CJ flipped her bat like Sammy Sosa and watched the orb sail high and far past the oak, cleaving cleanly through the dead heat of summer like a knife into syrup. The ball scraped the cerulean sky stretched thick across midday and sank into the juniper silhouette of treetops below. She trotted with an imperceptible skip toward first base while her opponents kicked grass, whispered violently with embarrassment, crouched low, did anything at all to avoid looking up and spotting her little smirk stomping halfway to home plate.
I was there, a refugee from the boredom at home, commiserating over the tragedy of June with a neighborhood of sweaty nine-year-olds on a grassy unkempt field.
I was there, a living room truant who had ditched the air conditioning for the glimmer of the diamond — for the great sport that, unlike anything else, helped beat back shared tedium with aluminum bats and hanging curveballs and unknown scores that no one remembers but still argues about anyway.
I was there because CJ had changed the hue of the jewel. What had been a simple scheme of get-me-out-of-the-house became a sort of awakening that seeped down below skin-level bruises into the marrow, deep and heavy.
At first, we boys were merely there to fight the numbing existential dread, bat in hand, head in cap. But what had begun as an experiment in diamond-dwelling — with only incidental baseball playing — became a regimen in which I lost regularly, repeatedly and fairly, to a girl, CJ. In every aspect, against every measure, she outperformed her ego-clutching peers with a canny I’ve only met once, on a dusty field in the summer of my youth.
* * *
There were two distinct epochs of the game, marked by CJ Golding’s emergence in the lineup. The pre-Golding era was defined by strict abidance of game rules and a Wild West disregard for social ones, which conferred unbounded freedom on all the bad jokes, curse words and histrionic bouts that had become quotidian in The Boys’ Club.
The post-CJ period began with a sea change. After she moved to the neighborhood one Saturday in June and quickly proved her categorical superiority, teams had to be prearranged to account for the inevitable handicap on whichever side CJ played against. Rules of the sport, hitherto memorized, were relaxed. Most significantly, the entrance of the ultimate Other onto the field — a real, living girl — tectonically realigned earlier customs. No longer could little boys stomp away crying after a disputed call, or launch a corrective missile at the smug little twerp who let his vanity swell out of bounds. Girls obliged manners. And manners required nine-year-old boys to grow up fast.
In exchange, we availed ourselves of front row seats to The Greatest Show on Earth, complete with all the tricks of the stage. CJ wielded an artistic savvy, a discerning eye that saw in 16ths of an inch.
She swung a bat the way an early hominid struck fire, realizing with every muscled torch the grandeur of tools in shrewd hands. No one else could hit like her, pitch like she could with her winking left-handed fastball that blew smoke as it nicked the outside corner. Baseball was CJ’s plaything, and it pissed off the other boys to no end. What we spent Saturdays studying on ESPN, CJ learned by feel at shortstop. What amounted, for ordinary players, to a fickle combination of muscle memory and dry luck, CJ executed with wordless finesse, a songbird resting atop the head of a coyote.
* * *
There was something brilliant about Catherine Jennifer that was never understood by the boys she struck out and not infrequently made cry. To beat a nine-year-old senseless would teach the fragile youngster never to return.
Instead, CJ instilled patience. After all, we came back each day to the same overgrown lot where dreams stuttered and faltered with the sun overhead. Locked in a routine, the ragtag team became ritual, shrouded in secondhand smoke, something just shy of divine.
That CJ never revealed her tricks, only heightened the magic of her illusion. We no-good preadolescents too young and white and suburban to otherwise contribute a verse showed up because there’s still a part of every man that’s happier thinking of the game as a constant improvisation without known playbook.
And that was the gift she gave us. Baseball as anesthetic, as an evaporating moment that distracted from the realization of our lives arcing like a fly ball in and out of sight. There, on that field, in the dry stew of the open Midwest, we learned an unknown contentment in the shadow of a passing comet.