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Warehouse Windows

When the Bubble Bursts

I was in the press box at Camden Yards when Cal Ripken Jr. grounded out to end the 1996 American League Championship series. If my memory serves me right, he made a desperate slide into first base, disappearing into a cloud of dust. Even down 4 runs and two games in the series, I thought a miracle was still possible. But it wasn’t.

I was in the control room at Camden Yards when Roberto Alomar struck out to end the 1997 American League Championship series. I don’t know why I was there…it wasn’t my normal spot, but there I was, hoping against all hope that Alomar would keep it going…produce some magic. But he didn’t.

I was home, alone in my living room in Queens, New York, just four days before my wedding, when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning, ending the magical 1999 National League Championship Series. That series was so full of miraculous moments and I believed, with all my heart, the Mets had a couple more in them. But they didn’t.

I was in the center field bleachers with my old roommate, co-worker and friend from my days with the Orioles when Mike Piazza drove a ball deep off the legendary Mariano Rivera with a runner on and down by two to end the 2000 World Series. I remember my friend grabbing my arm as we lept up in our seats thinking the ball might go out. But it didn’t.

Heartbreaks of your team losing in the playoffs or just barely missing them are profound when you are just a fan. When you work for the team, however…it’s like a dagger deep into your soul. There is so much intensity and hard work and sacrifices that happen on one of these runs. Night after night away from friends and loved ones. Missed family events. Early morning and late nights. Days that bleed into each other. Sleep is elusive, even in the rare moments when you are actually able to try and get it. The deeper your team gets, the more intense it gets and you are only surviving on takeout, stadium food, and adrenaline.

And then, in a flash. On a ball four or a weakly hit ball or a strike without the bat leaving a shoulder or a deeply hit ball, it is just over. Weeks of preparation and timelines and pressure are just gone in an instant. There really is just nothing like it that I have experienced. In one moment you go from having no time to all the time in the world. It is so bewildering, for lack of a better word.

I was lucky enough to see playoffs in four of the five full seasons I worked in Major League baseball and I would never, ever trade those moments, but the all together expected shockwave the end brings is so jarring…like getting punched in the stomach while enjoying an ice cream cone.

In each of those four ends, what I remember most is that for the first time in weeks, I felt the cold autumn weather. It was there and I was dressed for it, but I don’t remember the cold in all those October games in the press box, or in the stands or wandering the concourses. However, at the moment that it ended, I could feel the cold hit like a steam train.

It leads me to this image of this awful Winter figure (looking very much like Snowmiser) suddenly grabbing you with that last out and throwing you into winter. Summer disappears at that moment and cold, bleak winter begins.

After the 1997 ALCS, I ventured down to the press box and sat in my manager’s seat upfront and just stared out into the field, desperately fighting tears (F you, Jimmy Dugan…you are just wrong). It is really a blur. I think I was waiting for one of my best friends to wrap up her game duties before venturing back to the office in the warehouse. As I sat there, this guy, with bloodshot eyes and one of those 1980’s era satin Orioles jackets stood up on one of the seats to peek into the press box. His hat was kind of off to the right and his hair was attempting to escape out from under it. I recognized him as one of the season ticket holders who would stop by and talk to various people in the box.

He looked at me and asked me, in a voice that was clearly trying to choke back tears, “When is Opening Day?” I didn’t have an answer for him and just kind of blankly stared at him. He could see that I didn’t know and just sort of nodded at me, climbed down from the chair, and walked away.

That is such a powerful question for me and it really just sums up baseball for those of us that love this game. Yeah, baseball breaks our hearts and rips out our souls, but hope is always out there. Whether it is the next batter, next inning, the next game, the next series, or the next year. “When is Opening Day?” There is just so much damn hope in that question, even in a moment that feels absolutely hopeless.

Categories
Novel

Top of the First

Artwork by Maggie Keenan

She can barely watch as a cloud of dust engulfs the mightiest and most respected on this team, and she knows, without looking, that the long drama has come to a close. She knew it the moment she heard the weak crack of the bat … it wasn’t even a crack, more like a dull “thud.” That kind of a crack doesn’t drive in three runs. That kind of sound is the sound of failure. The sound of a season-ending with barely a fight. The sound of hope dying. It’s the sound of another ghost rising from the grass destined to haunt you for the rest of your life.

However, Abigail knew it was over long before that dull thud and had just been lying to herself. She definitely knew it was over when the bullpen doors opened and that golden armed pitcher came strolling out to a chorus of boos. She sort of knew it was over when the third baseman dropped that ball in the fifth, allowing two runs to score. She might have even known it was over when the leadoff batter was left standing at third in the first.

At least, that’s what her mind told her. Her heart had something else to consider. Perhaps the first-inning failure would wake the boys up in the second. Perhaps the runner interfered with the third baseman in the fifth and the umps would talk and then call him out. Maybe today was the day that the Bullpen Superman would find kryptonite in the rosin bag. Maybe, just maybe, the first baseman dropped the ball in the cloud of dust.

But she knew.

