Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Fifth

The pitcher stares into his catcher and waits for his sign. A batter stares out toward the pitcher waiting for his pitch. The fielders stand in the field waiting for the ball. Waiting. Everyone is waiting for someone else. But he was waiting for something else. He was waiting for one home run. He has spent his whole life waiting and he wonders how he has let his life slip by.

Waiting for buses and airplanes. Waiting in buses and airplanes. Waiting for prima donna pitchers to wind up and waiting for contracts from runners-up baseball teams. Tuck’s whole life has been spent waiting for something and now he was alone, waiting in a big-league outfield, waiting for a game to start, and waiting for a home run so that he could stop waiting and leave a kids game behind. He was tired of it. He was worn down. He was exhausted.

There was a time when he would relish the waiting. While people that didn’t understand the game often complained about all the waiting, he understood the importance of it. In those “bored” moments for the fans was a moment for a pitcher to try to read the batter, to see if he was ready for his best pitch or if he could get him to go for one in the dirt. Likewise, the batter was looking for some hitch in the pitcher’s movements, the way he moved his glove or a tell in his face that would tip off what the next pitch would be.

The good fielders of the games spent those moments trying to process all possible scenarios. If the ball came to him, what direction was it likely to go? If there were runners on, were they slow or fast, and if the ball was deep, where should he throw the ball? If it was a hit in front of him, what was his best opportunity to salvage an out or was he just going to have to eat it?

In the dugout, the manager and his coaches had to play out the scenarios amongst themselves so that they could act quickly after the next moment. Did they need the starter to stall a bit and give the bullpen time to warm up? Should they direct the pitcher to work faster and keep the batter off balance … was it more important to speed up to prevent the batter from preparing himself?

Even in the stands, the fans needed those moments to update their scorecards and make their own notes. They needed those moments to teach their sons and daughters about the game and update them on what was happening. Friends needed those moments to argue the previous pitch, play, or non-play and discuss what was going to happen next and maybe even call a home run.

Tuck wished he still cared about the game enough. He knew how awful it was that he was just waiting for one moment so that he could leave the game behind. Early in his life and career, he prepared himself for all of these little moments … they were what was important. He knew that he was being a bad teammate for simply waiting for such a selfish moment. No one would probably ever know the importance of that moment and he was fine with it. It was the only thing that was important to him now and he had no problem with it. He knew he wouldn’t have a problem abandoning this team and walking away once the moment passed and he knew that made him a crappy teammate and probably a crappy human being. But he was tired and even now, even being tired of waiting, he knew he still had to prepare himself so that he could end the waiting sooner.

He was running his warm-up wind sprints in the outfield as players finished up with batting practice. While every other player would walk back to center field after sprinting to the first baseline, he would do his warm-up from the infield dirt to the warning track in left field. It helped him feel more comfortable in his position. And he wouldn’t walk back … he would jog. It was something he had always done. He found walking a waste of time and knew that he could get more exercise if he jogged back to the starting point. He was always preparing himself, always getting ready for the next moments, always pushing himself forward. It wasn’t impatience, it was more about not wasting a moment to prepare.

During one jog back, he was glancing in at the batter and saw one of the relief pitchers with a bat in hand. Just as he was about to take his turn for the sprint back to the warning track, he saw the pitcher-batter take the pitch to his groin area. He was sure that the ball had hit the batter’s thigh and nowhere more sensitive. He instantly recognized how the batter reacted and moved … He knew it all too well. It was a similar pitch that would change the direction of his life the first time.

He and Carl were stars in Little League and his brother went on to become a star in high school. By the time Tuck played his last game before high school, he had little doubt in the fact that he was going to make his high school team. It was just a matter of waiting for that first high school at-bat. The way he had it figured, he would be starting varsity.

He became overconfident in what he thought was a simple fact of life, and despite his brother’s best efforts, he would rarely practice, instead choosing to hang out with friends and have some fun off the field. He felt he had earned it and he had better ideas of how to wait for the spring season to start. He had dominated the Little Leagues and was certain of his future domination of high school. He wasn’t going to do any more waiting on the field.

He remembers sharply that first day of tryouts. It was a cold spring day, early enough in the spring that the sun seemed to be already setting by the time they got out on the field. He stood along the first baseline in old beat-up sweatpants and a sweatshirt, his left arm holding his glove against his chest with about 30 other freshmen. He was smug as he stared at the other hopefuls. He was tired of listening to the coach talk and instead looked up and down the line trying to mark who would be cut first. He didn’t want to wait.

They did the typical throwing warm-ups to start and he threw a couple over his partner’s head and missed a few easy catches. He wasn’t worried. They broke up into smaller groups to rotate around through stations. Some stations were aimed at evaluating your swing while others were designed to test your fielding and one was set up to see if you could run from home to first. When he took his first swing, he felt completely out of sync. His arms and legs seemed to be going in opposite directions while his bat flailed through the strike zone, sometimes hitting the tee and other times swinging right over the ball. Of the ten swings he took at a ball on a tee, he only connected with the ball five times and he noticed as the coach made a note on his clipboard.

In the outfield, he started back on the first ball hit to him before realizing it wasn’t hit that hard and found himself trying to catch up to a ball that was already destined to hit the grass. The next ball went over his head as he first broke in on it. The other five were somewhere in between, with him only gloving a couple. By the time he threw back the last (over the coaches’ heads) he was sucking wind and saw yet another mark go on the clipboard.

The next hour was more of the same and for the first time in his life, he felt panic on a baseball field and the panic made him worse. Carl was at his own practice and he was alone as he was coming apart. As the sun started to make contact with the distant mountains, the coach decided to have some live pitching, fielding, and hitting. By the time he came to bat, he was completely unnerved. The helmet on his head felt like a brick and the bat in his hand felt like a redwood tree. He swung at the first two pitches he saw and missed them by a mile. He was completely unprepared for this level. The pitcher, although his age, suddenly seemed like a future Hall of Famer on the mound.

The third pitch came in hard and fast and he simply froze. Like a statue, the bat was locked to his shoulder and his feet cemented to the ground. Not a single muscle even twitched until after he felt the heat of the ball high on the inside of his thigh. He winced and grabbed his leg. He heard a couple of the other players groan and then laugh. Although the ball only hit his thigh, it would have looked like it hit somewhere a bit higher to others in the field. He turned away from the infield and stood in confusion. He had gotten out of the way of balls like that countless times. He could read balls while they were still in the pitcher’s hand. He had reflexes that would make professional ballplayers jealous. He fought back tears of pain and confusion and suddenly he couldn’t hear anything else after that.

