Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Ninth

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

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Ninth

Michael remembered his first game like it was yesterday. He was 15 and had fallen in love with the sport the previous fall. He had spent six months learning about “his” team and its history. He was learning about the game and its history. His family embraced what he embraced and fostered it with books and videos, and he absorbed every bit of it. However, he still had so much to learn and experience about his new love and he often felt like he was a toddler stumbling around on new legs as he wandered around this world that is baseball.

When his brother-in-law got a pair of tickets to see his team in the late part of spring, he jumped at the opportunity. The night before, he couldn’t sleep. He was so excited. It didn’t seem fair that he had to go to school that day. He fidgeted in his seat watching the second hand go backward on the clock. At lunch, he boasted to his friends about how he was going to see the game.

The nearly two-hour drive out to the stadium required crossing two bridges and one of the biggest cities in the world. It seemed endless. When they came around the final stretch of highway and the giant blue stadium suddenly appeared from behind some trees, he felt himself pull back into his seat in excitement, awe, and just a touch of fear. He couldn’t believe he was really there.

He remembers so much of that night … so many sights and sounds. Where his seats were and even how he sat. He remembers who pitched and the score and who hit the home runs. But the lasting, indelible image was of walking through a dark concourse toward the rectangular light form emerging from the last ramp out to the seating bowl. The concourse was dirty and dingy, and most of all, dark. When he first stepped into the ramp entrance, the light hit him in the eyes and overwhelmed everything. But as his eyes began to focus, he could see the green grass and the blue sky backdrop. He could see thousands of people as the whole seating bowl emerged. He walked into the light and he felt he was reborn. For every game after that, it never got old and every time he stepped into the light, he remembered that first time.

As he makes his way out to deliver some tickets to his boss, he walks through a tunnel with a light at the end. He is that 15-year-old kid again heading into the light, but now, instead of stepping out into the stands, he is stepping out into a dugout and the field, its entirety spreads out before him. At the lower level, the field almost gives the appearance of going on forever. The wall seems tiny and there is no warning track from that level, just grass all the way out. The light of the sun floods the grass, and when late in the day and early into the fall, it is low enough that you can see the shadows of each blade being cast against the dark green. Beyond the grass horizon stands the tall golden warehouse that gives the look of trying to contain that golden sunlight and reflect it back into the stadium. It reminded him of a cornfield after the storm, gathering the rays of light and showing them off.

He takes the two steps and he is on the dirt. Another couple of steps, he is standing on the grass and every time, it overwhelms him.

He is greeted with the laughter of players and reporters as they do their dance around the questions that either no one has an answer to or everyone already knows the answer to. He hears the bat on the ball followed by an excited murmur of the crowd. Occasionally, there are louder cheers followed by the banging around of a ball in a section of empty seats. Nothing beats the sounds of the crowd as the nervous energy is the only competition to sunlight in filling the stadium.

He has learned to love that feeling, that rush to the senses that whole scene brings on. Sure, the playoff race multiplies it, but it fills him with energy and sharpens his mind. The excitement of the scene and the feelings put him on top of the world. He is aware he is a small cog in this engine, but he feels bigger than himself.

He barely gets a moment to take it all in when the first reporter comes up to him and asks him if he had the information he needed. In another moment several more are queued up around him as he sorts through his notes and quickly distributes the information he has. One of the rookie September call-ups comes over to him and cracks a joke, asking him if he had the tickets. After handing them over, the rookie pats him on the shoulder and runs off.

After more of this, he finally makes his way over to his boss. He is a charismatic man whose personality seems bigger than most of the players around him. He is the first with a joke, first with encouragement, first with a laugh that seems to fill the bowl of the stadium. He is also firm and refuses to yield to the men-children that surround him on all fronts. There isn’t a soul there that dislikes the man, including his counterpart on the other side of the field.

As Michael confidently moves toward him, he is noticed and his boss politely separates himself from the crowd around him. After gathering the information he needs from the intern and handing off some additional instructions, he puts his arm around his shoulder and leads him further away from the rest.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a postgame locker pass. It was decided earlier in the week that from the team’s staff, only the director, assistant director, and admin would be allowed in the locker room in the event of a clinching. This was the biggest story in baseball … for a team to lose 22 straight games and to now be on the verge of going to the playoffs was historical, to say the least. It was the feel-good emotional story that everyone wanted and many needed. So, the league had sent staff to help and the media had their own people doubled up for the clubhouse afterwards.

He handed the pass over to the confused Michael who asked who he needed to give it to, only to be told to attach it to his own ID. It was his and he had earned it. His boss quickly walked away, leaving the stunned intern staring down at the pass. As he came back to his senses, he caught the eye of the old veteran coming out of the batting cage. They exchanged smiles before the kid was tugged away by another writer.

In late August, with the team continuing to pick up steam, his manager called a meeting to discuss the postseason media guide. Any team that was even a remote possibility to go into the playoffs had to begin preparing for them. And it wasn’t just preparing for getting to the playoffs … it was preparing for the team to go all the way, and there would be more than enough work to go around.

Since the perfect game, their jobs had already gotten considerably more difficult with requests from the media, calls from fans, and a surprise pennant race. The thought of more work scared him, not that he was afraid of the work and not that he didn’t want to do it. He was afraid of not doing it well. He was afraid of letting down the rest of the staff. He was afraid of not being able to give the details the attention they needed. His boss was also quick to point out the last weekend of the season. He told them to circle it on their calendars and to plan on living in the stadium for the weekend. There would be no sleep.

He received his assignments and they were modest, simple tasks. He had a sense of fear around the work that needed to be done by the team behind the team down the stretch, but he took offense that was not being allowed to take on a bigger role with it. He wanted to do more, despite and maybe even because of the fear. He wanted the challenge.

However, instead of getting upset with it, it lit a fire under him. He realized he could stay angry at this perceived slight, or he could step up and fight to do more. He started coming in even earlier and leaving even later to clear away his assignments. He made preparations that would ease his workload that last weekend and made sure he was ready each day to handle whatever came his way.

It was noticed, and each day he was given more work and he welcomed it. These new assignments led to more time in the clubhouse and more time with reporters. The players and media that he dreaded and feared, he became increasingly comfortable around them. He talked to them with confidence, learned to small talk and learned to crack jokes with them. He grew into himself as the pressure became stronger.

All this, of course, led to more time on the field before games as he became an essential piece of the media relations team. In the past, he felt like just another one of the fans in the stands watching this opportunity zip by him. Now, he took control of it and embraced it. It wasn’t something that he was going to let slip by him.

And there he was, now, with a front-row seat to the most important game this team has played in many, many years. The entire baseball world was looking at them as he was very near the center of the circus.

