Categories
Warehouse Windows

After Baseball

From the time I was 13, I had dreamed of working for the New York Mets. I wanted to be a part of the team, and I wanted to be there when they won a World Series. However, I had always expected it to come later in life. My thoughts were, originally, that I’d be a journalist first and work towards a decent career in baseball journalism, then eventually try to get a job in baseball PR once I had some experience. Eventually, I’d get a job in PR with the New York Mets. Some elements of this plan were revised through the years, but the basics were there. No part or imagining of the plan involved me somehow landing a job in baseball PR when I was 22, and it certainly did not have an addendum on what I would do if I left baseball by the time I was 28.

Writing was a significant part of that plan but got dropped along the way. Baseball and writing are intrinsically tied together for me. You write about what you love, and baseball was my first love. A lot of the stuff I wrote in high school was about baseball. While writing about family and girls and friends and school and my children eventually entered the mix, baseball was consistent throughout.

While in the PR internship with the Orioles, I wrote about baseball a lot. I was responsible for things like the weekly minor league report and a homestand preview insert that went into scorebooks sold inside the stadium. I enjoyed that. I was also really good with computers and saw ways to make the intern’s job easier and far more efficient using them beyond what we had been using them for.

With this combination, I managed to extend a six-month internship into over a year. However, it got to a point where John had to move me…I couldn’t be an intern forever, and there was not a position open for me on his team. Fortunately for me (and probably unfortunately for my writing career), at the time, the Orioles were a bit out in front of other baseball teams with one of the first websites, and they needed someone to help manage it. People noticed my computer skills and offered me that job, so I moved over to help with the very new technology while still being able to help out with the PR department.

A hard truth I had to come to terms with while working for John was that I was never going to make it doing Public Relations in baseball or, really, any field. My problem was that I was an introvert, and in a field that requires you to talk to people, I didn’t cut it. I could get the nerve up in short bursts, but more than 10 to 15 minutes wore me out. I could barely hang out more than a half hour with John at the time before I felt exhausted. My social anxiety would be an exceptionally bad combination with baseball as I was just too intimidated by the baseball players and the bigger-than-life media people (seriously, how was a debilitatingly shy guy like me supposed to tell a guy like Eddie Murray, a future Hall-of-Famer, that he needed to stop avoiding Buster Olney, one of the great baseball journalists of his generation…or stare into the eyes of the crazy beautiful Melissa Stark and get even a single word out?).

So, making the jump to the website was perfect for me. It allowed me to bring together my creativity, my computer skills, and even my PR skills into something that was cutting edge at the time and make an impact. I really enjoyed that, and it still allowed me to contribute and help with the PR team.

Ultimately, it was the second biggest thing to happen that allowed me to capture the big dream I had…the New York Mets. It was painfully obvious that I was never going to get a job with the Mets PR department. I had applied for at least one job there…I think I still have the rejection letter from Jay Horowitz. But the New York media would have just crushed me (there were a couple of guys there that actually messed with me when I first started there, but I don’t think I’ll share those stories). I realized early on that websites were my ticket to the Mets.

To my good fortune, the tech/consulting company that helped the Orioles build and maintain their website managed to secure a contract with the Mets. The Mets needed a website administrator, and the consultants put me up for the job with my boss recommending me.

Getting the interview and traveling up there was a blur to me, and I really wish I could remember more of the details. I do remember that I didn’t tell my parents about who I was interviewing. I stayed with them the night before and told them I was interviewing in Manhattan. I wanted it to be a surprise if I actually got the job. They would know how much that job would mean to me. I remember sitting in the conference room in Shea with my boss, and I remember it being a really gloomy day. However, it pains me that I have almost no memories of that day except the feeling that it had gone well and that I most likely got the job.

Several weeks later, I found out I got the job with the Mets from my boss at the Orioles. It was a very strange day for me as I felt my life get completely flipped upside down. On one hand, I was completely overjoyed to get to capture my dream, but on the other hand, it meant moving away from Andrea just a couple of months after we got engaged. It also was the final nail in any kind of writing career I had hoped for myself.

I loved my time at the Mets. It was very, very different from my experience with the Orioles in terms of environment, culture, and, obviously, ballpark. New York City was such a different place from Baltimore. I’ve struggled for years to try to figure out what was different (aside from the obvious). There were plenty of people I was friendly with in both places, and both places had their share of people that were less than friendly. I want to say that New York had the stereotypical edge to it, which it did, but that wasn’t the whole thing. I think it had to do with me entering the Orioles job as an intern and sort of growing up in that job while entering the Mets with a full-time job with an office, and everything felt like I actually needed to be a grown-up, which I did not feel like I was. At the Orioles, I had some very good friends, and Andrea was right there. At the Mets, while I did have my family near, I felt very alone, and making friends took longer.

