Categories
Novel

Top of the Fourth

High in the deep woods of a distant snow-covered mountaintop, a single solitary ray of light penetrates the darkness for the first time since Winter took hold. It settles on a single snowy ash leaf that had somehow managed to hold onto its branch through the long cold. The leaf welcomes the warmth, and the reflection of light off the bright snow brightens the branches around it. A single, solemn moment passes, and a lone drop of water falls through the trees, collecting additional drops as it goes. The melting snow opens more avenues for more rays of light, and soon the scene is repeated throughout the forest and the once death-like silences become a chorus of dripping water, falling chunks of snow, and the creak of trees as they stretch their branches out in the bright sunlight.

At the base of the trees, slowly the snow turns to water and joins the infinite drops from above in puddles or pulled deep into the earth. Eventually, the ground can no longer hold the water and the puddles begin to morph and merge and give into one of the thousand small streams that have formed across the mountainside. The streams then start to merge themselves, singing and giggling to the tunes of the birds that have awoken among the trees. They flow downhill till they find themselves in a river that happily welcomes its old friends before splashing and roaring down the mountain and into a valley.

In the valley, rivers join other rivers that have made the long journeys from other distant, once darkened forests on lonely mountaintops. At each twist, splash, and merging point the rivers seem to celebrate. They become one river before joining the enormous lake in the center of the valley, which has been fed from rivers around it.

And at this crystal clear lake in the throws of Spring’s rebirth, everything is perfect. The sun itself is reflected from its waters to all points of the valley until the valley itself overflows with light. Life of the valley itself emanates from this lake and its joyous welcome spreads back up the rivers, streams, and puddles, high into the mountaintops and to the lone ash leaf, which flutters one last time in the breeze before giving way to the bud that replaces it.

Spring has returned.

Abigail awakes to the ringing of her phone; the ringtone is the anthem of her team, and she smiles. Lying in bed for a few minutes, she talks with her daughter, Laura, the smile continues its stay on her face. She laughs a bit, talks with a mix of anxiety and nervousness, and often finds herself drifting to someplace distant outside the window. Laura knows when she has lost her mother and jokingly scolds her. She apologizes several times and her daughter continues to mock. They talk for a bit longer, exchange a few more laughs, and then say their goodbyes.

Her daughter didn’t get it when it came to her mom’s love of baseball. In fact, it was completely lost on her. She tried to engage with her mom on the game, but often it was her doing the apologies for drifting in the conversation. Her daughter understood that her grandfather loved the game as well, but she really didn’t get the connection that is made between the generations. She often thought to herself that the game was one Lazarus away from being a full-blown religion (if she only knew).

Her son, Brian, was a much different story with the same end result. He hated her beloved game and all attempts by her to discuss it with him. It started while he was in high school, and she gave up the effort by the time he was a junior. She had her suspicions as to why he hated the game. He was young when the fire happened, but not young enough to fail to understand that a life was lost. In the days and weeks that followed the fire, they were all hounded by the media and knew exactly who the man was that saved his life. She felt that it was a short leap from there to connect death with baseball, so she would leave him alone, but longed for that connection with her children.

She felt the sun coming through the window, warming her face, and she shook the thoughts out of her head. Today wasn’t the day to contemplate such things. Abigail smiled and took in another moment or two of the sun with a smile on her face before climbing out of bed and heading down the stairs.

She stepped outside for a moment to grab the newspaper and had to pull her robe a little tighter against the chill in the air. The air had a sweet smell to it; she was certain she could smell the melting snow. It felt crisp and clean, almost as if it had been scrubbed. The sun was still taking its time in rising and was still partially obscured by the trees, bathing the street in a mix of light and shadow. It all gave her great joy. It wasn’t until her neighbor yelled “Good morning” to her as he got into his car to go to work that she realized that she was still standing in full public view in her robe and nightgown.

Grabbing a cup of coffee and the newspaper, she sat down at the kitchen table, which years ago she had set in the spot that gets the most sunlight in the morning. She went straight to the special baseball preview section and immersed herself in the projects and side stories and writing filled with the type of hope and fluff that you only see twice a year, the other being Christmas. She understood that it was more filler than fact, more hype than hope, more romance than reality, but she didn’t care. She drank it up like it was the very water necessary for life. She smiled to herself through the whole reading as her heart raced with excitement.

When the time came, she put on the jacket that her father once wore, stepped out her front door, and walked down a couple of steps. Other fans, in their jerseys and black and orange jackets and their baseball caps trickled by her one by one. Some talked to friends and families, others seemed to be studying the fluff articles in the newspapers, while others just looked nervously ahead. She stepped off her steps and joined the small trickle.

They made their way past some of the old neighborhoods, which were lined with trees and modest, well-kept flower boxes. Some houses had the state flag hanging in front of them, some the nation’s flag, while others proudly displayed the team’s flag. It seemed on each corner was a coffee shop, an occasional bar or restaurant, or a little bodega, some of which were already closed. As she walked, more and more people stepped out of their homes and into the trickle of people.

Soon, the narrow, tree-lined road crossed paths with a bigger avenue, and the rush of people from other roads was quickly and easily absorbed into the river of people along the avenue. There was still room for people to turn around or window shop in one of the many small stores that lined the avenue. She watched as a few flipped their “Closed” signs out, while others fussed with their doors to lock them. There was a steady buzz in the crowd as people acknowledged each other. While it remained obvious to most, the certainty of the destination of the person next to you was not locked in. This river of people only seemed to quiet for a few moments as they poured through a dodgy section of the journey. No good journey to any destination of greatness was completely without at least one perilous forest to navigate. Of course, there was no real danger, as what scoundrel would be dumb enough to provoke the masses?

Abigail knew, however, that the really dangerous section was about to be traveled. Sure enough, the raging, rolling river of people on her avenue merged together with another avenue with its own raging rolling river of people. It also happened to be the first spot along the journey that the steel and brick ballpark, the Cathedral, could be seen. Those not lost in the journey would immediately spot it and pockets of cheers from around the merging rivers of people would rise up. The rookies along the journey would stop, stunned by the beauty of what lay ahead, and inevitably, be bumped, pushed, and shoved by those who were more focused.

