America under the lights
at Harry Ball Field. A fog rolls in
as the flag crinkles and drapes
around a metal pole.
My son reaches into the sky
to pull down a game-ender,
a bomb caught in his leather mitt.
He gives the ball a flat squeeze
then tosses it in from the outfield,
tugs his cap over a tussle of hair
before joining the team—
all high-fives and handshakes
as the Major boys line up
at home plate. They are learning
how to be good sports,
their dugout cheers interrupted only
by sunflower seed shells spat
along the first base line.
The coach prattles on
about the importance of stealing
bases and productive outs
while a teammate cracks a joke
about my son’s ‘fro, then says,
But you’re not really black…
to which there’s laughter,
to which he smiles but says nothing,
which says something about
what goes unsaid, what starts
with a harmless joke, routine
as a can of corn.
But this is little league.
This is where he learns
how to field a position,
how to play a bloop in the gap—
that impossible space where
he’ll always play defense.
Copyright © 2015 January Gill O'Neil. Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner. Used with permission of Prairie Schooner.
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, "If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat."
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile lit Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one!" the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, "Strike two!"
"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
This poem is in the public domain.
To this day I still remember sitting
on my abuelo’s lap watching the Yankees hit,
then run, a soft wind rounding the bases
every foot tap to the white pad gentle as a kiss.
How I loved those afternoons languidly
eating jamón sandwiches & drinking root beer.
Later, when I knew something about the blue collar
man—my father who worked with his hands & tumbled
into the house exhausted like heat in a rainstorm—
I became a Mets fan.
Something about their unclean faces
their mustaches seemed rough
to the touch. They had names like Wally & Dyskstra.
I was certain I would marry a man just like them
that is until Sammy Sosa came along
with his smile a reptile that only knew about lying in the sun.
His arms were cannons and his skin burnt cinnamon
that glistened in my dreams.
Everyone said he was not beautiful.
Out on the streets where the men set up shop playing dominoes
I’d hear them say between the yelling of capicu
“como juega, pero feo como el diablo.”
I knew nothing of my history
of the infighting on an island on which one side swore
it was only one thing: pallid, pristine. & I didn’t know
that Sammy carried this history like a tattoo.
That he wished everyday to be white.
It is a perfect game this race war, it is everywhere, living
in the American bayou as much as
the Dominican dirt roads.
It makes a man do something to his skin that seems unholy.
It makes that same man change eye color like a soft
summer dress slipped on slowly.
It makes a grandmother ask her granddaughter
if she’s suffering
from something feverish
because that could be the only excuse why
her hair has not been straightened
like a ballerina’s back dyed the color of wild
daffodils growing in an outfield.
Sammy hit 66 home runs one year
& that was still not enough
to make him feel handsome
or worthy of that blackness that I believe a gift
even today while black churches burn & black bodies
disappear from one day to the next the same as old
I think of him often barely remember what he looked like
but I can recall his hunched shoulders in the
dugout his perfect swing
& how maybe he spit out something black
from his mouth after
every single strike—
Copyright © 2015 Yesenia Montilla. Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner. Used with permission of Prairie Schooner.
The hoop is not metal, but a pair of outstretched arms,
God’s arms, joined at the fingers. And God is saying
throw it to me. It’s not a ball anymore. It’s an orange prayer
I’m offering with all four chambers. And the other players—
the Pollack of limbs, flashing hands and teeth—
are just temptations, obstacles between me and the Lord’s light.
Once during an interview I slipped, I didn’t pray well tonight,
and the reporter looked at me, the same one who’d called me
a baller of destiny, and said you mean play, right? Of course,
I nodded. Don’t misunderstand—I’m no reverend
of the flesh. Priests embarrass me. A real priest
wouldn’t put on that robe, wouldn’t need the public
affirmation. A real priest works in disguise, leads
by example, preaches with his feet. Yes, Jesus walked on water,
but how about a staircase of air? And when the clock
is down to its final ticks, I rise up and over the palms
of a nonbeliever—the whole world watching, thinking
it can’t be done—I let the faith roll off my fingertips, the ball
drunk with backspin, a whole stadium of people holding
the same breath simultaneously, the net flying up like a curtain,
the lord’s truth visible for an instant, converting nonbelievers
by the bushel, who will swear for years they’ve witnessed a miracle.
Copyright © 2015 Jeffrey McDaniel. Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner. Used with permission of Prairie Schooner.
