Essays | Lit Issue

Kerry Wood

A story by Jack Murphy

1.

When Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, a National League record, the second man to strike out his age, I thought for sure I would love baseball forever. From then on, I wanted pitchers to destroy sluggers like Sosa, a man I once believed capable of hitting a ball deep into Lake Michigan some 5,000 feet away.

Pitchers hated batters, I figured, and batters feared pitchers. And so I preferred Wood, got his jersey for my birthday, learned to throw pitches with a wiffle ball that moved like his, though my father warned my elbow would explode, as Kerry’s did not long after.

But truth be told, some years went by when I did not love baseball. I realize now it’s when I got a car—when I lost the capacity to wait: for my mother to get home from work to drive me to karate class, to sit through Biology and Algebra before I could eat my lunch, to stand on the platform for the Red or Brown Line, whichever came first.

When Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, I was watching with my grammie, who was babysitting us like usual. I came home from school in the 5th inning; she greeted us at the door in excitement wearing her white converse wrapped with red baseball stitching. I ran to the television still wearing my backpack and forgot to take it off for an inning and a half. The bricks were closer to home plate at Wrigley then, and there weren’t any ads. Mark Grace still played first base. The ivy was, of course, brown, so early in the year. It was cold that day. The stands were mostly empty, until about the 7th when suddenly fans appeared—I like to imagine them running down Clark to get to the stadium before it was too late.

2.

Lately I’ve been riding the bus again, and lately I’ve been watching baseball. I like myself better when I like to watch baseball, or maybe I like baseball better when I like myself. Most of watching baseball, after all, is sitting alone with yourself.

And now that I’m riding the bus again, I see it works the same way—that the Red Line, like baseball, is an individual team sport, that written and unwritten rules silently hold us all together.

I like the ambient slowness baseball imposes on my life, just as I like seeing the faces of the people on the Red Line again, to sit among and with them, not apart alone in our cars on the expressway.

Like that it’s easy to write a poem while you watch, that announcers go minutes it seems sometimes without speaking, interrupt their silence only to tell you the direction the wind is blowing. Like the players who are very, very fast or wear their socks high, who have extremely dirty batting helmets or always seem to be eating. Guys who hit a home run and run either as fast or slow as they can around the bases.

Love little kids who can imitate with a wiffle bat the batting stances of all the players perfectly, love listening to the radio broadcast while sitting in the stands, love the names of the pitches: curve, slurve, knuckle, fast.

That they sing for the 7th inning stretch twice if the game makes it to the 14th.

3.

When Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, I called both my parents at work to tell them what was happening. I ran around the living room between pitches, like a puppy trapped in the house all day. He struck out Bagwell, who I hated, three times. Biggio, who I hated even more, he hit with a pitch, which was even better than a punch out. Derrick Bell, who I tolerated, looked to be quivering in the batter’s box; Kerry Wood was closer to my age than his. I’m not sure if that’s true. I think it must be. At least that’s how it seemed. is would be the summer I broke my arm sliding into second base.

When Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, I think about playing shortstop in winter time.

When Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, I walk down long hallways and imagine icking a ball across the diamond to the other end.

When Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, I am driving alone to Wisconsin listening intently to a playoff game as I go and can almost see the players imprinted on the supernatural darkness, until the signal grows weak, until it’s nothing more than static on the outline of evergreens.

When Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, I find myself walking down to the park to watch the high school JV team play on chilly nights in mid-April. And I’m pleased to be reminded how much of any given game is spent shivering alone on a spot of dead frozen grass or else meticulously smoothing a spot of dirt with your cleat for fear of the dreaded Bad Hop. I’m struck by the quiet of the game, with only a handful of parents bundled in blankets watching from the metal bleachers, staring out onto the field waiting for something to happen knowing full well very little actually will. And the pitchers seem very scared, and the batters, too, and the in elders and out elders, as well—everyone seems scared. Baseball affords plenty of time to consider one’s failure before each pitch—and baseball players fail a lot, almost all of the time, in fact.

And it feels like I’m visiting a time when all I did was wait, when it always felt like three o’clock in the very middle of summer with one out in the 5th inning and a pitching change underway. And this is, I know, because on some level I do not want to die, do not want my leg to hurt for no reason, for doctors to check my blood pressure, for my teeth to rot, for bills to come due—want the things I’m waiting for to seem wonderful and possible again not ugly and inevitable.

But I’m a tourist here, in the same way I’m a tourist on the Green Line or the bus, the type who rides for pleasure not necessity as I once did, and so after a few innings walk back up to my nice one-bedroom with all my nice things and the life I’ve created on my phone.

It was raining, when Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros. My little league game was cancelled, but I put my uniform on anyway, threw a rubber ball against my garage in the drizzle until my fingers pruned. The water almost ruined my glove. To this day, it smells like lilacs.

Jack Murphy lives in Chicago.

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