She knew better and for three blocks had slowly made her way closer and closer to a set of buildings so that, at the intersection, she could duck into a shop doorway and absorb the view.

It was among the favorite views of the Cathedral in town. Like its predecessor, it sat at the top of a long subtle hill, giving it the impression that it was perched on top of a pedestal. The noon-day sun seemed to have settled just above it, lighting it up like an art gallery lamp. Just across the street from where she was, on the right, was the old gray train station, majestic and tall. Just behind it rose the last of the steel blast furnaces, nobler now in their decay than the many years that he and his brothers poured smoke into the sky. Across from the train station was a brand-new, 20-story glass office building that shimmered in the bright sunlight. The three buildings stood in a natural contrast to each other, but seemed to align in perfect symmetry to create a frame for the Cathedral and tell the story of this city. The Cathedral itself seemed posed as both a figurative and literal bridge between the old and the new; industry and technology; even generations themselves. That single view encapsulated the city itself. A city with no clear identity, yet somehow, it just worked, with all the pieces meshed together perfectly.

She took in the view for a few minutes before diving back into the river of people, where she was quickly swept in. The trickle turned rolling, boiling river was now just a wide, powerful, slow-moving river that engulfed everything in its path. It moved past the new chain stores that were put in place as part of the city’s redevelopment efforts. Any unknowing casual shoppers who had naively wandered into the stores not more than a half hour before found themselves hopelessly swept into the mix or desperately trying to find a way across. Those who chose to drive along the avenue found themselves blankly staring out their windows, thankful for the opportunity to move even an inch forward, as the occasional stream of people moved between their cars with ease. Occasionally, the river would part as the tram car rumbled down the tracks on the right side of the avenue. She could see the cars of the tram packed to standing-room-only status with throngs of people dressed in orange and black.

From this big, wide, raucous river of humanity, with the bright spring sun shining down, the chorus of chants and cheers and songs started to rise, rarely in unison. The laughter, the nervous discussions about the state of the team, and the wild predictions of the largely optimistic crowd were set as the background music. All the individual voices and chants and songs and laughter, like instruments in a marching band, came together to produce a joyful song that electrified the air. Even those who were mixed into the crowd, alone, felt part of something much bigger.

Once the river hit the outer edges of the stadium, it split and diverged around the building as people headed in all different directions to get to their gates, and ultimately, their seats. There was no tailgating, no lingering outside of the stadium, no stops at the vendors. This was Opening Day and the field … the grass … was, for most of them, the first glimpse of Winter’s demise, so there was no waiting to see it. A child doesn’t wait in their room on Christmas morning and fans do not hang around outside on this day.

As Abigail made her way to her gate, she ran into people she knew here and there. Rarely did they stop to talk; they just fell in step with each other and talked as they walked until it was time to part ways again.

She stopped only once to get her program and scorecard from the vendor she always retrieved them from. She exchanged a few happy words with him, summing up the last six months of their lives with a few simple pleasantries. They could catch up over the course of the next six months, but right now, it was time to see the grass.

As if guided by some internal mechanism, her legs made their way through the crowd, around the usual bottlenecks and congested spots. She barely looked where she was going as she weaved her way to the turnstile. Again, she exchanged more pleasantries with the ticket taker, another old friend. When he handed back her ticket stub, she quickly stashed it away in some unseen internal pocket of her jacket to ensure it would be there when she got back to the cigar box.

She quickly made her way to the ramps she used … she couldn’t be bothered with the escalators; too many slow people. Her heart was racing now, less because of the climb and more out of excitement. There were times over the last six months that baseball was the furthest thing from her mind. Days and weeks would even pass without a single thought drifting to the game. It seemed even her dreams were devoid of this love affair. Now … now that she was so close, it was all she could think of and there would be nothing that could hold her back from her friend. While the pain of the previous fall still sat in her gut like a bad meal, a new season was upon her and the past would be forgiven.

Finally, she was at her section and she entered the short, dark tunnel that led into the seating bowl. It was as black as night, she thought, and the light at the end that washed everyone in front of her into a silhouette only seemed to make it worse. It was the gateway from the past, from the darkness, and it was cold, as she expected it. It was the last gasp of Winter and she took one last deep breath before taking that last step out of the tunnel.

Instantly, she was warm as the sunlight bathed her. Instantly, the chatter of the other faithful met her ears. Instantly, the smells of the popcorn and hot dogs, and various other foods from around the park, came together. Instantly, she could literally taste the air, with all its electricity, on her tongue. Instantly, before her eyes were the field, the players, the grass, and a thousand other visions of beauty that can only be found in a ballpark.

Spring has returned.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Third

The wind whipped and howled around Abigail as she grabbed a bag of groceries from her car. One strong gust of wind, although failing to take the door off the car, did manage to rip the folder out of her hands. As her reflexes made a desperate bid to catch the folder, the paper bag went crashing to the ground, and somehow, almost as if Winter himself was taunting her, the wind stopped blowing for just a moment, allowing her to hear the sickening crush of pickle jar and eggshells. Winter’s choreography was perfect, as another gust of wind swept through and caught the splash of pickle juice and turned it into a fine mist that coated her suit skirt and then proceeded to sweep the papers that were once secure within the folder and scatter them in trees, gutters, and rooftops. She barely reacted … she knew it was the perfect cap to the day.

Fridays shouldn’t be full of meetings, layoff announcements, and phone battles with insurance companies … then again, no day should be like that. She was still employed, but close friends for many years went home with boxes instead of folders. She was grateful, but her nerves were shot. She needed some time for herself.

She gathered the papers she could and salvaged a few groceries and headed into the house. Abigail brought the groceries into the kitchen, grabbed the mail, and headed into the living room, where she was greeted by a mess of dusty boxes and what seemed like the entire contents of the attic. She mumbled a curse to herself as she remembered that her kids had volunteered to clean out the attic for her over the weekend. She appreciated the effort, but this was the last thing she needed.

