Bottom of the Seventh

Baptized in the Jeers

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.

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