Two days later, at the end of the third day of tryouts, the coach pulled him and a couple of other guys aside and told them thank you for trying out, but there wouldn’t be any room for them on the team that year. A friend’s mother drove him and another one of the guys that got cut home, and Michael struggled to fight back the tears the whole way. When he got home, he walked through the door, only to meet the eyes of his mother. She looked surprised. He looked down and told her he had been cut. He had never felt so broken in his life. She came over and embraced him as he unleashed a torrent of tears, sobbing uncontrollably.

On the outside, he told friends and those that didn’t know him too well that the pitch to the thigh hampered his play during the tryouts, but he knew that was not the truth. He knew that he simply was not prepared. During that time between his last Little League game and the first tryout, he was waiting without preparing. The days, weeks, and months passed, and while he could have been practicing and getting himself ready, he simply sat back on his haunches expecting it would all be handed to him. His Little League teammates and opponents had gotten stronger, faster, and quicker while he got weaker and slower.

It was a low point in Tuck’s life. That pitch to his thigh would become the first big turning point in his life. When he originally got hit, he could actually see the individual seams of the ball marked on his leg. It took several weeks for the bruise to completely heal, but he felt those seams were marked in his heart forever and it changed his approach to everything for the rest of his life.

The day after he got cut, he started running every day. He would run in the snow, rain, and heat. Not a day went by that he didn’t swing a bat and throw a ball. He set up a batting tee in the basement and hit countless balls into a net on rainy days and days too cold to be outside. He would spend hours throwing balls against nets, fences, walls, and even trees, and then fielding them.

He attended all of his brother’s games and watched how high schoolers played the game. He would score the game, track pitches, and take notes of how the defense lined up in specific situations. He would give his brother pointers on mechanics and strategy after games. He’d even share tips for his brother’s teammates.

During the summer, he and his brother went back to their normal routine of spending their days in the field. They would practice and play until they were exhausted and then they would lie in the grass and talk about strategy. Sometimes, they would take turns creating scenarios and asking each other what they would do in each of them from all positions on the field.

If it was raining, they would go down in their basement and go through a normal regimen that includes the batting tee, weights, and fielding work. They ate, slept, and breathed baseball until it became part of them. When school started up again, they continued the regimen as much as they could, sometimes even involving other potential teammates.

When the spring tryouts came around, there was no doubt that he was a transformed player. Tryouts came and went and before the first game of the season, he had leapt over the JV squad and was a starting outfielder for the varsity squad. For two years, he and his brother terrorized every other team in their conference and led the way to two straight state titles.

During his senior year, even though they would lose the state championship series, he wrapped up nearly every offensive record for the school and about half the records for the state. There were scouts at nearly every one of his games with schools trying to convince him to not skip college and professional teams begging him to enter the draft.

His transformation was complete, and for a long time, he welcomed waits. Waiting, for him, was an opportunity to prepare and get ready for the next moment, whether it was while standing in the outfield between pitches, the time between the final out and Opening Day, or while standing on third while the catcher talked to the pitcher. In that awful moment of his freshman year, he learned that the next moment will be destined by what you did while waiting for it. Even in such a mundane moment as waiting and standing at third, how he prepared himself for all possible scenarios that could happen once the pitcher released the next pitch could determine whether he was left standing on third and missing out on an opportunity or if his team won by one run.

Suddenly coming back from the thoughts that took him meandering back in time in his own head, he realized that he was in a full sprint, staring off into space and about to crash into the concrete wall in front of the stands. Tuck tried to stop and braced himself before making a last-second try to jump the wall. All he could muster was a bit of a bunny hop as his inner thigh caught the point of the top of the short wall. He winced but understood Irony’s message.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Fifth

Walking through that turnstile for her was like walking through the Wardrobe, leaving one world behind and entering a new world, where the fears and stress that existed in this world dissipated and were replaced with fears and stresses of a Diamond World. Where life and death were not actually life and death, but euphemisms for succeeding and failing. It was a world within itself, one where she left the problems of the real world behind at the turnstile. Often the joys and pains of this world creeped into her real world, but seldom did she carry the baggage in with her.

This was a world that, despite what happened yesterday, it was a new world today. Yes, losing streaks and standing deficits continued to be built, but every day was new and there was always a chance to win, regardless of what happened the day before. Infinite possibilities existed with the start of every game and even with each inning. Even an ordinary cold spring game could become something special, something historic and magical. Legends of this world could be created on a single at-bat against an archrival on any old, hot August day. There were 162 chances a year to produce a moment that could be shared for a generation to come. This was a world that she wanted to live in. This was a world that she loved. And with that click of the turnstile, the other world, a world of bills and jobs and traffic and all the other nuisances that crowded a life, were turned away.

No, this Diamond World was a different world. A world measured in pitches, outs, and innings, not seconds, minutes, and hours. And the innings never started over at one; they just kept going, regardless of the hours that existed outside the turnstile. This was a perfect world, a world she understood without question, right down to the infield fly rule.

As Abigail took a sip of her beer and felt the late-day sun rays hit her in the face, she could feel herself sinking deeper into her seat, almost as if she were melting. She would close her eyes and let the warmth envelop her, as the symphony of a pre-game ballpark played into her ears. Thousands of voices swirled and mingled in the air to create a steady beat of noise … an energy that pulsed through her. It was peppered by the crack of a bat or the occasional beer vendor shouting, and they always seemed perfectly timed to bring just the right rhythm to the ballpark music.

Of course, it wasn’t actually perfect. It was imperfect in so many ways. It, obviously, is not real life, but a game. And while the real world couldn’t be escaped from and had real consequences, she knew and understood that it was unlikely that anything would change in that three-hour sojourn to this world. As she pondered the small wash of loneliness that swept over her among 45,000 other people, she realized how imperfect it was.

When she was younger and when her children were born, she had envisioned bringing them to games and sharing this life with them. She even thought through the years of how time with them might be marked by trips and seasons in the ballpark, as they went from squirming in her lap to asking a million questions that she had two million answers for, to them driving her to the game, to all of them relaxing and drinking beer together behind home plate. She got as far as half a million questions, but real life interfered and the fire forever changed the course of their lives. From time to time, her daughter made a half-hearted offer to go with her, but she felt like it was forced on her. And, of course, her son wanted nothing to do with baseball. It didn’t help that the team was usually out of the running by June, so the only excitement they ever saw around the team came from their mother.

In the pre-game, she liked to watch other fans as much as she liked watching the preparations on the field. She liked to watch as the older veterans of fandom would settle into their seats with their scoresheets and carefully enter the lineups into the boxes. They would go through a media guide or scorebook they had bought at the beginning of the season and review stat splits on the players in the lineup. She could tell they were making mental notes. Once the game started, these old-school hardball scholars would meticulously fill out the scoresheet, logging every play, probably the way that their parents had shown them a long time ago. Of course, they would have variances in symbols that broke with what their fathers had taught them, but, without doubt, you could connect the dots between generations based solely on scoresheets. Some of these fans would also track pitch counts, making strange dots, circles, or lines next to the pitchers’ names.

