15 May, 1979…
They played only once every spring.
The squad from Bailey Academy and the local boys from Derry High School played just seven innings every May to determine bragging rights. And even with the rising popularity of lacrosse, the ballgame was still the hottest ticket in town. (Especially when it was played on the beat-up, gopher-hole-riddled Derry High School diamond.)
Ed McRae held his position at first base, as Bailey’s once-big lead quickly began to disintegrate.
The partisan announcing team that sat perched in the makeshift press box did little to conceal their joy, as the locals pushed two quick runs across. And the worn out, but still audible PA system squawked away, bringing the home crowd to its feet. “Paul Dolan beats the throw to the plate, and it’s now Bailey 9, Derry, 7.”
Bob Cutler, the Bailey Manager, called for time and walked deliberately towards the pitching mound. And just like on TV, the rest of the infield followed suit, shuffling in behind their pitcher.
Stuart Worthy, a diminutive lefty with a good curveball, had pretty much run out of gas. Only moments earlier, Bailey had held a 9-5 lead, going to the bottom of the inning, but a walk and three straight hits had sliced that lead in half, leaving the tying – and possible winning – runs on base.
Coach Cutler, a biology teacher by trade, quickly mulled over his options. He had really only walked to the mound to buy some time. Stuart Worthy just didn’t have it anymore; it was time for a pitching change. The thing was, though, that the coach didn’t have anyone warming up, and there was still one more out to get.
The portly home plate umpire lumbered out to the mound to break up the discussion. Decision time.
Stuart Worthy, upset with himself, reluctantly handed the ball over, and the coach placed it firmly in Ed McRae’s right hand. “Your turn in the barrel, Eddy.”
Years later, he realized that probably wasn’t the best thing to say to a high school kid, facing potential failure, but he nodded that he understood and began to take his warm-up pitches.
Eight pitches later, Ed McRae was ready. The home plate umpire barked out the order to resume play. The Derry High number five hitter was up next.
A left-handed batter, he had gone 1 for 4 that day. A quiet looking kid with bad skin, he also sported some extra grease around the middle. He may not have looked like much, but as Ed’s grandfather once reminded him, sometimes looks can be deceiving.
The kid took a few phantom swings, then lumbered away from the makeshift on-deck circle and headed towards home plate. Ed could see that unlike a lot of high school hitters, this guy opted for a large-handled wooden bat, vs. the more popular, state-of-the-art aluminum model.
Earlier in the game, from his position at first base, Ed had somehow missed that small detail; he saw it now, though, and somehow it was concerning to him; the fat kid was a purist.
So, with the winning run at bat, young Ed McRae found himself facing off with a real throwback, one with something to prove, he suspected.
The same could be said of Ed, too. Raised in a working class family outside of Boston, Ed had been taught early on the value of a good, long stare and the importance of focus. While other boys his age dreamt of swiping beers and chasing girls, Ed thought only of the goal plus the task in front of him. After all, he wanted to show Coach Cutler that he’d picked the right man, and that he wasn’t afraid.
More than that, though, he wanted to prove that he belonged at a school where most of the boys there had never had to do a single hard day’s work.
When Ed initially peered in to get the catcher’s signs, he stared at the batter’s face, an eerie mask of both determination and anxiety. One look at this kid, and you knew he hadn’t just become fat overnight. In fact, the same kids who now cheered him from the Derry High bench, had surely ridiculed and razzed him as far back as grade school.
And just as Ed toed the rubber and prepared to pitch from the stretch, the ancient PA system squawked away again, this time, announcing the hitter like some sort of fractured fairy tale. “Now batting, first
baseman John Banyun.”
In that moment, Ed found himself asking a question: “What if there really was someone, somewhere who wanted something more than he did?” (Yeah, maybe some overweight kid whose name sounded a lot like his sole purpose in life was to cut down trees and maybe hang out with his pet blue ox, he mused.)
And with those odd thoughts in his head, Ed McRae rared back and fired his first pitch, the portly kid rifling the initial offering down the right field line, just foul.
Ed walked around the pitcher’s mound and tried to collect himself. He glanced briefly at both of the baserunners, each staring at him, trying to get in his head. He did his best to ignore them both, though, and he went back to work.
A few pitches and a few foul balls later, the count drew even at 2 and 2; and even though he could taste the victorious moment that would soon be his, Ed was careful not to get too over-anxious. Especially since the batter looked a lot like a kid who was poised to erase his tortured past with just one swing of the bat.
