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The Last Forkball

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A search for innings in youth baseball using an unpredictable pitch.

Don Feria/Getty Images

I wandered right field and hovered at the corner infield spots, but more than anything else I wanted to pitch.

I didn’t have the reflexes to play up the middle as a kid. I sprouted to 5’10" by the beginning of fifth grade and lost coordination in my suddenly enormous limbs. With the assistance of soda and pizza I remained chubby throughout the growth spurt, making me one of the least nimble players on the field.

Fortunately, baseball is a sport in which the build we consider to be traditionally athletic can be ignored altogether if you have a cannon or hit bombs. My arm fit the first attribute well. My bat? The only home run I ever hit happened during a coach pitch inning, so I'm not sure that I added much value at the plate. Because of my size, I also played first base and catcher. Parents on opposing teams would stare at me with a quirked eyebrow. "Really? HE’S ten years old?" In days when clean throws were the exception, it helped to have a gigantic target at these positions.

Coaches also complained about my tendency to overthink. Double-pump throws and indecisive base running endeared me to no one. But the mound — where you could control the pace of the game, wriggle out of jams, and fool hitters — how could you possibly think too much as a pitcher? Greg Maddux eviscerating my Cleveland Indians in 1995 proved to me that a cerebral pitcher could rule the game.

With my arm strength, mental approach, and size, I thought I would be an excellent pitcher. I spent hours tossing a tennis ball against our garage door, trying to smack the edges of an electrical tape strike zone, muttering the count, the inning, the score.

My first real opportunity to pitch came in the last season of coach-pitch. Kids threw the last two innings of each game. Three kids on my team who were deemed to be the best by the coaches typically gobbled those up. He knew them from a previous team and had seen them throw, so why bother changing what worked? After all, what is more important than winning when you’re coaching a bunch of seven-year-olds? I struck out three and allowed no hits in one inning my first time out. I didn’t care about the three walks.

Since I rarely saw any innings in real life, I funneled my frustration into baseball video games. I got better and better at pitching against the computer and started to wonder if I could throw a perfect game in Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. Maybe, I thought, some of the strategies I would learn doing this would help me out in real life the next time I got a chance.

I figured that no one would be better suited for the task than Randy Johnson. Armed with a blistering fastball and a slider that wobbled in one corner of a hitter’s eye before tumbling into the other, I thought of no other options as promising. After a week of false starts, I took a perfecto into the eighth before finally surrendering a single.

Normally this would have resulted in a spiked controller. Instead, I transcended anger. My rage overflowed like an integer that resets back to negative one when it grows too large. I kept throwing sliders because I felt broken. I just wanted to just end the game but felt too stupid and miserable to get off the couch and turn it off. I started them as far off the plate as I possibly could, and then jammed the tiny N64 joystick back toward the plate. It caught the black every time. I realized that hitters weren’t even bothering to swing. I restarted the game and employed the sliders-only strategy, striking out 20 and allowing no hits on about 90 pitches. The fewest possible number of pitches to throw in a complete game, assuming that the batter never swings, is 81. I cursed myself for making so many mistakes and resolved to do better the next time.

I loaded up a Braves game and started Maddux, too. He was the other obvious candidate for complete dominance to me. I tried his breaking balls – slider, curveball – and neither worked. But he did have what the game called a "Super Change-up", and when I set this up at the batter’s head height over the middle of the plate and forced it down with a joystick jab, it resulted in another lethal strike that froze the hitter every time.

I quickly narrowed down the other pitchers in the game with death pitches: Denny Neagle. Mike Mussina. Roger Clemens. They would fill out my Perfect Five. In order to join them together, though, I needed to start with a team that had enough talent to trade for all of them. Why settle for a perfect game? Why not have an entirely perfect season?

I began as the Seattle Mariners and immediately traded away Alex Rodriguez, Alex Cora, and Edgar Martinez for Greg Maddux and Denny Neagle. If a trade like this happened in real life, a janitor in Bristol would have to scrape Buster Olney’s brains off of the ceiling.

