesse in his pitching arm as the umpires are caught off guard.
“You hurt me, I hurt you.”
“It was an accident.”
“Bullshit,” Randall yells as he treks back to his team’s bench.
Jesse takes his seat, a detached land of his own, and feels a slight twinge in his pitching shoulder. As he stretches it out, hoping to alleviate the pain, his team’s best hitters, including McCallum, go down one, two, three.
With a thin lead, Jesse’s over-contemplating mind has exerted his strength. His arm grinding through the game is in doubt. He can’t have the no- hitter without Rudy’s pep talks. If he excuses himself from the game, he will leave without his father’s respect. Massaging his temples and stretching his arm one more time, he gets off the bench at the pace of a snail and readies to pitch on the mound.
The 8th inning starts with rumbling thunder. Believing it to be an omen, Jessie falls behind the count 3-0. Unrelenting, he proceeds to hurl three consecutive strikes to collect his 16th strikeout. Randall is standing by his team’s dugout, glaring at Jesse murderously. Jesse is fearful that he might charge the mound. It was an accident. As the rain beats down on Jesse, so do his thoughts. He had always believed that an accident could play a significant consequence in people’s lives. If he hadn’t dropped that gum on his dad, he wouldn’t have tried to sabotage his game. If he were a girl, his father may have loved him. If his team hadn’t made it to the World Series, he wouldn’t be in this predicament. This is how Jesse lives his life, full of ifs.
Falling behind 3-0 again to the next batter, he calls for some time. Jesse crouches and takes off his sweat and rain filled hat and leaves it on the ground. He grasps his stomach while coughing profusely and bolts to the dugout. Vomit flows out of his bowels and into his bucket. Making his way out, Rudy is troubled. He throws his arm around Jesse as he walks him out.
“Fuck the superstition,” Rudy says to himself. “Are you ok?”
Tears start to stream down his face. “I can’t do it.”
“This is the game of a lifetime.”
“I want to be taken out.”
“Byrnes, you can’t just give up. You’ve finished high-pressure games before. This is nothing different.”
“Everyone hates me! The fans, my father, my brother, even the damn weather.”
Looking down, Jesse sees a third damp silhouette. He brings his head up. It’s Randall.
“You guys might want to cover your mouths to avoid lip readers,” he joked.
“It was an accident,” Jesse said.
“You were always such a cry baby. I don’t hate you. How’s the shoulder?”
“It’s a bit sore, but I should be fine.”
“Good. Listen, “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you against him. If I were on your side, he’d treat me like crap. Baseball made him and me bond, and you know how difficult he is. I’m sad to see you never got that. I wanted to impress him today but after some thinking, he’s not worth it, especially for you.”
His brother hugs him. Jesse had never received an apology from him before. He didn’t know how to react.
The home plate umpire comes and breaks up the meeting.
“What’s going on here? Get back to your bench Byrnes,” he says to Randall. “As for you two, stop delaying the game.”
“All right,” Rudy says. “I’m going. Man, my leg hurts mister umpire.” He slowly limps on his right foot back to home plate, trying to buy more time for Jesse to recollect himself.
“You lie to me again, and I’ll throw you out of the game,” the ump warns. With his nausea calming, Jesse deals three straight curveballs, all strikes as he gets the K.
The fans go berserk but not with jeers and boos. One by one, like a catching fire going wild, they begin chanting “Jesse! Jesse!” Dumbfounded by the scene, he follows it up with another strikeout. With the fans on their feet, Jesse holds his head high. 18 strikeouts. The noise is deafening as each team changes their equipment for the middle of the inning.
Rudy returns to his seat next to Jesse. His company elates him.
“I feel good,” Jesse says.
“Fantastic. How’s that arm? I could sprinkle some of my soil on that shoulder.”
“It’s fine, Redneck. I took a pain killer.”
“Good, I don’t want to waste it.”
“Rudy, suddenly seeing all these fans cheer for me tonight, I realize I can’t spend my life trying to impress a person who will never love me.”
Rudy nods. “I had a dirt bag of a father as well but he’s not in my life anymore. Life is like baseball. People are always going to come up to the plate and try to beat you but you gotta be well equipped and get them out.”
Jesse smiles. “Do more of that. You can’t do that if you’re around jerks. Remember, 15 times!” Rudy exclaims. While the two talk, there is one out and a runner on first.
“Crap! It’s my turn to bat! Been talking so much I didn’t even get a chance to get some practice swings,” Rudy yells. Unfortunately, he hits an inning ending double play.