“Smack,” a straight fastball popped loudly into the catcher’s glove. A few boys from the Bailey team pumped their fists from the bench, but it was not to be. The home plate umpire calmly barked out “ball three,” and he held up two clenched fists to indicate a full count.
Some years later, Ed awoke one morning, deciding that the at-bat was not going to end on a close pitch. Who knows? Maybe even the umpire secretly enjoyed the showdown.
Quickly back in the moment, Ed decided that it was shame that the rest of life wasn’t so simple: A 3 and 2 count, two clenched fists, and there it was.
All but ignoring the two Derry baserunners, Ed took two deep breaths and propelled his right arm forward, sweeping across at a perpendicular angle to his right ear. When his left foot hit the ground, he could see that the ball was moving straight and slightly outside. Right where he wanted it.
The tiny ball field was quiet. Like a morgue, maybe. Like a tomb, even. Like everything else in the entire world was stuck in neutral.
And then, that sound, a sound that was often missing from high school baseball games. It wasn’t that annoying, pinging sound of horsehide on aluminum that baseball purists loathed. But instead, it was that sweet, crisp “crack” that only a wooden bat could produce.
John Banyun had swung true at the low and outside pitch, lining it hard in the direction of center field. One thousand hours of frustration and self-loathing were surely washed away in that instant, as the sound of his ringing smash echoed across the diamond. The raucous crowd, now suddenly quieter than an old graveyard, held its collective breath.
Ed McRae had a dream once, more of a nightmare, really. He dreamt that he’d been killed. The weird thing was that it wasn’t disturbing, just wasn’t really scary. He’d always heard and believed that you weren’t supposed to die in your own dreams. If you did, it was surely a sign that something was
In the context of the dream, he recalled outrunning someone for a long distance, several miles, maybe, before eventually tiring. As his pursuer gained further, Ed suddenly turned to face him, as if he stood a better chance in a contest of strength.
That particular night, though, the deep recesses of Ed’s mind turned cruel, providing his tormentor with a weapon. And when Ed raised his fists to fight, he was shot, murdered right there on the spot.
Just before he expired, though, he managed a glimpse of his assailant’s face, not entirely shocked to find the image of himself holding the pistol.
And that’s what he was thinking about as John Banyun’s tracer whistled towards him.
Being a very logical boy, Ed knew that he couldn’t get his glove hand up in time to protect his face. There just wasn’t time. And before he could formulate any other thoughts, the batted ball struck him hard in the cheek, partially caving in the right side of his face.
Ed’s initial move backward had knocked his baseball cap from his head, his glove – now all but useless – hung limply from his left hand.
Remembering his dream, he recalled not feeling any pain when he was shot, like the thought of dying (especially that there seemed an odd nobility in the way he’d been retired) was somehow not such a terrible thing. So, when that ball struck his cheek, Ed wasn’t thinking of pain or hours in a dentist chair or even potential facial reconstruction.
Instead, and in the greatest feat of courage and concentration the people of Derry, New Hampshire had seen in recent memory, first baseman/turned relief pitcher, Edward J. McRae, reached up with his non-glove hand and pinned the baseball directly to the right side of his face. Just as the astonished crowd gasped, the home plate umpire removed his mask and said “out.” Part utter disbelief, part admiration.
When Ed decided that he had held the ball long enough, he removed the death grip he had on the right side of his face. A good amount of blood started coming out his mouth, and Coach Cutler insisted that Ed be taken directly to the hospital.
Even with the drama, the two teams formed a “hand-shake line” out near the pitcher’s mound, each of the Bailey players insisting that Ed walk through the line first. Ed did his best to focus on the faces, as he held a blood-soaked handkerchief to his partially-caved in face.
When he reached John Banyun, Ed was not sure what to expect. What the hell could you really say about what had just happened?
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, man,” the big kid said. And something told Ed that things would never be quite the same again for John Banyun, finally shedding his “fat kid” label and morphing into a feared hitter.
(The local paper would have something to say about it, too, offering a clever headline the very next day. “Diamond Rivalry Game Ends on Banyun’s Bunyan-Like Blast.” After press like that, Ed knew that the kid with the fairy tale name would never be picked on again.)
So, as he stood in front of the kid, who along with him, had suddenly become the bookends of one of the strangest moments ever seen on a baseball field, Ed McRae forced a painful smile.
“Nice hit, John,” and he handed over the bloodstained baseball.
Copyright © 2001 by John L. Fischer