Gracjan Kraszewski: The Narrow Path to Perfection (fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am an adopted Southerner who lived in Mississippi for five years and have a son born in Mississippi. The attached story is all about the long-standing tradition of exporting all that is best in the South–here 100mph+ fastballs and tons of swagger–onto the rest of the much less cooler, far less interesting parts of the country. It is a story of reverse colonization via sports; sports being themselves their own Southern legitimacy statement

The Narrow Path to Perfection

Suds Fullmer sits all alone at the end of the bench. Sure, it is custom. Heading into the bottom of the fifth inning his South Dakota State Jackrabbits lead the visiting Iowa Hawkeyes 4-0. Thus far he has not surrendered a hit, has not allowed a base runner, and has struck out eleven. It is custom, pursuant to the developing situation, but his teammates generally let him keep to himself anyways.

Suds pops a prodigious bubble of big league chew (“Outta Here Original”). The gum folds back onto his nose. He puts it back in his mouth along with a fat wad of Grizzly Wide Cut. He chews, spits, looks, spits, looks at his socks and smiles. SDSU is wearing their all white home uniforms. Suds is wearing high white socks. This is his head coach’s number one pet peeve, right up there with freshmen not carrying the equipment bag and his wife texting him during practice. Suds smiles and spits a curiously colored stream of the tobacco-bubble gummed amalgamation.

His given name is Alabaster. Alabaster Barney Barnaby Dixieland Fullmer. He grew up in the central Idaho mountains, in a town named Council. Early on in life, he developed the habit of poaching his grandmothers’ laundry pail when she wasn’t looking and draining the contents, soap-foam and all, down to the dregs. “Well, Bee-Bob,” she said one day to her husband, “I reckon that boy’thar done seized his destiny. He ain’t no Baster. He Suds.” Suds’ grandfather looked up and subtely nodded. He went back to the Jack, hard. The nickname stuck.

Iowa Hawkeyes top of the 6th inning: F-8, K, 5-3.

Bee-Bob, a Mississippian who never got over his “exile” in Idaho nor losing Vicksburg to the Yankees, was a man of few words. But upon noticing young Suds’ impressive arm strength—at age 11 he could throw an NFL football 50 yards in the air—he called him from over yonder. It was a warm summer evening and Bee-Bob, tired and plenty hot on the toddies, got right to the point.

“Listen, boy. Own-lee one’thin ja gotta do, kay? Y’all never be baby back, kay?”

“Sir?” Suds asked.

“Y’all never get baby back, y’hear?”

Suds didn’t understand. He kept silent.

“Don’t need no baby back bitches. Y’all gon play sports, do it like a man. You like baseball, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well then, I’ll be. I’m not long for the grave, boy. But ‘chu wanna make granpappy proud, you listen up. You a pitcher, you throw it as hard as possible eh’ree pitch. You a batter, you try’an go Long John Silvers each and eh’ree swing, kay? Y’understand? Y’all never be baby back.”

Iowa Hawkeyes top of the 7th inning: K, K, 4-3.

Suds accepted a full scholarship to South Dakota State because it was the only program that was willing to let him play football and baseball. He is an athletic marvel. Only 5’11, the right-hander has topped out at 104 mph and sits 96-98 for the duration of a start. He has prodigious power at the plate, once clearing the center-field batter’s eye during BP on a home run estimated at a few ticks past 500’. He’s been the starting free safety on the football team since game six of his freshman year. He runs a 6.4 60, 4.55 40. He can broad jump eleven feet. He can dunk a basketball flat-footed. He strikes out all the time at the plate, is batting .196 this season, but also leads the Summit League in home runs with 15.

The only question marks are character ones. Is he coachable? Suds believes that “good teammate” is a euphemism for “sucks at the game” or “can’t hit, no arm, afraid to talk to women.” When scolded for loafing by his head coach, who reminded him that it takes no talent to hustle, Suds nodded and replied “exactly.” He wears sunglasses during night games, comes out to Sara Evans’ “Suds in the Bucket” (naturally) and makes in-game dugout Skype calls to his Argentinian girlfriend. Whether or not he’ll join the team for pre-game stretching is anyone’s guess. That’s the time “Willie the Wonder” sets up his blackjack table behind the right-field wall. He refuses to throw curveballs or change-ups because “Southern honor” frowns upon it. The list of grievances is long. And yet, that raw talent.

