Cepeda moved back and looked over at the tying run on second. "Can't go too deep."
Ray nodded and drifted off the line a step. Hands open above his knees, he squatted, waiting for the pitch.
The batter dug his back foot into the dirt, and held his bat high.
The pitcher reeled back and grooved one right down the middle. The batter stepped into the pitch, but checked his swing. Ray, and every player in the field, was relieved.
"That was his pitch," Cepeda said. He stood up straight, looking over at Ray.
"It was." It's one thing to take a 3-0 pitch, but a 3-1 in a tight game like this you have to be swinging. Now, with the count full, tying run on second, Ray knew he'd be swinging at anything.
The catcher held up his hand. The ump called time, and the catcher trotted out to the mound. Cepeda joined them. Ray stayed at third, smoothing out the dirt with his cleats. Easily the oldest guy on the team at 45, he had a kind of exemption from these meetings. He knew exactly what they'd be saying anyway, and Cepeda would let him know if they decided to pitch him outside.
The trees and the grass at Heckscher field in Central Park glistened a prolific green. Sunday morning, and it was hot already in the mid-August sun. Ray's mind wandered home to the two bananas on the counter top and the note from his wife, a reminder to take the pint of orange juice from the refrigerator before he left. There'd been menstrual blood the day before, and a lot of crying again after another month of hope. The bananas and orange juice meant she was back to the world of what was possible rather than what wasn't. She was over it, the way she'd gotten over it in the months and the years before.
Ray picked up an unruly rock and tossed it off the field. He turned and yelled to the left-fielder. "He's coming at you, Stone, be on your toes." Stone took a couple steps back. Ray and Stone had driven in to Manhattan together that morning from Jersey City, across the river. When Ray got into the car, Stone was looking at himself in the rear view mirror, from which hung a pair of sky blue baby shoes.
"Must be pretty thrilling," Ray said, "the baby."
"Eats, sleeps, and shits, if you want to know the truth," Stone said, and laughed. "But seriously, it is amazing." The baby was a month old.
On the field, Ray took off his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead and brow. In the mirror that morning, he looked like a 1969 baseball card, unshaven, bushy black and gray sideburns sticking out from under the cap. But with Stone honking in the street outside, there was no time for grooming. The championship game, it didn't matter anyway; you either won or you lost, no matter what you looked like.
Behind the backstop, a woman, obese in brightly colored lycra tights and high platinum beehive hair, a spectacle almost, called the ump and handed him a plastic bottle of water. Standing next to her, thigh high in a NY Yankee uniform, a boy squirmed with joy as his father approached. He wore a big black shoe on one foot with a heavy metal leg brace, and a normal sneaker on the other. The ump took a sip, spilled some water on his hand, and rubbed it on his face and the back of his neck. "What do you say, Champ," the ump said to his son. He squeezed his fingers through the chain-link fence, and pulled the lid of the boy's baseball cap over his eyes. The boy giggled with glee.
The ump handed the bottle of water to his wife, and turned to the field. "Let's get a batter here. I don't have all day, gentlemen." To the players at the pitcher's mound, he said, "Enough with the chit-chat, guys. C'mon, we have a game to play."
The meeting at the mound broke up. Cepeda, on his way back to his position at short, held up his glove to hide what he was doing from the opposing bench, and pointed at the line, which meant they were going to pitch the batter inside, which is exactly what Ray knew they would do.
Pacing the sideline, the coach, Bradford, long stringy white hair, scorebook in hand, pencil in ear, shouted to the outfielders, positioning them with a wave.
The pitcher walked around the mound, smoothing out the dirt with his cleats.
The batter spit and stepped back into the batter's box.
Ray reminded himself to concentrate on the game. It occurred to him in those few seconds before the pitch that when he was younger, reflection during these games beyond the play at hand simply did not exist. The ball, the field, the players, and what might happen among them was all there ever was. He pulled his train of thought to what he'd do with the ball when it came to him: "Look the runner back to second. Then go to first. Plenty of time. Don't rush the throw."
The ump leaned over the catcher for a good look at the plate, and adjusted his mask.
The pitcher stood at the rubber.
Ray squatted, bracing for the pitch. The ball came in high and tight.
It was a pop fly behind Ray to shallow left field. "Mine, mine, mine," Ray yelled. Stone closed in. Cepeda called the ball too, but Ray shot a quick glance and saw Cepeda wouldn't get this one; it was too close to the left field line.
