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Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson sold his first story in 1976 and quickly established himself as one of the most respected and critically acclaimed writers of his generation. His story “Black Air” won the World Fantasy Award in 1984, and his novella The Blind Geometer won the Nebula Award in 1987. His novel The Wild Shore was published in 1984 and was quickly followed up by other novels such as Icehenge, The Memory of Whiteness, A Short, Sharp Shock, The Gold Coast, and The Pacific Shore and by collections such as The Planet on the Table, Escape from Kathmandu, and Remaking History.

Robinson’s already distinguished literary reputation would take a quantum jump in the decade of the ’90s, though, with the publication of his acclaimed “Mars” trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars; Red Mars would win a Nebula Award, both Green Mars and Blue Mars would win Hugo Awards, and the trilogy would be widely recognized as the genre’s most accomplished, detailed, sustained, and substantial look at the colonization and terraforming of another world, rivaled only by Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars. Robinson’s latest books are the novel Antarctica, and a collection of stories and poems set on his fictional Mars, The Martians. He lives with his family in Davis, California.

The “Mars” trilogy will probably associate Robinson’s name forever with the Red Planet. Here he takes us to a future terra-formed Mars for a charming little story that’s about just what it says it’s about, and that shows us that, where baseball is concerned, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* * *

He was a tall, skinny Martian kid, shy and stooping. Gangly as a puppy. Why they had him playing third base I have no idea. Then again they had me playing shortstop and I’m left-handed. And can’t field grounders. But I’m American, so there I was. That’s what learning a sport by video will do. Some things are so obvious people never think to mention them. Like never put a lefty at shortstop. But on Mars they were making it all new. Some people there had fallen in love with baseball, and ordered the equipment and rolled some fields, and off they went.

So there we were, me and this kid Gregor, butchering the left side of the infield. He looked so young I asked him how old he was, and he said eight and I thought Jeez you’re not that young, but realized he meant Martian years of course, so he was about sixteen or seventeen, but he seemed younger. He had recently moved to Argyre from somewhere else, and was staying at the local house of his co-op with relatives or friends, I never got that straight, but he seemed pretty lonely to me. He never missed practice even though he was the worst of a terrible team, and clearly he got frustrated at all his errors and strikeouts. I used to wonder why he came out at all. And so shy; and that stoop; and the acne; and the tripping over his own feet, the blushing, the mumbling—he was a classic.

English wasn’t his first language, either. It was Armenian, or Moravian, something like that. Something no one else spoke, anyway, except for an elderly couple in his co-op. So he mumbled what passes for English on Mars, and sometimes even used a translation box, but basically tried never to be in a situation where he had to speak. And made error after error. We must have made quite a sight—me about waist-high to him, and both of us letting grounders pass through us like we were a magic show. Or else knocking them down and chasing them around, then winging them past the first baseman. We very seldom made an out. It would have been conspicuous except everyone else was the same way. Baseball on Mars was a high-scoring game.

But beautiful anyway. It was like a dream, really. First of all the horizon, when you’re on a flat plain like Argyre, is only three miles away rather than six. It’s very noticeable to a Terran eye. Then their diamonds have just over normal-sized infields, but the outfields have to be huge. At my team’s ballpark it was nine hundred feet to dead center, seven hundred down the lines. Standing at the plate the outfield fence was like a little green line off in the distance, under a purple sky, pretty near the horizon itself—what I’m telling you is that the baseball diamond about covered the entire visible world. It was so great.

They played with four outfielders, like in softball, and still the alleys between fielders were wide. And the air was about as thin as at Everest base camp, and the gravity itself only bats .380, so to speak. So when you hit the ball solid it flies like a golf ball hit by a big driver. Even as big as the fields were, there were still a number of home runs every game. Not many shutouts on Mars. Not till I got there, anyway.

I went there after I climbed Olympus Mons, to help them establish a new soil sciences institute. They had the sense not to try that by video. At first I climbed in the Charitums in my time off, but after I got hooked into baseball the game took up most of my spare time. Fine, I’ll play I said when they asked me. But I won’t coach. I don’t like telling people what to do.

