Billy Sibley was terrifying.
We all knew he had major heat, especially for a twelve year old. We were a good team of base-hitters, but we hadn’t faced power on the mound yet. Billy was known for speed, but inconsistent accuracy, especially early in the game. The strategy was to hug the plate, shrink the strike zone, take walks, drop a few bunts, and hope for extra bases on the occasional wild pitch.
I was the lead-off hitter and, technically, I did my job in the first inning. I got on base. But on a deeper level, Billy won the opening at bat, and with it the entire game. It started with four words just before the opening pitch.
“I’m gonna hit you.”
I did a double take as we passed each other to our respective dugouts after handshakes to be sure he actually said something so brazen and threatening. He did.
I told my teammates about it while getting my bat and helmet. Nobody knew if he was trash talking or prophesying.
It wasn’t a bluff.
I stepped into the box and the first pitch hit me square on the left cheek before I could back out. I almost dropped, but managed to wobble to first base for my freebie. That was about the closest to scoring we’d get.
The rest of the game, our plate-crowding strategy was abandoned on instinct. We stood stiffly on the outer edge of the batter’s box and watched. We might have gotten a few walks, maybe a even a few hits, I don’t remember. What I do remember is the whole team being stunned into submission by an already scary guy who told the lead-off hitter he was going to hit him, then did on the first pitch. Right in the face. Hard.
Billy played to his greatest strength. Not his fastball, but his reputation. He was a small legend in the 10-12 year old league. He knew we’d be nervous. He knew his early stuff was unpredictable. He knew we were a stingy small-ball team. He kept his game plan simple: scare the shit out of them to expand the strike zone and own the game.
He didn’t need great stuff that night. He only needed to do two things: tell me he’d hit me, and do it.
Sometimes winning the battle on the level of narrative is more important than winning on facts.