Top of the Third

The Aging Hero sat on his stool and stared down at the black trunk. To anyone else, there was nothing special about that trunk. It was just your average-sized trunk. No wheels. No telescoping handle. No side pockets. Just your run-of-the-mill black trunk with brass hardware riveted to the corners to protect them and a wood handle. The original leather handle had broken when he was a rookie and he fixed it with a piece of wood from the bat with which he had hit his first home run. Tuck ran his hands over the World Series patch that he had riveted in place to cover a hole in the trunk. Some of the colors from the patch were bleeding out from the champagne that the trunk was splashed within the clubhouse.

He opened the trunk and stared inside. On the inside cover, there was a sticker for every team he had ever played for and some he even played against, from high school, through the minors, the majors, and even a Little League sticker from his hometown that they sent him a few years back. They were all there and there was no more room for any other stickers. He looked around to see if anyone was watching and then rubbed his hand along the inside of the trunk and pulled off the false wall his brother had built into it. Inside the false wall was a small piece of cardboard with a picture of him as a senior in high school glued to it. On the back were crudely written statistics. The lifetime totals were .315 average, 1,721 RBI, and 343 HR. He smiled when he saw the career win/loss record and lifetime era. His brother joked that he would be the next Babe Ruth when he gave him the card but had said he would focus more on pitching throughout his career so he wouldn’t hit the number of home runs that the Babe hit. Of course, he never did pitch a single professional game. He let his thumb rub at the home run total a little bit.

His older brother had given him the trunk when he got drafted just out of high school. He had already put his high school sticker in it and had tucked the card inside the compartment as a reminder always to have a set of goals and do everything within your power to reach them. He felt he barely had the strength anymore, both literally and figuratively, but they would have to drag him off the field before he would give in. Even if you don’t reach those goals, you’ll never be lost as long as you try.

In the opposite corner of the trunk was a stack of real baseball cards held together with a rubber band. He grabbed an envelope from his locker and pulled out another card. His friend who worked at the company had sent him a preview of this year’s card. He flipped it over and stared for a moment at the lifetime totals listed on the back. He let his thumb rub the number 342 next to home runs and sighed before putting the card with the rest back in the trunk.

He slowly took his stuff from his locker and put them in the trunk. Tuck was tired and aching and felt like he could sleep forever. The uncertainty of his immediate future was wearing him down more than the 20-something kids with 96 mph fastballs. The team was headed north after another tedious spring. Despite the fanfare around him rejoining the team, he had struggled all spring and now he was actually battling for the final roster spot. He had a disastrous spring of epic proportions and he knew that if he made the team, it would be only on the loyalty of friends he still had in the front office. He was battling some kid that played in the minors last year for that final spot. He was out of options, both in a technical baseball sense and a career sense. He would not accept an assignment to the minors and would have to ask for his release. There were two games left to decide whether he would continue to play or retire. Twenty-two years and all he wanted was one more month … one more week … maybe even just one more at-bat. All he wanted was that one last home run.

For years he had been haunted by the flames and now, since last fall, he was being haunted by the dirt and dust cloud at home plate. He replays it over and over in his head. He wonders what would have happened if he went to the right or reached for the plate with his left hand. What if he hadn’t slowed briefly at second base … surely he would have made it. What if he had started his swing a micro-instant earlier … he could have just trotted around the bases and he could be sitting at home and putting all of this past him. These were the thoughts that played in his head on an endless loop. These were the thoughts that always seemed to be interrupted by the yell of an umpire calling strike three. These were the thoughts that kept him from moving forward.

He pondered the thought that he may never be able to move forward … that as he got older, the weight of his grief would weigh him down and eventually crush everything he was and everything he could have ever been. It seemed that with each passing year, each passing day, it got exponentially heavier. They said that time heals all wounds, but when you are pinned beneath its sands, time only suffocates you. He felt that he’d never escape the weight and that moving on simply wasn’t an option.

For the first time, he wondered what would happen if he couldn’t get that last home run. What if he failed himself, Carl, and his very legacy. He knew that everyone saw him as that guy that refused to understand when to quit, and since he wore his pain and grief like his baseball cap, no one would ever tell him when to leave. And, of course, no one ever knew why he didn’t.