Leaving the field so that they could do the final preparations for the game felt like a letdown. He wondered about his immediate and long-term future and wondered if he would get back here again. Would there be playoff games on the field? Would he be around next season? A certain stress-flavored melancholy came over him as he took one last look at the bunting high up on the upper decks. This was a different stadium in a different city, but as he made the step down into the dugout, he looked up to right about the same spot he had sat in his first game. He smiled and he walked back into the relative darkness.

He made his way slowly through the bowels of the stadium. There wasn’t much for him to do with the game about to start, so he took his time. He found it ironic that during games was actually the least busy time of the day for him.

Michael met up with some coworkers … friends … for a quick bite to eat. One friend produced a bag of black and orange M&M’s to share with the group. They marveled at her ability to get M&M’s in the colors of the team, but her secret was that stores loved to put out Halloween candy early.

They all exchanged nervous chatter as they ate their meals before heading out in different directions. They all had places to be but his only real job was to be around the press box if needed and keep M&M girl busy as she logged the game into the computer. He settled into his spot next to her in the press box and settled into the game with a nervous pit in his stomach.

He knew that spot well. He knew exactly what section it went in. He knew it when the ball left the bat. But it didn’t help him with the shockwave that slammed him at what he had witnessed. You stare at numbers long enough and you read the same articles and look at the same pictures enough, you learn things that very, very few others learn. And he knew exactly what it meant for that specific home run to hit that specific spot in this particular world and he nearly could not move. As the stadium erupted in a secondary shockwave of joy, he shook it off and headed through the press doors. He figured he had just a few moments, while the stadium swam in the joy, to get to where he needed to be before the tsunami of happiness slammed against the pathways he needed.

He hadn’t gotten far when he heard himself being paged over the walkie-talkie, but he had a mission and he didn’t have the time to explain.

By the time he got back to the clubhouse, he was preparing himself to have to explain how he threw away the respect of his boss and coworkers. He had been repeatedly paged, but he hoped what he had in his hand would redeem him.

What he wasn’t prepared for was the mayhem that he encountered when he walked through the clubhouse doors. His nose was immediately filled with the sweet smell of the champagne as the mist of the celebratory drink hung like a fog in the air. The noise of celebrations bounced off the walls and almost drowned out completely the noise of the loud radios playing a mixture of noise.

As he tried to make his way through the crowd, dry, he finally saw his boss standing near the hero of the game and a large contingent of the media. His boss caught him in his gaze and the joy immediately left his face. The intern made a quick line toward him as he took a half step in his direction. Before the director could say anything, the kid leaned into him and whispered in his ear. The scorn in his face immediately faded away into a shocked smile as his gaze tried to look into the kid’s hands.

The director quickly grabbed his assistant who was walking by and pushed him into the media scrum and then he quickly led the intern back through the mayhem and out the clubhouse doors. There, he was met with the woman, her daughter, and the kid. They were escorted by a handful of firefighters, and the director marveled at how the intern managed to get them all this deep into the stadium.

After shaking some hands and exchanging some words, the director turned toward the kids and said, “Go get him … I don’t care if you need to hogtie him and roll him out in a laundry bin, you get him out here.” Shocked, the intern quickly turned back through the doors and into the spray of champagne.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Ninth

Winter waited, impatiently. Held too long outside the walls and the gates of what was his for far too long. He knew that the fans, the media, and the players could feel his presence. They knew he waited outside waiting to come in. He wasn’t going to be held back anymore. There was but one day left in the season and every other team that was for now his had long folded and now he waited for one more before the fun really began.

He was going to take someone tonight, his long claws feeling around the edges of the ballpark. Summer will continue to hold on to hers, but he will take someone in. He had been pulling at the home team for half a season now, but with each game they slipped more and more from his grasp. He had them in mid-summer. They were already his. Now, they seemed as if they were about to completely slip away to an eternal Summer, but it wouldn’t matter … he would take someone that night.

 A baseball pennant race is different from other sports. The teams play nearly every day with that fates that change and turn with each hit, out, and inning. Each game is a new stanza added to the epic poem that is a season. They aren’t always perfect and they don’t always have rhythm, but they are part of a bigger story that decides the heroes’ journey. With each game, heroes rise and fall. Hopes die and are re-birthed. Winter’s team one day, Summer’s team the next.

During a pennant race, every pitch seems to have the weight of an entire season on it, bringing with it all that intensity, as well. Your heart races quickly. Your palms are sweaty. Your eyes dart around the screen looking for any update while still making sure not to miss the pitch. As the pitcher goes into his windup, you hold your breath and don’t breathe again until the ball is firmly in someone’s glove. Of course, a fast heart rate and an uneven breathing pattern send the whole body into turmoil. And you repeat it for every pitch through every out of every game. No lead ever seems safe and no deficit seems insurmountable. Every moment is uncomfortable and each time the announcers go to give an out-of-town score update, you black out for a quick moment. And you love every inch of a pennant race.

Pennant races are special. Whether it is your first pennant race or your 50th, there is something just so special and all-consuming about them. To the avid fan, they take over your life, make you lose focus, and affect everything you do. To the casual fan, they do the same. To the new fan, they punch you in the gut, they lift you on their shoulders, drop you on your face, and leave you asking for more. Pennant races begin in the waning heat of the summer and end in the early licks of the long cold winter.

And fans live for them.

Pennant races are pendulums. They constantly swing back and forth until all is settled in the middle. One day your team wins and you seem unstoppable as the other team loses its footing and tumbles off the mountain. The next day, you are the one tumbling backward in what seems like a free fall as your rival prepares to hoist its flag on top of the peak. And some days you are just locked together, neither of you moving anywhere.

Even in a single night, the pendulum swings. One moment you are winning and they are losing badly and you count that game in the standings. Next thing you know, you are down and they are up and you can’t breathe.

It permeates your sleep and your dreams and your nightmares. You wake up and your first thought is baseball. It is disorientating and jarring. All night, dreams of a pennant and a championship consumed your sleep so that when you awake, you don’t know exactly what is real yet and what is still a dream. As you begin to separate out the two, a glimpse of grief kicks in, filling the void that the loss of a championship has left behind. The pendulum swings back to the middle as you realize that a winner has not emerged, that your team is still in it, and that there is still baseball to be played.

Life in a pennant race is a strange place to be. Your life and everything about it still exists and you still need to function in it. You still need to brush your teeth and you still need to eat and you still need to go to school or work or wherever your life has you occupying. Yet the pennant race infiltrates everything. It’s like living in an aquarium full of water and then someone dumps orange dye in the water … everything is still the same with the exception of your perception.

As you walk through your day, you alternate between excitement as your mind walks through the “only’s.” They “only” need to win 10 of the next 15. The other guys “only” need to lose five more. They “only” need to get their offense going. These thoughts, these optimistic glimpses into the future bring with them joy and happiness, and elation. The “only’s” make everything seem so very real and the excitement begins to wash over you.

