Categories
Novel

Top of the Seventh

When Michael arrived at his desk early, the phone was already ringing. The stack of newspapers seemed too thick. The gloom of another loss was all over the place. Many co-workers were already in, again, wandering around, breathing in the pall of loss number 22. It felt like a wake. He half expected to hear Taps playing from the stadium speakers.

On his drive-in, the whole town seemed angry and mopey. He came from a town that had its loyalties split between teams and he was amazed by how this town seemingly took on the mood of its lone baseball team. It truly felt like the team was the heart and soul of the town. It was the lone major sports team in the city with its beloved football team having been stolen off years before. When the team was doing well, the whole town just seemed more vibrant, more alive. On this morning, the whole town was just angry.

And angry might not even be the right word. Anger seems to imply people walking around with scowls, being rude to each other, and maybe even muttering a bit to themselves. But no, the mood of this morning was one more of a quiet anger … People just quietly walking down the street, lost in their own thoughts, not paying much mind to others. That there was the difference. In a city that was known for being friendly, there was barely a word exchanged between people.

Customers just grunted at the newsstands and only received change and a nod in return. People on the street ran into each other and simply kept on walking without an “excuse me.” Even cars that narrowly missed each other on the street didn’t bother to honk. The whole city seemed to be in an uneasy haze. Almost as if they had accepted that their team would never, ever win another game. Or maybe they were just collectively holding their breath waiting for the next game and the next shot at redemption.

He flopped into his chair and just let his arms hang down, out to the side for a moment as he looked at the ceiling. He said a small prayer to himself and asked for strength. He felt heavy in his chest. Maybe heavy wasn’t even the right word. He was tense and felt strung tight like a violin in his chest and it weighed him down.

He stared at the ceiling and continued to ask for strength. The strings weren’t going to get any looser, the calls weren’t going to slow down, and there seemed to be no hope that this team was going to win. And the prayers weren’t even for a win. It was for the strength to get through what was before him in the current day. He didn’t ask for an escape or a way out. He didn’t ask for the burden to be removed. He just asked for strength to get through it. Anymore, it wasn’t just about the team—although a win certainly takes care of a whole lot—it was about how he would handle this moment in time and how he could simply get through this day.

He thought about the day before and a twinge of regret hit him. The strings pulled tighter in his chest. Caught up in a moment in which he felt bigger than he really was, he had taken a prized possession and given it to someone who knew nothing of him. Even though he felt like he was there for a reason, that there was a purpose for him at that moment, he could not help but wonder if that baseball was sitting in a trash can in the clubhouse. He shuddered at the thought.

He righted himself in the chair and reached down to answer the phone. As he picked up the phone, he instantly became distracted by a large, heavy envelope on his desk with his name on it. As he listened to another fan scream in his ear, he opened the envelope and pulled out the contents. As any baseball fan would, he instantly recognized what he was holding, and as any broke baseball fan would do, he coveted what he held in his hand. He nearly dropped the phone that he had wedged between his shoulder and ear.

In his hand were about 20 nearly identical Books of season tickets. The team logo and the slogan of the year dominated the covers. The bindings of the Books were intact. They had never been opened.

For the true fan, these Books were so much more. As the common metaphor goes, the stadiums that peppered the country weren’t just stadiums. The little league through college fields were the chapels to the religion. The minor league fields were the churches. The cathedrals were the major league stadiums. This stadium, the one he was in now, was widely considered the St. Peter’s Basilica of the sport. So these Books were not merely books of season tickets to the great fans … they weren’t even just bibles. They were Gutenberg Bibles that he held in his hands and they had never been opened. He must have let out an audible gasp as he realized what he held.

On a yellow sticky note on the top, which did not belong on such treasures, were instructions to deliver four of the books to an address he didn’t recognize and the rest were to go to the local firehouse.