She exhales for the first time, in what seems like a month, as the man in blue makes a fist, and then silence. A cold, bleak, abrupt silence as thousands of dreams end in an instant. The hopes of the faithful freeze and shatter in that single moment.

In that silence, she swears she could hear Winter’s laugh. Winter waits for no one—except the Boys of Summer—and he will quickly gather them up the moment that hope dies. So he wastes no time nor sentiment as he gathers up yet another city and their faithful, unmoved that this park … this theater … this shrine is the Crown Jewel of baseball. The living, waking monument is merely Winter’s newest conquest, another land conquered. Throughout autumn, Winter takes one city after another, picking them off and growing his domain without mercy. All but one city will fall to Winter. Only one city will stand as baseball’s outpost in Winter’s wasteland. Only one city earns protection. Summer chooses just one city for her to live on through Winter’s onslaught. For all the rest, it’s just a matter of time.

So, he takes another. After weeks of creeping around the edges, he crashes through the brick and mortar from every direction, spreading across the field like merciless waters from a broken dam. It engulfs every corner, every seat and every brick of the Crown Jewel, except for the clubhouse of Destiny’s team … Summer’s team.

From there, he spreads his icy limbs in all directions. He floods out from radios and televisions and phones and computers and he breaks countless hearts with his cold, ruthless grip. He is the Grim Reaper of dreams. He is the assassin of faith. He is hope’s hangman. He is merciless.

Some of the home team faithful pull their hoods over their heads to fight back the cold as they stand and watch Destiny’s team celebrate. Most slowly filter through the tunnels and into the autumn night, noticing for the first time in weeks that it is cold, not to reappear until Spring reclaims what is hers.

That breath, the exhale of her baseball spirit, hangs suspended and visible before her eyes for a moment as she feels the cold as well, suddenly and harshly. She pulls her orange and black jacket tightly around herself and sits back down, eyes shut tightly as if she can prevent what is happening on the field. She feels Winter pushing against her chest, and for a moment, she cannot breathe. She cannot hold back the tears any longer as that old, oh-so-familiar feeling takes hold of her.

This is not how it was supposed to happen. This was supposed to be their year. This was the year that the only thing they would wait for next year is a new flag to hang from atop the scoreboard in the spring.

Through her mind, she begins playing out every loss … If only they had caught that guy at second on Opening Day. If only he had not swung at that pitch in April with two men on in the bottom of the ninth. If only they had treated that hamstring tweak a week earlier in May. If only he had thrown a curveball instead of the splitter in June. If only they had turned that double play in August. Seasons can be defined by “if onlys.” They are piled up high along the road that brings them to October … or one win short of October. In reality, the “if onlys” are constantly piled up at the end of the road and only the teams with the smallest barricade get into October.

She opens her eyes and forces herself to watch Destiny’s Team celebrate on the field. Even with thousands around her, she feels alone. She knows the long winter that lay ahead and she wants to take in the green of the field one last time. She tries to steal from Winter a few last memories that might keep her warm. She looks around the field and tries to remember the good times from the lost season.

She looks to the spot in left-center field where that two-out, ninth-inning grand slam skirted just above the wall and the outfielder’s glove. She looks deep in the hole at second base where a no-doubt two-run single was snagged by their diving shortstop and turned into a double play. She looked at the pitcher’s mound where the near-perfect game had been masterfully thrown, ruined only by a blooping ninth-inning single that just barely caught the right-field chalk line. Every position on the field had some dramatic, seemingly season-changing moment and they were all flooding into her mind now and turning into a bittersweet mix of sorrowful and joyful tears.

They all culminated back to home plate and a moment, barely 24 hours old now. Her mind gleefully wandered back to the moment that she thought for sure heralded a change in this team’s fortunes. A moment that moved in slow motion and fast forward all at once. She loses her breath for a moment as a ghost of a runner rounded third again and sprinted toward home. A ghostly ball appeared from the darkness of center field, on a collision course with the runner. They arrived together, but the runner went toward the left side of the plate and then suddenly shifted back to the right and slid around the catcher, who was now in a full-extension dive. Just as the runner’s hand was about to touch the plate, glove and ball came down on it like a sledgehammer.

In her mind she can still hear the Crown Jewel release its collective breath, in that more joyful moment, and explode into a wild celebration as the catcher is mauled at home by his teammates. They had scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a one-run lead and the faithful had been holding their breath since their ace surrendered seven in the first. All had seemed lost until that moment and that moment was supposed to define the season. All it did was delay Winter’s return by a day. The magic of the previous day was now possessed by Destiny’s Team, a lost footnote of a lost season, and the Fan, Abigail, could do nothing about it except put her face into her hands and sob.

After a few minutes, Abigail pulled herself together and stood up, taking one last long look at the field. By now, Destiny’s Team had disappeared and only groundskeepers walked around the field. She made her way toward home plate and the press box.

The press box was just behind the field-level seats, raised just a few feet higher. From time to time, she liked to go over and stand on a seat and talk with the writers or the workers in there. Usually, after a game, there was a bustle of activity stirring through the box as young interns and old, weathered newsmen alike would be running around busily and somehow sitting there doing nothing at the same time. It often amused her.