Filling out a scoresheet was a dying art. As a small child, Abigail would watch her father in awe as he filled out his scoresheet during games. Most of the time he only did it when he was at the stadium, but occasionally he would sit there and score a game in front of the radio or TV. She used to cheer on players to score just to complete the diamond in the little boxes, even if they were on the other team. She hated seeing all those unfinished diamonds. However, it helped her understand the game better. It helped her visualize player stats and that batters fail more often than they succeed. It also helped her, when it happened, visualize just how dominant a pitcher can be.

She was in awe of it and still was today. She rarely kept score herself, though, but she appreciated it. She feared that it might die with her generation. She had once tried to show her daughter how to do it, but she quickly and repeatedly got distracted by the noise and sights of the modern ballpark.

The younger, independent generation, the one her children belonged to, were raucous and loud at the stadium. She appreciated their enthusiasm and knew that they were the bridge to future generations of fans. However, they seemingly were opposite to the older veterans of the game. They wanted and needed the noise of the stadium and the company of their friends. The more, the better. Some were there to impress a girl, some were there to drink, and some were there to fulfill the traditions that their parents had instilled in them. There would be the occasional “kid” that would be 100% focused on the game action and she often found herself smiling as she watched them.

Regardless of their reasons for being there, she loved that they were there and that they were loud and raucous. They were exerting their own independence and they were choosing to do so at the stadium. Baseball needed that. They need more fans like that. Somewhere along the way, baseball seemed to lose its magic and drawing power. It fell behind basketball and football. The younger generation just wasn’t drawn to it as her generation and generations past had been. So, baseball needed these fans, as much as they needed the older fans.

Of course, it seemed at every game there was a father and/or mother bringing their kid or kids to their first games. The signs were obvious … a father excitedly pointing out everything going on and mothers buying every souvenir that passed by and photographing every last detail of the game. Their kids, of course, with the remains of ketchup from a hot dog on their faces just squirmed in their seats in hats and shirts at least two sizes too big and cared more about the cotton candy guy than they did about what happened on the field.

A first game was a right of passage, so even if the expense of a game and everything that went with it was a bit beyond their budget, they pulled out all the stops regardless. Professional baseball existed when football and basketball were just infants. It is a generational game more than others, one whose love is passed down from father to daughter, from mother to son. It seemed a rarity that a kid would just pick up the game on their own. It is more likely inherited from a generation before—whether it is a father trying to teach his son the skills that he was never able to quite master or a mother just trying to create those same moments with her daughter as she did with her father. Like a family ring, one generation passes it to the next.

The Fan felt that she let down the next generation. In her inability to pass along the love to her own children, she felt she was contributing to the death of the game. Even though the stadiums around the country continued to fill, Abigail felt there were fewer and fewer fans that truly understood the game and its history. By not passing along her love to her children, she felt sadness for not just herself, but for the game itself.

Loneliness, even grief, overwhelmed her this day in her sanctuary. Her Diamond World was taking on an unusual invasion, but it was an invasion from within. Then, an unusually loud crack of the bat grabbed her attention and her eyes turned from within to what was going on at home plate. He was taking his swings and he was driving every ball over the wall. Even though she was hundreds of feet away, she could see the scowl on his face, almost as if each baseball had personally offended him. But he was swinging well, better than she had seen him swinging in a while. Even though he had lost much of his power, he was still finding holes and driving the balls through them just enough to keep him on the team. To see him knocking the balls over the walls was a good sign.

His turn in the cage seemed to grab the attention of the spattering of the crowd that was in their seats. With the first crack, the whole stadium seemed to get quiet for a moment. Fans didn’t know whether to cheer for him or just remain quiet out of respect or even fear. He, for so long, was a hero of the past.

For the old veteran fans, Tuck was a throwback to how players used to play the game … men that were tough and ran out every ball, regardless of the swing. Men that hustled all the time, and when they succeeded, didn’t do dances or show up the other team. They simply played their game.

For the younger fans, he was the centerpiece of this team when they were first introduced to the game. Watching him on the field brought in memories of games with their moms and dads. In this player, they saw the gleams in the eyes of their parents as they talked about the game. He was a reminder of their childhood, before things became complicated.

For the parents with their kids, he was a reminder of the days when they were growing into their own independence … a time when they started forming their own opinions on baseball, independent of the opinions of their parents. While their parents surely would have loved this player, he was something more to this generation … the first great star that made it easy to stay with the game long after they stopped going to games with their parents.

This player brought together the generations within a ballpark. Whether he liked it or not, he brought the fans together in respect, admiration, and even love. Players like this, with the combination of longevity, skill, and instinct, did not come along too often. They were something special in their ability to unite fans behind them while, at the same time, lifting the team around them. As the old saying goes, rising tides lift all ships; that was his impact on teams while in his prime. They were the type of player that even opposing teams’ fans admired and respected. In the past, they may have hated them for how they would have beaten their own teams, almost single-handedly. However, now, they respected them and wished their own teams had more players like him.

And, of course, as every adult in the ballpark knew, he was the brother of a true hero … a hero that wore a uniform but played no games. This fact … this sacrifice elevated the player even more for the fans. His brother was the savior of children.

No one knew this more than Abigail. It was her children his brother had given his life saving, and, in doing so, it was her life his brother saved. While, at times, her Diamond World had an empty pall about it, her real world remained full because of the acts of this man’s brother. 

She thought of all the Christmases, birthday parties, and vacations since the fire. She thought of the smiles on the faces of her children through the years and the laughter that filled her house through the years. She thought of proms and graduations and first cars and the joy of the years since the fire.

As she watched this man with the scowl, angrily pummelling baseballs into oblivion, Abigail realized how much Tuck had lost. When the fire first happened, she had read about how his brother was the last of his family and he was alone in this world. She was humbled by this and suddenly felt guilt for her own little pity party that she had been feeling. She was alone in this ballpark, but so was he. However, when she left, she went home to her family … to her children, and indirectly because of that, he went home alone. It was as if being alone in her Diamond World was some sort of penance.

She let herself sob for a moment, as she thought that those few fans around her must have thought her crazy, but she quickly pulled herself together. She let herself feel the warmth of the sun again … let the heat dry her tears. She let herself enjoy the sounds of the ballpark again. She let herself enjoy the smell of barbeque and grass in the air. She let herself enjoy the colors and contrasts of the park again. She let herself enjoy the taste of the pretzel and beer again. Abigail felt she owed it to the sacrifice that had been made for her, so she let herself smile again as she stood up and cheered as loud as she could for this man.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Fifth

He stood quietly in front of the dugout, not really sure what to do. Michael felt obvious, conspicuous in the fact he had nothing to do except stand in that spot. There were plenty of people wandering around in the corridor that ran from about first base, around behind home plate, and half way up the visitor dugout. The first base path was the border, but in reality, you’d have to answer to the grumpy groundskeeper if you had any inkling to put a toe on the exposed grass. He pondered the tarps that cover the grass in the area and wondered how that was any better for the grass than people walking around on it directly. However, that was not his job … his job was to stand there and wait.

