Bottom of the Fourth

Welcome Home

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.

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