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"The Left-Handed Brother" by Anthony Pirnot
Of all people, I was the last to understand my father. That was how I felt anyway, especially when I was young. Some demon possessed him on that Saturday in April when the three of us were playing baseball in the backyard. I must have been ten years old and Mike seven, small for his age as I remember him. We were each taking turns: one would pitch, another hit and the third retreat to the outfield. I will never forget my fear on the mound with my father at the plate. He dug in his feet and circled the bat over his shoulders, as if to say that his sons would never be old enough or strong enough to conquer him. Each of my feeble pitches was crushed deep into the outfield, over Mike’s head and across the neighbor’s yard. And each time, as he chased them down, I stood there with nowhere to look, except at my father or at the grass in front of my feet. Even now I feel as though I am partially to blame for what happened next.
After my father had finished hitting, I sheepishly went to the plate, embarrassed at what a poor job I had done of pitching, and picked up the heavy bat. My father took his glove and stood on what would have been the edge of the infield, an insult I registered at once, and Mike came in to pitch. He threw a few pitches that were even more fluttering than mine, and I connected for a couple of rainbow pops, which my father easily caught. After the third one, he had his brilliant idea. He went over to talk to my brother on the mound. Mike took off his glove. He glanced once at me with a look I interpreted as fear, while my father arranged him like a school photographer, turning him around so he throw the ball with his left hand, even though he was naturally right-handed.
The first attempt was horrible. It landed halfway to the plate and rolled to my feet, where I picked it up. That lame arm of his. It was as if both of us were physical handicaps. I braced for an explosion, but to my surprise, my father was suddenly very patient. He molded his body around Mike’s fragile little frame, forming them into an awkward giant with a terrible hunchback, and then he guided him slowly through that backward pitching motion, first the left foot and then a roll through the waist and then finally the arm following cleanly afterward with the ball held high in his hand.
The next pitch got airborne and sailed high behind my head. I suffered a real indignity being the batter for this display, as if I didn’t deserve a couple of good pitches after all the homerun balls I had thrown. In truth, as much as I felt for what my brother was going through, I desperately wanted to show him a taste of the humiliation my father had shown to me. But instead, I had to stand there while he practiced. Pitch after pitch flew in all directions, hardly any close enough for me to lift the bat off my shoulder. When at last I did tap a weak grounder past the mound, my father glared at me annoyed.
“Just catch it, Tommy.”
I gave him an angry look.
“We’re trying to do something here,” he said curtly.
I didn’t say anything. I put the bat down and went into the house.
From that capricious afternoon, the experiment sprawled through the summer. Day after day, they were in the yard pitching. Sometimes I caught for them while my father coached, but after Mike learned the motion, it was just the two of them, my father squatting and calling for the pitches and Mike throwing them into his glove. I stayed inside watching TV or watching my old teammates from the kitchen window while my mother cooked dinner and talked in an endless stream to no one in particular.
By the end of the summer, it was clear that my father had remade my brother from his own ideas, as if his first act of creation with my poor mother, something I shudder to imagine, hadn’t done the trick. Mike had obediently thrown thousands of pitches and when the next spring finally arrived, he was a left-handed pitcher. My father presented him to the little league and watched with pride as he was picked in the first round by the very best team.
Little league operated by its own logic. Natural left-handers always pitched and always played first base, as if the extra reach would matter for kids the age of eight or nine. People like me were forced into the outfield, where we would stand all day waiting for a lonely fly ball, and maybe Mike would have been destined for that fate too if my father hadn’t intervened. Now he was an exceptional pitcher. He threw the ball harder than kids several years older, and the mechanics of the pose that had been forced upon him made it easy for him to focus. He had two pitches, a fastball and a change-up, both of which he threw with remarkable consistency.
Maybe everything that happened after that had some simple psychological explanation, but I never did hit well off my brother once he learned to pitch. Even my father, for all his strength, did not seem to hit the ball quite as squarely off Mike as he did off me, even though I was older and stronger. It may have been that he was throwing harder and better than before, but what I remember most clearly was the look that came over his face: frightened … embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, as if his new talent had sprung upon him like a premature puberty, a growth he would have rather concealed than displayed to crowds of ravenous fans. And yet they loved him, those parents screaming from the bleachers, because Mike was a winner. Even at age eight, he threw scoreless frame after scoreless frame, and his team became unstoppable.
