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Hardball

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KB enters the East Cobb game in the fifth inning, with two men on and Arsenal trailing 6-0. If a team falls behind by eight or more runs, the game is over by virtue of the mercy rule—an ignominious fate. KB throws his first pitch. It sails wide. He walks a batter, hits another, throws a wild pitch, and then walks in the eighth run. Game over. KB sprints from the mound, throws his cap and glove to the ground, then kicks both objects all the way to the dugout. Later, I ask him how he is feeling, and he quietly admits that his elbow had been aching for weeks. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “It was a big tournament. There were a lot of people watching. I had to play.”

Things only got worse from there. Despite operating on just three hours’ sleep, Arsenal staved off elimination the next day with two impressive victories, the second one a heart-stopping one-run affair that reminded everyone how much fun playing baseball can be. But their next game was yet another elimination game—the contest that featured KB’s decisive at-bat. The opponent was a team called Nitro from Phoenix, and Arsenal trailed 3-1 going into the final inning. The first two batters were retired. KB took the second pitch for another strike. The Arsenal parents had been complaining about the strike zone throughout the game, but their protestations seemed to have an unintended effect. The next pitch was well wide.

“Strike three!” screamed the ump.

A parent yelled, “Goddamn it, KB. Swing the bat!”

Just like that, the season was over.

KB and Karl trudged back to their car in silence. Back at the condo, KB slumped on the couch. “This tournament was a big opportunity, and I shit the bed. I’m pretty sure I won’t be on any ‘players to watch’ lists next year,” he said. His ever-present smile was nowhere in sight.

It’s a few weeks after Orlando, and Karl and KB are back in Toms River, gearing up for the fall season. It is KB’s first day of high school, and he is feeling overwhelmed. “I always got good grades, but I don’t do that great a job now of balancing baseball and my studies,” he says as he wolfs down a chicken sandwich and fries at a local restaurant. “I think I need to get out of one of my honors classes.”

Karl is sitting next to him. I ask Karl if he thinks the Arsenal season was worth it. He shrugs his shoulders. “I remember one of the early tournaments at Cal Ripken’s fields in Maryland. It was eleven o’clock, and the kids were still playing, and I had patients to see in the morning, and KB had school. I was agitated. But all the other parents were calm. They knew the drill. You just get used to the craziness.”

Karl never took KB to have his arm examined. He told KB to take a few weeks off from throwing, and KB said the pain was gone. Karl was satisfied. “He just was hurting in Florida,” Karl says. “It’s too bad. He was so good earlier in the season. Next year, he’s not going to pitch for the local teams as much.”

The first time I had talked to Karl, he and KB had just been on the road fifteen out of sixteen weekends, and Blum joked that KB’s butt was still sore from a fourteen-hour ride to Myrtle Beach and back to play four games. He told me he had asked KB why the neighborhood kids don’t call him to go to the movies. “I’m gone too much,” KB told him. “They gave up on me.”

Karl invited me to come down to Orlando for the World Series and see the travel-ball world for myself. “You get caught up in it, and then you just hold on,” he told me. “I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing. We’ll stop when it’s not fun.”

Back at the restaurant, KB puts down his phone. He had been texting a friend about the first day of school. What does he think about the Arsenal season? “I learned a lot. I learned it isn’t going to be easy,” he says. He picks up his phone and begins texting again. “Besides, I love it. Every day. Well, almost every day. I didn’t love it down in Florida.”

We pay the check and head to the parking lot. Karl’s face lights up as he slides behind the wheel. “We’re going to Las Vegas next month. That’s going to be a great tournament. You should come.”


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