Watershed

The sun low over Phoenix. (Photo via midiman)

This piece is appearing as part of a fiction series here at The Hardball Times. We’re thrilled to highlight the baseball-related fiction of seven talented authors and think you’ll enjoy these works, curated by Jason Linden and Amy Ryan, as much as we did.

i. The desert

The basin lay in shadow. The sun was just hitting the eastern horizon—first the orange haze bending over the mountains, then streaks of red slipping through the jagged silhouettes as blue light scattered gently into the air above.

I zipped up my jacket. The sweat that had built up on the jog up the crumbling service road turned cold in the air atop Shaw Butte. Overhead, satellite receivers clung to the jumble of radio towers. Below, the road twisted around the back of the summit past the burned out foundation of the old Cloud Nine restaurant that had once occupied the mountain.

At the desert floor, a hiking path traced the edge of a dry creek bed through the corridor between Shaw Butte and North Mountain. Low brush and mesquite bunched up along the banks, while saguaro and cholla kept watch over the last remaining wilds of north Phoenix.

Between the two mountains, you couldn’t tell you were in a city. From higher up, the patchwork of neighborhoods twisted about the valley’s contours. Cement canals and golf courses and one-story houses stretched out in all directions. At night, everything bundled together like Christmas lights pulled straight out of storage and plugged in. Through that tangled mesh, the highway cut a line due south through the city. Patches of darkness revealed themselves through their shapes: parks, schools, athletic fields, mountains.

At the bottom, though, surrounded by dust and rock, even the sounds of the city were gone. In their stead, lizards and birds rustled about through the scorched foliage. Rarely, a coyote or bobcat might appear as it scavenged the small strips of desert for food.

There was any number of ways up or down each mountain. Most were nearly always vacant as long as you avoided the service roads. This early, though, it was rare to see more than a handful of other hikers either way, and the quickest way to and from the high school was through a path that joined up with the road near the base of the climb.

The sun was nearly clear of the mountains. The street lamps below had clicked off, and red and blue and beige sedans and utility vehicles replaced the paired starbursts beaming along their morning commutes.

Before heading back down, I stared across at the neighboring peak and tried to make out which was higher. It was just cold enough that my shoulder began to ache.

ii. Batting practice, banjos

The group of boys slowed at the far end of the field and, one by one, reached up to touch the right field foul pole. One by one they piled up against each other, one by one turned and made their way through the huddle of shoulders, and one by one funneled back into the glistening outfield until the whole train was moving again in the opposite direction. Next to me on the dugout bench, their coach sipped coffee from his brushed steel tumbler.

“You go up the mountain this morning?” he asked, setting his coffee down on the bench.

I stretched out my back. “Yeah. Had a pretty good sunrise.”

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“Haven’t been up there in years. Now this little one I could do.” He laughed as he looked up at the hill beyond left field where the school’s initials were laid out in slabs of quartz. “Sure brings back memories, though, running up that thing.”

“Yeah.” I continued to stretch. “We used to do the same thing up in Missoula, too.”

When I’d arrived in Montana, they’d just built a new stadium settled up against the mountains there. From the ground, they almost looked the same as they do here. Not if you really looked at them, of course, but at a glance. From the top, though, you’d never mistake Phoenix for Missoula. I doubt if two places could ever really look the same from that height. Even just in Arizona, looking down from the mountains in Phoenix was nothing like looking down from Sedona or Flagstaff, or from those small mountain towns up the narrow roads off the highway.

“What was the name of that band you used to have up there?”

“The Grand Ole Osprey.”

“That’s the one. I remember that time I went to see you pitch and the seventh-inning stretch they start passing around that bucket and people start putting money in, and I’m thinking ‘What in the hell is going on here?’ And out of the dugout come these ballplayers in uniform dragging banjos and guitars and whatever the hell that stringed bucket thing was.”

“Washtub bass.”

“Washtub bass. Never seen one before in my life, let alone on a ball field.”

“I think we made more money that summer playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ than we did playing baseball.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it, the way they paid you guys up there. I tell you, as soon as I saw that little one-bedroom you all were sharing with the cots leaned up against the wall, that was the last time I had second thoughts about taking the scholarship.”

I laughed. “That was a good band. Only had one banjo, though.”

“Heh.” He stood up. “That’s plenty enough for me.”

I got up and started stretching out my arm as we left the dugout. He headed out to where the kids were scooping up their gloves along the left field line while I dragged the pitching screen and bucket of baseballs to the front of the mound.

iii. Roads diverged in a wood

There’s a spring in Wyoming, somewhere up in the Teton Mountains, where the water bubbles up directly atop the Continental Divide. Half goes west, draining down through the Snake River into the Columbia and out to sea in the Pacific Northwest. The other half flows east, eventually finding its way into the Missouri, where it is carried across the Great Plains and down to the Mississippi River Delta.

The place where rivers change their course. Nanci Griffith sang about it on one of her albums. It was the kind of thing the Grand Ole Osprey would play.

It was that summer after I graduated that I found the spring. I’d driven up through the Rockies to hike the great evergreen forests, and there it was amongst all those tall, straight pines pointed up toward the sky.