And there were a lot of people out there doing nothing more than waiting, but they seemed to be doing it with a lot more confidence. Some were waiting to talk to a player, a manager, or some team official for a piece they are writing on said player, manager, or team official or some other player, manager, or team official. Others were waiting for word from some television studio either a couple of miles away or an entire country away so that they could do a 30-second live mention that they were indeed at the game and would have updates on the late news. A few were waiting for his boss, trying to get a pass for a friend, a ticket for a meal, or access to a player. Some were simply waiting until someone kicked them off the field because they did not have the proper credentials to be there, so they might as well be there. And why not, the Intern thought. Why not hang out on an absolutely perfect field on an absolutely perfect spring evening and watch the preparations for an absolutely perfect game.

Regardless of their reason for waiting, each and everyone looked like they belonged there. Some stood with their arms upon the batting cage, as if studying the current batter’s swing, even if it were a pitcher. Some wandered in and out of the clubhouse, by way of the dugout as if looking for someone. Some simply paced up and down the field, looking lost in their thoughts. He was certain that of all the people out there, he was the one who belonged on that field the least. This made him nervous, but he still tried to take the scene in. He made sure to look around the field and commit it to memory.

His official job at that moment, as specifically explained by his boss, was to wait. No one else on that field would admit to simply waiting … however, it was his current title. His boss was waiting for the names of some last-minute additions to a player’s ticket allotment for the game. He was waiting for his boss to hand him the names so that he could bring them to someone in the ticket office who was also waiting so that he could pull the tickets together and get them to the family that was waiting outside the stadium to get in. It was a chain of people waiting and the only one who wasn’t was joking around in the outfield with another player.

In spite of how uncomfortable he was, he could not think of anywhere else he’d want to be at that moment. Even though at the moment he felt like an outsider looking in, he felt like he was part of the team and something much larger than himself. The transition of off-season Intern to in-season Intern was a dramatic transition. While much of the day-in and day-out stuff never changed, the season brought on a whole other set of responsibilities, responsibilities that he enjoyed and had become comfortable with, even if he still occasionally stumbled in them. He was beginning to feel like he wasn’t just there to fill a role but was there because he was needed. He felt that while others were capable of doing his job, he wasn’t sure if they could be as reliable as he was.

And so, he dutifully stood there and did his job and waited. As he did so, one of the local beat reports came over and they exchanged a couple of odd jokes and small talk before he asked the Intern to look up some statistics. The Intern agreed to get them to him in the first inning and the reporter quickly walked off somewhere else to wait. This seemed to suddenly draw attention to the other reporters that he was there and each came over and repeated the same dance and request before walking away to wait elsewhere.

Finally, the player came jogging in and was stopped by the Intern’s boss. They joked for a moment or two before he jotted something down on a piece of paper. A couple more jokes were made before the two parted ways. Michael was handed the piece of paper and his boss motioned toward the field and mentioned that there were worse places to spend the last half hour of his life. The Intern happily agreed and then quickly darted off into the bowels of the stadium to run his errand.

Being in the visitor’s locker room, after a loss to the home team, was always so awkward. He couldn’t wait to be out of there. Normally, he could get in there, grab a few quotes from the key players and the manager by eavesdropping on the reporters, and get out of there. He wasn’t supposed to ask questions and nearly no interaction with the players was preferred. He was fine with that. He had time to develop his “player skills” and get used to the interactions with nervous rookies, impatient veterans, and intimidating future Hall-of-Famers. He had no problems with that.

However, this mission, this reason for being in the clubhouse nearly an hour after the game had him feeling nervous to his stomach. During the sixth inning of the game, the star first baseman for the other team had hit a sharp ball down to third. The third baseman had made a diving stop of the ball but fumbled it as he came to his feet to throw it. The official scorer had ruled it an error. You could tell the player was more than a little angry as he stood on first. Every so often, he glared up at the press box as he worked his way around the bases that inning. He looked ready to explode.

And it was this live explosive that he was sent to disarm, and he feared for his life.

Michael knew this player well. Extremely well. Or, at least he knew exactly how the man stood at the plate, all six feet six inches of him. How he held the bat up high with the head pointed back at nearly a 45-degree angle to the ground but perfectly in line with home plate and the pitcher’s mound. He knew how he held his left elbow straight out, parallel to the ground, while his right elbow rested against his body. His right leg would be no more than two feet from his left leg, which was lined up with his back elbow. And he would calmly stay in that position … so calm and steady that you would think he was a statue in the park. It was amazing that pigeons didn’t come down to rest on his bat. And he stayed this way until the pitcher was midway through his windup. Then, all of a sudden, his weight would shift back to his left leg, his knee seemingly crumbling under the weight of his massive frame. He would lift the right elbow of his body, dropping the head of his bat until it was nearly parallel to the ground, just as he lifted his right leg. As the ball approached home plate, in one fluidly explosive movement, his right leg dropped and all 267 pounds of him seemed to transfer into the bat as he swept it through the strike zone, inflicting catastrophic damage to a pitch that didn’t stand a chance.

He knew this because just last Summer while hanging out with his high school friend and his brother, they spent hours dissecting different players’ batting stances. “The Beast,” as they liked to call him, was the brothers’ favorite enemy player. The two of them took turns mimicking and showing off the swing and alternately critiquing. So, he got the full detail of exactly how this man swung a bat.

As Michael stood there in the clubhouse, he was grateful for that detailed dissection because it allowed him to mentally prepare which way to duck when he became the target of the legendary temper that was second only to the man’s swing in explosiveness.

He pondered his best strategy for ambushing The Beast. He thought about going up to him while he was by his locker, but that was in the back corner, surrounded by the lockers of relief pitchers who were nowhere to be seen, mostly because of their own fear. And, he swears there was a lightbulb or five out in the corner, which made it even more foreboding. He was sure that if he went back there, he would never return. They wouldn’t find his body for another 50 years when they were tearing down the stadium.

He then thought he would just walk up to him and interrupt him while he was talking to the other players. While this would take more nerve, there would be witnesses. As it turned out, he didn’t have the nerve and the player quickly disappeared into the shower.