Years later in high school, Mike retained this grimace when he pitched, as if he had learned it as part of the stance when he was seven. And it worked to his advantage. Some pitchers pulled their caps over their eyes to intimidate hitters. But Mike left his cap high on his forehead and with his vulnerable face, as if he were tossing fastballs from a dark source in his subconscious, he disoriented them. None of the other kids could focus on the baseball spinning out of his hand when they looked up and saw his terrible mask: shame shame shame.
As the years passed and my brother and I grew taller, my father became less imposing. He had been a decent athlete in his youth and was strong for his size, but my impression of him as the most powerful and fearsome adult I knew steadily left me. He was only five-seven and had grown heavier and stooped with age. By the time I was sixteen years old, I was already taller than he was, and when at last Mike and I reached our full growth, we towered over him.
The sudden gift of height was particularly fortunate for Mike. As a junior in high school, he was already being scouted by the pros. It was the only thing I heard while I was away at college in Pittsburgh: the Cubs, the Orioles, even the Yankees, for God’s sake, had come to Oleander to watch him pitch. My brother now had a curve in his repertoire, and my father was researching other pitches, sliders and sinkers, but also newer inventions like the knuckle curve. I could only imagine how rival teams in our county would respond to a tall, strong left-hander throwing knuckle curveballs for a school with a graduating class of barely more than a hundred.
Oleander is a small town in Pennsylvania, and when Mike was drafted in the seventeenth round by the Phillies, it made front page news on the weekly News and Report. It may have been a long shot that he would ever pitch at Veterans Stadium, but suddenly he was a professional pitcher, and my father naturally took credit for his stroke of genius those many years earlier.
Even I agreed with the decision to sign the contract over going to college. The worst-case scenario was that he would spend a few years in the minors and then go back to school. What was the allure of college anyway—parties and fooling around, nothing that would compare with the chance to be a real athlete, to have a crowd cheering for you even in some backwater city. And that was only the worst possibility. The best was unimaginable: a career and fame and a red and white jersey with “Hamilton” sewn on the back between the shoulders.
Nevertheless, it was frightening to agree with my father’s logic. Could it really be possible, I thought, that my own destiny might contain a part of this man who prowled like a tiger in front of the dinner table while the rest of us sat there mute? He tucked his chin into his chest, revealing his bald pate and forcing his stomach to protrude even farther.
“This is the start of something …” he mumbled as we eyed him apprehensively. “I always told you boys that you were something special.”
Not the whole truth, surely. Maybe he was heartbroken over some girl or he had had a fight with someone on the team. My secret explanation for any problem such as his was loneliness of some form or another. So I pressed him and he started to tell me about the various girls he had met on the road, and about the other players too. The whole thing was a carnival with baseball as the sideshow, traveling from town to town, sleeping in cheap motels, fast-food joints, dive bars where the players were treated like heroes. Even in the minors, the team enjoyed a relative fame on their wild nights out in the quietest hamlets of upstate New York. Mike brightened as he told me about this circus life coming out of Batavia—what a joy for a nineteen-year-old!
But then a moment later he turned glum again, and deathly serious.
“Tom,” he said. “I’m not left-handed.”
I laughed. “Jesus Mike, I know.”
“What I was saying before about baseball just being a part of life,” he said. “Now it’s like I’m left-handed all the time. They even want me to bat left to protect my arm.”
“How do you sign your contracts?”
“You’re joking, but I don’t want anybody to know.”
He didn’t have to tell me what he looked like on the mound up there in Batavia. Every pitch hurt him more than it did the batter who faced him. Pitchers have always had a reputation for being eccentric and left-handers especially. I can only imagine the madness that would infect a man who had been sent to this asylum by accident, misidentified in his youth.
I resolved then and there not to take him for granted. He was my brother, after all, and I would travel to see him pitch in Aberdeen and Jamestown and Lowell, even if it meant having to sit in the stands beside my father, who had become an ardent fan of minor league baseball. I pictured myself working as a journalist, up in the press box, safe from the crowd and secure in a place where I could protect Mike, follow him from town to town and shield him from criticism.
For years as Mike moved through the minors, I traveled down every spare weekend to watch him pitch in cities like Asheville and Delmarva and Jupiter. Although his record never rose much above .500, he slid through the South Atlantic League and the Florida State League as a starter. Mike was indifferent to the whole process, but then it was his carelessness that made him valuable. He had always pitched from fear, making him immune to it. He felt nothing. Or rather he had always felt everything, which meant that it had no effect on him anymore—something the Phillies must have also recognized.
