Categories
Warehouse Windows

Passing on a Passion…or Not

I originally wrote the chapter “Top of the Eighth: Shared Stories” about six or seven years ago. At the time, at least one of my sons was still playing baseball, possibly both. I may have even written this when they were both playing for the Little League team I was coaching at the time, the Mets.

I feel like that is important to mention should my sons one day read my book. As I was re-editing this latest chapter it goes heavy on “The Fan’s” (Abigail) need to have her kids enjoy baseball. It lays heavy her excitement at them becoming fans. It, in fact, goes on so much that one day, my own kids might feel like I am sending some sad message to them, expressing my own disappointment that, as of right now, early in the 2022 baseball season, they are not baseball fans.

The main crisis point with Abigail is that she loves the game, but is alone in that love. Her own father, her primary human connection to the game, is gone and her children don’t like the game, or, more accurately, have good reasons not to like it. However, this was a plot point I developed a long time ago when I first started writing this in 2011. The boys were fans of Thomas the Train then and baseball just wasn’t something they were too familiar with.

In fact, by then, we had been to a number of Lehigh Vally IronPig games and Ben had been to a couple of Mets games and there was a glimmer of hope that they might enjoy those little adventures. And even if they were more interested in the hot dogs and the playground beyond the left field wall at Coca Cola Park (IronPigs), there was a realistic chance at the time I developed this part of the story, that they could be baseball fans.

We introduced them to a few different sports, both playing and watching. They tried soccer, baseball, running and tennis. I had them watch, from time to time, baseball, football and basketball. In the end, they settled on the sports they liked playing, which was not baseball. Aside from the occasional basketball game and big events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl, neither of them really watch sports. Lately, both have started asking more about baseball, but I think they are really just bored by it.

I never wanted to feel like I was forcing my sports and interests on them. Yeah, I dressed them in Mets and Giants stuff and bought them hats, but I never sat them down and told them they had to root for the Mets. The games we attended at stadiums aside, we never forced them to sit and watch a game with us. I would turn it on and they could watch if they wanted and I’d be more than happy to answer any questions they had. However, I felt it was important to never push it on them.

So, as I re-read parts of my story, I wonder if it feels like I am projecting something here, what must they feel like when they read it? I don’t mean to lay down that kind of guilt. At the end of the day, while hugely influenced by my life in and around baseball, I am not bitter or regretful that my sons don’t share this interest with me.

All that said, I feel I need to leave them a very personal and public note: Benjamin and Matthew…you have to trust me, root or don’t root for whoever in whatever sport you want. I care, but I really don’t. Please do not read anything into all of this. At the end of the day, I just want you to be happy, which is probably all the more reason to stay away from baseball…it WILL break your heart. Especially the Mets!

However, one last note, I am not try to guilt either one of you, but I feel I do need to remind you that I will need to figure out who to leave my 2000 New York Mets National League Championship ring to…Just saying.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Eighth

As an umpire, he knew he should be unbiased and not rooting for any player or team. It was his job to remain neutral, stick with the rules of baseball, and call what he sees in a game to the best of his ability based on those rules. You cannot do that if you find yourself drawn toward a player or a team. Because of this, he never fraternized much with coaches and players. He did his best to exchange just as many words as he needed to get his job done. There were some players that he felt would try to get an edge by going out of their way to be kind and amenable to him, but he wouldn’t be fooled … their strike zone was the same as the next batter’s. There were some batters and coaches that were chatty for no other reason except to be friendly, but he would just politely excuse himself from those conversations. It earned him a reputation for being cold and perhaps being perpetually angry. But he was just ensuring that he could keep his neutrality intact.

However, when that final batter lined that ball into left field, he found himself screaming “No” in his head. He never wanted an out so badly in his life. Not when it was cold and rainy. Not when he witnessed other no-hitters. Not when he was feeling ill. However, in that moment, he wanted to be a part of the history of what that game could potentially be. He had never been an umpire for a Major League perfect game. He umped World Series game sevens. He had made calls through a 23-inning game. He had seen some truly amazing pitching performances in his time. However, this game was something entirely different. This game was in a new level of special.

He also found himself running down the third base line, trying to get a closer look at the player. His friend and colleague who was stationed at third base was already making the sprint into the left field corner to get a clearer view of Tuck, who was now just lying in the grass. Both umpires were holding their breath like the rest of the stadium, possibly the city. At the end of the day, they did this job because they loved this sport.

As he got to third base,he was trying to look deep into the corner and under the padding of the wall at the warning track. He was so frantically looking for the ball in the grass that he forgot there was still a runner on the bases. The sound of frantic footsteps from the batter approaching from second base as he arrived at third reminded him he had a job to do. He turned to watch the runner just in time to see him stop in his tracks as the stadium exploded around him. He looked over to see the pitcher jump up and down a couple of times, duck the tackle of his catcher, and start sprinting to the left field corner with the rest of the field falling into step behind them.

Then he did something he had never done on a baseball field … laugh. He had never seen such a sight and the emotions of the moment washed over him. It was impossible to be in that stadium in that moment and not get awash in that pure energy of humanity. He let himself smile and then laugh, and while he would never admit it, he might have let out a few tears.

