Categories
Warehouse Windows

A Magic Night at Shea

Games four and five of the 2000 NLCS were probably the most fun I had ever had at baseball games. Going into Game four at Shea Stadium the Mets already had a 2-1 lead in the series but had lost game three by a pretty big margin. So, I remember feeling a bit nervous and the crowd at Shea was a bit nervous as game four got underway. I did not have seats for the game, but for some reason found myself in the mezzanine level along the first base side (I may have been in the auxiliary press box). The Cardinals taking a two-run lead in the first did not help with the anxiety within the stadium, but the Mets put up four runs in their half of the inning off of five doubles and the stadium started going bonkers as it started rocking and bouncing.

When Todd Zeile lined a double to score two more runs in the second, I could actually see that stadium shaking. I had never been at a game like that and the place was just going nuts. What followed was seven more innings of just joy and partying at Shea. The Cardinals did threaten a bit, scoring four more times, but the final was 10-6 and it put the Mets on the verge of a National League Championship and a trip to the World Series.

In game five, Andrea came to the game with me and we sat in the centerfield bleachers towards the front. I remember being nervous. I had been with teams playing in League Championship Series three times in the previous four years and none of them were ever this close to a World Series berth. The Mets were 27 outs away with Mike Hampton, their stunning offseason acquisition, delivered the day of the office Christmas Party, coming off a solid season and a fantastic game one performance standing on the mound looking to seal it.

All the worries…all the fear…all the anxiety started to evaporate when the Mets scored a quick three runs in the first. And when Todd Zeile again delivered a double and three more runs in the fourth, the party began in earnest. Hampton was absolutely dominant, shutting out the Cards on three hits while going the distance, striking out eight.

In the past eight months and over the course of my life, I have written a lot about baseball. Writing about my time in the game, proofing and re-writing my novel, and turning my attention back to my beloved Mets. I’ve written about those pivotal moments in my baseball life…Game Six of the 1986 World Series. The Pendelton moment. Getting the job at the Orioles. I have written about all of it.

But this is the first time I have written about those two games that fall of 2000 and I can barely get through it as the emotions from those two days and that absolutely magical fall wash over me. I had always thought of them fondly, but now, nearly 22 years later, I am overwhelmed remembering the pure joy of those games.

With Andrea next to me, I don’t think I have ever been happier in my baseball life than I was at that moment when the Mets clinched, with Shea Stadium bouncing under my feet and the team that had filled up so much of my childhood, celebrating on the field with unadulterated joy. All these years later, I am nearly sobbing as I recall those memories and the moments later that night and the following morning.

In 1986 I watched the Mets celebrate in a champagne soaked locker room. To a certain extent, I had become obsessed with the idea of being in the middle of one of those. It captivated me and I wanted to be a part of one.

In 2000, I had a clubhouse pass around my neck and the opportunity was there for me to live that dream. At the time, I was pretty close with my boss and a couple of guys that worked as interns with me. With Andrea at my side, I decided to skip the clubhouse and celebrate that moment with her and the people I worked most closely with on the team. I remember arriving in the front offices and talking and celebrating with them when I saw the head of my department walk in, soaked in champagne carrying a special bottle of Budweiser the size and shape of a champagne bottle. For a moment, I wondered if I should have headed to the clubhouse. He walked over to us and handed us the bottle, which we shared and I felt that was the perfect way to celebrate.

Like the Orioles, the Mets had postgame parties during the postseason. I don’t remember exactly where it was as the rest of that night was a complete blur. I want to say it was in the normal tent set up behind the centerfield bleachers where those things normally were, but I feel like this was in a different spot than we normally had the parties. Under the scoreboard at Shea, maybe? Anyways, Andrea and I headed to that. We talked with Gary Cohen and Howie Rose. We watched as Mike Piazza and some other players joined the party. We hung out with my coworkers and we celebrated a moment that was just so special.

It was around 3 or 4 in the morning when we headed home to Hoboken through the New York Subway system. I use to know the transfers by heart, but in Manhattan, we transferred from the 7 Line to another train to get to the PATH train.

There is something so surreal about the New York/New Jersey transit systems at that time of the morning. I had ridden them often getting home from Shea after games, early in the morning. While there is a touch of fear in riding the trains at that hour, there is something so calming about those usually packed trains filled with the noises of so many people. The quiet always seemed to soothe my soul after chaotic days, even if you were riding the train with a 300-pound drunk man wearing a bunny suit.

Riding on the subway through that city after that game and night, I felt on top of the world and the smooth rocking of the train car mesmerized me into this sublime moment in time that I often think about to this day.

As we settled into our seats on the train with Andrea snuggled up against me, I remember feeling such a great sense of peace. It was the calm after the storm, and I just sank into the moment.

There was a man slunk in his seat across from us and he was looking over at me. After a moment or two, he asked, “Do you work for the Mets?” I was confused for a second before realizing I was still wearing my employee badge. I confirmed that I did and he responded with, “Congratulations. You are going to lose to the Yankees, though.” He then smiled at us, told us he worked at the New York Post, and handed us a copy of the first edition of the paper that just came off the press.

On the front was a black and white picture of Mike Piazza with his arms up celebrating and “AMAZIN!” printed in red over his head. In my somewhat large collection of newspapers commemorating big moments, that one is my favorite and just added to the magic of the night/morning.

