Categories
Warehouse Windows

My Longest Day in Baseball

I was drinking a beer, sitting with friends at Murph’s Study Hall in York PA. I can’t remember who exactly I was sitting with (probably my future wife Andrea was next to me) because I was intently watching the TV. Specifically, I was watching the Baltimore Orioles play in Toronto against the Blue Jays. It was September 27, 1996. I doubt many Orioles fans actually remember that date, but I’d be willing to guess that they clearly remember the events of that night.

The setup was that the Orioles held a 2.5 game lead in the Wild Card race with three games to play. A win by them and a loss by the Mariners locked up their first trip to the playoffs in 13 years as the American League Wild Card team. It was a tense and important game to the team, obviously.

Anyone that knows me knows how locked in and intense I get around these games and this may have been the worst as I was coming up on the end of my first season in Major League Baseball and the playoffs were on the line.

Ahead of me was a long weekend. I was an intern in the Orioles Public Relations department and we had the postseason media guide to work on, would need to head into the office on Saturday. Since we would need the final stats from Sunday’s game before we could wrap up the media guide, I knew at least a 24-hour stretch likey lay ahead of me and the rest of the PR staff starting on Sunday morning. If everything went as planned, the postseason would start the following days. So, I was trying to get one last calm and easy night in before all hell broke loose and, hopefully, before the playoffs began.

It was only the top of the inning and Roberto Alomar, the star second baseman of the Orioles was called out on strikes by home plate umpire John Hirschbeck and an argument between the two broke out. I remember distinctly taking a sip of my beer and looking up at the TV just over the rim of my mug and seeing what looked like Alomar spitting into the face of the home plate umpire. I nearly spit back out my beer. I thought that I must have not seen it correctly, however, the replay quickly confirmed it.

I was dumbfounded and shocked by it and knew it was going to be a big deal as a new wave of anxiety crept in to join forces with the anxiety of will they or won’t they clinch. It was not a good feeling, but I had no idea just how big of a deal it would become.

When I got to work on Saturday, things were pretty normal. The Orioles lost their game but clinched a tie for the Wild Card when the Mariners lost their game. I really don’t remember much of it, but whether the Orioles would clinch that afternoon slightly edged Alomar in the talk of the few people that were in the office that day. I remember a few calls coming in with people complaining about Alomar, but nothing too serious. With the team on the road, there weren’t going to be any media calls coming in, either.

The Orioles did clinch that afternoon, so when I arrived to work on Sunday morning it was with the knowledge that the long day and night ahead to get the media guide out to print by Monday morning would not be in vain. I remember feeling excited and a sense of a new beginning. While the sports shows were all talking about Alomar and whether he would be allowed to play in the Division Series, I had an extremely false sense of security that it would all blow over. That was probably a good thing because we had higher priorities that day.

To provide a bit of context, the Postseason Media Guide was something all playoff teams had to put out in time for their first playoff series. It had updated stats and information on all the players as well as highlights and notes from the season. I believe we started working on it in August on the chance that we made the playoffs (that was a kickoff meeting that very much holds firm in my memory). It would be an absolutely vital guide for all the media that would be coming in to cover the postseason run. There was absolutely nothing more important that needed to be accomplished in that 24 hours.

There was plenty of work to do that Sunday morning before even beginning with the media guide that Sunday. There was the beginning of the press clipping avalanche around Alomar and the Wildcard clinch that buried me in the newspapers. While there was still some “pre-work” to do with the media guide…basically making the last few changes that did not rely on the last games to be played and proofreading what was already final…clearing the deck of the clippings would allow me to focus more on the stats and other information that would come in after the last out of the season was recorded.

Once that happened, we could get to work in earnest, which we did. The plan, if my memory is serving me right, was that we would work through the night and have the media guide ready for printing first thing in the morning on Monday. Then, I think, we would take turns heading home to freshen up and possibly take a short nap (although, as I type that, it does not sound right) before coming back in.

The first part of the plan was nearly flawless. While I was exhausted by around 1 or 2 in the morning with the take-out Chinese food wreaking havoc on my system, I really enjoyed the work. There were at least six of us working together, as a true team, to get the job done. Each of us knew what we needed to do and it felt great to be a key part of that effort. When the guide was sent out to the printer, there was such a wave of excitement and relief and pride in being part of that. That long night and the even longer day that followed was one of my favorite memories of working in baseball.

