Herald sits elbow-to-elbow with fellow classmates on uncomfortable metal bleachers looking down at Lincoln High’s baseball field. His father, the coach, stands at third base waving his arms wildly towards home plate. Herald’s brother, Ray, rounds second base. He had always been faster than Herald, but right now he was like lightning. How had Herald ever thought that he could compete with that kind of athleticism?
The right fielder whips the ball into the glove of his cut-off man. Ray rounds third base. Herald can’t hear himself think over the hooting and hollering of the amped crowd. The ball takes off again, like a bullet towards home plate, but a bullet was no match for lightning. Ray dives headfirst, sliding underneath the catcher’s descending glove. “Safe!” The umpire shouts. The crowd erupts, screaming like a pack of howler monkeys. Stomping the bleachers like mad, shaking the field like a man-made earthquake.
“An in-the-park homer! Lincoln High takes the lead! Six to five!” An ecstatic announcer’s booming voice informs the crowd. Ray’s teammates, already waiting for him at home, swarm him with praise. Why wouldn’t they? He was Raymond Reese, the golden child, the sixteen-year-old king of Lincoln. Herald, well, Herald was just Herald. A nobody. Not at home, not in any respectable social circles, nowhere, least of all Lincoln.
A short time later the game ends, and the field lights are turned off. Herald waits alone, squirming uncomfortably in his seat as the crowd begins to disperse. His sleeping legs wish that he would get up, even for a brief moment, just to restore a little blood flow. His social anxiety, however, keeps him anchored in place. The Lincoln High Scorpions take a victory lap around the field. Herald watches their silhouettes sprint under the dimming lights, he couldn’t be certain, but he assumed Ray was the shadow leading the pack.
His father shakes hands with excited parents, accepting all manner of praise no doubt. Their record spoke volumes about his coaching after all. He had coached college for years, only stepping down to the high school level so he could more closely mentor Ray, help him hone his already impressive skills. Herald was always hard-pressed getting any attention from his father, he possessed none of the abilities that were respected by a man like him. Not yet anyway, he hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, but he signed up for a gym membership weeks ago. He hoped that maybe if he worked hard enough, one day he would be able to give Ray a run for his money, but he doubted it. Watching Ray in action always diminished his confidence. The best he had managed in the gym so far was bench pressing eighty pounds and running a twenty-minute mile. Even the personal trainer provided by the gym didn’t seem to have much confidence in Herald, and he certainly didn’t offer up any words of praise. He always tried to motivate him, sure, but that was his job. The sense of respect was a facade, one day he would earn it, the real thing. Tonight, however, he just had to sit and watch as the popular girls trip over one another vying for his younger brother’s attention.
Months go by, and Herald feels stronger than he’d ever felt in his life. His arms were bigger, more defined. The same with his legs, his calves rock hard, and swollen. He was benching one hundred and fifty pounds now, he himself a solid 140. The bat he holds in his hands had begun to feel more comfortable over the past couple of months. If he wasn’t in the gym, he spent his evenings at the batting cages. He hired a personal coach off of the internet who had been helping him develop his stance and swing. More often than not he also taught him the correct way to throw a ball. A task that seemed impossible at first, but he was starting to get the hang of it, even investing in his own glove. He would have just asked his dad to help train him, but he knew that would have been a waste of breath. Why take on a newcomer to the game when he already had a prodigy under his wing?
The pitching machine spits out a fastball, it was set to 70 mph, but it seems faster to Herald. He swings, and misses, the ball thumps into the net behind him. “Keep your eye on the ball, Harry!” His coach, Kev, yells at him. “Are you sure it’s on seventy?” Herald asks, frustrated at himself. “You got me. It’s set to seventy-five, but you can hit it, man! Just focus!” He says, clapping his hands together before injecting a new ball into the pitching machine.
The ball rockets at him again, whooshing as it soars through the air. He swings, the ball cracks off of the end of his bat and veers off hard to the right. “Foul ball! But better! Kev tells him. Herald smiles, proud of this small accomplishment. He had never made contact with a ball moving so fast before, slowly but surely he was making progress. “I’m gonna bump it back down to seventy! Put some power into it! Show me whatcha got Harry!” It was a nice feeling, positive reinforcement. Not just being called a pansy in an attempt to goad him into doing better, real encouragement for a change.
Pop! The ball shoots from the machine towards the center of the plate. Herald puts everything into this swing, his frustrations, his worries, his doubts, his anger. All of his emotions surge through his arms, and into his bat, making contact with the leather, propelling it over Kev’s head to the far end of the cage. “There ya go! That’s what I’m talking about man!” Kev shouts excitedly, clapping his hands together. Herald certainly wasn’t used to that, applause, even if it was only from one person. “Don’t get too cocky!” Kev laughs, noticing the huge grin on Herald’s face.
“Can you bump it back up? I think I can get it this time!” Herald shouts his adrenaline pumping now. “I never turned it down! That was all you bud! Kev says smiling. Pride wells up in Herald’s chest turning into tears of joy floating in his eyes. He wipes them away, playing it off as if he were wiping sweat from his face. He isn’t sure if Kev was buying the act, but he hoped that he was, the last thing he needed was another person’s lack of respect. His confidence was through the roof right now, and he didn’t want it to falter just yet.