As she was about to turn around and head back to the kitchen, she noticed the black truck in the corner of the living room. A smile quickly crossed her lips and the day instantly melted away. Monday was Opening Day.

After changing into sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt, eating dinner, and grabbing a glass of wine, she pulled the trunk over to her lounge chair and sat down. The top of the trunk was covered with what seemed like every Bird-related sticker ever created. There were so many, the trunk seemed more orange than black. Many of the stickers had been customized with crayons. Her father was so angry the day he came home to find her sitting at the trunk with the crayons. He eventually would cherish the drawings and scribbles of the five-year-old daughter on the trunk.

Abigail slowly opened the lid, and on top was her Number 6 jersey. Every year, she would take the jersey out of the trunk just before Opening Day and would put it back into the trunk after the team had played its last game of the season. She had that jersey for what seemed like forever. She smiled because, after 10 years of being away from the team, Number 6 was signed to a minor-league contract this past off-season. She was hoping he would make the team.

She put the jersey aside and looked through the rest of the contents. There was a peculiar assortment of odd giveaways from different games, along with pennants and other Bird-related gifts she and her father had received through the years. There were some old programs and a couple of autographed baseballs, as well. Her father tried to fit all his baseball souvenirs in that trunk, but it wasn’t a magic trunk. Eventually, some stuff found its way into other boxes, but the important stuff went in that trunk. After her father had died, she continued to put more stuff in the trunk. She shook her head trying to figure out how exactly it had survived the fire. It had been so many years now, but she still cannot figure out how that trunk only suffered a little bit of scalding while everything else was lost. Almost everything.

The trunk had a couple of media guides from the championship seasons. She had another box full of media guides somewhere else. A friend of hers was the HR director for the team. She would often give her the guides every spring. They had met in the aftermath of the fire. She thought it weird the good that could sometimes come out of such things. She hadn’t talked to her since September or October when they had met for lunch by the harbor. They were having a nice lunch when her friend suddenly let out a gasp and realized she had a meeting that she needed to rush off to with the director of marketing or public relations or something like that and that she was already late. Her friend had walked off into the drizzly day mumbling something about how now her whole day was going to be thrown off. She laughed out loud about how her friend was always late from one meeting and into another. She needed to call her.

In the bottom of the trunk were two scrapbooks that her father had meticulously kept. Those scrapbooks were so important to him. Her grandfather would grab the afternoon papers on the way home from work and would put them into her father’s eager little hands. The books were true treasures and she did all she could to preserve them. Next to the books was a small pile of newspapers from different years. Her father had tried to get her to keep a scrapbook, but she wasn’t as meticulous as he was. She found it easier to just save the whole paper.

She shuffled through the stack, reading headlines about great games of the past. Clinching games. A couple of no-hitters. A couple of heartbreaks. She still curses that team from the Big Apple to this day. Toward the middle of the pile, her eyes met the headline from true heartbreak. The real heartbreak that a baseball diamond rarely sees. It was the story of a fire and a small two-story house. A fire that would take the life of the brother of Number 6. He had gone into the burning house for a little girl … her little girl … who was trapped on the second floor. He had managed to get her daughter out a window to another fireman on a ladder, but the floor under him had collapsed before he could make it to safety. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she read the story. Her daughter is in college now and has such little memory of that night … she thought that was lucky. She still thinks of the family of that poor man … that hero.

Abigail knew it was time to pack the trunk back up. It was dark now and she had other stuff to do. She gently placed everything back into the trunk except for the jersey and closed the lid. She picked up the jersey and stared at it. On Number 6 was a little soot. She looked at her hand and realized it had come from her fingers. Even after all these years, soot was still on that trunk in different spots. No matter how much she tried to clean it, it was always hiding somewhere. She brushed the jersey off and took it to her bedroom. She was going to wear it tomorrow for the exhibition game. As she passed by her bedroom window, she noticed the lights at the stadium flickering. They must be testing the scoreboard, she thought. She clutched the jersey close to her and stood there watching the lights for a little while.

Callie stood on the ramps, field somewhere behind her, but the city in front of her. She had lost track of time and wasn’t sure if it was closer to two or three in the morning. At this point, it really didn’t matter. All hope of getting a decent night’s sleep was lost hours ago when they decided to go a different direction with a couple of the videos they were producing.

The city seemed so quiet as the roads lay nearly empty. The traffic lights kept changing and signaling to no one in particular. An occasional car ripped down the road and she wondered if they were coming from or going to work. Once or twice a cop car would roll out from a side street, turn onto the main boulevard and slowly disappear into the night, all while the traffic lights kept doing their job.

Every so often Callie would see a flash of lights from the stadium reflecting off an office building across from the stadium. They were testing graphics on the light boards and she wondered if it ever bothered people trying to sleep in some of the apartments around this Chapel to baseball. She wondered who in the stadium would have to field those calls in the morning. They had jobs to do, but she hoped the neighbors understood.

She was exhausted … mentally drained … wiped out by the current press. The truck from Spring Training had arrived hours ago and the first of the final two spring training games was less than 12 hours away. In this ballpark. And they weren’t ready. These games gave them a chance to “test drive” videos. To see what worked and what didn’t. It allowed them to get one last tune-up before the real games began.

And it wasn’t just about the videos they showed being perfect. They were trying to be perfect. Everyone was trying to be perfect. The guys behind the cameras on the field. The producers behind the control boards in the control room. The editors updating the stats in the graphics. They all had to be perfect and ready to react to what was going on in the game. Like the players on the field, they had been preparing for this since last season. Almost literally since the last out of the last season was made, preparations for the new season began.

A couple of them had spent some time working for minor league teams. A few had nothing but college experience behind them. There were veterans of the game that had been in the control rooms since before the Ace pitcher had even been born and there were others that were interns, working their first jobs right out of college.

Like the team on the field, they came from all walks of life with different life experiences and they had to work together. They were a team in every sense of the word and they almost had to read each other’s minds. Even in these final two Spring Training games, they wanted to be perfect more than they needed to be perfect.

