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If You Hit It Right, That is Heaven

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The sweet spot, so-called, makes a certain sound. A satisfying crack you can feel in your bones. When you foul one off, there is a vibration that sets your teeth on edge. If you swing and miss, it is worse, a dead feeling, an incomplete one, a shout without an echo. But oh, if you hit it right and it sails over the fence, that is heaven.

Jimmy shags balls at night, when the girls are with their chaperone (ha, right) and he can have some peace. He takes a bottle of something cheap and pays off the security guard if there is one, and he hits balls late into the night, or until he is too drunk to stand. In the early days, he'd pass out on home plate, waking when the sun hit him or a guard did, whichever was quicker.

When he's drunk, he discovers, the right hit feels like power. Raw, indescribable. If he had to guess, he'd say it was a lot like how Walter Harvey feels when he fucks with players' careers. You go here, you go there, let's make a trade, let's wave our hats and do a little dance for the crowd.

But that seems cheap, unworthy of that moment when the ball and the bat meet just so. Jimmy is no poet, but baseball makes poets out of mortals, and so he discards it, and thinks no more in terms of power. Just in terms of home runs.

It was a long season, the one with few home runs. The last one Jimmy ever played, he hit only a handful. Drink, his knee, who the fuck knew. He swung for the fences. He didn't usually miss.

He is surprised to find anyone who gets it, out here in the sticks as he plays Harvey's game. The Rockford Peaches are a scrappy bunch, girls who are none too thrilled to play in skirts and take etiquette classes, and he finds amusement in their determination, and then he is inspired by it.

He finds himself, in turn, determined.

But not before Dottie Hinson takes the reins from him - as if he'd bothered holding them - and drives for a bit. The team is there to be managed and coached and forged into a unit that could wow and woo and win. She wants it. The win. Jimmy had almost forgotten what that could look like.

Desire. Thirst. She has those in spades.

He could almost let her keep running things, but she won't let him off so easy. He's in charge, she reminds him. And Marla proves Dottie right when Jimmy's coaching leads her to hit that needed run.

Dottie winks at him after a frustrating practice (Stillwell chanting his infuriating taunts in the background). "Cheer up, coach. Didn't you ever hear about dress rehearsals? We'll be fine."
He is, or will be, and they are.

-

On road trips, they usually sit together. It works out because Evelyn needs an extra seat for Stillwell's things, so no one ever raises an eyebrow.

She smells like leather and peanuts and sweat, he thinks, whenever he is close. She thinks he smells of cheap bourbon and later, cologne and Coca-Cola.

Dottie falls asleep on his shoulder, once. They'd played a double-header at home to make up a rain-out and before that had played six straight and half on the road. She talks in her asleep, just a little. She says Kit's name, and digs her nose into Jimmy's collarbone. He doesn't move, in case she wakes, and has a dead arm in the morning.

She begins to join him, sometimes, out on the fields at night. She says nothing but takes up a bat and signals to him to throw a ball, and she rarely misses. Grounders, homers, and the rare pop-fly that drops before Jimmy's quite aware it's in the air. Jimmy throws every kind of pitch he can think of, and Dottie almost never misses.

One time, when she does, she curses. "Son of a bitch," she grumbles. They'd lost that day, and really Dottie should have been icing her knee, which had taken a beating when Doris Williams, the Kenosha second baseman, plowed into her. That had been an out, but not enough to win the game.

Jimmy laughs.

Dottie grounds the next ball right at his feet and he yells and jumps, falling back on the ground.

He curses then and she laughs, and when he gets to his feet he begins to laugh, too. And they make so much noise, laughing together, that the guard comes to check on them and tell them they'll have to keep it down if they want him to look the other way.

-

Just as everything is coming together, it nearly comes apart, as Betty and Dottie get telegrams and Kit is sent to Racine. There is grief, there is separation, and his team needs crazy glue to hold it together.

There is nothing for it: Dottie is devastated, taken out of herself. Mae has to coax her out of the locker room after games, and she has to be led to the park every day by the hand. No one wants to tell her she's not in the line-up so Jimmy leaves her in, until it becomes clear this is not working at all. She's no good to the team and Jimmy finds her on a day when she goes 0-4 (the first and last time), showering long after the other girls have left for the night.