As he was fumbling to put the books back into the large envelope, and still listening to the fan ranting in his ear, he almost didn’t notice the small envelope slip out of the larger one. It was addressed to him, again. When he opened it, it contained a scrap piece of paper that merely said “Thank You,” with the scribbled signature of the Old Ballplayer.

He finished listening to the fan and hung up. He quickly grabbed the appropriate forms from the shelf behind him and ignored the phones as he hastily filled them out. Without putting the tickets down, he half ran to the supply closet to grab a couple of envelopes. He taped the forms to them, separated out the tickets, ran down to the front reception desk, and requested a pickup by bike courier.

By the time he got back to his desk, he could hardly breathe. His heart was pounding as he hoped it wasn’t too late! He took a moment to think back through what had happened the night before. After the game …

The drive home from loss number 22 was a mix of emotions that went from frustration to excitement. There was no doubt that number 22 was the worst in the series and it was one of the most devastating losses he had ever experienced. All losses are not created the same. Some losses, your gut just kind of expects it. Guys hurt, star pitcher against you, bad weather, whatever, there are times when you just know the loss is coming. It’s something you develop in your gut after years of watching. Other losses happen quickly … Your pitcher gives up five runs in the first and the batters just never get going. The game is essentially over in the first couple of innings. There are even some losses that creep up on you and just happen, like a couple of late-inning runs that just get you, but still don’t feel as bad.

Then there was loss number 22. These types are devastating. Some might call devastating too strong of a word, but when you are talking about so much at stake and a loss destroying all of it, devastating seems appropriate. In the relative scheme of things, the loss doesn’t mean much, but when you are deep into that world of baseball, these losses are devastating.

Ending this streak is all the team was playing for at this point … It was consuming the team, and to a certain extent, their futures. This streak was something each and every one of them would carry with them the rest of their lives and they cannot begin to put it behind them until it was behind them. So, the primary objective was to end the streak. The season was all but certainly lost, and pride, well most came to terms with losing that a week ago. The only thing to work for was to end it and end it quickly.

You cannot have a city and a fanbase that loves a team so much without having a build-up of energy like water behind a dam. However, in this case, this player, for years, has been hiding behind this sentiment toward him that no one truly understood. It was a faulty dam, and the sheer energy behind it pushed against it waiting for the cracks to finally give. If that wasn’t bad enough, this player was sitting on the wrong side of the dam throwing sticks of dynamite at it. It was not going to hold. With each stick he threw, the dam got weaker and weaker, and whether he knew what he was doing or not, it was simply a matter of time before it was going to give way and all that once positive energy that was held back was going to come crashing down on him, and he was not a strong swimmer.

So when a player that teammates tried to pretend was actually a teammate, fans desperately try to remember who he once was and why they were supposed to love him, and the media has given a pass out of some weird respect lets that objective slip by him through carelessness or indifference, it lets a whole lot of weight come crashing through the dam. It was devastating to everyone involved.

However, Michael was excited, as well. As he looked through the papers before number 22 that day, he came across an old newspaper clipping about the Tuck’s first home run. The main story of that day so many years before was on the performance of the pitcher, but he made some headlines as well for providing the only offense needed to secure the perfect game. The article talked about a rookie excited to be in the big leagues and pined about the type of player he would be. The player was quoted talking about the pride of his parents and how excited he was to just go out and play the game every day. It also talked about the home run ball and how much Tuck would love to have it. With the article was a picture that showed him rounding third with a big smile on his face. In the background in the front row of the left field stands, the caption noted, were his parents and brother. It was obvious that he had just acknowledged them as he was rounding the bag.

The date of the game couldn’t escape him and the realization of what it meant washed over him. He suddenly felt so much smaller in the world and so much bigger at the same time. When you realize that there are forces much much larger than you at play and sending you on a deliberate path through life, you can’t help but feel like an insect crawling across a countertop weaving around obstacles placed before you. But when forces that big choose to direct their attention specifically on you, there becomes a paradox of feeling both very very tiny in the world and feeling very very large at the same time. The realization of the date overwhelmed him in this paradox.

