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Single Black Smudge

When Michael arrived at his desk early, the phone was already ringing. The stack of newspapers seemed too thick. The gloom of another loss was all over the place. Many co-workers were already in, again, wandering around, breathing in the pall of loss number 22. It felt like a wake. He half expected to hear Taps playing from the stadium speakers.

On his drive-in, the whole town seemed angry and mopey. He came from a town that had its loyalties split between teams and he was amazed by how this town seemingly took on the mood of its lone baseball team. It truly felt like the team was the heart and soul of the town. It was the lone major sports team in the city with its beloved football team having been stolen off years before. When the team was doing well, the whole town just seemed more vibrant, more alive. On this morning, the whole town was just angry.

And angry might not even be the right word. Anger seems to imply people walking around with scowls, being rude to each other, and maybe even muttering a bit to themselves. But no, the mood of this morning was one more of a quiet anger … People just quietly walking down the street, lost in their own thoughts, not paying much mind to others. That there was the difference. In a city that was known for being friendly, there was barely a word exchanged between people.

Customers just grunted at the newsstands and only received change and a nod in return. People on the street ran into each other and simply kept on walking without an “excuse me.” Even cars that narrowly missed each other on the street didn’t bother to honk. The whole city seemed to be in an uneasy haze. Almost as if they had accepted that their team would never, ever win another game. Or maybe they were just collectively holding their breath waiting for the next game and the next shot at redemption.

He flopped into his chair and just let his arms hang down, out to the side for a moment as he looked at the ceiling. He said a small prayer to himself and asked for strength. He felt heavy in his chest. Maybe heavy wasn’t even the right word. He was tense and felt strung tight like a violin in his chest and it weighed him down.

He stared at the ceiling and continued to ask for strength. The strings weren’t going to get any looser, the calls weren’t going to slow down, and there seemed to be no hope that this team was going to win. And the prayers weren’t even for a win. It was for the strength to get through what was before him in the current day. He didn’t ask for an escape or a way out. He didn’t ask for the burden to be removed. He just asked for strength to get through it. Anymore, it wasn’t just about the team—although a win certainly takes care of a whole lot—it was about how he would handle this moment in time and how he could simply get through this day.

He thought about the day before and a twinge of regret hit him. The strings pulled tighter in his chest. Caught up in a moment in which he felt bigger than he really was, he had taken a prized possession and given it to someone who knew nothing of him. Even though he felt like he was there for a reason, that there was a purpose for him at that moment, he could not help but wonder if that baseball was sitting in a trash can in the clubhouse. He shuddered at the thought.

He righted himself in the chair and reached down to answer the phone. As he picked up the phone, he instantly became distracted by a large, heavy envelope on his desk with his name on it. As he listened to another fan scream in his ear, he opened the envelope and pulled out the contents. As any baseball fan would, he instantly recognized what he was holding, and as any broke baseball fan would do, he coveted what he held in his hand. He nearly dropped the phone that he had wedged between his shoulder and ear.

In his hand were about 20 nearly identical Books of season tickets. The team logo and the slogan of the year dominated the covers. The bindings of the Books were intact. They had never been opened.

For the true fan, these Books were so much more. As the common metaphor goes, the stadiums that peppered the country weren’t just stadiums. The little league through college fields were the chapels to the religion. The minor league fields were the churches. The cathedrals were the major league stadiums. This stadium, the one he was in now, was widely considered the St. Peter’s Basilica of the sport. So these Books were not merely books of season tickets to the great fans … they weren’t even just bibles. They were Gutenberg Bibles that he held in his hands and they had never been opened. He must have let out an audible gasp as he realized what he held.

On a yellow sticky note on the top, which did not belong on such treasures, were instructions to deliver four of the books to an address he didn’t recognize and the rest were to go to the local firehouse.

As he was fumbling to put the books back into the large envelope, and still listening to the fan ranting in his ear, he almost didn’t notice the small envelope slip out of the larger one. It was addressed to him, again. When he opened it, it contained a scrap piece of paper that merely said “Thank You,” with the scribbled signature of the Old Ballplayer.

He finished listening to the fan and hung up. He quickly grabbed the appropriate forms from the shelf behind him and ignored the phones as he hastily filled them out. Without putting the tickets down, he half ran to the supply closet to grab a couple of envelopes. He taped the forms to them, separated out the tickets, ran down to the front reception desk, and requested a pickup by bike courier.

By the time he got back to his desk, he could hardly breathe. His heart was pounding as he hoped it wasn’t too late! He took a moment to think back through what had happened the night before. After the game …

The drive home from loss number 22 was a mix of emotions that went from frustration to excitement. There was no doubt that number 22 was the worst in the series and it was one of the most devastating losses he had ever experienced. All losses are not created the same. Some losses, your gut just kind of expects it. Guys hurt, star pitcher against you, bad weather, whatever, there are times when you just know the loss is coming. It’s something you develop in your gut after years of watching. Other losses happen quickly … Your pitcher gives up five runs in the first and the batters just never get going. The game is essentially over in the first couple of innings. There are even some losses that creep up on you and just happen, like a couple of late-inning runs that just get you, but still don’t feel as bad.