However, around the time that we sent off the media guide to the printer on Monday morning, the phones started ringing. One of my jobs as an intern was to answer the calls from media members, like Buster Olney and Ken Rosenthal who covered the Orioles back then, other parts of the organization and fans. While I would do my best to answer media questions and the organization, they were often directed to others higher up. The calls from the fans, however, were all for us interns. So, I had grown accustomed to busy days on the phone, but nothing prepared me for that day. As talk around baseball heightened with the debate on whether Robbie Alomar should be suspended during the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians, more and more media calls started coming in.

However, mixed in with the calls from media came more and more calls from fans. These were people that followed the Orioles their whole lives, respected the team, and thought them to be a class organization. The shock of what had happened on Friday night manifested itself as anger, disappointment, and hatred for Alomar from the Baltimore faithful.

Some would be yelling before I even said hello, screaming angry and sometimes vile words at me while others would be more gentle as they seemed honestly confused as to what was going on with their team. The last time they witnessed a postseason game, Cal Ripken Jr. was catching an easy liner to clinch the World Series Championship 13 years before. It was an extremely long 13 years for this city that loved this team, but instead of excitement as they headed in, fans felt this mix of emotion regarding Alomar. And through the course of that long, slow blur of a day, I had heard every one of those emotions expressed to me on the phone.

While most people were angry, what they wanted varied. Some wanted to just be heard. Some wanted to know what the Orioles were going to do about it, insisting that the team sacrifice winning for discipline and suspend Alomar. Some wanted the Orioles to do nothing and let the league handle it. My job was simple…to just sit on the phone and, unless they were extremely belligerent, listen. Make no promises. Express no opinions of my own. Say very little and just listen.

Added to the tension of the day was what would Major League Baseball do about it. We already know the team wasn’t going to suspend him for the division series, so we were waiting anxiously to find out what the league was going to do. Ultimately, they would hand down a five-game suspension to be served at the start of the next season and Alomar would go on to play hero against the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series.

Towards the end of the day, I received one call where the guy on the other line had a very calm voice. He started telling me how he was a fan of this team his whole life and how much he loved them. He talked about how excited he was to have the team in the playoffs and how proud of them he was. He talked about how he was disappointed in Alomar’s actions and felt he should be punished but expressed the sentiment that we all make mistakes. We need to move on from them. He was so calm and so unlike most of the calls I answered that day. It brought a certain peace. This was my inspiration for the Middle of the Sixth chapter and I think about this often.

It was about 36 hours after I had first come into the office when the phone finally stopped ringing. I found myself alone in the office (different people had other responsibilities around the stadium) finally able to catch my breath. I can’t remember the logistics of how I got clean clothes or anything like that for the next day, but John eventually came back to the office, took one look at me, and insisted that the team put me and the other intern up in a hotel for the night. I don’t remember much after that and my next memory was of waking up in the hotel the next morning, taking a shower, and heading back to the office.

However, despite the nightmare that day was, as I mentioned earlier, I recall the day with fondness. It was a day that pushed me to my mental limits…exhausted, emotionally drained, angry, happy, excited…and I survived and was able to do what I needed to do. It taught me a bit about myself and what I could accomplish. And I was proud to have been a part of that IT team for how we handled what was a public relations nightmare. I’ll always remember that day and that team (in the PR office) fondly.

This is a bit of a tangent from the story above, but talk about this in the novel and feel this belongs here. In the warehouse at Oriole Park, on the sixth floor (if I am remembering correctly), was a storage room. I can’t remember if it was actually called the attic or if that was just what I started calling it. However, it contained nearly every bit of newsprint about the Orioles ever written, every boxscore was meticulously kept in binders, stat books (giant binders full of notes about every run, hit, home run, strikeout, and probably every single pitch was kept) for every season, and media guides. It also contained promotional items given out in past seasons, banners that were used, and memorabilia from the old stadium. It was an unorganized museum of probably every moment in the history of the Orioles.

As a lover of baseball history, I enjoyed going up there. Fo me, it was a sort of magical world where you just got absorbed into the game itself. Surrounded by all that history was just absolutely mesmerizing.

When I had some free time I would find myself up there looking through the clippings and boxscores and memorabilia. It was quiet up there and I really enjoyed the escape that it provided. It was one of my favorite places in the stadium.