So I’d go out and start by doing soccer exercises with the rest of them, warming up all the muscles we would never use. Then Werner would start hitting infield practice, and Gregor and I would start flailing. We were like matadors. Occasionally we’d snag one and whale it over to first, and occasionally the first baseman, who was well over two meters tall and built like a tank, would catch our throws, and we’d slap our gloves together. Doing this day after day, Gregor got a little less shy with me, though not much. And I saw that he threw the ball pretty damned hard. His arm was as long as my whole body, and boneless it seemed, like something pulled off a squid, so loose-wristed that he got some real pop on the ball. Of course sometimes it would still be rising when it passed ten meters over the first baseman’s head, but it was moving, no doubt about it. I began to see that maybe the reason he came out to play, beyond just being around people he didn’t have to talk to, was the chance to throw things really hard. I saw, too, that he wasn’t so much shy as he was surly. Or both.

Anyway our fielding was a joke. Hitting went a bit better. Gregor learned to chop down on the ball and hit grounders up the middle; it was pretty effective. And I began to get my timing together. Coming to it from years of slow-pitch softball, I had started by swinging at everything a week late, and between that and my shortstopping I’m sure my teammates figured they had gotten a defective American. And since they had a rule limiting each team to only two Terrans, no doubt they were disappointed by that. But slowly I adjusted my timing, and after that I hit pretty well. The thing was their pitchers had no breaking stuff. These big guys would rear back and throw as hard as they could, like Gregor, but it took everything in their power just to throw strikes. It was a little scary because they often threw right at you by accident. But if they got it down the pipe then all you had to do was time it.

And if you hit one, how the ball flew! Every time I connected it was like a miracle. It felt like you could put one into orbit if you hit it right, in fact that was one of their nicknames for a home run. Oh, that’s orbital, they would say, watching one leave the park headed for the horizon. They had a little bell, like a ship’s bell, attached to the backstop, and every time someone hit one out they would ring that bell while you rounded the bases. A very nice local custom.

So I enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful game even when you’re butchering it. My sorest muscles after practice were in my stomach from laughing so hard. I even began to have some success at short. When I caught balls going to my right I twirled around backward to throw to first or second. People were impressed though of course it was ridiculous. It was a case of the one-eyed man in the country of the blind. Not that they weren’t good athletes, you understand, but none of them had played as kids, and so they had no baseball instincts. They just liked to play. And I could see why—out there on a green field as big as the world, under a purple sky, with the yellow-green balls flying around—it was beautiful. We had a good time.

I started to give a few tips to Gregor, too, though I had sworn to myself not to get into coaching. I don’t like trying to tell people what to do. The game’s too hard for that. But I’d be hitting flies to the outfielders, and it was hard not to tell them to watch the ball and run under it and then put the glove up and catch it, rather than run all the way with their arms stuck up like the Statue of Liberty’s. Or when they took turns hitting flies (it’s harder than it looks) giving them batting tips. And Gregor and I played catch all the time during warm-ups, so just watching me—and trying to throw to such a short target—he got better. He definitely threw hard. And I saw there was a whole lot of movement in his throws. They’d come tailing in to me every which way, no surprise given how loose-wristed he was. I had to look sharp or I’d miss. He was out of control, but he had potential.

And the truth was, our pitchers were bad. I loved the guys, but they couldn’t throw strikes if you paid them. They’d regularly walk ten or twenty batters every game, and these were five-inning games. Werner would watch Thomas walk ten, then he’d take over in relief and walk ten more himself. Sometimes they’d go through this twice. Gregor and I would stand there while the other team’s runners walked by as in a parade, or a line at the grocery store. When Werner went to the mound I’d stand by Gregor and say, You know Gregor, you could pitch better than these guys. You’ve got a good arm. And he would look at me horrified, muttering No no no no, not possible.

But then one time warming up he broke off a really mean curve and I caught it on my wrist. While I was rubbing it down I walked over to him. Did you see the way that ball curved? I said.