She had been there for five years now. While there were one or two that had been there so much longer, Callie was considered a grizzled vet in the business. The long hours … the lost weekends … the time away from friends and family were not the jobs for everyone. However, she loved it … maybe not every moment, but she did love it.

She liked to come out to the ramps in the middle of the night when she was working late to clear her mind. Sometimes it would be near freezing out there, sometimes it was brutally hot. However, it was always quiet and dark and she could be alone to collect her thoughts. Sometimes she would wander around most of the stadium just going up and down the ramps and she could always return to the control room or the video production office feeling refreshed and ready to go. In the dark and quiet, it was almost her own fortress of solitude.

The video editor reflected on all of this as she stared out. It was a grind. It was tiring. It was a brutal stretch of work. She also reflected on her previous job at a local newsroom, working all hours of the night only organizing tapes, running out for coffee for the producers, and wiping down monitors. It was a thankless job, and as tired as she was and even though she still had to do some of that stuff, she was overjoyed at being there, on that ramp, in the middle of the night waiting for the season to begin. It was tough. It was tiring. It was brutal. But it was part of her living her dream and doing exactly what she wanted with her life.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Orioles or Bust

Middle of the Third, like a few of the “Intern Chapters,” really is more autobiography than anything else. And if it had not happened to me, I would have thought it to be some improbable Disney story … too good to be true, too unrealistic, too much like fiction. However, it is true, and it is one of my favorite stories to tell, although I feel like it has been ages since I’ve told it. To this day, it is one of those things in my life that causes me to believe in miracles.

In the Spring of 1994, I applied for an internship position at the New Jersey Cardinals, a brand new Single-A Short Season team playing in a brand new ballpark about 30 minutes from my parent’s house. I managed to land that internship and worked out an agreement with them that they would let me work games and a couple of times a week to work another job that would help me pay for college.

The experience at the Cardinals was both very memorable and fun and absolutely horrible at the same time. The interns were, effectively, free labor for the Cardinals management that they could have to do whatever they wanted them to do, regardless of whether it had anything to do with our majors. However, without it, I don’t get anywhere else in baseball, and this novel doesn’t exist.

During my senior year in college, I applied for an internship with the Baltimore Orioles. I was in school at York College of Pennsylvania, about 45 – 60 minutes from Oriole Park. I actually got an interview, I want to say sometime in the winter or early Spring, but I don’t have a clear memory of the timing. I went down and talked to the Public Relations director and thought I had a good showing. Unfortunately, I was told, due to the uncertainty of the players’ strike at the time, they weren’t going to bring me on.

So, I graduated college in May of 1995 and stayed in York to be close to Andrea. I managed to get a job at a local bank as a teller and really made some good friends there. While it was a decent job, it wasn’t for me, and job hunting for something in public relations wore me down. I was inexperienced and, on the rare occasion I got an interview, I presented myself horribly. Looking back, I probably would have thrown out my resume as soon as the interview was over if the roles were flipped.

By the time October rolled around, I was not in a good place. I had grown increasingly miserable in the job and felt lost. I had higher – maybe unreasonable – expectations of myself. I had found a lot of college success, and it did not translate into the real world. I think this all bled into my relationship with Andrea as we started to experience some tension between us. It was beginning to look like I needed to move back home to try my luck in the New York area.

My days off from the bank were Sunday and Wednesday (or something like that), and on one Tuesday night, after a bit of a fight with Andrea, I gave myself an ultimatum. I would drive down to Baltimore on the next day and knock on some doors. If I didn’t get a prospect, I would call it quits and move back home. I had no idea what “knock on doors” in Baltimore really meant, but it didn’t matter much as I only had one intention.

So, Wednesday morning, I got up somewhat early, drove down to Timonium, Maryland, jumped on the Light Rail, and headed to the ballpark. While I told Andrea and others that I planned on knocking on a whole bunch of doors, I knew that the only job I had my sights set on was the Baltimore Orioles. I did not have a plan B. With a literal “Hail Mary” on my lips, it was Orioles or bust with what felt like everything at stake.

I don’t remember how I got from the Light Rail to the second-floor reception desk of the Baltimore Orioles. Obviously, I walked…the train was right outside the stadium, but I remember parking my car at the furthest north Light Rail station, and the next thing I knew, I was standing at reception.

The receptionist was very friendly and, with a resume in hand, told her I was looking for a job. I could tell she had seen the likes of me before and told me to give her my resume, and she would give it to someone else, and she was sure they would call me back. Not usually being the bold type, I handed the resume to her and took a step back, ready to leave. However, somewhere inside my head, a voice told me that I shouldn’t go. It told me to speak up, or I would regret it the rest of my life. I had come that far, with everything in my young, naive life at stake. Turning around to leave meant surrendering everything, including my dreams, and giving up. I knew I had to write a new story for myself. I needed a miracle.

And from there, a series of improbable made-for-Hollywood moments happened, and my life, in nearly every sense, changed.

So, I stepped back and told her that I would like to talk to someone (sort of like Rudy in the middle of the night at the gates of Notre Dame). She looked at me quizzically and let out a deep sigh…She had no idea what to do with me at that point.

Then someone to her right caught her attention, and her face lit up. She stood up and stopped the woman trying to make her way through the lobby and explained to her what the situation was. I could see the woman sort of let out her own deep sigh and take my resume from the receptionist. She signaled me over to her and walked me over to a couch in the lobby.

We sat down, and she turned towards me, sort of annoyed (to this day, I don’t blame her…I would be, also). She introduced herself as the director of Human Resources for the Orioles as she glanced down at my resume. She then asked me what kind of job I was looking for, and I told her that I was looking for something in Public Relations/Media Relations.

Her head suddenly snapped up as she made firm eye contact with me. Her attitude towards me took a 180 as she asked me a couple more specific questions before she stood up. She told me to wait there and quickly went back through the door she had just come out.