About 10 days later, the Yankees did beat us in the World Series at Shea Stadium. I was sitting with my friend and former co-worker from the Orioles and I remember him grabbing my arm in momentary excitement when Mike Piazza drilled a Mariano Rivera pitch with a runner on and down by two in the ninth inning. But as I saw Bernie Williams settle in under it, I sat back down and heard the Yankee fans cheering a Championship, full-throated in my stadium. I refused to look at the field and my friend and I made our way out of the seats and back to my office.

The worst part of that loss was walking through the crowds of cheering Yankees fans. In order to get to my office from the centerfield seats we had to go out of the stadium around centerfield, walk around to about home plate, and back in. At the moment, the sight and the sounds created a hard memory for me and it crushed me. It was in sharp contrast to the NLCS and I was not ready for it.

Through the years I think back to moments in the World Series and I get disappointed and taste the bitterness on my tongue. It hurts sometimes, especially now, almost 22 years later and knowing I’ll never be back there again.

However, I’ll never forget that “Amazin” night when we won the NLCS. It and the 1986 World Series burn in the hearth of my baseball soul, someplace warm I can return to when things get cold (I am looking at you, 2007). In a huge way, 2000 still influences me. In that moment when I returned to my office after winning the NLCS and seeing Andrea and my friends to the left of me and the head of my department to the right soaked in champagne, a weird thought went through my head that was cemented by the World Series loss.

I didn’t want to be in an office or in a clubhouse celebrating someone else’s accomplishments. I needed to not tie my life and emotions and energy to the ups and downs of a group of people that happen to be wearing the same clothes. I needed to find my own success, my own things to cheer about.

Less than a year later, I was out of baseball by my choice. While I obviously still love the game and absolutely treasure my 2000 NL Championship ring, the game just was not right for me anymore, professionally. I needed my own accomplishments to celebrate. While I am largely still chasing that, there is so much I have done in my life that I am proud of. There are times I desperately miss working for baseball teams, I would not change it. Not a single moment of it.

And, honestly, a lot of what happened that fall is what drove me to write this book. However, this post has already gone on too long, so the rest of this story will need to wait until after the final chapter of the book gets published.

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

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 Sixth

With a scissors in one hand, the Intern flips through the newspaper. It’s a story that has gone national as headline after headline attack the many different angles of a 22-game losing streak, and it was his job to pour through not only the local papers, but as many papers as he could get from other cities on his way in that morning. Michael was in a blizzard of newspapers.

It was a simple job he had … comb through the papers, cut any article that mentioned the team or one of the players, tape them to paper, organize them by topic, photocopy them, distribute them, and file them. Usually, filing was the last thing he would do and there was a three-foot stack of paper sitting on a shelf over his head, waiting to come down on him like an avalanche. It was a simple job, with newspaper ink-covered hands and chronic boredom being the worst part of it. There were worse ways that he could spend the normal hour each morning. Basically, he was getting paid to drink coffee and read the newspaper.

In the last five days, however, it was taking him and another intern nearly four hours to get through the papers because there was so much being written about this streak. It was also his job to answer the phone, and while a typical morning would have just a handful of calls, mornings during the streak consisted of constant calls from media trying to get front row seats to the train wreck and fans threatening to turn in their front row seats if ownership didn’t send the GM and manager out of town on a train.

He was usually there a few minutes earlier than everyone else, mostly because he hated mornings. By getting in early, he could ease into the day. He could get his coffee and start working through the newspapers before the phone started ringing, before his bosses started giving him assignments, and before he actually had to interact with anyone. He hated walking in late and getting bombarded with all the above before he had a chance to settle himself and ease into the day.

In college, on days when he had early classes, he would wake up early, shower, and get dressed to avoid walking to school with his roommates. He loved his roommates, just not at eight in the morning. The 10-minute walk allowed him to set up the day in his mind and prepare himself.

However, during this streak, everyone is arriving early, trying to get ahead of the mess. The calls are coming in earlier, as anxious people can’t wait another hour to have their outrage heard. All week, he was walking into a live and active bomb range, as far as he was concerned. This added to his frustrations, and everyone else was frustrated as well.

On the phones, he was a punching bag for fans, as they voiced their displeasure with the streak and the direction of the team. While a handful were polite, many were rude and belligerent. Some gave lectures on how they had been fans since their grandfathers were fans and how they had never seen a worse team. Some cursed and screamed to the point where he could see them in his mind turning red in the face as spittle flew from their mouths onto the phone. When he was allowed to speak, he would give the company line about how the team was doing their best and how the season was still relatively early. He was told that he could hang up on those fans that shouted obscenities or wouldn’t calm down, but he stuck with them.

As much as it bothered him, he knew what they were going through. While this wasn’t the team he grew up loving, it was easy for him to imagine what they were feeling. Truly passionate fans cannot get as excited as they do when the team is winning without feeling that low when they are losing. When you combine that with a losing streak like this, it feels as if your soul is being crushed and an almost panicked feeling sets in. When you enjoy a team … a sport … to this extent and you are facing the prospects of a long, loss-filled summer instead of the team playing to expectations, you feel the panic and a sense of betrayal. He had been there.

By mid-morning, though, he felt as if he was losing his cool and started to feel the panic himself. Not the panic of the losing streak, but the panic of getting the things he needed to get done, done. The panic that the calls would never end and the anxiety would sit permanently in the office around him.

