Bottom of the Ninth

Summer Had Returned

He was having fun. He was having more fun than he has had in a long, long time. He constantly thought about playing on after this season. He wanted that one last home run, but he wasn’t sure he could keep on playing. He was becoming a stereotype as his joints ached with every swing, and every sprint down the baselines felt like it was going to shred any number of muscles.

He had resolved himself that even if he did not hit that last home run this season, that he was going to be done. He couldn’t keep on going. This team was special and regardless of what happened this season, he knew it would be time to walk away. This is how he wanted to remember the game. Fun, exciting, full of joy. He couldn’t risk an injury that would make playing miserable or an attitude like his own in the clubhouse. He was too old and it would be time to walk away.

That number, his brother’s badge number … that home run … turned him into Captain Ahab, chasing a white whale through the green grass. It was a singular obsession that had driven him for way too long at this point. He lost sight of the crew on this ship he was riding and nothing else mattered outside of that home run. While the death of his brother had sent him spiraling into the abyss, it was anchoring himself to that home run at the bottom that caused him to drown. He had to let it go in order for him to live again.

It wasn’t that he did not still want that home run. It wasn’t that he did not still want to honor his brother. It was that he knew that his way of going about it was not honoring his brother at all. His brother would have hated him for his attitude and approach. He knew this and knew the pursuit ended today, regardless of what happened.

His teammates had no idea what he was thinking and he was fine that way. They didn’t need to know. It was his decision only and he couldn’t bring them down. A couple of months ago, they may have celebrated the news.

As he stood in the outfield shagging balls and in between joking with teammates, he thought about these potential last moments as a ballplayer. If they lost today, this was the last time he would stand in the grass before a game, lazily grabbing fly balls. This may be the last time talking with some of these guys.

As he took batting practice, he treasured it. He treasured the murmuring of people around him, the reporters scrambling around for a story, and the kids hanging over the rails looking for an autograph.

In fact, he took time out of his normal routine to sign autographs for the kids, joking with them and asking if they played. At some point, he came across a pair of brothers, no older than 10 and 11. They had on their heads their own little league hats and he asked them if they played. They excitedly started explaining how their dad coached them and how their team in the spring wasn’t very good, but how they had so much fun. The younger brother told him how he was a really good fielder and almost hit his mom in the head with a pitch when they played in the backyard. He explained how he couldn’t hit really well, but he still loved it. The older brother interrupted at the end and told him how he had hit the only triple of the season for the team and that he couldn’t play a bunch of games because he hurt his arm playing catcher.

The Old Ballplayer soaked in every word and told them how he played baseball all the time with his mom, dad, and brother. He told them about his worst season in little league and offered them encouragement to keep playing or just doing what they loved to do.

When he finally made it to his locker, he got himself ready for the game. He exchanged verbal jabs with the other guys as he noted every moment of this routine that he had lived for most of his life. He thought about how he now played professional baseball longer than he had not played it. And he was okay with that. He had never found love outside the game and all his friendships had withered away in his bitterness. He knew that he would be spending a lot of his time away from the game repairing those friendships and looking for something outside of the game.

When he took the field for the national anthem, he pondered how at ease he was with his decision. He wanted to play a few more games, so he hoped this was not his last. He wanted to lead this team to that ever-elusive championship, but if they lost, he would be okay with that. At times, he actually got excited with thoughts of what he could do outside the game or in a different role within the game. He had burned bridges to repair, but he was ready.

When the game began, he felt good. He was relaxed and confident. The last two months had been a blur of, dare he say it, magic, where he felt like they could do no wrong. They lost a few games in there, he was sure of it, but he sure as hell didn’t remember them. He just remembers a team clicking together and just doing what they needed to do to win. They started the stretch in last place by more than a couple of games and then they just started gaining ground. It was slow at first, but they gained more and more momentum and it was almost as if the other teams were caught looking over their shoulders and tripped, stumbled, and fell. And here they were, the last day of the season and tied for first place. Win and they go to the playoffs, lose and they would be able to forever tell the stories of the season where they lost 22 straight and almost made the playoffs.

It didn’t help that the rookie pitcher was taking the mound for them, but they were also going against the next best pitcher in the league, so they needed to hit. It wasn’t going to be easy.

As the game unfolded, it was obvious that the runs weren’t going to come easy. Both pitchers had their best stuff and the stands shook with every strikeout and every opportunity that looked like it would go their way. With the pitchers on the mound and the atmosphere, it was about as epic of a game as you could get, unfolding on a beautiful early fall night, with the lights set against a deep black night that was still blue and gold around the edges and it fought off the last of the sunlight.