After a few minutes, she came back out smiling. She told me that right before the receptionist had stopped her, she had been in a meeting with the Director of Media Relations (a different person than I had met previously), John, to discuss finding a full-time paid intern to work in the office. She also told me that John would be out to talk to me in a minute. Honestly, she seemed as excited as I was at this point. Whether it was the chance randomness of encountering me at the exact right moment or the fact that I may save her a bunch of work, she genuinely seemed happy.

A moment or two later, John walked out. Instantly, his personality hit me like a freight train. He carried this boisterous energy about him that filled every room he was in, and he seemed to fill that lobby and the entire stadium that was just out the window over my left shoulder. He was smiling, almost laughing as he too recognized the absurdity of me walking into that lobby just moments before the HR director was heading off to start the search for, well, me.

John invited me back to his office and carefully reviewed my resume. In the two years following I would learn that he had this unique ability to go from laughter and joking to complete business in an instant…and then back in the next moment. He wasn’t going to let a little something like serendipity or a miracle mislead him into making the wrong decision.

We talked a bit about my time at the New Jersey Cardinals. Like me, he was from New Jersey as well, so we talked a bit about that. He asked about the things I did at college. And, eventually asked me if I would be interested in a six-month paid internship in his media relations office. He explained a few things I would be doing and how the office worked and then asked me if they should offer me the job when I could start. He mentioned the salary was somewhat low and gave me a figure, about $500 more than I was making at the bank.

I would walk out of Camden Yards a short while later, having basically landed the internship. I needed to send them a couple of things like transcripts, and John had to check a couple of things on his end. However, effectively, the understanding was that the job was mine. I remember waiting for the Light Rail train talking to myself, pacing back and forth, trying to figure out how the hell that just happened. I was over-joyed and beyond excited, bursting at every seam. This was in the days before everyone had a cell phone, and I had no one to share the excitement with, and I was near tears with joy.

October 25, 1995…Nine years after the New York Mets Game Six World Series miracle was the day after my last day of working at the bank and the day before my first day at the Baltimore Orioles. Somehow, that felt perfect to me.

I would end up extending the six-month internship to 12 months and then to 18 months before I would shift over to help with the Baltimore Orioles website. In February of 1998, I would leave the Orioles to settle into my office at the New York Mets as their first Website Administrator.

I’ll talk about my time with the Mets and Orioles more later. They were such extraordinary times for me and almost wholly fulfilled every dream I ever had as a teenager, even if it wasn’t exactly in the order I expected.

I would work for John for 18 months and, more or less, with him six months after that. He would be one of the most influential people I ever met in my life and taught me so much. His personality was the polar opposite of my own, and there were times where I was completely intimidated by him, but I loved working for him.

He taught me that you could have fun working, take time to laugh, and appreciate what is going on around you, but at the same time work as hard as you can to make sure shit gets done. Yes, there was a time to work and a time to play, but there was definitely a grey area between the two, as long as the work got done.

He was always open to new ideas and welcomed innovation. Even though I was quiet, he was always willing to hear what I said. He was the first to pat you on the back for the good things you did and but would also make sure to let you know, in a gentle way, when you screwed up. He had this acute ability to know when it was time to be serious, and the exact moment it was okay to lay down a corny joke.

I often ponder where my life would be right now had I not encountered John that October day in 1995. I wonder if I would have packed my bags and moved home, likely ending any chance Andrea and I had. There is a straight line between getting that job and getting into web work, which would become the career that I have now. (I do wonder, in that regard, if the Orioles derailed any kind of writing career I may have had early on.)

Previously, I mentioned how I believe in miracles. I think they genuinely do happen, and I think there is sometimes an inclination to call a miracle a coincidence. The series of events that occurred that day, for me, is truly a miracle. I have no other explanation for it.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Third

The sun had set several hours ago, yet the office around the Young Intern Michael buzzed with energy. While each of the many actors in the scene around him moved calmly about their business, there was an underlying feeling that they were on the eve of something truly magical. It felt as if the energy being generated from the building was emanating its own light and even powering the whole city. In some ways, what happened in and next to that long, six-story brick building did power this jewel of a city in the throne of one of America’s great waterways.

The Young Intern can’t remember the last time he saw his bed. A year ago, he was sitting in a college classroom, counting down the days to graduation, wondering what lay before him. Now he was counting down the minutes until a black box that could hold him four times over, with brass hardware and wheels, could be rolled off the truck. Michael had only been on this job for five months, and they had been some of the most challenging five months of his life. Waiting for that trunk in the truck … waiting for that bus … it felt like it was the first time he had a chance to take it in. There were papers and books and binders and all sorts of stuff in that trunk that needed to be organized for the morning, and so, there he was, waiting for the trunk. For the moment, it was his only job.

He stared out across the hall and saw the lights flickering on and off in a dizzying pattern through the window. They were testing the scoreboards and the video screen in the stadium. He walked over to the window and gazed at the field. He would grow to love that view. Two stories up, overlooking the field from across the concourse, especially at night. The field was perfect in the dimmed-down stadium lights. In this state, it seemed to have a story to tell. A story of a game that had just been played or the story of a game not yet played. A lit field, in the middle of the night, begged to be played on. Begged to be listened to.

Michael loved baseball. It was his first true love. He was lost before he had found baseball. It was baseball that found him, actually a baseball … a little roller … a ground ball that was trickling that had found an uninspired teenager struggling to figure out where exactly he fit into the world. It didn’t just inspire him to chase down his dreams … It inspired him to dream a big dream and then to have the faith to chase it down, even when hope had been abandoned and even when he was forced to temporarily look elsewhere.

Every day the world presents a case, a cause, a reason to doubt yourself, the people around you, and the world around them. For a 13-year-old who knew nothing about who he was, except he was shy and 13 with no apparent skills or ability, the doubts were served up hourly on a silver platter. Staring out that window at that field, he could still feel the same pit of despair in his stomach that he felt all the time in his early teen years. He could still feel that uncomfortable tie squeezing around his neck and the sweat underneath the heavy sweater as he stood in the school hallway with a pile of books. It was filled with people who were gridiron stars and mathematical geniuses. It was filled with rich kids with rich looks and rich vocabularies. He was a shy boy who could barely find the tongue in his mouth to greet anyone. He was lost.