So, the Intern made up his mind and planted himself in a spot between the shower and the corner locker. There, he waited once again, hoping that the fact that since the man was naked, it would make him more docile. When The Beast emerged from the shower, the Intern stepped into his path and extended his hand (making sure it was high enough so that there was no confusion about his intentions), and introduced himself. The man looked shocked for a moment, and without saying a word, shook the Intern’s hand. Without wasting a moment, he quickly blurted out that the official scorer had changed his call and that what was originally scored an error was now going for a hit. The Beast stared at him for a moment, released his hand, and continued his way toward his locker, mumbling something about how he was happy but that someone was going to be bludgeoned and buried beneath his locker, or so the Intern swears he heard before he himself quickly withdrew from the clubhouse.

As a kid, Michael had a strange love-hate relationship with the grounds crew. At times, he loved watching them, so methodically, go about their business. The way they would comb the infield and water it. The way they would lay down the line of rope so that they could put down the chalk lines. He loved watching the batter box being built with an actual box and then tapped for the chalk. He would get lost in the process and perhaps watch it all day. Ultimately he knew they heralded in the start of the game like the torch bearers herald the start of the Olympics.

But on the flip side, there was still time to wait to watch the game he loved to watch. It meant the game was so close and he could barely wait that small amount of time longer, and watching them go about their business made him antsy and anxious for the game to begin. He would find himself irrationally annoyed with these poor guys just going about their business … He wanted them to stop delaying the games.

Now, he made a point of getting himself to the press box in time to watch all the pre-game preparations. Usually, he was done with what he needed to do by about 20 minutes before the first pitch, so he’d grab an ice cream from the media lunchroom and go sit in his boss’s chair and watch the field preparations.

On this particular day, he couldn’t help but watch the fading star doing wind sprints in the outfield. He watched the old man walk slowly, staring at the grass. It wasn’t the type of stare that one might expect for such an activity. You would expect someone to maybe just be looking toward the ground as if to catch their breath or collect their thoughts, barely even realizing that the grass is there. But he was staring at the grass as if the grass itself was the focus of his attention. Although the Intern was a significant distance away, he could tell that this man wasn’t merely in a breath-catching daze, lost in the grass. He was trying to burn a hole into the grass with his stare.

Once the player got to about right-center field, he would run at full charge toward the stands, with his gaze seemingly fixated on one point in the stands. And this wasn’t the charge of someone warming up; this was a charge of a hurt bull running full speed at the red cape of a matador. One time, the player was charging so hard, he forgot to slow down fast enough and was still at half speed when he crashed into the wall. With barely a reaction and blood dripping from his forearm where he caught himself against the wall, he just turned, focused on the grass and walked back.

The Intern was, of course, intrigued by the Tuck. Opening the media guide that he helped put together, he found the player’s pages and read through them. His only knowledge of the player prior to him joining the team was the error he had committed in the World Series that would help turn the Intern into a baseball fan when he was a kid. As he read more, this was a man that seemed absolutely destined to be one of the all-time greats. His stats, from the very beginning, were on pace to be Hall of Fame worthy. He didn’t hit a ton of home runs, but his average was consistently in the league top five with a few batting titles. He regularly finished in the top two for RBI, with a handful of titles there, as well. But it was the detail of his stats that truly shone. There were few better in the history of the game with two outs and runners on. No other player ever topped his average with runners in scoring position in those early seasons. And he was even better at home.

Then, suddenly, his numbers tailed off. This was something that was well known and well discussed around baseball … How this great, great player, almost overnight, just stopped hitting. There were a number of theories, but it seemed few made the glaringly obvious connection.

As he read through the player’s bio, he was startled to discover that not only was his first big-league game a no-hitter in which he hit the game-winning home run in his first at-bat, but it was also the Intern’s birthday. No, not the actual anniversary of his birthday, but his actual day of birth.

The story is well told in his family how, when his mother went into labor, they couldn’t find his dad. His dad was with the Intern’s uncle at a baseball game. Eventually, when the game was over, a no-hitter, his dad returned home triumphantly to find an empty house and the phone ringing. Later that night, the future Intern was born into the world with his father by his mother’s bed.

Years later, and in a different city, when he was thirteen, the young Intern fell in love with the sport when the home team won a dramatic World Series. The boy became obsessed and began questioning his dad endlessly about the game. That year, for Christmas, after all the other presents had been opened, his father presented him with a small box, telling him it was the one possession that meant more to him than anything else he owned, but he now wanted his son to have it. Michael opened up the box and pulled out a glass box with a ball in it. His father went on to explain how he had caught the ball during the game he was at the day he was born.

As the Intern thought about the ball that now sat in a prized location in both his room and his heart, he wondered how he had never put it together in the months since he started working there and the years since this player had dropped a ball that made him a fan of the game. He stared into the media guide in a daze, trying to fight back tears. He looked back up, out at the player, and thought for sure the player was staring at him now.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Opening Day > Christmas Day

It felt a bit weird to be publishing the chapters about Opening Day around Christmas and New Year. Dodging snow, bundling up to head outside, and stocking the fireplace all could not be any further than the ideal pristine thoughts of the perfect Opening Day. Warmth. Sunshine. Perfection.

However, the more I thought about it, the more it feels. Christmas and New Year are about hope and new beginnings. It is about possibilities, starting over, and joy. For those of us that love baseball, oftentimes there is more excitement around Opening Day than Christmas for all the same reasons, plus the fact that if everything goes right, you get to feel that excitement every day for more than six months.

When I was younger, I was always so excited for Opening Day. In my book, it was a holiday. Anything is possible for your team, even if the pundits tell you winning is impossible for your team. It starts a long stretch where, nearly any day, anything can happen. On any pitch, the little things like an impossible diving catch, a bunt that stays just inside the third baseline, or a ridiculous pitch that leaves the batter frozen are always possibilities and have their own excitement about them. On any day, the big things can happen like a perfect game or someone hitting for the cycle. And it all begins on Opening Day in the warmth of a hopefully beautiful sunny day and doesn’t end until a cold brisk autumn night. How could someone not be excited about that?

In more recent years, Opening Day has snuck up on me. Whether it is lost faith in the Mets or just being busy, baseball comes upon me like quickly and unexpectedly (not unlike Christmas these days). However, Opening Day always feels special. I get introspective and recall Opening Days of the past. Darryl Strawberries long home run into the roof in Montreal, Gary Carter’s game-winner in his first game as a Met and Alberto Castillo’s 14th inning game-winner in my first game working for the Mets all come to mind.

When it came to Opening Day in the novel, I wanted to show three sides of it. More importantly, for the Player I wanted to show that even the most hardened beat down individuals will still hold an air of hope around Opening Day. Regardless of what is ahead and what is behind, I like to think that even the grizzled veterans enjoy and welcome opening day…that it is a special day for them, as well. I don’t know if that is actually true, but I like to think it is.