Before closing the lid, he grabbed a handkerchief and polished a fireman’s shield on the inside wall of the trunk, opposite the false wall. He had secured it in place to cover the hole he had put in the trunk with his baseball bat after his brother had died. Carl was the hero … He was just the guy who hit small white balls rubbed with Jersey mud with a stick. His brother was the one that ran into that burning home. He was just the guy that ran home. His brother was the guy that saved the lives of those two little kids. He was just a guy who had a talent that saved him from working for a living. The irony is that the skill that made him a “hero” kept him from taking a job that would have made him a true hero.

It was a game that their mother had taught them and played with them pretty much since they could swing a bat. She started with sitting on the couch in the living room, throwing them a baseball made from cloth and stuffed with beans from a few feet away. It seemed like just a moment later that she was throwing tennis balls from a chair down the hallway of their house as they stood at the other end. When it was nice outside, they would hit from a tee in the backyard. Home plate was a rock in the back corner of the yard and it wasn’t long before they were hitting Wiffle balls over their mom’s head and onto the roof. He never got a sense from his mother that she was doing all that to make them better players. He just felt that she loved the game so much that it was just something she wanted to share with them.

Their father, when he wasn’t working, would pitch to them, explain the mechanics of a swing, and would always yell at them to use two hands when fielding a fly ball. His father had fantastic accuracy on his pitches … he would hit the strike zone over and over again and could put the ball right where they wanted it. But he couldn’t throw a curveball to save his life. He had this one pitch in which he would hold the ball with a grip somewhere between a knuckleball and a slider that he would try to throw past them every so often, which he usually did. Eventually, he and his brother would hit it every time, mainly because they could see their poor father grimace and groan just before releasing it. As they got older, they would purposely miss it just to give their poor dad a sense of personal satisfaction. Their father was a good man. A proud man.

On weekends, the four of them would walk down to the softball field a few blocks away. Their mom would pack a picnic basket and play baseball for hours. Often there would be other kids or families there and they would all play together, but it was often just the four of them and the grass. Sometimes they would just lie down in the grass, talk about school, baseball, or the clouds that looked like fire trucks. Many times they just sat silently and watched the sunset.

His parents lived long enough to see him make the majors. They were in the stands with his brother when he got his first major league hit, a home run. He could see them in the left-field stands as he approached second base … the three of them were crying and jumping up and down. He had never seen them happier.

Years before, he had bought out a block of season tickets at about the same location in the left-field stands of the new stadium and gave them to his brother and fire company. He offered to get them a suite that they could use for events and anything else they had going on, but they preferred to be down with who they called the “Die-Hards.” They liked being in the middle of the throngs and feeling the heartbeat of the team’s pulse through the crowds. They didn’t belong in a suite, they said. So, a stack of season tickets sat in the firehouse and whoever could make the game on any particular day would just grab what they needed and go (after his brother got his, of course).

Tuck would continue to buy the block of tickets through the years, even after the fire. They would remain largely empty through those years, even during sellouts. They became something of a legend in baseball … a silent, unmarked, almost living memorial to a hero.

The night of the fire, the Player in his prime played a career game, a legendary game, as he extended a hitting streak to 33 games. He first sensed something was wrong, however, after hitting a home run in the seventh inning for his fifth hit of the night and noticed that the block of seats was completely empty. Carl and a few of the guys were in those seats at the start of the game and Tuck had a pit in his stomach as he touched home plate. He knew that something was wrong.

It would be a little while later when his manager would abrubtly clear the media out of the clubhouse as his agent arrived holding a pair of ticket stubs. Rufus solemnly approached Tuck and asked him to join him in the manager’s office. Tuck noticed that the tickets were blackened around the edges and realized what happened before Rufus could tell him about the fire and explained that the brother-hero had always put a pair of ticket stubs in his helmet before racing to a fire.

Tuck doesn’t remember much after that until he found himself at home. He realized that for the first time in his life, he was alone. Carl was his last connection to his parents and now he was gone. He could feel the world completely collapse around him and he knew right away that he’d never be able to move on. His own life seemed to go into the flames with his brother’s.

