Then the first batter comes to the plate, and things begin to get messy. The perfection shattered, with each inning the chances for greatness steadily reduced. Baseball is sad because it’s a process of narrowing possibilities until your outs are used up. The slow but inevitable progression of innings is like the progression of the season itself, and every bottom of the ninth is like the ending of summer. Baseball is sad because it’s about decline.
It was late August, and the sun was still in the sky, but there was already a chill in the air before the game got under way. I gazed at the empty geometry of the infield while I sipped my beer, letting the vivid green and red and white of the grass and dirt and chalk lines soak into my eyes, their precision soothing in the waning sunlight. The dim opening of the tunnel of winter loomed ahead. It was one of the last times I would be at Whitaker Bank Ballpark on that side of it, and I was trying to let the atmosphere of that ephemeral, lovesick summer permeate me, let it filter in and be trapped and preserved in a chamber in my mind, before it could evaporate forever.
In a couple months I had dropped a small fortune in parking and tickets and beer to see the Lexington Legends play in spite of all their faults. It was Single-A baseball after all, stretches of mediocrity occasionally broken by flashes of greatness, usually from the Venezuelan teenagers who were in cleats instead of school, or the college boys recently plucked in the amateur draft, wearing the Legends’ blue and green but for a moment, on their way up.
I didn’t feel any particular attachment to the Legends, just as I’m sure the Legends didn’t feel any particular attachment to Lexington. The roster was always in flux. I was there to see baseball itself. The games had become a habit I relied on, the snapping and cracking of wood and leather, the pitching and vaulting of the ball, the slow accumulation of glowing scoreboard numbers an antidote to my restlessness, and I was a little uneasy about letting them go. I had a purpose while I was at Whitaker, to steadily sip beer until I dissolved into the summer air and to pay attention to the game. When Whitaker closed, I would have to find something else or perhaps even look around and realize how far I had drifted from the base line.
There was a more specific, but less rational, reason I spent so much time suspended in the soothing purgatory of Whitaker Bank Ballpark. While I was there, in Section 203, sitting close enough to rest my beer on top of the Legends’ dugout, I could simultaneously forget about Trey Merida and stare at the very spot where he had crouched, his fist in his glove, for four nights when the summer was new.
I didn’t go there looking for him, of course; he didn’t play for the Legends. Curly-haired Samir Duenez, the same age as Trey but almost twice his size, was standing in that place. Trying to find him was a fruitless venture, anyhow. Ultimately, not even Trey Merida was Trey Merida, and even if he had been, there was nothing he could do for me. He was neither the cause nor the solution to any problem, but merely the dowsing rod that dipped toward the source of my discontent. I went there looking for a feeling, but that proved nearly as elusive, and usually came with a hangover.
He was walking with his twin brother the first time I saw him, so in truth, I first saw them both, the way they appear to the untrained eye, as one boy split in two. I couldn’t make out much about them in that moment. They were all hat brims and cheekbones as they passed on the walkway beneath section 210, dressed in their camouflage jerseys, duffle bags slung over their broad shoulders, carrying their bats like AK’s.
It wasn’t just their looks, though, it was something else, something intangible, that instantly burned its brand on my consciousness. Maybe it was in the way they walked through the stadium with such authority, like identical assassins, straight-faced and dangerous. Never mind that they were shorter than the other boys, it didn’t lessen the impression they made. They were as solid as bricks. They made the other boys look soft and gangly in comparison. Before they even took the field for warm-ups, I could tell they were the only real baseball players in the whole place.
I hadn’t planned to be at Whitaker that night. It never had occurred to me that there was a state tournament for high school baseball, and if it had, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to go. I hadn’t thought much about baseball in a long time. It was the first week of June, the dawn of the summer when I would start thinking about baseball again.
I came home from work and my father, standing in the living room of the apartment I shared with my older brother, asked me if I wanted to go. I agreed because I thought there would be beer. There usually was at the Legends’ games, Kentucky-made bourbon-soaked beer, strong as wine, that really gave you your money’s worth. And there would be baseball, too, of course. Watching a game was like seeing an old boyfriend, one I broke up with so along ago I could remember him fondly and appreciate his looks without falling apart.