At the beginning of his third full season, Mike was on a hot streak. He won his first four games of the year and it seemed he had finally turned the corner and become a pitcher with a real future. He got promoted to double-A Reading, close to home in Pennsylvania after years away in South Carolina and Florida. My father started to consider how often he would make the drive across the state from Oleander to Philadelphia after Mike finally made the majors, and where his seats would be above the dugout in Veterans Stadium. During the winter he could get promoted to the triple-A team in Scranton, with maybe a shot at the Phillies in spring training, still at only twenty-four. It could be the beginning of some fifteen years in the big leagues. After his promotion, however, Mike took a pair of no-decisions at Reading and then followed these with a pair of losses.
Home in Oleander after the second loss, I found my father simmering with rage. For all his fantasizing, he understood that his son had started going backwards again. The whole plan was in jeopardy.
“You’ve been watching the games,” he said desperately. “What’s he doing wrong?”
“Just a cold streak.”
“Come on, you can be straight with me.”
I had never heard this tone in his voice. He was concerned, and he wanted to discuss it with me as if we were a pair of legitimate adults. I pitied him, and with that unmistakable feeling of pity, I realized that I was seeing something else in my father as well: age was showing in his face. Not just the splay of wrinkles at the eyes or the heavy jowls, but something pale and lifeless that hadn’t been there before. This was a man thinking about his legacy, not just his desire for fame in the family.
“He’s walking too many batters after he’s ahead in the count,” I said plainly. “And he’s giving up homeruns consistently in the fifth and sixth inning.”
“Arm strength?” my father suggested. “Maybe a better pitch selection would get him through the sixth with a lower count. He could throw more groundballs. I always tried to teach him to pitch with his legs. How fast is he getting to a hundred pitches?”
“His stuff seems good and he usually closes out the inning just fine after the homerun.”
It was a fact that puzzled me too and as I explained it, my father’s _expression dropped. He looked older than ever. He knew that by not answering the question directly, I was trying to give him the worst possible diagnosis.
“He can even pitch into the seventh and eighth sometimes, 110 even 120 pitches … but the lead’s lost by that point.”
“He doesn’t care, Tommy. Does he?”
My father always knew when I was lying, and I was afraid to admit the truth, so I didn’t respond. We stared at each for a moment.
“He doesn’t care if he wins,” my father repeated softly.
“I don’t know about that …”
“Jesus H Christ!” he shouted, screwing up his face. “What’s the matter with you two?”
Suddenly all of the anger in him was unleashed. He changed colors as he screamed at me, recounting every failure either of us had ever used to disgrace him. I should have been offended, but all I saw was his torment, the fear inside him that someday he would be gone with nothing left of him on the earth. Agony, that was it precisely: the pain before dying. And in his diabolical _expression I couldn’t help but see something of my brother there on the lonesome pitcher’s mound. Ordinarily I would have walked away, but this time I was standing in bravely and taking it for my brother and taking it for my father, whom I loved in spite of everything. At last he settled down. All of the rage had poured out of him and, finally calm, he asked me contritely if I would talk to Mike?
I quickly agreed.
What else could I do?
We met at a bar in Akron, where Mike was set to pitch against the Aeros at the end of the weekend. I had driven over from Pittsburgh after work and got there in the evening after the Friday game. The place was dismal, a hole in the wall with a single tired woman serving drinks and a couple of drunks at the far end of the bar. Somehow I had the feeling that Mike had chosen the place on purpose for its gloomy atmosphere, but it was a relief to see him in good spirits. We had a couple of drinks and joked around. I nearly forgot I was there as a messenger for our father. Finally I explained why I had turned up in Akron that night.
“He’s worried,” Mike said sarcastically. “Ah-ha.”
“I’ve spent my whole life pointing out every mistake the old man has made,” I pleaded. “You know that. But he’s really worried about you now, worried about you.”
“There’s no need for that.”
“I promised him I would come talk to you.”
“You’re doing that, Tom,” he said stiffly. “Mission accomplished.”
Then, I present our theory to him that he did not really care whether he won or lost. When I finished, Mike didn’t say anything, as if he expected something more profound from me.