It’s the top of the 9th. The air is damp, and the pie shaped moon emerges from the clouds. The rain ceases and the smell of grass spreads. Finding it refreshing, Jesse goes back to the mound and faces Fernando “Speedy” Gonzalez, the leadoff hitter. With Columbia’s narrow lead of 2-0, his speed can change the course of the game. Jesse launches a low two- seam fastball. Gonzalez hits a weak grounder back to him and jets down the first base line. Hustling to grab the ball and tossing it to Cunningham, Jesse gets him out, barely. The right-handed batter Geo Hansen steps up. Jesse lowers the brim of his hat down to his dark eyebrows, obstructing everything in his view except for the catcher and hitter. He fires a fastball right down the middle past Hansen’s knees. The 95- mile per hour pitch stuns the freckled red head. Hansen chokes up on his bat and Jesse follows up with a curveball. With all his might, Hansen swings at the pitch and pops up. Rudy catches it easily.
One more stands in Jesse’s way, the right-handed “Loud Mouth” Rodriguez. He slowly plants his feet in the batter’s box. Jesse takes a deep breath and sends him a curveball outside.
He follows up with a low changeup. Rodriguez laughs at the pitch.
“Keep delivering those girly pitches,” he yells.
Jesse’s eyes flare. Behind the count, he sets his stance and with his index and middle finger, puts a little extra muscle into his fastball. The 96-mile per hour pitch goes through the outside half of the plate. Strike one, but not according to the umpire. Jesse shakes his head but with a warning already against him, decides to keep his lips sealed and releases a fastball that travels below Rodriguez’s knees and walks him.
Randall steps out of the batter’s circle. The brothers on the diamond electrify the crowd. As Randall settles into his stance, Jesse peers into Rudy’s glove and waits for his signal, Rodriguez takes a lead off first. Jesse shifts his eyes over his left shoulder, pivots and throws to the first baseman. Rodriguez makes it back on first by an eyelash. That could have ended the game, in low flair. He pitches and is able to get his brother looking at a strike. Randall tightly squeezes the bat handle, his forearms bulging, his knuckles white. Jesse gets him swinging on a changeup and Rodriguez is blazing towards second. Rudy fires to the shortstop. Rodriguez makes a hard slide and the shortstop tags him. As the dust settles, the umpire raises both of his arms and signals “safe.” Stolen base. “Yes!” yells Randall. A double would make the score 2-1. A homerun will tie. Rudy wants a curve. Jesse shakes it off. Jesse looks at Rudy’s fingers, another curveball. Again, Jesse shakes his head and steps off the mound.
He knows his catcher is being patient with him, even if their unspoken communication is not on par. He can’t give Randall the curve. Back on the mound, he finally agrees to a changeup. It ends up high in the zone. He nods his head to a two-seam fastball but it almost turns into a wild pitch as Rudy blocks the low throw, preventing Rodriguez from advancing. With a 2-2 count, Jesse throws his four-seam fastball with all his strength. It nips the inside corner of the plate but the umpire calls it a ball. Jesse punches the inside of his glove in frustration. The muscles on his jawline flex as he chews his gum. Rudy calls for a curveball once more. Randall has yet to see it in this at bat. Every fan on the stands, every player on the field and everyone on the benches feel the tension. Finally trusting his catcher, Jesse approves. Sweat glides down his sideburns and lands on the soil, making indentations. The stadium holds its breath as he winds up, and lobs the pitch. As the seams of the ball twirls toward Rudy’s glove, Jesse’s heart comes to a halt. The pitch he threw hangs in the air. Randall swings hard. The curveball goes underneath his bat and pops into Rudy’s glove. “Strike three!” the umpire yells.
Rudy jumps up and down like a maniac. The crazed crowd shouts Jesse’s name. Jesse falls onto his knees and looks at the stars, shining like the previous night. Tears of joy surge down his face. Looking over the first base line, his mother has tears of her own and his dad, nowhere to be found. The brothers celebrate on the diamond. Randall hugs him. He and Rudy are the first to hoist Jesse up. The sight characterizes the statue in front of the stadium. Players of Columbia join in on the frenzy. When Jesse is finally put down, he shouts over the hysteric crowd to ask his brother something.
“That was a hanging curveball. You could have easily sent that thing flying.”
“No,” he smiles. “I still have trouble with the curve. I’m proud of you. Soak it up.” Just like that, he disappears into his despondent team’s dugout.
Rudy throws his arm over Jesse’s shoulder.
“Magic!” he exclaims.
Jesse takes Rudy’s arm off.
“Follow me,” he tells him.
“What’s going on?”
He picks up two chunks of dirt from the mound and puts it into his pockets. He does the same for Rudy.
“I can now carry my good luck wherever I go. Just like you.”