As he watched the players celebrate in left field, he noticed a baseball cap of the home team sitting in the dirt between second and third. He wasn’t sure who had lost it, but he picked it up, brushed it off, and stared at it. He then took one last look out at the players and then wandered off to the umpire’s locker room. He wanted to share the moment with his own friends.

Baseball is special in many, many ways. There is something more magical about it than nearly every other sport. In no other sport, really, can a seemingly ordinary game on a seemingly ordinary night turn so quickly into something measurably extraordinary so quickly. Yeah, every sport has records that can be set and/or crushed but nothing that can compare to a perfect game. Perfect games stand up on their own without needing qualifiers. A perfect game is just that, a perfect game. While pitchers usually need the help of the teammates around them, perfect games are historic markers on both the pitcher and a franchise. All you need to know about a perfect game is right there in the name … perfect. It stands up on its own for all of history. While some perfect games seem to weigh heavier than others, they are all, simply, perfect.

As humans, none of us are perfect. None of us are without fault or without error. When a pitcher goes out there against world-class athletes and keeps each and every one of them off base for a few hours through an entire game, they become superhuman.

It is also one of the rarest accomplishments in all of baseball, yet it can happen on any night by any pitcher. It can be pitched by a team’s fifth starter who may never pitch more than a handful more games in his life or it can be pitched by a Hall of Famer. The names of most of the men that have thrown a perfect game are not etched into the Hall of Fame. On any night in any ballpark, a perfect game can be thrown and no other sport has the equivalent.

This was the second perfect game Abigail had witnessed in person. There are baseball fans that may attend every home game of their favorite team every season and they may not see as much as a no-hitter live, and there she was, taking in the glory of a second perfect game. Yet, despite seeing one before and despite spending huge chunks of her life sitting in big-league ballparks, absolutely nothing could prepare her for this game. Combine a record shattering, perhaps a new untouchable record of 22 strikeouts with a perfect game and you get something that is unmatched in history. There were guys that struck out 20 batters in a game and there were guys that have pitched perfect games. Each, by themselves, would make them instant baseball legends and contenders for the greatest game ever pitched. The 20 strikeout games were about as rare as anything in the game. More rare than perfect by a long shot. Take 22 strikeouts and put them with a perfect game and you have just one player standing alone. In black and white, there was no gray .. .this was the greatest game ever pitched.

Throw in the fact it was a streak breaker. Throw in the home crowd. Throw in the fact the pitcher was a rookie. Throw in the struggling future Hall of Famer getting instant redemption for the night before. Throw in that catch … that amazing hit saving, perfect game saving, undeniable greatest game ever pitched saving catch. When you combine all that, you have arguably the best game ever played. A game so special that poets will write about it.

And there she was, with her kids with a front row seat to it, staring at the brother of a hero holding a ball in the air from his back as thousands of people yelled. She turned to her Brian who was now standing on his seat high fiving the firemen sitting all around them. There were tears in his eyes and tears in nearly every other fan’s eyes around them. It wasn’t long before the high fives were traded for hugs. Laura just stared out at the field, tears also in her eyes and a smile on her face. She did not know how to act in that moment.

After a few moments, she watched as the old ballplayer was able to finally get out from under the pile of joy and stand back up. He was still being mobbed, but managed to pull himself free from the arms of his teammates for a moment. He turned around and took a few steps toward her. He looked up at her and the firefighters, and with his glove under his arm, his right hand over his heart and his left hand holding the ball, he pointed at them and smiled. He patted his chest a couple of times before turning around and walking back to the dugout with the rest of his team. She looked over at her children to see tears now streaming down their cheeks. She knew they were now hooked.

After an hour or so, they were finally able to get out of the stadium. The party had poured out into the streets. The electricity that had been initially contained inside the stadium had flooded out across the city. Men honked their horns in their cars and women yelled from windows at the passing fans. In her mind she imagined a shockwave bursting out of the old ballplayer the moment he crashed into the ground and that shockwave expanding out across the field, into the stands, across the city, and rushing across the country in all directions. She imagined the prodigal sons and daughters of this city, in their homes or favorite sports bars or at their desks for their late-night jobs, jumping up and down screaming, as they got hit by the shockwave.

She imagined a fan sitting comfortably in his house watching the game with his family. She imagined how, one by one, his kids and wife went up to bed, not knowing what was happening in the game and he was bound by a sacred unwritten rule unable to tell them … even as he became increasingly less comfortable in his seat. She imagined him on his knees, hands grasped together, two feet in front of the television when the shockwave hit him. In her mind she could see him jumping up and down desperately trying—and failing—to muffle his shouts of joy. It’s what she would have been doing had she not been in the stadium.

She imagined two strangers who had entered the bar separately but had gravitated next to each other in front of the only television showing the game. She imagined the strange looks the pair received with each shout they let out as the later innings unfolded. She imagined every other television in the bar, one by one, clicking over to the game, yet the pair refused to move from their seats. She imagined a large group of people tensely forming around them as the ninth inning started … some drinking more than before, some drinking less. In her mind, she saw the bar explode in joy when the shockwave hit as two strangers, who didn’t even know each other’s names, hugged like two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years and anointed a bar full of other strangers honorary citizens of their hometown.

