'Baseball Metaphor, Extended', by Lauren Oyler

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Illustration by Lachlan Conn.

The air was thick with humidity and resentment, the former being entirely predictable, the latter having only become characteristic of Brian’s mum’s emotional climate in the last two or so years. If he strikes out, he’s definitely going to cry, she thought. The experience was redefining for her what it meant to be sweaty.

sweaty [\‘swe-tē\] (adj.) – a mother watching her third and final child approach his third and final strike in his third and final at-bat in the third and final game of pool play in the Southeast Regional Tournament of the Little League World Series in the middle of August in Maitland fucking Florida.

“As perspiration bloomed across her back; trickled between and collected under her breasts; glommed the waistband of her shorts to her bloated under-bellybutton; and prickled what felt like every single hair follicle on her head, thigh, and mons pubis into tetchy hypersensitivity, the mother felt justified in saying: she was sweaty.”

As for the figurative simmering, she was unable to stop herself and at this point didn’t really care to. Why is Brian such a cry-baby?

The answer, of course, was probably: because he was raised in a culture that valorised gender norms, athletic achievements, and gender-normative athletic achievements to such an extent that to deviate from or fail to accomplish them, either by choice or by critical-moment choking, was met with such harassment—overt, subtle, and/or often from the very adults and authority figures charged with the passing down of priorities vis-à-vis life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, media outlets to which to declare one’s loyalty, etc—that the threat of being labelled a “cry-baby” could, and in the majority of cases did, foster a social pressure so inescapable that it guided these victims of circumstance and they-did-the-best-they-knew-how parenting into middle-school athletic department jobs of their own, whereupon their simmering resentments perpetuated the same problematicity that pushed them to accept their monogrammed coach’s polo shirts in the first place. Whatever, though. The situation would probably not feel better to Brian’s mum if she’d had this elaborate theoretical trickery at her mental disposal; it certainly didn’t stop the grass from seeming greener in places where it wasn’t ninety goddamned degrees in the shade.

Brooks’s little sister and Jason’s little sister were playing Polly Pockets at the other end of the stands. The repeated smacking of pointy plastic feet on the bleachers was sending metallic vibrations all the way back down to Brian’s mum’s ass, now tactually indistinguishable from her Bermuda shorts, and the combination of these sensations largely distracted her from any potential ruminations on the broadly socio-cultural or specifically parental nurturing of her cry-babies. Besides, it’s also quite possible that you can’t help what you get. She poured a tepid ration of Aquafina onto the napkin that came with her nachos and put it on the back of her neck.

Cam’s mum could be heard from the row behind her. “It’s hotter’n hail out here, idn’t it, Pammy?”

The pitcher raised his knee and paused there for a moment, looking like a flamingo, or an adult.

The pitcher, big enough to look like a loophole in league birthday regulations, faced Brian in a solemn ball-in-glove prayer; coach’s-wife intel had breathlessly informed them that the Georgia team had been saving him for today. The mums did not envy poor Pammy, no sir-ee, did not envy her one bit – you wanted your kid to win, but you didn’t want him to be the one that had to do the winning, particularly when it wasn’t necessarily likely that he could. A cruel trick of fate, that this critical role had wound up the responsibility of number seven in the line-up. Brian’s mum sat up straight and used a French tip to switch off her handheld fan. Her son’s butt was stuck out in their direction, but you could see he had his shirt in his mouth to keep his head down. Good, she thought. Good. The pitcher raised his knee and paused there for a moment, looking like a flamingo, or an adult.

Ball. The boys in the dugout flung their raspy pre-pubescence into the appropriate cheer, and some of the mums joined in.

“Naaaaaaaah-ICE ahhh!”

“Paaaaaaaah-UR-dee ahhh!”

“Waaaaaaaay to WAAAAA-tch!”

“WOO!”

Brian’s mum had stopped yelling like that sometime during kid two. Not without guilt and fear that Brian would notice, remember her going hoarse for his siblings, and steeee-rike three, but she reminded herself he wasn’t looking for her. You can’t give it your all all the time, as the popularity of a sport that intersperses short bursts of effort with long breaks for chewing tobacco shows.

“Yew kin always hear TJ outta all of ’em,” Cam’s mum projected, warmly, to the group, as if this could atone for the fact that her kid was the first-baseman and TJ a pinch runner. Brian’s mum flicked the fan back on. Her son tapped his bat on each of his insteps, stepped back, took a couple of practice swings. His arms were getting long.

There seems to be more disappointment in baseball than in any other sport, probably because, for the most part, it’s a very individual pursuit made out to look like a very team-oriented one. Sure, from the bleachers, and especially when it’s going well, it looks like a downright production: the ball zipping from pitcher to first to second to third, the shortstop negotiating each catch like the batter really did hit it right to ’em, the outfielders twinkle-toeing a delicate back-up dance that never ends in one or several broken noses. But to play a part in it, you have to forget about pretty much everything except the one thing you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment: swinging as hard as you can, running as fast as you can, throwing as hard as you can, focusing as hard as you can. There are, of course, other aspects to consider, primarily trying not to fuck up your elbows, but so much of the game is about tricking yourself into thinking that you (yes, you!)—and the thing you (yes, you!) are doing at any given moment—are really fucking critical to the entire operation—about really, truly believing that this funnelling of all your (yes, your!) mental and physical effort into a series of single-minded exertions is really going to alter an outcome that could, in all likelihood, end up depending on one random guy who is not you (yes, you!), and whether that random guy is you (yes, you!) ends up depending on innumerable factors—who gets lucky and when, who fucks up and when, how much the ump has it in for you (yes, you!) or you (yes, the Pirates!). Going into it, you (yes, you!) can’t really internalise that losing will hurt. Even if you (yes, you!) recognise that so much is out of your (yes, your!) hands, whether you (yes, you!) win will affect the way you (yes, you!) see, yes, yourself from then on, despite the deep-down knowledge that it’s just a series of individual chances that you (yes, you!) may or may not have had any control over and that conglomerationally you (yes, you!) certainly didn’t. And what you (yes, you!) also don’t realise is that performing all these mental exercises will fundamentally change what you (yes, you!) really think is important—who you (yes, you!) are—long after the dust literally and figuratively settles and you (yes, you!) know—but can’t quite believe—it all came down to the catcher anyway. Yes, him.

Brian walked back to the plate and assumed his taut half-squat, the pitcher already having dug a toe into the mound, seemingly menacingly, and turned to face him head on. Brian’s mum switched off the fan again. If he managed this, the game would go longer. If they went on to win, they’d be in the quarterfinal, scheduled, for some God-forsaken reason, for tomorrow at two in the afternoon. This series of if-clauses could go on for what, to the armpit-darkened audience, felt like eternity; after regionals comes a tournament with such significance and ESPN coverage that neither parent nor player dared speak its geographic classification. Her ass was still sweaty. The air was still thick. She couldn’t decide what she wanted to happen, but she was holding her breath nevertheless.

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Lauren Oyler is an American writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She writes the weekly literature column for Dazed Digital and tweets at @laurenoyler.

‘Baseball Metaphor, Extended’ originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #23: The Ego Issue. Get your copy now.