Iowa Hawkeyes top of the 8th inning: 1-3, F-9, L-3. 

As Suds comes off the field his head coach grabs him by the arm.

“How you feelin?” he asks, looking down at his clicker which reads 108 pitches. “You got enough left in you for the ninth?”

“You’re not supposed to say anything to a pitcher who’s got a perfecto going, papi. Ponte las pilas!”

“Are you good or no?”

“Toolboxsayswhat?”

“What?”

Suds walks away laughing.

Iowa Hawkeyes top of the 9th inning:

Suds retires the first batter on three pitches. The Iowa centerfielder swings at a 92mph sinker in the dirt, takes a 100mph fastball down the middle for strike two, and then gets his doors blown off on a 101 mph dart in on the hands. He swings hard and comes up oh so empty. The second batter of the inning, the third baseman, also strikes out; three fastballs, all down the middle. He wasn’t intending to make any purchases today. Thanks but no thanks, just looking. The bat doesn’t leave his shoulder.

The crowd is making Erv Huether Field feel more alive than usual. With each pitch they yell and chant. The approximately 600 spectators sound like ten times the number. Suds has retired twenty-six Hawkeyes in a row. Into the box steps the final strikeout candidate of the day, the Iowa second baseman, looking ever so ripe for bona fide pwnage.

Suds’ arm feels so good. It feels loose and syanpsy, almost syrupy. He can feel paresthesiac electricity coursing through his arm, right up from his torso and past the elbow up into his shoulder where it pools and waits; waits for the brain signal to release all that violent velocity towards home plate. Suds rears back and lets loose a four seamer right down the middle. Almost immediately he hears the pop. It’s more of a pop than a ping, a dull-sounding, muffled thud. It’s the sound of sweet-spot contact.

Suds knows. He doesn’t even have to turn around. He does anyways. He turns to see a ball that has still not reached its peak as it passes the blue wall seemingly miles below. He watches it glide and glide and fly far into the horizon, over the left-centerfield scoreboard and into the treetops. Overcome by the visceral beauty of the ball’s trajectory, Suds screams “Go! Get out! Get out ball! Get goin!” Undisturbed, the Iowa second baseman continues his trot around the bases. Suds meets him at the plate and asks to shake his hand. The Iowa player gives him an awkward half-shake, half fist-bump. What to do in this situation?

Suds get a new ball from the umpire and returns to the mound grinning ear to ear. He doesn’t see his head coach obliterate a Gatorade cooler with a weighted bat. This scenario is actually his biggest pet peeve: one of his players not taking the game seriously, commiserating with the enemy, etc. Little does he know what is going on in his star player’s head at the moment. Suds knows he’s a stud. He’s an alpha male liger on the mound, the best. And this guy just took his fastball and, for all intents and purposes, caught it and then pulled out a bazooka he was hiding somewhere, put the ball into the bazooka, aimed for the trees and fired. The Iowa second baseman has earned his everlasting respect.

This being true, the home run not only ruined his perfect game, his no hitter and his complete game shut out, it was also a personal insult to his family, his future wife and children and, especially, to his grandfather’s legacy. Someone has to pay. Southern honor demands it. The next batter wears 104 on the soft part of his back thigh. Judging from his reaction, it hurt a lot. Tensions threatened to boil over. The Iowa dugout starts yelling at Suds. He points to the scoreboard. The home plate umpire issues a warning to both teams. He gives Suds a stern rebuke for the HBP. Suds says something in the little Russian he’s picked up from his love of Soviet era spy films and the umpire is dumbfounded.

Eventually, the next Iowa hitter steps to the plate. Three straight fastballs ensue, met with three straight swings and misses. A scout from the Atlanta Braves is in attendance. He’s convinced. He looks at his radar gun and shakes his head, laughing. The number defies belief and outweighs all the drama, all the petulance, everything. There is no doubt who the Braves will be taking with the first overall pick come June.