When the intern got home that night, he went directly to the closet in his bedroom, pulled an old file box from the top shelf, and opened the lid. In it was assorted memorabilia … letters from friends and old girlfriends, notepads of writing, some of his ticket stubs, and roughly a decade’s worth of stuff he just couldn’t throw away because they remind him of one moment or another. However, sitting at the top of everything in the box, he found what he was looking for … a baseball that had grown yellow, but was otherwise in perfect condition. There was a single black smudge on one side of it.

He remembered so clearly on his 13th birthday sitting in the den watching a baseball game. He had only recently become a fan and he had since thrown his entire self into the game. It consumed his thoughts and his actions. As he sat watching the TV, with his toys on the ground at his feet, his father sat down with him. He asked him if he ever told him about the day he was born. He continued on explaining how he and Michael’s uncle had received last-minute tickets for a baseball game from someone they had done some work for. They had jumped on a bus and had gotten to the game just in time for the start. He built up the drama of the game and how it turned into a 1-0 perfect game, with the only home run coming from a rookie ballplayer. He then produced a baseball from behind his back and explained how he had caught the home run ball.

His story didn’t end there. He talked about how he and his brother went to a bar to celebrate before heading home. When he did arrive home, he found that his wife was not there and had, hours earlier, been rushed off to the hospital in early labor. By the time he got to the hospital, his wife was on the verge of giving birth but made sure to have a few words to say to him about being gone and out of reach all day.

He then handed the ball to his son, asking him to hold on to it.

He held that ball now, sitting in his apartment so many years later, and he knew what he had to do with it. It was his most prized possession, but he felt like it belonged with someone else. He now felt like he was merely borrowing that ball and that it belonged to the Old Ballplayer.

He took the ball, scrambled to his car, and drove back to the stadium. He had a photocopy of the article from that day and he wrote a quick note explaining what the ball was, although something told him that the Old Ballplayer would know exactly what it was. He left it on the player’s chair in an envelope, expecting him to get it in the morning. What he didn’t realize was that the player was still in the stadium and that everything was about to change.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Sixth

With a scissors in one hand, the Intern flips through the newspaper. It’s a story that has gone national as headline after headline attack the many different angles of a 22-game losing streak, and it was his job to pour through not only the local papers, but as many papers as he could get from other cities on his way in that morning. Michael was in a blizzard of newspapers.

It was a simple job he had … comb through the papers, cut any article that mentioned the team or one of the players, tape them to paper, organize them by topic, photocopy them, distribute them, and file them. Usually, filing was the last thing he would do and there was a three-foot stack of paper sitting on a shelf over his head, waiting to come down on him like an avalanche. It was a simple job, with newspaper ink-covered hands and chronic boredom being the worst part of it. There were worse ways that he could spend the normal hour each morning. Basically, he was getting paid to drink coffee and read the newspaper.

In the last five days, however, it was taking him and another intern nearly four hours to get through the papers because there was so much being written about this streak. It was also his job to answer the phone, and while a typical morning would have just a handful of calls, mornings during the streak consisted of constant calls from media trying to get front row seats to the train wreck and fans threatening to turn in their front row seats if ownership didn’t send the GM and manager out of town on a train.

He was usually there a few minutes earlier than everyone else, mostly because he hated mornings. By getting in early, he could ease into the day. He could get his coffee and start working through the newspapers before the phone started ringing, before his bosses started giving him assignments, and before he actually had to interact with anyone. He hated walking in late and getting bombarded with all the above before he had a chance to settle himself and ease into the day.

In college, on days when he had early classes, he would wake up early, shower, and get dressed to avoid walking to school with his roommates. He loved his roommates, just not at eight in the morning. The 10-minute walk allowed him to set up the day in his mind and prepare himself.