Yes, he said, looking away. I’m sorry.

Don’t be sorry, That’s called a curveball, Gregor. It can be a useful throw. You twisted your hand at the last moment and the ball came over the top of it, like this, see? Here, try it again.

So we slowly got into it. I was all-state in Connecticut my senior year in high school, and it was all from throwing junk—curve, slider, split-finger, change. I could see Gregor throwing most of those just by accident, but to keep from confusing him I just worked on a straight curve. I told him Just throw it to me like you did that first time.

I thought you weren’t to coach us, he said.

I’m not coaching you! Just throw it like that. Then in the games throw it straight. As straight as possible.

He mumbled a bit at me in Moravian, and didn’t look me in the eye. But he did it. And after a while he worked up a good curve. Of course the thinner air on Mars meant there was little for the balls to bite on. But I noticed that the blue dot balls they played with had higher stitching than the red dot balls. They played with both of them as if there was no difference, but there was. So I filed that away and kept working with Gregor.

We practiced a lot. I showed him how to throw from the stretch, figuring that a windup from Gregor was likely to end up in knots. And by midseason he threw a mean curve from the stretch. We had not mentioned this to anyone else. He was wild with it, but it hooked hard; I had to be really sharp to catch some of them. It made me better at shortstop, too. Although finally in one game, behind twenty to nothing as usual, a batter hit a towering pop fly and I took off running back on it, and the wind kept carrying it and I kept following it, until when I got it I was out there sprawled between our startled center fielders.

Maybe you should play outfield, Werner said.

I said Thank God.

So after that I played left center or right center, and I spent the games chasing line drives to the fence and throwing them back in to the cutoff man. Or more likely, standing there and watching the other team take their walks. I called in my usual chatter, and only then did I notice that no one on Mars ever yelled anything at these games. It was like playing in a league of deaf-mutes. I had to provide the chatter for the whole team from two hundred yards away in center field, including, of course, criticism of the plate umpires’ calls. My view of the plate was miniaturized but I still did a better job than they did, and they knew it, too. It was fun. People would walk by and say, Hey there must be an American out there.

One day after one of our home losses, 28 to 121 think it was, everyone went to get something to eat, and Gregor was just standing there looking off into the distance. You want to come along? I asked him, gesturing after the others, but he shook his head. He had to get back home and work. I was going back to work myself, so I walked with him into town, a place like you’d see in the Texas panhandle. I stopped outside his co-op, which was a big house or little apartment complex, I could never tell which was which on Mars. There he stood like a lamppost, and I was about to leave when an old woman came out and invited me in. Gregor had told her about me, she said in stiff English. So I was introduced to the people in the kitchen there, most of them incredibly tall. Gregor seemed really embarrassed, he didn’t want me being there, so I left as soon as I could get away. The old woman had a husband, and they seemed like Gregor’s grandparents. There was a young girl there, too, about his age, looking at both of us like a hawk. Gregor never met her eye.

Next time at practice, I said, Gregor, were those your grandparents?

Like my grandparents.

And that girl, who was she?

No answer.

Like a cousin or something?


Gregor, what about your parents? Where are they?

He just shrugged and started throwing me the ball.

I got the impression they lived in another branch of his co-op somewhere else, but I never found out for sure. A lot of what I saw on Mars I liked—the way they run their businesses together in co-ops takes a lot of pressure off them, and they live pretty relaxed lives compared to us on Earth. But some of their parenting systems—kids brought up by groups, or by one parent, or whatever—I wasn’t so sure about those. It makes for problems if you ask me. Bunch of teenage boys ready to slug somebody. Maybe that happens no matter what you do.

Anyway we finally got to the end of the season, and I was going to go back to Earth after it. Our team’s record was three and fifteen, and we came in last place in the regular season standings. But they held a final weekend tournament for all the teams in the Argyre Basin, a bunch of three-inning games, as there were a lot to get through. Immediately we lost the first game and were in the losers’ bracket. Then we were losing the next one, too, and all because of walks, mostly. Werner relieved Thomas for a time, then when that didn’t work out Thomas went back to the mound to re-relieve Werner. When that happened I ran all the way in from center to join them on the mound. I said Look you guys, let Gregor pitch.

