The Last Pitch on the Last Mound

Miguel could not even hear himself think. Let’s Go Bucs. Let’s Go Bucs. Let’s Go Bucs.The crowd roared as the umpire signaled for the second strike of the count. It was the top of the ninth, the last inning, or Miguel hoped it would be. Do or die for the visiting New York Yankees. The Pirates miraculously clung to a 1-0 lead for eight and half innings and the Yankees were down to their final three batters. “Strike three, batter’s out!” the umpire roared. Cheers throughout the sold-out stadium sent tremors through the ground. Miguel clutched his mop nervously, for the Pirates had just gotten the ninth, and the weakest, batter out for the Yankees. The top two, and most dangerous, hitters were coming up. But Miguel knew the Pirates pitcher could handle any adversary. El Martillo, they called him. The hammer. The grizzled veteran from Mexico earned this name because he was the closer, the relief pitcher sent in to preserve a lead and end the game in the ninth. And El Martillo did just that. He was the hammer that nailed the coffin for the opposing team. When El Martillo was called in from the bullpen, his walk-up song was Icky Thump. The song from the White Stripes was perfect for the Latino ballplayer. As he warmed up, the same lyrics were played every time, “White Americans, what? Nothing better to do? / Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant too?”  It always fired up the crowd. Even the white Americans. As El Martillofaced the next batter, Miguel looked at the pitcher’s mound and saw that El Martello’s foot had churned it up as he pitched each time. While the ballpark grounds crew often dragged the mound to keep it smooth as a stone, Miguel found something familiar with the roughness of it now. It reminded him of a mound in a neighborhood in Mexico, not far from his house.

Miguelito, don’t let your foot fly out like that,” Miguel’s father said. “Sorry, papa,” Miguel replied. Miguel walked back to the mound. Not the pristine mound surrounded by precision-cut grass in PNC Park, but a rough, dirt mound in Mexico. “De nuevo.”  Again. “Yes, papa.”  Miguel was twelve and his father, although rather rough himself, saw greatness in his son. Miguel was known in his neighborhood to be the best pitcher. His signature high leg kick and long and snappy arm motion was feared among local batters. However, his curveball was the killer. At twelve years old, many boys had never had a curveball thrown at them and coupled with an above-average fastball it was unhittable. All of the parents and coaches whispered about Miguel with reverence. “He is going to the Grandes Ligas,” they said. The Big Leagues. The American Leagues. And even Miguel thought he had a chance. That was before his killer curveball blew out his elbow and he was sidelined for a year. Miguel’s family was poor and he did not receive the right rehab his arm needed. When he was cleared by his father to throw again, his arm simply wasn’t the same. Since baseball was out of the question, Miguel quit playing after high school and got a job. His family was one of the lucky few that immigrated to the United States legally, and he found himself in Pittsburgh. As he had a high school education there were some better paying jobs available, but Miguel could not pass up the opportunity to work in a Major League baseball park. Even though that work entailed cleaning the public urinals. Miguel was suddenly snapped back to reality after another cheer erupted from the sold-out stadium.

The Yankees were down to their last batter. El Martillo, standing stout at six feet four inches tall, betrayed no emotion. He was well into the latter part of his baseball career, yet his first fastball blew right past the batter.  Strike one. Miguel was ecstatic inside, yet he, too, did not show it on his face. He was looking into the eyes of El Martillo, as if he had a staring contest with the Pirates’ closer. Even though Pittsburgh was not his hometown, he fell in love with the city when he first came and has since adopted it as his own. Affectionate fans that who have known Miguel during his long career in PNC Park call him “Miggy,” like the Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera. The next pitch. The Yankee made contact with a high curveball and sent a sharp line drive down the left field line. Foul ball, barely. The fans took a collective sigh and then rejoiced. El Martillo was neither mad nor happy. Miguel thought that El Martillo took the last pitch as it was, a strike. And El Martillo’s sole focus in life in that moment was the next pitch. All seemed silent; no one wanted to disturb the quiet yet tense atmosphere that descended over the ballpark when El Martillo threwthe next pitch. After the game, sports networks showed slow-motion videos of the pitch, the last pitch of season and the best one, they were calling it, but Miguel didn’t need that, he saw it. Every bit of it, as soon as it left El Martillo’s hand to when the bat swung all too late and missed to when it make the sweet satisfying sound when a ball hits the glove of the catcher perfectly.

There were cheers and celebrations and riots. It was Pittsburgh’s first World Series win since 1979. Years of losses, dashed hopes, promising playoff runs, it had all culminated in the perfect throw by El Martillo. What was Miguel doing that glorious night after the game?  Looking upon the field from the nosebleed section of the ballpark. There had been so much trash to clean up that management gave the janitors a night off and told them they could clean it up at a later time. But Miguel decided to stay. He didn’t care that he was picking up the trash of some fan or cleaning up a toilet in the men’s bathroom, as long as he could make the moment last. It was nearing two o’clock; and Miguel was the last soul in the ballpark. Most would say a sad scene, for a foul smell had followed the trash being piled up in the corners of the stadium. All of the stores and restaurants were shuttered. Miguel was wrapping his work up when he saw it. The mound. For some reason, it had yet to be covered by the grounds crew. It was not the pristine mound of a major league stadium Miguel saw; it was his mound, the rough dirt one in Mexico. Something drew him to it. There was a ball sitting in the Pirates’ dugout. Miguel dropped his mop and picked up the ball. He made his way confidently across the now torn-up foul line and on to his mound. There he faced home plate, went into his windup with his signature high leg kick and his snappy arm motion and delivered the real last pitch of the season.

back to issue