It’s always cold enough in Grandfather’s house that Furuya has to wear a long sleeved shirt under a sweater. In the far corner, the space heater fan slowly click-click-clicks its wide orange face from side to side, gazing upon the room impassively.
“A little lower,” Grandfather rumbles, tapping the long edge of his cigarette against the ash tray.
Furuya slides his hands down, feeling the hard notches of bone press against the tender flesh of his palms.
“How was practice today?”
When he was younger, Furuya had to stand to rub Grandfather’s back, forehead just barely brushing the nape of his neck. His broad shoulders filled up Furuya’s eyes, a warm wall pressed against his cheek, smelling faintly of ash and the salt of the sea.
Now, Furuya sits in an awkward seiza, hunched over and staring down at his Grandfather’s thinning gray hair.
“Fine,” he mumbles.
“Haven’t you got any strength left?” Wisps of smoke filter around his Grandfather’s flaring nostrils as he breathes in deeply, the end of his cigarette flaring a deep red. “I can barely feel your hands.”
Furuya squeezes hard, thumbs digging deep into the wiry muscle.
Grandfather sighs, head nodding forward. “Better, better. So, I heard from your mother that there was a game against Nemuro Nishi Junior High last week. How was it? They have you pitch, eh?”
The sharp acrid scent of cigarette smoke seeps deep into the back of his mouth. It burns every time he tries to swallow. It takes a couple of minutes before he can force enough air in his desert dry mouth to speak. “Left field.”
Grandfather’s shoulders shudder and twitch as he starts forward, grinding out the end of the cigarette in one jerky motion. “What a goddamn waste of your arm. So, what, you stood in the back and watched the whole game pass in front of your eyes?” He shakes his head. “Did you win or not?”
Furuya presses the edge of his fingertips deep into the folds of Grandfather’s undershirt.
“Kuro pitched a good game,” he says, quiet.
“Hmm,” Grandfather mutters. “I didn’t ask about Kuro, did I?”
“It was a good game,” Furuya repeats woodenly, and thinks about the flash of white soaring through the air and falling, falling, falling, Nemuro Nishi 6-0 after seven innings, called game, maybe we’ll win next time haha, right guys?
It’s a few hours after the blizzard blew over and even under the bridge there’s a good foot or so of snow piled up by the wind. Furuya winds a scarf tight around his mouth, tasting the cold ice crystals melt against his hot breath.
By the time he’s finished clearing out the area, he’s hot and exhausted and not sure if the dampness in his socks is from sweat or melted snow. But the white lines of his painted strike zone still run true against the dull concrete walls, encrusted with glittering flakes of snow. Furuya strips off his mittens and presses the tips of his fingers against the wall. The stone is rough and unforgiving against his calloused skin.
Furuya stuffs his mittens deep into his coat pockets and pulls out his battered leather glove from his school rucksack, a fresh Mizuno baseball tucked carefully in the pocket, bits of wrapping foil still caught in its red seams. The white leather surface is sticky, clinging to his skin and even catching on a stray thread of his coat sleeve.
It’s the first hardball he’s ever touched and Furuya feels a kind of secret thrill as he rolls it around in his hands.
“Furuya Satoru, No. 18, pitching for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.” His fingers slide over the stitches and the ball settles in the crook of his palm like it’s a part of him, leather melding with the skin of his flesh.
“Now batting fourth for the Yomiuri Giants, No. 10, catcher Abe Shinnosuke, No. 10.”
Furuya slides into his windup, raising his left leg. The four lines of the strike zone stare back at him silently, waiting.
His whips arm forward and Furuya staggers back from the momentum, watching the ball hurtle through the air like a ray of white light, tearing the world apart and--
It hits the wall with a dull thump and falls uselessly onto the ground.
“Strike one,” Furuya says and crouches down to pick up the ball.
“Aw shut the hell up Jin,” Takeru snarls, slamming the end of his bat down on the ground. The ball rolls to a stop just a couple of inches away from his feet.
