Signs of the Times

This article was written by Cecilia Tan

This article was published in The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)

Jerry slings the baseball to me from his crouch, and I can barely hear his “Come on, Sal!” over the noise of the crowd and the L-Pop walk-up music for the hitter coming to the plate. I’m trying not to look toward first, where a very smug Hector Martinez is trotting up the line, courtesy of the base on balls I just handed to him.

Hector, you smarmy bastard, enjoy being the answer to the trivia question who was the first batter walked by a female pitcher in the American League? The Fenway faithful are howling for blood—my blood. They’re probably not even sexists, most of them; they’ll put down an opposing player for any reason. Heck, most of them even cheered when I was announced. They’re baseball savvy. They know they’re seeing history.

They still want to win, though. I wander down the back of the mound, rubbing at the baseball. It’s a chilly April night; I can see my breath in the stadium lights and the ball feels like ice. The weather shield keeps out excessive heat and wind; it doesn’t do anything for the cold. We’re up 5-2 in the sixth. The bullpen is gassed from the doubleheader yesterday in which I warmed up four times but never made it in.

I know that’s why I’m the first one out of the ’pen today. Matchups, our pitching coach, Oliver Barnes, said when I got to the mound. It’s all about matchups. But I can’t help feeling like the kid picked last off the bench. Little League has allowed girls since my grandmother’s era, but when you’re the only girl, being last comes with the territory. I remind myself that the way I’ve made it, at every level, is by succeeding once they let me on the field. Now’s not the time to start doubting. This game gives every player a million reasons to doubt themselves, and the ones who succeed are the ones who don’t. Come on, Sal.

Thank goodness they did away with the “time between pitches” clock in the big leagues, because it feels like I’m taking forever. They replaced it with a rule that once the pitcher’s foot is on the rubber, he— the rulebooks literally still say “he,” even though the first woman in the National League debuted ten years ago—has to deliver the pitch within 10 seconds or it’s a ball. Assuming the batter is in the box, that is. Complicating things further, this year they added back two allowed pickoff attempts per at bat, but anything other than that—sneeze, twitch, whatever—and it’s a balk.

No way am I balking Martinez to second. There are two outs already. To put us back in the dugout with the lead intact, I just have to get one guy out.

That guy is Kip Janssen. Of course it is. He’s the only Dutch player in the league right now, which makes him kind of an oddity, but they don’t use words like oddity when you’re slugging over .600; they use words like Ruthian. He waggles the bat over the plate and does that thing with his tongue I used to think was funny, but now seems downright disgusting. I know he does it to all the pitchers, not just me, but maybe it’s no wonder he also leads the league in hit by pitch.

The rest of the pitchers probably didn’t have to deal with him bragging to their minor league teammates that he slept with them, though. The only reason the guys believed me, and not the big-leaguer on rehab, was that his shit-talking was already so legendary.

Kip’s mouth is moving—talking to Jerry or the umpire. Or both. Probably telling them he knows what’s coming because he mentored me when I was coming up through the minors or something. He was only in Louisville for a week, and for the record we did stay late in the VR batting cage one night, but I not only turned down his advances, I didn’t learn anything about pitching from him.

Because Kip doesn’t know shit about pitching. Jerry knows it. I can see his eyes roll even shadowed by his mask. I come set. The moment my foot is touching the rubber and the batter steps into the box, I hear the little click of Jerry’s helmet mic coming on. We get 10 seconds to communicate before I have to throw. I resist the urge to fiddle with my earbug, because that would be a balk, and I’m grateful it cuts down some of the whine from the camera drones overhead. I expect to hear Jerry call the pitch.

But what he says is, “Sally. You got this.” Jerry’s a good guy. He kind of has to be: backup catchers can’t be assholes or they wouldn’t keep their jobs. Like me, he went undrafted out of college, and had to prove himself in indie ball. After the major-league expansion of 2030, he made the jump; I signed five years later, but there are critics who’ll say the same thing about us both: without expansion diluting the talent pool, we wouldn’t even be here. That’s what Boston’s scouting director told me when they traded me from Louisville to Aberdeen. Maybe he didn’t believe it, but he couldn’t come out and tell me they were shipping me out because of the “rumor” I’d slept with a teammate. The closest he came to admitting that was some vague, paternalistic “advice” about keeping my wits about me or some horseshit.

Keeping my wits about me right now means keeping my eyes on Jerry. I see his hand move—his pinky extends. Our visual sign for fastball away. There are rumors that the Red Sox have hacked catcher audio at Fenway; why take the chance? I shake him off. I’m a lefty, Kip’s a lefty, and I know I can beat him in. Jerry’s eyes are incredulous that I’m shaking him off. Rookies aren’t supposed to do that to veterans, but I just stare over the top of my glove. Kip’s got too much power the other way, he’ll just double off the Green Monster…

Except I’ve got to stop thinking that way or I’ll beat myself. Jerry relents: we’re coming inside. I pitch like I always do, dropping down sidearm. I give him my best “lefty laredo,” but between the unfamiliar mound and my cold, damp fingers—I swear I didn’t mean to—I plunk Kip Janssen right in his meaty thigh and he makes a noise like a surprised donkey.