In the current climate, however, it is frustrating with the lockout. Right now, March 31 is the scheduled Opening Day, but who knows if that actually happens. However, regardless of when “Play Ball” is shouted, it will feel like Christmas morning.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Fourth

Looking around, he wasn’t really sure how he had gotten here. Sure, he remembers driving his car and a couple of people welcoming him back and wishing him well, but he felt like he had sleepwalked here. One minute he was lying in bed and the next he was staring into his locker. He managed to hit two home runs and made a couple of key plays in the outfield and earned himself the final spot on the roster in the final exhibition game. For that, he was very much relieved for a number of reasons; the biggest, obviously, was that he had made the team and he was going to get a shot at that last home run. He regretted that a kid was sent down, but he was certain he’d be back soon enough. He was also relieved that he could still hit a home run. It was the first two of the spring and was desperately needed. The sooner he could hit his regular-season home run, the sooner he could get out of there and disappear from the game for a while.

Tuck took his brother’s fireman shield out of his pocket and rubbed his fingers across the numbers a couple of times. After looking at it for a few moments, he rubbed it on his pant leg to remove the smudged fingerprints before tucking it away in a spot at the back of his locker.

He always loved Opening Day. It was Christmas morning to him, even as a child. Their mother producing a set of game tickets on the morning of Opening Day was like Santa Claus coming down the chimney. Despite his sense of urgency to escape the game, he did his best to still enjoy the day because it was always a sacred holiday for him. Despite being alone now, he felt he still owed it to his family to do his best to enjoy it. He also knew it was the last one of his career … perhaps the last game of his career.

He wandered out of the clubhouse and down the long tunnel that leads to home plate. He enjoyed that view of walking down the tunnel. It reminded him of being a kid and emerging from the stadium concourse and into the seating bowl. The way the sun just lit up everything upon that moment of emerging always made him stop in the walkway. His brother would, inevitably, shove him out of the way.

He emerged onto the field in the shadow of the buildings beyond the outfield wall. They stood as tall, imposing silhouettes, fighting back the morning’s earliest rays. He wandered up to home plate and thought to himself, Just one more, brother. No sooner had he thought that, a ray of light finally escaped from behind a building and hit him square in the eyes. For a moment, the entire field, stadium, and city disappeared in the flash of light, and for a moment, he saw his parents and his brother looking back at him from the light. His parents had a look of concern, while his brother stared at him with a knowing smirk. Then, once again, they were gone, just as suddenly.

He crouched down for a moment, sitting on his heels, and ran his hand through the dirt around home plate. He thought about the dust cloud at home that ended the previous season and shook his head. He stood up and brushed the dirt off his hands onto his pants and headed back to the clubhouse.

Patient … patient, he thought as he stood at the plate in his first at-bat of the game. Wait for it. In a split second, his foot lifted slightly and he transferred all his weight forward as his arms jerked the bat around. As if every muscle in his body had suddenly transferred its energy up through his core, through his shoulders, arms, and out into the bat, the piece of wood violently ripped through the cool spring air. His eyes grew wider for just a moment and the last bit of exhaled air left his mouth as bat met ball in that somewhere less than random point in the universe.

In a moment, the ball rose above the infield so quickly that not one of the fielders reacted to the explosion of power. The center fielder immediately turned his back to the stunned infielders and ran toward the wall at full speed. The three runners on base immediately started their turn around the bases, each of their cleats making contact with the next base at nearly the same time that the center fielder reached the wall. He made one last desperate leap at the ball as the old Player held his breath as best he could while running full speed. For a moment, he thought he had just touched first base for the last time.

In the next moment, the ball was bouncing and rolling through the grass and he pulled into second base just as the right fielder picked up the ball. All three runners had scored and the crowd was on its feet. He was bent over at second trying to catch his breath as the crowd began a loud chant of his name. Even as the cheering began to engulf the entire stadium, he refused to acknowledge it. He briefly let his eyes fall on the empty block of seats he had bought up for the season. He shook his head for a moment and waited for the cheering to end.

It wasn’t until the seventh inning, as he stood on third, that he was able to observe just how majestic the stadium was. The contrast of the bunting against the dark green of the faces in the stands struck him sharply, recalling images of being at Opening Day with his family. He observed how the weather at this time of year brought about a weird mix of attire on the fans. There were those fans wearing full, thick winter jackets that someone might wear to ski. They usually had hats and gloves that muffled every clap. They were mixed in with the individuals who rallied toward the sun with just shorts and a jersey over a T-shirt. They weren’t going to let a lingering winter get in their way. The former were probably too hot and the latter were too cold and only those in layers were just right.

He wasn’t sure why this struck him so strongly. Was it the visual manifestation of transition that he felt his heart was in? Was it a reminder that regardless of how blue the sky was and how many teams were playing the Game that day, that they were still dangerously close to Winter’s domain? He wasn’t sure it even mattered.

There were going to be a lot of questions from the media for him after the game. If you get four hits and drive in five runs, you are going to get the full force of the post-game media. If you do it on Opening Day, you are going to get the full force of the post-game media times 10. If you get four hits and drive in five runs on Opening Day in what is your first game back after a self-imposed exile from a city that never wanted you to leave, you are going to get the full force of the post-game media times 100. He suddenly dreaded returning to the clubhouse.

It wasn’t the most well-played game, but thanks to his contributions, the team earned the win. The starter, the Ace, pitched the type of game that he was supposed to pitch. He wasn’t perfect but got the outs when he needed, only surrendered a couple of runs, and left the game with a solid lead. The infield had a couple of errors after that and the bullpen nearly coughed up the game, but they too got the outs when they were needed. When the last one came on a strikeout with the bases loaded, the crowd, already on their feet, escalated their screams to a level that, had the stadium not been an open-air stadium, probably would have brought it down.

As the clubhouse rocked with the excitement of an Opening Day win, the Tuck was hiding in the batting cages. He needed to collect himself. He had to try to figure out what questions he was going to be asked and what answers he needed to give. He had to figure out how his teammates might approach him and what they might say. He preferred to be left alone, but for the right reasons. Not for being a bad teammate.

Finally, he emerged from the hall to the batting cages and stepped into the doorway of the clubhouse. The Ace stood holding court among the media, camera lights reflecting off his blue eyes, amplifying the mischievous twinkle that was already there. The Ace was just a couple of years younger than himself and rarely gave a straight answer to the media. They pretended to be good sports about it, but they secretly hated being treated like that. They were serious people with serious jobs and serious deadlines. The Ace approached all his games the way he was supposed to. He did his homework, he was serious and professional on the day of the game, and he was consistently focused on the job he had to do. Once he was out of a game, however, his demeanor changed and he became a clown of sorts.

The Closer sat next to his locker, half-heartedly joking with another pitcher. He was a bit slumped over, trying to figure out what had happened out there. While most people would look at it as what almost happened, he was a perfectionist and in his head, he blew the game. He fielded a couple of questions from reporters but he was replaying the inning in his head. He was processing each pitch and swing … every one locked in his photographic memory. He knew that the last pitch was fast and that the only reason they were celebrating a win right then and there was because the hitter saw hero in the pitch and got overly excited. He already had himself trotting around second when he overswung on the ball and missed it completely. The Closer knew he wouldn’t be so excited next time.