In the top of the ninth, the other team pushed a run across on an error by the second baseman. That seemed to open the gates a bit, rattling the relief pitcher who then gave up back-to-back home runs. When the bottom of the ninth came around, the stadium absolutely rocked, despite the deficit. The stadium got quiet after two outs were recorded.

This team was special, though, and they would not yield to Winter without one last fight. A walk and a single put two men on. The next guy up, the second baseman, hit a grounder down the third-base line. The breath of the entire stadium collectively held as the third baseman, playing deep, picked up the ball with his bare hand. In the same motion, he fired across the infield. However, the second baseman, eager to redeem himself, ran with everything he had as the rest of the players held pause. The bases were loaded for the Old Ballplayer.

When Tuck came to bat, he knew it very well could be his last at-bat in the league. As he stepped in there for what just might be the last time, he had only one thought and that was to just keep the rally going. If he was going to get more of a chance to play with this team, it was going to have to be in the postseason.

The first two pitches were balls, which were followed by two strikes. Again, the next pitch could be the last pitch he ever saw and all his memories of all his years in baseball flashed through his head. The good ones, the bad ones, and even the boring ones. He remembered his first at-bat and he remembered his first playoff at-bat. He remembered the last at-bat before he had heard his brother was dead and he remembered the extra-inning game where he struck out six times. He remembered all of it … every last moment.

He was almost too distracted to realize the pitcher was into his windup. As he saw the ball coming in, he swung. He knew it was a perfect swing. He knew his foot stepped forward perfectly and the bat made its way through the strike zone perfectly.

He heard the crack. The pitcher heard the crack as well. The left fielder heard the crack and was already breaking back. And it was a perfect crack of the bat. It is that noise, that feeling through your hands and arms … that resounding impact through your body … that made him first fall in love with this game. Sure, there was great satisfaction in sprinting across the grass and having a ball perfectly land in the glove. That is a lovely sound. As is the feeling of throwing a ball from 200 feet away, watching it arch into the sky in a seemingly random motion and then watching it hit its target perfectly … it is awesome.

However, that crack of a bat … a good old-fashioned piece of ash … is what made him first fall in love with this game. He remembers vividly the first time he made solid contact without a tee. His father was pitching to him from about 30 feet away. He had missed the first couple dozen thrown at him, but he listened to his father explain the adjustments he needed to make. Move your feet in this direction. Shift your weight here. Hold your bat off your shoulder. He made all the necessary adjustments that are needed to hit a ball with a stick.

And finally, he got one. The ball suddenly looked like a beach ball and he swung. He had made so many adjustments to his swing since that first one, but in that swing and with that first crack of the bat, he felt at one with the world … even if he did nearly take his father’s head off with the ball.

More importantly, though, was that Tuck felt it and he knew. He felt the wood … that feeling that is the main reason he ever played. Nothing feels better than getting a hold of one.

He saw the ball start low. In fact, he was certain that it was only a few feet over the shortstop’s head as it went through the infield. He was certain it was going to be off the wall and he started sprinting hard to collect as many bases as the rocket shot would get him.

As the ball screamed into the outfield, it seemed to be rising. Like a golf drive, it lifted deeper as it went. The Old Ballplayer kept on sprinting and was looking toward the third-base coach to let him know if he should slide into second when he heard the explosion in the stadium.

He was so focused on running that it startled him to see the coach jumping up and down and then almost ran into the player on the basepaths in front of him … who made two jumps to every step as he made his way.

It didn’t sink in as he looked to left field. He saw the left fielder slumped against the wall, face in his mit. Yet it still didn’t sink in. He still could not process it and he continued to sprint as he went past third.

By the time he got to home plate, his team was in an absolute frenzy as they mobbed him. About five steps before the plate, it suddenly dawned on him. He finally had done it.

343.

He couldn’t believe it and he felt himself stumble for a minute as his teammates cleared a path to the plate. Everything was about the last few seasons and him returning to this city to play for this team. There was only one thought on his mind and that was to make sure he touched the plate.

The moment he hit the plate, he finally started to fall in pure emotion. 343 would go into the Hall of Fame with him. He would take his brother with him and they would go in together. Sure, people would look at his hits and career average more. His home runs were a relatively low number for the average modern-day Hall of Famer. Hell, no one would even know the significance of 343. But he would and he would always know it.

And he collapsed in emotion as he crossed the plate, but he would never hit the ground. His teammates would grab him and mob him. The hugs were so tight that he could barely remember if his feet touched the ground at all in the next several minutes.

The next 30 minutes or so were a blur to him as he alternated between hugs from his teammates, interviews with the media, and drying champagne from his face. He had for so long dreamed what that moment would be like … what the scenario would be … who the pitcher might be … what the pitch count might be. He had ballparks he preferred; he even had fences he longed for. Yet in all that dreaming, he could not have dreamt of the emotion of the moment. All his daydreams were these emotionless moments, and as dreams tend to do, failed to reflect reality.