Then, just as you float somewhere with your playoff toes not touching the ground, the “only’s” reverse. They “only” need to lose 6 of the next 15 to be knocked out. The other team “only” needs to win 10 more to win. They “only” need one injury to their outfielder to lose momentum. And the very thought of it kicks you in the stomach, you break into a cold sweat, and you feel ill as you try to not let on to your teacher who is asking you to go to the board to show your work or your boss asking for an update on the project you are working on that you are completely in a panic. School isn’t important in times like these. Work is not important in times like these. Nothing is really important at all. Not even eating because it is not like your stomach can even keep the food down.

Those that are not fans are the lucky ones. They don’t need to feel the turmoil. They don’t get to feel the pendulum of emotions that keep you off balance all day. They don’t have to spend their days both dreading and highly anticipating what drama the night will bring. It’s a painful, brutal existence that no true fans would ever trade in because the alternatives are a bleak cold September just waiting to turn you over to Winter. The alternative is ordinary and sad and without excitement. The alternative is losing and playing for nothing. The fans gladly take on the turmoil of a pennant race because the alternative is all too bleak and ordinary. Pennant races are rare and unusual and a good one will leave you talking about them for years to come. A good one will keep you warm through the winter and many winters to come. A bad one will hurt and drive you mad and make it feel like winter all the time in your soul, but it is better than feeling ordinary. Ordinary doesn’t bring on dreams or redemption and retribution. Ordinary doesn’t distract you from the real work. Ordinary is ordinary.

Sure, one alternative is to be way out front and coast through September just waiting to clinch. But no one ever wrote a book about those games. No one was ever inspired by a 10-game lead with 20 games to go. No one ever said, “Remember that game back in that year when that team had a 10-game lead?”

No, pennant races, with all the pain and turmoil, are what all true fans want and, perhaps, live for.

For Abigail’s son, Brian, he was a new fan, thrown into the middle of this madness and struggling to figure out how he was supposed to go about his life in the thick of it. For him, the race brought a special kind of turmoil because he was learning about his team and the game as his team had its foot full on the throttle. It was like trying to check out what makes a car run while it is speeding down the highway to some unknown destination. He was just trying to hold on for dear life.

Even with watching every pitch of every game he could, he was up extra early every morning so that he could deliver the papers on his route and get home in time to read the paper himself. There were some mornings, after an especially exciting game, that he would try reading the paper as he rode his bike and threw other papers. Most times, he avoided any serious injuries.

Even when the team was going well, he looked to the voices from the newspaper to reassure him that everything would be okay. Even after a game when the team looked potent and in full control, he could not trust his instincts, and like true fans, he rarely trusted the instincts of the writers that wrote how this was the game that sealed the pennant.

When the team seemed to be going bad, Brian looked to the papers for reassurance, to tell him that it was going to be okay. He looked to find out what the team needed to do in their next game to seal up the season. He needed someone to tell him that the mistakes of the night before were not indicative of his team and that they surely would get redemption in the next game. While the optimist in him struggled mightily against the pessimist, he didn’t trust the writers that said all was good and he only believed the writers of Revelation.

Some days he would listen to the sports talk guys … those were the days that he became suicidal and needed to be rocked to sleep.

And his mom, the veteran of so many of these on both sides, watched with joy. She smiled as he excitedly talked about their chances and what they needed to do to finish off their rivals. She smiled even more as he paced the floor, nearly in tears, as he talked about how they weren’t going to make it … how they were going to run out of time. She felt guilty for smiling, but it was a baseball right of passage. All fans needed to go through it and most true fans experience it time and time again. It was his turn.

More importantly, it was really the first time since her dad passed away that she had someone to go through this with. She wasn’t alone anymore. She had someone there with her who was beginning to understand the game and the emotions and she loved every inch of it. It no longer matters whether the team wins or loses. Those moments, talking baseball with her boy, were the only things that mattered.

The casual fans, the veteran fans, and even the new fans could see the writing on the wall. This was not a race that was going to be decided before the final weekend. On one side, there was the team that had held a sizable lead most of the summer but had started to stumble in the last six weeks. Even as the team that had lost 22 began to fire on all cylinders, they still were in cruise control with no reason to look in the rearview mirror. But Winter became desperate and was looking for a new team to take and he didn’t care anymore. As the cold crept in, the engine started sputtering and the team was pulling out all the stops to do everything they could just to make it to the finish line still out in front.

During this, the upstart team did nothing but win. As improbable as their losing streak was, so was the way they were winning. Down 10 runs in the third, they won. They needed three runs to tie it in the ninth and they got a grand slam. The rookie called up hits for the cycle. The shortstop that was batting .205 all season was batting nearly .500 through the last month. The young pitcher, the slayer of streaks, was nearly unhittable every time out. And the veteran outfielder leads his team with both his bat and his spirit.

So, to fans all around, it became obvious that the leaders were just going to have enough of a lead to hold on to a one game lead going into the last game. When the team that led all season lost on the final Sunday of the season to the Old Ballplayer’s team, they had finally been caught and the 162-game race turned into a one-game decider for the pennant. When that final out was recorded in that game, the whole city went crazy. Abigail, Brian, and all the firemen stood up on their seats and screamed. They still had life forcing an extra day of the season.

Abigail, Brian, and sometimes Laura had gone into a routine over the course of those final weeks of the season. They would walk to the stadium, swinging by the firehouse to see who else was going, and they would get their firefighter escort the rest of the way.

On the final night of the season, the superstitious idiot in her told her tonight was not the night to change the routine. The baseball gods would not like her to deviate from her norm. But she had an older ritual that was much more important to her.

She made sure her kids were ready earlier and she led them down to the stadium. However, instead of taking the main road the last quarter mile to the fire station, she took them down a small side road lined with old brick houses and businesses. It was one of those roads that were so picture-perfect that it made you wonder how you had not traveled there. But she had been there many, many times before.

She took them to an orange door of what looked like a dive bar and she led them in. They hesitated until the bartender joyously shouted out her name. The bar had a few people in it all dressed in the team’s colors. Every square inch was covered in team memorabilia. It was a living, breathing shrine to the team with posters and artwork dating back to the team’s first days in the city. She led them to three empty seats at the bar and she had to encourage them to sit.

The bar top itself was covered in glass with what looked like a thousand ticket stubs underneath. They were intermingled with pictures of fans in the bar. The faces and outfits dated themselves from nearly every era with men in suits and ties celebrating to fans in T-shirts and ballcaps crying. She took her seat and stared down at the photo that was at her spot. It was a picture of a man sitting at that very seat with a young girl next to him. She traced his face with her finger and her son, sitting next to her, asked who it was. She told him it was his grandfather and how they would come there before games. He would get a bourbon, neat, and he would always order her a Shirley Temple, making sure to yell “make it a double” every time. They would drink their drinks and talk about that night’s starting pitchers before heading out to the stadium. After he had passed, she continued to go there. After she was able to legally drink, she began drinking wine, but some nights, she still ordered a Shirley Temple. When the team was going bad, sometimes she would order a bourbon and try to drink it, but it really wasn’t her drink.

