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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.