Two men on. This is not the way anyone imagines their big league debut is going to go when they do their positive visualization exercises. I can’t even glance toward the dugout. Barny and Kratz, the skipper, must be beside themselves. I don’t want to let them down. Barny’s been great. He coached a college team once that had a female walk-on player. He told me that to try to put me at ease, I think, like it was no big deal to him who I was, but it only really highlighted to me that women who break through into men’s college baseball are still on the rare side. There are 10-20 a year, which sounds like a lot until you realize there are over 10,000 players in Division I baseball alone.

Somehow over the crowd noise and drones and music, I can hear Kip Janssen greeting our team captain, Paul Corso, with a booming, “Hey, Paulie!” as he reaches first base. Of course they know each other from All-Star Games. Corso’s been vocally supportive of me in the press, but he hasn’t really said much to me personally, outside of when we practiced pickoffs a few weeks ago. You’d think it would chap my ass to see him fraternizing with Janssen at a moment like this.

The tying run is coming to the plate, and my catcher is coming to the mound. I finally do it— I glance at the dugout—but it’s only Jerry coming to talk to me, no coaches. Barny and Kratz look stoic over there, wearing their poker faces. Three batter minimum—blessing or curse?

“What’s going on?” Jer asks, glove over his mouth so the lipreaders can’t see or make a meme out of him. I think they should just make the catcher mic live all the time, but MLB—and some of the catchers themselves—have resisted that. “You nervous?”

“No, I’m giddy as a goat at a square dance,” I deadpan, and I can tell his glove is hiding a smile. If I’m doing sarcastic impressions of our Alabama-raised bench coach, I must be okay.

“Attaboy. I mean, girl,” he says, and bops me on the shoulder with his glove before he jogs back to home plate.

The mound visit did help me catch my breath. I’m not calm, but I can act like I am, and sometimes that’s the same thing. It’s hardly the first jam I’ve had to get out of, right? The next hitter is a guy I saw play as a kid. The ovation for him is deafening. He’s a Boston favorite, Xander Bogaerts, currently the oldest guy in the majors and a fan favorite, ever since he returned to the Sox after that disastrous trade to Atlanta. He’s 49 years old, one of the last of the guys who got methylation and anti-glycation before anti-aging treatments were outlawed by MLB, and he’s more popular than ever.

He’s a tall righty, thicker around the middle that he was when I saw him play as a kid. My mom chaperoned my whole travel soccer team to the Northeast regional tournament in Boston when I was ten and took us all to a game at Fenway, back before they built the overhead weather shield. At the time I’d just thought it was cool his name started with the letter X and that Mom let us have real meat hot dogs. I wonder if they still serve those or if they’ve gone to plant-based dogs like every other park by now?

I try to imagine Xander’s got X’s for eyes, like a knocked-out boxer in an old cartoon. He’s in the box. My foot’s on the rubber. Jerry clears his throat but says nothing, just drops a series of signs. They’re fake, just there to distract Martinez who’s trying to steal them from second. The bop on my shoulder was the signal for what we’re going to do.

Kip takes his lead. As a lefty, I can see his every move. He’s still jawing away. So is Paulie. That’s it. Laugh it up. I turn my head to focus on Jerry.

My high hard fastball isn’t as hard as some, but coming from my arm angle to a righty, it looks very tempting. And it is. It tempts Bogaerts to swing.

And miss. Strike one. I hear Janssen bray from first base. Jerry slings the ball right back to me and I get right on the rubber. Bogaerts can’t leave the box and we’re going to come right after him before his brain has a chance to process my delivery. It’s not quickpitching, not really, but for a guy who came up in the era when every batter tried to make himself a human rain delay, it must seem quick. At least, that’s the hope. I change arm angles slightly to spot the pitch on the outer half of the plate. Strike two. Unfortunately, Jerry can’t quite hang on and the ball trickles away. Not enough for the runners to advance, but enough that Bogaerts is allowed to step out.

He fixes his batting gloves and does a knee bend and whatever else. I glance over to first again and I see Paulie bop Janssen companionably on the shoulder. I pretend I didn’t even see that and I focus on Jerry in his crouch. I’m not even looking at the batter as he steps in. Jerry mouths encouragement. Here goes. Just like we practiced. Here goes.

I step and sling the ball to first. Kip is caught flat-footed, his eyes round with surprise in that split-second where he realizes he’s been had. He’s been lulled into a false sense of security by a friendly face, not realizing that Corso had it in for him the whole time. Betrayed by someone you thought was your buddy. He dives back, but all he gets is a whack in the face with the tag, his fingers patting the dirt an inch or two shy of the bag. Inning over.

He lies there in disbelief as the rest of us trot off the field. Paulie’s grin is genuine as he bangs my glove on our way to the dugout. I grin back. I’ll wear my poker face for the media later. I’m sure they’re going to ask about the pickoff. I know what I’ll tell them. A veteran like Janssen should’ve known better. Should’ve been more careful. Should’ve been more cognizant of the consequences. Gotta keep your wits about you. Right? 

CECILIA M. TAN was a professional science fiction writer and editor for two decades before she became SABR’s Publications Director in 2011. Her short stories have previously appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Absolute Magnitude, Strange Horizons, and Ms. Magazine, among many other places. In addition to comma-jockeying for SABR, she has exhibited her baseball editing prowess for various sites and publications, including Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees Annual, and This issue of The National Pastime has given her a rare chance to combine her favorite subjects.