She imagined a worker sitting at her desk in the corner of an office on the other side of the country, refreshing her computer for score updates in between processing the pile of paperwork in front of her. She imagined the updating becoming more frequent and less paperwork being processed as the game moved along. She imagined her refreshing her computer every 10 seconds and her pumping her fists silently in the air. She imagined the giant pile of paperwork flying into the air as the shockwave hit with the woman’s coworkers now all staring at her in her corner.

She relished this moment. The whole city seemed to relish it. The whole city felt more alive than it had ever been. It felt like someone had suddenly woken up this city and it felt like no one was currently asleep. It was an ordinary weeknight and there was a buzz as if it were noon on a Saturday. And she enjoyed every moment of it.

She draped her arm over the shoulders of her son as they walked. The firefighters had become their entourage as they excitedly relived the game. The old-timers often seemed to stare off into another world for a few seconds as they played what they just saw through their minds before snapping back into this world with a smile and a shake of their heads.

She paid special attention to her son as he would drift from confusion to giddiness. She wasn’t sure if he completely understood the magnitude of what had just happened, but he was feeding off the energy of everyone around him. He kept talking about the catch that ended it and he kept talking about how he thought the player was looking at him just after it. She couldn’t recall the last time she had seen him so animated. She was embarrassed by how happy and proud it made her.

The firefighters, meanwhile, continued to fuel the kid’s new passion and went beyond it. They joked with him and teased him in such a way that only old friends do. They laughed at his wide-eyed gaze as the fans exploded around him. They teased him about how he nearly committed a mortal sin by speaking the phrase “perfect game” and how they would have been required to tie him to the foul pole with a sock stuck in his mouth if he had said it. They joked with Laura, as well, but Brian seemed to glow in the good-natured abuse.

Underneath it all, she could tell that the older guys were trying to dig into what kind of kids they were … what kind of man and woman were they growing into. Some of their jokes had tests in them to measure them. Some questions were direct, like talking about school and what they planned to do. Some were more vague but loaded with meaning, like who their friends were. Abigail knew that they wanted to know if they were good people. One of their own died for them and while each of them would tell you it didn’t matter if they were good people or not, it made their burden lighter

Eventually, they made it to the fire station. As they were getting ready to say their goodbyes in the doorway, Brian noticed a shrine on the wall next to one of the trucks. There was the picture of a man he vaguely recognized draped in black and purple. Under it was a small shelf with a beat-up and burnt helmet, some flowers, and a candle. There was also an article about the Tuck’s brother Carl dying saving a family. In the article was a picture of a house burning. The new fan suddenly realized who the picture was of. Caught up in the night, he had not connected the dots on the firefighters and the tickets and what all of it meant.

The firefighters suddenly went quiet once they realized the boy had noticed the small shrine and his mother gasped like she had suddenly been hit in the gut. The boy went over to the shrine to get a closer look and to read the article. He reached up and touched the helmet, getting a little bit of that black smudge of soot on his fingertips. He stared into the eyes of the firefighter’s picture for a few moments before his mom and sister came over and put their arms across his shoulders. He looked at his mom and then reached into his pocket, pulling out his ticket stub from the game. He took it and placed it on the shelf next to the helmet, letting his fingers linger on the stub.

Finally, they turned to leave and found some of the firefighters in tears. The older firefighters shared long lingering hugs with her and Laura. With her son, there were as many hugs but some handshakes. Each of the firefighters had different shades of emotions in their eyes. Maybe some had a little bit of sadness. Some had a bit of joy. Most were far more complex than simple one-word emotions. However, regardless, all of them looked at them with pride. They had just met this family and honestly they knew very little about them, but they felt they were worthy of the sacrifice and it made their sacrifice that much less trying.

Not wanting to say goodbye, a few of the firefighters offered to walk them the rest of the way, but Abigail declined, knowing that the city was too excited still and nobody was going to bother a mother, her daughter, and her son dressed in team colors that night. She also knew it was time for some alone time with her kids.

As they walked, the boy’s tone was noticeably softer. His questions moved rapidly from the game, the player, his brother, and the fire. He admitted to having mentally shut that out for so long and how it seemed like it was a movie of someone else’s life he had watched, yet he still felt the guilt of someone else giving up their life for him. He asked about the player and how he had dealt with it all these years and how he knew the player had looked at him after catching the ball. He asked how the ballplayer had been and if she had any contact with him.

Just before they arrived home, he became very quiet before he just started weeping uncontrollably. She turned and grabbed him in a big hug, where they stood for a long time.