I am not sure if the Mets had the equivalent at Shea Stadium. I assume they did. I can’t remember if I ever went looking for it, but I wasn’t part of the PR team there. As I look back, exploring that possibility is one of my very few regrets while working in baseball.

It is also strange for me to realize that another nearly 25 years of history would have been added to that place since I was last there. I would love to go back and visit, but sadly, I doubt I will ever have that chance again.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Sixth

With a scissors in one hand, the Intern flips through the newspaper. It’s a story that has gone national as headline after headline attack the many different angles of a 22-game losing streak, and it was his job to pour through not only the local papers, but as many papers as he could get from other cities on his way in that morning. Michael was in a blizzard of newspapers.

It was a simple job he had … comb through the papers, cut any article that mentioned the team or one of the players, tape them to paper, organize them by topic, photocopy them, distribute them, and file them. Usually, filing was the last thing he would do and there was a three-foot stack of paper sitting on a shelf over his head, waiting to come down on him like an avalanche. It was a simple job, with newspaper ink-covered hands and chronic boredom being the worst part of it. There were worse ways that he could spend the normal hour each morning. Basically, he was getting paid to drink coffee and read the newspaper.

In the last five days, however, it was taking him and another intern nearly four hours to get through the papers because there was so much being written about this streak. It was also his job to answer the phone, and while a typical morning would have just a handful of calls, mornings during the streak consisted of constant calls from media trying to get front row seats to the train wreck and fans threatening to turn in their front row seats if ownership didn’t send the GM and manager out of town on a train.

He was usually there a few minutes earlier than everyone else, mostly because he hated mornings. By getting in early, he could ease into the day. He could get his coffee and start working through the newspapers before the phone started ringing, before his bosses started giving him assignments, and before he actually had to interact with anyone. He hated walking in late and getting bombarded with all the above before he had a chance to settle himself and ease into the day.

In college, on days when he had early classes, he would wake up early, shower, and get dressed to avoid walking to school with his roommates. He loved his roommates, just not at eight in the morning. The 10-minute walk allowed him to set up the day in his mind and prepare himself.

However, during this streak, everyone is arriving early, trying to get ahead of the mess. The calls are coming in earlier, as anxious people can’t wait another hour to have their outrage heard. All week, he was walking into a live and active bomb range, as far as he was concerned. This added to his frustrations, and everyone else was frustrated as well.

On the phones, he was a punching bag for fans, as they voiced their displeasure with the streak and the direction of the team. While a handful were polite, many were rude and belligerent. Some gave lectures on how they had been fans since their grandfathers were fans and how they had never seen a worse team. Some cursed and screamed to the point where he could see them in his mind turning red in the face as spittle flew from their mouths onto the phone. When he was allowed to speak, he would give the company line about how the team was doing their best and how the season was still relatively early. He was told that he could hang up on those fans that shouted obscenities or wouldn’t calm down, but he stuck with them.

As much as it bothered him, he knew what they were going through. While this wasn’t the team he grew up loving, it was easy for him to imagine what they were feeling. Truly passionate fans cannot get as excited as they do when the team is winning without feeling that low when they are losing. When you combine that with a losing streak like this, it feels as if your soul is being crushed and an almost panicked feeling sets in. When you enjoy a team … a sport … to this extent and you are facing the prospects of a long, loss-filled summer instead of the team playing to expectations, you feel the panic and a sense of betrayal. He had been there.

By mid-morning, though, he felt as if he was losing his cool and started to feel the panic himself. Not the panic of the losing streak, but the panic of getting the things he needed to get done, done. The panic that the calls would never end and the anxiety would sit permanently in the office around him.

Then the phone rang one more time and he stared at it for a couple of rings, considering not answering it. But he couldn’t do that. So he braced himself, took a deep breath, and answered the phone. And then he was surprised.

The woman on the other line immediately started talking about how long she had been a fan and how she traced her roots all the way back to having been born on Opening Day and about the love of the team that she learned from her father. The Intern had heard these types of “setups” and waited for the woman to go into hysterical screaming at him. In his mind he pictured the woman on the pitcher’s mound, going through the motions and going into her windup before throwing a blazing fastball at his head.