He waits for her to come out, wrapped in a towel, and if she's shocked he can't see it in her face. She looks resigned, and tired. "Want to lay into me, coach?" she says. "Bench me? Teach me a lesson?"

He wants to hold her and he wants to yell all at once. He sits on the bench and looks up at her.

"I want you to do what you have to, Dottie."

So she leaves, the very next day. She takes his hand before she climbs on board the train. He's trying not to tell her they can't do it without her, that she's the best damned player he's seen in years, maybe ever, and he wants her to stay, because he can't do it without her. She takes a shaky breath and maybe she's going to say something about Bob's wishes or how she has to take some time, or maybe even that she wants to let Kit have her moment, anything but what she really says. "It just got too hard, you know."

And he's furious with her for that. Because she wants to blame the game, and he knows better than anyone, the game has nothing to do with it. "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great," he growls, and, disgusted with them both, he walks away.

When the train whistle blows, he figures she's gone, and that's that.

-

She heads west, letting baseball drop away behind her. She goes out of her way to ignore newspapers. Thankfully, the stares don't last very long - she's only a familiar face to some, and soon she blends right back in.

She plans to milk cows and bake bread for the rest of her life, just like she and Bob had planned.

In the morning her knees are stiff and she has to stretch. The bruises on her knuckles and elbows are fading. The cuts from the last encounter with Fanny Rice's cleats on her calf are almost completely gone.

She makes it all the way to the farm and she watches the sunrise and thinks, here I am, Mrs. Dorothy Hinson, and I work at the Lukash Dairy.

Dottie does exactly that, or tries to. No one says a thing when she inquires about the softball team, or when she stops to play catch on the way home with one of the Garrison girls down the road. For a week, this is how things go. No one says a thing when Dottie starts taking the sports page from the paper before her father in the mornings.

In the evenings she sits on the porch, tossing a softball in the air and catching it, for an hour or two. Every evening.

"I'm done with playing ball," she insists. "It was a nice time, but I'm done with it."

Her Peaches uniform hangs in her closet, after her mother washed it despite Dottie's protests. Just toss it, Dottie says. Nonsense, says Mrs. Keller. They don't argue about it, and Mrs. Keller takes special care to iron the pleats and clean the blood out of the sleeves. She doesn't say anything to Dottie about baseball, not really. Just places Dottie's glove next to her plate one day at breakfast, and tells her about the train headed east and how there is a ticket for Dottie on top of the suitcase in the hall.

Dottie never understands how the ride east feels longer than the ride west.

-

The Peaches are in Racine, for the final game of the World Series. The series is tied and Kit's scheduled to pitch, and it will be ugly. Jimmy isn't sure he has any motivation left for himself, much less to give to the girls, but he tries because that's his job.

But there is Dottie, when he turns around. Bright-eyed and in a sparkling clean uniform. Even her glove seems conditioned, polished. He blinks, as if to clear his vision. "Where did you come from?"

She laughs at him. She hardly knows. Yesterday she woke up to milk cows, and today she's here, pads on, catching Ellen Sue's fastball in the bullpen.

He stares at her, looks over at Alice with her broken fingers and weary face, looks back at Dottie. "Who says you can play?" he says. And it's pitched just so that Dottie believes he doesn't want her here after all, and she's almost hurt. If it wasn't for the lift of his chin, the "I dare you" look in his eyes.

She shrugs and calls his bluff. "You don't want me to play? Fine. Then I won't play."

That does it. He calls her back. "Well, if you want to play. I don't care."

"Fine then. I'll play."

It's the best game of baseball anywhere, played with more passion and talent than even the most critical sportswriter has seen, and the Peaches are going to win it, it's just about over! Jimmy gets a knot in his stomach and he's ready to break out champagne, and there goes Kit Keller of the Racine Belles charging around third and heading for home, and the headlines just write themselves.

That is the sweet spot, he thinks, even as the ball drops from Dottie's hand.

-

Dottie discovered the sweet spot when she was fifteen.