After arriving home, she grabbed her children by their wrists and took them over to the coffee table where the old cigar box was sitting. They sat down and she opened it. She took Brian and Laura on a walk through past games, as she flipped through the ticket stubs. She shared stories about the other games she saw and the moments shared with her dad. She lingered on the ticket stub that marked the death of her father. She lingered again on the ticket stub that marked the night of the fire. When she reached the top of the pile, she took out her ticket sub and placed it on top of the pile. She told them that this ticket meant more to her than any other. Not because of the perfect game or the Old Ballplayer or even the firehouse. It was because they had shared all those moments with her and that she would never forget that.

They sat up and talked for a while longer that night. Laura fell asleep first, but Brian was just simply too wound up to be able to settle down, while she simply didn’t want the night to end. They turned on the news at one point to see if they could catch the highlights of the game. When they came on, they kept looking to see if they could see themselves in the shot where the ballplayer had caught the ball. They were easy to spot among the backdrop of the firefighter’s uniforms. Eventually the TV was off and they started making plans for future games and discussing what direction the team would go from there. He had so many more questions for her about plays scattered throughout the game. The game had suddenly become a giant cake placed in front of him and he wanted to eat up as much as he could.

Sometime in the early morning, he started to drift off in his chair and she, hesitantly, told him it was time for bed. After he gave her another long hug, he wandered up to bed. She sat in the semi-dark living room with the box of tickets in her lap. As she stared at the ticket on top, she started sobbing through a smile.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Seventh

He sat in the corner of the dugout, as far away from others as he could. In the past, he relished and welcomed the isolation. He sought it out and he felt at home in it. As he sat there now, he analyzed the loneliness he felt for the first time. He felt it in his gut, perhaps he even felt it in his soul.

As Tuck, the Aging Ballplayer, thought more about it, the loneliness wasn’t new. He has been dealing with it for years. The death of his brother brought on the fog of sadness and depression. In that fog, he lost sight of everyone who had ever tried to reach out to him. His friends, teammates that he was once close to, his agent, the fans, and even the family that his brother had saved. In that fog, he felt only he himself could get him through the pain. Sadness and depression have held on tight, but the fog dispersed a bit and it was too late. The people that loved him had grown cold toward the bitterness that lashed out at them and backed away from the fog, and now he was left alone.

Somewhere in his mind, in the darkness, he had felt that they were all still around even if he ignored them. The incident from the day before shone a light onto him and it was the first time that he could see he was wrong and no one was left around him … he was alone.

He was shocked when his manager called down to him to get a bat. In a game like this, the past needed to be buried for the sake of the future and he had the best numbers by a large margin of anyone else on the bench against this pitcher. And the team needed a hit. With a runner on first, a perfect game in the balance and a streak in desperate need of being slayed, the team needed a very … very … big hit. So, he was shocked when he was called on to get it.

He normally was able to ignore the crowds. In hindsight, he felt, you can be an asshole for only so long without being able to turn a deaf ear to the boos. He wasn’t sure he could blame them and he wasn’t sure what he was doing in this game. However, here he was, his team riding one of the worst losing streaks in modern history, his pitcher carrying a perfect game through eight innings, and he was being asked to deliver it all, or at least give them a chance to do so, in this at-bat. Get a hit, end the streak, make history. And here he was, being booed.

As he stood at the plate, with the boos raining down, he thought about that home run. He thought about getting that one last big hit and he could step on the plate, and just keep walking right into the dugout and into the clubhouse, leaving it all behind. That at-bat would be the perfect time … he would shut up the booing and just walk away.

As a strike zipped past him, he was still lost in his thoughts or, perhaps, just simply lost. He stepped out of the box. As he tried to pull himself together, he glanced down at the runner on first … and he realized that was all he was to him … a runner. He wasn’t his teammate in his head, he wasn’t a friend, and he struggled to even remember the man’s name.

He then turned and looked into the dugout. Half of the guys were on the top step looking out and the other half were sitting on the bench. The young pitcher sat in the middle of the bench, looking down at his hands, no one around him. Everyone, except for the pitcher, had mixed looks on their faces. Some had the clear look of anxiety. Some, a look of excitement. Some just looked dejected, obviously unable to hide their contempt for him.

But there was one thing they all had in common (except the young Ace) … they were all looking at him. They were looking at him to deliver. The looks on their faces only expressed the degree in which each man believed that he could deliver. These weren’t just ballplayers. These weren’t just men thrown together. These weren’t just a group out trying to collect a paycheck. They were a team who were in desperate need of just a little bit of luck or maybe just a little bit of leadership. They were his teammates in desperate need of a hit and in desperate need of him delivering that hit.

He stepped back in the box as the anxiety of the entire stadium continued to come down on him. The fans were in the same boat. They were all looking at him to deliver something big. If he didn’t deliver, they would be angry, but they would go on with their lives. They didn’t need him to get a hit to live the rest of their lives. However, they sure as hell wanted it, in that moment, about as badly as anything they wanted in their lives. Some had other troubles in their lives, whether it was a small bank account, a sick loved one, or trouble with work. Every one of them had their own problems and issues … things in their life that they truly needed. At the moment, at that point in time, there was only one thing they wanted more than anything else … a hit.

As he took a ball, he thought about the fans and their passion and what the jeers really meant. He thought about the pitcher, the kids spinning a masterpiece on the mound tonight for a last place team. He thought about his teammates and what that at-bat would mean to them.