Then the phone rang one more time and he stared at it for a couple of rings, considering not answering it. But he couldn’t do that. So he braced himself, took a deep breath, and answered the phone. And then he was surprised.

The woman on the other line immediately started talking about how long she had been a fan and how she traced her roots all the way back to having been born on Opening Day and about the love of the team that she learned from her father. The Intern had heard these types of “setups” and waited for the woman to go into hysterical screaming at him. In his mind he pictured the woman on the pitcher’s mound, going through the motions and going into her windup before throwing a blazing fastball at his head.

Instead, what followed was first, a simple thank you from the woman for the joy the team has given her through the years, and then told him how she and her father always said that it’s these types of streaks that will make the winning feel all the sweeter. Then she talked about how she no longer could see her father every day and talk baseball, but that she could still feel him next to her whenever she watched the team. She talked about how she was connected to him through the team, whether they were winning or losing. She couldn’t be with him every day, but she had the team to remind her of him, and it didn’t matter if they were winning or losing. Then she repeated her thank you and hung up.

Michael was stunned as he continued to hold the phone to his ear and stared off into space. His mind raced, and suddenly, somehow, he could feel it emerging from the gloom. Life-changing moments can be born from the most mundane and unexpected moments on any day. When someone, a stranger, can say one thing that shifts your entire perspective, you can suddenly find yourself careening down a different set of tracks in life. That moment felt like that. It was a perspective shift that he needed. Losing sucked, but he was still living his dream and if he didn’t enjoy even these painful moments, the great ones might not be as sweet.

After contemplating this for a few minutes, he picked up the finished set of clips and headed off to make his copies. He felt as if he was in a trance as he went through the motions.

The utter misery he felt just hours before had lifted, and with it, so was his heart. For nearly a week (and actually, most of the season), he felt this team pounding away at his soul. His emotions were pegged firmly to this team and his heart beat with the pulse of these men. Suddenly, he was given his soul, emotions, and heartbeat back … or, more accurately, he was given the power to take them back himself.

As he walked around, delivering the clippings, doing his job, he realized that he didn’t have to be a ship in a harbor, rising and falling with the tide. He could step on shore and dip his toes into the tide as he wanted … He could even turn his back to the tide and walk away.

He decided he needed to get away for a few minutes. He needed to go someplace where he could be alone, but at the same time, have it appear that he was actually doing something productive. So Michael decided to take a small stack of old clips and go file them in the “attic,” the storage room in the top of the building.

He loved the attic … it was a time machine. A place where the very history of the team could be seen and measured, not in minutes and seconds, but in box scores, statistics, and newspaper articles. Every stat and box score drifted in like snowflakes, accumulating into what this team was. Somewhere in the newspaper clippings and the old stadium promotional giveaways, you could find every single hit, out, play, and even error that triggered every single fan’s favorite memory of the team.

And that’s how he saw it. While others might see yellowing newspapers and boring boxscores, he saw memories of first games and the seeds of major league dreams and even the bitter moments that all fans carried with them with a certain pride. It was where both great and not so great writers get immortalized. In that room were not just each and every memorable moment for the team, but, and maybe more importantly, it was all those moments that perhaps nobody remembers. 

A first pitch groundout to first in a July game 43 years ago with the team already leading by 10 runs. A long double off the left field wall that drove in three runs during a game that got rained out after two innings. Perhaps these were moments that some fan somewhere remembers in exact detail. And that was one of the things he loved … That room recorded every moment that every fan, alive and dead, remembered or doesn’t remember. Somewhere in that room is recorded every fan’s favorite moments and every fan’s lowest moments. Moments when they wanted to walk away from the team and moments when they wanted to grab a stranger and kiss them. Every single moment was recorded in that room. That room was the true heart of the team.

To those that care, the fan that proudly collects every giveaway to add them to the collection their grandfather started years ago, the official scorer that reviewed every play to ensure the integrity of the statistics that made and killed careers, the beat writer that carefully crafted every word of his game article, despite a pressing deadline for a meaningless early April game. For those that care, this room was what they are referring to when they talk about the tradition of the team and the loyalty of the fans. This was what gave blood to the stories and memories that make this team.

The Intern often worried about this room. To Michael, it should be a vault. You can replace a stadium, but the contents of this room were irreplaceable. It was the Louvre, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the Great Pyramid of Giza of this team, all rolled into one room that only a relatively small handful of people knew existed. He felt honored to be one of them.

After spending some time going through the cabinets of old promotional items, he turned his attention to the press clippings. Particularly, the clippings of the Tuck, and he began to read.

The clippings told this man’s career in bits of black on white. Sometimes, a writer was thoughtful about this man. Sometimes a writer was mean for the sake of being clever. Sometimes, merely the facts were told, with no expression of judgment. So many writers over so many years told bits and pieces of this man. However, it was in the whole of these bits and pieces that you could see the man for who he was, a man playing a game. Alone. A game that was not the game of his childhood. It was not the game that he learned. It was not the game his father told him endless stories about. It was not the game that his mother lovingly showed him over and over. It was not the game that he played for countless hours with his brother.

This was a different game because he was alone. The game of his youth was not a game of loneliness. It was something else entirely and the Intern wondered how no one saw this before.

