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Novel

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.