When Brian and Laura became fans, they had their own ritual and she somehow didn’t feel ready to share this one with him. She needed to know that she wasn’t going to be there with her own kids this year and then be alone again the next season. By now, it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen and it became obvious that it was time to introduce them to it.

She looked at them with a tear in her eye and now traced his face with her hand. When the bartender came up, she ordered her usual wine and asked for Shirley Temples for the kids. She nodded and laughed when the old bartender asked if he should make it a double.

After finishing their drinks, they stood up and made their way out the door and back toward the stadium. Her son moved closer to her and hugged her awkwardly as they walked. She put her arm around him as they made their turn up toward the firehouse.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Eighth

A couple of bottles of champagne found their way onto the plane and some of the younger guys continued to celebrate. They were on their way across the country for a west coast trip, but everyone wished they were still on the ground, in their city, soaking in the aftermath of the game. Three days ago, the old ballplayer would have been irritated by the kids playing the way they were, but now, he couldn’t help but smile.

The hero of the night sat down next to him with a glass of champagne for each of them. Feliz had pitched a game with no equal but the two of them would be forever tied together in the effort. The pitcher’s perfection would be lost without the player’s catch and the catch spends a couple of days on highlight reels before being lost to stories without the context of perfection. No doubt they would be forever tied together in this thing, but Tuck knew it wasn’t, or at least it shouldn’t be, about him. It was about Feliz.

They talked about the game for a while, but slowly their conversation grew more personal, talking about their favorite games played in, favorite places they played, old teammates, friends, and family. For the first time, the Old Ballplayer openly discussed his family and how they were all gone now. The kid intently listened and shared stories of his own family; while still mostly around, he too was visited with tragedy … few people were left alone.

After talking a while and following an awkward pause, the Old Ballplayer looked the pitcher in the eyes and told him he was honored to be a part of that game and as that ball was rapidly dropping in the outfield he knew he would have done anything to keep it from hitting the grass. He told him how he would have slammed head-first into the wall to keep the ball off the grass. It wasn’t about him at that point. It was about the kid, the team, and the game. He admitted that he was no longer sure if he could be a better player anymore but he certainly could be a better teammate.

Feliz sat forward a bit in his seat so that he could make sure he could look Tuck squarely in the eyes and said, “Okay, but what’s next?”

Eventually, the champagne did its trick for most and quiet consumed the cabin of the plane. Soon, even the Young Ace and his perfect arm dozed off as the lights flipped off. Tuck found himself staring out the window thinking about Feliz’s question. From miles high in the sky, he could see the grass.

There is something magic about flying over America during a summer night. Across the country, the darkness is broken up by the glow of the lit-up green diamonds, easily seen from 33,000 feet up. There would be long stretches of nothing and then, in the middle of nowhere, a baseball field would break up the darkness, giving it a feel as if the only civilization in that area existed purely to play baseball. Sometimes there would be a trail of lit highways going up to a field, almost as if America’s roads were built to connect the diamonds.

They were like oases scattered in the dark … little bright spots of hope breaking through the dark landscape below, and there was never any question about what they were. While you could confuse a football field for a soccer field, there was no confusing the diamond in the grass from 30,000 plus feet above.

For the last several years, he resented the grass. He held contempt for the grass. His mission had been singular. For years, the only thing that separated him from the grass was the sole of his cleats. Here, now, 33,000 feet in the air, and he could not wait to get back in the grass. He wanted to stand in centerfield before a game began and talk to the bullpen catcher as he played long toss with the starting pitcher. He wanted to grab a handful of grass and toss it in the air to see where the wind was blowing. All he wanted was to be back in the grass with his teammates again and show them what he knows about the grass.

He couldn’t help but think of his brother, and for the first time in forever, he turned his head to look at the sleeping Feliz and he smiled as he thought of Carl. He wanted to lay in the grass with his brother and stare up at the planes that flew overhead. He knew that those days were long gone, but he enjoyed the memory nonetheless.

You could never know what was going on in each of those fields. You didn’t know if the home team was winning or if the road team was in the middle of a rally. You didn’t know if they were Black kids or white kids, boys or girls playing down there. You didn’t know if it was little league, college, or even minor league. It could even be T-ball. But what you did know was that there were people down there playing this game, a game with no clock on it, a game that brought communities together. It was his game, a game that he played and a game that he loved.

In that moment of quiet, he knew what he wanted to do after the season was over. Whether he hit the home run or not, he would retire and travel to as many of those bright shining diamonds as he could. He would travel and just watch the games in both the lit fields and unlit fields. He was certain he could just drive on any given spring night, as long as there was no rain, and find a game that he could sit back and just watch. That is what he wanted to do once spring came back around. And maybe he would do what he could to help teams. Maybe donations to help a poorer little league team get some light.

Maybe just do something as simple as dragging the field. His father used to love dragging the dirt of the infield. During his little league games his father would always volunteer to do that and then line the fields. He would tell him that dragging the field was wiping the slate clean … clearing away both the successes and failures of the previous game and getting a fresh start. The cleat marks of a runner going to first in the third inning, the last remnants of a stolen base just in front of the second base bag in the first inning, the hole the fielder dug into the dirt behind third in the eighth inning, and the now sloppy, scatter chalk lines of the batter’s box at home plate from the first inning disappear forever, revealing a new infield … a new canvas for the next game. Nearly all the moments of the game were recorded in the dirt of the infield.

And whether you won or lost, dragging that metal screen across the dirt erased it all. All the cleat marks, slide marks, and ball marks were wiped away in the smooth motion of the dragger. Even the person who was dragging it had their footprints wiped away. The field was being prepared for the next game, and the previous game was being wiped away. A newly dragged field was a sign of hope … a clean slate in almost every sense of the phrase, and that made him very happy. And then the bright white chalk of new baselines and batter’s box were almost literally the icing on the cake and made the whole field feel new and inviting again. And his father loved the whole process.

Tuck smiled at the thought of himself doing the same at some random field in the city that loved him again. And he knew what he wanted to do once his career was over, but that could wait. Playing baseball again was what was next.

After a day off, with the baseball world still buzzing, the team took the field and won again. There was a new sense around the team. The Perfect, as Feliz’s game would become known as, while being placed squarely into the past, had given them confidence in themselves and a new sense of what they needed to do. Somehow, in the collective mind of this team, the notion got to them that The Perfect needed to have a greater meaning. There was something more to it and the season had to be known for something more than a single game. And while every player on the field somehow contributed to The Perfect, it was really about the one man on the mound. The rest of the team wanted and needed to be perfect, somehow, in their own way and needed to make The Perfect more about how it turned a team and season around and less about a rookie ace and an aging ballplayer.