Then there was loss number 22. These types are devastating. Some might call devastating too strong of a word, but when you are talking about so much at stake and a loss destroying all of it, devastating seems appropriate. In the relative scheme of things, the loss doesn’t mean much, but when you are deep into that world of baseball, these losses are devastating.

Ending this streak is all the team was playing for at this point … It was consuming the team, and to a certain extent, their futures. This streak was something each and every one of them would carry with them the rest of their lives and they cannot begin to put it behind them until it was behind them. So, the primary objective was to end the streak. The season was all but certainly lost, and pride, well most came to terms with losing that a week ago. The only thing to work for was to end it and end it quickly.

You cannot have a city and a fanbase that loves a team so much without having a build-up of energy like water behind a dam. However, in this case, this player, for years, has been hiding behind this sentiment toward him that no one truly understood. It was a faulty dam, and the sheer energy behind it pushed against it waiting for the cracks to finally give. If that wasn’t bad enough, this player was sitting on the wrong side of the dam throwing sticks of dynamite at it. It was not going to hold. With each stick he threw, the dam got weaker and weaker, and whether he knew what he was doing or not, it was simply a matter of time before it was going to give way and all that once positive energy that was held back was going to come crashing down on him, and he was not a strong swimmer.

So when a player that teammates tried to pretend was actually a teammate, fans desperately try to remember who he once was and why they were supposed to love him, and the media has given a pass out of some weird respect lets that objective slip by him through carelessness or indifference, it lets a whole lot of weight come crashing through the dam. It was devastating to everyone involved.

However, Michael was excited, as well. As he looked through the papers before number 22 that day, he came across an old newspaper clipping about the Tuck’s first home run. The main story of that day so many years before was on the performance of the pitcher, but he made some headlines as well for providing the only offense needed to secure the perfect game. The article talked about a rookie excited to be in the big leagues and pined about the type of player he would be. The player was quoted talking about the pride of his parents and how excited he was to just go out and play the game every day. It also talked about the home run ball and how much Tuck would love to have it. With the article was a picture that showed him rounding third with a big smile on his face. In the background in the front row of the left field stands, the caption noted, were his parents and brother. It was obvious that he had just acknowledged them as he was rounding the bag.

The date of the game couldn’t escape him and the realization of what it meant washed over him. He suddenly felt so much smaller in the world and so much bigger at the same time. When you realize that there are forces much much larger than you at play and sending you on a deliberate path through life, you can’t help but feel like an insect crawling across a countertop weaving around obstacles placed before you. But when forces that big choose to direct their attention specifically on you, there becomes a paradox of feeling both very very tiny in the world and feeling very very large at the same time. The realization of the date overwhelmed him in this paradox.

When the intern got home that night, he went directly to the closet in his bedroom, pulled an old file box from the top shelf, and opened the lid. In it was assorted memorabilia … letters from friends and old girlfriends, notepads of writing, some of his ticket stubs, and roughly a decade’s worth of stuff he just couldn’t throw away because they remind him of one moment or another. However, sitting at the top of everything in the box, he found what he was looking for … a baseball that had grown yellow, but was otherwise in perfect condition. There was a single black smudge on one side of it.

He remembered so clearly on his 13th birthday sitting in the den watching a baseball game. He had only recently become a fan and he had since thrown his entire self into the game. It consumed his thoughts and his actions. As he sat watching the TV, with his toys on the ground at his feet, his father sat down with him. He asked him if he ever told him about the day he was born. He continued on explaining how he and Michael’s uncle had received last-minute tickets for a baseball game from someone they had done some work for. They had jumped on a bus and had gotten to the game just in time for the start. He built up the drama of the game and how it turned into a 1-0 perfect game, with the only home run coming from a rookie ballplayer. He then produced a baseball from behind his back and explained how he had caught the home run ball.

His story didn’t end there. He talked about how he and his brother went to a bar to celebrate before heading home. When he did arrive home, he found that his wife was not there and had, hours earlier, been rushed off to the hospital in early labor. By the time he got to the hospital, his wife was on the verge of giving birth but made sure to have a few words to say to him about being gone and out of reach all day.

He then handed the ball to his son, asking him to hold on to it.

He held that ball now, sitting in his apartment so many years later, and he knew what he had to do with it. It was his most prized possession, but he felt like it belonged with someone else. He now felt like he was merely borrowing that ball and that it belonged to the Old Ballplayer.

He took the ball, scrambled to his car, and drove back to the stadium. He had a photocopy of the article from that day and he wrote a quick note explaining what the ball was, although something told him that the Old Ballplayer would know exactly what it was. He left it on the player’s chair in an envelope, expecting him to get it in the morning. What he didn’t realize was that the player was still in the stadium and that everything was about to change.

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