Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Second

Standing there at home plate, he hears everything in the stadium … every voice, every noise, every tiny movement of the stadium itself. He hears the fathers telling their sons to be ready for foul balls and to get their mitts ready. He hears the control room assistant telling the cameraman to zoom in on the pretty girl in the high right-field stands. He hears the change falling into the pockets of the hot dog and beer vendors. Most of all, however, he can hear the grass. He can hear it talking to him, telling him how important THIS was. He can hear it telling him that he made the right choices in life, that it was his job. Tuck can hear it swaying in the wind chanting his name, almost mocking him.

He tries to ignore it. Tries to focus on the at-bat. He tries to focus on hitting the ball over the wall and then the pitch comes in. It comes in fast and he starts his swing just as the ball bursts into flames. He can’t stop his swing and fire explodes off his bat. The grass coming off the home plate circle ignites, and like a massive black powder trail, the fire spreads out across the infield, consuming the grass. In a flash, the outfield grass is aflame and he is surrounded by the tongues of fire. He can still hear every noise in the stadium, but now they are all focused on him. The fathers and sons chant his name. The vendors shake their change-laden pockets to make as much noise as they can. The assistant shouts at the cameraman to turn toward the field. Yet, they don’t seem to notice the field engulfed in flames. No one seems to notice the flames surrounding him.

As he looks around the stadium, all the people start to disappear. One by one, they simply fade away beyond the flames until, finally, there is just one man sitting in the left-field stands … his brother, who stares intently at him.

The aging ballplayer opens his eyes and sighs deeply, as he can still see the flames. He spends the rest of the night, staring at the ceiling, wondering what he is doing back in this city.

He got up and went to the window. He sees the flames everywhere he goes, but, especially, in this city … he couldn’t believe he was back here. He studied everything out his window, intently. How had he been talked back here? Why was he here? Was this where he was supposed to be? Of course, the mixture of decrepit buildings with modern skyscrapers gave him no answers. He once knew this city … this town … like the back of his hand. Tuck could walk blindfolded, from end to end. It wasn’t a perfect town … far from it, but it had been his town at one point. A focal place of pride for him. It was a town adopted by him and his brother. Although they discovered the town from two different perspectives, they both had loved it for the same reasons. Reasons that now escaped him. He loved this town, almost desperately, right up to the moment that he had to run from it to save what was left of his soul.

Why was he here?

Why was he headed to the press conference?

Why wasn’t this all behind him now?

Why didn’t he score?

He can’t let it go. He could have stepped on the inside of second base. Had he watched the ball coming out of the box too long? He could have done a better slide. It has ached at him for the couple of months since it happened and he was haunted by it. That helplessness of lying in the dirt was now living in the center of his brain and there was no shaking it. It continued to eat away at his soul.

He had spent most of the last few days arguing with his agent about this decision. Tuck insisted that he couldn’t go back … that he wouldn’t go back. He felt his journey in this town was done, and with the exception of a few series, he wanted nothing to do with being back. It wasn’t just the memories he thought about. It was his legacy. He knew he left under bad terms, but he felt the average fan … the good fans … had given him a pass on the things that happened. Coming back, when he knew his career was all but over, except for one hit, he didn’t want to hurt his fans and his legacy anymore. There were no more passes to be had. Dealing with your own ghosts was one thing, but dealing with a new set of expectations that surely couldn’t be met … well, that was something else.

Just when he thought he was through with his agent on the subject, two nights ago an envelope was delivered to his home. There was no return address, no indication of who it was from. He had no idea where it came from.

He opened it up to find the ticket. Anxiety and fear and that hopeless feeling gripped him in a sudden wash of emotions. He carefully traced the edges with his index finger, feeling for the imperfections … the notches. He recognized the smears of ink on it and the damage. It was unchanged since the moment it was first handed to him so many summers ago.

He remembered it like it was yesterday. It was a perfect day late in that summer … those days when the sun was searing during the day, but a windbreaker or sweatshirt was needed at night. And the nights were starting to come noticeably earlier each day. That particular evening was perfect for baseball and reminded him of his days playing baseball with his brother. There were days when they would play from dawn until dinner and nights like these seemed to be crowns on the top of perfect days. The crickets and cicadas would chirp and buzz, almost as if they were summoning the night. This was one of those nights when all was simply perfect with the world. However, that night would turn from perfect to nightmare and all he could think of was the horror of it as he looked at the ticket.

If that day seemed like yesterday, that night seemed like a lifetime ago … it was a foggy memory that seemed more of a dream than reality and could easily be passed off as one if it did not carry so much pain with it. However, a curious thing happened the longer he stared at the ticket … and he stared at it for a long, long time. The more he stared at it, the more the anxiety and fear started to recede. A sense of pride and purpose overtook him. It was almost as if he could feel his brother’s heartbeat in the ticket and it brought him comfort and peace. He could almost feel it transforming him on the inside. The ticket was a symbol of a moment before his world came crashing down. It was a marker of the last good moments he could remember and the longer he stared at it, the less it hurt.

It wasn’t so much a ticket to a game anymore, but a ticket back to a place where those perfect summer days were a metaphor for the life he had…A life he could have back if he learned to let things go.

After staring at it for half a night, he went to put it down when he noticed something written on the back: “It’s time to go home.”

The Agent, Rufus, looked at his friend, the aging Player and he was not the man he knew. This was not his friend. This was an anguished, angry, tired shell of the man that he once knew. This man pouted and stared icily through the limo windows as he sat next to him. Of course, he was his friend, but not the person he knew so many years ago. What was once a close friendship had deteriorated slowly into an almost strictly business relationship since the funeral, but he still looked out for him as a friend rather than a client.

Less than two weeks had passed since he came across the ticket stub in his scrapbook. Tuck was his first client when neither of them was known to anybody. His father had kept a scrapbook for his team in the past and he thought it appropriate to keep a scrapbook of his client to mark his milestones. Of course, he had initially intended it to be a portfolio to show potential clients, but soon only his client … his friend … was tracked in this book. He had realistic expectations that once he became a star, he would leave him for a bigger agent, but his friend stayed loyal to him, even as he became the biggest star in the game. Most of his other clients left the moment they no longer had to carry their own bags and didn’t need someone to pick up their “girls” from the local bar.

Rufus had taken the walk into the past, those careful steps with his fingers through the scrapbook looking for his friend. He knew what had happened to him, but he was lost for an explanation of why, all these years later, he had yet to recover from the devastation. That kind of loss would hurt anyone. You experience that pain and you survive it, you put distance into the void to survive. But he … he just seemed to get worse as more time passed. He alienated more and more of those around him. While a still better-than-average ballplayer, he played with anger and anguish rather than joy and excitement. He had nothing left to prove to this game and his fans, yet he went out there every day with a chip on his shoulder. He never smiled and rarely showed any emotion except frustration when things didn’t go his way. He wondered why his friend played at all anymore. He clearly hated the game and everything around it.

He skipped past the high school clippings (he had done his homework) and the minor league feature stories. He ignored the early part of Tuck’s career and went to the first newspaper article dealing with that night when everything changed. There was a lot written in the local paper, especially with the connection to a star ballplayer. The article covered nearly a quarter of the pages of the book.

He came to the article that covered the funeral. He carefully read through the details and looked through the pictures. His friend’s eyes looked hollow … empty, devoid of the light that once shone brightly from them. He remembers that it was the first time he had seen that look on his friend, but it was the only look he has seen since.

It was a well-written piece by one of the sportswriters. It wasn’t a typical piece that a sportswriter would do, but, as he understood the story, the writer had been moved by the service, wrote it, and submitted it to his editor who published it. It was almost poetry as it spun together the writer’s own words with the words of others and it was the words from a Bible passage/hymn that struck him the strongest:

   “Be not afraid. I go before you always.
   Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.
   If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown.
   If you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed.
   If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side,
   Know that I am with you through it all.
   Be not afraid. I go before you always.
   Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.”

He rubbed his fingers across these particular words, almost as if he were trying to make them more concrete. As he did so, he felt something beneath the paper … something stuck between the newsprint and scrapbook page. He carefully lifted the corner of the newspaper and saw the ticket stub. His heart skipped a beat as he realized it wasn’t just any ordinary ticket stub. It was a ticket stub from THAT night. Technically, it wasn’t a stub at all, but an unused ticket. The print was smeared on one edge from water and another edge was burnt.