He thought about his brother and that family and suddenly he didn’t want to walk away. He wanted to stay. He suddenly realized that he had to make up for everything.

He thought about his brother and his mother and his father and how proud they were of that first home run he hit. Then he thought about how proudly they looked at him when he was six years old and he simply picked up a baseball. They weren’t proud of him for hitting a home run. They were just proud of him for being him. They certainly would not be proud of him now. They would be ashamed of how he acted over the last several years. They would not have liked what he became.

Then he realized what he had to do. He knew that there was still time for redemption. There was still time for him to save his own baseball soul. And suddenly, he felt newly baptized in the jeers that rained down on him, and first, he smiled. And then he laughed to himself. And then he stepped back into the batter’s box.

He adjusted his hand up slightly on the bat and made a subtle adjustment with his feet. He held his bat a bit lower. And he looked down toward the pitcher. In that moment, before the pitcher had even started his windup, the old ballplayer already had the biggest hit of his career … his life.

And in that sudden moment, his eyes opened wide as he saw the pitcher winding up. A moment later, his bat let off a resounding crack and the ball disappeared quickly. He sprinted out of the box as he watched the ball bounce off the wall. The runner that had been on first was rounding third as the fielder made his throw.

The team had the run they needed and now they just needed the kid to finish it.

As he took his place in left field, the crowd was still buzzing over the exciting moment of the previous inning. He could hear the voices of some cheering him as he stepped into place. For the first time, in a very, very long time, he felt comfortable standing in the grass of that outfield. That was his corner of that field. It was his grass. He felt his heart pounding and felt that old feeling of joy return that he carried with him for most of his baseball career. He was home again.

When the first batter struck out, the stadium started to shake in the wake of the explosion of cheers. He looked up past the fans and the seats and at the lights and there seemed to be a subtle wobble in them. One of baseball’s most sacred records had just fallen to the arm of this rookie … 21 strikeouts.

When the second batter struck out with the bat sitting on his shoulder, he could no longer even hear himself think. He thought he felt himself wobbling a bit. He thought to himself how fitting it would be if 22 was the number of strikeouts the young Ace finished with and wondered if the Kid could finish off unprecedented history.

When the third batter stepped in and raised his bat, it was like someone suddenly turned down the volume. It got almost dead quiet with the exception of one or two voices that defied the tension and yelled out encouragement.

Despite the near silence, he still felt a wobble, almost as if the thumping of 50,000 hearts had synced up and were now shaking the world.

The silence was suddenly shattered by a loud, explosive, and distinctive crack of wood on a ball. It was a crack that rarely meant anything good for the team on the field.

It was a quickly sinking liner toward the deepest corner of the field that his feet instantly sprinted for. It was almost as if he knew where the ball was headed before the ball did. He could feel his heart racing in an instant, not because of the effort, but because of the moment. As he had done a million times in his life, his body was sent hurtling toward a spot that his mind had effortlessly calculated as the right spot to be. It wasn’t a question of where the ball was going to land. It was a question of whether his legs would get him there in time.

About halfway through the all-out sprint, and in the last stretch of the arch of the ball, his heart slowed just a bit and his mind confirmed the necessary course of action. The ball suddenly seemed to suspend itself in mid-air and he felt a smile cross his lips. He took a few more quick steps and then a giant step as he guided his body to become parallel to the ground … parallel to the grass and perpendicular to the wall. For a moment, he was suspended over the grass, cheating gravity for a moment. His glove was in full extension as the entire stadium was silent.

And then he crashed hard into the ground, his too-old-for-baseball body absorbed the wrath of gravity, forcing his body into a roll. He found himself on his side and he looked up for a moment and saw he had stopped just short of the warning track in fair territory, directly in front of the section of seats that his brother once sat in. For a moment he thought he saw his brother staring back. It wasn’t the firefighter version of his brother but the teenage version of his brother. The version that he spent his days in the grass with, practicing these exact types of catches. Over and over again. His brother had that smile that was a mix of excitement, wonder, and fear. A smile that asked if he had just seen what he had seen. A smile that asked if such a thing was possible. A smile that asked if he was okay. The old ballplayer smiled back. He knew it wasn’t his brother standing in the stands with a fist over his heart. He knew who that boy was.

His smile continued as he rolled onto his back, exposing a uniform covered in grass stains. He felt the grass on the back of his neck and he felt at peace for the first time in what seemed like forever. He stared through the haze of the stadium lights and into the deep darkness of the sky beyond.

In all his years he had never heard a stadium so quiet. Not a word was spoken, not even from the rebels who had a moment ago tested baseball’s wrath, and he was sure that not even a breath was taken. He could still feel the heartbeat of the stadium, of this team, pulsing up through the blades of grass. Staring up, it was easy to imagine he was lying in the grass back home, the way he used to with his brother. His breath slowed and he closed his eyes just as a tear freed itself. In that moment, he knew it was time to move on. Time to play the game the way he used to.

It was time to free the crowd.