“What do you say we end the batting there for today? Work on some fielding?” Kev asks, already turning off the pitching machine, and collecting the stray balls back into a crate. Herald’s confidence does waver a bit at the words, fielding was the part of baseball that really terrified him. For months, against the advice of his coach, he had insisted on wearing a catcher’s facemask. Which he picks up and begins to secure on his head.
“Nope.” Kev says, as he takes the mask off of him and throws it aside. He hands Herald his glove like an olive branch. “You don’t need it, Harry. Just keep focusing, it’ll be fine.” He says in an encouraging tone. Hesitantly, Herald takes a few steps back and assumes the fielding position that Kev had helped him with. He tries his best to emulate the in-fielders that he had seen on television (Kev had suggested that he take up watching professional baseball to help him learn the rules).
“You ready?” Kev asks as he squares up with the ball and bat about twenty-five yards from Herald. Herald nods, even though he knows he wasn’t. His legs shake as he anticipates the incoming impact of pain. Kev tosses the ball up and hits a line drive at him, not a fast one, but fast enough to scare him out of the way of its trajectory. “Come on man! You can’t be scared of it!” Kev shouts. “Are you sure I can’t wear the mask? I’d feel a lot better if I had it on.” Herald responds. “No mask, Harry, you don’t need that thing!” Kev says.
This ones gonna be a grounder! Don’t take your eyes off of it, and keep your hand above your glove like we talked about!” Kev says, sending another shot toward Herald. The fast-paced ball makes a bad hop and hits Herald square in the nose. He falls to his knees, blood gushing from his nostrils. Kev drops the bat and runs over to him. “Shit I’m sorry man are you okay?!” Kev asks him worriedly. Herald lets out a long, painful moan and responds, “Yeah I’m alright... Can we just call it a day?” Herald asks him. “Sure, no problem. I’ll see ya on Thursday, alright?” Kev says. “Sounds like a plan Kev.” Herald says as he gets to his feet. He slips him their agreed-upon $30. They shake hands and part ways.
Herald gets home just in time for dinner. His father and brother both sit at the dining room table, cutting up medium-rare steaks. They shovel the chunks of meat into their already full mouths. His dad looks up at him briefly as he enters the room, and then double-takes when he sees his swelled nose. Not bothering to swallow the food before speaking, he almost inaudibly asks Herald, “What the hell happened to you?” “Got in a fight.” Herald lies, picking up the empty plate from his spot at the table. “What was her name?” Ray mocks, laughing at his own stupid joke, bits of steak falling from his mouth. Their father laughs too, Herald’s face is flushed with embarrassment and anger. He puts his clean plate back in the kitchen cabinet and walks out of the room.
“Where you going? You gotta eat something! You’re already skinny enough!” His father calls from the other room. Obviously neither of them noticed the twenty pounds of muscle he had put on over the course of the past few months, that wasn’t surprising. Afterall baseball season was right around the corner, and they were in the middle of their own training regiment, one that Herald wasn’t welcome to be a part of. He doesn’t respond to his father’s prying, instead, he shuts himself in his room and looks up baseball highlights on his laptop with the volume on low. He watches the players, studying their movements and habits until he can no longer keep his eyes open.
His abilities advance over the next month, at least that’s what Kev told him. Beads of sweat stream down his face, his legs tremble as he holds them inches from the ground while he lays on his back. “Sixty,” Kev says. “Good job, ten seconds better than last time. You been practicing?” Kev asks. “Pretty much every night..” Herald responds, trying to catch his breath. Kev resets his stopwatch, and checks the time on his phone. “It’s 4:30, won’t be long now. You ready?” He asks Herald. He nods, still breathing heavily. “Okay let’s go,” Kev says. “No offense Kev, but I have to do this part on my own,” Herald responds. “You sure?” He asks hesitantly. “Yeah, I’ve got this.” “Alright bud, let me know how it goes?” Kev asks smiling. Herald sees something unfamiliar in Kev’s face, pride, pride for his pupil. He smiles back at him. “You know it, man.”
Herald parks his car in an empty section of Lincoln High’s parking lot, not an easy find, it was packed. Parents and students alike file onto the bleachers of the baseball field, chattering to each other, excited for the upcoming tryouts being held just minutes from now. Herald changes into his cleats, tying them tight. He puts on his plain red baseball cap, and slips his hand into his glove. He punches the palm of it, trying his best to hype himself up, all of Kev’s lessons flashing through his mind.
He finally works up the nerve to walk through the gate. He’s the last one to step foot onto the field. He feels an odd sensation, everyone in the stands watching him, he could feel their gaze. Then, he and his father lock eyes as he looks on in confusion at Herald approaching him in his athletic wear. It was like he didn’t recognize him, who was this stranger trying out for his team? A few of the players, including Herald’s brother, laugh at him as he approaches the dugout, clearly waiting for him to fall on his face at any moment. This did nothing to diminish his spirit. This is what he had been working toward, and win or lose, he would exist in their minds forever, they would remember today… They would remember Herald Reese.