Regardless, I loved working at the Mets, but I think I always knew it wasn’t going to be a long-term place for me. I loved and soaked in every moment within the walls of Shea Stadium. However, it (New York) was not going to be a place I felt comfortable living in for a long period of time and starting a family. I know others that did it, including my boss, Tim, there, but living in New York just was not going to be the style for Andrea and me.

Ultimately, it was Major League Baseball that essentially removed any kind of decision for me.

In 2000, the teams voted to consolidate all the club sites under the management of a new company called MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), and it meant that I would no longer be working directly for the Mets but for this new company.

Originally, I applied for and was hired on as a producer for MLBAM, where I would primarily work out of a central office in Chelsea and spend some time at Shea. The salary that was at least twice as much as I was making and a handful of empty promises had me jumping at it in a heartbeat. It would be something I would later regret. I made some mistakes in my brief time in that role as I realized it was not the right fit for me immediately. I was miserable there.

Sometime in the following January or February, I was at Shea taking care of a few things there, and I ran into the VP of Marketing at the time. He asked me how it was going at MLBAM. I told him it wasn’t going well and that I felt it was a mistake. I distinctly remember him carefully listening to me and then saying, “Then just come back.” He didn’t even wait for me to respond before walking away.

That stuck with me for the rest of the day, and I began to look into it seriously. The Mets-specific site admin job (I forget what it was called) was still open and paid less, but I approached my manager at MLBAM about it. They were extremely generous to me and allowed me to make the move back while keeping the same salary.

I took that job, and it looked like it would be a great fit for me. They wanted the position to basically be a writer and the eyes and ears for MLBAM at Shea. They hired beat writers with lots of journalism experience to cover the team, and I was to support them, write basic game summaries and contribute my own work. I was initially very excited about it. I felt my writing career was back on track.

I hesitate to write this, but the truth is that most of the editorial board I reported to at MLBAM were assholes. My immediate editor was very nice at first, but once the Editor-in-Chief was hired, he turned the screws on everyone, and it became a miserable working environment for me. Again, some of the issues were on my end and mistakes I made, but they created an environment where even the smallest mistake felt like it was fireable.

The combined with the bigger issue, though, which was my own introverted tendencies again. They wanted me to write feature pieces on players and include exclusive quotes in the articles. That was just not something I could get around myself to do, and the pressure my editors applied did not give me any room to try to figure it out. I knew I was doomed.

Looking back, there are things I could have done better, and I wish I had made the best of that tough situation, but I didn’t. Instead, I learned some very difficult and valuable lessons that ultimately helped me out later in life.

That August (2001), I walked away from that job without having anything else lined up. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. However, it was making me miserable and I figured I had plenty of great website skills and could easily get another job. However, the internet bubble burst right around that same time, and I was left unemployed for months. This would set Andrea and me back financially for years. It was probably the right time to get back on track and pursue some kind of writing career, but I chose a different path.

The experience of being able to optimize some processes at the Orioles using computers lead me to attempt to start my own company, October Turtle Statistical Services. PR departments at clubs did so much manual statistics tracking, and I knew I could make that easier on a computer. I got to work and developed a piece of software for the Orioles to do just that. However, I was an inexperienced programmer, and it had a lot of bugs in it. I continued to work on it, but ultimately it failed when MLB signed an exclusive contract for all clubs with a company that did something similar to what my software did. Any connection I had left to the game, professionally, was gone.

I never did fulfill a career in writing. It got sidetracked a bit, but with the exception of not making more of the opportunity MLBAM gave me, I have no regrets about it. However, I am still searching for my place within this game, still seeking an opportunity of my own that is not attached to the success of someone else. I am looking for my own legacy to leave behind in the game. When my time comes, I want to be remembered as first a great husband and father, second, a decent human being, and third, a writer that had a lifelong romance with baseball.

I was watching Moneyball the other night, and at the end, Brad Pitt as Billy Beane says, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” And it is so true. When I think about baseball, I feel joy and love and heartbreak and every other range of emotion because baseball is romantic. Without the love of the game and the other emotions that come with it, you just have a list of stats. Any fan’s connection to baseball is a love story, and the game needs people to write those stories.

Confession time…I struggle to watch baseball on TV anymore. After nearly six years of watching nearly every home game from within the stadiums and nearly every road game on TV, I find it difficult to watch games from start to finish. I think maybe I was spoiled in those years, and it just doesn’t have the same feel. I still watch highlights and read about the Mets and try to absorb as much information about them as I can in a hectic life, but I just can’t sit through games on TV.

But I still love baseball, and memories of my time in the game still stirs deeply in me. There are days when I desperately miss it and the friends I made there. The feel of the sun as I ate my lunch in a random seat in an empty stadium when the team was on the road (I once spent an entire lunch hour contemplating how long it would take me to spend some time in each of Shea Stadium’s 55,000+ seats during my lunches.) The way the cold hits you when wandering through the stadium concourses in the dead of winter. Walking through a rowdy clubhouse…walking through a somber clubhouse. Sitting in the press box talking to friends.

When I think about it, it may not be so much the game I miss but the atmosphere around it…the romance of the game.