And a thought came to him. A crazy thought that, at first, seemed entirely too big for him. He began to shake, because he knew it was an idea too big for himself. He had no idea if he had the strength and the power to not just be a lone soul at the harbor’s edge. He wondered if he could be the tide itself, if he so dared. He could at least try to lift the boat that had scuttled itself and was now waiting for Winter. He didn’t even have to be the tide … he just needed to be something big enough that could raise the tide.

Then, in a spark of a moment, he somehow just knew all he had to do was throw a baseball into the harbor to raise the tide.

And Winter shuddered.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Fifth

The pitcher stares into his catcher and waits for his sign. A batter stares out toward the pitcher waiting for his pitch. The fielders stand in the field waiting for the ball. Waiting. Everyone is waiting for someone else. But he was waiting for something else. He was waiting for one home run. He has spent his whole life waiting and he wonders how he has let his life slip by.

Waiting for buses and airplanes. Waiting in buses and airplanes. Waiting for prima donna pitchers to wind up and waiting for contracts from runners-up baseball teams. Tuck’s whole life has been spent waiting for something and now he was alone, waiting in a big-league outfield, waiting for a game to start, and waiting for a home run so that he could stop waiting and leave a kids game behind. He was tired of it. He was worn down. He was exhausted.

There was a time when he would relish the waiting. While people that didn’t understand the game often complained about all the waiting, he understood the importance of it. In those “bored” moments for the fans was a moment for a pitcher to try to read the batter, to see if he was ready for his best pitch or if he could get him to go for one in the dirt. Likewise, the batter was looking for some hitch in the pitcher’s movements, the way he moved his glove or a tell in his face that would tip off what the next pitch would be.

The good fielders of the games spent those moments trying to process all possible scenarios. If the ball came to him, what direction was it likely to go? If there were runners on, were they slow or fast, and if the ball was deep, where should he throw the ball? If it was a hit in front of him, what was his best opportunity to salvage an out or was he just going to have to eat it?

In the dugout, the manager and his coaches had to play out the scenarios amongst themselves so that they could act quickly after the next moment. Did they need the starter to stall a bit and give the bullpen time to warm up? Should they direct the pitcher to work faster and keep the batter off balance … was it more important to speed up to prevent the batter from preparing himself?

Even in the stands, the fans needed those moments to update their scorecards and make their own notes. They needed those moments to teach their sons and daughters about the game and update them on what was happening. Friends needed those moments to argue the previous pitch, play, or non-play and discuss what was going to happen next and maybe even call a home run.

Tuck wished he still cared about the game enough. He knew how awful it was that he was just waiting for one moment so that he could leave the game behind. Early in his life and career, he prepared himself for all of these little moments … they were what was important. He knew that he was being a bad teammate for simply waiting for such a selfish moment. No one would probably ever know the importance of that moment and he was fine with it. It was the only thing that was important to him now and he had no problem with it. He knew he wouldn’t have a problem abandoning this team and walking away once the moment passed and he knew that made him a crappy teammate and probably a crappy human being. But he was tired and even now, even being tired of waiting, he knew he still had to prepare himself so that he could end the waiting sooner.

He was running his warm-up wind sprints in the outfield as players finished up with batting practice. While every other player would walk back to center field after sprinting to the first baseline, he would do his warm-up from the infield dirt to the warning track in left field. It helped him feel more comfortable in his position. And he wouldn’t walk back … he would jog. It was something he had always done. He found walking a waste of time and knew that he could get more exercise if he jogged back to the starting point. He was always preparing himself, always getting ready for the next moments, always pushing himself forward. It wasn’t impatience, it was more about not wasting a moment to prepare.

During one jog back, he was glancing in at the batter and saw one of the relief pitchers with a bat in hand. Just as he was about to take his turn for the sprint back to the warning track, he saw the pitcher-batter take the pitch to his groin area. He was sure that the ball had hit the batter’s thigh and nowhere more sensitive. He instantly recognized how the batter reacted and moved … He knew it all too well. It was a similar pitch that would change the direction of his life the first time.

He and Carl were stars in Little League and his brother went on to become a star in high school. By the time Tuck played his last game before high school, he had little doubt in the fact that he was going to make his high school team. It was just a matter of waiting for that first high school at-bat. The way he had it figured, he would be starting varsity.

He became overconfident in what he thought was a simple fact of life, and despite his brother’s best efforts, he would rarely practice, instead choosing to hang out with friends and have some fun off the field. He felt he had earned it and he had better ideas of how to wait for the spring season to start. He had dominated the Little Leagues and was certain of his future domination of high school. He wasn’t going to do any more waiting on the field.

He remembers sharply that first day of tryouts. It was a cold spring day, early enough in the spring that the sun seemed to be already setting by the time they got out on the field. He stood along the first baseline in old beat-up sweatpants and a sweatshirt, his left arm holding his glove against his chest with about 30 other freshmen. He was smug as he stared at the other hopefuls. He was tired of listening to the coach talk and instead looked up and down the line trying to mark who would be cut first. He didn’t want to wait.

