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.

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.