[I] retrace by moonlight the roads where I used to play in the sun. — Marcel Proust At night, when I go out to the field to listen to the birds sleep, the stars hover like old umpires over the diamond, and I think back upon the convergences of bats and balls, of cowhide and the whacked thumping of cork into its oiled pockets, and I realize again that our lives pass like the phased signals of that old coach, the moon, passing over the pitcher's mound, like the slowed stride of an aging shortstop as he lopes over the infield or the stilled echo of crowds in a wintered stadium. I see again how all the old heroes have passed on to their ranches and dealerships, that each new season ushers in its crop of the promised and promising, the highly touted and the sudden phenoms of the unexpected, as if the hailed dispensation of gifts had realigned itself into a new constellation, as if the old passages of decrepitude and promise had been altered into a new seeming. I remember how once, sliding into second during a steal, I watched the sun rest like a diadem against the head of some spectator, and thought to myself in the neat preutterance of all true feeling, how even our thieveries, well-done, are blessed with a certain luminousness, how a man rising from a pilfered sanctity might still upright himself and return, like Odysseus, to some plenitude of feast and fidelity. It is why, even then, I loved baseball: the fierce legitimacy of the neatly stolen, the calm and illicit recklessness of the coaches with their wet palms and arcane tongues of mimicry and motion. It is why, even now, I steal away from my wife's warm arms to watch the moon sail like a well-hit fly over the stadium, then hump my back high over the pitcher's mound and throw that old curve of memory toward the plate where I run for a swing at it—the moon and the stars approving my middle-aged bravado, that boy still rising from his theft to find the light.
From Days We Would Rather Know, published by The Viking Press. Copyright © 1984 by Michael Blumenthal. Used by permission of the author.
When I was twelve, I shoplifted a pair
Of basketball shoes. We could not afford
Them otherwise. But when I tied them on,
I found that I couldn’t hit a shot.
When the ball clanked off the rim, I felt
Only guilt, guilt, guilt. O, immoral shoes!
O, kicks made of paranoia and rue!
Distraught but unwilling to get caught
Or confess, I threw those cursed Nikes
Into the river and hoped that was good
Enough for God. I played that season
In supermarket tennis shoes that felt
The same as playing in bare feet.
O, torn skin! O, bloody heels and toes!
O, twisted ankles! O, blisters the size
Of dimes and quarters! Finally, after
I couldn’t take the pain anymore, I told
My father what I had done. He wasn’t angry.
He wept out of shame. Then he cradled
And rocked me and called me his Little
Basketball Jesus. He told me that every cry
Of pain was part of the hoops sonata.
Then he laughed and bandaged my wounds—
My Indian Boy Poverty Basketball Stigmata.
Copyright © 2015 Sherman Alexie. Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner. Used with permission of Prairie Schooner.
His speed and strength, which is the strength of ten
years, races me home from the pool.
First I am ahead, Niké, on my bicycle,
no hands, and the Times crossword tucked in my rack,
then he is ahead, the Green Hornet,
buzzing up Witherspoon,
flashing around the corner to Nassau Street.
At noon sharp he demonstrated his neat
one-and-a-half flips off the board:
Oh, brave. Did you see me, he wanted to know.
And I doing my backstroke laps was Juno
Oceanus, then for a while I watched some black
and white boys wrestling and joking, teammates, wet
plums and peaches touching each other as if
it is not necessary to make hate,
as if Whitman was right and there is no death.
A big wind at our backs, it is lovely, the maple boughs
ride up and down like ships. Do you mind
if I take off, he says. I’ll catch you later,
see you, I shout and wave, as he peels
away, pedaling hard, rocket and pilot.
From The Mother/Child Papers, by Alicia Susan Ostriker © 2009. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used with permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
for my father, Frank Espada In 1941, my father saw his first big league ballgame at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn: the Dodgers and the Cardinals. My father took his father's hand. When the umpires lumbered on the field, the band in the stands with a bass drum and trombone struck up a chorus of Three Blind Mice. The peanut vendor shook a cowbell and hollered. The home team raced across the diamond, and thirty thousand people shouted all at once, as if an army of liberation rolled down Bedford Avenue. My father shouted, too. He wanted to see The Trouble Ball. On my father's island, there were hurricanes and tuberculosis, dissidents in jail and baseball. The loudspeakers boomed: Satchel Paige pitching for the Brujos of Guayama. From the Negro Leagues he brought the gifts of Baltasar the King; from a bench on the plaza he told the secrets of a thousand pitches: The Trouble Ball, The Triple Curve, The Bat Dodger, The Midnight Creeper, The Slow Gin Fizz, The Thoughtful Stuff. Pancho Coímbre hit rainmakers for the Leones of Ponce; Satchel sat the outfielders in the grass to play poker, windmilled three pitches to the plate, and Pancho spun around three times. He couldn't hit The Trouble Ball. At Ebbets Field, the first pitch echoed in the mitt of Mickey Owen, the catcher for the Dodgers who never let the ball escape his glove. A boy off the boat, my father shelled peanuts, waiting for Satchel Paige to steer his gold Cadillac from the bullpen to the mound, just as he would navigate the streets of Guayama. Yet Satchel never tipped his cap that day. ¿Dónde están los negros? asked the boy. Where are the Negro players? No los dejan, his father softly said. They don't let them play here. Mickey Owen would never have to dive for The Trouble