Rufus thought about a stadium full of suits. Since the new stadium was built, the suits came out of the exposed steelwork. It was the hip, trendy thing. It was what suits did and they overran the new stadium, and the owners welcomed them and their open wallets. The suits had big wallets too, but the fans … the die-hard fans, they did not. A ballgame wasn’t just something they did for fun after work … that was a thing of the past. Now it was an event, something they worked hard for and maybe even saved for. It was a treasured moment.

Of course, he laughed at the irony of his thoughts, for he knew he was a suit. And he knew this ticket was a gift from a guy in a sillier suit than most to a treasured brother. On THAT night, however, part of the game was being played out by one brother while another fought a fire just a few blocks away. By the time one brother closed out the night with three home runs and five hits, the second brother was emerging from a fire with a child in his arms. As the younger brother was celebrating a career night with his teammates, the second brother’s body was being carried from the building by his fellow firefighters. By the end of the night, the younger brother was sobbing and clutching a pair of ticket stubs, cursing the world.

As he understood the story, the player’s brother, Carl, had rescued a boy from a house fire and went back in, trying to rescue a girl, when he got trapped by the flames. Knowing his fellow firefighters were about to break through a wall that would free him, Carl gave the child his mask and covered her with his jacket, and tried to stay as low as possible. The girl emerged from the flames alive and relatively unharmed. Tuck’s brother passed away on the floor of the inferno, a hero to two children.

It seemed as if the entire city had turned out for the funeral, along with the entire team. Other players, former teammates, were given the time away from their teams to support their friend. Many members of the opposing team were there as well. The scene of professional athletes walking and talking solemnly with heartbroken firefighters was a scene that he will never forget and a scene that he wishes he had never had to witness. The outpouring of love for the brothers in that small city touched everyone, even Tuck. Ultimately, it was this that would drive him away.

Rufus pulled himself back to the present and spent the rest of that night staring at the ticket and rereading the article over and over. He hadn’t seen the ticket in seven years … he barely remembers sticking it in the scrapbook. By dawn, he knew what he had to do. He knew it was going to be a difficult battle, one that may even cost him what was left of their friendship, but he knew what must be done.

He still felt resolve now, as he stared at his friend who continued to look out the window, like a captain who searches the horizon for safe harbor in a storm.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Faith and Miracles

This last chapter of the novel, as well as the next (and probably a few more from the Interns perspective) really are non-fiction with a bit of embellishment of my first six months out of college. I lived in a small apartment with two other guys. I worked as a bank teller (don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed that job and developed some great friendships at the bank, but I couldn’t see a future there for myself and I couldn’t imagine a job at a bank that would make me happy with my career.)

Most of my dress shirts (yeah, both of them) were tearing at the elbows and really couldn’t be worn without a jacket. Meals were always an adventure as I was forced to come up with some strange combinations(like pork n’ beans and rice). And, sometimes, my car needed a push to start. At the time, it was frustrating and scary, but when I look back at it now, it is a badge of honor. I look at where I am now and humbles me.

I constantly felt frustrated and worried about how I was going to pay bills and where my career was taking me. I was constantly searching the classifieds for a job … or even just an interview … and it was one disappointment after another. In the rare instances that I got an interview, I would blow it because I simply did not know how to do an interview.

A moldy piece of bread really wasn’t what finally stirred me out of my contentment with where I was at that moment. If I recall correctly, it was a small fight with Andrea that I had. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but we had discussed the possibility that I would have to move back home if things didn’t change (she was still in college). At that point, I felt that I had to force the change and make something happen, which is exactly what I did (sorry, but I’ll have to leave that as a cliffhanger…there will be more on that with the next chapter about the intern and my follow up).

As I alluded to in the last post, I carry a very strong faith inside me, but these days I keep it mostly to myself. I still say my prayers every night and when I am facing a difficult time. I also pray when things go right. I have a bible I keep on my nightstand so that it is usually the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning as I reach for the light. I use to be very involved with organizing youth retreats and youth groups, but over the last 10-15 years, my faith has become more personal and private. However, it was my faith that took me through and out of those dark times and my faith that has helped me to where I am.

That said, I don’t necessarily believe in coincidences, but I do believe in both small miracles that happen every day as well as the big ones that happen from time to time. I don’t believe God comes right out and talks to anyone directly, but He is there, speaking to us as long as you know where to listen.

The events that began with this chapter … the frustration followed by the realization of what I knew I had to do next, along with the events with the next Intern chapter, are mostly real and, in my mind, examples of these little and big miracles.

Sometime in a future post, I am going to talk more about my faith, but I can’t go into it more without giving away a bit of the story, so, again, I am sorry for the cliffhanger.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Second

In time, the giant lurching machine would become a nightmare for him, but at the moment, the young man— Michael, the Intern—could barely contain his excitement. As the overgrown copier, literally filling a room by itself, processed each individual piece of paper, seemingly with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal coronation, the Intern had difficulty treating any single thought in his mind as anything more than a passing fly. It wasn’t that none of his thoughts were worth more than the brief moment it existed within his brain, it’s that he was completely and utterly overwhelmed by that singularly mundane action of making photocopies.

Michael considered himself a student of history and not just the history that entire university departments are built around. He was a fan of the mundane moments in both average and above-average lives that direct the course of personal histories as well as the ones that get etched in books. He knew that every moment in time had its own history and that every moment in time set the course for future moments. History was an endless, timeless progression of mundane moments, some of which stay mundane and some of which become quite a bit more. And he knew, all too well, how a single moment could be completely mundane to one person, was life-changing—history-changing—for someone else.

It was a series of mundane moments that unfolded in perfect order that landed him there, listening to those individual pieces of paper run through that particular copier in that cramped room within that warehouse within THAT ballpark. And while the information being imprinted on each of those papers was only slightly more than mundane, it would eventually write a history that was, well, historic … life-changing.

His journey … his roller coaster ride … to this mundane moment started with a moldy, mundane piece of bread.

Searching for a job had started to eat away at him as each day passed and his phone remained silent. It was a soul-destroying endeavor, leaving his confidence crumbling. It seemed relentless and there was no light … just a tunnel.

The classified ads, the internet jobs searches, the emails looking for help … they are an endless list of words that soon form a checklist of failure for him.. They crashed and rocked his spirits, testing him emotionally and physically. Occasionally, there would be a dash of hope, depending on the publication or even day of the week, but it would inevitably get crushed.. With each page of classifieds turned, the desperation mounts and begins to consume. More often than not, the last page is turned without offering up even a tease of salvation.

He treats each application like sacred prose, crafting his notes carefully, each word chosen and written as if it was the word that would save his life…In a way, they were. Each is placed into position until the perfect combination of poetry and dissertation have been met. Ever so carefully, the sheet of paper, as if living ceramic, is placed into its bottle. Heart and soul are then poured in before it is gently placed into the abyss … a vast ocean off to the distant shoreline and the young man stares into the heavens, looking for St. Elmo himself.

Three weeks had passed since he had driven off into a rainstorm to find some peace of mind and found, instead, a piece of his heart that he had long forgotten. While he found direction and hope, he still had yet to find the means to his salvation. He had spent nearly every hour outside of work researching teams and sending resumes. The glimpse of hope had made him impatient, which made him anxious, which in turn made him depressed. Realistically, he did not expect to hear back from anyone, not right away, but with each unanswered resume that he sent off, hope would sink a little more.

The stress was rising and each new day seemed to bring another argument with his girlfriend. Meals of baked beans on rice were growing old and he longed for more. He didn’t want much, he thought, he just wanted to be proud of himself. He wanted his loved ones to be proud of him. He wanted the option to return home to not be an option at all. Returning home now, he felt, was something he’d never recover from. Something he would never live down, and surely he would lose everything. Returning home meant drowning.

It all weighed heavily as Michael stared into the mirror and tied his five-dollar tie and pulled on his out-of-fashion sports coat, mostly just to cover the dress shirt that was wearing away at the elbows. His job wasn’t bad and he worked with mostly good people. However, it’s not what he wanted … it isn’t what he felt he was destined for. He needed more and he felt that everyone around him knew that.

Before grabbing his wallet from his nightstand, he glanced down at the Bible that he had owned since grammar school. He touched the cover gently with two of his fingers and muttered, to himself … or to whoever might be listening … “Please help me.”