Roger Clemens came to me after giving up Dan Wilson and the rest of the infield. I had to add a few nobodies from free agency to fill out the roster. It didn’t matter who I had — I would be giving up no hits. All I needed was firepower on the mound. I needed only Mike Mussina from the Baltimore Orioles to complete the perfect staff. But I had no one else to trade. I had given away all of the best players on the team.

Except for Ken Griffey Jr. himself.

It is heretical to trade away the best player in a video game, especially if they’re on the cover. In those days cover athletes took on Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson levels of greatness. But I needed Moose, and Griffey was the only piece that convinced the Orioles to move him.

I like to think that poor virtual Griffey lived a fulfilling pixelated life, injury free, bouncing balls off of the warehouse outside of Camden Yards.

I cackled at the strange roster I’d assembled and dove into the season, but I managed to finish only fifty games before becoming completely disgusted with myself. Each pitcher threw ten complete games, many of them perfect, without allowing a run. I stared at my hands in awe at the carnage they’d wrought, wondering if the oceans could wash them clean.

I decided that I would take the same insane approach to reality. I’d find one great pitch, master it, and then build the rest of my repertoire around it. As Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus put it, I wanted "one super-wizard pitch (say, Mariano Rivera’s cutter)."

Pitchers really are the closest our society will ever come to real-life wizards. Some pitchers are powerful sorcerers; Mariano Rivera bested the beasts of the field, and Randy Johnson felled the fowls of the air. Cy Young conjured magic in a time before time, when Mythical monsters ruled the world. Young battled them eons before balls came to life, before mounds were raised, lowered, and moved; when home runs were scarce, when men’s arms lived forever, when teams formed, fell, and vanished overnight. He is our Merlin, imbued with a long-forgotten and forbidden magic.

And what of Greg Maddux? For many years he worked to improve, eventually earning Ace status with the Cubs. He became Maddux the Grey, Tharkûn, Swíngandmees, Cubbie of Dreams. Maddux the Grey excelled until he encountered a vicious beast. Cruel runes across his chest read "Giants," and across its back in the same script, "Clark." Maddux fought valiantly but succumbed to the Ballrocker, tumbling deep into the bowels of the Earth.

He re-emerged as Maddux the White, Wielder of the Flame of Atlanta, Bravest of Braves, galloping through hitters while leaning down and whispering in tongues to his mount Shadowfax. Hitters across the land — both the natural and the cruelly enhanced — fell to his furious precision. No creature, not even the Dark Lord himself, could match his cunning. He stayed in our world for a while after securing the One Ring before sailing West to the Undying Lands.

I wanted this same mythical control. I wanted to wield that quiet power, the silent domination that great pitchers exert.

My father refused to let me throw a curveball to avoid blowing out my arm, and no matter how often I practiced a change-up, I couldn’t throw it for a strike. I tried straight changes, circle-changes, palm-balls; they all sent my father chasing after passed balls. One afternoon in the backyard after feeling particularly frustrated, my dad showed me a new pitch.

"Take it here in between your fingers and squeeze it really hard. Then you throw it like a fastball," he said. The knuckles of his pointer and middle fingers glowed white like the ball, tips curling down to grip the sides.

"Is that a splitter?"

"No, you’d grip that one higher. This is a forkball. I had a friend in high school who liked to try to throw them, and when they worked, they were unhittable. It can’t hurt to try."

I immediately proved him wrong by bouncing a pitch directly into his groin. After he recovered and I stopped laughing, he told me that the ball did show the tell-tale drop at the end, like it rolled off of a table. We worked on it some more until I could consistently keep it near him, if not quite in the zone. I have absolutely no explanation for why I could throw a forkball with decent control, but not a changeup.

"It’s going to be an 0-2 kind of pitch for a while, I think," my dad said. "Something you want a guy to chase, but not one you’re likely to throw for a strike too often."

"I can’t wait to try it out in a game," I said.

He shifted his feet and gave an uneasy smile. "Just try not to bean anybody."