Then one night, he heard baseball whispering to him … calling out to him, and he started to take notice. He could not help but take note of a team that did not belong in the Fall, a team that ignored Winter’s demands. This team seemed to take the Fall hostage and fought off Winter with last-strike rallies, improbable catches, and pitchers whose rubber arms had turned to cannons. It was a team that knew nothing about blowouts and everything about drama. They were, in short, magic, and he took notice.

In any relationship, there is a courtship when the two sides are getting to know each other, trying to figure out if there is a connection or bind there. They test the water, express interest, and logic dominates rather than the heart.

Then it happens. That one moment where logic excuses itself, takes a step back, and walks away. It could be something as simple as a glance or a brush of the hands. It could be the way a door is held or exchanging a simple gift. It could be more dramatic, like a moment of crisis or a passionate, awkward first kiss that can no longer be held back.

Or, it could be a moment in Game Six of the championship series when Hope has already been dismissed and tasked with asking Winter to join them at the gate. A moment when a confused, lonely, emotional, and lost teenager is either too empty of real-life experience or too full of faith to know when a game is lost. The moment when that boy whispers a prayer and says, “Please God, please.” The moment when three hits, a wild pitch, and a misplayed flyball forces a team, a stadium, and a city to its feet, Winter to its knees, and the only thing that comes back through the gate is Hope, bewildered, shaken, but alive. It is a moment like that when a boy dreams his first big dream and falls in love for the very first time. And with that love comes something more powerful, more unrelenting … faith. Even when love breaks your heart and hope has left, faith is always there for the taking. He learned about that faith that night, and it made him believe in himself and made him feel in things beyond himself that would guide his life.

As sure as love is love, baseball would break Michael’s heart in the way that love is supposed to break your heart. That team that defied the Winter would become Winter’s roadkill in the seasons since. He would soon learn that he could take the losses and the disappointment, for they would make the eventual success all the sweeter. He could take injured players and bad personnel moves … that was the grizzle of the game that he loved.

Baseball was an accurate analogy to life for him. Nearly every day throughout the season, a player had a chance to redeem himself. One day, a player could be the guy that struck out three times and grounded into a double play with the tying run standing on third base in the bottom of the ninth, and the next, he could hit three home runs and make a game-saving catch at the wall. Nearly every time, a player had a chance to redeem himself, whether it was the next inning, the next game, the next series, or the following season. Redemption was always just a day or a Winter away. Those who learned from their mistakes and sought out redemption, despite the odds, were the ones who succeeded. This is how he lived his life. It was okay to have a bad day. It was okay to make a fool of yourself. You could always come back the next day. Baseball and life are set up for one to fail. What you do, from one day to the next to overcome the failures, is what defines you. And when you found success, it was suitable for precisely one day. You can savor it, and you need to remember the taste of it, but you need to go back out the next day and defy the odds again.

Eventually, however, the love would betray him in the form of drugged-up stars, childish antics, greed, and a lost World Series. These were things that he could not bear to watch. They were the things that truly broke his heart. He would walk away from baseball, glimpsing it from afar, ready to extend a hand when his beloved was prepared to ask for forgiveness. You aren’t supposed to walk away from those you love, but sometimes you can’t continue to love them if you don’t walk away for a little while.

And that’s what he did. Eventually, the game itself would walk away from everyone. Because of greed, it sacrificed Fall to Winter in the heat of Summer and just turned its back on all that loved it. For one particular freezing Winter, Summer had no outpost … there was no one to survive Winter’s wrath. For the Young Intern, it was the last straw, and he simply walked away.

Seven months ago, Michael was a college graduate working in a job he hated, barely keeping his head above water when the magic of the game grabbed a bit of interest for him in the form of the Iron Bird and the unbreakable record. He was reminded of the love he felt for The Game. He was reminded that the impossible could be possible again. And it came at a time when he, himself, was lost and confused again. He needed the game even if it seemed that the game didn’t need him, but he found it tough to give his whole heart back.

It would take an oddly beautifully lit cornfield after a storm to call him back. Finally, it came and found him after all those years. It didn’t even whisper to him … it screamed his name and ripped him back. It came and told him that it was time to dream again. It told him it was time to have faith again.

And it was with him when he got in his broken-down car that October morning in the drizzling rain following a fight with his girlfriend. And it was with him when he boarded that train to enter the city. He had told himself that he would knock on several doors, but he had only one gate to knock on.

He believed in faith, and God and that small miracles do happen every day. You just need to open yourself up to those miracles. Miracles happen if you are willing to put forth the effort of faith to meet them. That misplayed flyball … his faith, brought him down to the city and to the front desk of the team and had him ask to talk to someone. It didn’t matter that the receptionist made it clear that she wasn’t going to allow it and that he just needed to leave his resume. He politely asked to talk to someone … he sensed the importance of that moment.

It would have just been an ordinary moment … a mundane moment, if it wasn’t for the miracle it led to. The miracle was the Human Resources director walking by at that exact moment. The miracle was that she had just been commissioned by a Media Relations person to find someone to fill a role. A role … almost the exact role … that he, the Young Man, was looking for. The miracle was all three of these people believing in fate, or even something more powerful. Somewhere, in that old brick building, faith met up with a miracle, and a dream came true. What one person might call a fantastic set of circumstances—a coincidence—was what he called a miracle. That tricky trickling fair ball had been bouncing and hopping for all these years and finally came to rest against his foot.

And there he was, seven months later, on the inside, staring down at the field. The team had broken camp earlier in the day and were heading home. It was a team that had wholly rebuilt itself in the last six months. It was a team that was full of promise and excitement. It was a team that inspired new dreams and new journeys of faith. And they were on their way home. They were literally flying north for the summer.