They did the typical throwing warm-ups to start and he threw a couple over his partner’s head and missed a few easy catches. He wasn’t worried. They broke up into smaller groups to rotate around through stations. Some stations were aimed at evaluating your swing while others were designed to test your fielding and one was set up to see if you could run from home to first. When he took his first swing, he felt completely out of sync. His arms and legs seemed to be going in opposite directions while his bat flailed through the strike zone, sometimes hitting the tee and other times swinging right over the ball. Of the ten swings he took at a ball on a tee, he only connected with the ball five times and he noticed as the coach made a note on his clipboard.

In the outfield, he started back on the first ball hit to him before realizing it wasn’t hit that hard and found himself trying to catch up to a ball that was already destined to hit the grass. The next ball went over his head as he first broke in on it. The other five were somewhere in between, with him only gloving a couple. By the time he threw back the last (over the coaches’ heads) he was sucking wind and saw yet another mark go on the clipboard.

The next hour was more of the same and for the first time in his life, he felt panic on a baseball field and the panic made him worse. Carl was at his own practice and he was alone as he was coming apart. As the sun started to make contact with the distant mountains, the coach decided to have some live pitching, fielding, and hitting. By the time he came to bat, he was completely unnerved. The helmet on his head felt like a brick and the bat in his hand felt like a redwood tree. He swung at the first two pitches he saw and missed them by a mile. He was completely unprepared for this level. The pitcher, although his age, suddenly seemed like a future Hall of Famer on the mound.

The third pitch came in hard and fast and he simply froze. Like a statue, the bat was locked to his shoulder and his feet cemented to the ground. Not a single muscle even twitched until after he felt the heat of the ball high on the inside of his thigh. He winced and grabbed his leg. He heard a couple of the other players groan and then laugh. Although the ball only hit his thigh, it would have looked like it hit somewhere a bit higher to others in the field. He turned away from the infield and stood in confusion. He had gotten out of the way of balls like that countless times. He could read balls while they were still in the pitcher’s hand. He had reflexes that would make professional ballplayers jealous. He fought back tears of pain and confusion and suddenly he couldn’t hear anything else after that.

Two days later, at the end of the third day of tryouts, the coach pulled him and a couple of other guys aside and told them thank you for trying out, but there wouldn’t be any room for them on the team that year. A friend’s mother drove him and another one of the guys that got cut home, and Michael struggled to fight back the tears the whole way. When he got home, he walked through the door, only to meet the eyes of his mother. She looked surprised. He looked down and told her he had been cut. He had never felt so broken in his life. She came over and embraced him as he unleashed a torrent of tears, sobbing uncontrollably.

On the outside, he told friends and those that didn’t know him too well that the pitch to the thigh hampered his play during the tryouts, but he knew that was not the truth. He knew that he simply was not prepared. During that time between his last Little League game and the first tryout, he was waiting without preparing. The days, weeks, and months passed, and while he could have been practicing and getting himself ready, he simply sat back on his haunches expecting it would all be handed to him. His Little League teammates and opponents had gotten stronger, faster, and quicker while he got weaker and slower.

It was a low point in Tuck’s life. That pitch to his thigh would become the first big turning point in his life. When he originally got hit, he could actually see the individual seams of the ball marked on his leg. It took several weeks for the bruise to completely heal, but he felt those seams were marked in his heart forever and it changed his approach to everything for the rest of his life.

The day after he got cut, he started running every day. He would run in the snow, rain, and heat. Not a day went by that he didn’t swing a bat and throw a ball. He set up a batting tee in the basement and hit countless balls into a net on rainy days and days too cold to be outside. He would spend hours throwing balls against nets, fences, walls, and even trees, and then fielding them.

He attended all of his brother’s games and watched how high schoolers played the game. He would score the game, track pitches, and take notes of how the defense lined up in specific situations. He would give his brother pointers on mechanics and strategy after games. He’d even share tips for his brother’s teammates.

During the summer, he and his brother went back to their normal routine of spending their days in the field. They would practice and play until they were exhausted and then they would lie in the grass and talk about strategy. Sometimes, they would take turns creating scenarios and asking each other what they would do in each of them from all positions on the field.

If it was raining, they would go down in their basement and go through a normal regimen that includes the batting tee, weights, and fielding work. They ate, slept, and breathed baseball until it became part of them. When school started up again, they continued the regimen as much as they could, sometimes even involving other potential teammates.

When the spring tryouts came around, there was no doubt that he was a transformed player. Tryouts came and went and before the first game of the season, he had leapt over the JV squad and was a starting outfielder for the varsity squad. For two years, he and his brother terrorized every other team in their conference and led the way to two straight state titles.

During his senior year, even though they would lose the state championship series, he wrapped up nearly every offensive record for the school and about half the records for the state. There were scouts at nearly every one of his games with schools trying to convince him to not skip college and professional teams begging him to enter the draft.

His transformation was complete, and for a long time, he welcomed waits. Waiting, for him, was an opportunity to prepare and get ready for the next moment, whether it was while standing in the outfield between pitches, the time between the final out and Opening Day, or while standing on third while the catcher talked to the pitcher. In that awful moment of his freshman year, he learned that the next moment will be destined by what you did while waiting for it. Even in such a mundane moment as waiting and standing at third, how he prepared himself for all possible scenarios that could happen once the pitcher released the next pitch could determine whether he was left standing on third and missing out on an opportunity or if his team won by one run.

