As he strode to the plate, his bat leisurely resting on his shoulder, Karl knew this was it. This was the moment to settle it, once and for all. While there would perhaps be another chance, this was the first time, that one encounter that will remain etched in the collective memory the longest. And, frankly, he knew this was also his best shot, as time was not necessarily on his side.
He felt good. He got a clean single in the second, put up a good at bat in the fourth before lining out sharply to right field and then walked in the seventh. He was not the same menacing presence in the box he was ten, or even five years ago, but he was still someone you’d rather not face in the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on first base.
They had a new kid on the mound, a young and cocky fireballer, like so many others sprouting around the league these days. He was just like so many Karl has faced over the years, and yet he was like no one before. For this tall and broad-shouldered lefty was his son.
* * *
Since his first steps on the sandlot, Sebastian was a prodigy. He could run faster than the other kids, he could hit further, he could field cleaner. But what really set him apart was the way he could throw. Smooth and sleek, as only lefthanders tend to be, he would hit his target time after time, throwing faster each time, much faster than a kid of his age had any business throwing.
By the time he was 12, he was hitting 65 on the radar gun. When he was 14, he broke 80 for the first time, striking out 13 in a high school varsity game. By the time he turned 17, he was sitting in the mid-nineties and, that June, went 19th overall to the Oakland A’s.
No one ever called him Sebastian. To his family and close friends he was Basti and to almost everyone else he was Karl’s Kid. So, here he was, Karl’s Kid, just fourteen months after turning pro, in the middle of the playoff race, needing just one more out to close it out.
* * *
Karl’s path to the majors was nowhere as smooth as his son’s was. His nothing was smooth, and he prided himself for owing nothing to nobody, for having earned every last bit of what he had in life. He wasn’t drafted out of high school, and for two years after that he barely played at all. He worked shifts at the meat-packing factory and attended community college, and if it weren’t for that Mets scout who got lost on the dusty roads of Iowa, trying to get to a high-school game and settling for a pick-up game of softball and a cold lemonade instead, neither Karl nor his kid would be in the Majors today. Had he not hit the scout’s car, parked in what he thought was a safe distance, not once, but twice, Karl would have probably gotten his degree in American History and went on to teach in that same godforsaken high school not even scouts could find.
He signed for a $5,000 bonus and spent the next seven years in the minors, getting traded from the Mets to the Brewers, then to the White Sox, then back to the Mets, then to those same A’s he was facing now. They all disliked his lack of pedigree, the awkward hitch in his swing, his ever advancing age. Yet, those meat-packing arms kept hitting and kept hitting hard, and by the time he turned 26, he had 207 minor league home runs. He would not hit another one. On his birthday he was pulled out of the River Cats game in the second inning and on the next day he was the starting right fielder for the Oakland Athletics, who finally decided to give him a chance.
He hit a home run in that first game and quickly became a crowd favorite. He had a good three-year run for the A’s, but right after he made his first All-Star team, he was traded to the Dodgers for three pitching prospects. None of them panned out, and Karl really took off once he went to LA, crowning his career with the NL MVP honors in 2009.
* * *
He was taking the first pitch. He almost always did and everybody knew it, none more so than his son, who for all his life tried to soak as much baseball knowledge from his dad as he could. Still, even now, nobody dared put one right down the pipe. Franky, Sebastian’s battery mate, armed with a good heart and bad knees, set up on the outside corner and barely had to move his glove. Knee high, on the black – strike one.
Well, the game is starting now, both Karl and his kid thought to themselves.
Franky called for a slider. He loved sliders, even against the right-handed batters. And Basti could throw them wherever you asked him to. Franky opted for the back-door one and squatted in the same place as the pitch before. The youngster recoiled and let it fly, starting a good foot off the plate and then whiffing back, as if pulled by some enormous sideways gravitational force.
It was a good pitch, no, a great pitch, just brushing the low and outside corner as it crossed the plate. Yet Karl knew it would be a ball, he knew that Supreme-Justice-Thomas, in his 23rd season as a Major League umpire would not give that pitch, not to a kid in the fifth game of his career, not against someone who has hit 200 home runs in the minors and another 300 in the big leagues, against someone who has paid his dues.
When Thomas remained predictably silent, Karl moved his head in a barely visible nod towards the mound. You have to earn it, Son. You have to earn it.
* * *
Karl did his best to make his son earn it all his life. Even though he made his family financially independent many times over, he made sure Sebastian earned his own allowance, working odd jobs at the local stores. He made him volunteer at the pet shelter. And he made absolutely sure he would never influence any of his youth coaches, all eager to please Karl the Great.
On the other hand he did all he could to teach his kid baseball, helping him with his swing and his throwing every time he had a chance. He stepped outside of the batter’s box, picked some dirt, rubbed it on his hands and smiled. What was it, he thought, ten thousand pitches he threw to his son over the years? Hundred thousand? And now here they were, his kid throwing to him for the first time in his life.
* * *
Franky called for another slider, of course he did. Front office guys were raving about the kid’s spin rate or something, but Franky couldn’t care less about this yuppie blabber. He had played for San Diego for years and had seen Karl deposit more than enough fastballs into Chavez Ravine bleachers. They got a freebie on the first pitch, he’ll take his chances with the sliders on the corner from now on.
Basti shook him off. He always had this air of self-assurance, maturation beyond his years and to him it seemed only natural that he, the rookie, should shake off the 8-year veteran. Yes he had a great slider, but he loved his fastball more. He had faced 17 batters since he was promoted and he struck out 11 of them, and if you asked him he would tell you he could have done it without a secondary pitch.
It is not wise for a backup catcher to get into a feud with the bonus baby wunderkind, not when he doesn’t have a contract for next year, Franky thought, so he reluctantly stretched just one finger. Sebastian quickly confirmed and came to the set.
Karl knew, of course he did. He would have known even without the shaking off, he knew that his kid wanted to prove himself to him, that he wanted to get out of his shadow. That he wanted to overpower his dad, not trick him. He knew and he was ready.
The ball left the mound at 97 miles per hour, headed for that spot just under the hands. It was a beautiful pitch, a celebration of youth and might. On another night, Karl would have watched it in appreciation, realizing just how lucky he was and how far his baby son has made it. But not tonight. There was just too much muscle memory in him, it was just too deep in him not to react.
He saw the pitch, wildly spinning towards him. But he also saw his kid on the mound, he saw him in the nursery, on his first day of school, in his first tee-ball game. He smiled again and murmured. Not yet, Son. Not tonight. And then he started his swing.