“Maybe that’s enough batting practice for now,” Kantoku says mildly, tapping at his clipboard. “We’ll take a five minute break while the first years get the field ready for grounders. Make sure to keep warm, you don’t want your muscles stiffening up.”
The boys chorus in agreement and throw their bats and batting gloves and helmets into their bags by the side of the dugout, trodding all over each other’s feet and jabbing elbows into open ribs.
“Guess what I got,” Kuro brags, pulling out his water bottle and splashing his face with it. Furuya moves his bag over a little, to avoid getting the splashes on his own bag. He fishes his glove out of his bag, wiping dust from the Mizuno label.
“A girly mag?” Takeru grins.
“Like he’d even have the nerve to get one,” Murata says, just barely dodging a punch to the head.
“Assholes,” Kuro mutters, wiping his mouth with the back of hand. “I got tickets to see the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Sapporo next month.”
“No way!” The boys all jostle around Kuro and Furuya steps back just before his toes get spiked by a rush of cleats.
“Who’re they playing against?”
Kuro slants a wild smile. “The Seibu Lions at the Dome.”
“Shit,” Takeru whistles. “And you get to go all the way to Sapporo too. I’ve only been there a couple of times ever.”
Murata tilts his head, half turning so his hip nearly jabs Furuya in the side. “Oi, Kantoku’s comin’ back.”
“Alright everyone, pair up! We’re doing warm up tosses.”
Kuro links his arm through Murata’s and Takeru grabs Jin as they trot over to the infield. The rest of the boys quickly pair up, laughing and slapping each other with their heavy leather gloves. Furuya follows, a half step behind, alone.
“No partner again?” Kantoku looks down sympathetically at him, eyes kind. Furuya can’t bear to meet them, so he looks away.
“Well, that’s alright, we can find a group for you, do a little triangle--” Kantoku turns over to the field and scans the groups scattered everywhere. Most of the boys have begun tossing balls back and forth, dark leather flashing with every catch.
“Who’s open for another person?”
No one stops to look back at Kantoku, their arms whipping soft and smooth in the air.
“Er, how about-- Murata, Kuro, why don’t you let Furuya join your group.”
Kuro’s wrist snaps hard as he sidearms it. “Sure.”
“There you go,” Kantoku says and pats Furuya on the shoulder, before wandering over to another group to criticize their stance.
Furuya trots over slowly and fits himself in the midpoint of Kuro and Murata’s little line, watching the ball sail back and forth above his head.
His glove lays heavy and useless by his side.
Furuya used to ask, once, after Murata had finished with batting practice and was sitting down on the grass, bat across his thighs.
“Would you mind catching for me?”
Murata looked up at him and gave him a careful smile. “Sorry buddy,” he said casually and rapped his knuckles against the barrel of his aluminum bat. “But, uh, I already promised Kuro-kun I would catch a session for him today and after that I’ve gotta work on my throws to second. Maybe next time?”
Furuya nodded and tried not to notice the way Murata’s shoulders slumped in relief. After a while, he stopped asking.
Furuya used to ask, once, while Kantoku was going over the afternoon practice schedule and sweeping up the infield dirt, before everyone else had arrived at the field.
“Can I pitch today?”
“You know, we need an outfielder out there,” Kantoku said, leaning against the rake as he inspected the dirt for pebbles and bits of gravel. “Your arm would be a great asset. Haven’t you seen all those video clips of Ichiro’s laser beam to third? You don’t have to be a pitcher to be a great baseball player, Furuya-kun.”
“I can pitch,” Furuya repeated stolidly.
“Maybe next practice,” Kantoku said, a little absently, and turned away with the rake in hand. After a while, he stopped asking.
“Welcome home! How was practice today, Sa-chan?”
Furuya sets down his gym bag on the ground, shucking off his running shoes and sliding them into the cubby by the door.