This book is a love story. Not your traditional love story, but an expression of my love for the game and all the little nuances and theatre and players (not just those on the field) involved in the game. Baseball will always be my first love. While my love for the game has been surpassed at least three times since that ground ball rolled through Buckner’s legs, it will always hold a very special and dear place in my heart because it was my first love. Whether or not it is successful, I also feel this book is my legacy to this game. The 1998 Mets Yearbook will show me as the first “Webmaster” for the New York Mets, but ultimately, I am sure it has already been lost to time the contributions I made. I doubt more than a handful of people will even remember me being at the Mets, and a few more will remember me from the Orioles. However, my hope is that my thoughts and stories, and love of the game will be noticed years after I am gone, and someone will wonder about who I was.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Ninth

He was having fun. He was having more fun than he has had in a long, long time. He constantly thought about playing on after this season. He wanted that one last home run, but he wasn’t sure he could keep on playing. He was becoming a stereotype as his joints ached with every swing, and every sprint down the baselines felt like it was going to shred any number of muscles.

He had resolved himself that even if he did not hit that last home run this season, that he was going to be done. He couldn’t keep on going. This team was special and regardless of what happened this season, he knew it would be time to walk away. This is how he wanted to remember the game. Fun, exciting, full of joy. He couldn’t risk an injury that would make playing miserable or an attitude like his own in the clubhouse. He was too old and it would be time to walk away.

That number, his brother’s badge number … that home run … turned him into Captain Ahab, chasing a white whale through the green grass. It was a singular obsession that had driven him for way too long at this point. He lost sight of the crew on this ship he was riding and nothing else mattered outside of that home run. While the death of his brother had sent him spiraling into the abyss, it was anchoring himself to that home run at the bottom that caused him to drown. He had to let it go in order for him to live again.

It wasn’t that he did not still want that home run. It wasn’t that he did not still want to honor his brother. It was that he knew that his way of going about it was not honoring his brother at all. His brother would have hated him for his attitude and approach. He knew this and knew the pursuit ended today, regardless of what happened.

His teammates had no idea what he was thinking and he was fine that way. They didn’t need to know. It was his decision only and he couldn’t bring them down. A couple of months ago, they may have celebrated the news.

As he stood in the outfield shagging balls and in between joking with teammates, he thought about these potential last moments as a ballplayer. If they lost today, this was the last time he would stand in the grass before a game, lazily grabbing fly balls. This may be the last time talking with some of these guys.

As he took batting practice, he treasured it. He treasured the murmuring of people around him, the reporters scrambling around for a story, and the kids hanging over the rails looking for an autograph.

In fact, he took time out of his normal routine to sign autographs for the kids, joking with them and asking if they played. At some point, he came across a pair of brothers, no older than 10 and 11. They had on their heads their own little league hats and he asked them if they played. They excitedly started explaining how their dad coached them and how their team in the spring wasn’t very good, but how they had so much fun. The younger brother told him how he was a really good fielder and almost hit his mom in the head with a pitch when they played in the backyard. He explained how he couldn’t hit really well, but he still loved it. The older brother interrupted at the end and told him how he had hit the only triple of the season for the team and that he couldn’t play a bunch of games because he hurt his arm playing catcher.

The Old Ballplayer soaked in every word and told them how he played baseball all the time with his mom, dad, and brother. He told them about his worst season in little league and offered them encouragement to keep playing or just doing what they loved to do.

When he finally made it to his locker, he got himself ready for the game. He exchanged verbal jabs with the other guys as he noted every moment of this routine that he had lived for most of his life. He thought about how he now played professional baseball longer than he had not played it. And he was okay with that. He had never found love outside the game and all his friendships had withered away in his bitterness. He knew that he would be spending a lot of his time away from the game repairing those friendships and looking for something outside of the game.

When he took the field for the national anthem, he pondered how at ease he was with his decision. He wanted to play a few more games, so he hoped this was not his last. He wanted to lead this team to that ever-elusive championship, but if they lost, he would be okay with that. At times, he actually got excited with thoughts of what he could do outside the game or in a different role within the game. He had burned bridges to repair, but he was ready.

When the game began, he felt good. He was relaxed and confident. The last two months had been a blur of, dare he say it, magic, where he felt like they could do no wrong. They lost a few games in there, he was sure of it, but he sure as hell didn’t remember them. He just remembers a team clicking together and just doing what they needed to do to win. They started the stretch in last place by more than a couple of games and then they just started gaining ground. It was slow at first, but they gained more and more momentum and it was almost as if the other teams were caught looking over their shoulders and tripped, stumbled, and fell. And here they were, the last day of the season and tied for first place. Win and they go to the playoffs, lose and they would be able to forever tell the stories of the season where they lost 22 straight and almost made the playoffs.

It didn’t help that the rookie pitcher was taking the mound for them, but they were also going against the next best pitcher in the league, so they needed to hit. It wasn’t going to be easy.

