The young batter stands at the plate, squinting into the late afternoon sun, a nuclear disaster that is normally 93 million miles away but today seems to be hovering just 300 feet above the Earth, directly over right field actually, touching the trees and melting the edges of the outfield. A pitcher's sun. The orange monster.
"Tough sun," one of the mothers says.
"That might help our pitchers."
"I hope so," a mother says.
The pitchers' moms huddle tight in the bleachers. They are like those astronaut wives in "Apollo 13," thinking positive thoughts no matter what the prospects, nervously twisting their wedding bands and inhaling sharply with every windup, attempting to guide the pitch over the plate by sheer willpower.
One by one, their sons take the mound to pitch. Sometimes for three innings. Sometimes for one or two. Sometimes the boy lasts only part of an inning, giving up hit after hit before the coach walks slowly to the mound to hand the ball to a new pitcher.
"He's doing great," a woman says, trying to comfort the pitcher's mom, the mother of the moment.
"Yeah, he only gave up four runs," the pitcher's mom says grimly.
"Lucky hits," her friend says, patting her gently on the back. "All lucky hits."
Call them the Moms of Summer, the mothers whose sons go to war once or twice a week on baseball diamonds across America.
As the fathers stand stoically in the dugout, the Moms of Summer cringe with every line drive or bloop single that falls in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They sit in little clusters in the bleachers, reassuring each other and sharing things only they know. Joy. Pain. Heartbreak. Occasional contractions. Because to them, watching their sons play hardball is like the final stage of childbirth, the one they never tell you about in Lamaze class.
"Oh no, he's going to pitch," a mother says, spotting her son warming up.
"He'll do fine," another mother assures her.
"That's what you said last time," the mother says.
The mother looks at her nails, then at her son, then at her nails again.
"Don't bite your nails, Mom," her lovely and patient older daughter warns.
I know this mom pretty well. She used to work with the boy in the yard when he was younger, throwing him popups and teaching him to dive for the ball, to sail over the sprinkler heads and skid across the new sod to make great catches.
"Use two hands," she'd tell the boy. "And try not to get your clothes dirty."
And she'd throw him popups for half an hour, then a half-hour more, because 30 minutes wasn't enough.
"Good catch, Mickey Mantle," she'd say, and her little boy would flip the ball back to her and trot proudly back for the next throw.
Now 12, he throws too hard for her. And the little popups she used to throw . . . well, he laughs at them. Apparently he's outgrown frontyard popups.
"I want to get married on the mound," the boy told me one day recently.
"Today?" I asked.
"No, maybe in a few years," he said.
He had heard about a St. Louis pitcher who got married on the mound. So that's what he'd like to do, preferably in his uniform, preferably between games of a July doubleheader, in which he'd pitch the second game for the Dodgers--maybe striking out McGwire a couple of times--before taking off to honeymoon in Disney World.
But first he has to pitch today.
"Just throw strikes," his mother says as he takes the mound to face the other team's biggest kid.
As 12-year-olds go, the batter is a giant, broad-shouldered and tall, big as some of the dads. When he walks to the plate, steam seems to rise all around him, like it does for swamp creatures and religious resurrections.
The pitcher's mother immediately considers pulling her son out of the game and moving to North Dakota or some other cold Plains state where the baseball season lasts about five days, a place where baseball is easier on a mom.
"Just throw strikes," she calls to her son in the meantime.
The other mothers are clustered around her now, offering their support and little sips of water, hoping she'll hold up in this important game.
It is late now, about the time it was in Mudville when Casey struck out. The Moms of Summer take note of this. At some point in their sons' baseball careers, every mother has a Casey at the plate. Or on the mound. Sooner or later in baseball, everybody fails at some key moment.
So the pitcher's mother watches through her fingers and inhales sharply with every pitch.
"Strike One!" the umpire shouts.
And for a moment, the Moms of Summer all smile.