He went down the long corridor to the kitchen that he shared with two other guys. Another breakfast of toast and some bizarre butter-like spread. Just as he dropped the bread into the toaster, he noticed the small green patch on the corner and something snapped, and then something else snapped, and then, in an instant, he felt like his whole life just … snapped.

The typical wooden mousetrap is a relatively simple device. Anyone who has taken the time to look at one … to examine it … realizes just how simple it is. A small piece of wood with bits of steel arranged in such a way that someone not knowing what it is would think it is a puzzle. It is designed to create what, on a relative basis, is a small bit of tension. That tension is all held together by an extremely small bit of metal attached to a lever that is literally just waiting to release its full force.

When triggered, the tension is released in a split second, which, in the absence of a mouse or a finger, slams into the plank of wood and sends it flipping. The key is in that tension that it holds. Individually, it isn’t much to speak of. Now, in a room whose floor is covered in these traps, each one of them is set and waiting to release its tension. A precarious balance is maintained as each and every trap waits for its trigger, whether it is maybe a mouse or maybe even just a fly, or possibly, even just the breakdown in the small, roughly made piece of metal. All it takes is for just one of those tension bombs to go off, and within moments, every trap will have exploded as one flips in the air, crashes down on two others that explode, resulting in a cascade of snapping wood.

Each overdue bill, each meal of rice and beans, each item he couldn’t afford, the girl he loved 99 miles away, the holes in the clothes he struggled to pass off as dress clothes, the pain-in-the-ass co-worker, the car that sometimes needed to be pushed to start it, and every other stress was individually, in and of itself, just a small, relatively harmless mouse trap, sitting by itself in his mind. He managed to keep them in order … keep them all in a delicate balance and away from each other. For a long time now, it seemed, he kept them from going off. He kept them balanced and protected. He had no other choice.

However, for some reason, that small patch of mold … that mundane patch of mold on a mundane piece of bread in a mundane moment in a mundane morning … was a feather that came from nowhere and innocently landed on just one of those traps. Michael felt his brain explode.

After walking to the back door, physically “rearranging” the structure of the loaf of bread and “decorating” his own car with it from the second-story apartment, he walked back to his room, pulling back off his clothes while also adjusting the physical structure of his shirt.

He could feel the anger flooding through his brain like the waters of a tsunami. It swept in, unchallenged and unmitigated, filling every corner of his brain. It was an instant and scary amount of energy let loose within him, and there was no outlet and no telling what he could do at that moment. Only a small thread of logic held on and sent him into his room, away from the belongings of his roommates. He remained rational enough to know that punishing the few nice things he had wasn’t the answer, either. However, the energy, the forces that were unleashed needed an outlet. The frustration needed someplace to go.

He collapsed face-first into his bed and put his mouth into his pillow and from the very deepest part of his soul, he let out a series of long guttural screams. The pure frustration poured out and it wasn’t long before they turned to cries for help as he felt the world spinning out of control. It wasn’t long after that he just turned to sobbing.

After several minutes of this, he calmed down and tried to figure out what to do next when he heard a familiar sound … a slow almost silent sound. It was the kind of sound that could possibly be always present in the background of life. A soft swaying sound that doesn’t play in any sort of melody. A slow sound that could almost be a whisper speaking so softly that it is lost among all the other sounds that clutter life. Yet a sound so strong that once it is heard, it can’t be ignored and you are left wondering if it had, in fact, always been present. It is a sound, a whisper that can only be heard once all other noise has been cleared. The ears … the brain … the heart needs to be prepared to hear it.

Suddenly he felt a sensation of relief brought on by this strange, yet familiar sound, and as he felt his body sink into itself, chills spread up his spine. He remembered what the sound was … It was the sound of the wind blowing gently through the corn stalks at the baseball field that day. He could feel his brain calming again. He felt the tsunami waters receding from his head. Michael could feel all those problems, all his issues disappearing into the corn stalks. He felt as if he was back standing on that field. And he wept a little bit more.

He thought of the bright green grass of the field standing in contrast to the golden corn stalks that surrounded it. He could see all of it against the background of the orange, red, and green hillsides under crystal clear blue skies, and he felt as if he was back there. Back where it was just him and the diamond and the voice of a thousand ears of corn. He knew it was time to listen. Time to stop ignoring and time to start listening. Time to shut down all the other noises and time to listen for real.

Finally, he opened his eyes to figure out where it had come from. He sat up in his bed and looked around his tiny bedroom and realized his door was closed, as were his windows. He didn’t bother trying to figure it out for very long and he accepted it. As he looked around, he saw the Bible on his nightstand again. This time, he noticed an old ticket stub in its pages that a friend who knew how much he loved baseball, had given him a few months ago. It was from one of the first games at the brand new ballpark.

He wasn’t sure how the tan, yellow, orange, and black ticket stub had gotten into his Bible. He remembered driving with his friend, who had pulled it casually off his dash and told him to take it, telling him a story about going to the game with another baseball junkie. He no longer remembered the details but had thought it odd that his friend would have gone to the game. He never picked him to be much of a fan.

He remembers carefully sticking it in a shirt pocket, someplace he could protect it from getting wrinkled. He loved old ticket stubs. There was something magical about them. Each had its own story about joy or heartbreak. They were both anticipation, fulfillment, and memory all rolled into a small piece of cardboard. For him, they were magic. He had one from every game he had ever been to and kept them in a baseball encyclopedia that his uncle had given him when he was younger. He figured that he was getting undressed and had put it in the Bible that was always on his nightstand until he could get it into the encyclopedia.

He picked up the Bible and flipped to the page marked with the ticket stub.

One line popped off the page for him: “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

He looked at the stub again and reread the passage. Michael knew what he had to do. The next thing he knew, there he was, weeks later, making copies that had the information that the whole baseball world was waiting for (or so he imagined) and getting ready to help with his first press conference.

All thanks to one mundane, life-changing, personal history-changing moment.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Diving in to the Cigar Box

I can’t say that I have every ticket stub to every game I have ever been to. I can’t say that all the ones I do have are neatly collected in the same spot. However, I do have a cigar box with a few old ticket stubs (including Jets, Giants, and NY/NJ Knights football), my 1996 Orioles Employee ID, a couple of media passes, parking passes for Camden Yards, 2000 World Series Pre-Game Party tickets, a business card for October Turtle Statistics Services and a small crucifix that my father gave me at the end of a retreat I went to when I was a junior in high school.

At one point I had one of those old-timey barbershop hats made out of styrofoam with Mets logos on it. I am not sure if it was a giveaway or what, but for a very long time, I would put my ticket stubs in between the hat and paper band around it. I wonder if I still have that hat.

Anyway, I’m not going to lie…there is no special story around the cigar box…I had actually blindly bought it on eBay just a few years back along with a few others after I had written the previous chapter. So, there is no significance to this cigar box.

The tickets in the box include the first Mets game I had ever gone to. Wednesday, May 4, 1988. Mezzanine Section 8, row A seat 12. Before looking at the ticket, the details I remembered were that this game was in May of 1987 against the Astros, was in the Mezzanine in section 8. Sid Fernandez was pitching and Jesse Orosco pitched as well. Howard Johnson hit two home runs and the Mets won by a lot. After looking up the ticket and then the boxscore, I had some details wrong, but mostly, my memory did not let me down. I had the correct section, but the wrong year (I originally thought it was in 1987). Fernandez did pitch 5 innings giving up just one hit but Orosco did not pitch. Terry Leach did. HoJo did not hit two home runs…just one. Tim Teufel hit the other homer. (I still remember the thrill of witnessing my first live home run, but apparently, I don’t remember any of the details because I thought it was HoJo to right field, but it was Teufel to left-center.)

All that said, the contents of the cigar box really strikes an emotional chord with me at the moment. In a big way, it somehow encapsulates what this project…this book is about. My love of baseball is abundantly clear through this, but also lessons in chasing dreams.

October Turtle was a baseball statistics company I attempted to start. I wrote and sold a piece of software to the Orioles as well as some other services. Ultimately it failed. However, my Orioles ID and the Mets tickets show that some dreams do come true, even when others fail, a desperately needed reminder as I embark on this dream.

