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Number 35

 I can remember watching the first game I ever saw number 35 play when I was just a young boy. At that time, the sand around the bases was a dark brick red that provided a sense of neutrality between the sharp white light of the flood lights that shined off the wet, tanned grass and the intense pink of the dusk sky. The air was brisk and chilling as the sun crept below the dark, shadow-like trees behind the distant catch fence of the opposite field in the baseball complex. The warmups finished, the crowd started to gather, and the tan sea of the outfield grew as the players filed into the dugouts. The high pitch chatter of the women and children in the crowd started to soften. I remember that it was hard to tell if it was silent or if I had just drowned the sound out. The players ran out onto the field. There he was: number 35. To everyone in the crowd, he was just a shadow in right field, but I could see him clearly as if he were standing right in front of me. He must have been ten feet tall with a burly, Herculean physique. I could see his sun-kissed face. His dark sunspots scattered along his cheeks just below his light-crystal-blue eyes, his square jaw that could do with a shave, his charcoal-colored hair with silver highlights that shimmered in the spotlights – I could see it all. 

 

Before that game I had heard many stories about him, number 35. Stories about his power. His teammates had told me about his ability to hit home runs with such force that the ball still rose after it cleared the wall and how he terrified pitchers by blistering balls right back at them. They told me that he had the power to reach all parts of the field, and that he was able to hit home runs to the opposite field that most players could not even hit to their pull side. His close friends told me about a time before I was born when he was not selected to play on the national team because of the national team’s head coach’s predilection for someone nowhere near as talented as him. They told me that he went on to hit two home runs including a grand slam in the state finals of that year when he was not selected, in front of that coach and against that coach’s team. They told me that number 35 let that coach know just how wrong he was, when he stepped on home plate after rounding the bases for each home run. Everyone had heard these stories about him. Everyone knew his exceptional talent. Even the opposing team knew him and his reputation. But no one knew him the way I did. 

 

The game had come to the bottom of the eighth inning. The sun had completely retreated behind the trees, and the black night sky had devoured the sharp pink dusk. The flood lights dramatically called the crowd’s eyes to the field. The air was dry and cold when the sun was gone, and everyone in the crowd was bundled under blankets. Number 35 was up to bat. There was a runner at second base, and there were two outs. He took an outside fastball. It was clearly a ball. “Strike one!” bawled the umpire. The crowd hissed in disgust. Number 35 was unfazed. The pitcher wound up and threw a curveball that broke off the plate for a ball. He wound up again. Crack! Number 35 fell to one knee and clutched his left ankle in agony. He had fouled the ball off straight onto his ankle. The crowd was dead silent. The pain caused him to wince when he stood up, but he stepped back into the batter’s box. I could still see the pain in his eyes when he set himself for the next pitch. Again, the pitcher wound up and delivered his pitch. There it was: the power. With a loud crack, the ball exploded off number 35’s bat. It soared through the air over the center fielder’s head. And with a few bounces, it smacked into the catch fence where the sun had hidden behind the trees. It was the longest home run I had ever seen. 

 

Now when I look back at that game all those years ago, the field is not as mesmerizing as it felt then. The sand was dark and muddy. It looked like it had just been tossed around the bases, and as if someone had smoothed it over with just their boots. The outfield was not a sea of tanned grass, but rather looked like splurges of green weeds had been throw-painted onto the tanned canvas of grass. The sky, however, was the same. The sky was probably the only thing that I cannot see differently now. A beautiful African sunset. It had a tantalizing color mixture of pink and orange, and the sun glowed like the hot coals in the center of a bonfire. 

 

Number 35 also did not look like the athlete I thought he was then. He was certainly not the Herculean giant that I thought he was. He was average sized compared to all the other players. He had fairly wide shoulders. His hair was greyer than it was black. He was even a bit shorter than what I am now, which is certainly not ten feet. His light-crystal-blue eyes were encircled by crow’s feet that spread over the years. The home run is not as impressive to me as it was then. It was the longest home run I had ever seen number 35 hit, but after playing on that same field myself, even I could do it. The stories of his past were true, but what I actually saw was just a man playing some ball in a Saturday night beer league. The crowd was composed of a few of the players’ wives and children, and it was certainly not as loud as I thought. It was just some game on a cold July night, and number 35 was my father.

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