Middle of the Fourth

First Rays of Spring

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.

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