Kit always wanted to skip out of work, play a little ball with the boys, and when their folks figured out that punishing her wouldn't work, they made Dottie go with her. At first Dottie watched. Then one day, they were short a player, and stuck the stuffed flour sack on her so she could play catcher. And then it was her turn at the plate. She held the bat awkwardly at first - endured the snickers and taunts from the other team. Kit's voice behind her urged "higher, hold it higher, put your hands together" and at second, the base runner hit his hips once and turned to the side, mouthing something unintelligible. The pitcher thought he had her. Two outs, one on, he didn't have to throw anything too special, but he ran up the count anyway, 2-0. And Dottie found out with the next swing what joy was. A fastball, right down the middle, and the sound that rang out felt like it came from her hands, her arms, her gut.

Kit's voice was louder than the rest, "Run, Dottie! Run!" It was unnecessary. The first ball Dottie Keller ever hit was a home run. Deep to left. They only found it the next day.

Kit screamed and the boys yelled their approval, and it was joy, it was exhilaration, it was the sweet spot.

Later, as she tells Jimmy the story, she admits she'd never told Bob about it. "He wouldn't have understood," she mumbles, not wanting to admit his faults, not when he is gone and never coming back. What's the use? "Baseball...he...Bob wanted to raise cows and kids, maybe in that order, maybe not."

It is the most she has ever said about Bob. Jimmy nods. He doesn't want to understand what she's talking about, but he's seen that look they get, those who think this is a game and nothing more. A faraway look over your shoulder. You tell them about the big one, the game that changed your life, or even just about a squeeze play that won you a three-game set on the road. Their eyes drift and they say "Gosh, that's nice," and when they finally realize you're serious, they smile and change the subject.

He tries to explain it to Dottie, that he gets it. "They never understand. Other people, this isn't much to them. Unless they've felt it, too. The bat, the ball, that feeling in your gut that you're gonna hit it so far they won't find it."

They are on the grounds just days after the Peaches lose the series. This is therapy, Jimmy says, like getting back on a horse when you've fallen. He hands her a bottle and she shakes him off. "Wanna hit a few?" she says, holding the bag they brought.

He nods, because of course he does, even if he's sober as a church mouse.

She winds up and throws a ball, and he swings at it. It is dark, the stadium doesn't have lights, and so maybe it goes deep, maybe not. But that sound.

"Outta here," she says, grinning at him.

He hardly sees her, so great is the euphoria that takes him.

-

That's how they spend the offseason. She sends a letter home saying she's staying put for awhile, and back home some folks say it's because of Bob, because of what happened "over there." It might be. It probably isn't.

"There's no crying in baseball, they say," she writes, "and I'm not one for tears in any case, you know. I'm staying, and I'm going to play. All my love...."

She has a room at the only hotel in town, and Jimmy has one on the floor above her. They play ball together, taking turns hitting, throwing. Sometimes they just play catch. She's a local hero and they get free sandwiches at the diner. Some of the kids still ask for Jimmy's autograph.

Baseball is all they know, all they are. Jimmy has always been this way, for as long as he can remember. He is amazed, even now, that there is another person whose eyes sparkle at the sound the ball makes when it smacks into a glove. It gets inside you, he'd told her, and it is true.

-

Baseball is a summer sport, though, and they are driven inside more than either would wish.

They play dominos and make up card games. Jimmy loses to her a lot. He's okay with that. "You can make it up to me during the season," he says. "Someone else can lose to you then."

She smiles and they keep on, but they both ache for spring. It is a fact of life, he says, as much as three strikes is an out. They are creatures meant to mourn in winter, and baseball is the only cure.

Snows howl in Illinois. No one ever told him that.

-

"The truth is you didn't mean to let go of that ball."

"We're back to this again? What does it matter?"

It is cold, even for February, even for Illinois in February. She'd stayed - to his amusement, to his wonder - and she is prepared for the cold. He is less so. He prefers Florida in the winter.
His teeth chatter as he answers. "It matters because you want to play again. It matters because you won that game, it was over until that ball rolled. You wouldn't do that on purpose, Dottie. I know you. You love the win too much."

She unwraps a scarf from around her neck and hands it to him. He stares at it and she scoffs, then steps forward and wraps it around his neck. "You're cold."
He shrugs. "You're a liar."