The sophomore show-off second baseman danced around the clubhouse trying to entice the others to join with him. He was louder than the radio and constantly had the eyes of the reporters looking over their shoulders. He had a couple of hits and scored a couple of runs, but also had a couple of errors that resulted in a couple of runs. He was oblivious to it. He only saw a “W” and was very much okay with it. There were enough guys in the room who would break down every pitch of the game. It was good to have the blind enthusiasm in the clubhouse.

Finally, the reporters caught sight of Tuck and every last one of them immediately headed to his locker, joining a couple of guys who were camped out there for some time. The rest of the players took notice as well … they respected the man and some even seemed to understand him. A couple came over and patted him on the back. The Ace, who he had played a season or two with in the past, came over and gave him a hug, whispering something in his ear that seemed to get the first smile from the ballplayer in a long time.

The questions were what he expected. Nothing came as a surprise to him and he was as gracious as he could be. He shook a couple of the reporters’ hands before turning back into his locker. He had gotten through it … now he wondered how many more times he would have to survive it.

He was renting a modest apartment a short distance from the stadium. Far enough away that he would have to drive to the ballpark on most days, close enough that he could walk home when he wanted. He grabbed his bag and headed out the same exit that other fans would use. Somehow, he managed to make it out the door and mix in with the remaining stragglers without being noticed. He couldn’t help but hear them talk excitedly about the game, joyously exclaiming his return, and discussions about who they might face in October. It was Opening Day and a perfect record led to a lot of imperfect logic … and that was perfectly okay.

It wouldn’t take long before a few noticed him and yelled out his name and congratulations. He wouldn’t acknowledge it for fear of more noticing him. He was enjoying the air of downtown … it was still filled with electricity from the game. As he wandered past the bars with people overflowing onto the street, he sensed something special, but he wouldn’t acknowledge it for fear of getting attached to it. It was just one game and they had a long way to go.

The sun was low in the sky now, casting long shadows around the city. The air was growing chillier and a crescent moon hung low in the opposite sky of the sun. He was lost in his thoughts, and before he realized it, he was walking past his brother’s firehouse. His heart started pounding almost immediately. He hadn’t been down there since the funeral and he wasn’t ready to be there. The last time he saw it, it was draped in purple and black, flag at half-mast, and in the rain, it seemed to be crying. Now, it was draped in red, white, and blue bunting and the red brick glowed a brilliant orange in the late afternoon sunlight. It looked beautiful and American and the ideal he used to think of when his brother worked … lived … there.

In one of the garage door windows, there was a sign that said “Welcome Home” with his picture. The other door was open and he could hear the happy voices and laughter of his brother’s brothers and all he could do was stand there, frozen in place and maybe even in time. An eternity seemed to pass as he stood there, when suddenly, the laughter and voices stopped. Before he could react, the familiar faces with nervous smiles were peering out at him from the open doorway. He wasn’t ready and panicked. Tuck gave a forced smile and a wave, before quickly turning around and heading back across the street. He could hear their voices, calling after him. And it wasn’t just their voices he heard. He wanted to go back to them. He wanted to give in to their obvious welcome. He wanted to remember his brother with them. But it wasn’t time. He wasn’t ready. He needed to just get out of there.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Fourth

When he was in fifth grade, he spent a restless night staring at the ceiling, wondering when and if the morning would ever come and how he was going to pass the math final exam, preventing him from having to go to summer school. Failure wasn’t an option.

When he was a high school senior, Michael spent a restless night staring at the ceiling, wondering when and if the morning would ever come, excited to get on the basketball court and prove himself worthy of the high school varsity team.

Forget the many Christmas Eves he could hardly compose himself enough to fall asleep and Christmas mornings when he would wake in full excitement before the sun even rose to wonder what was under the tree for him and what magic the day would hold for him and his family.

This night and morning were all rolled together into a fitful night where sleep was simply not going to happen. He spent it between books and the TV and the couch and his bed, desperately seeking a sleep that was destined to escape him. Anxiety, Fear, Doubt, Excitement, Joy, Hope, and all of their friends and family were engaged in a raucous house party in his head and he was helpless to stop them.

Every Opening Day was a source of pure and unadulterated excitement for him. Since falling in love with the game, Opening Day was Christmas Junior. It was not just about the game and everything that comes with it. More than the vernal equinox or Easter, the arrival of baseball heralded the return of Spring. The pitcher winding up, a batter in the box, a catcher squatting, and an umpire watching it all signaled rebirth, renewal, and redemption. Even if the temperature was still spending most of its time south of freezing and snow still sat in those giant dirty piles at the mall or stadium parking lots, it was Spring. Snow may occasionally delay that moment, but Spring was going to get its chance like it has for well over a century.

And every Opening Day, this was what he felt. Opening Day was hope played out on a grand scale of green bordered in red, white, and blue and filled with every other color one could imagine. He could taste the hope and it would charge every cell of his body, every year. There was nothing like Opening Day … until this Opening Day.

This Opening Day … this day was going to be unlike any other he had ever experienced. While he was more excited than he could possibly imagine, he was no longer a fan. He was no longer figuring out how to get out of classes so that he could watch the game. He was no longer trying to figure out if he could get a last-minute ticket and borrow a car to get the game. He was no longer thinking of excuses on how to get out of work. It was work now. He had a job to do, a job connected to a game that others were skipping their jobs to go to. He had responsibilities to take care of, people to organize, and places he needed to be. And he had done none of it before. Michael was more of a rookie than the first baseman. The first baseman had at least played a game before, while this intern had never had to talk to a reporter that had his own set of pressures on him that would be applied down to him, and there would be a whole press box full of them.

Just before dawn, with his brain burning, he made himself a cup of coffee and headed out to his “balcony”—the small landing at the top of the spiral staircase to his second-floor apartment. There wasn’t even enough room for a chair there, but he liked to go out there and stare off into the horizon. In his apartment he felt trapped, confined, but on this little tiny piece of rented real estate, he felt part of something bigger than himself. He didn’t feel smaller looking into a starry night sky; in fact, he felt bigger, like anything was possible. It was that feeling that helped push him into the car to head down to the stadium back in the fall and it was that feeling that he hoped would get him past the anxiety of what lay ahead.

On this morning, the crystal clear sky seemed created for the stars that shined high over his head in midnight blue. The sky was turning lighter in a gradient closer to the horizon. The sun was making its way to all the grand ballparks around the country … but even it couldn’t rush the night away fast enough for the Intern.

On this particular morning, he didn’t feel big. He felt fear. He felt doubt. He felt humble. This dream … this journey he was about to start (or was he completing it?) wasn’t supposed to be this easy.