There wasn’t any beer, though—it was a high school event, after all—and the evening was dull until the moment the twins walked by. The first two teams to play in the semifinals, Greenup County and Highlands, lacked the skills to merit their surroundings. It was a game that should’ve been watched through a chain-link fence. They were dwarfed by the small-time majesty of Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
It was promising to be a long night for the uninvolved observer, dressed in irrelevant colors, without a son or a nephew or a cousin in the game. Perched in the upper section above the third-base line, we were on the away side of the park, looming over Greenup County’s moms and sisters as they shook green and yellow cans of rocks at their floundering boys.
When the game ended, the defeated Greenup County fans forlornly abandoned their noisemakers and ceded their territory to the West Jessamine Colts and their attendants. Clad in camouflage, the arriving players looked like members of an odd baseball-themed militia. My brother and I joked about it.
I pointed out the twins to my father and brother when I spotted them. Their miraculous appearance, like an eclipse or a falling star, stripped the irony from me and replaced it with a pagan devotion. It was absurd how instantly and unquestioningly I was allied to their cause.
From that point on, I barely took my eyes off them, finding I could tell them apart from the others, if not each other, by their black socks and their tight pants tucked in at the knees, even when they were far off, warming up in left field. They were the only members of the team wearing short pants and knee socks, the way baseball players should. Their teammates didn’t look nearly as sharp, but I couldn’t fault them for what genetics had withheld from them. The twins were clearly an anomaly. Failing to be one of them was a crime all but two on earth were guilty of.
The teams, West Jessamine and its opponent, Scott High School, lined up along the baselines and removed their hats for another rendition of the national anthem. The twins followed their coach to home plate to shake the hands of the umpires and their taller yet lesser counterparts from the opposing team. Everything looked different now that I had skin in the game.
The first two batters got on base easily. The first of the twins batted third. “Coming to bat for West Jessamine, the first baseman, number 13, Trey Merida,” the announcer said. Trey Merida. He sauntered over to the left side of the plate, bat tucked under his arm, latching and re-latching his batting gloves with the same steely coolness he had when he walked in.
They had his picture on the jumbo-tron, a flash photo against a bright blue wall that conveyed as little as a photo could about his actual looks, and I couldn’t quite reconcile the smiling face with the figure I saw at home plate, though both had black lines painted under their eyes. He settled into his stance, wiggling the bat in his hands, looking like a cat waiting to spring, and watched one strike and four balls fly past him, tightening his gloves between every pitch, then finally chucking the bat away and jogging gracefully to first base, his potential wasted.
The bases were loaded and stayed that way when the big boy, the designated hitter, Maxx Mahon, came to the plate. He fouled a ball high into the air just to the side of the first-base line, and Scott showed its first sign of weakness when the pitcher, catcher and first baseman all ran up to catch the ball, then stood in a circle and watched it drop to the ground right in front of them. They could’ve easily gotten Maxx out, but instead they gave him another chance, and he smacked a single out to center field, driving in their first run, keeping the bases loaded with one out.
“Coming to bat for West Jessamine, the second baseman, number 12, Troy Merida,” the announcer asserted as the second twin sauntered up to the right side of the plate and dug in his cleats, his stance the mirror image of his brother’s, his picture on the screen equally inscrutable, minus the eye black. Troy was walked and chucked the bat away just like Trey did, but in the opposite direction, and jogged gracefully to first base as the second run came in without a fight.
There was a pleasant symmetry to the sight of them, one twin on third and the other on first and big Maxx in the middle, as if you could fold the field in two and the halves would match. Scott called a timeout and congregated at the pitcher’s mound, their unease mounting. But the next two boys struck out, and the symmetry was abandoned.
The twins left their batting helmets in the dugout and reappeared with their hats and gloves and took their places at second and first. In the bottom of the first inning, Scott seemed like it could keep pace with West. The first two hitters got on base. Scott scored its first run when the third hit a fly into the bald spot of shallow center field, and Troy ran to it and nearly caught it, but it bounced out of his grasp, and he cursed and slapped the glove that had betrayed him against the ground.
He immediately redeemed himself on the next batter when a ground ball went to the shortstop, Ryan Layne, and the three of them, Ryan and Troy and Trey, turned a double play like clockwork. Unlike the other teams I had seen, I deemed West Jessamine worthy of a park with real seats. Scott managed to score another run before Troy and Trey got the third out. After the first inning, the game was tied 2-2.