Gregor! they both said. No way!

He’ll be even worse than us, Werner said.

How could he be? I said. You guys just walked eleven batters in a row. Night will fall before Gregor could do that.

So they agreed to it. They were both discouraged at that point, as you might expect. So I went over to Gregor and said Okay, Gregor, you give it a try now.

Oh no, no no no no no no no. He was pretty set against it. He glanced up into the stands where we had a couple hundred spectators, mostly friends and family and some curious passersby, and I saw then that his like grandparents and his girl something-or-other were up there watching. Gregor was getting more hangdog and sullen every second.

Come on, Gregor, I said, putting the ball in his glove. Tell you what, I’ll catch you. It’ll be just like warming up. Just keep throwing your curveball. And I dragged him over to the mound.

So Werner warmed him up while I went over and got on the catcher’s gear, moving a box of blue dot balls to the front of the ump’s supply area while I was at it. I could see Gregor was nervous, and so was I. I had never caught before, and he had never pitched, and bases were loaded and no one was out. It was an unusual baseball moment.

Finally I was geared up and I clanked on out to him. Don’t worry about throwing too hard, I said. Just put the curveball right in my glove. Ignore the batter. I’ll give you the sign before every pitch; two fingers for curve, one for fastball.

Fastball? he says.

That’s where you throw the ball fast. Don’t worry about that. We’re just going to throw curves anyway.

And you said you weren’t to coach, he said bitterly.

I’m not coaching, I said, I’m catching.

So I went back and got set behind the plate. Be looking for curveballs, I said to the ump. Curve ball? he said.

So we started up. Gregor stood crouched on the mound like a big praying mantis, red-faced and grim. He threw the first pitch right over our heads to the backstop. Two guys scored while I retrieved it, but I threw out the runner going from first to third. I went out to Gregor. Okay, I said, the bases are cleared and we got an out. Let’s just throw now. Right into the glove. Just like last time, but lower.

So he did. He threw the ball at the batter, and the batter bailed, and the ball cut right down into my glove. The umpire was speechless. I turned around and showed him the ball in my glove. That was a strike, I told him.

Strike! he hollered. He grinned at me. That was a curveball, wasn’t it.

Damn right it was.

Hey, the batter said. What was that?

We’ll show you again, I said.

And after that Gregor began to mow them down. I kept putting down two fingers, and he kept throwing curveballs. By no means were they all strikes, but enough were to keep him from walking too many batters. All the balls were blue dot. The ump began to get into it.

And between two batters I looked behind me and saw that the entire crowd of spectators, and all the teams not playing at that moment, had congregated behind the backstop to watch Gregor pitch. No one on Mars had ever seen a curveball before, and now they were crammed back there to get the best view of it, gasping and chattering at every hook. The batter would bail or take a weak swing and then look back at the crowd with a big grin, as if to say Did you see that? That was a curveball!

So we came back and won that game, and we kept Gregor pitching, and we won the next three games as well. The third game he threw exactly twenty-seven pitches, striking out all nine batters with three pitches each. Bob Feller once struck out all twenty-seven batters in a high school game; it was like that.

The crowd was loving it. Gregor’s face was less red. He was standing straighter in the box. He still refused to look anywhere but at my glove, but his look of grim terror had shifted to one of ferocious concentration. He may have been skinny, but he was tall. Out there on the mound he began to look pretty damned formidable.

So we climbed back up into the winner’s bracket, then into a semifinal. Crowds of people were coming up to Gregor between games to get him to sign their baseballs. Mostly he looked dazed, but at one point I saw him glance up at his co-op family in the stands and wave at them, with a brief smile.

How’s your arm holding out? I asked him.

What do you mean? he said.

Okay, I said. Now look, I want to play outfield again this game. Can you pitch to Werner? Because there were a couple of Americans on the team we played next, Ernie and Caesar, who I suspected could hit a curve. I just had a hunch.

