Bottom of the Fifth

Standing at Third

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.

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