by Darin Gibby
Publisher Koehler Books
Published in Literature & Fiction
High school coach Gil Gilbert gave up his dream to play professional baseball so he could marry his pregnant girlfriend, Keri. When he miraculously discovers that he can pitch with deadly accuracy and speed, he must choose between his career or his chance to play with the Colorado Rockies during a player’s strike. As the season progresses, Gil discovers that his unexpected gift is the result of a rare disease, and continuing to pitch may hasten his own death. Gil must decide what price he is willing to pay to live his dream.
Gil hurled the baseball in a futile attempt to knock over a chain-link backstop, or at least send the horsehide through it. Gil needed to blow off steam and calm himself before he did something stupid—or regrettable. He picked up another ball from the fluorescent-orange five- gallon bucket, concentrating on his form.
Arm fully back, elbow slightly bent, Gil heaved his body forward, using his full six-three frame to whip the ball over home plate and into the chain-link backstop. He didn’t just want to burn one over the plate. No, Gil wanted to knock down the fence, or at least throw the horsehide through it.
He was blowing off steam, lots of it, venting with the baseball instead of with his fists or mouth. He tried concentrating on his form, instead of his woes. He could control his pitches, but not his destiny. He was good, but not good enough. At age forty-four, Gil knew he was well past his prime and was trying to accept the inevitability of unfulfilled dreams.
He reached into the fluorescent-orange five-gallon bucket beside him on the mound and grabbed another ball. Focusing his form, he hurled another, and then another. Arm back; elbow bent. He slowly sauntered down the sod-covered slope, making his way from a series of disjointed brown brick buildings, the campus of the Prairie Ridge High School Coyotes. Gil’s buddy and assistant coach, Peck, came into view.
“First strike I’ve seen you throw all night. What gives, Gil?”
Gil kept his foot lodged against the rubber on the pitcher’s mound then stooped down and plucked up another baseball. With a quick windup, another of his pitches cut the thin Colorado air and hammered the fence.
“Okay,” Peck interrupted, stepping between the mound and home plate. “That’s enough, Gil. We need to talk before you ruin a whole bucket of balls—and your arm. With these budget cuts we’ll be lucky if we get enough for the season.” He turned and made his way to the backstop, tugging on two balls lodged in the wire lattice. Peck yanked one out and ran his fingers across the torn leather.
“Holy crap,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head.
Gil flippantly tossed the ball back into the orange bucket.
“What’s got you so pissed off?”
Gil slid the back of his worn leather glove across his brow. “I’ve got my reasons.”
“All my life I’ve worked so hard, tried to do the right thing, and look what it’s gotten me.”
Peck lifted up his ball cap and smoothed back his brown wavy hair, letting has burly hand glide over his six-inch mullet.
“Are you kidding me? You’ve got the hottest wife this side of the Mississippi, two of the most well-mannered kids I’ve ever met, and you’re one of the most well-respected high school coaches in the state. And you’re still playing ball—and coaching it. Most guys your age gave it up long ago. What’s with the self-pity?”
“My age—exactly,’’ Gil huffed. “What I’ve really got is some loser job that is going nowhere fast.”
“Shoot, Gil. I’m your assistant. What does that make me? A double loser?’’
Peck made his way to the mound, his tattooed arms folded, like a coach ready to talk some sense into his rattled starter, or else make a decision to yank him before the other team could do anymore damage.
“We don’t need to go into this, not now.”
Peck continued rolling the ball in his hands, digging his fingernail into the sliced leather. “Oh, I think we do. You know, with the strike, all the major league teams are looking for replacement players. You could try out for the Rockies.”
Gil grunted. “That’s not going to last. The owners will cave before the season starts and all those replacement players will be back on the streets. Besides, I gave up that dream—and I’m too old … All I’ve been doing is messing around in the rec leagues for years. I’d get creamed, even by replacement players.”
“Not from what I’ve seen. You can still throw in the eighties, and you have a big breaking ball. I’ve seen it. No way, I bet you were firing at least eighty-five,” said Peck, looking at one of the scarred balls he plucked from the fence. “That’s better than most minor leaguers.
“You never told me why you didn’t try to play professionally,” Peck continued. “You must have had one rocket of an arm when you were younger.”
“Unlike you, I didn’t stand a chance,” Gil snapped back.
“That’s not what I heard. And not with what I just watched you throw. What gives?”
“It’s really complicated.”
Gil hung his head and breathed out deeply.
“So when I was playing for ASU, a lot of scouts were looking at me. I had to make a decision.”
“Being a responsible adult and finishing my degree, or being flighty and chasing some harebrained idea that I was good enough to play professional baseball.”
“I take it you were offered a contract.”
“You never told me that. So why didn’t you sign?”
“Some things came up, and getting a degree seemed like a better choice than wasting my life away in the minors.”
“Easy there. Remember who you’re talking to.”
“You had a real chance—if you hadn’t blown out your knee. Not so with me. Do you know how many twenty-year-olds can throw a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball?”
“A whole bunch.” Gil adjusted his cap. “It’s water under the bridge. My life is in the history books. I made my bed and all the stuff. I’ve lived a very mediocre life. Four years of misery to get a physics degree. I was too much of a loser to even try to get a masters. I took a job as a lousy high school teacher making fifty thousand a year, coaching on the side. What kind of loser career is that?”