As the game unfolded, it was obvious that the runs weren’t going to come easy. Both pitchers had their best stuff and the stands shook with every strikeout and every opportunity that looked like it would go their way. With the pitchers on the mound and the atmosphere, it was about as epic of a game as you could get, unfolding on a beautiful early fall night, with the lights set against a deep black night that was still blue and gold around the edges and it fought off the last of the sunlight.

In the top of the ninth, the other team pushed a run across on an error by the second baseman. That seemed to open the gates a bit, rattling the relief pitcher who then gave up back-to-back home runs. When the bottom of the ninth came around, the stadium absolutely rocked, despite the deficit. The stadium got quiet after two outs were recorded.

This team was special, though, and they would not yield to Winter without one last fight. A walk and a single put two men on. The next guy up, the second baseman, hit a grounder down the third-base line. The breath of the entire stadium collectively held as the third baseman, playing deep, picked up the ball with his bare hand. In the same motion, he fired across the infield. However, the second baseman, eager to redeem himself, ran with everything he had as the rest of the players held pause. The bases were loaded for the Old Ballplayer.

When Tuck came to bat, he knew it very well could be his last at-bat in the league. As he stepped in there for what just might be the last time, he had only one thought and that was to just keep the rally going. If he was going to get more of a chance to play with this team, it was going to have to be in the postseason.

The first two pitches were balls, which were followed by two strikes. Again, the next pitch could be the last pitch he ever saw and all his memories of all his years in baseball flashed through his head. The good ones, the bad ones, and even the boring ones. He remembered his first at-bat and he remembered his first playoff at-bat. He remembered the last at-bat before he had heard his brother was dead and he remembered the extra-inning game where he struck out six times. He remembered all of it … every last moment.

He was almost too distracted to realize the pitcher was into his windup. As he saw the ball coming in, he swung. He knew it was a perfect swing. He knew his foot stepped forward perfectly and the bat made its way through the strike zone perfectly.

He heard the crack. The pitcher heard the crack as well. The left fielder heard the crack and was already breaking back. And it was a perfect crack of the bat. It is that noise, that feeling through your hands and arms … that resounding impact through your body … that made him first fall in love with this game. Sure, there was great satisfaction in sprinting across the grass and having a ball perfectly land in the glove. That is a lovely sound. As is the feeling of throwing a ball from 200 feet away, watching it arch into the sky in a seemingly random motion and then watching it hit its target perfectly … it is awesome.

However, that crack of a bat … a good old-fashioned piece of ash … is what made him first fall in love with this game. He remembers vividly the first time he made solid contact without a tee. His father was pitching to him from about 30 feet away. He had missed the first couple dozen thrown at him, but he listened to his father explain the adjustments he needed to make. Move your feet in this direction. Shift your weight here. Hold your bat off your shoulder. He made all the necessary adjustments that are needed to hit a ball with a stick.

And finally, he got one. The ball suddenly looked like a beach ball and he swung. He had made so many adjustments to his swing since that first one, but in that swing and with that first crack of the bat, he felt at one with the world … even if he did nearly take his father’s head off with the ball.

More importantly, though, was that Tuck felt it and he knew. He felt the wood … that feeling that is the main reason he ever played. Nothing feels better than getting a hold of one.

He saw the ball start low. In fact, he was certain that it was only a few feet over the shortstop’s head as it went through the infield. He was certain it was going to be off the wall and he started sprinting hard to collect as many bases as the rocket shot would get him.

As the ball screamed into the outfield, it seemed to be rising. Like a golf drive, it lifted deeper as it went. The Old Ballplayer kept on sprinting and was looking toward the third-base coach to let him know if he should slide into second when he heard the explosion in the stadium.

He was so focused on running that it startled him to see the coach jumping up and down and then almost ran into the player on the basepaths in front of him … who made two jumps to every step as he made his way.

It didn’t sink in as he looked to left field. He saw the left fielder slumped against the wall, face in his mit. Yet it still didn’t sink in. He still could not process it and he continued to sprint as he went past third.

By the time he got to home plate, his team was in an absolute frenzy as they mobbed him. About five steps before the plate, it suddenly dawned on him. He finally had done it.

343.

He couldn’t believe it and he felt himself stumble for a minute as his teammates cleared a path to the plate. Everything was about the last few seasons and him returning to this city to play for this team. There was only one thought on his mind and that was to make sure he touched the plate.

The moment he hit the plate, he finally started to fall in pure emotion. 343 would go into the Hall of Fame with him. He would take his brother with him and they would go in together. Sure, people would look at his hits and career average more. His home runs were a relatively low number for the average modern-day Hall of Famer. Hell, no one would even know the significance of 343. But he would and he would always know it.

And he collapsed in emotion as he crossed the plate, but he would never hit the ground. His teammates would grab him and mob him. The hugs were so tight that he could barely remember if his feet touched the ground at all in the next several minutes.

