The umpire’s assistant is nervously flicking through the pages of the small book.
He is new and wants to impress his manager, whose face is hard and inscrutable beneath the bars of his mask. Over his shoulder, the two opposing managers exhale and bluster. One is balding and overweight. The other is young but has lived a hard life – perhaps needing a second chance. The umpire’s assistant keeps accidentally turning two pages at once and having to turn back. Finally, he finishes his search. “There’s nothing in the rulebook that says a dog can’t play baseball,” he says. The older manager throws his cap on the ground in frustration. After a moment, he picks it up and dusts it off.
“Play ball,” says the umpire.
The kids on one side of the diamond cheer. They are all boys, apart from one girl, who is there to show that girls can play baseball too, although the dog that can play baseball is showing her up somewhat. They all crowd round and roughhouse with a shaggy though undoubtedly purebred golden retriever, who someone has forced into a baseball jersey. He looks amazing.
The dog, who is called Dog, though this set of humans call him Rowley for reasons he doesn’t understand, enjoys the sport. This is for reasons he also doesn’t understand. This is because he is a dog. Last summer, in another town, he played basketball, which he enjoyed too though the ball was large and bounced unexpectedly and wouldn’t fit in his mouth. Dog likes the baseball ball. He likes to catch it.
As the players scatter onto the pitch, Dog is held back for a moment by a small boy in a wheelchair. This is Timmy. Timmy reaches his arms around Dog’s furry neck. “Rowley, no matter what happens, even if we don’t win the prize money to pay for my life-saving operation, I love you. You’re my best friend and we’ll be together forever.” Dog sits upright, his front paws on Timmy’s knees. He thinks he sees the remnants of a ham sandwich on Timmy’s shirt.
“Rowley, come on, let’s go!” calls the team captain, who is blond and tan and noble, a regular leader of men. Dog turns and follows, rushing onto the diamond. They are fielding first, which is good because, to be honest, Dog finds it very hard to wield the bat. The seven boys and one girl and one dog huddle together. They put a hand in and start to chant: “All our heart and all our soul, the Fightin’ Pups, here we go!” They throw their hands in the air, apart from Dog who is paddling around at their feet thinking about food. Suddenly he stands very still, having spotted a small frog in the grass. He lowers his head, watching. He is going to get that frog. Then he is swarmed by human legs rushing about, words shouted over his head. He sees the ball being thrown and his eyes widen. He is going to get that ball.
The blond boy has a rivalry with the first batter, who is not blond and has bad teeth. They eye each other up as the blond boy prepares to make the first pitch. He misjudges and sends the ball far out of the strike zone, and his rival smirks. The girl player rushes up to the blond. “Corey,” she says, “you’ve got to keep your head in the game! Forget about Zeke! Just throw the ball like your dead brother taught you! Do it for him!” The blond boy’s shoulders rise a little. Dog steps in front of the mound, his eyes dark and sincere. “You’re right, Rowley,” the blond boy says, as the girl slopes off, dejected, “I can’t let my anger overtake me. This game is bigger than one tanned blond kid.” Dog doesn’t understand much English, and instead wonders when the blond boy will throw the ball again. He wants the ball. He likes how it feels against his teeth.
The blond boy winds up to pitch again, and now his aim is true. His rival swings with no hope, and the ball lands smoothly in the catcher’s mitt. “Strike one,” the umpire cries as Dog launches himself at the catcher, knocking him backwards. For a few moments, the umpire and catcher try to coax the ball from Dog’s jaws but soon give up under the menace of Dog’s snarl. They leave him chewing and smacking the leather and call for a new ball. The umpire’s assistant is instructed to once again check the rulebook about the whole dog situation.
Dog gnashes the hard ball with ferocity, watching warily for further attempts to steal it. Then he sees the game continuing, the new ball flying through the air from base to base. He forgets all about Old Ball, now cracked, cork innards glistening with saliva. Dog wants New Ball.
“Come on, Rowley,” calls another member of the team, a black kid who single-handedly constitutes diversity in the league and therefore appears on all the press material. Dog stands once more, transfixed by New Ball’s sheen, its smooth and soaring flight. He feels confused and irritated by the humans, who fling New Ball amongst themselves as though they don’t want it, yet not giving it to him, who wants it so badly. Dog follows the ball’s trajectory, breaking into a run towards third base as a boy on the opposing team rounds the corner, barely outpacing Dog. “Quick, give Rowley the ball,” cries one Fightin’ Pup, anticipating Dog will tag out the player. A shortstop throws New Ball towards Dog, who catches it nimbly and immediately starts running off the field to his teammates’ dismay. Amidst their cries and attempts to redirect him, Dog lies down in the grass with New Ball in his paws and begins gnawing as the opposing team celebrates their home run. The umpire’s assistant gingerly approaches Dog, hand reaching for the slimy ball before Dog rears up and chases him off, barking viciously.
Gameplay continues with the remnants of Old Ball, which flops limply to the ground no matter how hard it is pitched or hit. The opposing team’s manager aims a kick at Dog, who mistakes it for playing and begins hopping manically around the old man. Dog sees a member of the opposing team running around the bases and decides that must be fun, and takes off, racing alongside him before getting tangled underfoot and tripping the boy, who lands tooth-first in the dirt. The Fightin’ Pups cheer as the other team are close to rioting. A scuffle breaks out near second base as Dog spots the frog escaping in the distance. Tired, distracted and happy, he traipses across the field and out towards the world beyond. The Fightin’ Pups’ young manager, who still smokes but has in his hard life developed and lost many worse habits, takes his cigarette out of his mouth for a moment and spits on the ground. “Gee, maybe a dog shouldn’t play baseball,” he says.
In the carpark nearby, a neglectful father pulls up, having given up his high-pressure banking job to see his son play for the first time. It will be very emotional, although it leaves them in some financial difficulty as the father had been the main breadwinner. Dog treks merrily on, taking a winding route along the middle of the road and holding up the traffic which honks angrily behind him. Everything is painted in beautiful shades of grey. Everything smells wonderful.