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Novel

Top of the Ninth

Winter waited, impatiently. Held too long outside the walls and the gates of what was his for far too long. He knew that the fans, the media, and the players could feel his presence. They knew he waited outside waiting to come in. He wasn’t going to be held back anymore. There was but one day left in the season and every other team that was for now his had long folded and now he waited for one more before the fun really began.

He was going to take someone tonight, his long claws feeling around the edges of the ballpark. Summer will continue to hold on to hers, but he will take someone in. He had been pulling at the home team for half a season now, but with each game they slipped more and more from his grasp. He had them in mid-summer. They were already his. Now, they seemed as if they were about to completely slip away to an eternal Summer, but it wouldn’t matter … he would take someone that night.

 A baseball pennant race is different from other sports. The teams play nearly every day with that fates that change and turn with each hit, out, and inning. Each game is a new stanza added to the epic poem that is a season. They aren’t always perfect and they don’t always have rhythm, but they are part of a bigger story that decides the heroes’ journey. With each game, heroes rise and fall. Hopes die and are re-birthed. Winter’s team one day, Summer’s team the next.

During a pennant race, every pitch seems to have the weight of an entire season on it, bringing with it all that intensity, as well. Your heart races quickly. Your palms are sweaty. Your eyes dart around the screen looking for any update while still making sure not to miss the pitch. As the pitcher goes into his windup, you hold your breath and don’t breathe again until the ball is firmly in someone’s glove. Of course, a fast heart rate and an uneven breathing pattern send the whole body into turmoil. And you repeat it for every pitch through every out of every game. No lead ever seems safe and no deficit seems insurmountable. Every moment is uncomfortable and each time the announcers go to give an out-of-town score update, you black out for a quick moment. And you love every inch of a pennant race.

Pennant races are special. Whether it is your first pennant race or your 50th, there is something just so special and all-consuming about them. To the avid fan, they take over your life, make you lose focus, and affect everything you do. To the casual fan, they do the same. To the new fan, they punch you in the gut, they lift you on their shoulders, drop you on your face, and leave you asking for more. Pennant races begin in the waning heat of the summer and end in the early licks of the long cold winter.

And fans live for them.

Pennant races are pendulums. They constantly swing back and forth until all is settled in the middle. One day your team wins and you seem unstoppable as the other team loses its footing and tumbles off the mountain. The next day, you are the one tumbling backward in what seems like a free fall as your rival prepares to hoist its flag on top of the peak. And some days you are just locked together, neither of you moving anywhere.

Even in a single night, the pendulum swings. One moment you are winning and they are losing badly and you count that game in the standings. Next thing you know, you are down and they are up and you can’t breathe.

It permeates your sleep and your dreams and your nightmares. You wake up and your first thought is baseball. It is disorientating and jarring. All night, dreams of a pennant and a championship consumed your sleep so that when you awake, you don’t know exactly what is real yet and what is still a dream. As you begin to separate out the two, a glimpse of grief kicks in, filling the void that the loss of a championship has left behind. The pendulum swings back to the middle as you realize that a winner has not emerged, that your team is still in it, and that there is still baseball to be played.

Life in a pennant race is a strange place to be. Your life and everything about it still exists and you still need to function in it. You still need to brush your teeth and you still need to eat and you still need to go to school or work or wherever your life has you occupying. Yet the pennant race infiltrates everything. It’s like living in an aquarium full of water and then someone dumps orange dye in the water … everything is still the same with the exception of your perception.

As you walk through your day, you alternate between excitement as your mind walks through the “only’s.” They “only” need to win 10 of the next 15. The other guys “only” need to lose five more. They “only” need to get their offense going. These thoughts, these optimistic glimpses into the future bring with them joy and happiness, and elation. The “only’s” make everything seem so very real and the excitement begins to wash over you.

Then, just as you float somewhere with your playoff toes not touching the ground, the “only’s” reverse. They “only” need to lose 6 of the next 15 to be knocked out. The other team “only” needs to win 10 more to win. They “only” need one injury to their outfielder to lose momentum. And the very thought of it kicks you in the stomach, you break into a cold sweat, and you feel ill as you try to not let on to your teacher who is asking you to go to the board to show your work or your boss asking for an update on the project you are working on that you are completely in a panic. School isn’t important in times like these. Work is not important in times like these. Nothing is really important at all. Not even eating because it is not like your stomach can even keep the food down.

Those that are not fans are the lucky ones. They don’t need to feel the turmoil. They don’t get to feel the pendulum of emotions that keep you off balance all day. They don’t have to spend their days both dreading and highly anticipating what drama the night will bring. It’s a painful, brutal existence that no true fans would ever trade in because the alternatives are a bleak cold September just waiting to turn you over to Winter. The alternative is ordinary and sad and without excitement. The alternative is losing and playing for nothing. The fans gladly take on the turmoil of a pennant race because the alternative is all too bleak and ordinary. Pennant races are rare and unusual and a good one will leave you talking about them for years to come. A good one will keep you warm through the winter and many winters to come. A bad one will hurt and drive you mad and make it feel like winter all the time in your soul, but it is better than feeling ordinary. Ordinary doesn’t bring on dreams or redemption and retribution. Ordinary doesn’t distract you from the real work. Ordinary is ordinary.

Sure, one alternative is to be way out front and coast through September just waiting to clinch. But no one ever wrote a book about those games. No one was ever inspired by a 10-game lead with 20 games to go. No one ever said, “Remember that game back in that year when that team had a 10-game lead?”

No, pennant races, with all the pain and turmoil, are what all true fans want and, perhaps, live for.

For Abigail’s son, Brian, he was a new fan, thrown into the middle of this madness and struggling to figure out how he was supposed to go about his life in the thick of it. For him, the race brought a special kind of turmoil because he was learning about his team and the game as his team had its foot full on the throttle. It was like trying to check out what makes a car run while it is speeding down the highway to some unknown destination. He was just trying to hold on for dear life.