The next 30 minutes or so were a blur to him as he alternated between hugs from his teammates, interviews with the media, and drying champagne from his face. He had for so long dreamed what that moment would be like … what the scenario would be … who the pitcher might be … what the pitch count might be. He had ballparks he preferred; he even had fences he longed for. Yet in all that dreaming, he could not have dreamt of the emotion of the moment. All his daydreams were these emotionless moments, and as dreams tend to do, failed to reflect reality.

He could not believe that it had happened and he was deep in his own thoughts even as he tried to answer the questions from reporters. He was thankful for the champagne because he could blame the tears running down his face on his eyes being stung by the champagne.

When there was a moment to be spared, he turned his back toward the craziness of the locker room. Pretending to grab a towel from his shelf, he reached in behind some books and grabbed his brother’s shield. He took it out and looked at it, tracing the numbers with his finger. As he did so, a spray of champagne from behind him spread droplets across the metal. He didn’t bother to wipe it clean as he smiled to himself. His brother would have loved this. His brother would have enjoyed this moment. His brother would have been proud.

Just as he put the shield back into his locker, he felt a hand on his shoulder and he turned to see Michael with an embarrassed smile on his face. To Michael’s shock, Tuck’s face lit up as he grabbed the intern in a warm embrace. When Michael was released from it, he smiled but quickly told the player he needed to come with him.

Michael led Tuck out through the crowd of reporters and emerged back out through the clubhouse doors, with about half the media. The director smiled.

When the player stepped through the doors, he stopped in his tracks almost immediately as he looked at the unusual contingent. The group didn’t notice him until one of the firefighters started clapping. The rest joined in, except for Abigail and Brian. The kid just stared back at the player, in a sort of shock.

With a tear in his eye, the player smiled as he walked over to Abigail and embraced her, his eyes still on the boy. After a few moments, Tuck released his embrace and Abigail immediately went over to Michael and gave him a long hug. Tuck extended his hand toward Brian for a handshake but instead, the boy reached out with a baseball in his hand.

The player’s face went pale as he stepped back like he had seen a ghost. He knew exactly what ball it was. He had gotten such a good look at the pitch that he recognized the dirt stains on it and he figured he had seen the last of it when it disappeared into the crowd. He knew, as well, exactly where it landed, but he figured it must have bounced around a bit before someone settled in with it.

For a moment or two, he stood shocked looking at the ball and then the kid again and back at the ball. The kid was shocked as well but managed to flash a shy smile in the awkwardness of the encounter as the Old Ballplayer reached out and took the ball. For a second, Tuck saw a glimpse of his brother in Brian’s smile. Abigail, now standing off to Brian’s side, saw a glimpse of her father in the quiet confidence of her son. And Michael saw a glimpse of himself, at that age, falling in love with the game for the first time.

An impromptu party had sprung up within the offices of Summer’s team, and Abigail’s family and the firefighters were invited up to it. The party lasted well into the very early morning hours of the next day. Despite his age, Brian managed to keep up with it, caught in the adrenaline of excitement that seemed to get renewed each time another player ventured through.

At one point, Michael found himself talking alone with Tuck, laughing about his dad’s story of how he caught his home run the day he was born. Tuck then made him tell it over and over to anyone he could grab, smiling and laughing each time like it was the first time he had heard it, including his agent who he held captive most of the night with his arm around his shoulder.

Michael spent a lot of time with Abigail’s family, firefighters, and all, talking about the game and sharing their own stories. Abigail talked on and on with excitement about how big of a fan her father was and about their last game together. As she told the story, goose bumps formed along Michael’s arms as he became pale, and the smile fell from his face.

Abigail asked him what was wrong and through a halting, stuttering voice, he told her that was the day he was born … that evening … right around the time her father passed away. Abigail dropped her drink and stared at him in shock, which changed to her then staring deeply into his eyes before she smiled, wiped away some tears, and gave him a giant hug.

When Tuck heard the glass fall, he came over and asked what was wrong and inquired if Michael had told her about the day he was born. When they explained the shock, Tuck finally released his agent and wrapped his arms around the shoulders of the two with a giant smile on his face.

As the morning went on, stories of The Perfect and other highlights of the season were shared. The firefighters shared their own stories about Tuck’s brother as Abigail’s children listened on with awe. Abigail often had her arm looped through Michael’s arm as she told him stories about her father and his stories about this team. At one point, Tuck made Michael call his father, waking him so that he could hear the story firsthand about the day Michael was born.

One by one, the crowd thinned, leaving just Michael, Tuck, and Abigail not wanting to let go of the moment. Her children had found a corner of the room and were sleeping even though they would snap back awake, insisting they hadn’t fallen asleep. The three adults talked for a while before finally running out of things to say, leaving only their goodbyes. Before they could do so, Tuck grabbed each of their arms and simply said, “Thank you,” before giving each of them a gentle hug.

Tuck made his way back toward the clubhouse while Michael called a cab and walked the family out to the waiting car. He then made his way out toward his car, where he could see the horizon already starting to brighten in an orange glow.