However, during this streak, everyone is arriving early, trying to get ahead of the mess. The calls are coming in earlier, as anxious people can’t wait another hour to have their outrage heard. All week, he was walking into a live and active bomb range, as far as he was concerned. This added to his frustrations, and everyone else was frustrated as well.

On the phones, he was a punching bag for fans, as they voiced their displeasure with the streak and the direction of the team. While a handful were polite, many were rude and belligerent. Some gave lectures on how they had been fans since their grandfathers were fans and how they had never seen a worse team. Some cursed and screamed to the point where he could see them in his mind turning red in the face as spittle flew from their mouths onto the phone. When he was allowed to speak, he would give the company line about how the team was doing their best and how the season was still relatively early. He was told that he could hang up on those fans that shouted obscenities or wouldn’t calm down, but he stuck with them.

As much as it bothered him, he knew what they were going through. While this wasn’t the team he grew up loving, it was easy for him to imagine what they were feeling. Truly passionate fans cannot get as excited as they do when the team is winning without feeling that low when they are losing. When you combine that with a losing streak like this, it feels as if your soul is being crushed and an almost panicked feeling sets in. When you enjoy a team … a sport … to this extent and you are facing the prospects of a long, loss-filled summer instead of the team playing to expectations, you feel the panic and a sense of betrayal. He had been there.

By mid-morning, though, he felt as if he was losing his cool and started to feel the panic himself. Not the panic of the losing streak, but the panic of getting the things he needed to get done, done. The panic that the calls would never end and the anxiety would sit permanently in the office around him.

Then the phone rang one more time and he stared at it for a couple of rings, considering not answering it. But he couldn’t do that. So he braced himself, took a deep breath, and answered the phone. And then he was surprised.

The woman on the other line immediately started talking about how long she had been a fan and how she traced her roots all the way back to having been born on Opening Day and about the love of the team that she learned from her father. The Intern had heard these types of “setups” and waited for the woman to go into hysterical screaming at him. In his mind he pictured the woman on the pitcher’s mound, going through the motions and going into her windup before throwing a blazing fastball at his head.

Instead, what followed was first, a simple thank you from the woman for the joy the team has given her through the years, and then told him how she and her father always said that it’s these types of streaks that will make the winning feel all the sweeter. Then she talked about how she no longer could see her father every day and talk baseball, but that she could still feel him next to her whenever she watched the team. She talked about how she was connected to him through the team, whether they were winning or losing. She couldn’t be with him every day, but she had the team to remind her of him, and it didn’t matter if they were winning or losing. Then she repeated her thank you and hung up.

Michael was stunned as he continued to hold the phone to his ear and stared off into space. His mind raced, and suddenly, somehow, he could feel it emerging from the gloom. Life-changing moments can be born from the most mundane and unexpected moments on any day. When someone, a stranger, can say one thing that shifts your entire perspective, you can suddenly find yourself careening down a different set of tracks in life. That moment felt like that. It was a perspective shift that he needed. Losing sucked, but he was still living his dream and if he didn’t enjoy even these painful moments, the great ones might not be as sweet.

After contemplating this for a few minutes, he picked up the finished set of clips and headed off to make his copies. He felt as if he was in a trance as he went through the motions.

The utter misery he felt just hours before had lifted, and with it, so was his heart. For nearly a week (and actually, most of the season), he felt this team pounding away at his soul. His emotions were pegged firmly to this team and his heart beat with the pulse of these men. Suddenly, he was given his soul, emotions, and heartbeat back … or, more accurately, he was given the power to take them back himself.

As he walked around, delivering the clippings, doing his job, he realized that he didn’t have to be a ship in a harbor, rising and falling with the tide. He could step on shore and dip his toes into the tide as he wanted … He could even turn his back to the tide and walk away.

He decided he needed to get away for a few minutes. He needed to go someplace where he could be alone, but at the same time, have it appear that he was actually doing something productive. So Michael decided to take a small stack of old clips and go file them in the “attic,” the storage room in the top of the building.