Ball. It was then that the only brown boy at Ebbets Field felt himself levitate above the grandstand and the diamond, another banner at the ballgame. From up high he could see that everyone was white, and their whiteness was impossible, like snow in Puerto Rico, and just as silent, so he could not hear the cowbell, or the trombone, or the Dodger fans howling with glee at the bases-loaded double. He understood why his father whispered in Spanish: everybody in the stands might overhear the secret of The Trouble Ball. At Ebbets Field in 1941, the Dodgers met the Yankees in the World Series. Mickey Owen dropped the third strike with two outs in the ninth inning of Game Four, flailing like a lobster in the grip of a laughing fisherman, and the Yankees stamped their spikes across the plate to win. Brooklyn, the borough of churches, prayed for his fumbling soul. This was the reason statues of the Virgin leaked tears and the fathers of Brooklyn drank, not the banishment of Satchel Paige to doubleheaders in Bismarck, North Dakota. There were no rosaries or boilermakers for The Trouble Ball. My father would return to baseball on 108th Street. He pitched for the Crusaders, kicking high like Satchel, riding the team bus painted with four-leaf clovers, seasick all the way to Hackensack or the Brooklyn Parade Grounds. One day he jammed his wrist sliding into second, threw three more innings anyway, and never pitched again. He would return to Ebbets Field to court my mother. The same year they were married a waiter refused to serve them, a mixed couple sitting all night in the corner, till my father hoisted him by his lapels and the waiter's feet dangled in the air, a puppet and his furious puppeteer. My father was familiar with The Trouble Ball. I was born in Brooklyn in 1957, when the Dodgers packed their duffle bags and left the city. A wrecking ball swung an uppercut into the face of Ebbets Field. I heard the stories: how my mother, lost in the circles and diamonds of her scorecard, never saw Jackie Robinson accelerate down the line to steal home. I wore my father's glove until the day I laid it down to lap the water from the fountain in the park. By the time I raised my head, it was gone like Ebbets Field. I walked slowly home. I had to tell my father I would never learn to catch The Trouble Ball. There was a sign below the scoreboard at Ebbets Field: Abe Stark, Brooklyn's Leading Clothier. Hit Sign, Win Suit. Some people see that sign in dreams. They speak of ballparks as cathedrals, frame the pennants from the game where it began, Dodger blue and Cardinal red, and gaze upon the wall. My father, who remembers everything, remembers nothing of that dazzling day but this: ¿Dónde están los negros? No los dejan. His hair is white, and still the words are there, like the ghostly imprint of stitches on the forehead from a pitch that got away. It is forever 1941. It was The Trouble Ball.
From The Trouble Ball, published by W.W. Norton. Copyright © 2011 by Martín Espada. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna or on any river for that matter to be perfectly honest. Not in July or any month have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure— of fishing on the Susquehanna. I am more likely to be found in a quiet room like this one— a painting of a woman on the wall, a bowl of tangerines on the table— trying to manufacture the sensation of fishing on the Susquehanna. There is little doubt that others have been fishing on the Susquehanna, rowing upstream in a wooden boat, sliding the oars under the water then raising them to drip in the light. But the nearest I have ever come to fishing on the Susquehanna was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia when I balanced a little egg of time in front of a painting in which that river curled around a bend under a blue cloud-ruffled sky, dense trees along the banks, and a fellow with a red bandanna sitting in a small, green flat-bottom boat holding the thin whip of a pole. That is something I am unlikely ever to do, I remember saying to myself and the person next to me. Then I blinked and moved on to other American scenes of haystacks, water whitening over rocks, even one of a brown hare who seemed so wired with alertness I imagined him springing right out of the frame.
From Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. Copyright © 1998 by Billy Collins. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved.
If he hits the curve before you do, all is lost
is all I remember when the coach yelled out
to start, to kick it down the short straightaway
into the curve, the curve a devil’s handiwork,
with Worsenski ahead of me, two hundred sixty
pounds, one hundred pounds more than me,
and all I could see were the Converse soles
of a boy I dusted in my dreams on the bus
out here to make the track team, letters
for my sweater, girls going goo-goo over me,
coaches from big-league schools with papers
to say I was headed for glory, my unkempt
disappointment in me now sealed by winged
feet beating me in the curve, Worsenski as big
as the USS Enterprise sliding through Pacific
waters, parting the air in front of him that
sucked back behind just to hold me in my grip
of deep shame until I wished I were not there.
I wanted more than being human, a warrior
of field and track would be bursting out now
ripping open my chest with masculinity
to make Jesse Owens proud or jealous,
or inspired or something other than me
the pulling-up caboose slower than mud
running like an old man really walking,
all the most valuable parts of me inside
my brain in wishes, in dreams, in things
not yet born into the world, in calculations
of beauty, in yearning for love, for the word
of love, for some adoration from Wanda,
the most beautiful girl in the whole block,
black like me and wondering just what
life had to give those of us who can fly.
Copyright © 2015 Afaa Michael Weaver. Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner. Used with permission of Prairie Schooner.