Instead, what followed was first, a simple thank you from the woman for the joy the team has given her through the years, and then told him how she and her father always said that it’s these types of streaks that will make the winning feel all the sweeter. Then she talked about how she no longer could see her father every day and talk baseball, but that she could still feel him next to her whenever she watched the team. She talked about how she was connected to him through the team, whether they were winning or losing. She couldn’t be with him every day, but she had the team to remind her of him, and it didn’t matter if they were winning or losing. Then she repeated her thank you and hung up.

Michael was stunned as he continued to hold the phone to his ear and stared off into space. His mind raced, and suddenly, somehow, he could feel it emerging from the gloom. Life-changing moments can be born from the most mundane and unexpected moments on any day. When someone, a stranger, can say one thing that shifts your entire perspective, you can suddenly find yourself careening down a different set of tracks in life. That moment felt like that. It was a perspective shift that he needed. Losing sucked, but he was still living his dream and if he didn’t enjoy even these painful moments, the great ones might not be as sweet.

After contemplating this for a few minutes, he picked up the finished set of clips and headed off to make his copies. He felt as if he was in a trance as he went through the motions.

The utter misery he felt just hours before had lifted, and with it, so was his heart. For nearly a week (and actually, most of the season), he felt this team pounding away at his soul. His emotions were pegged firmly to this team and his heart beat with the pulse of these men. Suddenly, he was given his soul, emotions, and heartbeat back … or, more accurately, he was given the power to take them back himself.

As he walked around, delivering the clippings, doing his job, he realized that he didn’t have to be a ship in a harbor, rising and falling with the tide. He could step on shore and dip his toes into the tide as he wanted … He could even turn his back to the tide and walk away.

He decided he needed to get away for a few minutes. He needed to go someplace where he could be alone, but at the same time, have it appear that he was actually doing something productive. So Michael decided to take a small stack of old clips and go file them in the “attic,” the storage room in the top of the building.

He loved the attic … it was a time machine. A place where the very history of the team could be seen and measured, not in minutes and seconds, but in box scores, statistics, and newspaper articles. Every stat and box score drifted in like snowflakes, accumulating into what this team was. Somewhere in the newspaper clippings and the old stadium promotional giveaways, you could find every single hit, out, play, and even error that triggered every single fan’s favorite memory of the team.

And that’s how he saw it. While others might see yellowing newspapers and boring boxscores, he saw memories of first games and the seeds of major league dreams and even the bitter moments that all fans carried with them with a certain pride. It was where both great and not so great writers get immortalized. In that room were not just each and every memorable moment for the team, but, and maybe more importantly, it was all those moments that perhaps nobody remembers. 

A first pitch groundout to first in a July game 43 years ago with the team already leading by 10 runs. A long double off the left field wall that drove in three runs during a game that got rained out after two innings. Perhaps these were moments that some fan somewhere remembers in exact detail. And that was one of the things he loved … That room recorded every moment that every fan, alive and dead, remembered or doesn’t remember. Somewhere in that room is recorded every fan’s favorite moments and every fan’s lowest moments. Moments when they wanted to walk away from the team and moments when they wanted to grab a stranger and kiss them. Every single moment was recorded in that room. That room was the true heart of the team.

To those that care, the fan that proudly collects every giveaway to add them to the collection their grandfather started years ago, the official scorer that reviewed every play to ensure the integrity of the statistics that made and killed careers, the beat writer that carefully crafted every word of his game article, despite a pressing deadline for a meaningless early April game. For those that care, this room was what they are referring to when they talk about the tradition of the team and the loyalty of the fans. This was what gave blood to the stories and memories that make this team.

The Intern often worried about this room. To Michael, it should be a vault. You can replace a stadium, but the contents of this room were irreplaceable. It was the Louvre, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the Great Pyramid of Giza of this team, all rolled into one room that only a relatively small handful of people knew existed. He felt honored to be one of them.

After spending some time going through the cabinets of old promotional items, he turned his attention to the press clippings. Particularly, the clippings of the Tuck, and he began to read.

The clippings told this man’s career in bits of black on white. Sometimes, a writer was thoughtful about this man. Sometimes a writer was mean for the sake of being clever. Sometimes, merely the facts were told, with no expression of judgment. So many writers over so many years told bits and pieces of this man. However, it was in the whole of these bits and pieces that you could see the man for who he was, a man playing a game. Alone. A game that was not the game of his childhood. It was not the game that he learned. It was not the game his father told him endless stories about. It was not the game that his mother lovingly showed him over and over. It was not the game that he played for countless hours with his brother.