* * *

After winning a Pony-ball coach-pitch championship, sneaking onto an All-Star team for districts, and landing on a truly abysmal team the next season, coaches relented and allowed me to pitch. The opportunity arose partially out of necessity; we called one game an inning early that season when the only other kid who could throw a strike stayed home sick.

I didn’t  care about the circumstances because I’d finally been given a chance. Day after day I dragged my father out into the summer Florida sun to practice. At some point, he realized that he couldn’t do much more for me as a pitching coach, so we sought out a local pitching guru. I have no recollection of who the man was, but he worked out of a complex with Larry Walker’s picture out front, so he had to be good.

We discussed the different pitches I threw with the man: four-seamer, two-seamer, slider (which was probably more like a cutter, since I didn’t snap my elbow or wrist at all), and a circle-change that I was terrified to throw. And then, the experimental forkball.

Proper form became the focus of our sessions. My windup shortened. I made a C-shape with my throwing hand, pointing backward, before snapping through. My shoulders churned around the center of my body, right replacing left. Right replacing left. Right replacing left.

The coach didn’t force me to throw any particular types of pitches but hammered the motions and routines into my brain. By the end of our sessions, I could feel the extra snap as the ball slipped my fingers, and more often than not it hit the target...except for the forkball. I tried to steer its dance toward the plate, and it mostly refused.

My coach that season preferred to call the pitches from the bench. The catcher took the sign and then flashed it to me. I detailed my pitches to the coach and offered my numbering system, one through five, in order: Four-seam, two-seam, change, slider, forkball.

"Forkball?" he said, and laughed. "What the hell is that?"

I noticed there were a few dozen uneaten sunflower seeds on the ground as I adjusted my cap. "It’s a…well, it breaks late. Kind of like a curveball except it isn’t and it’s supposed to look like a fastball but it’s not as easy to –"

"Okay, okay," the coach said. He snorted and spat onto the ground, hitting one of the seeds. "It’ll be five."

During an early game in the season, I settled in for the second inning after retiring the side in the first. A tall kid who threw harder than anyone else in the league stepped to the plate; he had a reputation for hitting fly balls that caught the breeze and somehow cleared the fence.

I spit in the dirt and pretended to be tough. I stared down the hitter, then flicked my eyes toward my catcher Eddie’s crotch to get the sign.

Five.

I shook my head. Eddie paused. He flashed another sign.

Five.

I stepped back off of the mound and shook my head again. Eddie looked toward the bench, hands rising in confusion.

When he and the coach reached the mound, he wanted to know why I was afraid to pitch.

"It’s not that," I said, "I just don’t throw the forkball unless I’m ahead in the count and have two strikes."

He stared at me. I noticed he his numerous nose hairs quivered when he frowned. "Okay. Didn’t know that. So. Okay," he said. "Just don’t shake off another sign."

We reset. Eddie flashed another five. I threw a forkball and it sailed into the backstop. The rest of the signs that at-bat were all fastballs. I gave up a double.

Later in the game, a kid fouled two pitches off to start his at-bat. Finally, with an 0-2 count, I turned my point and middle finger into a prong. Eddie flashed a five. I stepped, kicked, drove to the mound and fired the forkball like I wanted to blow the kid’s helmet off with a fastball.

As it left my hand, I realized that it really was going directly at the batter’s face. He flinched, turning his back and hunching over, body ready to accept the beaning.

The ball, which floated with no rotation whatsoever, zipped back over the plate as if Eddie conjured a singularity in his catcher’s mitt. The ump paused for a second, then tentatively called strike three. The hitter, now turned around, walked very slowly back to his dugout in confusion.

Coach felt better about calling five at the right time after this.

* * *

The only recourse for a hitter in some situations is to swing. Hard.

Certain pitches will be unhittable on certain days. A hitter knows the count, knows it is coming, and knows that it will be a strike. All he can do is swing and hope to hear a loud crack, accompanied with the effortless strain of swinging through a ball on the sweet spot of the bat.