While baseball first inspired me to write, I was only writing for myself. I didn’t show anybody else what I was writing because I was afraid. I kept my candle under a basket. During my Junior year, I attended a retreat through my high school. That retreat would play a pretty important role in turning my life around. While it is a story for another time, it ultimately resulted in my sharing the things I wrote with my friends and family. The crucifix in the box was given to me on the last day of the retreat at the closing mass by my father who had it from a retreat that he had gone on when he was younger. In giving that cross to me, he revealed a side of himself I had seldom seen and I was deeply touched that he would share that with me. I still remember the moment like it was yesterday and it helped inspire me.

I forget exactly how it came about, but around that time I started using “Michaelangelo” as a goofy name during subsequent retreats and ultimately as a penname during college. I remember that I use to have an “elevator pitch” ready to explain why I used Michaelangelo, but for the life of me, I cannot remember why. I just know it had to do with some metaphor with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

So, anyway, the strangest part about this trip into the cigar box that I literally just noticed today…the box has the name of the cigars on the side: Michelangelo (yes, spelled differently than the version I used). I don’t ever remember noticing it before. With my memory getting old, it is possible I bought that box just because it said Michelangelo, but I feel like that would be something I would remember, even if I can’t remember what I had for lunch today.

Despite being involved in retreats and church groups in my teens and twenties, these days I mostly keep my faith to myself. However, in the next couple of weeks, my book and these blog posts will delve into that a bit more. However, finding that cigar box and its contents just reaffirms my faith and gives me hope.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Second

Abigail thought about having them put into a series of nice frames with a fancy mat or even have a custom-made table with them between the wood and glass, but then she wouldn’t be able to take them out, touch them, run her finger along the perforated edges. Each one of these ticket stubs was a little masterpiece of art, in her mind, and grouping them together under glass was like making a collage out of Da Vinci’s original works. Of course, stuffing them in an old cigar box in a stack didn’t do them justice either, but traditions often are born from the mundane, and treasures like these are meant to be touched and experienced.

In high school, she remembers doing a research project on the Grand Canyon and how it had been slowly carved away for eons by a river that sat at its bottom. She was fascinated by the wonderful pictures that highlighted all the layers stacked on top of each other, each a different color and shade than the previous ones that made up the inside walls.

In one of the pictures, it showed inset pictures representing the various eras of earth’s history and the history of the canyon with lines pointing to specific layers. There were drawings of dinosaurs and ancient sea life and diagrams of geological events. They were literally layers of time represented in the canyon. The thickness of layers often told stories as important as what was in the layer itself.

This is how she viewed her tickets in the box. While some of the tickets represented the key moments in her life in and of themselves, some tickets were more representative of what was going on in her life. Each ticket was a layer of her history and sometimes, even the time that elapsed between the dates on the tickets, told a story of her life. There were stretches of time when her kids were born that there were just one or two tickets, while other stretches, when she was a kid, had a number of tickets. The closer to the bottom of the box she dug, the further back in her childhood she went.

Her first baseball game was Opening Day on her ninth birthday. Her father took her out of school, and they walked up to the stadium, which was about 15 blocks away, with throngs of other fans—all dressed in orange and black. There were old men and young women. There were men in shirts and ties and there were men like her father, who somehow managed to get out of the factory for the afternoon. There were mothers bravely venturing into the masses alone with their children. There were people of all races and colors dressed in a single set of colors, calmly racing toward the ballpark.

As they got closer, chants started rising from the crowds, and a buzz of excited talk rose like a beehive. There was laughter and smiles and even the occasional somber old-timer. Abigail particularly liked those fans. They liked to observe Opening Day like a religious holiday, celebrating rebirth, remembering players, moments, and seasons of the past while memorializing the heartbreaks that went before. Regardless of who they were or where they were from, they all excitedly made their way to the stadium, with her among them with her hand in her father’s hand.

They had walked for what seemed like an eternity among the three-story apartment buildings and storefronts, some of which were closing up for the game. They came in and out of the sunshine as they crossed streets and alleyways. Just as she was starting to wonder if they would ever make it, they were there.

They walked out of the last shadow, came around the corner, and suddenly she was awash in the sun’s full glow. They stepped off the curb into what seemed like a vast ocean of sunshine. Her eyes made their way across the parking lot, hardly noticing the array of cars and people that had gathered there, to the stadium itself, which sat in the center of the sunlight on a slight hill.

Looking at the grand stadium from straight on and at a distance, the main facade face was tall and majestic, with its sides sloped quickly away from the center until they met with the horizon. The giant silver letters at the top of the stadium’s face reflected the afternoon rays brilliantly. The tan and pale red bricks appeared to be on fire. It all came together to give the stadium the appearance of the sun itself, escaping from a long Winter’s night.

She hadn’t realized that she had stopped walking and felt her dad give a gentle tug as he now stood just to the right of where the stadium was rising up on the horizon. He smiled at her and the image was burned into her brain for life.

Abigail doesn’t remember much else from the game, except getting back to their house afterward. She was clutching her ticket tightly, feeling that if she let go of it, she would lose that feeling … that memory … forever. When her mother asked her to go wash up for dinner, she looked at her father nervously. He understood exactly what the problem was and told her to wait there before disappearing into the living room. He returned with one of his empty cigar boxes, opened it, carefully took the ticket from her hand, and placed it in. He smiled again at her and handed her the box, telling her to go put it in her room and clean up.

Since then, every ticket for every game she had attended went into that box. He only smoked cigars while watching his boys play, and the smoke would gather around his head and just above him as, for the most part, he would calmly watch and listen to the games unfold from his chair in the living room. He didn’t particularly care for the television announcers, so he would have the sound down on the TV with the radio broadcast on. Every so often, when there was a big game or a particular pressure-filled moment, he would sit at the edge of his seat, with his teeth tightly clutching the cigar. There was more than one time when he inevitably chomped down on it during a particularly frustrating moment. Of course, the moment was made worse when he was left gagging and trying to spit out the loose tobacco leaves that were now stuck to his teeth and the inside of his mouth.

There are times when, if she opens the cigar box on a lazy Sunday afternoon and the sunlight is pouring through the windows just the right way, that she can see the ghost of her father sitting in his chair … the hunter’s chair … in the center of her living room, directly in front of the television. She can see his strong, freckled hand, made rough by what seemed like two lifetimes at the steel mill, calmly tapping the face of one of the hunting images that made up the rustic pattern of the chair. She knew exactly how many hunters and deer and wild turkeys and ducks were on that chair … as a child Abigail had counted them over and over again as hours were washed away by baseball games at her father’s side. It was his favorite chair, but the funny thing was that he never even hunted. He didn’t even like eating venison. Yet it was centered in front of the television and directly to the left of the radio and if he wasn’t sitting in a seat at the stadium, he was sitting there for every game.

When she was younger, he would carefully explain everything going on and the rules of the game as they applied to a particular situation. When she got older, he would continue to carefully explain everything going on and the rules of the game as they applied to a particular situation. In high school, she used to get mad at him, feeling he was treating her like a child. During college, she looked forward to coming home and listening to his voice, and explaining it all over again. Of course, he always also shared his strategy if he were the manager and stories of players long gone. What she would give to hear his voice again, even just to hear him explain the right way to tag up.

She would always look through her box of baseball tickets (with a few other sports mixed in) during the dead of winter so that she could remember the chilly, hope-filled springs, the warm, life-giving summers, and the adrenaline-charged autumns. Sometimes, if she was just feeling nostalgic, she would take a trip back in time with them, and she would always notice something new about them. Something about them made her feel whole again, after a particularly troubling time.

Abigail kept the box on the coffee table or the bookshelf or the mantel in the living room so that it was always handy. Just looking at the box itself, on some days, was enough to make her smile. The sides of the box had some scratches and a few crayon marks from her kids coloring on it at times. One side was a bit scorched, and every time she noticed that, it made her wonder about miracles.

On this particular day, she journeyed back through the layers of her life in that box as she listened to the local sports radio show. They were going to cut away soon to a press conference at the Ballpark where the team was going to announce the city’s worst-kept secret, that they were bringing their prodigal son home.

She dug down through the cigar box, scanning dates and opponents on each ticket until she found the one she was looking for. With the exception of some special occasions like playoff games or Opening Day, tickets did not shout out their importance. Just like the game they heralded, it was numbers that often told the whole story. The only clue that a ticket witnessed history was in the date on the face.

She stared at this particular date and she is guessing that most people wouldn’t know the significance of the date … mid-April, 22 years ago. She had come home from college for the weekend for one last mental break before the final push and she and her father, last minute, decided to take in the game. There was some kid that had been ripping it up in the minors and was brought up to replace another rookie who had a better spring, but who, now, couldn’t get his bat on the ball. Her father had been tracking him since he was drafted and was excited to see him get his chance.