This was a different game because he was alone. The game of his youth was not a game of loneliness. It was something else entirely and the Intern wondered how no one saw this before.

And a thought came to him. A crazy thought that, at first, seemed entirely too big for him. He began to shake, because he knew it was an idea too big for himself. He had no idea if he had the strength and the power to not just be a lone soul at the harbor’s edge. He wondered if he could be the tide itself, if he so dared. He could at least try to lift the boat that had scuttled itself and was now waiting for Winter. He didn’t even have to be the tide … he just needed to be something big enough that could raise the tide.

Then, in a spark of a moment, he somehow just knew all he had to do was throw a baseball into the harbor to raise the tide.

And Winter shuddered.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Sixth

Winter stalks. Winter waits. Winter watches. It skulks in the dark corners of the game’s great Cathedrals, patiently awaiting its time … its moment. It will come when a team is least expecting it, pouncing from its hiding spot and attacking without mercy.

For some teams, Winter never leaves. Opening Day is the only day that Winter has no power on them, and after that, it can begin picking off its prey, one by one. For some teams, the flowers have barely bloomed when they yield to Winter. They are amongst the most downcast … They see Winter and they hear Winter and it is too much and they immediately yield to Winter.

Others also see Winter’s icy stare, but fight. They fight with all they have, with every ounce of Spring and Summer’s magic that they can spare, but they too will eventually yield. Their minds betray them, for they know, deep down, that they too will eventually give in to Winter’s inevitability.

These teams, on occasion, escape briefly from Winter. They will remember the Spring, celebrate the Summer, and make a charge toward the Fall. They feel the warmth and they fight loose and they make a run. However, it is just a cruel game Winter plays. Winter loosens its grip for a moment merely to allow them to do its bidding and bring others into the fold.

You don’t escape Winter.

The good teams know all about Winter, but they ignore Winter. They fight knowing that the Fall is there for the taking and Winter can be defeated. They charge and even when they trip, they still stay away from Winter.

But Winter will come. Winter always comes.

For them, Winter’s attack is sudden, vicious, brutal, and merciless, taking hold of a team by its heart and dragging it off as Summer helplessly watches and Fall turns its back.

Only one can survive Winter.

Losing hurts. It’s an obvious fact of life. Even the kid playing tee ball for the very first time knows that losing is not a good feeling. Sure, they don’t keep score, but even a five-year-old can tell when things are going bad. They know when they are being beaten.

As players progress, losses are taken to heart more as they are left pondering what could have been, what might have been had they done something a little different. What if I had swung a little earlier. What if I had moved closer to center field. What if I had thrown the curve instead of the fastball. Losses become personal failures.

It is what you do with the losses and how you handle them that can separate great players from the average players. You can blame yourself or you can blame others. You get nowhere when you blame others.

In some ways, losses are as important as wins in development. You learn lessons about what you could have done differently. You find out what works and what doesn’t, and by identifying what doesn’t work and fixing it, you become a better player. Success and winning are so often seeded in losses. Crops sometimes need manure mixed into their soil to flourish and grow healthy.

Losses are important to a team. However, when the losses start piling up and streaks start to form, teams can start to dramatically change.

As they move through little league and high school, losses will happen, and inevitably, every player experiences those extended periods of time when things just don’t go right. A bad throw to first on a simple put-out that sets in motion a chain reaction that leads to three runs. A ball hits a clump of grass and stalls in the infield when it should have been a two-run single. A player tripping over their own laces, falling and missing a sure out. An odd, freak storm that turns a sure win into an unofficial game. These random moments that lead to losses or extend a streak happen to all teams.

Some players step up, put a team on their shoulders, and turn things around. Some players press harder and push faster and cause more havoc. Good teams limit the damage and recover quickly. Bad teams just get worse.

Once players get to college and/or the minor leagues, these streaks are amplified and thrown into the spotlight. More people watching, and in many cases, paying to watch and bad baseball are never appreciated. The pressure is turned up. With each loss, the frustration gets worse and team morale keeps sinking.

But this is nothing compared to the major league. A four-game losing streak feels like an eight-game losing streak. A seven-game losing streak feels like a 21-game losing streak. A 10-game losing streak feels like you haven’t won all season and never will.