He loved the attic … it was a time machine. A place where the very history of the team could be seen and measured, not in minutes and seconds, but in box scores, statistics, and newspaper articles. Every stat and box score drifted in like snowflakes, accumulating into what this team was. Somewhere in the newspaper clippings and the old stadium promotional giveaways, you could find every single hit, out, play, and even error that triggered every single fan’s favorite memory of the team.

And that’s how he saw it. While others might see yellowing newspapers and boring boxscores, he saw memories of first games and the seeds of major league dreams and even the bitter moments that all fans carried with them with a certain pride. It was where both great and not so great writers get immortalized. In that room were not just each and every memorable moment for the team, but, and maybe more importantly, it was all those moments that perhaps nobody remembers. 

A first pitch groundout to first in a July game 43 years ago with the team already leading by 10 runs. A long double off the left field wall that drove in three runs during a game that got rained out after two innings. Perhaps these were moments that some fan somewhere remembers in exact detail. And that was one of the things he loved … That room recorded every moment that every fan, alive and dead, remembered or doesn’t remember. Somewhere in that room is recorded every fan’s favorite moments and every fan’s lowest moments. Moments when they wanted to walk away from the team and moments when they wanted to grab a stranger and kiss them. Every single moment was recorded in that room. That room was the true heart of the team.

To those that care, the fan that proudly collects every giveaway to add them to the collection their grandfather started years ago, the official scorer that reviewed every play to ensure the integrity of the statistics that made and killed careers, the beat writer that carefully crafted every word of his game article, despite a pressing deadline for a meaningless early April game. For those that care, this room was what they are referring to when they talk about the tradition of the team and the loyalty of the fans. This was what gave blood to the stories and memories that make this team.

The Intern often worried about this room. To Michael, it should be a vault. You can replace a stadium, but the contents of this room were irreplaceable. It was the Louvre, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the Great Pyramid of Giza of this team, all rolled into one room that only a relatively small handful of people knew existed. He felt honored to be one of them.

After spending some time going through the cabinets of old promotional items, he turned his attention to the press clippings. Particularly, the clippings of the Tuck, and he began to read.

The clippings told this man’s career in bits of black on white. Sometimes, a writer was thoughtful about this man. Sometimes a writer was mean for the sake of being clever. Sometimes, merely the facts were told, with no expression of judgment. So many writers over so many years told bits and pieces of this man. However, it was in the whole of these bits and pieces that you could see the man for who he was, a man playing a game. Alone. A game that was not the game of his childhood. It was not the game that he learned. It was not the game his father told him endless stories about. It was not the game that his mother lovingly showed him over and over. It was not the game that he played for countless hours with his brother.

This was a different game because he was alone. The game of his youth was not a game of loneliness. It was something else entirely and the Intern wondered how no one saw this before.

And a thought came to him. A crazy thought that, at first, seemed entirely too big for him. He began to shake, because he knew it was an idea too big for himself. He had no idea if he had the strength and the power to not just be a lone soul at the harbor’s edge. He wondered if he could be the tide itself, if he so dared. He could at least try to lift the boat that had scuttled itself and was now waiting for Winter. He didn’t even have to be the tide … he just needed to be something big enough that could raise the tide.

Then, in a spark of a moment, he somehow just knew all he had to do was throw a baseball into the harbor to raise the tide.

And Winter shuddered.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Sixth

Winter stalks. Winter waits. Winter watches. It skulks in the dark corners of the game’s great Cathedrals, patiently awaiting its time … its moment. It will come when a team is least expecting it, pouncing from its hiding spot and attacking without mercy.

For some teams, Winter never leaves. Opening Day is the only day that Winter has no power on them, and after that, it can begin picking off its prey, one by one. For some teams, the flowers have barely bloomed when they yield to Winter. They are amongst the most downcast … They see Winter and they hear Winter and it is too much and they immediately yield to Winter.