"Mine, mine, mine," Ray kept yelling, until the ball hit his glove, and he and Cepeda collided.
The ball dropped between them, a dirt-stained Clincher in the grass. Stone, charging from left, scooped up the ball, and fired it home with the urgent over-hand grace of an outfielder with a good arm.
The base runner, around the bag at third, sprinted home.
A play at the plate.
The ball bounced twice, up the first base line a couple feet, and skipped into the catcher's glove an instant before the runner arrived.
A cloud of dust around the plate.
Thank god, Ray said to himself, we got him.
Cepeda, up on an elbow, threw his thumb into the air.
Stone, a statue of anticipation.
"Safe," the ump yelled, and held out his arms as if he were a jet plane about to take off.
"No way!" Stone yelled, running toward the infield.
Cepeda jumped up off the ground and followed him.
"No!" The coach Bradford shouted. "No! No! No!"
"He beat the tag!" The ump yelled back. "He beat the tag! Look!" The ump pointed to the outside corner of the plate, as if there were proof in the dirt.
The base-runner celebrated with his team, jumping up and down, hugging each other. Ray blew the play. It was Cepeda's ball and everyone knew it. Cepeda always got everything. Easily the best player on the team; quick, strong, and smart, if he called a ball, he'd get it. Ray was too disappointed to join the scene at the plate, where most of his other teammates, led by Stone, surrounded the ump, shouting in his face.
"Are you fucking blind? The throw beat him by a mile!"
"He beat the tag!" the ump shouted three times straight. "That's the last time I'm going to say it."
Ray lifted himself off the ground and approached.
Stone shouted. "This ump is a moron." Then, right into the ump's face: "You are a fucking moron! Do you know that?"
Bradford, the coach, tried to hold him back, but Stone, with his great biceps and forearms, shoved the skinny coach away as if he weren't there.
The team dreaded Stone's episodes of rage. But it was a tendency they tolerated because he got clutch hits and had a strong arm. White specs of spit flew off Stone's mouth into the ump's face.
Cepeda, probably the only person on the team with the physical strength and stature to hold Stone back, got into the mix. Bradford didn't give up.
Ray felt old. This would be his last Sunday morning softball game, he realized.
The argument at the plate went on. Ray retreated to his position at third, and smoothed out the dirt around the bag as if it mattered. In a patch of shade behind the backstop, kids at the playground slid down the slide, climbed on an elaborate jungle gym, and swung on yellow plastic swings. He replayed the dropped ball over and over again in his head, reeling from the dumb play. He looked around the field for some kind of sign or insight, and his gaze landed on the boy in the NY Yankee uniform, alone, behind the backstop.
The boy's mother, coming around the first base bench, approached the crowd at the plate. She grabbed her husband, the ump, by the arm, and pulled him out of the scrum. In the same instant, she stepped forward and hit Stone on the side of his head with an ineffective open hand. His cap floated to the dirt. "He's a man, you bastard," she howled, "just like you."
The field went quiet. The ump's son whimpered with strained, puppy-like cries. The ump was stunned. He looked around at the players, his wife, and then his son on the other side of the backstop fence. He took off his umpire's mask and tossed it at the plate, where it bounced in the dirt among the scuffed baseball shoes. He walked off the field, around the first base bench, kneeled down in front of his son, lifted him by the waist, and held him until he stopped crying. Then he put the boy down and, holding his hand, they walked toward the children's playground. His wife followed behind, fixing her hair.
"Where the fuck is he going," Stone said to no one in particular. "The game isn't over." The players stood around home plate and watched the three of them walk away. Ray sat down on the third base bag. Coach Bradford jogged after them, holding the spiral bound scorebook, pointing at it with his pencil. Ray couldn't hear exactly what the ump's wife said, but he saw her middle finger up in Bradford's face. Bradford stopped short, and walked back to the field with his shoulders stooped, eyes on the ground.
"What just happened?" Stone said, as if he had just woken up. "Can anyone tell me what just happened?" He picked up his cap and dusted it off.
The players drifted away from the plate.
Ray watched the ump, his son, and his wife enter the playground. The ump lifted the boy up onto one of the swings, and pushed. He pushed again until the boy was swinging in steady even sweeps, high and free. He pushed again and again and again and again.