The devastated player would come back to his job two weeks later, a broken man that seemed to age overnight. He would struggle for the rest of the season and most of the next before asking to be traded. Tuck couldn’t play in that city anymore. His brother’s brothers at the firehouse couldn’t bear to be in the seats anymore than the Player could bear the memory of his brother in their eyes and so they stood empty the rest of that season. The team left the block of seats empty the following season, as well. The aged Player just could not look at the empty block anymore. He needed out.

Tuck noticed the burnt ticket stub in his trunk, tucked in behind the shield. He had originally taken both stubs and thrown them in a trash can at the funeral. His agent somehow had gotten one back and used it to talk him into coming back to the team. Apparently, some woman had seen him throw them away and took them out of the garbage can. She had given one of them to his agent, somehow knowing that one day he’d want it back. The woman, Abigail, was the mother of the two kids that his brother had saved that night.

The sound of a suddenly empty clubhouse snapped him out of his daze and he looked around, confused for a moment. He sighed deeply, a mix of emotions raging inside of him. He felt almost crippled at the thought of returning to that city … that park. It is one thing to be there in the dead of Winter’s brutal grasp. It was something entirely different to be there in the full glory of the Springtime sun … a time that was primed for ghosts and visions of a lost life. However, Tuck was determined to finish what he started … to do what he needed to do. He was determined to honor his brother the only way he knew how.

He carefully made sure to clean the number on the fireman’s shield—343. One more at-bat, thought the aging ballplayer … then the rookie could get his shot. And he could retire and maybe, one day, he would get The Call … the call that would bring him, the number 343, and his brother to Cooperstown.


Bottom of the Second

Standing there at home plate, he hears everything in the stadium … every voice, every noise, every tiny movement of the stadium itself. He hears the fathers telling their sons to be ready for foul balls and to get their mitts ready. He hears the control room assistant telling the cameraman to zoom in on the pretty girl in the high right-field stands. He hears the change falling into the pockets of the hot dog and beer vendors. Most of all, however, he can hear the grass. He can hear it talking to him, telling him how important THIS was. He can hear it telling him that he made the right choices in life, that it was his job. Tuck can hear it swaying in the wind chanting his name, almost mocking him.

He tries to ignore it. Tries to focus on the at-bat. He tries to focus on hitting the ball over the wall and then the pitch comes in. It comes in fast and he starts his swing just as the ball bursts into flames. He can’t stop his swing and fire explodes off his bat. The grass coming off the home plate circle ignites, and like a massive black powder trail, the fire spreads out across the infield, consuming the grass. In a flash, the outfield grass is aflame and he is surrounded by the tongues of fire. He can still hear every noise in the stadium, but now they are all focused on him. The fathers and sons chant his name. The vendors shake their change-laden pockets to make as much noise as they can. The assistant shouts at the cameraman to turn toward the field. Yet, they don’t seem to notice the field engulfed in flames. No one seems to notice the flames surrounding him.

As he looks around the stadium, all the people start to disappear. One by one, they simply fade away beyond the flames until, finally, there is just one man sitting in the left-field stands … his brother, who stares intently at him.

The aging ballplayer opens his eyes and sighs deeply, as he can still see the flames. He spends the rest of the night, staring at the ceiling, wondering what he is doing back in this city.

He got up and went to the window. He sees the flames everywhere he goes, but, especially, in this city … he couldn’t believe he was back here. He studied everything out his window, intently. How had he been talked back here? Why was he here? Was this where he was supposed to be? Of course, the mixture of decrepit buildings with modern skyscrapers gave him no answers. He once knew this city … this town … like the back of his hand. Tuck could walk blindfolded, from end to end. It wasn’t a perfect town … far from it, but it had been his town at one point. A focal place of pride for him. It was a town adopted by him and his brother. Although they discovered the town from two different perspectives, they both had loved it for the same reasons. Reasons that now escaped him. He loved this town, almost desperately, right up to the moment that he had to run from it to save what was left of his soul.

Why was he here?

Why was he headed to the press conference?

Why wasn’t this all behind him now?

Why didn’t he score?