So, they won that next game. And then they won again. And then again. And then again. And it continued. Tuck, and everyone around him, played like they had never played before. He became nearly impossible to get out as he turned into a hit machine, and the rest of the team rose up around him. They tore through their west coast schedule, winning 10 of 11 games before coming back home.

In their first game home since that magical night, the stadium was packed and there was a sort of electricity in the air that you could feel in the goosebumps on your skin. The city itself seemed to be renewed in the play of their team … their boys.

All Tuck had ever wanted to do was to play this game the best he could for the love of the game. He regretted that he had lost that feeling … that love … for a few seasons. Yeah, he wanted to make his parents proud and he wanted to impress his brother, but at the end of the day, he just wanted to play the game with all that he had.

These were the thoughts that went through his mind as he lay in the grass in left field, staring up at the planes flying by. He could feel the blades of grass against his neck and enjoyed it. He lay with his eyes closed and could feel the energy of the stadium. He could feel the electricity of the fans as they gathered. He could hear the praise directed at him.

After a few minutes like this, he got up and went over the wall separating the fans from the field and started signing autographs and talking to kids. He never wanted to be a rock star, but this was his game and right now he wanted to do what he could to make sure he made moments around the game for anyone he could.

After signing for a long time, he noticed that the grounds crew had started to prepare the field, which included dragging the infield. Even though he should have long been in the clubhouse, he went out and asked one of the crew members if he could help drag. The startled college kid hesitated at first and then handed off the ropes. As the old ballplayer dragged the field, he never felt so content. Fans cheered like mad at this point, but it was just all music to him as he walked on.

The team would win all nine of their home games before taking off to play their rivals. One by one, they knocked them off, playing games with all the intensity of a World Series game seven and all the fun of a T-ball game. They dropped a game on that road trip, but still managed to move into third place.

Back home, having won 29 out of 31 games, they had wiped out the deficit they had placed themselves in during the losing streak. They finally lost at home in their first game back, but then won the next six to find themselves not only in second place, but in a playoff run.

There was something so special about being in a pennant race. He had a long career, and regardless of how good he was playing, there were far more times when he was at home in October instead of playing baseball. However, after you play October baseball once, you will do everything you can to get back.

When you take the field in September and October Baseball is looming, you get a feeling in your gut, a nervousness. Your mind shifts back and forth from self-doubt to confidence. The knowledge that you could leave everything you have out there on the field and still fall short because of an error another player on another team against another team 2,500 miles away could shift your destiny elsewhere weighed heavily. There were so many different scenarios in your games and in the games your closest rivals play that would determine whether or not Winter owned your October. Your mind goes through all of them and you move back and forth from elation to anxiety as the pendulum swings.

Every day you go out there not knowing what is going to happen. Would your pitcher have his stuff that day and would the bullpen hold it up if he did? Would the bats get hits or would the other pitcher suffocate them? Would they sustain rallies or would they choke on opportunities? Your mind races through all these emotions as the reasons they will win and the reasons they will lose battle through and anxiety thrives.

Yet, despite all that, when you do win, it is all the more wonderful. It is a rollercoaster and you can’t help but feel the exhilaration as you tear through the loops, turns, and twists of the final stretch of the baseball season.

And Tuck loved every moment of it. Laying in the grass (sometimes being joined by Feliz), signing autographs, and dragging the field became his pregame tradition when home. On the road, he still lay in the grass and signed autographs to whoever wanted them.

Of course, their rivals did their best to disturb his rituals as much as they could. One team went as far as “accidentally” turning on the sprinklers before one game as he lay there. He didn’t care and the team played September baseball as if they were designed for October baseball.

With wins racking up in the standings, the pride of the small city found themselves tied with their rivals with just one more game left to play … at home. The team that was dead just two months before was now on the verge of playing playoff baseball. Their historic run triggered by The Perfect had wiped out a huge lead by their rivals and set up just one more game to decide who plays in October and who goes home.

The old ballplayer relished these games. It was hard for him to remember when he had enjoyed playing this game this much. He was filled with joy, and regardless of the win or loss, he and his team had done everything they could.

And it was just that, his team. He led them in every way a leader could. He led the team in hitting and fielding down the stretch. He encouraged the rookies when they messed up and was the first to pat them on the back when they succeeded. He kept the veterans from getting comfortable and was a constant reminder of what was at stake. He was the leader of this team and he was going to see it through.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Eighth

When strikeouts really started to pile up, the activity of the press box picked up a tick. Reporters and other agents of the media picked up phones and started making calls. One of baseball’s most revered was being threatened, and, by itself, would be enough to whip the press box and the baseball world into a frenzy. But a perfect game on top of it … well, that is why the press box activity only ticked up a bit. There was more to this. Everyone wanted to be the first one to get the story out, but, at the same time, no one wanted to miss the next big story because they tied themselves up in the first story. So, the media whispered quietly on their phones, doing their best to terminate the calls as quickly as possible while still trying to focus on the game. Some were awaiting orders and next steps from the people on the other end while others were dictating orders and next steps to those on the other end.

Michael had learned a lot about the media over the last several months. They were a special group with special relationships with each other and with the people controlling the flow of the information … the media relations department. The core writers and radio and television people spent far too much time with each other. The relationships spanned the spectrum with some that were close friends going all the way down to those that outwardly hated each other. They were all competing with each other. They all wanted The Story and wanted to break The Story before anyone else, yet, oftentimes, they couldn’t get the stories by themselves.

The good reporters dug down for the stories, looked closer at the details, and chased after what they thought were stories. Others would poke around other reporters to see what they knew … it was more of an activity to simply get ideas on a story or to add a little color to their stories. The third type of reporter served merely as a megaphone for what the media had to say or for what they saw on the field. They would add some additional quotes they pulled from the players, added their opinions, wrong or right, and off the story went.

Regardless of what type of reporter they were, they needed each other. Conversations at dinner or on the field or between innings were friendly as they looked for crumbs of information in what others had found. Teams were big and stadiums were bigger and no one person could get to all of it, so they relied on this tense, uneasy friendship between them to fill in the blanks of the places they missed.

Like a dam holding back water, there was the media relations department and the information was the water, but they were more than that. They too had roles that seemed oxymorons of each other. On one hand, they had to feed the media and help the media while keeping them in line at the same time. They were like the fun dad that sometimes had to slap their kid’s hands when boundaries were crossed. At the same time, they had to protect the players, the team, and everyone’s reputation. The media and players could be mortal enemies often and it was the media relations group’s job to serve as protector of both, with priorities often blurred. They were the mediators between the groups and it wasn’t an easy job.

