What Does Phil Niekro See?

by Patrick Dubuque

philPhil Niekro sees Bob Horner, crouching uneasily at third awaiting the pitch, sees the rippling powder blue of his oversized, wrinkled pullover. And in it he sees the ocean.

He hears the crowds rolling like waves, pleasant baseball cries like seagulls signaling a long-sought shore. He hears distant shanties, shapeless and rhythmic, beating at the pulse like a whip. He feels the warmth of the sunlight baked into his neck like a memory. He smells it, too, the sharp relief of saltwater, a purity so uninterrupted that it loses its flavor. It’s so thick, the air, sometimes, that he has to rub it from his eyes.

As he opens them again he sees the rolling red tide wash over the sides of the boat, hears the harsh nasal tones of the bosun shouting words he and the others do not hear and already know, his arms aching with hours of rowing. He can taste the whale, soft and plaint under jaws too tired to chew, the flavor of red meat straining through his teeth and into his cheeks, rich and red like bison. He sees the glint of the morning sun on its skeleton hung from the mast, gleaming white as his own hair. He feels the heavy blanket of endless afternoon.

Elsewhere Alan Wiggins slaps a double into the gap, and Phil Niekro hears musketfire, the confusion of the port, the hissing of cannons and the cries of panicked, bleeding sailors. He sees the cannoneers work in tandem, eyes lowered, filling and loading and firing in syncopated rhythm, while a blackened body sits empty on the deck beside. He feels the ship tack to avoid the incoming fire, waits for the splinters of shorn wood to find a leg or a lung. His arm throbs from some forgotten wound. The air is invisible now, drowned in smoke, the voices dulled to a single black throb of anguish.

There is a cry – is it victory? Surrender? In the darkness, he cannot tell. Until Chris Chambliss shoves his shoulder and the other players are standing with their arms raised and he knows that he is still alive, and that the sky is powder blue.