Bottom of the First

Stepping out of the batter’s box, he can feel the cold creeping around him. He feels Winter not just clawing away at his face, but at his heart as well. Winter seemed to have grabbed a hold of this team in the spring and everyone was just looking to finally hand the keys over so that they can get to places where Winter never visits. He knew he felt the same way, but he hoped, with just one more moment … one more swing, to escape Winter forever but feared that no one escapes.

Wendell “Tucky Blue” Williams, or “Tuck” for short, had just watched his old team … his old fans and some old friends … taken under Winter’s icy cloak. He felt a bit heavy-hearted for them with a twinge of jealousy. They took 162 games to succumb, while he felt it took this team 16 games. It tugged at his soul that he was facing Winter again. He didn’t care about October glory anymore. There was just one thing that he cared about. There was just one thing left that he wanted—needed—to accomplish in this game. And it wasn’t so much for him or the fans and certainly not for the game. It was for someone else.

More than anything else in the world, he wanted to hit one last home run, round the bases, and disappear into the clubhouse forever. The pursuit of this home run had consumed him since early September when reaching it became possible. He simply wanted to hit it and be done with the season and this game. What seemed like a long time ago, it had stopped being fun but he didn’t know how to walk away from it.

There was a time when nothing made him happier than to stand in the grass of a baseball field. For some people, it was the sound of a ball hitting a bat or mitt; for some, it was the noise of the crowds; and for others, it was all about putting on that uniform. For Tuck, it was the grass. It was the way it moved and rippled in the breeze. The way it could change colors depending on that wind and the light. In the late afternoon sun, the grass looked like it could go on to the very edge of the earth.

One of his earliest childhood memories was going to a major league game with his parents and brother in the city. He remembered the endless dreary gray highways that went on for miles and miles that got more and more choked up the closer they got to the stadium. He remembers seeing the dirty, graffiti-covered buildings that rose up all along the edges of the awful concrete and the scary people that seemed to crawl on them. The stadium itself rose up out of a vast plain of stone, trash, and skid marks, surrounded by ribbons of congested roads that, at times, seemed to rise higher than the stadium itself.

Once inside the stadium, he remembers being awash in a din of people talking and the crackling voice of an inaudible PA announcer coming across an ancient sound system. Depending on where you were within the rumbling gut of the monster, you were hit with a mixture of smells, from cigarette smoke to the dumpsters containing yesterday’s rotting remains.

The memory is so strong for him, even now, because he never remembers being so scared in all his life. Tuck clutched his father’s hand so tight that it hurt and remembers being near tears. Until his father turned to enter into the seating bowl.

The first thing that hit him was the contrast of the sunlight that cut through the dinge of the tunnel up toward the seats. The next thing that hit him was the green. Oh, that green! The massiveness of that field stood out in stark contrast to the gray, monotone of the journey here. To his tiny eyes, it seemed like heaven … a green oasis in a bleak landscape.

More than anything else, it was that grass that made him fall in love with the game—for the game was a contrast to so many other things in life. Like the grass it is played in, it manages to grow up from the cracks in concrete villages as well as in fertile country fields. These green grass diamonds emerged out of the concrete cities like oases and broke up long tracks of country roads. They peppered the country and were unmistakable.

When he started playing T-ball, they played on an all-grass field with no well-defined diamond … just grass as far as you could see. When he moved up to Little League, he instantly wanted to play outfield. It was in the grass that he belonged.

He and his brother, Carl, were close in age and often found themselves in the same level on the same team. Long after the other kids left, he and his brother would continue to practice. They had an ever-growing bucket of balls, acquired through the years. (More often than not, they would find one or two other balls while retrieving their own foul balls and home runs.) And they would take turns throwing pitch after pitch to each other. Of course, they were always looking to strike each other out, and they each had their fair share of successes and dramatic failures.

They would then play catch, which would start with soft throws, but eventually, it would lead to them throwing the ball as hard as they could to each other. The ultimate goal was to see who could get the ball to pop loudest in the other’s glove and who could make the other rip off their glove in pain first.

Eventually, the empty bucket was set on its side at home plate and one would hit balls to the outfield for the other to shag. Sometimes they would be grounders, sometimes they would be balls that they would need to chase down, and sometimes, dive for. Regardless of the ball’s trajectory, each play would end with throwing the ball home, trying to get it in the bucket. And, of course, tracking who got the most in. Bonus points were given for landing a ball in the bucket on the fly.

When they finished, with the sun hanging low in the sky, they would sit in centerfield and talk. Sometimes, they would talk about their favorite players and their swings, their batting stances, or the way they tracked down a liner. They would go through the lineups of different teams and discuss where they would play them and whether or not they could throw them out at first on a “hit” if they were playing it just right.

Sometimes they would talk about their own games … what went wrong, what went right, how they could do better in their next game. They often used this time to plan practical jokes on their teammates … who deserved to have a salamander put in their water bottle and who needed ink on the inside of their gloves.

They talked about first crushes, first loves, first kisses, and first heartbreaks sitting in the grass. They discussed TV shows, games that didn’t involve a baseball, and movies, and frogs, and school, and family. They talked about their dreams and hopes and failures.

Sometimes, they would just stare at the grass. The sun would be so low in the sky that individual blades of grass would cast shadows several times longer than they would ever be allowed to grow. Often, he would just lay back and look off to the side, where, from such a low vantage point, the grass just went on to the very edge of his horizon, giving the appearance that it went on forever.

Regardless of what they talked about, it was just the two of them and the grass. The conversations changed and even the grass changed (they often noted that the better they got, the fewer dandelions there were), but the significance of each and every one of those moments never changed. He could piece together his entire childhood … from the moment of coming out of the tunnel at the stadium to the moment, he got drafted … in some outfield.