Earlier that night, the press box was loud with talk. There was a very big story before the game even began and that was how this team simply could not win a game. The media relations department was pressed to its limits trying to feed the media what they needed to sell newspapers and ad time while, at the same time trying to manage a clubhouse that wanted less and less to do with the media the longer this streak extended on. Rightfully so, the media had said some very negative things about the team while a few were outright vicious in their attacks on the players, the coaches, and management itself. There were cries for players to be cut free, coaches to be sent packing, and one even suggested the team should be sold. There was no let-up and the media relations team needed a break. The clubhouse became more reclusive with each day as the media seemed to enjoy the losses more and more each day.

So, as the game began, the focus was on how many more games the team would lose before they figured out how to win. As the first few innings played out, no one seemed to notice that the pitcher was throwing as if possessed by Cy Young himself. They only noticed that the team wasn’t hitting and that they still couldn’t get on base. Cheering was not allowed in the press box, but that did not include jeering, of which there was plenty.

Something happened in the fifth, however. It was almost as if the pitcher had seen what was going on in the press box. It was almost as if he was sitting next to the Intern observing everything with him. Somehow, it seemed, he knew and it was time to grab their attention. The louder than normal pop of the catcher’s mitt followed by the loud strike call of the ump that emerged to end the top half of the fifth had two completely opposite effects within the stadium. As the fans in the stands erupted in applause and shouts, the press box went dead silent as they looked down at their score sheets and realized that there were a lot of K’s scrawled out, they suddenly took notice. The quiet lasted just a moment as they started to talk to each other, confirming counts. Just nine pitches that inning? Do you have 11 strikeouts? There haven’t been any …? With that last pitch of the fifth, the pitcher changed the conversation and grabbed their attention.

Michael, meanwhile, started getting nervous after the third. As a fan, he always paid very close attention to games until both sides had a hit. The team he grew up rooting for never had a no-hitter so he paid close attention to games until that first hit came along because he wasn’t going to miss it when it happened. So, once a team emerged from the third, he would get a bit more excited and nervous. He also happened to notice his clean score sheet. He hated math, but he loved baseball numbers, especially when there was something special about them. He noticed the three groups of three for nine batters across three innings. He noticed that his score sheet looked nearly … Even in his head, he couldn’t say the word.

As a kid, he always thought that not saying the word when a pitcher is performing a certain feat was cool, but just sort of a joke that no one took seriously. As he grew older, he knew that it wasn’t a joke. He was more superstitious as a kid … he honestly believed the things he did influenced the game. As his faith in God developed more, he realized that superstition could not exist in the same world as his faith. They were mutually exclusive. That said, he still made sure to NEVER step on a foul line and he barely even thought the p-word when he saw one developing.

As the game headed into the seventh inning, the reporters were whispering to each other and he was sure he heard the p-word among the whispers. After the seventh, someone from one of the local papers finally decided to break the ice and mention the word with full intention in an alternate context. As the rest of the press box grumbled at the man, the media relations director turned around and threw a pen at him, and it wasn’t with a smile. For those serious about this game, that was a serious breach of conduct.

As the Intern watched the game and the press box sitting in a quiet simmer, he could feel the tension in the air. There was just no way to deny it. It was almost suffocating but in a fun way. The air felt electric as the possibility of greatness loomed.

When the top half of the eighth ended, the stadium roared to life again as reporters watched the pitcher calmly walk off the mound, shaking their heads. The intern often talked to the reporters and he got to know them somewhat well. He even managed to befriend one or two. One particular reporter that he was friends with seemed bored by baseball. He had been doing his job for so long that he had seen everything and his job was just that, a job. He simply was going through the motions and continued to do it simply because he didn’t know anything else. He knew of nothing else he could do.

The intern, deep down, could sense the guy still loved the game even if he didn’t admit it. The way he talked about the amazing feats of the legends and the potential of a rookie gave him away, often. You don’t continue to stay close to the game if you are not interested.

As the pitcher made his way into the dugout after this inning, the intern looked over at the reporter and saw a twinkle in his eye. The reporter was probably the one person in the press box who was not looking at the pitcher. He was looking at the outfielders running in from the field and then staring up at the upper decks as the fans shook the stadium. There was a glassy wonder in his eyes.

When the Old Ballplayer was announced with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, all the positive electricity that had been in the air was quickly swept out of the stadium and the crowd turned on him. The press box had an angry shift, as well, as some outright cursed as others simply threw their arms in the air. Yeah, maybe this pitcher nails down the ninth, but without a run, some wondered if he even had the ability to pitch another inning if it went extras, let alone preserve the feat. Some mentioned that extra innings would even muddle the strikeout record, should he reach it in the ninth. It would be in a regulation game, but if it took more innings and he got more strikeouts, what was the precedent? No one seemed to know and now, the Old Player that had let the city down the night before was the one who was tasked to prevent the situation from happening.

When the Tuck crushed the third pitch he saw off the wall in left-center, like a tidal wave, the electricity came back into the stadium tenfold. There was no containing the excitement as the stadium shook.

The noise of pen on paper and fingers on keyboard suddenly became furious, even as reporters smiled to themselves, shaking their heads. This night was turning into a baseball story like no other, and if there was tension before, it had just ratcheted up tenfold again. With the run, there was now a chance for, well, a game that would probably be unmatched in baseball history. Just three outs were needed and they would all bear witness to a night of baseball that would top them all.

When the media relations director popped up, grabbing his phone, notebook, and pen, the intern realized he was heading down to the clubhouse. He whispered a few words to his assistant, and as he walked by, the intern panicked. What was his job in this situation? Where should he go? What should he do? By the time his mind processed that he should ask, his boss was out the door.

As the ninth inning started, the stadium turned almost deathly quiet. With each strike, there were loud eruptions from around the stadium before it would go quiet again. When the scoreboard flashed that the pitcher had broken the single-game strikeout record, barely anyone noticed despite it being the rarer feat. There was little reaction. The only thing that mattered was the 27th man that just stepped into the batter’s box. The intern dropped his pen and he swore that the people in centerfield must have heard it.

When the bat cracked, it seemed to echo through the whole stadium. Some writers murmured that that was it … no perfection. There were curses scattered around and even some books being slammed against the tables. When the Old Ballplayer went into his dive, all noise from the pressbox ceased and the gaze of every single person was on the one man. As he lay down on the ground, no one knew if he had the ball or not. They didn’t know if it was under him or in his glove. Those few seconds seemed to last a lifetime until finally, he reached into his glove and pulled out the ball.

There is no cheering in the press box. A firm and hard rule. But there were exceptions to every rule and this game was the absolute exception to every single game ever played before it.

There were huge smiles that night in the press box.

There were high-fives in the press box.

There were even a couple of tears in the press box.

There was certainly and irrefutably and without a single doubt in the world, cheering in the press box.

What had gone from a normal weekday night in the press box had gone from quiet to surreal over the course of nine innings.

