THE CUPS by Jeff Phillips

Orel Gammon stopped wearing his cup the second day he played in the "majors." This wasn't the Major League Baseball. The rec center named their little league for ages 10-12, “the majors.” For all who played in “the minors” before it, this new league was a big deal. It meant kids pitched, and the kids pitched harder than the pussyfoot dads, who were notorious for tossing slow balls to make their kids feel like all-stars when they knocked a homer over the fence. League rules in the majors required that kids wear cups over their crotch, something all the preteens got a kick out of, except Orel Gammon, gangly and doe-eyed as if everything around him could be a danger.

The snug cup hijacked Orel’s mind when he stepped up to the plate, causing him to whiff bad. It was all he could picture when he didn't reach up in time to snatch that line drive inches from his head at shortstop. He could hear his dad groan from the stands. Quickly he was getting a reputation as a space cadet, and was looking at a possible rotation out in left field, or a permanent role as a bench warmer if he didn't nip it in the bud, not to mention a silent ride home with a dad unsure of what to say if he couldn't say “good job.”

That cup could wreck his 3 year stint in the majors if he didn't ultimately shirk the rule. The constant pressure of a hard plastic dome around his genitals could be much more damaging than the thrust of a catcher's mitt into his groin during a slide into home plate. His teammates continued to mock this accessory. Big Scottie, tall but rain-thin, his mouth stained red by a raspberry chewing gum, made a clicking noise with his bright tongue as he drummed between his legs. Big Scottie looked no different than a ghoul after feasting on flesh.

Rewind 5 years: when a much smaller Orel went to his first real Major League Baseball game. He was in awe as they entered the massive stadium where electric organ jingles buoyed the wafting of hot dogs and popcorn. It was souvenir cup day at Wrigley Field, all beverages came with a reusable container showcasing a century’s evolution of the Cub’s uniform. After the 4th inning, Orel's dad led him to a set of empty seats he’d spotted closer to the 3rd baseline. It was an overcast and windy day in late April, and the sold out game wasn't brimming to its capacity. A few specks of rain prompted a smattering of blue ponchos in the bleachers they could see across the field, but the precipitation held off. As they settled into their new seats, Mr. Gammon watched intently as the Cubs went up to bat, but Orel was distracted by the braying in the row behind him, a few feet to his left.

Two teens with pube stashes and sleeveless jerseys retrieved discarded souvenir cups from among clusters of peanut shells on the ground, and then stuffed them down their sweat pants, not even stopping to drain the backwash. Orel heard their yelps and heehaws as beer soaked through the gray cotton. They'd position the cups over their privates and point its shape outward like a long sawed-off beak. When a batter hit the ball the two would rise and cheer and pound on the hard edge of their amplified phallus. They would bark and Orel was terrified at what these two beasts behind him might be capable of, and Orel got a taste of it when a foul ball came his way. He reached up, thinking he could catch it, not realizing the two teens were closing in right behind him. They were also going for the ball, edging him out. A brunt force slammed into his elbow. The cup behind the fabric had made contact, igniting the throb of a thousand fiery pins across his funny bone.

The two teens didn't acknowledge the collision, neither did his dad. Everyone was so engaged by the ball bouncing in the stands above them, the racing of drunk men to get it.

One of the teens adjusted his cup, inches away from Orel's face. He could smell the beer that was dripping down the boy's leg. The rumbles and the roaring all around him only reinforced them as monstrous. Prior to this he had heard ball games on the radio, seen some on the TV. It was as if now he had been sucked into the static pop of crowds and so he recoiled, thinking this thing was going to come at him again and it'd be nighty night for good.

His dad heard him shriek and looked down, disappointment stretching all corners of his face. "You enjoying any of this? If you want me to take you home, you're going to have to wait another inning. We paid a lot for these tickets." Orel was at a loss on how to describe what it was that bothered him and why he felt so icky. It wasn’t the game but brute shapes beneath some gross kids’ pants!

After the next inning, without even asking him if he still wanted to go, an agitated Mr. Gammon yanked his hand and led him out. As they went up the aisle, Orel could see the two teens had each found another cup to cram down and form a double headed schlong. The sweat pants appeared even wetter.

It was a few years before father and son went to another baseball game, but Orel had begun reassuring his dad of their shared interest with long sessions of catch in the backyard. When they did go to their next Cubs game, Orel was relieved it wasn't on souvenir cup day. He was bigger now, but he was still on the lookout for horseplay that might make him shudder. When they saw Ryne Sandberg hit a grand slam it was the happiest he'd ever seen his dad, and Orel hoped to make a big play on the field someday to elicit the same intensity of glee.

When Orel saw his teammates knocking their cups to show how hard it was and how invincible their balls were, his sense memory conjured up the cup’s bottom edge bashing into his elbow, the shrill pubescent voices echoed in his ears, and he was aware that at any minute, something nasty could poke at him and ruin all the fun of a favorite pastime. A knuckle would rap, then another would call out a response and it was an endless loop until the coach made some changes and sent everyone out onto the field except him. The coach waved him back and said he thought it best for him to take a breather and get his head back in it. As the other kids took their positions, Orel could hear his dad say to his mom, “looks like Orel’s not playing anymore.” And Orel wanted to call out through the green cinder blocks, “no dad, I'm still playing! Just taking a breather, trying to get my head back in it! Trying to shake the smell of damp grass and gotta remind myself the field out there isn’t a mess of sweaty, matted pubes!” He tried to summon the courage to excuse himself to use the bathroom next to the concession shack, where he could reach down his pants and dispose of his musty cup in the trash.

A kid on the other team named Trevor hit the ball into the outfield and made it to second base. He would've been out had Reggie, or as the 12-year-old supposed superstar deemed himself, the Regginator, actually set his foot down on the base when he caught the ball that was thrown back from left field, instead of the dirt several inches to the side of it. The Regginator tried to protest the call, but the ump repeated his original judgment: safe.

"Know how to use your feet?" The runner teased.

Offended, the Regginator reached out and tried to pull off the runner's helmet. Despite the ump pointing to Trevor moments before and shouting safe, Orel could see that protective apparel was only an illusion in this game, easy to peel away before the pounce.

"No touching other players!" The ump ejected the Regginator. The dismissed second baseman kicked the dirt but obeyed. As he returned to the dugout, Orel asked his coach, "am I back in?"

"No, sorry guy, we got Ben warming up out in the bullpen. Ben! Go cover second!"

The Regginator took a seat next to Orel and cussed the ump under his breath. “Dick bag!”

“Learn to settle down, guy!” The coach gave him a friendly, though aggressive, squeeze on the shoulder.

Orel was caged with an animal. His desire to flee was now amplified. But he didn’t want his dad to see him walking away from the field while the game was still being played. So Orel tried to slide away from the Regginator to a spot further down the bench, until his teammate turned and asked “wanna help gangbang that bitch of an ump in the junk?”

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