Middle of the First

The Storm

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.

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