Donald L. Vasicek
The smell of garlic was heavy around second base. It’s not that it was overbearing, just that it was there. I kicked at the dirt, hardened by an unusually hot Denver summer. I watched some of it bolt up and drop on the stark white base anchored in the ground.
“Hey, Coach, whatcha doing that for?” I looked around at Tim, a string bean of a kid. He was 13 and smart as the relentless sun beating down on us. A whiff of garlic the size of a watermelon exited Tim and engulfed me.
“Just loosening up the ground a bit,” I said. I looked at Carl, a dark-headed kid with buck teeth and a smile that lit up the softball diamond. Carl pitched the softball to Jake, a 17-old kid the size of a Humvee. Tim was now cleaning the dirt off the bag. “Tim, heads up,” I said. Tim looked up. He pounded his glove. Dust smoked out of it. He bent his knees and cupped his hands on them.
Jake swung and missed. Carl’s red baseball cap flew off. Carl’s grandfather, standing just behind him to shag balls for him and instruct him about pitching, sneezed. A whiff of air the size of a hurricane swept up dust off the diamond. It boiled into clouds and rolled towards us.
Soon, it engulfed us and passed on out into centerfield. I looked at Tim. His face was grimy with dirt. “Hey, Coach,” he said, “you look like that old guy on the Survivor show.”
“You mean, Rudy, the ex-Navy seal?” “Yeah, except he didn’t have dirt all over his face.”
Tim started laughing. It sounded like a distressed squirrel. I laughed. Soon, everyone was laughing, all thirty-six of us, and that included the other coaches and parents.
Carl wound up. Jake hunkered over the plate. Carl’s grandfather barked in Carl’s ear. “Throw it high so it’ll come down over the back of the plate, that’s the Special Olympics rule.”
Jake swung and missed. The ball skipped passed the catcher, little Carpie, a Down Syndrome boy, who was dwarfed by the catcher’s mask, chest, knee and shin protectors. It bounded all the way to the backstop where it thunked to a stop.
“Charge the ball if it’s hit at you, Tim,” I instructed. I was more out at second base to protect him, than to coach him. I’d noticed in earlier practices that he didn’t pay attention to what was going on. He was always fooling around with his glove. Or turning his back on the playing field and gazing into the outfield. Or talking with someone.
Little Carpie threw the ball back to Carl. It bounced three times before it got to Carl. Carl scooped it up and prepared to throw the next pitch to Jake.
I looked at Tim. He was down on one knee. He had managed to clean the second base bag of dirt. Now, he was smoothing the dirt out around the base with his hands. He was a sitting target for a rock hard softball that could bash his head to smithereens. Just at that moment, Carl threw the ball to Jake.
“Tim, heads up,” I said. Tim looked up. Jake swung the bat. He smashed the ball. The ball cracked off his bat like a rocket.
I lunged over to get in front of Tim. The ball climbed high into the air. It shot for the leftfield wall, some 300 feet away, then curved and went foul at the last moment.
“Coach, you’re in my way,” Tim wailed. I stepped away, relieved that the ball didn’t hit Tim.
“Step over here, Tim.” I motioned to several feet off second base. I walked over and crouched facing Jake. I pounded my glove. “This is where second basemen like you play. They cover the area between first base and all of second base.” Tim strolled over.
He went into his crouch. He pounded his glove. “Hit the ball to me, Jake,” Tim said. He pounded his glove. He leaned and cupped his hands on his knees. “When it comes to second basemen, it gets no better than right here.”
I gawked at Tim. He looked so vulnerable. Skinny, like a weeping willow tree branch, he was developmentally disabled. A softball hit by Jake would shred him. I nudged up closer to him.
“I got it covered, Coach,” he said.
“Okay, I’m just making sure the dust doesn’t get in your way.” He looked at me and grinned. His teeth, like a straight, white picket fence, gleamed back at me. Then, I heard the crack of Jake’s bat.
I glanced at Jake. On a line, the ball screamed right for Tim. “Tim, the ball,” I said. Tim looked. The ball fired for his face. Whump!
I stuck my glove out and caught the ball. The ball hit my hand with the force of a small sledge hammer. The bones danced like everyone of them was going to break. The palm of my hand felt like someone had just snapped a whip on it. It stung and burned.
I flipped the ball to Carl without batting an eye. I looked at Tim. His face was ashen. His marble-like eyeballs peered at me in shock. “You okay, Tim?” Tim continued staring at me. I put my other hand on his shoulder since my glove hand felt like it was missing from the wrist forward. “Tim.”
He swallowed. “You have tears in your eyes, Coach,” he said.
I felt a tickle on the side of my nose. I scratched it. It was a tear. “Well, you would’ve caught the ball if dust hadn’t gotten in my eyes, huh?” Tim nodded.
Summer Special Olympics softball moved forward after that night at practice. Tim continued playing second base. And he caught every ball that came his way, whether in the air or on the ground, even when dust was blowing his way.