A 21-game losing streak, in the majors, feels like you have never won a baseball game. Ever. Going all the way back to tee ball. Any wins the team may have had before seem like a Greek myth buried in a cauldron of gold at the end of the rainbow in Brigadoon. A 21-game losing streak will change a player’s DNA and brand a team for all time.

And baseball is a team sport in that one man cannot win a game directly by himself. Sure he can star, but even in a perfect game, a pitcher can’t field the balls. A great play at third needs someone to catch the ball at first to ring up the out. A three home run game by a single batter needs pitchers to hold the runs up. There can be great individual performance, but teams win as teams.

Teams lose as teams as well. Just as there are great individual performances, there are also awful individual performances. A pitcher that can’t get an out in the first. A fielder that makes three errors in a game. A batter that strikes out twice and grounds into three double plays. They all reduce a team’s chance of winning, but there are always chances for the rest of the team to stand up and win.

When a team loses 21 straight, it’s no one man to blame. No one bad play, no one bad pitching performance, no one bad day in the field makes a team lose 21 straight. Teams lose that many games in a row as teams. It becomes difficult to look at your teammates because everyone has let everyone else down.

Rookies don’t get it, Tuck thought. They don’t understand. They pitch a couple of decent games and they walk around the clubhouse like they own it. Even in the midst of a 21-game losing streak, this guy didn’t get it. This particular rookie was particularly disrespectful, he thought.

Sitting next to his locker, stewing, he tried to ignore the blaring crap music that made the vast clubhouse feel claustrophobic. He watched as some of the smaller things in his locker bounced in rhythm to the music. He could feel his blood pressure bouncing higher with each beat.

It had a cascading effect … to be heard over the music the others talked louder … joked louder … laughed louder … all as the anger in his head yelled louder. He thought about respecting the game. Respecting a losing streak. Respecting yourself. His fate wasn’t tied to these clowns. They wouldn’t help him get that last home run and get out of the game. But still, his present and immediate future were tied to them and that did not make him happy. And, although he wouldn’t admit it, it wasn’t about respecting the game … he was angry because he didn’t feel they were respecting him.

They had lost 21 straight games … tying the worst such streak since anyone really cared about these things. Three weeks ago, they were breathing down the neck of first place. It was in their grasp, but the team was mostly under the radar as the team ahead was barely winning. Nearly the definition of mediocrity with the hope of more. And there was no spotlight. Now, they were scratching at the dirt in the basement, looking to see if they could go any deeper. They had become a joke and he, by association, was a joke … perhaps even the punchline.

And here was a rookie dancing around the clubhouse when no one had any idea about how to avoid a modern-day record. He held court of other rookies and players that probably should have known better. But he led the team in wins and strikeouts and nearly every other pitching stat that meant anything. So, no one said anything to him. No one corrected him and so he did what he did and had no respect for the game.

The music continued to pound. Tuck thought about the last few games. And he started to sweat. He thought about the post-game media attention; he could feel his face getting red.

He thought about home runs.  He thought about this rookie’s home run. He thought about the Rookie standing at the plate. Tuck was already rounding third when he saw the Rookie still standing at the plate with a giant smile on his face. He watched him watch the ball clear the center field fence.

That smile boiled his blood. He was a pitcher. He was a rookie. He shouldn’t be standing there, still holding his bat, watching his home run go. He was losing the game. He was a rookie. He was a pitcher. And the music pounded louder in his ears. He was a punk. He was a rookie punk that had no right hitting his home run.

Before he knew what he was doing, Tuck grabbed a bat from his locker, walked over to the shelf that held the radio and swung. For a moment, the loud bass beats and laughter mixed with the crunch of the radio, but by the time the countless pieces of plastic and electronic bits rained down across the clubhouse floor, there was only silence.

He then turned and glared at the rookie pitcher who stared back in both shock and a building anger. When the Rookie finally clicked into the reality and meaning of what just happened, he stared back in only rage. The Veteran then threw the bat down at the pitcher’s feet and walked back toward his locker.

He hadn’t gotten very far when he felt a hand grab his shoulder and quickly spin him around. The Rookie stepped up to him, nose to nose with the Old Ballplayer, shouting nearly every obscenity available in his vocabulary. The Veteran just stared back. Realizing that obscenities weren’t getting him anywhere, the pitcher shoved him backward and started a fresh attack … a very personal attack … a very real attack, focusing on the Veteran’s lack of commitment to the team. His lack of advice to the rookies. His lack of leadership. The fact that the only emotion Tuck had shown in nearly five months of baseball was him smashing a radio.