Their seats were in the second level, overlooking left field. She sat amused when the kid lay down in the outfield grass while his teammates were warming up. Surely he was going to get busted on by his teammates after the game. Abigail remembers the pride in her father’s eyes as they stood cheering in the second inning with the kid rounding third and heading home after hitting a home run in his first major league at-bat and thinking that his teammates wouldn’t give him that much grief after the game. She remembers the giddy chatter between her and her father as they walked home after the 1-0 win, where the only hit in the game by either team was by the rookie, and laughing about how the kid would be an instant legend to his teammates.

Throughout the game, her father continued his lectures on how the fielders should be playing the different batters and how the mechanics of the stars were off. For the first five innings, he even proceeded to talk about how the pitcher for his boys looked flat and that he was only getting lucky. He ended up with a mouthful of cigar leaves when the first baseman misplayed a ground ball for an error in the seventh. He was let off the hook for a bit. Then the pitcher hit a batter in the eighth, and by then, her father’s eyes were wide and the only thing coming out of his mouth was the cigar smoke. It was the only time she had ever seen him so quiet during a game.

Before they had gotten to the later innings, they had talked about school and how her classes were going. She told him of the jobs she hoped to get when she graduated. She even told him that she was going to apply for part-time jobs and internships with the team. He was always good at making sure he had the time for her and not just the game. She felt the pride he held for her right down to her soul. Even after four years in college, Abigail’s favorite thing in life was spending a sunny afternoon at the ballpark.

It was one of the most amazing games she had ever witnessed in her life, and her father, in the way he went on about it the rest of the day, confirmed the same for himself. She wasn’t sure if she had ever seen him happier. She likes to think that game was the last thing that her father was thinking about later that night when he passed away in his chair.

Abigail had found him when she came back from a night out with her friends; the late news was showing highlights from the game. Although he was long gone by then, she thought it fitting. The next several hours would become a blur with all the people in and out of the house, and the next concrete memory she had was sobbing in a heap next to that chair.

The ticket she held now wasn’t even her ticket, at least from a technical standpoint. At the wake, she had slipped her ticket into the suit pocket of her father. She had taken his ticket off his dresser and had put it in the cigar box.

Anyone else going through that box of tickets would have skipped right past that one. She would always feel an especially strong bond with that player for the central role he played in the beautiful and utterly special last day she had with her father. She found tears streaming down her face as she listened to the team’s GM talk about how happy they were to have the player back, at both a personal and professional level. She listened to the player’s brief comments that hinted at a final season.

She had a few of her father’s other tickets in there, but most of the rest were hers. Except for one. In the earth layers inside a canyon, scientists often look for that smoking gun layer … the layer that clearly marks the end of the dinosaurs. They look for that dark, ash-filled sediment that clearly identifies when and from where the giant asteroid changed the course of the earth’s history.

In Abigail’s cigar box, the edges of one ticket … blackened and burned … stood out among all the others. It wasn’t her ticket, but it was her ticket. In the same way that the asteroid didn’t belong to the earth but is indelibly part of the earth. There were just a few layers of her life that came after that ticket and she carefully removed them and placed them to the side so that she could take a long look at the burned and blackened ticket. As she listened to the Player’s voice, as she listened to him talk about what this city meant to him, tears swelled in her eyes until one fell down to the face of the ticket. It was not the first time that a teardrop had fallen on that ticket.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Brothers and Grass

Writing the character of the Player in my story was the most difficult part of this. Obviously, I never played professionally and only actually spent one season on a Little League team. So, I had to dig a little deeper to imagine what went on in a player’s head. I had a little bit to base it on, being around a clubhouse and watching players act and interact with each other, but I was mostly shooting in the dark. However, at the end of the day, baseball players are still human with emotions that, like everyone else, have jobs to do. So I focused on that aspect and kind of hoped I didn’t get the baseball player parts that wrong.

I also had a very specific player as a model for this character. It was someone I encountered late in their career and, for some reason, spent a lot of time thinking about him and what must drive him. Now, my Player’s story has really nothing to do with this guy, but when I played out these scenes in my head, I had a very clear image of this real-life player acting them out for me.

I think it was for my 8th-grade graduation that my brother Kyle and my brother-in-law Bo bought me my first baseball mitt. I loved that glove and it didn’t take long for it to get broken in. Kyle and I would spend so much time in front of our house, in the road, tossing the ball back and forth. Sometimes we liked to play a game to see how loud we could get the other person’s glove to pop (aka as hurting their hand), sometimes we would throw popups to each other. Sometimes it was just grounders. However, it felt like hours and hours that we did that and I enjoyed every second of it.

While Kyle and I spent a lot of our earlier childhood exploring the woods behind our house, looking for frogs and salamanders and floating GI Joe figures down the creek, by the time we were teenagers, the woods seemed like a distant memory, even if we did wander down there occasionally. Throwing the baseball around with him, I felt, kept us close long after the woods swallowed up our footprints.

As much as I think of my friends when it comes to baseball, I think about those catches with Kyle. I think the relationships between brothers (and siblings in general) are important and have an obviously huge impact in shaping lives. So that connection, between brothers can be so important.

Grass, obviously, is a big theme in this book. Like with the character in this chapter, there is something so magical about coming out of a dark concourse, through a narrow tunnel, and having been met by the field of grass. It gets me every time, whether it is baseball or football. It is one of the most beautiful scenes and it always takes my breath away.

My first game was in 1987. Bo got tickets through work and took me. They were in the Mezzanine level of Shea Stadium. I want to say it was section 8, but the internet has shown me that was slightly down the third-base side while I remember being on the first base side. Regardless, I was so taken back by the first view of the field as we walked through the tunnel. I am sure I stopped dead in my tracks and probably pissed someone off behind me. It was like emerging from a cave and into the Garden of Eden. It was exciting and emotional and magical all at the same time. There is just something about that vast expanse of green that strikes a romantic chord in me.

And beyond just that view of the field coming out of a stadium tunnel, there is just something about a grass field I can’t put my finger on. When I was younger, hanging out with my friends, we would talk about how we wished we had a big lawn to play football or baseball on. When I coached my kids in tee-ball, where we didn’t have a diamond, it just felt great to be standing in the grass on a warm summer day. Even now, I love the look at my freshly mowed lawn. And I wish I understood that more … maybe it is the possibilities of what can be done. Maybe that green is a reminder of life and nature in areas where it may otherwise be difficult to find. Maybe it is a reminder of summer. Who knows, but it is just something wonderful about it.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the First

Stepping out of the batter’s box, he can feel the cold creeping around him. He feels Winter not just clawing away at his face, but at his heart as well. Winter seemed to have grabbed a hold of this team in the spring and everyone was just looking to finally hand the keys over so that they can get to places where Winter never visits. He knew he felt the same way, but he hoped, with just one more moment … one more swing, to escape Winter forever but feared that no one escapes.

Wendell “Tucky Blue” Williams, or “Tuck” for short, had just watched his old team … his old fans and some old friends … taken under Winter’s icy cloak. He felt a bit heavy-hearted for them with a twinge of jealousy. They took 162 games to succumb, while he felt it took this team 16 games. It tugged at his soul that he was facing Winter again. He didn’t care about October glory anymore. There was just one thing that he cared about. There was just one thing left that he wanted—needed—to accomplish in this game. And it wasn’t so much for him or the fans and certainly not for the game. It was for someone else.

More than anything else in the world, he wanted to hit one last home run, round the bases, and disappear into the clubhouse forever. The pursuit of this home run had consumed him since early September when reaching it became possible. He simply wanted to hit it and be done with the season and this game. What seemed like a long time ago, it had stopped being fun but he didn’t know how to walk away from it.

There was a time when nothing made him happier than to stand in the grass of a baseball field. For some people, it was the sound of a ball hitting a bat or mitt; for some, it was the noise of the crowds; and for others, it was all about putting on that uniform. For Tuck, it was the grass. It was the way it moved and rippled in the breeze. The way it could change colors depending on that wind and the light. In the late afternoon sun, the grass looked like it could go on to the very edge of the earth.