Others also see Winter’s icy stare, but fight. They fight with all they have, with every ounce of Spring and Summer’s magic that they can spare, but they too will eventually yield. Their minds betray them, for they know, deep down, that they too will eventually give in to Winter’s inevitability.

These teams, on occasion, escape briefly from Winter. They will remember the Spring, celebrate the Summer, and make a charge toward the Fall. They feel the warmth and they fight loose and they make a run. However, it is just a cruel game Winter plays. Winter loosens its grip for a moment merely to allow them to do its bidding and bring others into the fold.

You don’t escape Winter.

The good teams know all about Winter, but they ignore Winter. They fight knowing that the Fall is there for the taking and Winter can be defeated. They charge and even when they trip, they still stay away from Winter.

But Winter will come. Winter always comes.

For them, Winter’s attack is sudden, vicious, brutal, and merciless, taking hold of a team by its heart and dragging it off as Summer helplessly watches and Fall turns its back.

Only one can survive Winter.

Losing hurts. It’s an obvious fact of life. Even the kid playing tee ball for the very first time knows that losing is not a good feeling. Sure, they don’t keep score, but even a five-year-old can tell when things are going bad. They know when they are being beaten.

As players progress, losses are taken to heart more as they are left pondering what could have been, what might have been had they done something a little different. What if I had swung a little earlier. What if I had moved closer to center field. What if I had thrown the curve instead of the fastball. Losses become personal failures.

It is what you do with the losses and how you handle them that can separate great players from the average players. You can blame yourself or you can blame others. You get nowhere when you blame others.

In some ways, losses are as important as wins in development. You learn lessons about what you could have done differently. You find out what works and what doesn’t, and by identifying what doesn’t work and fixing it, you become a better player. Success and winning are so often seeded in losses. Crops sometimes need manure mixed into their soil to flourish and grow healthy.

Losses are important to a team. However, when the losses start piling up and streaks start to form, teams can start to dramatically change.

As they move through little league and high school, losses will happen, and inevitably, every player experiences those extended periods of time when things just don’t go right. A bad throw to first on a simple put-out that sets in motion a chain reaction that leads to three runs. A ball hits a clump of grass and stalls in the infield when it should have been a two-run single. A player tripping over their own laces, falling and missing a sure out. An odd, freak storm that turns a sure win into an unofficial game. These random moments that lead to losses or extend a streak happen to all teams.

Some players step up, put a team on their shoulders, and turn things around. Some players press harder and push faster and cause more havoc. Good teams limit the damage and recover quickly. Bad teams just get worse.

Once players get to college and/or the minor leagues, these streaks are amplified and thrown into the spotlight. More people watching, and in many cases, paying to watch and bad baseball are never appreciated. The pressure is turned up. With each loss, the frustration gets worse and team morale keeps sinking.

But this is nothing compared to the major league. A four-game losing streak feels like an eight-game losing streak. A seven-game losing streak feels like a 21-game losing streak. A 10-game losing streak feels like you haven’t won all season and never will.

A 21-game losing streak, in the majors, feels like you have never won a baseball game. Ever. Going all the way back to tee ball. Any wins the team may have had before seem like a Greek myth buried in a cauldron of gold at the end of the rainbow in Brigadoon. A 21-game losing streak will change a player’s DNA and brand a team for all time.

And baseball is a team sport in that one man cannot win a game directly by himself. Sure he can star, but even in a perfect game, a pitcher can’t field the balls. A great play at third needs someone to catch the ball at first to ring up the out. A three home run game by a single batter needs pitchers to hold the runs up. There can be great individual performance, but teams win as teams.

Teams lose as teams as well. Just as there are great individual performances, there are also awful individual performances. A pitcher that can’t get an out in the first. A fielder that makes three errors in a game. A batter that strikes out twice and grounds into three double plays. They all reduce a team’s chance of winning, but there are always chances for the rest of the team to stand up and win.