“Consider your audience. At least you are a head coach. Look at me. I’d kill for your job.”
Gil spit and covered up the spittle with a kick of his toe. “You know I didn’t mean that.”
“But seriously. How can you say it is a loser job? With all the talk of your science fair this year—and another season in the playoffs—you could easily get teacher of the year. How many people can brag about that? And the kids here love you to death. You are the coolest teacher ever. How many high school students beg to have their science teacher play at their prom? You can sing Sunday Bloody Sunday better than Bono.”
“When I get to play him! The only gigs I get anymore are overplayed country songs about some guy finding religion. Have I ever written one of my own?”
Peck shrugged. “I’ll bet you have.”
“Well maybe, but you’ll never hear it on the radio. Just good ol’ Gil. Friend to everyone, foe to no one. That’s all I am.”
“Well tell me this, if teaching is such a loser job as you say, then why did you choose it?”
Gil shook his head. “I don’t want to go there.”
Peck hopped up beside his friend and shoved him back, enough to dislodge Gil’s foot from the rubber. “With the energy you were putting into that ball, I think we need to go there. Come clean with me. How long we been together?”
Gil’s jaw muscles clenched, and he slapped his glove against his thigh then looked up into the fading sky. “Alright, I’ll tell you, if you really want to know. I did the honorable thing and married her, then dumped any dream of playing pro ball. I took a teaching job to pay for the baby. Would you believe that I met her at a frat party? You know when you go to those dinner parties and everyone has to tell how they met? I couldn’t do it. I made up some story about how I picked her out of the crowd when we were playing UCLA. ”
“Whoa, wait a minute. Way too much information. I didn’t mean to pry like that.”
“She was pregnant. My plans for baseball were over. And don’t you ever tell my kids—
they don’t know.”
Peck reached out and put a hand on Gil’s broad shoulder. “How was that a bad thing? Look at what it got you.”
“Yeah, a beautiful family that I can’t even support. Not now—not now that I am going to lose everything.”
“Gil Gilbert! What kind of nonsense are you talking about?”
“The little shit sued me, that’s what.”
“Are you drinking, man?”
“Do I ever drink? I am the clean-cut all-American parent. Except that now I am getting hauled into court.”
“For what? Wait, you’re not saying. For when Zach was screwing around after practice and thunked Shaila in the head?”
“Yes, suing the school and me personally. Two million bucks. Claiming the ball cracked her skull and caused brain damage.”
“If you ask me, the ditz already had brain damage.”
“Yeah, well tell that to a jury. They are going to wipe me out.”
“They can ask for anything, you know that. Besides that, the school district is required to defend you.”
“That’s what I thought, but it’s not that clear. What if they don’t? I can’t afford a lawyer. You know how much I make. What am I going to do?”
Peck too spit and shook his head. “I see now.” Then he went and fished a catcher’s mitt from the equipment bag. “Okay, at least throw the rest at me so we don’t destroy any more balls. And they won’t fire you. Can you imagine the protests? You’ve had a winning season for fifteen straight years.”
Gil went into a full windup and whipped the ball at his catcher, each pitch slamming into the glove with a loud smack. Peck bolted up and tossed down the mitt, shaking his stinging hand.
“Holy crap! What is going on here? You taking some kind of performance cocktail? Your gut is gone, your chest looks like a bulldog’s, and you are solid as a rock.”
A hint of a smile crept onto Gil’s weathered face. “Drugs? Never did them—not being the son of a preacher.”
“Then what? You don’t just all of the sudden hurl like that.”
“Mid-life crises is all. Lots of stress builds the physique … I’ve been working out some.”
“No, man. What kind of drugs are you on? I’ve caught for a lot of pitchers, but nothing like this. You gotta be throwing in the nineties, pushing a hundred. No way, Gil. This can’t be explained! I’ve got to get a speed gun on you. What is the record these days?”
“The fastest pitch? Some say Bob Feller threw a one-hundred-and-seven-mile-an-hour fastball, but who knows? Most of those guys were full of themselves. That was before radar, so it is all speculation.”
“You are the science guy. You should know.”
“Since modern speed guns came around, there have been a few clocked at one hundred and four, and in 2010 Aroldis Chapmin was officially measured at one hundred and five. But it’s hard to say. Feller thought Satchel Paige was the fastest pitcher alive. So could he throw faster than one hundred and seven?”
“What were you in college?”
“Fastest was ninety-one.”
“Then that confirms it—you are all screwed up my friend. A forty-four-year-old man can’t throw like that, not without a whole lotta dope.”
“No drugs, man. You’re just getting old. Bad eyesight and soft hands. Still getting those manicures?”
“Last time was with you. Come on Gil. Let’s be honest here. This is crazy stuff. Those balls I pulled out of the fence—the leather was completely torn through. Let’s try one more, just as a sanity check. Let me have it. Get really pissed off. Imagine you are throwing at that lawyer’s face.”
Peck backpedaled to the plate and pounded his fist into his glove. “Give me all you’ve got.”
This time the ball whizzed into Peck’s glove with the same familiar smack. Peck removed his hand from the glove. The palm was red.
“I think that confirms it,” he said, shaking his head. “Tomorrow I am going to make a few calls.”
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