With his bare hand, he reached into his glove, pulled out the ball and held it with his thumb and index finger high over his chest, and opened his eyes. He looked at the ball against the night sky and it looked like a full moon. He smiled wider and closed his eyes again.

And the energy was released. The energy of the thousands of fans cascaded down from all corners of the grand old park and washed over him. He thought that this was what it must feel like to get hit with a sonic shock wave. For a moment, the arm holding the ball shook as it absorbed the energy wave. He felt that energy like he had never felt it before. And it wasn’t just the energy of those in the stands he felt wash across him, it was the energy of the entire city and an entire fanbase.

He opened his eyes wide in time to see his teammates flying toward him, the Kid, his pitcher leading the way, arms in the air, his eyes wide with joy as well. A moment later he was being smothered at the bottom of the pile. A bonfire of joy.

Winter shuddered. Like a man who gets that first gust of cold winter air, Winter shuddered against the explosion of energy from the stadium. He was there to collect this team … to take this team into the cold night. He was waiting for this stadium, these fans, this player to give up and allow him to collect the empty shell of Summer. He expected Summer to crawl out and instead Summer exploded into the night sky. And Winter shuddered and took two steps back. He would have to wait.

Later, in the quiet of the clubhouse, after each of the night’s heroes had exhausted themselves recounting their stories to the masses, they found themselves alone. Tuck went to sit down and found his glove sitting in his chair where he had left it earlier. In it was the ball he caught for the last out. He took it out and looked at it. There was just one mark on it, from the bat that hit it. Otherwise, it was perfect.

He rubbed it between his hands and grabbed a pen. He walked over to the young Perfect Pitcher and reached out with the ball and pen, and asked him for his autograph. The Kid, for a moment, wished to have the ball for himself, before realizing something more to the moment. A legend. A certain to be Hall of Famer. A player with more hits than all but a handful of other players and more RBI than all but an even smaller handful of other players had asked him for an autograph. The pitcher smiled, took the ball, and signed it. He laughed as he handed it back.

The old ballplayer looked at it and wrapped his arms around the Kid and said thank you.

And Winter was knocked to his back.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Seventh

There might be a game where your rookie pitcher strikes out 12 batters, holds the opposing team to three hits and no runs, but your offense never gets going and the bullpen does not hold. These can be some of the more painful losses, but it is also when a loss is not a loss. The “L” is in the standings but hope has stepped up as the kid may just really learn how to pitch a big-league game. That loss might be worth 100, 200, or even 300 wins down the road.

There might be a game where a team falls behind early and by a lot and does not show any signs of life. They might be facing a pitcher that they have no right even being in the same park. They might strike out early and often, but with each at-bat, with more difficulty. Then, in a moment, they get to the pitcher, scoring several runs in a handful of innings. They may still lose the game, but they have learned they can get to the best and maybe their confidence comes back. Maybe they now know a little more about how to win and it leads to other wins down the road.

As she sipped her coffee and stared at her computer, she knew loss 22 was not a loss … it was a win. Part of her hoped, almost achingly, that loss 22 was the biggest win in her baseball life. No, not part of her hoped. All of her hoped. Every cell in her body hoped.

So long ago Abigail had given up on Brian having any interest in the game she loved. She had given up on having the connection with her son or daughter that she had with her father. Baseball was not going to be something she passed on to her children. But she had accepted it. She refused to fight it, she refused to push it on him. She accepted it and was prepared to move on.

Then the team loses number 22 and there was her son, out of the blue, asking questions about the game, suddenly interested. Perhaps he saw, for the first time, what the game meant to her. Perhaps he saw how much the streak bothered her even if she didn’t talk about it. Perhaps he simply just wanted to know.

Whatever the cause, this made Abigail happy beyond what words could describe and it felt odd and out of place to her. She realized it was an early tentative step by him, but still, she felt a joy in her heart that she had never really known. It’s not a joy that can compare to the moment she first laid eyes on her baby nor the joy of watching him and his sister grow into loving, caring human beings. It was something a bit different and she also made a tentative step to embrace and bask in it.

But such joy is also tainted with a bit of guilt. Baseball and this team were her love … what right did she have imposing it on her child? Baseball was her first love and something she carried in her heart every day. Her children were her true love. She would trade the game of baseball without a second thought if it meant that it would keep them from feeling even a bit of pain.

Therein lies the problems. Baseball is pain. A batter is celebrated if he only fails about 70% of the time. Most pitchers give up hits and runs most of the time. Fielders cannot get to every ball. Only one team wins the final game of the season.

But baseball is also happiness, and for most of her life, her memories and the experience around the game have been a simple joy in her life. Through losses and lost players. Pennant races and batting crown chases. It has always been joy for her and she wished to share that joy with her children.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door and when she opened it, there was a bike messenger. He told her he had a package for her and that he needed a signature. Confused, she quickly signed the paper the messenger was asking her to sign. She couldn’t remember ever receiving something via bicycle messenger and she certainly wasn’t expecting anything.