“But I don’t care,” he said finally, the idea not upsetting him in the least. “That part is true. I don’t care one way or the other. Sometimes my favorite thing in the world is to give up a wallop of a homerun. It makes you sick to turn around and see all the players hanging their heads behind you, but...”
“You like that?”
“No, I don’t mean that I like it,” he protested and then thought for a minute. “It’s terrible, really terrible, and you feel bad about it all night too. But somehow, sometimes, I can’t help it.”
“You do it on purpose?”
Mike’s eyes were so calm and intelligent that I was really disconcerted. I was used to being the older brother, the wiser brother, and now he was telling me things I would never understand. I didn’t know how to respond. Instead, I offered him my new impression of our father, that old arch-enemy of ours, that villain whose face we remembered from our earliest childhood, looming over us, and I begged him to do the old man the favor of winning.
“For you, Tom,” he said and laughed a little. He patted me on the shoulder. “I’m going to do it for you. So take it easy, OK?”
That Sunday, he pitched a superb game.
Behind home plate I charted every pitch through nine scoreless frames, one of his best outings ever, so fluid and easy in his delivery. I had the feeling he could do anything he wanted. Maybe somehow he had broken free of the heavy burden that had lain on top of him for so long. Even the _expression on his face was subtly changed, something that as a connoisseur I alone could recognize. While it still retained its predominant look of fear and shame, it also contained an element of mockery, buried in that occasional smirk. As my father was staring at death, my brother was thinking about him and rather than feeling the sympathy that I felt, he was mocking him—perhaps for my benefit alone—with an imitation of that same agony. He would never completely forgive him.
The greatness of that Sunday turned out to be as much an illusion as everything else. During the weeks that followed, my brother reverted to his old form: a couple of good games followed by some strangely bad ones. Then in November he was traded as part of a five player deal to the Toronto Blue Jays … or rather to the New Haven Ravens, I should say, because my father’s dream of him being promoted again that off-season was clearly no longer a possibility. In fact, even the move to New Haven never happened, because later that winter, Mike Hamilton resigned from baseball altogether.
Having endured so much already, my father took the news calmly. With resignation, I thought. The old man had already done the job of breaking himself in anticipation over the years. He had been doing it all of his life. And something then was broken between all of us as well. I was still living in Pittsburgh, writing for the Tribune Review, and Mike had moved to North Carolina, where he was apparently in love with a girl he had met on the road there. A couple of times, I tried to call him, but I only ever got the answering machine.
Months went by.
Then one night when I was coming home late from work, I found a letter in my mailbox. I took it inside to the kitchen, where I poured myself a drink and sat at the table to read it. It was nice to have company there in the empty apartment. Mike’s voice spoke in my head as I read his clumsy handwriting. The letter was sensible and apologetic. He explained what he was doing with his life. This girl of his was studying at the university in Greensboro and he was considering going back to school himself. Sarah planned to go to graduate school for design the next year in Chicago and Mike thought he could enroll as an undergrad. “That was the plan all along, right Tom?” he wrote … and I couldn’t disagree.
I swallowed the rest of my whiskey and thought of getting some sleep. I folded up the letter and slid it back into the envelope. Perhaps I would read it again in the morning, I thought. At the end Mike had written a curious thing, which I had re-read several times. “You’ll think it’s silly,” he began. “But even when things were going well for me and there were scouts watching the games, I knew in my heart that it was my right hand that I loved.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little to myself. He loved that other hand. To think of him having that precious, secret hand tucked away in his glove. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard. The thought was so much with me as I got up to get ready for bed that I found my left hand holding my right, almost to comfort it for the way Mike’s had been neglected for so long. How many times had I thought of myself there on the mound with “Hamilton” on the back of my jersey, throwing perfect pitches and listening to the roar of the crowd! That was something to laugh about—old man of twenty-seven, sentimental.
In the bathroom, I clicked on the light and looked at myself in the mirror, my eyes tracing the miniature furrows on my cheeks and forehead. It was hypnotizing to try to look into my own eyes, to see myself as if I were someone else. Tom Hamilton. I wasn’t sure what I would think. Maybe it was just being tired, and coming back to the apartment alone, as usual. I picked up the toothbrush with my right hand and clumsily spread some paste on it with the left. Then I switched the brush to the left, something I could never remember having done before, and watching my reflection, brushed my teeth gingerly, up and down on each tooth, up and down awkwardly, having to concentrate on every stroke.