She steps back and looks away, out at the sunset. They'd played a game of catch earlier, keeping as warm as they could. Jimmy hates being cooped up - hates four walls, all day, no fresh air. She indulged him, and they'd played too long, as they were apt to do. Of course the World Series came up. It would again, too. This same argument.

"Would you have let go? If she was your sister?"

"If she was my sister we wouldn't have been playing each other for a world championship."

She holds back her fury over that truth, because she never has told him how it hurts that she's good enough in a skirt but no more. But he's cornered her and she has to say something. "Alright, well, I can't answer you, Jimmy. What happened, happened," she says. She throws her hands up. "I was exhausted, I was pissed, and so was she. It doesn't matter whether I meant to do it. She won. The baseball gods willed it. That's the fact. It just happened. You're the one who always talks about baseball breaking your heart and you know, it's over."

She is shouting by the last bit. Jimmy comes up to her and puts his hand on her cheeks. "Hey, hey, okay. No need to get worked up. I get it, I do."

She looks down, and they stay like that till the light is gone and they must go in or freeze.

-

Their first kiss is at home plate, as he works with her on her swing.

"Hips..."

"Yes..."

And it is breathtaking, warm and promising. It is opening day and they will have a great season. It is the Fourth of July and there is lemonade and the fireworks are so bright this year. It is a rainout just when they need one.

"All of that?"

"And more."

They kiss again.

-

She is one of the greats, they all say. A real athlete, a great gal, a star. It is hard to remember she's a dame, say the papers, and others lament that she is, because she could compete in the bigs if she wasn't wearing a skirt.

The sportswriters like Mae and Ellen Sue and they lament Betty leaving the game, and they argue about who is better, the Peaches or the Belles, but there isn't any real contest. A few are surprised when Dottie signs for a second season in Rockford and all are relieved.

They all forget Kit in the next season as Dottie Hinson sets records and makes even the men cringe about her prowess at and behind the plate. She hits thirty-two homeruns that season, two on June 6 alone, and they all think the war will end soon. It's another season before that happens but right now, anything is possible, and that's what the announcer yells when Dottie hits a grand slam on August 5.

"Baseball will conquer the world," says Roger Terwilliger in the Rockford Express that week. "When this war is over, baseball will be waiting, thanks to the young women of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. We are all a little better for their playing, as each hit is for the boys who will never hit again, whose eyes are closed to the green fields and promises made under the summer sun. We are all Rockford Peaches, in that way. We are all doing our part for those who no longer can."

Dottie believes it. Every time she hits the ball that season, she thinks briefly of Bob, and imagines it's for him, for all the boys who could never hit again. And then it's for Jimmy, because it's his shout of encouragement behind her.

Thirty-two, and then two in the World Series, where they beat Kenosha in four straight.

-

"What does it feel like to win the World Series, Mrs. Hinson?"

She smiles. "Ever hear of the sweet spot, Mr. Terwilliger?"

Off to the side, Jimmy watches her and if part of him envies her, a greater part wants all this and more for her alone.

-

They are good together. On the field, in the dugout, elsewhere.

He gets that feeling again. Of fullness, of joy.

They are baseball players, who know that seasons end, and trades are made, and sometimes a good week is hitting two out of ten. What they've got, it's a season, one of many, maybe less. Dottie gets a look in her eyes sometimes, when she thinks Jimmy isn't watching, and he supposes she'll be the first to go. Hop a train, leave him with a note and her glove. But it keeps going and she's still there in the morning, every morning, and so he forgets to worry. He wants it to last.

If it does, it is because of her, too. Dottie wants to feel the sun on her neck in high summer, her hair sticking to her cheeks in the eighth inning. She wants the smell of the ballpark and the dirt staining her clothes. And she wants Jimmy. So there is that.

They play catch on the fields when everyone's gone home, just as they've always done. She looks right at him when she catches the ball, when he throws it, and she shakes her head, just ever so slightly. She doesn't drop the ball.

Jimmy imagines that they will leave all this together, walk away from the game for good at the same time, waving their little hats, while the gettin's good and the balls plentiful.

He can believe in that, because it is, after all, baseball.

-

-

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." - Rogers Hornsby