Casey at the Bat
*Editor's Note: Italicized portions are from the poem "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat.
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
The room was less sterile than most he had been in, somehow more comforting. Or maybe he just felt such a need for comfort he was flooding the room with what he so needed and knew would never come.
“I’m afraid I haven’t very good news, Mr. Casey. On two fronts.”
“Oh no. Surgery?”
“No, not that.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Well, in a way.”
“Just tell me, doctor.”
“You have a form of Stagardt’s Disorder, one called fundus flavinaculatus. Stagardt’s disease is mostly found in children, fundus flavinaculatus in older teens and middle age.”
“Sorry. It’s a progressive eye disease, you see. That’s what causing your problems.”
“Not being able to see.”
“Yes. And it’s progressing, I’m afraid, rather rapidly---seems to be accelerating, I’m sorry to say. We’ll have to monitor it very closely---weekly, even every-other-day.”
“And the treatment?”
“That’s the other bad news.”
He was 1-13 in the last four games, not up to his usual level, of course, or he wouldn’t be here in the majors, though he wasn’t setting any records. This was only his first season with the Pirates, making more than he ever imagined he would, even if it was the bare minimum.
And having fun he didn’t know was available anywhere in the world. It wasn’t supposed to be fun; it was supposed to be pressure-packed, anguishing. Not for him, Anthonio Casey. His name helped, as his clubhouse mates picked right up on the poem and the unlikely conjunction of Italian (his mom) and Irish (Pop): “Casey, Mighty Casey, is advancing to the bat!” And, of course, “Mighty Casey had struck out.” He’d heard that with increasing frequency, maybe because the ball became harder and harder to spot, not disappearing but somehow becoming smaller, spotted, distorted by flashes of light.
Fundus Flavinaculatus. No cure.
He considered telling the manager, one of his teammates, the batboy. What would be the point? Just get him more useless medical attention---and then released.
What would he do then? Get a tin cup, a dog, a white cane?
All of that still seemed a joke to him, making no contact with his life, with his exhilarating life as a major leaguer, a second baseman with some range and a bat that would come alive once he got used to the pitchers. It was much quicker up here than at AAA, faster-paced: the pitchers had better control, threw harder, commanded more speeds and spins. But he’d catch on.
Or would have done.
He decided he’d get a second opinion, meanwhile hoping the eye drops his mother (of all people) had sent him would help. Maybe if he upped the dosage.
Meanwhile, there was this crucial game with the Phillies. Really it was. Not many baseball games are truly crucial, there being so many of them; but it was September, only six games left, one game behind this very team.
He’d arrived early. He always did, eager to dive into the clubhouse atmosphere, be with teammates who had been so unexpectedly helpful and---he admitted the word---kind. He’d been in the minors for six years before his elevation and had experienced nothing even close. Truth is, Antonio had found nothing like it ever in his life: not in school, not even at home. It was more than acceptance, more than friendship.
How could he even think of living without this?
But now for the Phillies and their twenty-game-winner, Moses Abraham, on the hill today. Casey had faced him four times this season and managed two hits. He wasn’t especially proud of that: both had come with two out and bases empty---harmless singles. Still, it showed something, something Sam Wills, his manager, would note carefully, maniac on stats and computer studies as he was.
Soon, teammates started drifting in. First was the shortstop, Bailey, who never failed to have some of the poem to throw at him. Today it was, “And now the pitcher holds the ball and now he lets it go. And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.” Nothing mean. Bailey helped him regularly with everything from his stance, to the best restaurants, to ways to deal with Wills: “Just keep your goddamned mouth shut and nod.”
There had been no hazing, no hurt. From day one, he was where he needed to be, needed to stay.
“Casey, my office!”
He snapped to attention, hiked up his pants fast, and made his way to the manager’s little cage. It really was a cage, something below unpretentious. He’d found it easy, homey. Mills had seemed to make him a special project, or, if not that, a player he had no interest in humiliating.