Today, as she looked into the box, she saw the writers doing their normal thing, but a couple of the team employees just stared out at the field, faces stone cold, frozen by Winter, and eyes staring out at some point that probably did not exist in the physical world. They were trained on the promise of a day ago or maybe the hope of the past spring or the bitterness of an October not spent in the press box. She knew that cheering was not permitted in the press box and assumed that crying was probably frowned on as well. She thought for a moment about the line from one of her favorite movies, “There is no crying in baseball.” She thought for sure that whoever wrote that line was no true fan of baseball. Tears are as much a part of baseball as hot dogs, beer, and summer days.

Abigail stood up on a chair and shouted into the guy closest to her, “What day is Opening Day?” Her voice, of course, crumbled as she uttered the last couple of words and the tears came streaming out. The man looked like he had been yanked back from the moon and looked at her as if she had kicked him in the gut.

The man in the press box was trying to figure out how he was going to get through the next few weeks. He suddenly and surprisingly wanted nothing to do with baseball now and an October without his team was going to be unbearable. He felt cold, and even with the heater under the desk working, he just wanted to grab a blanket and wrap himself against it. In March, October was an unlikely dream for a team that had no right playing for the division pennant. They were too young and unproven … no post-season experience whatsoever except for a veteran who last saw the playoffs when he was a rookie. They were supposed to be a year or two away from contention, but somehow, there they were, breaking hearts—and his baseball soul—on the last day of the season.

Alvarez had been with the team long enough that he should have known better than to believe they could do it. He had spent the last five years of his life in that press box. He had missed countless weddings, birthday parties, and family events sitting in that chair watching that team inside that ballpark and others like it around the country. He hated coming home in the middle of the night to an empty refrigerator in an empty apartment in an empty life. He had this team and he had baseball, but he didn’t even have the romance anymore. He had what every one of his friends had. A job that he hated. The cool factor was gone.

He did not regret it … he knew this wasn’t necessarily the rest of his life. He knew it was an indulgence in a dream and that one day he would be able to walk away from it. However, in that moment, with another early Winter tightening his grip around him, he regretted letting himself get caught up in this team this year. They had seemed so full of life and had all the energy in the world as they rushed down the home stretch. They won almost as many heart-stoppers as they lost heartbreakers and they came up one heart-stopper too few and what felt like a million heartbreakers too many.

Now, he was numb. He had already wandered past Destiny’s Team’s clubhouse … smelled the champagne. It wasn’t sweet at all. It smelled sour … almost putrid. He was sure his shoes were ruined by the stream of it that was running out from under the door that he accidentally walked through. He was numb … and angry … and even a bit desperate. Most of all, he was bitter. Bitter at what should have been … how the champagne should be streaming over his head, instead of over his shoe. Bitter that it didn’t smell sweet to him. He was just bitter.

He wanted to be a part of a winner. He wanted to taste that sweet champagne. He wanted that storybook, fairy-tale ending. He found himself imagining his team celebrating on the mound. He remembers so fondly the night, when he was a teenager and watching at his friend’s house, his boyhood team winning it all. The celebrations on the mound in blue and orange were iconic and beautiful and perfect, and suddenly he could almost see that same celebration on the field before him, except he wasn’t in his friend’s house, he was in the press box and the team wore the orange and black of his employer. And he wanted to hold on. He wanted to be there when their year came. He didn’t want to miss it.

He almost let himself smile, when the woman on the chair disrupted his fool’s paradise. She looked like he felt … except she had probably gotten a few hours sleep sometime in the last few days. Her eyes were red, bloodshot. She had on one of those old satin-looking jackets with orange sleeves and a black body. She looked cold and lost and confused. There was even a hint of betrayal in her eyes. She looked as if she had been sobbing and he envied her for that.

Her question, the Fan’s question, at first, didn’t register with Alvarez, and then, suddenly, it hit him like a high and tight fastball. Opening Day. Opening Day. To get to Opening Day meant a winter of waiting for the phone to ring calling him back into the office. It meant a winter full of pulling together stats and digging through old books and trying to find something nice to say about guys that didn’t care. And then there was spring training and a month and a half of endless stupid questions and speculations and Hot Stoves. And then, between Opening Day and October were six more months of missed parties and bad baseball and even more stupid questions. And then, only then … maybe, just maybe, he might see his dreams fulfilled. He was too tired for that. He was beyond exhausted in every sense. More exhausted than a full night or even a full month of sleep was going to cure. Opening Day … it stung him.

More than anything else in the world, for his own sake, he needed to be that fan on the chair and not an employee in that press box. He needed to re-find that love he felt that drove him into this job. He needed to be sitting in his friend’s house and he needed to love this game again. Otherwise, he just might hate it.

He took off his security badge and laid it down on the table. He then took off his press pass and clubhouse pass and his walkie-talkie and placed them all on the table. He stood up, looked at the woman, and smiled. “April … see you then.” Alvarez then turned around, shook a couple of the reporters’ hands, shared an uncomfortable laugh with the press box attendants, and walked out into the bowels of the stadium and out into Winter, with all the other fans.