Summer had returned to the city.

The End

Categories
Warehouse Windows

A Magic Night at Shea

Games four and five of the 2000 NLCS were probably the most fun I had ever had at baseball games. Going into Game four at Shea Stadium the Mets already had a 2-1 lead in the series but had lost game three by a pretty big margin. So, I remember feeling a bit nervous and the crowd at Shea was a bit nervous as game four got underway. I did not have seats for the game, but for some reason found myself in the mezzanine level along the first base side (I may have been in the auxiliary press box). The Cardinals taking a two-run lead in the first did not help with the anxiety within the stadium, but the Mets put up four runs in their half of the inning off of five doubles and the stadium started going bonkers as it started rocking and bouncing.

When Todd Zeile lined a double to score two more runs in the second, I could actually see that stadium shaking. I had never been at a game like that and the place was just going nuts. What followed was seven more innings of just joy and partying at Shea. The Cardinals did threaten a bit, scoring four more times, but the final was 10-6 and it put the Mets on the verge of a National League Championship and a trip to the World Series.

In game five, Andrea came to the game with me and we sat in the centerfield bleachers towards the front. I remember being nervous. I had been with teams playing in League Championship Series three times in the previous four years and none of them were ever this close to a World Series berth. The Mets were 27 outs away with Mike Hampton, their stunning offseason acquisition, delivered the day of the office Christmas Party, coming off a solid season and a fantastic game one performance standing on the mound looking to seal it.

All the worries…all the fear…all the anxiety started to evaporate when the Mets scored a quick three runs in the first. And when Todd Zeile again delivered a double and three more runs in the fourth, the party began in earnest. Hampton was absolutely dominant, shutting out the Cards on three hits while going the distance, striking out eight.

In the past eight months and over the course of my life, I have written a lot about baseball. Writing about my time in the game, proofing and re-writing my novel, and turning my attention back to my beloved Mets. I’ve written about those pivotal moments in my baseball life…Game Six of the 1986 World Series. The Pendelton moment. Getting the job at the Orioles. I have written about all of it.

But this is the first time I have written about those two games that fall of 2000 and I can barely get through it as the emotions from those two days and that absolutely magical fall wash over me. I had always thought of them fondly, but now, nearly 22 years later, I am overwhelmed remembering the pure joy of those games.

With Andrea next to me, I don’t think I have ever been happier in my baseball life than I was at that moment when the Mets clinched, with Shea Stadium bouncing under my feet and the team that had filled up so much of my childhood, celebrating on the field with unadulterated joy. All these years later, I am nearly sobbing as I recall those memories and the moments later that night and the following morning.

In 1986 I watched the Mets celebrate in a champagne soaked locker room. To a certain extent, I had become obsessed with the idea of being in the middle of one of those. It captivated me and I wanted to be a part of one.

In 2000, I had a clubhouse pass around my neck and the opportunity was there for me to live that dream. At the time, I was pretty close with my boss and a couple of guys that worked as interns with me. With Andrea at my side, I decided to skip the clubhouse and celebrate that moment with her and the people I worked most closely with on the team. I remember arriving in the front offices and talking and celebrating with them when I saw the head of my department walk in, soaked in champagne carrying a special bottle of Budweiser the size and shape of a champagne bottle. For a moment, I wondered if I should have headed to the clubhouse. He walked over to us and handed us the bottle, which we shared and I felt that was the perfect way to celebrate.

Like the Orioles, the Mets had postgame parties during the postseason. I don’t remember exactly where it was as the rest of that night was a complete blur. I want to say it was in the normal tent set up behind the centerfield bleachers where those things normally were, but I feel like this was in a different spot than we normally had the parties. Under the scoreboard at Shea, maybe? Anyways, Andrea and I headed to that. We talked with Gary Cohen and Howie Rose. We watched as Mike Piazza and some other players joined the party. We hung out with my coworkers and we celebrated a moment that was just so special.

It was around 3 or 4 in the morning when we headed home to Hoboken through the New York Subway system. I use to know the transfers by heart, but in Manhattan, we transferred from the 7 Line to another train to get to the PATH train.

There is something so surreal about the New York/New Jersey transit systems at that time of the morning. I had ridden them often getting home from Shea after games, early in the morning. While there is a touch of fear in riding the trains at that hour, there is something so calming about those usually packed trains filled with the noises of so many people. The quiet always seemed to soothe my soul after chaotic days, even if you were riding the train with a 300-pound drunk man wearing a bunny suit.

Riding on the subway through that city after that game and night, I felt on top of the world and the smooth rocking of the train car mesmerized me into this sublime moment in time that I often think about to this day.

As we settled into our seats on the train with Andrea snuggled up against me, I remember feeling such a great sense of peace. It was the calm after the storm, and I just sank into the moment.