One of his earliest childhood memories was going to a major league game with his parents and brother in the city. He remembered the endless dreary gray highways that went on for miles and miles that got more and more choked up the closer they got to the stadium. He remembers seeing the dirty, graffiti-covered buildings that rose up all along the edges of the awful concrete and the scary people that seemed to crawl on them. The stadium itself rose up out of a vast plain of stone, trash, and skid marks, surrounded by ribbons of congested roads that, at times, seemed to rise higher than the stadium itself.

Once inside the stadium, he remembers being awash in a din of people talking and the crackling voice of an inaudible PA announcer coming across an ancient sound system. Depending on where you were within the rumbling gut of the monster, you were hit with a mixture of smells, from cigarette smoke to the dumpsters containing yesterday’s rotting remains.

The memory is so strong for him, even now, because he never remembers being so scared in all his life. Tuck clutched his father’s hand so tight that it hurt and remembers being near tears. Until his father turned to enter into the seating bowl.

The first thing that hit him was the contrast of the sunlight that cut through the dinge of the tunnel up toward the seats. The next thing that hit him was the green. Oh, that green! The massiveness of that field stood out in stark contrast to the gray, monotone of the journey here. To his tiny eyes, it seemed like heaven … a green oasis in a bleak landscape.

More than anything else, it was that grass that made him fall in love with the game—for the game was a contrast to so many other things in life. Like the grass it is played in, it manages to grow up from the cracks in concrete villages as well as in fertile country fields. These green grass diamonds emerged out of the concrete cities like oases and broke up long tracks of country roads. They peppered the country and were unmistakable.

When he started playing T-ball, they played on an all-grass field with no well-defined diamond … just grass as far as you could see. When he moved up to Little League, he instantly wanted to play outfield. It was in the grass that he belonged.

He and his brother, Carl, were close in age and often found themselves in the same level on the same team. Long after the other kids left, he and his brother would continue to practice. They had an ever-growing bucket of balls, acquired through the years. (More often than not, they would find one or two other balls while retrieving their own foul balls and home runs.) And they would take turns throwing pitch after pitch to each other. Of course, they were always looking to strike each other out, and they each had their fair share of successes and dramatic failures.

They would then play catch, which would start with soft throws, but eventually, it would lead to them throwing the ball as hard as they could to each other. The ultimate goal was to see who could get the ball to pop loudest in the other’s glove and who could make the other rip off their glove in pain first.

Eventually, the empty bucket was set on its side at home plate and one would hit balls to the outfield for the other to shag. Sometimes they would be grounders, sometimes they would be balls that they would need to chase down, and sometimes, dive for. Regardless of the ball’s trajectory, each play would end with throwing the ball home, trying to get it in the bucket. And, of course, tracking who got the most in. Bonus points were given for landing a ball in the bucket on the fly.

When they finished, with the sun hanging low in the sky, they would sit in centerfield and talk. Sometimes, they would talk about their favorite players and their swings, their batting stances, or the way they tracked down a liner. They would go through the lineups of different teams and discuss where they would play them and whether or not they could throw them out at first on a “hit” if they were playing it just right.

Sometimes they would talk about their own games … what went wrong, what went right, how they could do better in their next game. They often used this time to plan practical jokes on their teammates … who deserved to have a salamander put in their water bottle and who needed ink on the inside of their gloves.

They talked about first crushes, first loves, first kisses, and first heartbreaks sitting in the grass. They discussed TV shows, games that didn’t involve a baseball, and movies, and frogs, and school, and family. They talked about their dreams and hopes and failures.

Sometimes, they would just stare at the grass. The sun would be so low in the sky that individual blades of grass would cast shadows several times longer than they would ever be allowed to grow. Often, he would just lay back and look off to the side, where, from such a low vantage point, the grass just went on to the very edge of his horizon, giving the appearance that it went on forever.

Regardless of what they talked about, it was just the two of them and the grass. The conversations changed and even the grass changed (they often noted that the better they got, the fewer dandelions there were), but the significance of each and every one of those moments never changed. He could piece together his entire childhood … from the moment of coming out of the tunnel at the stadium to the moment, he got drafted … in some outfield.

As a minor leaguer, he would go into the outfield before games and lie down in the grass and stare into the sky. It was his way to relax, clear his head, and calm his soul before a game. His teammates and coaches would get on him about it at first. It was how he got his nickname, laying out there in the Kentucky bluegrass like he was the grass itself. Of course “Kentucky Blue” was shortened to “Tucky Blue” which, of course, was shortened again to just “Tuck”. Regardless of the nickname, there was the perception that he was lazy. When he made the majors, again, the media hassled him about it. Once he started playing … and playing hard, his teammates and coaches stopped hassling him. However, the media never did, and they dogged him every chance they got.

During games, before the start of each inning, he would crouch down and run his hand across the top of the grass, almost like he was feeling for a heartbeat or a breath. In his mind, he was drawing energy from it … energy that would allow him to concentrate and focus in the field. There were times that he would think, with a smile to himself, that he wished there were a dandelion or two peppered in the grass. (Sometimes, he would take a dandelion ready to release its seeds from home and drop it in the field, but, of course, nothing ever grew.)

These were his routines, superstitions, eccentricities, or whatever you want to call them that he did day in and day out all through the years when he stockpiled hits and home runs at a pace that made him a sure thing for the Hall of Fame. And on that grass, no one was better than he in his prime … Tuck moved through that grass and would catch up to a ball like he was floating. He was a one-person highlight reel.

Several years back, his numbers suddenly began to trail off and he wasn’t as sure-footed in the outfield, and while pitchers held a margin of fear for him, it wasn’t the same dread he milked in his prime. He suddenly became a hired gun … someone a desperate team would pick up mid-season for a few extra home runs in an effort to make it to the playoffs.

Nobody noticed the sudden stop of his normal routines, at first. A good week or two passed before anyone asked him about it, which he found ironic because it seemed like a week could not pass without someone asking him why he did it. He never spoke of it and this just drove the media even harder against him.

However, with each spring, regardless of which team, Tuck just kept coming back. He didn’t know any other way. For a while, it was just what he did … what he was supposed to do. Spring came, he played baseball. Without fail, year after year.

Mid-season, he thought he would have to go through another season … another round of contract negotiations, another round of off-season workouts, another round of spring training, and reporters’ stupid questions. But, he started to heat up and started hitting home runs at a pace that he hadn’t since he was several years younger. And he got close … very close. One home run shy in early September and he got used to the idea of walking away forever and that each game would be his last game. It was all that he wanted at this point. He knew how to walk away now and he was ready.

Now, here he stood. He was the last batter in a battering season. It was his job to give Winter the keys. But he knew it wasn’t a job he wanted … He had grander plans for this moment. He was ready to go. Wanting to hit this home run turned into needing to hit it. At this point in time, if he didn’t hit it, he didn’t know what he would do. He reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt, rubbed it between his fingers, gripped his bat hard, and stepped back into the batter’s box.

He hit the ball a long way. In fact, he hit it as far as someone can hit it in this ballpark … without it going out. He played this game long enough that he knew when a ball was going to clear the fence and when it wasn’t. So, he ran.

By the time he charged around first, his mind was flooded with memories and the field had become filled with ghostly images of every person and every player that had touched him during his long career. Every memory played out in front of him as if his baseball life were flashing and he became awash in adrenaline and emotion.

At first, he saw himself as a rookie, with a smile from ear to ear after he had just collected his first hit, a home run, acknowledging the congratulations of his teammates and coaches. This quickly gave way to another memory of a version of himself not quite as old as the current version, and he was doing his absolute best to ignore the cheers of an entire stadium with “3,000” flashing on the board behind him. It felt like every hit in between was flashing through him with every beat of his heart.

He ran as hard as he could, and halfway to second, through the haze of his trip down memory lane, he saw the centerfielder on the ground on the warning track … and the ball rolling away from him. He hadn’t hit it out of the ballpark, but that didn’t mean the moment wouldn’t be his last. If this was how he was going to get the home run, so be it. And, he ran as hard as he ever had.

At second base, he was awash again in memories and ran through the countless, nameless players he had managed to throw out when they dared to test his arm. It was a well-known fact around the league that you don’t try to extend a single into a double on a ball to him, but, of course, the rookies always did.

On his way to third, he got the feeling that he wasn’t running home as much as he was running away from the game, the place he had called home for so many years. His legs burned with exhaustion, but he had to get away from the game, even if his legs fell off in the process. He had to get home … he just had to get HOME … he had to get away. So he ran and all the memories faded until only a single apparition stood before him … his brother, somehow, someway, as a child, a teenager, and a grown man, all at the same time, standing in as the third base coach, waving him home frantically. He let out a little smile, made his turn, and put his head down.