Even with watching every pitch of every game he could, he was up extra early every morning so that he could deliver the papers on his route and get home in time to read the paper himself. There were some mornings, after an especially exciting game, that he would try reading the paper as he rode his bike and threw other papers. Most times, he avoided any serious injuries.

Even when the team was going well, he looked to the voices from the newspaper to reassure him that everything would be okay. Even after a game when the team looked potent and in full control, he could not trust his instincts, and like true fans, he rarely trusted the instincts of the writers that wrote how this was the game that sealed the pennant.

When the team seemed to be going bad, Brian looked to the papers for reassurance, to tell him that it was going to be okay. He looked to find out what the team needed to do in their next game to seal up the season. He needed someone to tell him that the mistakes of the night before were not indicative of his team and that they surely would get redemption in the next game. While the optimist in him struggled mightily against the pessimist, he didn’t trust the writers that said all was good and he only believed the writers of Revelation.

Some days he would listen to the sports talk guys … those were the days that he became suicidal and needed to be rocked to sleep.

And his mom, the veteran of so many of these on both sides, watched with joy. She smiled as he excitedly talked about their chances and what they needed to do to finish off their rivals. She smiled even more as he paced the floor, nearly in tears, as he talked about how they weren’t going to make it … how they were going to run out of time. She felt guilty for smiling, but it was a baseball right of passage. All fans needed to go through it and most true fans experience it time and time again. It was his turn.

More importantly, it was really the first time since her dad passed away that she had someone to go through this with. She wasn’t alone anymore. She had someone there with her who was beginning to understand the game and the emotions and she loved every inch of it. It no longer matters whether the team wins or loses. Those moments, talking baseball with her boy, were the only things that mattered.

The casual fans, the veteran fans, and even the new fans could see the writing on the wall. This was not a race that was going to be decided before the final weekend. On one side, there was the team that had held a sizable lead most of the summer but had started to stumble in the last six weeks. Even as the team that had lost 22 began to fire on all cylinders, they still were in cruise control with no reason to look in the rearview mirror. But Winter became desperate and was looking for a new team to take and he didn’t care anymore. As the cold crept in, the engine started sputtering and the team was pulling out all the stops to do everything they could just to make it to the finish line still out in front.

During this, the upstart team did nothing but win. As improbable as their losing streak was, so was the way they were winning. Down 10 runs in the third, they won. They needed three runs to tie it in the ninth and they got a grand slam. The rookie called up hits for the cycle. The shortstop that was batting .205 all season was batting nearly .500 through the last month. The young pitcher, the slayer of streaks, was nearly unhittable every time out. And the veteran outfielder leads his team with both his bat and his spirit.

So, to fans all around, it became obvious that the leaders were just going to have enough of a lead to hold on to a one game lead going into the last game. When the team that led all season lost on the final Sunday of the season to the Old Ballplayer’s team, they had finally been caught and the 162-game race turned into a one-game decider for the pennant. When that final out was recorded in that game, the whole city went crazy. Abigail, Brian, and all the firemen stood up on their seats and screamed. They still had life forcing an extra day of the season.

Abigail, Brian, and sometimes Laura had gone into a routine over the course of those final weeks of the season. They would walk to the stadium, swinging by the firehouse to see who else was going, and they would get their firefighter escort the rest of the way.

On the final night of the season, the superstitious idiot in her told her tonight was not the night to change the routine. The baseball gods would not like her to deviate from her norm. But she had an older ritual that was much more important to her.

She made sure her kids were ready earlier and she led them down to the stadium. However, instead of taking the main road the last quarter mile to the fire station, she took them down a small side road lined with old brick houses and businesses. It was one of those roads that were so picture-perfect that it made you wonder how you had not traveled there. But she had been there many, many times before.

She took them to an orange door of what looked like a dive bar and she led them in. They hesitated until the bartender joyously shouted out her name. The bar had a few people in it all dressed in the team’s colors. Every square inch was covered in team memorabilia. It was a living, breathing shrine to the team with posters and artwork dating back to the team’s first days in the city. She led them to three empty seats at the bar and she had to encourage them to sit.

The bar top itself was covered in glass with what looked like a thousand ticket stubs underneath. They were intermingled with pictures of fans in the bar. The faces and outfits dated themselves from nearly every era with men in suits and ties celebrating to fans in T-shirts and ballcaps crying. She took her seat and stared down at the photo that was at her spot. It was a picture of a man sitting at that very seat with a young girl next to him. She traced his face with her finger and her son, sitting next to her, asked who it was. She told him it was his grandfather and how they would come there before games. He would get a bourbon, neat, and he would always order her a Shirley Temple, making sure to yell “make it a double” every time. They would drink their drinks and talk about that night’s starting pitchers before heading out to the stadium. After he had passed, she continued to go there. After she was able to legally drink, she began drinking wine, but some nights, she still ordered a Shirley Temple. When the team was going bad, sometimes she would order a bourbon and try to drink it, but it really wasn’t her drink.

When Brian and Laura became fans, they had their own ritual and she somehow didn’t feel ready to share this one with him. She needed to know that she wasn’t going to be there with her own kids this year and then be alone again the next season. By now, it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen and it became obvious that it was time to introduce them to it.

She looked at them with a tear in her eye and now traced his face with her hand. When the bartender came up, she ordered her usual wine and asked for Shirley Temples for the kids. She nodded and laughed when the old bartender asked if he should make it a double.

After finishing their drinks, they stood up and made their way out the door and back toward the stadium. Her son moved closer to her and hugged her awkwardly as they walked. She put her arm around him as they made their turn up toward the firehouse.