We here find all-star, pro-bound shortstop Henry Skrimshander at rope’s end. With the promise of a record-breaking professional career slipping through his fingers, all big-dollar offers disappearing, the on-the-field errors just continue to mount for Henry, who can’t seem to get a grip on what’s happening to his omega-narrative of baseball glory. What does it mean when your efforts can’t stop the bleeding and, in fact, are making things worse?
The final straw comes on none other than Henry Skrimshander Day, by way of a crucial routine groundball that Henry fields, but then freezes. He cannot throw. He simply freezes, hands the ball off to his pitcher, and walks off the field, to a horrified audience; he disappears. After the game ends, and his friends begin to worry about his whereabouts, Harbach brings the story back to uniformed Henry, treading water in Lake Michigan, all alone in the night sky. Here, alone, all dreams dashed by the last crushing error–he can finally see himself and the erred logic that got him there. Sure enough, it is only in the middle of the sea, in the chaos of one’s wasted perfections, that one finally washes ashore and finds rest.
He turned around to face the campus, those few little lights pricking the distance. He let his bladder go, peed into the water. It calmed his whole body, if only for a moment.
All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little. You ate the food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts–whatever you didn’t need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.
He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he’d ever craved since he’d been born. Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you’d based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it in words? It meant you were crazy.
When the season ended, his teammates, even Schwartzy, gorged themselves on whatever was handy–cigarettes, beer, coffee, sleep, porn, video games, girls, dessert, books. It didn’t matter what they gorged on as long as they were gorging. Gorging didn’t make them feel good, you’d see them wandering around, dazed and bleary, but they were free to gorge and that was what mattered.
Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect. Then the days were sky-blue spaces you moved through with ease. You made sacrifices and the sacrifices made sense. You ate till you were full and then you drank SuperBoost, because every ounce of muscle meant something. You stoked the furnace, fed the machine. No matter how hard you worked, you could never feel harried or hurried, because you were doing what you wanted and so one moment simply produced the next. He’d never understood how his teammates could show up late for practice, or close enough to late that they had to hurry to change clothes. In three years at Westish he’d never changed clothes in a hurry.
He treaded water for a long, long while, feeling and endless spontaneous power unspooling from his limbs. It seemed he could do it forever. Finally he turned toward shore and let his limbs swim him in, aided by the waves that lapped at his back. When he reached the shore he knelt on all fours and slurped the funky algal water like an animal. He couldn’t see the lighthouse, and he wasn’t sure whether it lay to the north or the south. His body gave out all at once. His teeth were chattering, really clacking away. His shoulders convulsed, his lungs heaved. He had his whole life ahead of him; it wasn’t a comforting thought. He peeled off his wet clothes, nestled into the sand as deeply as he could, and fell asleep.