As he headed to home plate, he envisioned the countless times he had done this before. Ahead of him, he saw himself as a child, zigging and zagging down the line with a smile on his face. He saw himself in high school, with legs of a cheetah, and the endurance of a train steaming toward the plate. He saw himself as a minor leaguer, in full sprint, but cautious steps, trying to remember if he had touched third.

Then, he saw this moment, and the ball bounced once in front of the plate and he lunged for home in a full head-first dive.

And he saw one more past version of himself … the morning after the fire, on the kitchen floor, a phone laying next to him as he was enveloped in grief.

He didn’t make it.

He rolled onto his back and stared up into the sky and the sun, and he unleashed a raw, guttural yell that seemed to make the entire stadium shake. The visiting team, for a moment, stopped their celebration. His teammates froze in the dugout as the trainer came to the top step.

Winter itself seemed to freeze in his tracks.

Soon, all he could see was dirt. The dirt on his uniform, the dirt around him, the dirt that hung in the air like smoke. Through the haze of the dirt, he couldn’t see the field.

There was no grass.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Friends and Baseball

Ungerman Field, the Hopatcong Little League field, Helen Morgan, Jefferson Trail Park. They were my fields of dreams as a kid. There was no corn around these fields. Just trees, a couple of houses, and poison ivy (although one was in the center of town). Nonetheless, they were where I learned how to play baseball … Not very well, I might say, but where I learned.

Sometimes I’d play with my brother. Once or twice, my dad. However, most of the time it was with my friends, Erik, Eric, Bill, and Chris. Occasionally, PJ would join us or someone else.

We tried to get to the fields whenever we could. It seemed like too often we got pushed off for Little League practices or something like that. However, on our days off from school or sometimes after school or on an occasional weekend, we would ride our bikes or get a ride from our moms to one of the fields and just play as much as we could.

They were some great times and I loved every moment of it. Rarely were there more than 4 or 5 of us, so we would have to get creative with how we played. Sometimes, it was just batting practice, pitching, and fielding. Sometimes just home run derby. Sometimes we played overly complicated rules to try to get the feel of real gameplay.

Erik was the best player out of our group, by far. And sometimes I liked to pretend I could get a pitch by him, but more often than not, we would have to look around in the poison ivy and weeds on the other side of the fence for the ball.

The other Eric would probably read this and disagree and make some sarcastic comment. He definitely was a good athlete and certainly was the next best out of all of us, but his best talent was getting us to laugh at ourselves. It kept us from taking ourselves too seriously or getting too intense.

Chris (“Fitz”) and I were sort of in the same “league” when it came to our talent. Fitz, I think, probably preferred to be home playing his guitar than playing baseball, but I believe he liked being out there with us. He had some good power when he made contact and would occasionally crush a ball. His house was the starting point of the infamous early morning in the freezing cold at Ungerman Field story in the last chapter. One of us had to be somewhere that day, so we were trying to squeeze some baseball in while we had a chance. It was interesting being out there in the cold at 7 or 8 AM, watching people driving to work. It could not have been any warmer than 30 degrees, but we were still out there, playing in the cold, almost afraid to make contact with the ball because of how much it hurt our frozen hands.

Bill would become my best friend through the later years of high school. I honestly struggle trying to remember how he was at baseball. I have an image of him in my mind standing at bat waiting on a pitch from me, but when I try to remember beyond that, my memory gets flooded with so many discussions he and I would have about the Mets and school and the New York Giants and lots of other subjects. We were in some of the same classes together, so there were a lot of discussions about various things when we probably should have been paying attention in class.

I was probably the worst player in our group at the plate. I always swung too early or too late, but I felt like I made up for it in the field. I felt like I had a pretty good glove and could read and catch up to the ball pretty well. I like to think I had a pretty accurate arm. However, even as I write this I can picture my old friends reading this and laughing at just how awful I must have been. As I think of them now, I can picture their faces as if they were still in their teens, laughing.

When I think of PJ, I always think of the Yankees. We weren’t really the best of friends, but aside from a couple of incidents, we got along. There was one time that I can remember him joining us for baseball and it really stuck with me. During that time, he was the only one of my friends that wasn’t a Mets fan. He was a staunch defender of the Yankees, despite them being really bad during that time and while we were playing baseball, he was standing up to the rest of us and our put-downs of his team. I had only ever known a good Mets team at that point, so I was puzzled at how someone could continue to stick with a bad team. In the years since, as I have endured one misery at the hands of the Mets after another I make it a point to still support and defend my team, even in the worst of times. It was a lesson PJ taught me.

It’s funny to me to think about all of us playing baseball after 30 plus years. While what their faces looked like exactly in high school is a bit fuzzy, in my mind I can remember each of their batting stances, exactly. Pitching to them, I can clearly remember how they held the bat, the position of their arms, the bends (or lack of) in their knees. Erik liked to mimic lots of MLB player stances (Darryl Strawberry being his favorite), but I remember his stance when he was being serious.

Through the years we would go to a few Mets games together. There was nothing like that feeling of freedom when we were able to go to that first game at Shea on our own, without parents. I think the first might have been one of the Banner Day games and I can still feel the flutter of excitement in my chest when I think about preparing for that game the night before. The times with them were some of my favorite moments at Shea, even including when I worked there through the playoffs and World Series.

I would have loved to play baseball in high school. However, it wasn’t until the 1986 Mets that I had any interest in the game and I was already 13. I also spent 3rd grade through 8th grade dealing with a cyst in the bone of my right arm, causing me to break it twice and eventually leading to an operation to fix it, so I wasn’t allowed to do anything sportswise.

So, baseball, as a future, was not something that was destined for me, at least not on the field. However, playing the game with my friends obviously had a huge influence on me. I like to think not being able to play it on an organized team allowed me to observe it better and appreciate the game more. That could be me just consoling myself, but I can’t imagine how my life may be different now … the things I would have missed out on, had I been able to play the game.

As I look back, now, the early development of my love of baseball was through my friends (and parents). Even in later years, I never enjoyed baseball as much as I did when I was enjoying it with friends, whether they were people I worked with or old friends who I joined in the right fields seats at Camden Yards or the Center Field bleachers at Shea Stadium when I could break away from work for a few minutes. Those are sacred moments for me and influenced the path my life would take.

What I wouldn’t give to have the chance to play baseball with my high school friends, again.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the First

In his junior year of high school, the young man, Michael William, had taken a biology class and had learned about the basics of the human brain. He understood how electric signals were fired off between neurons, almost like sparks. He was fascinated by what the process might look like as an electric signal is passed from cell to cell … he thought that it must look like a battlefield at night, with bright lights flashing around. He imagined his brain as a big (maybe small) beacon of light at the moment as it struggled with this moment in his life, trying to figure out how he got here, where he was headed and what to do next because something had to change.

Earlier, he arrived home from his job at a toy store. Exhausted. He had spent the day unloading trucks and unpacking boxes, and while his energy was completely depleted, he felt as if his brain was unraveling, struggling with his current place in life … he felt like it was a cratered and pitted wasteland with a battle raging there. It was a sort of restless exhaustion where his body wanted to do nothing and his brain wanted to do everything.

He plopped himself down in front of the TV with a bottle of soda and some ice cream and tried to escape from his mind for just a few minutes. He watched the images flash across his screen, and something always reminded him of where he was. The commercials were created by men and women that had jobs that he thought he could do and they were selling things that he couldn’t afford. The shows had happy couples that lived in the same town as each other at the same time, holding hands and walking through parks and malls and on the beach, while his girlfriend lived 90 minutes away. His mind kept going … kept flashing away, as those battlefield blasts of light got bigger and bigger and were pulling in more and more thoughts and emotions. 

Michael was lonely and alone. He was in a job, not a career. He had barely enough money for these simple pleasures of soda and ice cream. He was tired of not knowing where life was taking him and, more importantly, frustrated that life was more dragging him and he was not controlling his life. He needed a change. He needed changes. However, he didn’t know how to create change. 

And as the battle raged, he felt like it was sucking in his very soul as he got sadder and more lost.