The package was a large, thick envelope. She quickly tore into the envelope to reveal books of season tickets to the Team. As she stared at the tickets, she noticed the section number. There was something very, very familiar about that section number. She knew they were good seats, close to the field because she knew that stadium by heart. She knew they were deep in the left-field corner. She knew you could reach out and grab the left fielder on some plays if you really wanted to.

And then it dawned on her … she knew that section. She knew that section very well. It had been empty all year. It was where, for all those years, the firefighters would sit. It was where her firefighter would sit. The old ballplayer purchased the whole section every year for the firefighters to sit if they wanted to come to the game. Even after they stopped coming, he continued to buy up that section. Even after he went to play somewhere else, those seats continued to stay empty. For years, casual fans would wonder why there was an empty block of seats there. The true fans in the city knew that it had become a quiet tribute to the firefighter brother who was lost and all his brothers who were lost over the years. Even though the seats were only empty because the player no longer wished to give out the tickets for reasons of guilt, anger, and mourning, the rest of the city looked at them as a loving tribute to their hero firefighters. The surrounding fans became protective of the seats, sending many unknowing fans looking for better views, away. In a sense, this block of seats became a chapel within the cathedral that was this ballpark.

Now, Abigail was holding tickets for that section. And she knew that they could have only come from one person. She lost her breath for a moment as she came to the realization. For years, she had hoped for some connection with the man. Beyond her love for the team that he starred with for years was the connection that only they could hold.

Those tickets were like pulling the sword from the stone.

He lost what was most precious to him saving what was most precious to her. So many times she had tried to reach out to Tuck and offer her condolences and gratitude. So many times she had wanted to just hold his hand and offer her sympathies.

She tried passing messages to him through his agent, the team, and even journalists and every time she never heard a word back. She had no idea if he ever read her messages. She wondered about the weight on his shoulders and hoped to help him bear it, but she never knew if he even knew.

In the hours up to the game, she was restless and fidgety, unable to still or hold a thought long enough to make any sense to herself or anyone else. She had called Laura earlier and she agreed to go with her. She had to wait until Brian got home from school to see if he wanted to go, and this, in part, is what worried her.

Despite her son’s sudden apparent interest the day before, “apparent” wasn’t real. She wanted him to go to this game with her. At some level, she knew she needed him to go with her. Sure, she would go on living a life and everything would probably be just fine if he didn’t. The only things in life we absolutely need are air, food, and water, but she honestly felt she needed him to go with her. She pondered the perceived selfishness of such thoughts, so she was not going to force him to go.

So, as she waited for him to get home, she felt like she was back in high school waiting to ask a boy out on a date. In this case, however, she wanted her son to love baseball, or at least go out with it once or twice and see if they were a match.

Abigail didn’t hear Brian get home; she was lost in her own thoughts. When she got downstairs, her heart stopped as she saw him looking at the ticket books on the kitchen table. Before she had a chance to ask him, he looked up at her and asked her if they could go … tonight.

In an instant, her old anxieties were wiped away, but replaced by new anxieties of thoughts that he would hate it or that he would flashback to the fire. When she was honest with herself, she wanted him to love baseball.

He was full of questions and could see his excitement build. Where did the tickets come from? Why did you get them? Were they good seats? What time should they leave? Do you have a hat I can wear?

The night was near perfect with an unusual chill in the air for that time of year, so they decided to walk to the stadium. There was enough of a chill to give the night a special feel. As they walked by the fire station, she could see a couple of the guys gathered near one of the trucks. She noticed them looking through the same ticket books she had at home. It was obvious they were getting ready to split them up.

One of the older firefighters noticed her and her boy walking by and gave her an awkward half-smile and nod. She returned the awkwardness. She encountered the firefighters from that night from time to time and she always felt a tinge of guilt. She had her boy with her while they lost a brother. She wrapped her arm around her children and pulled them close for a moment.

She was amazed that there were as many people at the game as there were. She hesitated to use the word “fans” because she wondered if a majority of them were there out of morbid curiosity … Casual fans that had nothing else to do besides come out and watch a team continue to implode in historic fashion.

When they arrived at the park, Abigail could see the mix of excitement and confusion on her children’s faces as they navigated through the lines, the turnstiles, and then the crowds. Their eyes frantically moved from people to food vendors to the structure and back to the people. They were overwhelmed but smiling as they took in the scenes. They looked happy to her.

When the usher at the top of the aisle asked to see her tickets, he suddenly seemed to become very focused. He looked up at her and then at her children and then back at the tickets. He asked her where she got them as he looked at the back and ran his fingers over the print.

As he did this, she sensed a sudden presence behind her, even as her son started shifting nervously around on his feet. She didn’t want to turn around to see who was behind her for fear of drawing more questions upon herself. As the usher went to ask again, a voice behind her called out the usher’s name and said that she was with them. She quickly turned around and her eyes locked in with the old firefighter from earlier. He smiled and nodded at her. The usher gave a long broad smile of recognition and handed the tickets back to her.

As the woman and her children took their front row seats, surrounded on three sides by a group of firemen, the buzz of the ballpark picked up. With his arms folded, standing in the outfield, the old ballplayer watched the whole scene unfold, smiling.