It is even more primal than, "See ball, hit ball;" more desperate than a bruised boxer leaning back against ropes that will bend no lower.

This is why I loved the forkball. On a good day, I used it to force hitters into prayswinging. On a bad day, it turned the tables — I became the outmatched, leaning on a dark magic pitch, knowing that anything else would murder someone buying a Fanta at the concession stand behind center field.

There were more days of murder than mastery.

We finished that season, and between pitching, catching, and first base I played well enough to make the league’s All-Star team again. The games were held at Wide World of Sports at Disney, and the fields were immaculate. I could have napped in center field and slept more comfortably than in my own bed.

My performance started out much less idyllic. After our first couple of games, I hadn’t recorded a hit. There were a few well-hit balls to the left side of the infield, but they were either snagged out of the air or knocked down. I hustled them all out but couldn’t beat the throws. The coach of the team pulled me to the side after one of the games.

"Why aren’t you running to first base?" he asked. His sweat trickled into a mustache that I would later associate with Ron Jeremy.

"I am. I know I’m slow but –"

"It doesn’t look like it. I’ve never seen anybody that slow. Just run, okay?"

I told him that I would.

After that game, I didn’t say much to my mother on the drive home. I used my exhaustion as an excuse to pretend to sleep in the backseat.

I made some spectacular plays in the tournament. A diving catch in right field, a bullet that caught a runner stealing, and scoring from first after a walk on a long double. Our team stayed in contention, and I hoped that I would have a chance to finally have an impact in big moment.

In what was our tenth game in a single holiday weekend, I started at catcher. In the top of the first, a player on the other team reached base on a single, then advanced on a pitch that flew over my head. He rounded third and dug for home when the next hitter slapped a double. I popped up and guarded the plate. The shortstop relayed the throw home. My glove yawned open, ready to accept. The throw came up and to the right; I popped out of my crouch to reach up and grab it, but could not swipe back down in time to tag the runner out.

We entered the top half of the last inning down by two. We drove one run in, but I came up to the plate with two outs. I smoked a line drive between third and short that someone managed to knock down. I put my head down and sprinted, just beating the throw. I pumped my fist and let out a grunt to celebrate breaking my hit slump.

Coach came up and put a hand on my shoulder. "You almost just lost us this game. Why wouldn’t you run that out? Why weren’t you sprinting to the bag?"

I opened my mouth to reply and then found myself taking a lead while it still gaped. On the next play, I went from first to third on a single, scoring on the next hit to tie the game. The coaches watched the game silently as I jogged back to the dugout.

We came out for the bottom of the inning. The first batter cranked a ball off of the wall in center for a double. The next batter singled and stole second, putting runners on second and third. On anything hit in the infield, the play might be at the plate. Our coach jogged out and waved everyone to the mound to discuss the plan.

As expected, he asked that we look down the runner at third and throw home if he breaks. I nodded and slapped my fist into the mitt, ready to make the play.

"First, though, Mike is going to come in and pitch, so Cody will take his place in right, and Ty will go from the mound to catcher."

I hesitated. "I can make the tag, coach."

"You didn’t earlier in the game. Give the gear to Ty."

I snapped off the chest protector, shin guards, helmet, and mask. I handed them to Ty without looking at anyone. I took my mitt. The parents in the stands stared at me as I walked across the field, stared with empty faces, stared like anonymous idiots in the background of a Seurat. When I reached the dugout I threw my glove into the cinder block wall. I allowed my head to hang, and with this release, the tears finally followed.

On the next pitch, the hitter slapped the ball to shortstop. The runner broke on contact. Ty dropped the ball before he could begin to apply the tag.

I did not need an excuse for my silence on the ride home that day.

* * *

We moved up to a bigger field the next year. New coaches showed up. Some players returned for fall ball; others were replaced by kids who had just moved to town or just switched sports.

I liked coming back for a new season, and this was the newest of all. I’d played on the same field for four seasons — two entire years — so the only thing that hadn’t changed was the unspoken rule that team drinks after the game would always be "suicides", a cup filled with equal amounts from every spigot on the soda fountain.