The second inning began unassumingly, though, notably, every batter who came to the plate hit the ball. Two of the first four got on base, while third basemen Josh Blancet hit a line drive that was caught, and Trey hit a ground ball that, though it scorched the first baseman’s glove hand, was picked back up in time to be carried to the base. Two outs be damned, the offensive onslaught continued, with runners at second and third, and Scott began to cower under the barrage.
The defensive unravelling began with a ground ball the pitcher should’ve stopped and thrown to first base, but which he allowed instead to roll to third. That brought in West’s third run. Big Maxx came to bat with runners at first and third and slammed a ball out to the warning track, bringing in runs four and five. Troy came to the plate next and was walked again. Scott halted the action to bring in a new pitcher.
The next batter, catcher Jonathan Jackson, had a ball bounce awkwardly off the bottom of his bat and roll into fair territory. The pitcher picked it up and threw it to first base. It should’ve been an easy out, but the first baseman fumbled the ball, and Jonathan was safe. Maxx scored run six as the catcher missed the throw to home. Jonathan went ahead to second, and Troy darted to third. The catcher let the next pitch get behind him, and Troy stole home with the utmost confidence, trotting back to the dugout with his arms raised in triumph, the West Jessamine fans out of their seats and squealing in delight. Run seven.
There were still two outs, as there had been for most of the inning. The Colts seemed to have cast some sort of mojo over the field to charm themselves and confound their enemies. The next hitter got on base with another error at first, and Jonathan scored run number eight. The other shoe finally dropped after West had returned to the top of its batting order. Four errors had been counted against Scott. West led by six runs.
The first batter up for Scott in the bottom of the second struck out. The first ball hit went to the shortstop, who fired the ball to Trey so low to the ground he had to dig it out of the dirt with one black-socked leg stretched behind him and one pointed, red-shoed toe touching first base. The umpire curled his hand into a fist. Trey got up and calmly resumed his post as the Scott coaches gesticulated at the umpire. Two outs. A couple more balls were hit, a couple runners got on base, but to no avail. Trey stopped a ground ball and trotted easily over first base, his copy right behind him, and the Colts went to the dugout to pick up their bats and resume the shelling.
Trey came to bat with one out. The second pitch bounced off his foot. He promptly threw the bat away and went for first base, but his graceful jog was halted, and he was turned back. Coaches came onto the field, everyone shaking their heads. The umpires congregated in the infield as Trey, his composure receding slightly, paced around home plate with his bat tucked under his arm, relatching his batting gloves, turning his red-helmeted head towards and away from the umpires.
Something I didn’t understand was in dispute, some minutia of baseball. “What’s going on?” my dad asked. “It hit his foot,” I said. Finally, the scrum broke and an umpire gestured to Trey. He slung his bat away, vindicated, and went to first base, pulling off his batting gloves and handing them to the first-base coach like a prince handing his riding gloves to a stable boy.
Almost immediately, he glided to second base, stealing it effortlessly, not even bothering to slide. He was going to make them pay for the indignity he had suffered. On the next pitch he was already halfway to third when outfielder Kendall Peters hit a single to right field, and in a flash he was sliding in to home and strutting back to the dugout as if it were nothing, high fiving his twin along the way. Run number nine.
It was starting to seem almost cruel. Big Maxx came to bat, Troy was on deck, swinging his bat back and forth threateningly. Maxx bounced a ball into the infield and didn’t have the speed to beat the throw to first, but the mojo held, the ball ricocheting off the hapless first baseman’s glove, and Maxx wheeled over to second as Kendall scored run number 10.
When Troy came to bat again, I saw why Scott insisted on walking the twins. On the second pitch, he pounded the ball, every bit as hard as big Maxx did in the inning before despite the deficit in his stature. I was taken aback by the force of it, the insistent crack that echoed through the park as the ball relented to his powerful swing and let itself be flung away, crushed, to bounce against the left-field wall.
Even in my worshipful state, I had underestimated him. He flew around the bases, losing his helmet at second, braked at third without sliding and stood panting, beaming up at the West Jessamine fans who were jumping up and down and screaming for him and the shirtless high school boys fanatically waving their school flag on top of the dugout. Maxx’s pinch runner had scored run number 11. Troy put his helmet back on and led off from third. Scott got its second out on the next hit, but Troy got run number 12. The Colts had achieved a 10-run gap by the top of the third inning. The game was no longer a contest, as interesting to watch as a batting practice, but to me the twins were riveting.