The game started with the young rookie pitcher striking out the first batter he saw. On three strikes. The second batter came to the plate and swung three times and missed all three times … he wasn’t even close. The third batter had two strikes on him before even taking the bat off his shoulder. Her son jumped to his feet … it didn’t take him long to figure out a strikeout. He yelled in unison with the crowd, and when the poor batter helplessly swung at strike three, he leapt for joy. Almost instinctively, he started high fiving the firefighters around him as they returned his enthusiasm. It was a good start.

Her kids cheered when the team put together a couple of hits in the bottom of the first, but nothing more came of the rally. Their pitcher went back out in the second and got two more strikeouts and a weak groundout on a first pitch swinging. The third inning followed the same pattern, but this time a fly ball. He was through three innings and had struck out seven and had yet to miss the strike zone.

The batters really couldn’t get much going. A hit here, a walk here, and much like the last 22 games, a ton of missed opportunities. The pitcher continued to cruise along, almost as if he was playing in a world with a different set of physics laws to rule it.

When he struck out the side in the fifth inning, she felt her pulse sharply quicken. It wasn’t as if this pitcher was just getting by … the other team looked like a bunch of little leaguers. They had struck out 12 times already by the fifth inning, had not walked, and had not gotten anything close to a hit. This was domination … pure, unadulterated domination, and she had never seen anything like it before, and for her level of games watched, that was saying a lot. Her heart raced and she felt her brain start to spin.

Her son glanced at her, looked back at the field, and then his head snapped back at her in a double take to ask her if she was okay. She nodded and told him to look at the scoreboard. He didn’t know what he was looking at and she wasn’t about to tell him … you don’t break that rule in the fifth inning of a game like this, even for the newbies.

Brian got up to get something to eat and she let her mind run away with what all this could mean, even when she knew she was overthinking. Her mind was lit up with the possibilities and trying to figure out how to explain what was going on without being the black cat walking in front of the dugout under 13 ladders and knocking down mirrors. When he got back to his seat, he looked all excited and told her about what the guys at the concessions were saying. Just before he said The Word, she cut him off and told him that they don’t speak of such things at times like this and that the person who he had met that told him that word in that situation is an evil person, or worse, a fan of the other team and he should never talk to him again. Abigail had said that only half-jokingly and Brian looked confused but went back to his hot dog. Laura just smirked with a little laugh.

By the time they were through the seventh inning, the crowd had taken on a weird energy … a strange vibe. Since she was a child, she had marvelled at the way people acted at a baseball game. It was almost as if something else was always going on besides the game. So many people seemed more interested in everything but what was happening on the field. They were looking around for vendors, standing in line at the concessions, fussing over their kids, watching all the other fans, looking at the pretty girl walking by, or discussing something else with their friends. The game itself, the activity on the field, always seemed to be just a backdrop to all the other things going on.

Tonight’s crowd had started the night no differently. Sure, there was extra buzz because of the streak, but everyone seemed to have something else going on. As this star rookie pitcher was transforming into a legend among legends, the atmosphere transformed. As this pitcher sat alone on the bench with 17 strikeouts, no walks, no errors and no … … the energy was so very different. More people were filing back into their seats than wandering off. The energy in the air had her hair standing as it seemed to be powering the lights themselves. The chilly autumn-like air turned into pure electricity.

Her kids had no idea of the magnitude of the situation and she felt helpless to explain it to them. However, they certainly felt the vibe in the air even if they didn’t know the historic story the linescore was writing or that 16 strikeouts wasn’t just good. And they certainly had no clue what it meant when you put the two together.

When the pitcher walked to the mound in the eighth inning, the stadium was on its feet. She imagined that the concession lines were empty and that the vendors had given up their calls. She couldn’t believe her eyes when the kid quickly struck out the first batter, and she was even in more disbelief that the stadium got louder.

When strikeout number 19 was registered, she felt her eyes tear up and somehow the stadium seemed to get even impossibly louder! This, of course, was nothing when the last batter of the inning struck out on three straight pitches, still not coming even close to making contact and tying the rookie for the single-game strikeout record. Not only did it seem the stadium was shaking, it felt like the whole city was shaking.

She felt ill, however, when she again realized that the score was still 0-0. Holding the other team off the board and bases was almost meaningless when you did not have a run yourself. Her anxiety was dragged into the bottom of the inning.

The leadoff batter drew a four-pitch walk as the crowd got a little quieter, only because the previous half-inning had exhausted them. When the next two batters failed to even put the ball in play, the crowd suddenly seemed irritated. They knew the consequences of not scoring and their chances seemed further reduced.

Many in the crowd became downright angry when the Old Ballplayer was announced as a pinch hitter. It was in the sharpest of contrasts to the ovations that had spilled down for the pitcher just moments ago. The boos rained down from all over as he seemed absolutely dejected. He was slumped over as he stepped into the batter’s box. He did not look like a hero tonight. However, in her heart, on a night like this, she knew that the story had already been written and all that was left was for it to be acted out. Her instinct for this game told her so.