Bolted to one of those pines where the stream splits is a sign. When I came upon it, the edges were showing signs of rot, and the wood was split from left to right. Around the sign, flashes of metal peered through holes in the bark where the sapwood had not quite finished knotting around the bolts of previous signs.

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I stared at the sign, and at the stream. I looked down one way as far as I could to where it bent into the trees. The stones cropping up from the water had been worn smooth where the current swirled around them. And then the other direction, where the water mumbled about between the shadows and sunlight making its way slowly to the ocean. Both ways looked about the same.

I still hadn’t decided which offer to take. I’d tried to get it out of my head for a few days, but even out there in the wild it kept creeping back in.

Suddenly, I noticed an aspen leaf stuck in my hair, unseasonably yellow for that early in the summer. I tossed it into the water and watched it drift toward the divide. Three thousand four hundred eighty eight miles to the Atlantic, or one thousand three hundred fifty three to the Pacific—which way would it go?

I was transfixed. Which way would it go? The image of the sign pointing to each end of the continent came into my head: one way to Tempe, the other to Missoula. Which way would it go?

I stood and watched the ochre glint dart and crawl about the spiraling eddies, and for the first time I noticed the sounds of the mountain: the clear babbling of the water, the low whisper of pine needles in the breeze far overhead, the distant clattering of a woodpecker, and the intermittent calls of songbirds.

iv. Wind sprints

He introduced himself as Jaime.

Jaime was a freshman, probably the smallest kid on the team. He stood next to me behind the screen while I threw, fielding lobs and dumping the balls back into the bucket as they were shagged down. Dirt from the mound stuck to the dew on his running shoes.

Jaime wanted to know everything about professional baseball. He wanted to know who the best hitter I ever faced was, what minor league clubhouses were like, if I could tell which players were destined for the majors when I played against them. He asked if I thought the slider or curveball was more effective as an off-speed pitch, and how many pitchers at that level toyed around with a knuckleball on the side.

“You know, your coach got drafted too,” I told him.

“Yeah, but he never signed.” His interest continued. “You ever get a hit off a famous pitcher?”

“Never even went to the plate. Everything’s DH in the low minors.” I thought for a second. “Did hit a home run off of Mel Stottlemyre once, though.”

“Mel Stottlemyre? How’d that happen?”

“He was our pitching coach up in Missoula. We were screwing around after practice one day having him throw us BP, and I got a hold of one just inside the foul pole. None of the pitchers had to do sprints the next day.”

He grinned. “Hey, coach, if I can get a hit off him pitching for real, can we skip sprints after school?”

Their coach seemed amused at our conversation. “Sure thing. You only get one shot at it, though.”

He ran to get a bat from the dugout. I pushed the screen out of the way and stepped onto the mound. As I started into my windup, I wondered how long it had been since I’d gone through those motions.

It was just for show, though. There was nothing there, none of the old bite. I maybe got it up to 85 mph. He popped it off the handle into shallow right.

“That counts!” he yelled, half smiling and half gritting his teeth as he shook his hands, his bat still ringing from the vibration.

“All right,” his coach shook his head. “It counts.”

v. Mountain views

I stared across at North Mountain. You’d never think it, but the city looks surprisingly different from over there. Each peak blocks off from the other the neighborhoods that encroach on the lower slopes of the preserve, giving different tints to the surrounding area. The streets, the houses, the parks and convenience stores and canals—everything ties together just differently enough to feel off.

You can’t see the high school from North Mountain. Instead, it looms over the foothills to the southeast that link up with the other mountains to form a chain across the city.

It’s harder to get a full view of the city from there. Almost the whole crest is fenced in, leaving just enough space to lean up against the chain link as the next hiker squeezes past. The vista from Shaw Butte opens up to the south with sweeping views of the city, melding everything from the central skyscrapers to the red rocks east of downtown to the football stadium far out to the west into a single panorama. Further down, the Cloud Nine foundation serves as a makeshift viewing deck overlooking the city.

On North Mountain, everything feels more immediate. The resort in the hills across the street, the trails that weave for miles through the city to connect to Piestewa Peak—spots of desert anchoring the setting that are invisible from Shaw Butte. Just below the summit, down one of the ridgeline trails under a dried out bush tree, a natural seat in the rock points out toward the northwestern edge of the valley, away from the views of Shaw Butte.

I originally began stopping at the bush-tree as a final respite on the steep climb up that particular trail, but it is probably the best place to stop on the mountain. Walled in on either side of the preserve, through the gaps you can see the desert blend into urban sprawl before you and then slowly fade back into desert toward the indigo-shifted peaks in the distance. It would be the perfect place to watch the sun set if it didn’t mean having to navigate the uneven mountainside in the dark.

But that was another place. When I turned to head back down the service road, I noticed a handful of other hikers making their way up. I stretched out my shoulder and watched them climb, carried along like leaves on the water.


Adam Dorhauer grew up a third-generation Cardinals fan in Missouri, and now lives in Ohio. His writing on baseball focuses on the history of the game, as well as statistical concepts as they apply to baseball. Visit his website, 3-D Baseball.

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