Suddenly coming back from the thoughts that took him meandering back in time in his own head, he realized that he was in a full sprint, staring off into space and about to crash into the concrete wall in front of the stands. Tuck tried to stop and braced himself before making a last-second try to jump the wall. All he could muster was a bit of a bunny hop as his inner thigh caught the point of the top of the short wall. He winced but understood Irony’s message.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Friends and Baseball

Ungerman Field, the Hopatcong Little League field, Helen Morgan, Jefferson Trail Park. They were my fields of dreams as a kid. There was no corn around these fields. Just trees, a couple of houses, and poison ivy (although one was in the center of town). Nonetheless, they were where I learned how to play baseball … Not very well, I might say, but where I learned.

Sometimes I’d play with my brother. Once or twice, my dad. However, most of the time it was with my friends, Erik, Eric, Bill, and Chris. Occasionally, PJ would join us or someone else.

We tried to get to the fields whenever we could. It seemed like too often we got pushed off for Little League practices or something like that. However, on our days off from school or sometimes after school or on an occasional weekend, we would ride our bikes or get a ride from our moms to one of the fields and just play as much as we could.

They were some great times and I loved every moment of it. Rarely were there more than 4 or 5 of us, so we would have to get creative with how we played. Sometimes, it was just batting practice, pitching, and fielding. Sometimes just home run derby. Sometimes we played overly complicated rules to try to get the feel of real gameplay.

Erik was the best player out of our group, by far. And sometimes I liked to pretend I could get a pitch by him, but more often than not, we would have to look around in the poison ivy and weeds on the other side of the fence for the ball.

The other Eric would probably read this and disagree and make some sarcastic comment. He definitely was a good athlete and certainly was the next best out of all of us, but his best talent was getting us to laugh at ourselves. It kept us from taking ourselves too seriously or getting too intense.

Chris (“Fitz”) and I were sort of in the same “league” when it came to our talent. Fitz, I think, probably preferred to be home playing his guitar than playing baseball, but I believe he liked being out there with us. He had some good power when he made contact and would occasionally crush a ball. His house was the starting point of the infamous early morning in the freezing cold at Ungerman Field story in the last chapter. One of us had to be somewhere that day, so we were trying to squeeze some baseball in while we had a chance. It was interesting being out there in the cold at 7 or 8 AM, watching people driving to work. It could not have been any warmer than 30 degrees, but we were still out there, playing in the cold, almost afraid to make contact with the ball because of how much it hurt our frozen hands.

Bill would become my best friend through the later years of high school. I honestly struggle trying to remember how he was at baseball. I have an image of him in my mind standing at bat waiting on a pitch from me, but when I try to remember beyond that, my memory gets flooded with so many discussions he and I would have about the Mets and school and the New York Giants and lots of other subjects. We were in some of the same classes together, so there were a lot of discussions about various things when we probably should have been paying attention in class.

I was probably the worst player in our group at the plate. I always swung too early or too late, but I felt like I made up for it in the field. I felt like I had a pretty good glove and could read and catch up to the ball pretty well. I like to think I had a pretty accurate arm. However, even as I write this I can picture my old friends reading this and laughing at just how awful I must have been. As I think of them now, I can picture their faces as if they were still in their teens, laughing.

When I think of PJ, I always think of the Yankees. We weren’t really the best of friends, but aside from a couple of incidents, we got along. There was one time that I can remember him joining us for baseball and it really stuck with me. During that time, he was the only one of my friends that wasn’t a Mets fan. He was a staunch defender of the Yankees, despite them being really bad during that time and while we were playing baseball, he was standing up to the rest of us and our put-downs of his team. I had only ever known a good Mets team at that point, so I was puzzled at how someone could continue to stick with a bad team. In the years since, as I have endured one misery at the hands of the Mets after another I make it a point to still support and defend my team, even in the worst of times. It was a lesson PJ taught me.

It’s funny to me to think about all of us playing baseball after 30 plus years. While what their faces looked like exactly in high school is a bit fuzzy, in my mind I can remember each of their batting stances, exactly. Pitching to them, I can clearly remember how they held the bat, the position of their arms, the bends (or lack of) in their knees. Erik liked to mimic lots of MLB player stances (Darryl Strawberry being his favorite), but I remember his stance when he was being serious.

Through the years we would go to a few Mets games together. There was nothing like that feeling of freedom when we were able to go to that first game at Shea on our own, without parents. I think the first might have been one of the Banner Day games and I can still feel the flutter of excitement in my chest when I think about preparing for that game the night before. The times with them were some of my favorite moments at Shea, even including when I worked there through the playoffs and World Series.

I would have loved to play baseball in high school. However, it wasn’t until the 1986 Mets that I had any interest in the game and I was already 13. I also spent 3rd grade through 8th grade dealing with a cyst in the bone of my right arm, causing me to break it twice and eventually leading to an operation to fix it, so I wasn’t allowed to do anything sportswise.

So, baseball, as a future, was not something that was destined for me, at least not on the field. However, playing the game with my friends obviously had a huge influence on me. I like to think not being able to play it on an organized team allowed me to observe it better and appreciate the game more. That could be me just consoling myself, but I can’t imagine how my life may be different now … the things I would have missed out on, had I been able to play the game.

