Top of the Fifth

Waiting

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.

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