After The Twenty-Seventh
by Andrew Reilly
In the spring of the year before he died, my older brother Todd almost threw a perfect game for our high schoolʼs baseball team. Almost. Heʼd been pitching well—good enough to keep starting but not quite enough to get our town whispering about any scouts coming to see him—and the team from Carpentersville also wasnʼt very good that year and, in hindsight, we should have seen that when a guy has one great pitch (sinker low and away, you shouldʼve seen it) that somehow happens to be an entire teamʼs blind spot, something goodʼs gonna come of it.
Mid 1: 1K, 0H, 0BB, 0E
Todd was never much of a power pitcher, really more of a finesse pitcher, or at least as much of a finesse pitcher as a fifteen-year-old can be. There were other guys who played for our school who pitched way better than him—Randy and Mark, who were both drafted by the Cubs, and John, who got a full ride to Texas A&M—but it didnʼt matter. For Todd, this was just something to do ever since he football stopped being an option.
It wasnʼt that he couldnʼt play football, he just couldnʼt be good at it the way he wanted to; my brother, of course, he wanted to be the star running back and wouldnʼt budge when our schoolʼs coach told him he was going to get killed out there. Good speed, but terrible size. Would he be interested in special teams, or maybe as a wide receiver? “I want to be a running back,” Todd answered.
“Youʼre going to die out there,” coach said. “Snapped neck, if I were a gambling man.”
Todd, never one to be talked out of anything, refused to hear him. “I want to be a running back.”
By the following spring, he was pitching and playing outfield for our varsity baseball team instead. Just like that, as though quitting one and excelling at another was the easiest thing in the world.
Mid 4: 4K, 0H, 0BB, 0E
“Itʼs easy,” Todd explained, tossing the ball back across the yard to me. “No oneʼs thinking about the pitch thatʼs coming. Not yet. These are all just kids trying to hit home runs, trying to impress people. You give them something that moves, they donʼt know what to do with it. These are still just kids, you know?”
“Someoneʼs gonna figure it out,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “But not this year. Not while Iʼm still out there.” “Yeah, but when you get to college youʼll need another pitch.”
Todd looked down at his throwing hand, ran his fingers across the palm of his glove, finally just shrugging, making that face heʼd always make when he was holding something back. “Yeah,” was all he finally said. “Yeah, I suppose youʼre right. But Iʼll worry about that when it happens, okay?”
Mid 7: 6K, 0H, 0BB, 0E
The place was buzzing in a way I didnʼt know it could after an amazing diving catch by John, who was coincidentally filling in for Todd in right field today (and a fine wide receiver for our schoolʼs football team to boot). Eighteen up, eighteen down. We could start believing.
At the time, I knew something was wrong, just not what, exactly—though it would be years before my parents told me just how much worse it had been than either they or he
had let on. First it was the coughing fits, sometimes so bad he couldnʼt stand up. Sometimes blood coming up with them. Then came the headaches. “Just caught whateverʼs going around,” heʼd tell me and our parents, complicit in the most well- intentioned way they knew how, nodded along with him.
Sometimes at night, I have an imaginary conversation.
I didnʼt want you to worry, he always tells me.
It wouldʼve made it easier to see you go, I always reply.
It wasnʼt easy living with, he says.
Easy for you to say, I tell him. You havenʼt had to spend the rest of your life living without.
Top 9: 8K, 0H, 0BB, 0E
Twenty-four down and I knew, just knew Todd was going to do it. Strikeout on four pitches; popout to the catcher in foul territory. Twenty-six up, twenty-six down. You can do this, Todd. Ninth batter. Bottom of the lineup, nothing to fear here, you can DO this!
First pitch: fastball caught the inside corner. Strike one. Second pitch: swing and a miss at a fastball high. Strike two.
You can do this Todd, I thought. You can do this. You can do this. Our schoolʼs tiny ballpark was electric now, steel bleachers thundering under the weight of our excitement, everyone knowing just like me that Todd could do it, that Todd would do it, that Todd was about to do it, all of us knowing just what was coming and what that sinker was going to bring, somebody call the papers because this is history! You will never know how much we are with you right now, I thought, although it occurred to me much later that he knew exactly how much we were with him, and I wonder if that was why things happened the way they did.
But for a moment, Todd was the only person in the world. You could see the guys in the field digging in, none of them wanting to be the sucker who dropped a fly ball or bobbled a grounder to ruin the biggest game of their young lives. You could see the guys on the dugout benches restraining themselves: Toddʼs teammates trying not to jinx him; Toddʼs opponents not quite ready to cheer for the pitcher whoʼd been shutting them down them all afternoon.
Todd exhaled, looked towards the stands, looked right at me, and even from all the way in the bleachers behind the first-base dugout, I could see him. Iʼd have sworn he was laughing, if I didnʼt know any better. But I didnʼt. And I still donʼt.
Todd stopped smiling, took another deep breath, and turned his head back towards home plate.
And even after everything that came after, after that next pitch that didnʼt come off quite right, after that sinker that didnʼt quite sink, after that line drive that we thought would never land, after the game of his life became just another win, after the season ended and the doctors told him he would have to stop playing, after he lost his hair, then his voice, then the fight, then everything else, thatʼs the moment I always come back to: my brother suspended in that beautiful purgatory between having done everything and having done nothing at all, my brother still hoping, my brother telling me this was nothing, my brother alone, liberated, weightless, free, everyone cheering for him to do the things people his age are supposed to do rather than to beat the things they should never have to face.
My brother in memory stands tall, head down, eyes up. My brother in memory reaches back, back, back and fires away, away, away, outside, and away forever.
Andrew Reilly’s work has appeared in The A.V. Club, The Beachwood Reporter, The Houston Chronicle, and De Groene Amsterdammer, among others. Visit him online at andrewreilly.org, or in person in Chicago.
Image: “Baseball field” via Creative Commons