Michael sat stunned for a few moments taking in the mad celebration on the field and watching the reactions in the press box. The stands actually seemed to be shaking as the celebration among the fans filled the air with a deafening sound. He was certain that you could not actually hear the cheering that was going on in the press box.

After a moment or two of resisting cheering, he turned to his fellow intern sitting next to him. She had tears in her eyes as she fought the urge to cheer. They exchanged a big hug and a laugh as they soaked it in. Michael then looked over at his reporter friend who just seemed to be staring through the celebration on the field and seemed focused on something that may not even have been happening now … a moment somewhere in the past, perhaps. But the long start was accompanied by a big smile and it seemed he suddenly had fewer wrinkles on his face. As the celebration started to break apart and the players headed toward the dugout, the reporter snapped out of it and turned toward Michael and gave an even bigger smile. He then abruptly grabbed his notes and his pen and jumped up to head down to the clubhouse.

The intern hopped up and followed suit. There was still work to do, even if he was unsure what he needed to do.

A couple of hours after the game, the team got on their buses and disappeared into the night and off to another stadium.The interns and all the young seasonal help had slowly, one by one, drifted back to the hallway that went through the media relations office. The intern was in charge of making sure the stats were uploaded to the statistics firm through the computer and there was just one place to do that. Others gravitated there. Their jobs were mostly done, but no one wanted to go home. The adrenaline was too high and they each had stories about the night that they wanted to share. About how even the mascot let out a cheer at the end. How they saw grown men crying in the bleachers. How they had been hugged and mobbed by random people just because they had a team employee shirt on. Some even had their own tears running down their faces as they quietly recalled the magical night.

The crowd grew beyond that of the interns. Managers and directors and camera people all drifted in, and as each person walked in, a new yell went up. Their jobs were done, the magic of the night poured out through the hallways. Soon, a cooler on wheels filled with beer and a couple of bottles of champagne was rolled into the area. The media relations director, between phone calls with the media, had sent it up from the restaurant after he heard a sort of party had emerged. Food soon arrived. The production guys went back and got radios and speakers, and a crew that was haggard and tired and fed up just hours before were now letting loose like New Year’s Eve and a World Series victory rolled into one.

Many would leave baseball after that season. Only a few would go on in the game. Most would go on and get married, have children, and move on to jobs that had nothing to do with baseball. Some might linger for a few years, hoping to make their mark on the sport or at least this team. Regardless of what they would do after that night, they had that one magical night. They would tell their grandchildren about it one day. They would tell their coworkers. They might even tell the poor woman sitting next to them on a plane who wouldn’t believe that they were there. They would always have that night regardless of what happened after.

Just as each had wandered in one by one, each wandered out one by one or sometimes in small groups. As the sun got closer to rising, the intern found himself sitting alone at his desk. He didn’t want to leave but knew he would have to. He wanted to wait for the newspapers to arrive in a couple of hours, but he knew he would need a shower and a change of clothes. The television was airing the same highlights for the fifth time now and there was nothing new. So, he finally got up and wandered off into the night himself.

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.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Seventh

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.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Sixth

In her first couple of years, as a young fan still gazing out at the magic from within her father’s shadow, Abigail instantly took to baseball. The team was good and won a lot of games. They had five pitchers that each in their own right would be aces on any other staff. Instead, together they formed one of the most legendary pitching staffs ever to crisscross the country. Their lineup wasn’t the most consistent, but at any time anyone with a bat could hit the ball out of the park. It seemed that most days they only ever needed one or two runs. Games seemed to be decided just by the team taking the field and the only suspense was who was going to hit the home run.

The team had seemed to be so charmed during her early years of watching them. There seemed to be a magic about them and she liked to think that magic was real and just limited to her team. She approached every game as if it were already won. Her father cautioned her on the notion. He made sure to tell her stories about how the team, not so long ago, routinely finished dead last in the standings. While she didn’t think he was lying, she did think they were exaggerated narratives to back her father’s modest personality.

She grew convinced that the team could do no harm. And while the team didn’t win the championship every year, when they did, the memory of a past failure was virtually erased. Her team fandom was born in the same heat that the crown was forged and it was all she knew. This is what she thought baseball was. Great pitching. A big hit. Another championship. Baseball.

The team winning was just baseball to her in those days. It was all she knew.

Just as much as she remembers the moment she fell in love with the game, she vividly remembers the moment it all came crashing down. Abigail remembers when the fires were suddenly extinguished and she remembers when her baseball innocence was lost.

The team at that point had won the division five straight times and the last two championships when suddenly they couldn’t do anything right. The ace of the staff was hurt before the season, with rumors of a drunk-driving accident being the cause. A trade had taken another ace to another team and the bats were getting old, although it would take her a few years to fully understand that implication.

For half a season, they found themselves sitting at the exact point of baseball mediocrity. They had as many wins as losses and sat as many games from the basement as they did from the penthouse. It was a position they were actually fortunate to be in.

She remembered thinking how she was convinced at the All-Star break that the second half would be better and they would make a great run that would make all of baseball’s past great runs look like crawls. She envisioned them only losing 10 times in the second half, storming their way to a third straight championship.

The reality was that they lost 10 games in their first 15 after the break, but she still held out hope that was rewarded. A rookie pitcher came up and infused the team with a new attitude and spirit. A couple of the aging bats suddenly came alive and the amazing plays of the shortstop seemed to spark the team in the field. They went on a near-miraculous tear and the magic was back.

It wasn’t just that they kept winning that built up her dreams of another championship, it was the way they were doing it. Near no-hitter, walk-off grand slams, a new hero every night. The team was as she knew them, nearly unbeatable. She felt the magic was back and that nothing would stop them.

With a week left in the season, the team found themselves just two games back starting a three-game series against the first-place team at home. Her dad took her to that Friday’s night game and was overjoyed as her boys took a two-run lead in the first inning. The runs would hold up over the course of the next seven innings and both pitchers became nearly unhittable. In the top of the ninth, the Rivals would get the bases loaded without any outs. Even in that desperate moment, she was convinced and knew her team would triumph.

Then, a looping fly ball made its way out to shallow left-center field. Just as it looked like it was going to drop in, the shortstop came out of nowhere to snag the ball. The runner at second thought it was going to drop in and was doubled off as he tried to make his way back. Just like that, there were two outs and victory seemed assured. It was a beautiful play the shortstop made on it. So beautiful that it could only be labeled as magic. The entire stadium shook as everyone stood. She momentarily got scared thinking the stadium was going to come crashing around her.

Her father, meanwhile, just stood up, smiled, and clapped. He wouldn’t give in to the mania that swept the rest of the crowd. He was a seasoned fan who did not necessarily believe in magic. He was a man of faith, which he would tell her later in life, precluded him from believing in magic. At that moment, Abigail wished he was hysterical like her … jumping up and down like her. But he wasn’t. It was almost as if he knew something she didn’t. In the end, to her horror, she would realize that he did.