As I look back, now, the early development of my love of baseball was through my friends (and parents). Even in later years, I never enjoyed baseball as much as I did when I was enjoying it with friends, whether they were people I worked with or old friends who I joined in the right fields seats at Camden Yards or the Center Field bleachers at Shea Stadium when I could break away from work for a few minutes. Those are sacred moments for me and influenced the path my life would take.

What I wouldn’t give to have the chance to play baseball with my high school friends, again.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the First

In his junior year of high school, the young man, Michael William, had taken a biology class and had learned about the basics of the human brain. He understood how electric signals were fired off between neurons, almost like sparks. He was fascinated by what the process might look like as an electric signal is passed from cell to cell … he thought that it must look like a battlefield at night, with bright lights flashing around. He imagined his brain as a big (maybe small) beacon of light at the moment as it struggled with this moment in his life, trying to figure out how he got here, where he was headed and what to do next because something had to change.

Earlier, he arrived home from his job at a toy store. Exhausted. He had spent the day unloading trucks and unpacking boxes, and while his energy was completely depleted, he felt as if his brain was unraveling, struggling with his current place in life … he felt like it was a cratered and pitted wasteland with a battle raging there. It was a sort of restless exhaustion where his body wanted to do nothing and his brain wanted to do everything.

He plopped himself down in front of the TV with a bottle of soda and some ice cream and tried to escape from his mind for just a few minutes. He watched the images flash across his screen, and something always reminded him of where he was. The commercials were created by men and women that had jobs that he thought he could do and they were selling things that he couldn’t afford. The shows had happy couples that lived in the same town as each other at the same time, holding hands and walking through parks and malls and on the beach, while his girlfriend lived 90 minutes away. His mind kept going … kept flashing away, as those battlefield blasts of light got bigger and bigger and were pulling in more and more thoughts and emotions. 

Michael was lonely and alone. He was in a job, not a career. He had barely enough money for these simple pleasures of soda and ice cream. He was tired of not knowing where life was taking him and, more importantly, frustrated that life was more dragging him and he was not controlling his life. He needed a change. He needed changes. However, he didn’t know how to create change. 

And as the battle raged, he felt like it was sucking in his very soul as he got sadder and more lost.

In the immediate present, though he needed to clear his mind. He needed to get out of his brain for a little while and he needed to get away from the battle. He knew he had to get further away than a walk would allow him to get. He needed to go for a drive.

As he walked out of his apartment and down the rickety metal spiral staircase, he noticed what looked like storm clouds off to the west and paused, debating for a moment whether or not he still wanted to go out. He felt that the storm in his brain had to be worse than any storm that the heavens might deliver, and he continued down to his car.

He loved these roads in the south-central Keystone. It was an area where vast stretches of farmland were intermingled with thick spots of old forests in the foothills of an ancient mountain range. In the autumn breezes, the majestic oaks dressed in their royal orange leaves seemed to dance with their sycamore and maple brethren upon the golden dance floor that the fields provided for them. In these breezes, with the electricity of the coming storm filling the air, the fields themselves seemed alive and rolling up and down the gently sloping hills. The farmhouse and barns were set against this living, breathing backdrop as if they were put there with the sole intention to inspire artists.

It wasn’t long before Michael was out on the winding roads that crisscrossed the fields, connecting the groves of orange, yellow, and green. The grey, often unmarked asphalt ribbons would stretch out in long straight lines before suddenly turning and heading over the hills. He loved driving these roads … It made him feel alive and strong and capable of doing anything. It was almost as if the trees and fields and farms were sharing their energy with him and he could feel it coursing through his heart and maybe even his soul. They immediately began to slow the electric thoughts in his brain … It is exactly what he needed.

With his mind becoming clearer, or, at least, calmer, he remembered that there was a baseball game on and he excitedly flipped over to the station. Even though the bad guys were winning, he felt his mind becoming even clearer as the words of the announcers floated to his ears like music. He imagined their voices drifting out from his car and joining the electricity of the air.

It wasn’t long before the tardy summer storm exploded around him. The rain was pouring down on his car, so loud now that he could barely hear the radio anymore and seeing out the windshield was even worse. He needed to pull over, get off the road … somewhere safe, but he realized that somewhere in the downpour, he had made a wrong turn and was lost. The road ahead twisted sharply into the woods and soon he came upon a parking lot near a clearing. He pulled in and parked his car along a fence and turned off the engine, leaving the radio on. The rain was coming down so hard that it didn’t take much to imagine that the car was submerged in an ocean. As he stared at his windshield—he couldn’t see anything beyond it—he played out the game in his mind. Ironically, despite what seemed like a whirlpool whipping at his car, he felt more at ease in his mind.

So often, he felt, baseball on TV rarely met his own romantic expectations of the game that he built in his head. When he listened to games on the radio, his mind could create the images from the words broadcasted from 100 miles away. Of course, the artistic-tongued announcers painted the game for him and the picture could roll easily through his mind. Sometimes, he liked to paint his own images turning routine fly balls into slow-motion comets gleaming brightly in the sun against a dark blue sky. Every runner, even the catchers, went from home to first as gracefully as an impala through the rolling fields he just drove through. Shortstops moved as if in a ballet and soared into the air like eagles when turning a double play. The sun was always shining on the field and the stands were always filled to their absolute limits by men in shirts and ties and women in sundresses. The children all wore baseball caps and jerseys that were too big for them. Even the opposing players, who always wore menacing snarls with bloodshot eyes on stubbled faces, moved across the field in what seemed like choreographed motions.