He found a seat, easy enough, as there was but the one. He also kept his goddamned mouth shut: that much of Bailey’s wisdom he had absorbed.
“Casey, son, I think you’re pressing just a little. I do.”
“That’s why I’m going to give you a little rest, just for today. You got me?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not trying to skin your ass, just doing what seems best for the team, giving you this little rest, like I say.”
“Rodriquez will start.”
“But you’re not on vacation, Casey. I expect you’ll get into the game. I figure you will.”
“You understand me, son. This is no punishment. We’ll need you for the post-season, the World Series. Yessir.”
He knew it wasn’t a punishment, but he also knew it was no reward. He’d stopped hitting, stopped helping the team. He’d snap out of it, he knew. He had to. He had nowhere else to go.
The only place he could go right now was to the bench, the one place that made him feel uncomfortable, an outsider. He figured there was no chance he could get into the game, no chance when the dugout steps were swaying before him, dancing in uncertain lights and flares. He felt himself becoming a little dizzy, slid into the bench and gripped it with both hands.
The dizziness came and went as the game moved in and out of rhythms mostly bad for the Pirates. Phillies were up 2-0 after half an inning and stayed there through six, before adding another run then and another in the seventh. 4-0.
Casey now had forgotten his dizziness and was inside the game, inside the efforts of his teammates, even more fully when those efforts produced nothing at all in the way of runs.
Bailey slid in next to him as the bottom of the seventh, stretch time, began,
“We need you out there, Case.”
“Thanks. We’ll get ‘em.”
“You OK? You look funny.”
“I’m dandy. Just waiting for our comeback.”
Looking funny? How? He didn’t dare ask, but his dizziness came back and he turned his head away from Bailey, imaging he’d somehow feel fine if he looked out at the field, the distance. That was it. He could hear his dad in the car, twenty years ago:
“Look at the sky or those hills over there. That’ll make you feel better.”
It hadn’t then, hadn’t stopped the nausea or the vomiting it produced (once all over his dad’s back and neck) but maybe it would now.
What did help was a small Pirates rally in the 7th, making it 4-2 and another in the 8th, tying it up and leaving things to the bullpen, the strongest part of the team.
Casey felt as if he were part of the excited crowd when the team clambered in after an easy top-of-the-ninth and got ready for an easy win. Just needed one run.
But then, hell’s bells, two quick outs.
“But when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.”
The patrons maybe, but the dugout was noisy, never giving up. And, sure enough, Harrison singled, as did Fowler, and Rodriquez, his own replacement, beat out a little roller to third. Sacks jammed.
“Casey, you’re up!”
Mills didn’t even look his way, just barked it out. Nothing he could do but hope he could produce something. But first he had to make it to the plate---almost didn’t when he rose too quickly, had to grab onto the dugout roof and then Bailey for support.
“Just stood up too fast. Where’s my bat?”
Somehow he made it to the box, took a warm-up swing (one was all he could manage) and moved into the box. Looking out at the Phillies relief ace---or trying to---he saw a starry blur; and he didn’t see the ball coming at all.
He squinted, trying to focus, wishing he had those eye drops right now, which was foolish as he’d never be able to. . . .
Thirty seconds later:
“Good eye!” a fan yelled, somehow making himself heard about the general level of cheering. Casey actually chuckled at that. If he only knew.
Suddenly he could see very clearly, so clearly he could count the stitches, as they say, on the ball curving in, an off-speed pitch that was going to travel right into his sweet spot. So he swung away.
By then, there was only a form on the pitcher’s mound, shaky and far too mobile. Not that he could swing now, no point.
The crowd was now uproarious with hope, and so was Casey. He stepped out of the box and rubbed his hands on his knees, suddenly without dizziness, suddenly focused and confident. He stepped back in and looked out to where the pitcher should have been.
Oh somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children squawk
And there’s joy awash in Pittsburgh: Mighty Casey drew a walk!