Michael pondered miracles and thought about the error in left field that had turned him into a fan of the game. Many times during his lunch breaks, he would sneak up to the sixth-floor—and look through media guides and post-season programs and old news clippings. Sometimes, there are two sides to a miracle, especially in this game. For every game-winning home run and miracle comeback, there was a player responsible and thousands of fans who saw it as whatever the opposite of a miracle is. The error in left field that gave him the desperate miracle that he needed had sent this city reeling. As he looked through the news clips, not just from the days that followed all those years ago, but to this day, he realized that this city continued to be haunted by it. 

The left fielder that made the error, Tuck, was never booed over this … when it came to baseball and its heroes, this city understood. They knew that they themselves were imperfect and that bad things happen all the time. And he was the favorite son, the man who was supposed to return them to glory. In some ways, his mighty error endeared him to them even more. They were a city that was battling back themselves and they understood what the opportunity for redemption meant. It’s not to say that they didn’t hurt and complain and, on rare occasions, curse him … It’s that they had a collective feeling that he would get his redemption, and in doing so, raise them with him.

It never happened, however. Tuck would suffer a personal tragedy a few years back, and he would leave town soon after. The city, again understanding, knew why he had to go. They knew that things were bigger than the game. However, the city seemed to fall flat nonetheless in the years since he left.

The young man’s eyes were still trained on the field, wondering if the city’s favorite son would find redemption, and he wondered if he would be a part of it. In a way, it felt as if the building, and the city by proxy, was energized because they were waiting for that trunk. It wasn’t so much the contents of the trunk, it was more of what it symbolized. It wasn’t a trunk that was making its way north on some highway through the south and snow. It was the Spring and everything that it brings with it, blazing a path through the snow and shoving Winter’s grip away. It wasn’t just a black box on wheels with brass hardware. It was love. It was hope. It was faith.

Soon, he no longer saw the field. He was tired. He was scared. He was unsure of himself. He was the quiet, reserved type living in a world of giant personalities and even bigger egos. He was a kid. He was just the kid waiting for the trunk. Michael was just a kid waiting for something bigger than himself … bigger than all the egos … bigger than even the stadium. And even though he was just a kid, he knew he was living a man’s dream, and he would not have wanted to be anywhere else than in that old building staring at an empty field, waiting for that trunk … waiting for another miracle … waiting for someone else’s redemption.

 
Categories
Novel

Top of the Third

The Aging Hero sat on his stool and stared down at the black trunk. To anyone else, there was nothing special about that trunk. It was just your average-sized trunk. No wheels. No telescoping handle. No side pockets. Just your run-of-the-mill black trunk with brass hardware riveted to the corners to protect them and a wood handle. The original leather handle had broken when he was a rookie and he fixed it with a piece of wood from the bat with which he had hit his first home run. Tuck ran his hands over the World Series patch that he had riveted in place to cover a hole in the trunk. Some of the colors from the patch were bleeding out from the champagne that the trunk was splashed within the clubhouse.

He opened the trunk and stared inside. On the inside cover, there was a sticker for every team he had ever played for and some he even played against, from high school, through the minors, the majors, and even a Little League sticker from his hometown that they sent him a few years back. They were all there and there was no more room for any other stickers. He looked around to see if anyone was watching and then rubbed his hand along the inside of the trunk and pulled off the false wall his brother had built into it. Inside the false wall was a small piece of cardboard with a picture of him as a senior in high school glued to it. On the back were crudely written statistics. The lifetime totals were .315 average, 1,721 RBI, and 343 HR. He smiled when he saw the career win/loss record and lifetime era. His brother joked that he would be the next Babe Ruth when he gave him the card but had said he would focus more on pitching throughout his career so he wouldn’t hit the number of home runs that the Babe hit. Of course, he never did pitch a single professional game. He let his thumb rub at the home run total a little bit.

His older brother had given him the trunk when he got drafted just out of high school. He had already put his high school sticker in it and had tucked the card inside the compartment as a reminder always to have a set of goals and do everything within your power to reach them. He felt he barely had the strength anymore, both literally and figuratively, but they would have to drag him off the field before he would give in. Even if you don’t reach those goals, you’ll never be lost as long as you try.

In the opposite corner of the trunk was a stack of real baseball cards held together with a rubber band. He grabbed an envelope from his locker and pulled out another card. His friend who worked at the company had sent him a preview of this year’s card. He flipped it over and stared for a moment at the lifetime totals listed on the back. He let his thumb rub the number 342 next to home runs and sighed before putting the card with the rest back in the trunk.

He slowly took his stuff from his locker and put them in the trunk. Tuck was tired and aching and felt like he could sleep forever. The uncertainty of his immediate future was wearing him down more than the 20-something kids with 96 mph fastballs. The team was headed north after another tedious spring. Despite the fanfare around him rejoining the team, he had struggled all spring and now he was actually battling for the final roster spot. He had a disastrous spring of epic proportions and he knew that if he made the team, it would be only on the loyalty of friends he still had in the front office. He was battling some kid that played in the minors last year for that final spot. He was out of options, both in a technical baseball sense and a career sense. He would not accept an assignment to the minors and would have to ask for his release. There were two games left to decide whether he would continue to play or retire. Twenty-two years and all he wanted was one more month … one more week … maybe even just one more at-bat. All he wanted was that one last home run.

For years he had been haunted by the flames and now, since last fall, he was being haunted by the dirt and dust cloud at home plate. He replays it over and over in his head. He wonders what would have happened if he went to the right or reached for the plate with his left hand. What if he hadn’t slowed briefly at second base … surely he would have made it. What if he had started his swing a micro-instant earlier … he could have just trotted around the bases and he could be sitting at home and putting all of this past him. These were the thoughts that played in his head on an endless loop. These were the thoughts that always seemed to be interrupted by the yell of an umpire calling strike three. These were the thoughts that kept him from moving forward.

He pondered the thought that he may never be able to move forward … that as he got older, the weight of his grief would weigh him down and eventually crush everything he was and everything he could have ever been. It seemed that with each passing year, each passing day, it got exponentially heavier. They said that time heals all wounds, but when you are pinned beneath its sands, time only suffocates you. He felt that he’d never escape the weight and that moving on simply wasn’t an option.