In the immediate present, though he needed to clear his mind. He needed to get out of his brain for a little while and he needed to get away from the battle. He knew he had to get further away than a walk would allow him to get. He needed to go for a drive.

As he walked out of his apartment and down the rickety metal spiral staircase, he noticed what looked like storm clouds off to the west and paused, debating for a moment whether or not he still wanted to go out. He felt that the storm in his brain had to be worse than any storm that the heavens might deliver, and he continued down to his car.

He loved these roads in the south-central Keystone. It was an area where vast stretches of farmland were intermingled with thick spots of old forests in the foothills of an ancient mountain range. In the autumn breezes, the majestic oaks dressed in their royal orange leaves seemed to dance with their sycamore and maple brethren upon the golden dance floor that the fields provided for them. In these breezes, with the electricity of the coming storm filling the air, the fields themselves seemed alive and rolling up and down the gently sloping hills. The farmhouse and barns were set against this living, breathing backdrop as if they were put there with the sole intention to inspire artists.

It wasn’t long before Michael was out on the winding roads that crisscrossed the fields, connecting the groves of orange, yellow, and green. The grey, often unmarked asphalt ribbons would stretch out in long straight lines before suddenly turning and heading over the hills. He loved driving these roads … It made him feel alive and strong and capable of doing anything. It was almost as if the trees and fields and farms were sharing their energy with him and he could feel it coursing through his heart and maybe even his soul. They immediately began to slow the electric thoughts in his brain … It is exactly what he needed.

With his mind becoming clearer, or, at least, calmer, he remembered that there was a baseball game on and he excitedly flipped over to the station. Even though the bad guys were winning, he felt his mind becoming even clearer as the words of the announcers floated to his ears like music. He imagined their voices drifting out from his car and joining the electricity of the air.

It wasn’t long before the tardy summer storm exploded around him. The rain was pouring down on his car, so loud now that he could barely hear the radio anymore and seeing out the windshield was even worse. He needed to pull over, get off the road … somewhere safe, but he realized that somewhere in the downpour, he had made a wrong turn and was lost. The road ahead twisted sharply into the woods and soon he came upon a parking lot near a clearing. He pulled in and parked his car along a fence and turned off the engine, leaving the radio on. The rain was coming down so hard that it didn’t take much to imagine that the car was submerged in an ocean. As he stared at his windshield—he couldn’t see anything beyond it—he played out the game in his mind. Ironically, despite what seemed like a whirlpool whipping at his car, he felt more at ease in his mind.

So often, he felt, baseball on TV rarely met his own romantic expectations of the game that he built in his head. When he listened to games on the radio, his mind could create the images from the words broadcasted from 100 miles away. Of course, the artistic-tongued announcers painted the game for him and the picture could roll easily through his mind. Sometimes, he liked to paint his own images turning routine fly balls into slow-motion comets gleaming brightly in the sun against a dark blue sky. Every runner, even the catchers, went from home to first as gracefully as an impala through the rolling fields he just drove through. Shortstops moved as if in a ballet and soared into the air like eagles when turning a double play. The sun was always shining on the field and the stands were always filled to their absolute limits by men in shirts and ties and women in sundresses. The children all wore baseball caps and jerseys that were too big for them. Even the opposing players, who always wore menacing snarls with bloodshot eyes on stubbled faces, moved across the field in what seemed like choreographed motions.

The moment the final ball was hit and the runner tried to slide into first to beat the throw, Michael’s mind had already painted a sharp grounder that only the greatest play of the season was going to prevent from going into the outfield, followed by an equally heroic throw to get the runner at first. He knew it wasn’t the truth, but great players shouldn’t ground out weakly to the second baseman to end a game … a season … like this. They just shouldn’t. He didn’t know much about this team, but he knew the player and was familiar with how this team chased all the way back. Well, almost all the way back. And it should not have ended like that.

A vicious bolt of lightning hit not too far ahead of him in the clearing and his car instantly shook in the shockwave of thunder, putting a quick end to the game being played out in his head. The bolt seemed to be a signal to the rest of the storm that its work was done, and almost as quickly as it had started, the rain stopped. Instantly, from behind the curtains of rain, a familiar image took form, causing his heart to pound like the thunder that just rocked his car, and he could feel the hairs on his arms suddenly rise as if the electricity of the lightning was suddenly coursing through him. He didn’t believe in coincidences. He believed in signs and messages that merely needed to be interpreted.

The clouds were quickly chased off the field by the sun, which spread itself from the third base foul line, across the pitching mound and over first base and right field. The low-lying, late-day sunlight stretched the light pole shadows long across the field. It seemed as if he could see the shadow of every blade of the perfect green grass. The infield shone golden in the bath of light with the puddles of water adding an extra sparkle.

After taking in the green and golden gem sitting with a backdrop of autumn leaves, Michael decided to get out of his car and take a closer look. The air had a crisp chill to it and he could smell the moisture that was still hanging around. He was glad he was wearing his sneakers, as they quickly got covered in mud. He walked hesitantly, almost nervously, toward the precious gem. For some reason, he felt afraid. Maybe it was residual electricity from the lightning or just the sheer force of the storm that he had just emerged from, but the field felt alive … powerful. The cool breeze swaying the grass gave it the feel that it was breathing.

He went through an opening in the fence and emerged by the first base dugout and stepped out onto the field. Suddenly, he felt as if he was back in high school on fields near where he grew up. He could see the ghosts of his memories playing out. He saw himself throwing ball after ball from the pitching mound toward his friend, who launched ball after ball into center and left field, and more often than not, over the fence. He saw his other friends, running around the field and leaping over the fence retrieving the balls, cracking jokes about his pitching. 

He sorely missed those days of playing baseball with his friends. Their only concerns then were finding foul balls in the woods without getting poison ivy and getting home in time for supper. They would get out to a field whenever they could. They had a series of fields that they would go to, looking for one that they could play on.

He remembers one morning when they had a day off in early spring, the group of them slept over at a friend’s house and got up early to try to get a game in before their parents dragged them off to whatever it was that was planned for the day. It was freezing cold as they watched, from the field, the grown-ups driving off to work. He could still hear his friends’ voices, hanging in the cool almost winter air. It was an unusually mild day at the end of an unusually mild week that saw the last of the snow melting. It was one of those days where you could almost smell the snow melting … a smell that is difficult to describe, but it hangs heavy in the air and burns the nose just a bit. However, at the end of a long, difficult winter, it is one of the sweetest smells imaginable. It did not matter as they played until their hands were too numb to grip a bat. It was memories like that which kept him warm all these years later. 

They would always talk baseball, as well. He thought back a few years ago, getting ready to play a pickup game on the Little League field, talking baseball with one of his friends who was a fan of Team Joke. He was proud of them and defended them with every ounce of energy he had. Team Joke had history, sure, but at that time, when they were standing on that field somewhere in the backwoods of the Garden State, they had nothing but a string of losses and embarrassments that added up to 15 years of losing. Yet his buddy talked of them like they were world-beaters. His own team, Michael’s boys, were on top of the world at the time, just a couple of years removed from a championship. So, the two of them defended their teams and argued stats and moves and strategies.

He remembered the game he was just listening to, and he couldn’t help but think of his friend, Phil, the defender of Team Joke. He managed to smile a little bit through his annoyance as he wondered where his old friend was right now, but he was sure he was absolutely giddy. Somehow, Team Joke had become Destiny’s Team.

He heard a breeze sweep across the drying corn stalks and then gently rustle the branches and leaves of the golden trees, and in that voice he heard his own destiny speaking to him.

Life is full of different roads you can take and decisions you can make. There are times when your heart speaks to something in confidence, but the mind is slow to answer. There are times when your mind steps up and asserts a decision that the heart reluctantly accepts. And, for most decisions and moments in life, your soul does not stir.

As he stood in that field, he knew it was talking to him and not in a “Field of Dreams” kind of way. The voice was coming from within him. This was one of those moments that a man feels only a few times in his life; a moment when mind, heart, and soul speak in a unified voice. This was one of those rare moments that you know, when you are in it, that nothing would ever be the same.

This was where he felt strong and confident and unshakable. He felt like he belonged to baseball, more than anything else in his life. Around a diamond, regardless of the time of year, this is where he belonged and he knew what he had to do.
The storm—the explosion of thoughts that had haunted him since before he graduated—was suddenly gone. And it wasn’t just churning in the background or hidden under the curtain of asphalt on gold. It was gone and Michael felt at peace.