There was a man slunk in his seat across from us and he was looking over at me. After a moment or two, he asked, “Do you work for the Mets?” I was confused for a second before realizing I was still wearing my employee badge. I confirmed that I did and he responded with, “Congratulations. You are going to lose to the Yankees, though.” He then smiled at us, told us he worked at the New York Post, and handed us a copy of the first edition of the paper that just came off the press.

On the front was a black and white picture of Mike Piazza with his arms up celebrating and “AMAZIN!” printed in red over his head. In my somewhat large collection of newspapers commemorating big moments, that one is my favorite and just added to the magic of the night/morning.

About 10 days later, the Yankees did beat us in the World Series at Shea Stadium. I was sitting with my friend and former co-worker from the Orioles and I remember him grabbing my arm in momentary excitement when Mike Piazza drilled a Mariano Rivera pitch with a runner on and down by two in the ninth inning. But as I saw Bernie Williams settle in under it, I sat back down and heard the Yankee fans cheering a Championship, full-throated in my stadium. I refused to look at the field and my friend and I made our way out of the seats and back to my office.

The worst part of that loss was walking through the crowds of cheering Yankees fans. In order to get to my office from the centerfield seats we had to go out of the stadium around centerfield, walk around to about home plate, and back in. At the moment, the sight and the sounds created a hard memory for me and it crushed me. It was in sharp contrast to the NLCS and I was not ready for it.

Through the years I think back to moments in the World Series and I get disappointed and taste the bitterness on my tongue. It hurts sometimes, especially now, almost 22 years later and knowing I’ll never be back there again.

However, I’ll never forget that “Amazin” night when we won the NLCS. It and the 1986 World Series burn in the hearth of my baseball soul, someplace warm I can return to when things get cold (I am looking at you, 2007). In a huge way, 2000 still influences me. In that moment when I returned to my office after winning the NLCS and seeing Andrea and my friends to the left of me and the head of my department to the right soaked in champagne, a weird thought went through my head that was cemented by the World Series loss.

I didn’t want to be in an office or in a clubhouse celebrating someone else’s accomplishments. I needed to not tie my life and emotions and energy to the ups and downs of a group of people that happen to be wearing the same clothes. I needed to find my own success, my own things to cheer about.

Less than a year later, I was out of baseball by my choice. While I obviously still love the game and absolutely treasure my 2000 NL Championship ring, the game just was not right for me anymore, professionally. I needed my own accomplishments to celebrate. While I am largely still chasing that, there is so much I have done in my life that I am proud of. There are times I desperately miss working for baseball teams, I would not change it. Not a single moment of it.

And, honestly, a lot of what happened that fall is what drove me to write this book. However, this post has already gone on too long, so the rest of this story will need to wait until after the final chapter of the book gets published.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Ninth

Michael remembered his first game like it was yesterday. He was 15 and had fallen in love with the sport the previous fall. He had spent six months learning about “his” team and its history. He was learning about the game and its history. His family embraced what he embraced and fostered it with books and videos, and he absorbed every bit of it. However, he still had so much to learn and experience about his new love and he often felt like he was a toddler stumbling around on new legs as he wandered around this world that is baseball.

When his brother-in-law got a pair of tickets to see his team in the late part of spring, he jumped at the opportunity. The night before, he couldn’t sleep. He was so excited. It didn’t seem fair that he had to go to school that day. He fidgeted in his seat watching the second hand go backward on the clock. At lunch, he boasted to his friends about how he was going to see the game.

The nearly two-hour drive out to the stadium required crossing two bridges and one of the biggest cities in the world. It seemed endless. When they came around the final stretch of highway and the giant blue stadium suddenly appeared from behind some trees, he felt himself pull back into his seat in excitement, awe, and just a touch of fear. He couldn’t believe he was really there.

He remembers so much of that night … so many sights and sounds. Where his seats were and even how he sat. He remembers who pitched and the score and who hit the home runs. But the lasting, indelible image was of walking through a dark concourse toward the rectangular light form emerging from the last ramp out to the seating bowl. The concourse was dirty and dingy, and most of all, dark. When he first stepped into the ramp entrance, the light hit him in the eyes and overwhelmed everything. But as his eyes began to focus, he could see the green grass and the blue sky backdrop. He could see thousands of people as the whole seating bowl emerged. He walked into the light and he felt he was reborn. For every game after that, it never got old and every time he stepped into the light, he remembered that first time.

As he makes his way out to deliver some tickets to his boss, he walks through a tunnel with a light at the end. He is that 15-year-old kid again heading into the light, but now, instead of stepping out into the stands, he is stepping out into a dugout and the field, its entirety spreads out before him. At the lower level, the field almost gives the appearance of going on forever. The wall seems tiny and there is no warning track from that level, just grass all the way out. The light of the sun floods the grass, and when late in the day and early into the fall, it is low enough that you can see the shadows of each blade being cast against the dark green. Beyond the grass horizon stands the tall golden warehouse that gives the look of trying to contain that golden sunlight and reflect it back into the stadium. It reminded him of a cornfield after the storm, gathering the rays of light and showing them off.