He can’t let it go. He could have stepped on the inside of second base. Had he watched the ball coming out of the box too long? He could have done a better slide. It has ached at him for the couple of months since it happened and he was haunted by it. That helplessness of lying in the dirt was now living in the center of his brain and there was no shaking it. It continued to eat away at his soul.

He had spent most of the last few days arguing with his agent about this decision. Tuck insisted that he couldn’t go back … that he wouldn’t go back. He felt his journey in this town was done, and with the exception of a few series, he wanted nothing to do with being back. It wasn’t just the memories he thought about. It was his legacy. He knew he left under bad terms, but he felt the average fan … the good fans … had given him a pass on the things that happened. Coming back, when he knew his career was all but over, except for one hit, he didn’t want to hurt his fans and his legacy anymore. There were no more passes to be had. Dealing with your own ghosts was one thing, but dealing with a new set of expectations that surely couldn’t be met … well, that was something else.

Just when he thought he was through with his agent on the subject, two nights ago an envelope was delivered to his home. There was no return address, no indication of who it was from. He had no idea where it came from.

He opened it up to find the ticket. Anxiety and fear and that hopeless feeling gripped him in a sudden wash of emotions. He carefully traced the edges with his index finger, feeling for the imperfections … the notches. He recognized the smears of ink on it and the damage. It was unchanged since the moment it was first handed to him so many summers ago.

He remembered it like it was yesterday. It was a perfect day late in that summer … those days when the sun was searing during the day, but a windbreaker or sweatshirt was needed at night. And the nights were starting to come noticeably earlier each day. That particular evening was perfect for baseball and reminded him of his days playing baseball with his brother. There were days when they would play from dawn until dinner and nights like these seemed to be crowns on the top of perfect days. The crickets and cicadas would chirp and buzz, almost as if they were summoning the night. This was one of those nights when all was simply perfect with the world. However, that night would turn from perfect to nightmare and all he could think of was the horror of it as he looked at the ticket.

If that day seemed like yesterday, that night seemed like a lifetime ago … it was a foggy memory that seemed more of a dream than reality and could easily be passed off as one if it did not carry so much pain with it. However, a curious thing happened the longer he stared at the ticket … and he stared at it for a long, long time. The more he stared at it, the more the anxiety and fear started to recede. A sense of pride and purpose overtook him. It was almost as if he could feel his brother’s heartbeat in the ticket and it brought him comfort and peace. He could almost feel it transforming him on the inside. The ticket was a symbol of a moment before his world came crashing down. It was a marker of the last good moments he could remember and the longer he stared at it, the less it hurt.

It wasn’t so much a ticket to a game anymore, but a ticket back to a place where those perfect summer days were a metaphor for the life he had…A life he could have back if he learned to let things go.

After staring at it for half a night, he went to put it down when he noticed something written on the back: “It’s time to go home.”

The Agent, Rufus, looked at his friend, the aging Player and he was not the man he knew. This was not his friend. This was an anguished, angry, tired shell of the man that he once knew. This man pouted and stared icily through the limo windows as he sat next to him. Of course, he was his friend, but not the person he knew so many years ago. What was once a close friendship had deteriorated slowly into an almost strictly business relationship since the funeral, but he still looked out for him as a friend rather than a client.

Less than two weeks had passed since he came across the ticket stub in his scrapbook. Tuck was his first client when neither of them was known to anybody. His father had kept a scrapbook for his team in the past and he thought it appropriate to keep a scrapbook of his client to mark his milestones. Of course, he had initially intended it to be a portfolio to show potential clients, but soon only his client … his friend … was tracked in this book. He had realistic expectations that once he became a star, he would leave him for a bigger agent, but his friend stayed loyal to him, even as he became the biggest star in the game. Most of his other clients left the moment they no longer had to carry their own bags and didn’t need someone to pick up their “girls” from the local bar.