The Veteran clenched his fists and the Rookie got more brazen, shoving him a few more times, all while stringing together a list of grievances. Times when he should have hustled to get to a ball. Times when he should have slid. Times when he should have offered an encouraging word. Times when Tuck should have just acted like a ballplayer.

The Veteran just took it. Just let him roll. Just let him verbally lay him out. As much as the team was shocked by his outburst, he was shocked by the Rookie’s ability to know bad baseball and the courage to call him out on it. He assumed the Rookie wasn’t paying attention. He assumed no one was paying attention. He assumed the Rookie wouldn’t care enough.

With a final shove, the Rookie let out a final obscenity and walked away, muttering. The Old Ballplayer looked around the silent clubhouse for a moment. All but one pair of eyes were on him as his eyes returned to watch the Rookie walk away. He was surprised one last time by what he saw … a dejected, defeated man. He didn’t see the strut of a boy with the world at his feet, but a man who had been completely demoralized.

Still stunned and still unable to respond nine innings later, Tuck didn’t react to the crack of the bat, at first. Nine innings later, he was still unsettled, perhaps a bit lost … more lost than normal. Nine innings later, he found himself contemplating the grass.

Grass was, at one time, his love and joy. To stand in the tall grass and wait for the moment when he could go running through it after a ball. He played this game to field, not to bat. He learned to become a good batter so that he could spend his life standing in the outfield of some baseball diamond. Hell, he didn’t even need a diamond … he could be content with his brother throwing a ball in the air, away from him, giving him a chance to run it down. Forget the crack of the bat … it was the swish of his cleats through the grass followed by the pop of a baseball on leather. That was the noise that brought him joy … that was what had him pursue this game.

He and his brother used to play the game that every kid plays on a rainy day. You climb around the furniture trying to keep your feet off the floor. The floor was lava. That was what the grass was to him now. It was lava that burned at his feet. He wanted out of the game and off the lava that burned away at his insides.

This is what he was contemplating when his mind was too distracted to interpret the crack his ear heard. Like a guided missile, there was no changing the course of the ball as it lined rapidly toward him, but he still had not noticed it until the center fielder had yelled his name. It was too late. He got his glove up but not open and the ball glanced off the tip and landed in the grass behind him. By now, the center fielder was there to pick it up and throw it in. The tying run had already scored and the go-ahead run slid into home just ahead of the ball.

The stadium almost immediately crashed down on him. A stadium that had waited weeks for something to cheer about poured anger down on him and he stood shocked. They had enough of this player. The center fielder walked slowly away from him, shaking his head.

The pitcher quickly got the next out, with the damage done. Baseball is a cruel game and decided it was not done with him for the day, as the Old Player struck out, with the bat on his shoulder, to end the game. It stayed there for nearly five minutes as he stared down at home plate. 22.

For the first time in years, Tuck heard the crowd. For so long, he had been able to shut them out. He had been able to ignore both the cheers and the seldom boos. It never mattered to him, so he paid it no attention. Now, in the instant that ball sailed past him, his ears opened. He heard the background boos and moans and the grief. In the foreground he heard the individual insults, obscenities, and cries. They crashed down on him like a tsunami. For the first couple of moments that he stood there with his bat on his shoulder, the tide of boos just became deeper, but after five minutes or so, the tide had gone back out.

He was the one who had no respect for the game. He was the one who had stopped respecting himself. He was the one whom they had booed … mercilessly.

Finally, he dropped his bat into the dirt, as the grounds crew tried to work around him. He slowly walked toward center field. He walked around the pitcher’s mound and stepped over the spot where second base had been. He got to about the midpoint of center field when he crouched down in a squat. He stared at the grass for a moment or two before taking one hand and slowly waving it over the individual blades. By now, half the lights pointed at the field were turned off, casting a long shadow of himself across the grass in front of him.

He was careful not to touch the grass. He could almost feel the heat coming off of it. He was confused and tired of the heat that was all around him. He could feel the lava consuming him, bit by bit.

After a while, Tuck turned and headed back to the dugout, hoping he would not have to face his teammates.