“Grandfather stopped by this afternoon after his boat came in with the day’s haul and dropped off some fresh crab, so I thought we would have crab omurice for dinner.”
He peels off his socks and wads them into a ball, throwing them on top of his bag, along with his windbreaker and practice cap. The hardwood floor feels cool and welcoming against his hot feet and Furuya pads down the hallway, passing by the doorway to the kitchen, pink curtains fluttering in his wake.
His mother’s dark head pops through the flimsy cotton sheets.
“Sa-chan, your slippers! How many times have I told you to put them on in the house!”
Furuya give her a backwards wave.
“Boys! Not even a hello to your mother.”
“I’m back,” Furuya mutters, fiddling with the sticky doorknob to his room. “I’m tired, I think I’m going to take a nap before dinner.” The door creaks open with a grumpy click and he throws himself into bed, not even bothering to change into more comfortable clothes.
There is a long silence, broken only by the soft creak of the hardwood floor and the rustle of his sheets. The bed dips a little as his mother settles in by his side, smelling of fish and cooking oil and peonies underneath it all.
“Sa-chan,” she says very softly and presses a gentle hand to his forehead. “What’s wrong?”
He pretends to be asleep, forcing his chest to rise and fall in careful even intervals.
“Did something happen?”
Furuya ignores her.
“Dear boy,” she says, brushing his hair back in an achingly tender motion. “You’d think I can tell by now when you’re sleeping and when you’re only pretending to be.”
Furuya curls away from her touch. “I--”
His mother waits, patiently, as he searches for the right words, tongue struggling to give shape the empty ache he feels deep inside of him.
It’s only air, rising up from his lungs and vibrating along the vocal cords deep in his throat, but the words tear into the delicate tissue inside him, and he’s not sure if the salt he tastes is from the tears trickling from his eyes or the blood welling up from tattered flesh.
“You quit baseball?”
His fingers curl instinctively around the seams of a baseball but they catch only air. “I had to,” Furuya says, voice low and miserable.
“But, Sa-chan, you’ve been playing since-- since before grade school, even.”
“I can’t pitch,” Furuya says.
“Are you hurt?” His mother grabs urgently at his hand. His wrist flops uselessly as her fingers twine around his, searching.
“No,” he says, and thinks that might be preferable to this, the hunger deep inside him that won’t ever go away, won’t ever be filled, won’t stop clawing away at his chest and devouring his heart. “No, I’m fine,” he says, tasting the bitter tang of lies on his tongue.
“Then why did you quit?”
“I’m a monster,” Furuya laughs and laughs and laughs until he chokes on his tears.
There’s a stack of unopened Baseball Weekly’s sitting on his desk, pages uncreased and still smelling of newness.
Furuya hasn’t yet cancelled his subscription and the magazines still pile up on his doorstep, and his mother still puts them on his desk with a glass of milk and a slice of cake. He drinks the milk and eats the cake and leaves the magazines alone. Once, he used to cut out clippings and pore over the collected box scores, dreaming of the perfect pitch.
Now, he dreams of nothing.
He shoves them over to the side and one falls to the ground, pages fluttering as it falls open on its slim spine.
Biting back a grunt of frustration, he bends down to pick it up, fingers outstretched and--
They stop, resting on the hard papery jaw looking up at him, dark eyes glittering under glass.
By Uehara Koji
It seems there is nothing that Miyuki Kazuya cannot do.
After taking batting practice (several of his shots cleared the fence), Miyuki crouches behind the plate to take pitches, armed with a bright yellow mitt and a smile that can be seen from the outfield. Each pitch is received in a textbook perfect stance, fastball after fastball settling in his soft hands.
The speed? 150 km/hr.
“I cranked up the machine to 160 a couple of times,” Miyuki confides during a water break, that ever perpetual grin dancing on his face. “But smoke started coming out of the machine and I got yelled at, so I can’t do that anymore.”
