Taking It to the Mattress


Bull City Summer

Howard Craft, Topps Comics, 1979

I’m eighty-one but I can feel like I’m fifteen when I’m talking baseball. It brings you back.

—Buck O’Neil, Kansas City Monarchs, Negro Leagues

The ball explodes from the pitcher’s hand like a bullet, but it’s high and inside. “BALL!” the umpire yells, and the batter takes his base. The Bulls have two men on with no outs, bottom of the seventh. Neither team has scored a run. I sit near the visitors’ bullpen, watching the drama unfold. The pitcher on the mound has been throwing the proverbial smoke up until now. He’s given up two walks in a row, and if he gives up a third he’ll load the bases with our designated hitter coming up.

The visiting team’s relief pitcher starts stretching in the bullpen. A gangly Latino fellow, he rotates his arm in big circles and begins to throw. Slow at first, then faster, harder, until the ball disappears the moment it leaves his hand, only to reappear less than a second later in the catcher’s mitt. For anyone who’s ever played baseball, the ballpark is a time machine: the green of the grass, the crack of the bat, the pow the ball makes when it hits the glove all release memories buried by the daily grind called life. The ballpark allows us to live multiple places at once: at the game we watch and at the games played on the sandlots, backyards, parks, and school diamonds of our yesterdays. Each ticket is also a ticket to ride one’s personal baseball memory train.

I’m standing in my grandmother’s backyard, pitching distance from her tool shed. My Houston Astros cap pulled low, head down, holding the ball in my glove, I check my finger placement for my fastball. I am J. R. Richard and I can throw a hundred miles per hour. Really, I am Howard Craft, twelve years old, most often referred to as June Bug by family and friends. My fastball isn’t a hundred miles per hour, but it’s loud enough to make a bang when it slams into the side of the tool shed. After several of these bangs, the back door of the house opens and my father comes out. He crosses the backyard like an angry manager en route to pull a pitcher after he’s given up a home run in the bottom of the ninth.

“Bug! What the *%$@ are you doing! I’m trying to get this proposal done.” My father worked for a nonprofit that helped people get jobs, and it seems he was always working on a proposal. No doubt the noise from my fastball hitting the shed did little to help the proposal-writing environs.

“I’m working on my fastball, Pops. I’m trying out for pitcher this year.”

My father’s demeanor changed so fast one would have thought I’d used a Jedi mind trick on him.

“Bug, you could be the next Bob Gibson!” I had no idea who Bob Gibson was. But it was my father’s way of announcing that I could be the second coming of someone great in whatever endeavor I happened to be pursuing at the time. I remember wanting to be a painter in elementary school. My father didn’t go to Woolworths and get me a pack of Crayola crayons; he went to the professional art-supply store and bought an easel, canvas, charcoal, and watercolors after proclaiming, “Bug, you could be the next Ernie Barnes!”

I loved my father for that. Every dream I chased, he chased with me. Even with the deadline of a grant proposal looming, nothing mattered more to him in that moment than making me the next Bob Gibson.

“Give me a hand.” I followed him to the tool shed. Inside was a mattress. I helped carry it out, and we leaned it against the shed. He went back in the house and returned with a red marker. He then drew a huge box in the center of the mattress. “Now you’ve got a strike zone.”

For the next hour we worked on my throwing motion, my windup, my grip on the ball, my follow-through. We also talked a lot about Bob Gibson and the exploits of Satchel Paige. I wondered if one day I’d be good enough to earn a cool nickname like Oil Can Boyd or Catfish Hunter, a fellow North Carolinian. The pitching lesson with my father ended shortly after that hour, however, when my grandmother came dashing down the back steps with fist balled tight enough to squeeze the juice from a plum.

“I know y’all ain’t got my good mattress out here in the dirt! And who drew that big red box on there!”

* * *

The visiting team’s manager makes his way to the mound with the new pitcher. Even the air is anxious. Watching this guy warm up in the bullpen has left no doubt: the kid’s got a gun. A big Bulls comeback could be in jeopardy. (The wonderful thing about the minor leagues is that the fans connect with the players in a way they can’t with major leaguers. Major leaguers are living the dream; minor leaguers, like every fan who ever dreamed of being a professional ballplayer, are still chasing it.) I’m hoping our next guy at bat knocks it out of the park, but if this new pitcher is throwing the same lightning he was throwing in the bullpen, maybe I can say I saw the next Fernando Valenzuela. I don’t know if this kid will win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award at the same time, as Valenzuela did, or if he’ll even get called up to the big leagues. I don’t know if his father took his grandmother’s new mattress, drew a strike zone on it, then laid it up against a shed in the dirt so he could practice his fastball. What I do know is that this man and I have had the same dream: pitching in the majors. He’s carried that dream a lot further than I was able to.

My pitching career ended shortly after the lesson with my father. Some concerned parent wrote the Parks and Recreation league about the dangers of young kids doing permanent damage to their elbow joints by pitching. As a result, all pitchers were replaced by pitching machines. I finished that season, and the rest of my baseball career, as a shortstop with my dad hitting me fly balls and grounders. “Get down in front of it. There you go. Bug, you could be the next Ozzie Smith.” Now as I sit here, cold beer in hand, eyes locked on the coming duel between pitcher and batter, I simply hope that our guy coming up to hit is more of the next great somebody than this young gun trying to strike him out.

Howard L. Craft is the author of a book of poems, Across the Blue Chasm. His poetry also appears in Home Is Where: An Anthology of African American Poetry from the Carolinas, edited by Kwame Dawes. He has written several plays, including Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, and is the creator of the first African American superhero radio serial, The Jade City Pharaoh.