With the fielders still glowing in their position and the home dugout still congratulating themselves, the very next pitch was crushed. The image of the centerfielder sprinting to the deepest part of the field and jumping at the wall as the ball cleared his glove by a good 10 feet was burned into her memory. She felt that same desperation as the centerfielder to bring the ball back, even against all hope. The pendulum of baseball had suddenly, if not predictably, swung back and crushed the faithful.

She found it odd when, as the rest of the crowd slumped in their seats or stood with their hands on their heads, her father stood up again and clapped. This time, he wasn’t smiling but yelled out words of encouragement.

The final out of the half inning came quickly, and in the bottom of the inning, the home team got to work quickly. They put runners on second and third with no outs and the stadium was buzzing again. A grounder and a popup quickly softened the mood of the stadium again, even with the clean-up hitter coming up. She suddenly realized that the previous pain and heartbreak from a few minutes before was just a setup for this moment. Every great story needs a moment when it seemed all hope was lost. She just knew that moment was this. She knew that the pivotal home run was about to come.

But it never did. The batter would strike out.

She refused to cry that night. She refused to believe that the game effectively ended their season. They were three games out, but wins in the next two games would have them back at one game with six more to play, half of them at home.

When they were blown out the next day, Abigail still refused to yield and kept on recalculating what they needed to do. When they won the third game, she knew they could make up three games with six to go.

It didn’t happen as the Boys could not seem to recover from the Friday night blast to center. Two nights and two losses later, they were officially eliminated as she quietly sobbed behind her father’s chair. She could not understand what had just happened. She could not understand how her team had lost. It boggled her mind and she struggled to cope with the emotions.

She was angry at her dad, as well. She felt like if he had gone crazy at the stadium, they would have won. She felt like had he shown a little more belief in the magic, the baseball gods would not be punishing them in such a harsh way. She felt betrayed by her father, by the magic, and by her team and she had never felt anything so awful in her life before.

Those moments were burned into her soul, but there have been countless heartbreaks since then. For true fans … the true believers, every loss is heartbreak. Every loss feels like something sharp to the chest. It was just a matter of degree. Getting blown out by a first place team from another division in the second week of the season feels like a sewing needle to the chest. Losing in the bottom of the ninth to your archrival when you have a lead and need to win to stay in the playoff hunt feels like an industrial chainsaw ripping through you.

That first big heartbreak gets scorched onto your baseball soul. It may even change you for life and change how you view everything. It is the true trial by fire. Many feel that first flash and walk away. Others continue through the fire, waiting for redemption because that is what baseball and sports are about. Failure. Redemption. Repeat.

After that first big heartbreak, losing never becomes easier. The second heartbreak hurts as much as heartbreak number 4,406. Age and perspective help, as does learning how to cope, but calyces never form even as the losses pile up.

Now, as an adult, Abigail would think back to those seasons before the heartbreak, and if she weren’t a logical person and if she hadn’t seen the team’s record for those years, her memory would let her believe that the team never lost.

But of course they lost, and as she grew older, they began to lose in earnest. “Who would hit the home run?” became “Who would commit the error?” which usually didn’t matter as the pitching staff seemed to get shelled on a regular basis.

Of course, the team wasn’t always that bad all the time. There were some years when they were the definition of mediocre. They won as many as they lost and there was nothing special about them, at least not to those outside of the fanbase.

As she got older, she began to understand the game more. Losing seemed to give her a bit of clarity on it. When you weren’t waiting for the long ball and anticipating your ace to strike out the next batter in a crucial situation, you noticed the smaller things. You noticed how some catchers are better at pulling a ball back into the strike zone than others. You notice how outfielders position and reposition themselves from batter to batter and even pitch by pitch. You notice the way certain pitchers shake off their catchers. You notice how a batter adjusts his stance a little when they have two strikes.

As she got older, and the lost games, lost series, lost seasons began to pile up, it seemed to mature her as a fan. They caused her to look at the game differently, to approach each strike, out, hit, and inning individually, instead of as a whole defined merely by whether you could chalk up a win or a loss. It became obvious in a lot of the seasons that the team was more likely to lose any particular game, and while she hoped for the win, she knew what the inevitable outcome was going to be. So she learned to love each moment of the game. She learned to love each fielded ground ball, long drive, and innings with long rallies.

As she got older, she became more mature as a fan. She soon realized that rooting for a winning team was easy. When things are going your way, it is easy to stand up and root for your team. Losing made her a better fan and she began to wear this as a badge of honor. When the team was failing, she took more pride in sitting through the games with her father. She now understood why he stood up and clapped as the world collapsed around their team. He appreciated a rally and an effort regardless of results.

Abigail also knew that when the team started winning again, it would be all the sweeter.

As she lay in bed that morning, with images of the last 22 games going through her mind, she thought about how this was all so new to her. It was new to everyone. Nobody knew how to deal with 22 straight losses. It was an unheard-of streak in baseball. Losing that many games in a row was a statistical improbability. Just like a winning streak that long is nearly impossible, so is a losing streak. A ball on the line, a pitcher having a bad day, even a bad call by an umpire. These are all things that send a game in one direction or another. No one loses 22 games in a row because when you have five starting pitchers and eight guys starting in the field, fresh arms in the pen, and someone on the bench ready to go, someone is bound to be on a hot streak. Someone, statistically, is going to be on a good streak. All 25 guys on a team don’t go cold at once … for 22 straight games.

So this was new and it occupied her mind much like a win would. It even captivated the city. The talk shows were going crazy, people at shared the type of laugh about it that someone might do at a wake, and the general mood of the city was down. She pondered if that was what it was like in the radius of the city, then what must it be like at ground zero.

She was able to get up and go to work and was paid to think of other things. Most of the city was allowed to go about their days and choose not to think about it if they didn’t want to. She pondered the people that work in the front office and realized they had no such choice. They were forced … they were paid … to think about just this. There was no hiding from it for them.

Suddenly, she felt like she needed to do something. So she picked up the phone, and feeling a little crazy, she decided that someone was going to get a pep talk. She didn’t care who it was. She didn’t even care if they said anything at all. So, Abigail picked up the phone and called the office of her team and immediately just started talking about her love of this team, regardless of wins or losses. She laid out as much of two generations of love as she could and told the poor soul on the other end to keep his head up and that better days were ahead.

When she hung up, she felt a sense of relief. She smiled to herself as she put down the phone. When she then turned to get ready for work, she found herself facing her son. She had not heard him come in and he was just staring at her. For years, she had not openly shared her love of this team and baseball with Brian. She knew it reminded him of that night and made him uncomfortable. She froze because she knew this and he had just witnessed her unleash a Shakespeare-worthy soliloquy about baseball to some stranger on the phone. She didn’t know what the impact on her son would be.

After what seemed like an eternity, he just looked up at her, smiled, and asked if he could go to a game with her.