On the first pitch of the bottom of the third, Scott’s batter hit a ground ball to the empty space between first and second base. It was a ball that most other teams in the tournament would chase as it rolled to the warning track in right field. Trey Merida dove into the dirt head first, his glove stretched out in front of him, caught the ball, then rolled over almost lazily to toss it to the pitcher who had just arrived at first base. The crowd erupted again. Trey slapped his brother’s hand and allowed himself a brief smile, checking that his uniform was still in order, before resuming his composure and aiming his focus back at home plate.
The inning ended quickly, the first three batters eliminated before reaching first. Nothing was getting by Trey. Scott’s first baseman was a sieve. Trey at first base was a steel trap, even if he had to jump at times to pick a throw out of the air.
By that time, though, the game had become a blur; Scott unable to contain the ball, the bases continually occupied by West Jessamine, moving around the infield as if they were on a conveyor belt that dumped them out at home plate. The outcome was a forgone conclusion, my brother grew restless, and my father was ready to call it a night. I didn’t want to leave the twins. I could’ve watched them all night, just trotting around the field in their black socks, cocky Troy and serious Trey, and been as content as I had ever been in my entire life.
Baseball, like a forgotten dream, came rushing back to my conscious mind after it was triggered by that seemingly inconsequential high school game. How many other American kids have the sound of a ball hitting a bat rigged in their brain, like a Rube Goldberg machine, to a thousand images from the past? New uniforms and stirrup socks, dust clouds and grass stains, screaming parents and post-game juice boxes.
I wasn’t spared, because I was a girl, from the hundred little triumphs and inadequacies of little league, or from the heart-wrenching romance of the major leagues, that unattainable stage, so huge and bright, and those godlike players, flickering on a television screen in the still summer night, the tinny roar of a stadium crowd buzzing along with the sound of cicadas. I wasn’t particularly good at baseball, not like my brother, or my friends, or the other girls that played in the boys’ league with me–Nikki, and Leah, and Bobbi-Lynn (who made the all-star team) — but it was half my life as a kid, the hot and vivid summer half, and it was mixed into the cement of my foundation.
In those still soft and blurry days of childhood, my love of baseball outstripped my ability, and so baseball became an ache whose only remedy was forgetfulness. Being a girl, I was destined to wash out sooner or later, and the spring of fifth grade found me left out of the conversation about team assignments and coaches and colors. In the giant pyramid of baseball, nearly everyone gets pushed off the edge at some point, unless they’re really good, and really special, and their bodies are put together the right way, and their minds are clear and strong and unsullied by doubt, and they’re blessed with good luck and spared from injury. And even then, in the best-case scenario, like with love, baseball is destined to come to a poignant end, with a Lou Gehrig speech and a tearful goodbye, or at the very least, a jarring comedown.
My life resumed after that fateful night, but it wasn’t the same. Baseball was a tug, an insistent tapping in the back of my mind that wouldn’t leave me alone, and so I found myself at the park repeatedly, watching a series of plays I would easily forget but basking in a melancholy desire, an ache for understanding that was, unbeknownst to me, changing my life.
The night after I saw them, the West Jessamine Colts went on to win the state title, and Trey Merida, No. 13, was named the MVP of the tournament. I would spend the rest of the summer trying to read his future, trying to determine where he fit in the grand scheme of baseball players. He was so strong, so quick, how could he not be special? He was playing an easier game than the boys around him, even his mirror-image twin, batting and throwing with the opposite hand.
He shattered my calcified idea of baseball into a thousand questions. Questions that survived the heartbreak of realizing his career ended with that championship game, questions that only multiplied and deepened and increased in complexity.
That summer I lived at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in the evenings, drinking bourbon barrel ale in the balmy air, contemplating the geometry of the field and the players on it. I read Moneyball and began to be inducted into the deeper esoterica of the game. When there was no more baseball to watch on the other side of town, I turned on the TV to find Kris Bryant and Noah Syndergaard and Bryce Harper. A game ended for me in the summer of 2015, one that I had been losing since I left college with a degree that didn’t suit me and qualifications that only led me into the undertow of the Great Recession. Luckily, the baseball season is long, and there’s always a new game about to start.