When a team loses 21 straight, it’s no one man to blame. No one bad play, no one bad pitching performance, no one bad day in the field makes a team lose 21 straight. Teams lose that many games in a row as teams. It becomes difficult to look at your teammates because everyone has let everyone else down.

Rookies don’t get it, Tuck thought. They don’t understand. They pitch a couple of decent games and they walk around the clubhouse like they own it. Even in the midst of a 21-game losing streak, this guy didn’t get it. This particular rookie was particularly disrespectful, he thought.

Sitting next to his locker, stewing, he tried to ignore the blaring crap music that made the vast clubhouse feel claustrophobic. He watched as some of the smaller things in his locker bounced in rhythm to the music. He could feel his blood pressure bouncing higher with each beat.

It had a cascading effect … to be heard over the music the others talked louder … joked louder … laughed louder … all as the anger in his head yelled louder. He thought about respecting the game. Respecting a losing streak. Respecting yourself. His fate wasn’t tied to these clowns. They wouldn’t help him get that last home run and get out of the game. But still, his present and immediate future were tied to them and that did not make him happy. And, although he wouldn’t admit it, it wasn’t about respecting the game … he was angry because he didn’t feel they were respecting him.

They had lost 21 straight games … tying the worst such streak since anyone really cared about these things. Three weeks ago, they were breathing down the neck of first place. It was in their grasp, but the team was mostly under the radar as the team ahead was barely winning. Nearly the definition of mediocrity with the hope of more. And there was no spotlight. Now, they were scratching at the dirt in the basement, looking to see if they could go any deeper. They had become a joke and he, by association, was a joke … perhaps even the punchline.

And here was a rookie dancing around the clubhouse when no one had any idea about how to avoid a modern-day record. He held court of other rookies and players that probably should have known better. But he led the team in wins and strikeouts and nearly every other pitching stat that meant anything. So, no one said anything to him. No one corrected him and so he did what he did and had no respect for the game.

The music continued to pound. Tuck thought about the last few games. And he started to sweat. He thought about the post-game media attention; he could feel his face getting red.

He thought about home runs.  He thought about this rookie’s home run. He thought about the Rookie standing at the plate. Tuck was already rounding third when he saw the Rookie still standing at the plate with a giant smile on his face. He watched him watch the ball clear the center field fence.

That smile boiled his blood. He was a pitcher. He was a rookie. He shouldn’t be standing there, still holding his bat, watching his home run go. He was losing the game. He was a rookie. He was a pitcher. And the music pounded louder in his ears. He was a punk. He was a rookie punk that had no right hitting his home run.

Before he knew what he was doing, Tuck grabbed a bat from his locker, walked over to the shelf that held the radio and swung. For a moment, the loud bass beats and laughter mixed with the crunch of the radio, but by the time the countless pieces of plastic and electronic bits rained down across the clubhouse floor, there was only silence.

He then turned and glared at the rookie pitcher who stared back in both shock and a building anger. When the Rookie finally clicked into the reality and meaning of what just happened, he stared back in only rage. The Veteran then threw the bat down at the pitcher’s feet and walked back toward his locker.

He hadn’t gotten very far when he felt a hand grab his shoulder and quickly spin him around. The Rookie stepped up to him, nose to nose with the Old Ballplayer, shouting nearly every obscenity available in his vocabulary. The Veteran just stared back. Realizing that obscenities weren’t getting him anywhere, the pitcher shoved him backward and started a fresh attack … a very personal attack … a very real attack, focusing on the Veteran’s lack of commitment to the team. His lack of advice to the rookies. His lack of leadership. The fact that the only emotion Tuck had shown in nearly five months of baseball was him smashing a radio.

The Veteran clenched his fists and the Rookie got more brazen, shoving him a few more times, all while stringing together a list of grievances. Times when he should have hustled to get to a ball. Times when he should have slid. Times when he should have offered an encouraging word. Times when Tuck should have just acted like a ballplayer.