Rufus had taken the walk into the past, those careful steps with his fingers through the scrapbook looking for his friend. He knew what had happened to him, but he was lost for an explanation of why, all these years later, he had yet to recover from the devastation. That kind of loss would hurt anyone. You experience that pain and you survive it, you put distance into the void to survive. But he … he just seemed to get worse as more time passed. He alienated more and more of those around him. While a still better-than-average ballplayer, he played with anger and anguish rather than joy and excitement. He had nothing left to prove to this game and his fans, yet he went out there every day with a chip on his shoulder. He never smiled and rarely showed any emotion except frustration when things didn’t go his way. He wondered why his friend played at all anymore. He clearly hated the game and everything around it.

He skipped past the high school clippings (he had done his homework) and the minor league feature stories. He ignored the early part of Tuck’s career and went to the first newspaper article dealing with that night when everything changed. There was a lot written in the local paper, especially with the connection to a star ballplayer. The article covered nearly a quarter of the pages of the book.

He came to the article that covered the funeral. He carefully read through the details and looked through the pictures. His friend’s eyes looked hollow … empty, devoid of the light that once shone brightly from them. He remembers that it was the first time he had seen that look on his friend, but it was the only look he has seen since.

It was a well-written piece by one of the sportswriters. It wasn’t a typical piece that a sportswriter would do, but, as he understood the story, the writer had been moved by the service, wrote it, and submitted it to his editor who published it. It was almost poetry as it spun together the writer’s own words with the words of others and it was the words from a Bible passage/hymn that struck him the strongest:

   “Be not afraid. I go before you always.
   Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.
   If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown.
   If you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed.
   If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side,
   Know that I am with you through it all.
   Be not afraid. I go before you always.
   Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.”

He rubbed his fingers across these particular words, almost as if he were trying to make them more concrete. As he did so, he felt something beneath the paper … something stuck between the newsprint and scrapbook page. He carefully lifted the corner of the newspaper and saw the ticket stub. His heart skipped a beat as he realized it wasn’t just any ordinary ticket stub. It was a ticket stub from THAT night. Technically, it wasn’t a stub at all, but an unused ticket. The print was smeared on one edge from water and another edge was burnt.

Rufus thought about a stadium full of suits. Since the new stadium was built, the suits came out of the exposed steelwork. It was the hip, trendy thing. It was what suits did and they overran the new stadium, and the owners welcomed them and their open wallets. The suits had big wallets too, but the fans … the die-hard fans, they did not. A ballgame wasn’t just something they did for fun after work … that was a thing of the past. Now it was an event, something they worked hard for and maybe even saved for. It was a treasured moment.

Of course, he laughed at the irony of his thoughts, for he knew he was a suit. And he knew this ticket was a gift from a guy in a sillier suit than most to a treasured brother. On THAT night, however, part of the game was being played out by one brother while another fought a fire just a few blocks away. By the time one brother closed out the night with three home runs and five hits, the second brother was emerging from a fire with a child in his arms. As the younger brother was celebrating a career night with his teammates, the second brother’s body was being carried from the building by his fellow firefighters. By the end of the night, the younger brother was sobbing and clutching a pair of ticket stubs, cursing the world.

As he understood the story, the player’s brother, Carl, had rescued a boy from a house fire and went back in, trying to rescue a girl, when he got trapped by the flames. Knowing his fellow firefighters were about to break through a wall that would free him, Carl gave the child his mask and covered her with his jacket, and tried to stay as low as possible. The girl emerged from the flames alive and relatively unharmed. Tuck’s brother passed away on the floor of the inferno, a hero to two children.

It seemed as if the entire city had turned out for the funeral, along with the entire team. Other players, former teammates, were given the time away from their teams to support their friend. Many members of the opposing team were there as well. The scene of professional athletes walking and talking solemnly with heartbroken firefighters was a scene that he will never forget and a scene that he wishes he had never had to witness. The outpouring of love for the brothers in that small city touched everyone, even Tuck. Ultimately, it was this that would drive him away.

Rufus pulled himself back to the present and spent the rest of that night staring at the ticket and rereading the article over and over. He hadn’t seen the ticket in seven years … he barely remembers sticking it in the scrapbook. By dawn, he knew what he had to do. He knew it was going to be a difficult battle, one that may even cost him what was left of their friendship, but he knew what must be done.

He still felt resolve now, as he stared at his friend who continued to look out the window, like a captain who searches the horizon for safe harbor in a storm.