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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.