He was going to be within yards of men he had watched on TV the previous summer. One was sure to go down in history as one of the top ten to ever step on the field, while another was an almost certainty to join him in the hall of fame. One of the players was on the mound with his hands thrust toward the sky, mobbed by his teammate in that very moment that cemented the Michael’s love of the game. And they weren’t even going to be the most important people that he would be within a baseball’s throw of with the President in town to throw out the first pitch. Overwhelmed in a flood of emotions about the day ahead of him was an understatement, yet it still wasn’t the true cause of his sleeplessness.

He was barely out of school. His journey in life was just beginning. He had a mere “year” of real-world experience behind him, yet, here in his sleepless night, all he could think of was the wildest dream he had ever dreamt of just sitting on the other side of that dark horizon where the morning was just beginning to break. This was not one of those dreams you ever truly expect to materialize, and if it does, you don’t expect it until the very end of a career spent working toward it. This was his dream and it was just a few hours away.

The coffee had now mixed with the adrenaline and the sky was light enough that he could justify his motivation. It was time to get ready and so he showered and headed back to his room to get dressed. He pulled a white dress shirt from the closet and took a close look at it. It had a couple of small tears at one of the shoulders and a stain on the right side near the bottom. It was all he had and he determined that his suit would hide the troubled spots. He just wouldn’t be able to take the jacket off at all. He grabbed the blue pinstripe suit his parents bought for him as a graduation present. The jacket was a bit big and the pants were extremely baggy, but it served its purpose. He felt good about himself when he wore it. He threw it on the bed, and in doing so, noticed his Bible on his nightstand. He sat down on the edge of the bed and picked it up to read a few favorite verses. Before putting it back down, he closed his eyes for a moment, then stood up, ready to walk on water.

He drove his beat-up old car down to the stadium, found the game-day parking lot beneath the overpass that employees were to park in, and gathered up his overcoat and bag. It was still pretty early, as the sun was just barely over the horizon and not quite clear of the skyline. There were a handful of other cars in the lot where he parked, but the walk to the stadium was through mostly empty (for now) lots. He smiled when he noticed the new banners on the light poles celebrating Opening Day. He started pondering as to when they may have been put up. He hadn’t noticed them before, even from his normally distant vantage point.

As he got closer to the stadium, he encountered some of the die-hard and borderline religious at their cars. He wondered if they had just never left after the final game of last season. Some were just listening to the radio while others were cooking breakfast on portable grills. He envied them in one regard, but he knew that they would likely give him everything they had to go where he was headed. They added to the electricity in the air around the stadium.

Once inside the stadium, he decided to head to the clubhouse before continuing on to the press box. He had some time to kill and wanted to take it all in. He knew they had finished prepping the clubhouse and the field overnight, so he wanted to take a look at the uniforms laid out and the bunting and finishing touches that were put in place.

He had been down to the clubhouse a few times. … In fact, it was the clubhouse he remembered the most from his first week. The team had just hired a new manager and they were doing interviews on the field. He was sent in to retrieve some papers left there by his boss. Stepping into that clubhouse was one of the many surreal moments he faced since taking the job. In that first trip down in the fall, the names of the players, one or two he had known, were still on the lockers. The place was still a bit of a mess … a couple of lockers looked like they had taken the brunt of the final game frustration, sporting holes in their fine wood. There were a couple of chairs, with the team logo brightly painted on them, tipped over and scattered on the floor. The smell of sweat seemed to hang in the air. But he was still awed that first time.

Now, on Opening Day, it was a different scene. There was no sign of disappointment in the large room … no sign of broken lockers or broken dreams. Each and every chair was perfectly aligned in front of a locker and in each locker there was a brand-new, freshly pressed uniform. Everything was absolutely perfect, right down to the smell in the air … it smelled of hope. Whether it was the clean new uniforms or the freshly shampooed carpet or the polish used on the wood or a combination of all of the above, it smelled of hope.

As he quietly looked around the room, he came around a pillar and realized he wasn’t alone in the clubhouse. He instantly recognized the slumped shoulders and bowed head of the aging ballplayer sitting in the corner, staring intently at something in his hand. The Intern recognized the posture … not from Spring Training or an earlier encounter. That posture was as much a part of him as anything else. He had watched the childhood-defining play over and over. … The image of the ball rolling to the outfield wall as his favorite player scored and the outfielder on his knees in right field, head down, shoulders slumped, staring into his glove. It was iconic for him and he had watched it so often with little thought of where that player’s life went from there.

And now, so many years later, that same player sat just feet from him, still looking lost, still looking hopeless.

Michael was sure he had not known he was there and quickly backed out of the clubhouse and headed up to the press box.

The field was still cast in long shadows from the buildings beyond the outfield walls. They were tall enough that they acted as dams to the light that was washing over the rest of the landscape.

He walked around the press box, half making sure that all the name cards were still in place and half making sure that he truly was supposed to be there … that he hadn’t imagined the last five months and somehow slipped past security that morning. Of course, he found his name and he took his seat. It was up on the second tier of the press box seating, just over the right shoulder of his boss, if his boss was currently sitting there.

Michael was nervous and anxious and questioned whether he belonged there. Why had his boss chosen him? Why was he guided down there on that random fall morning? How had he managed to push all his normal shyness aside and demand that he talk to someone that day? He could not help but question whether or not that strange chain of events that landed him there in that press box hadn’t just been dumb luck and he really didn’t belong there. How could he possibly belong there?

He could see a couple of rays of light now shining just above the tops of the buildings. He imagined that at this point, they were capturing the tops of the light stands.

In spite of his worries and fears, he knew and understood that he had really grown in the past few months. Even though he had tripped up several times early on, he had grown into the role and was actually growing the role itself. This was too important and they wouldn’t let him be there if they didn’t think he could handle it. He understood that.

As he sat there, he watched as the first ray of light seemed to escape the buildings and hit him square in the face. He then watched as it slowly drifted down across the rows of seats, back to front until it was finally lighting up the grass behind home plate. Just at that moment, the old outfielder walked out onto the field, and like himself, seemed to be taking it all in … seemingly enjoying this morning.

The sunlight then slowly engulfed home plate and third base, then second base, and finally first base. Soon, the entire field was awash in light. The orientation of the stadium, the way the grandstands were built, and the open end of the stadium gave it the illusion that its sole purpose was to capture the earliest possible rays of light, and hold on to them until the end of the day. For all intents and purposes, they were the first rays of Spring.

And the fear seemed to subside. All the insecurities, the questions about what he was doing there, and the feelings that his manager may have made a mistake all disappeared. The first rays of light seemed to be telling him that there was nothing to worry about, that the early-morning light show was designed solely for him. He knew then that it was time to get to work. He had people to make proud and his own life to change.