The Veteran just took it. Just let him roll. Just let him verbally lay him out. As much as the team was shocked by his outburst, he was shocked by the Rookie’s ability to know bad baseball and the courage to call him out on it. He assumed the Rookie wasn’t paying attention. He assumed no one was paying attention. He assumed the Rookie wouldn’t care enough.

With a final shove, the Rookie let out a final obscenity and walked away, muttering. The Old Ballplayer looked around the silent clubhouse for a moment. All but one pair of eyes were on him as his eyes returned to watch the Rookie walk away. He was surprised one last time by what he saw … a dejected, defeated man. He didn’t see the strut of a boy with the world at his feet, but a man who had been completely demoralized.

Still stunned and still unable to respond nine innings later, Tuck didn’t react to the crack of the bat, at first. Nine innings later, he was still unsettled, perhaps a bit lost … more lost than normal. Nine innings later, he found himself contemplating the grass.

Grass was, at one time, his love and joy. To stand in the tall grass and wait for the moment when he could go running through it after a ball. He played this game to field, not to bat. He learned to become a good batter so that he could spend his life standing in the outfield of some baseball diamond. Hell, he didn’t even need a diamond … he could be content with his brother throwing a ball in the air, away from him, giving him a chance to run it down. Forget the crack of the bat … it was the swish of his cleats through the grass followed by the pop of a baseball on leather. That was the noise that brought him joy … that was what had him pursue this game.

He and his brother used to play the game that every kid plays on a rainy day. You climb around the furniture trying to keep your feet off the floor. The floor was lava. That was what the grass was to him now. It was lava that burned at his feet. He wanted out of the game and off the lava that burned away at his insides.

This is what he was contemplating when his mind was too distracted to interpret the crack his ear heard. Like a guided missile, there was no changing the course of the ball as it lined rapidly toward him, but he still had not noticed it until the center fielder had yelled his name. It was too late. He got his glove up but not open and the ball glanced off the tip and landed in the grass behind him. By now, the center fielder was there to pick it up and throw it in. The tying run had already scored and the go-ahead run slid into home just ahead of the ball.

The stadium almost immediately crashed down on him. A stadium that had waited weeks for something to cheer about poured anger down on him and he stood shocked. They had enough of this player. The center fielder walked slowly away from him, shaking his head.

The pitcher quickly got the next out, with the damage done. Baseball is a cruel game and decided it was not done with him for the day, as the Old Player struck out, with the bat on his shoulder, to end the game. It stayed there for nearly five minutes as he stared down at home plate. 22.

For the first time in years, Tuck heard the crowd. For so long, he had been able to shut them out. He had been able to ignore both the cheers and the seldom boos. It never mattered to him, so he paid it no attention. Now, in the instant that ball sailed past him, his ears opened. He heard the background boos and moans and the grief. In the foreground he heard the individual insults, obscenities, and cries. They crashed down on him like a tsunami. For the first couple of moments that he stood there with his bat on his shoulder, the tide of boos just became deeper, but after five minutes or so, the tide had gone back out.

He was the one who had no respect for the game. He was the one who had stopped respecting himself. He was the one whom they had booed … mercilessly.

Finally, he dropped his bat into the dirt, as the grounds crew tried to work around him. He slowly walked toward center field. He walked around the pitcher’s mound and stepped over the spot where second base had been. He got to about the midpoint of center field when he crouched down in a squat. He stared at the grass for a moment or two before taking one hand and slowly waving it over the individual blades. By now, half the lights pointed at the field were turned off, casting a long shadow of himself across the grass in front of him.

He was careful not to touch the grass. He could almost feel the heat coming off of it. He was confused and tired of the heat that was all around him. He could feel the lava consuming him, bit by bit.

After a while, Tuck turned and headed back to the dugout, hoping he would not have to face his teammates.