When I ask if he managed to catch the pitches, he gives me a bemused look. “Well, yeah.”
In the past fifteen games Miyuki has played in for Seidou in his first year, practice and real combined, he has never made an error or allowed a passed ball.
“It’s ninety percent mentality and ten percent hands,” Miyuki explains while he sits on a locker room bench, oiling up his catcher’s mitt with neatsfoot oil. “You’ve just gotta have the confidence. If you don’t have any belief in yourself, how’re you going to make the pitcher believe you? Maybe a little bit is the actual catching, the hands. You gotta have soft hands.”
Miyuki’s hands are in actuality covered in thick calluses, fingers already bruised and knobbly from bad pitches, but the softness refers to how delicately he catches pitches, almost never moving his glove at impact.
“I can catch any anything,” Miyuki says, fitting his left hand into his glove and admiring his neat maintenance work. “Fastballs, breaking balls, wild pitches. Anything.” He pounds his fist into his glove and gives me a wolfish smile.
A little skeptical of this claim, I go to verify it with the Assistant Director of Seidou's baseball program Takashima Rei, noted to have personally scouted Miyuki in his junior high days.
“He’s one of the most talented players I have ever seen,” Assistant Director Takashima Rei says, dark eyes keen as she surveys the baseball field. She’s agreed to chat for a few minutes during Seidou’s afternoon practice while she looks over how the boys are doing. “His catching, his batting, his ability to think strategically and call the game. They’re all beyond high school level. The only one I’ve ever seen match Miyuki is perhaps Chris-kun.”
Takashima refers to Takigawa Chris Yuu, a once up and coming catcher in Seidou who had been waylaid by injuries. His exit left a gaping hole in Seidou’s lineup, leaving them desperate for a defensively skilled catcher.
“We had some difficulty after Chris tore his shoulder. He’d developed a good rapport with our pitching staff and was a great batter, even better at calling a game. We recruited him, intending for him to be the centerpiece of our team for the next three years. We were going to Koshien with him.” She stops, delicately wiping her glasses with a handkerchief.
“Circumstances proved us otherwise,” she says finally. “Luckily, the following year, Miyuki Kazuya decided to enroll in Seidou.”
Lucky indeed. With Miyuki behind the plate, Seidou’s admittedly weak pitching staff has seen its collective ERA drop two points and Miyuki’s caught stealing rate is at an astonishing eighty six percent.
“We expect it to regress as the other teams become used to his arm,” Takashima demurs, but the gleam in her eyes is predatorily proud.
Will they go to Koshien this year with Miyuki Kazuya? Or rather, because of Miyuki Kazuya?
“Without a doubt,” Takashima says. There’s no hesitation in her voice, only the certainty of a woman who believes.
Ninety percent mentality, ten percent soft hands.
Perhaps pitchers aren’t the only ones who believe in Miyuki Kazuya. I do, too.
Uehara Koji writes a weekly column called "Four Ball." You can find him on twitter @YGKoji and ameblo.jp/uehara-koji.
The day his acceptance letter comes in the mail, Furuya takes his new leather glove out of a plastic shopping bag, wrapped up in rubber bands and stinking of men’s shaving cream that he’d lathered it up with.
He carefully unwinds the rubber bands off and his glove slowly folds open, revealing the dirty off-white Mizuno hardball tucked in its depths like a secret pearl.
The day he’d decided to go to Seidou, he’d bought a new pitcher’s glove, placed the ball in its pocket and wrapped it up in rubberbands and shaving cream, to slowly break in over the cold fall months as he studied.
He slides his left hand in, leather soft and sleek and pocket formed perfectly in the crook of his palm. He raises the glove up to his face, smelling cowhide and the perfumed sweet smell of shaving cream.
“Miyuki Kazuya,” he whispers into the privacy of his glove, feeling his heart stutter in his chest, like a dancing knuckleball. “I believe.”