For the first time, he wondered what would happen if he couldn’t get that last home run. What if he failed himself, Carl, and his very legacy. He knew that everyone saw him as that guy that refused to understand when to quit, and since he wore his pain and grief like his baseball cap, no one would ever tell him when to leave. And, of course, no one ever knew why he didn’t.

Before closing the lid, he grabbed a handkerchief and polished a fireman’s shield on the inside wall of the trunk, opposite the false wall. He had secured it in place to cover the hole he had put in the trunk with his baseball bat after his brother had died. Carl was the hero … He was just the guy who hit small white balls rubbed with Jersey mud with a stick. His brother was the one that ran into that burning home. He was just the guy that ran home. His brother was the guy that saved the lives of those two little kids. He was just a guy who had a talent that saved him from working for a living. The irony is that the skill that made him a “hero” kept him from taking a job that would have made him a true hero.

It was a game that their mother had taught them and played with them pretty much since they could swing a bat. She started with sitting on the couch in the living room, throwing them a baseball made from cloth and stuffed with beans from a few feet away. It seemed like just a moment later that she was throwing tennis balls from a chair down the hallway of their house as they stood at the other end. When it was nice outside, they would hit from a tee in the backyard. Home plate was a rock in the back corner of the yard and it wasn’t long before they were hitting Wiffle balls over their mom’s head and onto the roof. He never got a sense from his mother that she was doing all that to make them better players. He just felt that she loved the game so much that it was just something she wanted to share with them.

Their father, when he wasn’t working, would pitch to them, explain the mechanics of a swing, and would always yell at them to use two hands when fielding a fly ball. His father had fantastic accuracy on his pitches … he would hit the strike zone over and over again and could put the ball right where they wanted it. But he couldn’t throw a curveball to save his life. He had this one pitch in which he would hold the ball with a grip somewhere between a knuckleball and a slider that he would try to throw past them every so often, which he usually did. Eventually, he and his brother would hit it every time, mainly because they could see their poor father grimace and groan just before releasing it. As they got older, they would purposely miss it just to give their poor dad a sense of personal satisfaction. Their father was a good man. A proud man.

On weekends, the four of them would walk down to the softball field a few blocks away. Their mom would pack a picnic basket and play baseball for hours. Often there would be other kids or families there and they would all play together, but it was often just the four of them and the grass. Sometimes they would just lie down in the grass, talk about school, baseball, or the clouds that looked like fire trucks. Many times they just sat silently and watched the sunset.

His parents lived long enough to see him make the majors. They were in the stands with his brother when he got his first major league hit, a home run. He could see them in the left-field stands as he approached second base … the three of them were crying and jumping up and down. He had never seen them happier.

Years before, he had bought out a block of season tickets at about the same location in the left-field stands of the new stadium and gave them to his brother and fire company. He offered to get them a suite that they could use for events and anything else they had going on, but they preferred to be down with who they called the “Die-Hards.” They liked being in the middle of the throngs and feeling the heartbeat of the team’s pulse through the crowds. They didn’t belong in a suite, they said. So, a stack of season tickets sat in the firehouse and whoever could make the game on any particular day would just grab what they needed and go (after his brother got his, of course).

Tuck would continue to buy the block of tickets through the years, even after the fire. They would remain largely empty through those years, even during sellouts. They became something of a legend in baseball … a silent, unmarked, almost living memorial to a hero.

The night of the fire, the Player in his prime played a career game, a legendary game, as he extended a hitting streak to 33 games. He first sensed something was wrong, however, after hitting a home run in the seventh inning for his fifth hit of the night and noticed that the block of seats was completely empty. Carl and a few of the guys were in those seats at the start of the game and Tuck had a pit in his stomach as he touched home plate. He knew that something was wrong.

It would be a little while later when his manager would abrubtly clear the media out of the clubhouse as his agent arrived holding a pair of ticket stubs. Rufus solemnly approached Tuck and asked him to join him in the manager’s office. Tuck noticed that the tickets were blackened around the edges and realized what happened before Rufus could tell him about the fire and explained that the brother-hero had always put a pair of ticket stubs in his helmet before racing to a fire.

Tuck doesn’t remember much after that until he found himself at home. He realized that for the first time in his life, he was alone. Carl was his last connection to his parents and now he was gone. He could feel the world completely collapse around him and he knew right away that he’d never be able to move on. His own life seemed to go into the flames with his brother’s.

The devastated player would come back to his job two weeks later, a broken man that seemed to age overnight. He would struggle for the rest of the season and most of the next before asking to be traded. Tuck couldn’t play in that city anymore. His brother’s brothers at the firehouse couldn’t bear to be in the seats anymore than the Player could bear the memory of his brother in their eyes and so they stood empty the rest of that season. The team left the block of seats empty the following season, as well. The aged Player just could not look at the empty block anymore. He needed out.

Tuck noticed the burnt ticket stub in his trunk, tucked in behind the shield. He had originally taken both stubs and thrown them in a trash can at the funeral. His agent somehow had gotten one back and used it to talk him into coming back to the team. Apparently, some woman had seen him throw them away and took them out of the garbage can. She had given one of them to his agent, somehow knowing that one day he’d want it back. The woman, Abigail, was the mother of the two kids that his brother had saved that night.

The sound of a suddenly empty clubhouse snapped him out of his daze and he looked around, confused for a moment. He sighed deeply, a mix of emotions raging inside of him. He felt almost crippled at the thought of returning to that city … that park. It is one thing to be there in the dead of Winter’s brutal grasp. It was something entirely different to be there in the full glory of the Springtime sun … a time that was primed for ghosts and visions of a lost life. However, Tuck was determined to finish what he started … to do what he needed to do. He was determined to honor his brother the only way he knew how.

He carefully made sure to clean the number on the fireman’s shield—343. One more at-bat, thought the aging ballplayer … then the rookie could get his shot. And he could retire and maybe, one day, he would get The Call … the call that would bring him, the number 343, and his brother to Cooperstown.