He could not believe that it had happened and he was deep in his own thoughts even as he tried to answer the questions from reporters. He was thankful for the champagne because he could blame the tears running down his face on his eyes being stung by the champagne.

When there was a moment to be spared, he turned his back toward the craziness of the locker room. Pretending to grab a towel from his shelf, he reached in behind some books and grabbed his brother’s shield. He took it out and looked at it, tracing the numbers with his finger. As he did so, a spray of champagne from behind him spread droplets across the metal. He didn’t bother to wipe it clean as he smiled to himself. His brother would have loved this. His brother would have enjoyed this moment. His brother would have been proud.

Just as he put the shield back into his locker, he felt a hand on his shoulder and he turned to see Michael with an embarrassed smile on his face. To Michael’s shock, Tuck’s face lit up as he grabbed the intern in a warm embrace. When Michael was released from it, he smiled but quickly told the player he needed to come with him.

Michael led Tuck out through the crowd of reporters and emerged back out through the clubhouse doors, with about half the media. The director smiled.

When the player stepped through the doors, he stopped in his tracks almost immediately as he looked at the unusual contingent. The group didn’t notice him until one of the firefighters started clapping. The rest joined in, except for Abigail and Brian. The kid just stared back at the player, in a sort of shock.

With a tear in his eye, the player smiled as he walked over to Abigail and embraced her, his eyes still on the boy. After a few moments, Tuck released his embrace and Abigail immediately went over to Michael and gave him a long hug. Tuck extended his hand toward Brian for a handshake but instead, the boy reached out with a baseball in his hand.

The player’s face went pale as he stepped back like he had seen a ghost. He knew exactly what ball it was. He had gotten such a good look at the pitch that he recognized the dirt stains on it and he figured he had seen the last of it when it disappeared into the crowd. He knew, as well, exactly where it landed, but he figured it must have bounced around a bit before someone settled in with it.

For a moment or two, he stood shocked looking at the ball and then the kid again and back at the ball. The kid was shocked as well but managed to flash a shy smile in the awkwardness of the encounter as the Old Ballplayer reached out and took the ball. For a second, Tuck saw a glimpse of his brother in Brian’s smile. Abigail, now standing off to Brian’s side, saw a glimpse of her father in the quiet confidence of her son. And Michael saw a glimpse of himself, at that age, falling in love with the game for the first time.

An impromptu party had sprung up within the offices of Summer’s team, and Abigail’s family and the firefighters were invited up to it. The party lasted well into the very early morning hours of the next day. Despite his age, Brian managed to keep up with it, caught in the adrenaline of excitement that seemed to get renewed each time another player ventured through.

At one point, Michael found himself talking alone with Tuck, laughing about his dad’s story of how he caught his home run the day he was born. Tuck then made him tell it over and over to anyone he could grab, smiling and laughing each time like it was the first time he had heard it, including his agent who he held captive most of the night with his arm around his shoulder.

Michael spent a lot of time with Abigail’s family, firefighters, and all, talking about the game and sharing their own stories. Abigail talked on and on with excitement about how big of a fan her father was and about their last game together. As she told the story, goose bumps formed along Michael’s arms as he became pale, and the smile fell from his face.

Abigail asked him what was wrong and through a halting, stuttering voice, he told her that was the day he was born … that evening … right around the time her father passed away. Abigail dropped her drink and stared at him in shock, which changed to her then staring deeply into his eyes before she smiled, wiped away some tears, and gave him a giant hug.

When Tuck heard the glass fall, he came over and asked what was wrong and inquired if Michael had told her about the day he was born. When they explained the shock, Tuck finally released his agent and wrapped his arms around the shoulders of the two with a giant smile on his face.

As the morning went on, stories of The Perfect and other highlights of the season were shared. The firefighters shared their own stories about Tuck’s brother as Abigail’s children listened on with awe. Abigail often had her arm looped through Michael’s arm as she told him stories about her father and his stories about this team. At one point, Tuck made Michael call his father, waking him so that he could hear the story firsthand about the day Michael was born.

One by one, the crowd thinned, leaving just Michael, Tuck, and Abigail not wanting to let go of the moment. Her children had found a corner of the room and were sleeping even though they would snap back awake, insisting they hadn’t fallen asleep. The three adults talked for a while before finally running out of things to say, leaving only their goodbyes. Before they could do so, Tuck grabbed each of their arms and simply said, “Thank you,” before giving each of them a gentle hug.

Tuck made his way back toward the clubhouse while Michael called a cab and walked the family out to the waiting car. He then made his way out toward his car, where he could see the horizon already starting to brighten in an orange glow.

Summer had returned to the city.

The End

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