Gregor nodded, and I could see that as long as there was a glove to throw at, nothing else mattered. So I arranged it with Werner, and in the semi-finals I was back out in right-center field. We were playing under the lights by this time, the field like green velvet under a purple twilight sky. Looking in from center field it was all tiny, like something in a dream.

And it must have been a good hunch I had, because I made one catch charging in on a liner from Ernie, sliding to snag it, and then another running across the middle for what seemed like thirty seconds, before I got under a towering Texas leaguer from Caesar. Gregor even came up and congratulated me between innings.

And you know that old thing about how a good play in the field leads to a good at-bat. Already in the day’s games I had hit well, but now in this semi-final I came up and hit a high fastball so solid it felt like I didn’t hit it at all, and off it flew. Homerun over the center-field fence, out into the dusk. I lost sight of it before it came down.

Then in the finals I did it again in the first inning, back-to-back with Thomas—his to left, mine again to center. That was two in a row for me, and we were winning, and Gregor was mowing them down. So when I came up again the next inning I was feeling good, and people were calling out for another homer, and the other team’s pitcher had a real determined look. He was a really big guy, as tall as Gregor but massive-chested as so many Martians are, and he reared back and threw the first one right at my head. Not on purpose, he was out of control. Then I barely fouled several pitches off, swinging very late, and dodging his inside heat, until it was a full count, and I was thinking to myself, Well heck, it doesn’t really matter if you strike out here, at least you hit two in a row.

Then I heard Gregor shouting Come on, coach, you can do it! Hang in there! Keep your focus! All doing a passable imitation of me, I guess, as the rest of the team was laughing its head off. I suppose I had said all those things to them before, though of course it was just the stuff you always say automatically at a ball game, I never meant anything by it, I didn’t even know people heard me. But I definitely heard Gregor, needling me, and I stepped back into the box thinking, Look I don’t even like to coach, I played ten games at shortstop trying not to coach you guys, and I was so irritated I was barely aware of the pitch, but hammered it anyway out over the right field fence, higher and deeper even than my first two. Knee-high fastball, inside. As Ernie said to me afterward, You drove that baby. My teammates rang the little ship’s bell all the way around the bases, and I slapped hands with every one of them on the way from third to home, feeling the grin on my face. Afterward I sat on the bench and felt the hit in my hands. I can still see it flying out.

So we were ahead 4-0 in the final inning, and the other team came up determined to catch us. Gregor was tiring at last, and he walked a couple, then hung a curve and, their big pitcher got into it and clocked it far over my head. Now I do okay charging liners, but the minute a ball is hit over me I’m totally lost. So I turned my back on this one and ran for the fence, figuring either it goes out or I collect it against the fence, but that I’d never see it again in the air. But running on Mars is so weird. You get going too fast and then you’re pinwheeling along trying to keep from doing a faceplant. That’s what I was doing when I saw the warning track, and looked back up and spotted the ball coming down, so I jumped, trying to jump straight up, you know, but I had a lot of momentum, and had completely forgotten about the gravity, so I shot up and caught the ball, amazing, but found myself flying right over the fence.

I came down and rolled in the dust and sand, and the ball stayed stuck in my glove. I hopped back over the fence holding the ball up to show everyone I had it. But they gave the other pitcher a home run anyway, because you have to stand inside the park when you catch one, it’s a local rule. I didn’t care. The whole point of playing games is to make you do things like that anyway. And it was good that the pitcher got one, too.

So we started up again and Gregor struck out the side, and we won the tournament. We were mobbed, Gregor especially. He was the hero of the hour. Everyone wanted him to sign something. He didn’t say much, but he wasn’t stooping either. He looked surprised. Afterward Werner took two balls and everyone signed them, to make some kind of trophies for Gregor and me. Later I saw half the names on my trophy were jokes, “Mickey Mantle” and other names like that. Gregor had written on it, “Hi, Coach Arnold, Regards, Greg.” I have the ball still, on my desk at home.

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