The moment the final ball was hit and the runner tried to slide into first to beat the throw, Michael’s mind had already painted a sharp grounder that only the greatest play of the season was going to prevent from going into the outfield, followed by an equally heroic throw to get the runner at first. He knew it wasn’t the truth, but great players shouldn’t ground out weakly to the second baseman to end a game … a season … like this. They just shouldn’t. He didn’t know much about this team, but he knew the player and was familiar with how this team chased all the way back. Well, almost all the way back. And it should not have ended like that.

A vicious bolt of lightning hit not too far ahead of him in the clearing and his car instantly shook in the shockwave of thunder, putting a quick end to the game being played out in his head. The bolt seemed to be a signal to the rest of the storm that its work was done, and almost as quickly as it had started, the rain stopped. Instantly, from behind the curtains of rain, a familiar image took form, causing his heart to pound like the thunder that just rocked his car, and he could feel the hairs on his arms suddenly rise as if the electricity of the lightning was suddenly coursing through him. He didn’t believe in coincidences. He believed in signs and messages that merely needed to be interpreted.

The clouds were quickly chased off the field by the sun, which spread itself from the third base foul line, across the pitching mound and over first base and right field. The low-lying, late-day sunlight stretched the light pole shadows long across the field. It seemed as if he could see the shadow of every blade of the perfect green grass. The infield shone golden in the bath of light with the puddles of water adding an extra sparkle.

After taking in the green and golden gem sitting with a backdrop of autumn leaves, Michael decided to get out of his car and take a closer look. The air had a crisp chill to it and he could smell the moisture that was still hanging around. He was glad he was wearing his sneakers, as they quickly got covered in mud. He walked hesitantly, almost nervously, toward the precious gem. For some reason, he felt afraid. Maybe it was residual electricity from the lightning or just the sheer force of the storm that he had just emerged from, but the field felt alive … powerful. The cool breeze swaying the grass gave it the feel that it was breathing.

He went through an opening in the fence and emerged by the first base dugout and stepped out onto the field. Suddenly, he felt as if he was back in high school on fields near where he grew up. He could see the ghosts of his memories playing out. He saw himself throwing ball after ball from the pitching mound toward his friend, who launched ball after ball into center and left field, and more often than not, over the fence. He saw his other friends, running around the field and leaping over the fence retrieving the balls, cracking jokes about his pitching. 

He sorely missed those days of playing baseball with his friends. Their only concerns then were finding foul balls in the woods without getting poison ivy and getting home in time for supper. They would get out to a field whenever they could. They had a series of fields that they would go to, looking for one that they could play on.

He remembers one morning when they had a day off in early spring, the group of them slept over at a friend’s house and got up early to try to get a game in before their parents dragged them off to whatever it was that was planned for the day. It was freezing cold as they watched, from the field, the grown-ups driving off to work. He could still hear his friends’ voices, hanging in the cool almost winter air. It was an unusually mild day at the end of an unusually mild week that saw the last of the snow melting. It was one of those days where you could almost smell the snow melting … a smell that is difficult to describe, but it hangs heavy in the air and burns the nose just a bit. However, at the end of a long, difficult winter, it is one of the sweetest smells imaginable. It did not matter as they played until their hands were too numb to grip a bat. It was memories like that which kept him warm all these years later. 

They would always talk baseball, as well. He thought back a few years ago, getting ready to play a pickup game on the Little League field, talking baseball with one of his friends who was a fan of Team Joke. He was proud of them and defended them with every ounce of energy he had. Team Joke had history, sure, but at that time, when they were standing on that field somewhere in the backwoods of the Garden State, they had nothing but a string of losses and embarrassments that added up to 15 years of losing. Yet his buddy talked of them like they were world-beaters. His own team, Michael’s boys, were on top of the world at the time, just a couple of years removed from a championship. So, the two of them defended their teams and argued stats and moves and strategies.

He remembered the game he was just listening to, and he couldn’t help but think of his friend, Phil, the defender of Team Joke. He managed to smile a little bit through his annoyance as he wondered where his old friend was right now, but he was sure he was absolutely giddy. Somehow, Team Joke had become Destiny’s Team.

He heard a breeze sweep across the drying corn stalks and then gently rustle the branches and leaves of the golden trees, and in that voice he heard his own destiny speaking to him.

Life is full of different roads you can take and decisions you can make. There are times when your heart speaks to something in confidence, but the mind is slow to answer. There are times when your mind steps up and asserts a decision that the heart reluctantly accepts. And, for most decisions and moments in life, your soul does not stir.

As he stood in that field, he knew it was talking to him and not in a “Field of Dreams” kind of way. The voice was coming from within him. This was one of those moments that a man feels only a few times in his life; a moment when mind, heart, and soul speak in a unified voice. This was one of those rare moments that you know, when you are in it, that nothing would ever be the same.

This was where he felt strong and confident and unshakable. He felt like he belonged to baseball, more than anything else in his life. Around a diamond, regardless of the time of year, this is where he belonged and he knew what he had to do.
The storm—the explosion of thoughts that had haunted him since before he graduated—was suddenly gone. And it wasn’t just churning in the background or hidden under the curtain of asphalt on gold. It was gone and Michael felt at peace.