As a minor leaguer, he would go into the outfield before games and lie down in the grass and stare into the sky. It was his way to relax, clear his head, and calm his soul before a game. His teammates and coaches would get on him about it at first. It was how he got his nickname, laying out there in the Kentucky bluegrass like he was the grass itself. Of course “Kentucky Blue” was shortened to “Tucky Blue” which, of course, was shortened again to just “Tuck”. Regardless of the nickname, there was the perception that he was lazy. When he made the majors, again, the media hassled him about it. Once he started playing … and playing hard, his teammates and coaches stopped hassling him. However, the media never did, and they dogged him every chance they got.

During games, before the start of each inning, he would crouch down and run his hand across the top of the grass, almost like he was feeling for a heartbeat or a breath. In his mind, he was drawing energy from it … energy that would allow him to concentrate and focus in the field. There were times that he would think, with a smile to himself, that he wished there were a dandelion or two peppered in the grass. (Sometimes, he would take a dandelion ready to release its seeds from home and drop it in the field, but, of course, nothing ever grew.)

These were his routines, superstitions, eccentricities, or whatever you want to call them that he did day in and day out all through the years when he stockpiled hits and home runs at a pace that made him a sure thing for the Hall of Fame. And on that grass, no one was better than he in his prime … Tuck moved through that grass and would catch up to a ball like he was floating. He was a one-person highlight reel.

Several years back, his numbers suddenly began to trail off and he wasn’t as sure-footed in the outfield, and while pitchers held a margin of fear for him, it wasn’t the same dread he milked in his prime. He suddenly became a hired gun … someone a desperate team would pick up mid-season for a few extra home runs in an effort to make it to the playoffs.

Nobody noticed the sudden stop of his normal routines, at first. A good week or two passed before anyone asked him about it, which he found ironic because it seemed like a week could not pass without someone asking him why he did it. He never spoke of it and this just drove the media even harder against him.

However, with each spring, regardless of which team, Tuck just kept coming back. He didn’t know any other way. For a while, it was just what he did … what he was supposed to do. Spring came, he played baseball. Without fail, year after year.

Mid-season, he thought he would have to go through another season … another round of contract negotiations, another round of off-season workouts, another round of spring training, and reporters’ stupid questions. But, he started to heat up and started hitting home runs at a pace that he hadn’t since he was several years younger. And he got close … very close. One home run shy in early September and he got used to the idea of walking away forever and that each game would be his last game. It was all that he wanted at this point. He knew how to walk away now and he was ready.

Now, here he stood. He was the last batter in a battering season. It was his job to give Winter the keys. But he knew it wasn’t a job he wanted … He had grander plans for this moment. He was ready to go. Wanting to hit this home run turned into needing to hit it. At this point in time, if he didn’t hit it, he didn’t know what he would do. He reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt, rubbed it between his fingers, gripped his bat hard, and stepped back into the batter’s box.

He hit the ball a long way. In fact, he hit it as far as someone can hit it in this ballpark … without it going out. He played this game long enough that he knew when a ball was going to clear the fence and when it wasn’t. So, he ran.

By the time he charged around first, his mind was flooded with memories and the field had become filled with ghostly images of every person and every player that had touched him during his long career. Every memory played out in front of him as if his baseball life were flashing and he became awash in adrenaline and emotion.

At first, he saw himself as a rookie, with a smile from ear to ear after he had just collected his first hit, a home run, acknowledging the congratulations of his teammates and coaches. This quickly gave way to another memory of a version of himself not quite as old as the current version, and he was doing his absolute best to ignore the cheers of an entire stadium with “3,000” flashing on the board behind him. It felt like every hit in between was flashing through him with every beat of his heart.

He ran as hard as he could, and halfway to second, through the haze of his trip down memory lane, he saw the centerfielder on the ground on the warning track … and the ball rolling away from him. He hadn’t hit it out of the ballpark, but that didn’t mean the moment wouldn’t be his last. If this was how he was going to get the home run, so be it. And, he ran as hard as he ever had.

At second base, he was awash again in memories and ran through the countless, nameless players he had managed to throw out when they dared to test his arm. It was a well-known fact around the league that you don’t try to extend a single into a double on a ball to him, but, of course, the rookies always did.

On his way to third, he got the feeling that he wasn’t running home as much as he was running away from the game, the place he had called home for so many years. His legs burned with exhaustion, but he had to get away from the game, even if his legs fell off in the process. He had to get home … he just had to get HOME … he had to get away. So he ran and all the memories faded until only a single apparition stood before him … his brother, somehow, someway, as a child, a teenager, and a grown man, all at the same time, standing in as the third base coach, waving him home frantically. He let out a little smile, made his turn, and put his head down.

As he headed to home plate, he envisioned the countless times he had done this before. Ahead of him, he saw himself as a child, zigging and zagging down the line with a smile on his face. He saw himself in high school, with legs of a cheetah, and the endurance of a train steaming toward the plate. He saw himself as a minor leaguer, in full sprint, but cautious steps, trying to remember if he had touched third.

Then, he saw this moment, and the ball bounced once in front of the plate and he lunged for home in a full head-first dive.

And he saw one more past version of himself … the morning after the fire, on the kitchen floor, a phone laying next to him as he was enveloped in grief.

He didn’t make it.

He rolled onto his back and stared up into the sky and the sun, and he unleashed a raw, guttural yell that seemed to make the entire stadium shake. The visiting team, for a moment, stopped their celebration. His teammates froze in the dugout as the trainer came to the top step.

Winter itself seemed to freeze in his tracks.

Soon, all he could see was dirt. The dirt on his uniform, the dirt around him, the dirt that hung in the air like smoke. Through the haze of the dirt, he couldn’t see the field.

There was no grass.