Jerry Spinelli talks about the odd improvement that kids show as they get older in his memoir Knots in my Yo-Yo String. Everyone comes back better than they were the year before just because they’re bigger, stronger, and more coordinated. Even the kids who didn’t even pick up a baseball all summer got better. I practiced in the summer. We would go to the batting cages a couple of times per month and play catch in the yard.

I wondered if there were kids out there who practiced going from first to third, bunting, and hitting the cutoff man between seasons, because during tryouts, everyone else improved a lot more than me.

All the players lined up to field three balls at shortstop and throw to first, each getting progressively more difficult. I’d never even played the position, so I only managed to track down the first ball. Plenty of other kids managed to nab all three. In the outfield, we tracked down gappers and fired them into second base. These I felt much more comfortable with, except that the ball darted toward me so quickly that I didn’t even have time to think about how to react. I just had to, and fortunately, it worked. I wondered if the balls would be hit that hard by the players during the season.

I don’t remember much else about the tryout, other than the sprint where I managed to finish in not-last.

Given my performance in the outfield drills, I felt confident that I’d improved enough. I’d still be able to play well enough to earn the coach’s confidence and get a chance to play every day — and, hopefully, to pitch.

I spent most of the season on the bench. To be honest, given my level of play, I belonged there. Given my level of talent, I should have been starting at one of four positions, but a kid with undermined confidence? He will never do anything right, and look at that, he booted another one.

Still, all season long, I asked my coaches for a chance to pitch. I continued to play garbage innings in the outfield and nothing else. I’d ask to pitch for live hitting practice and would be told to shag balls. I’d mention feeling better about my changeup and a coach would nod, scratching the back of his head while he tossed a few more sunflower seeds into his mouth. My parents mentioned my desire to pitch as well; the coach’s response was that he would find a way to work me in.

The last game of the season, in the last inning, coach looked down the bench.

"Matt, you want to go out there?"

I sprinted out to the mound and grabbed the ball. I didn’t bother to talk to the catcher. The words "rock" and "fire" pounded in my head, the opposing clicks of a pitching metronome. Strikeout, groundout, and then strikeout — a forkball, hanging in the center of the strike zone, the meatiest of meatballs, suddenly disintegrating, dead-duck dropping onto the back of home plate, a disgusting, filthy pitch that nearly took the hitter to the ground ashe swung through it.

As I walked back to the dugout coach ran out to give me a high five.

"Jesus Christ, Matt," he said, "Why didn’t you say you could pitch?"

I ignored him and packed up my bag. I never played another inning of baseball.

Another child might have handled things better; perhaps he would have become a better player for persevering. For me, in that moment, the fun vanished from the game. Why keep playing something I’d grown to loathe?

I still think about the catch I made in right field during the All-Star game; the final forkball strikeout; the home run that I hit in the championship of the coach pitch league. The moments right after these occurred, adrenaline still coursing — I felt love. Love, just for being able to play, to feel the pop of a ball in my glove, to smell the grass on my uniform days after a game, to hear the ping of a bat or the stomping of feet on bleachers. I try to cling to these memories rather than the others.

I snap back to reality sooner and sooner as the years continue to roll.

While I’ve never played another game, I still pitch occasionally. In Chicago, I found an empty field with a backstop. I’ve walked off and marked the sixty feet and six inches. The forkball still bites.

The pitch and my time as a ballplayer permeate my life in other ways. I am not a wizard, and there are no secret pitches in life. I can never quite muster the confidence to fully commit to anything in Chicago. I can’t stick with an improv group; I flash in and out of writing workshops, book groups, and fitness classes; I’ve quit and then returned to the same job. I often wonder if Chicago is just a too-large city in which I can’t be happy, or if I’ve never quite given it a chance.

There are days when I’m ten years old again, standing on top of the mound, squeezing a ball between my index and middle finger. Rock and fire. Watch it float toward the plate. Pray that this time, it is going to break the right way.