He takes the two steps and he is on the dirt. Another couple of steps, he is standing on the grass and every time, it overwhelms him.

He is greeted with the laughter of players and reporters as they do their dance around the questions that either no one has an answer to or everyone already knows the answer to. He hears the bat on the ball followed by an excited murmur of the crowd. Occasionally, there are louder cheers followed by the banging around of a ball in a section of empty seats. Nothing beats the sounds of the crowd as the nervous energy is the only competition to sunlight in filling the stadium.

He has learned to love that feeling, that rush to the senses that whole scene brings on. Sure, the playoff race multiplies it, but it fills him with energy and sharpens his mind. The excitement of the scene and the feelings put him on top of the world. He is aware he is a small cog in this engine, but he feels bigger than himself.

He barely gets a moment to take it all in when the first reporter comes up to him and asks him if he had the information he needed. In another moment several more are queued up around him as he sorts through his notes and quickly distributes the information he has. One of the rookie September call-ups comes over to him and cracks a joke, asking him if he had the tickets. After handing them over, the rookie pats him on the shoulder and runs off.

After more of this, he finally makes his way over to his boss. He is a charismatic man whose personality seems bigger than most of the players around him. He is the first with a joke, first with encouragement, first with a laugh that seems to fill the bowl of the stadium. He is also firm and refuses to yield to the men-children that surround him on all fronts. There isn’t a soul there that dislikes the man, including his counterpart on the other side of the field.

As Michael confidently moves toward him, he is noticed and his boss politely separates himself from the crowd around him. After gathering the information he needs from the intern and handing off some additional instructions, he puts his arm around his shoulder and leads him further away from the rest.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a postgame locker pass. It was decided earlier in the week that from the team’s staff, only the director, assistant director, and admin would be allowed in the locker room in the event of a clinching. This was the biggest story in baseball … for a team to lose 22 straight games and to now be on the verge of going to the playoffs was historical, to say the least. It was the feel-good emotional story that everyone wanted and many needed. So, the league had sent staff to help and the media had their own people doubled up for the clubhouse afterwards.

He handed the pass over to the confused Michael who asked who he needed to give it to, only to be told to attach it to his own ID. It was his and he had earned it. His boss quickly walked away, leaving the stunned intern staring down at the pass. As he came back to his senses, he caught the eye of the old veteran coming out of the batting cage. They exchanged smiles before the kid was tugged away by another writer.

In late August, with the team continuing to pick up steam, his manager called a meeting to discuss the postseason media guide. Any team that was even a remote possibility to go into the playoffs had to begin preparing for them. And it wasn’t just preparing for getting to the playoffs … it was preparing for the team to go all the way, and there would be more than enough work to go around.

Since the perfect game, their jobs had already gotten considerably more difficult with requests from the media, calls from fans, and a surprise pennant race. The thought of more work scared him, not that he was afraid of the work and not that he didn’t want to do it. He was afraid of not doing it well. He was afraid of letting down the rest of the staff. He was afraid of not being able to give the details the attention they needed. His boss was also quick to point out the last weekend of the season. He told them to circle it on their calendars and to plan on living in the stadium for the weekend. There would be no sleep.

He received his assignments and they were modest, simple tasks. He had a sense of fear around the work that needed to be done by the team behind the team down the stretch, but he took offense that was not being allowed to take on a bigger role with it. He wanted to do more, despite and maybe even because of the fear. He wanted the challenge.

However, instead of getting upset with it, it lit a fire under him. He realized he could stay angry at this perceived slight, or he could step up and fight to do more. He started coming in even earlier and leaving even later to clear away his assignments. He made preparations that would ease his workload that last weekend and made sure he was ready each day to handle whatever came his way.

It was noticed, and each day he was given more work and he welcomed it. These new assignments led to more time in the clubhouse and more time with reporters. The players and media that he dreaded and feared, he became increasingly comfortable around them. He talked to them with confidence, learned to small talk and learned to crack jokes with them. He grew into himself as the pressure became stronger.

All this, of course, led to more time on the field before games as he became an essential piece of the media relations team. In the past, he felt like just another one of the fans in the stands watching this opportunity zip by him. Now, he took control of it and embraced it. It wasn’t something that he was going to let slip by him.

And there he was, now, with a front-row seat to the most important game this team has played in many, many years. The entire baseball world was looking at them as he was very near the center of the circus.

Leaving the field so that they could do the final preparations for the game felt like a letdown. He wondered about his immediate and long-term future and wondered if he would get back here again. Would there be playoff games on the field? Would he be around next season? A certain stress-flavored melancholy came over him as he took one last look at the bunting high up on the upper decks. This was a different stadium in a different city, but as he made the step down into the dugout, he looked up to right about the same spot he had sat in his first game. He smiled and he walked back into the relative darkness.

He made his way slowly through the bowels of the stadium. There wasn’t much for him to do with the game about to start, so he took his time. He found it ironic that during games was actually the least busy time of the day for him.

Michael met up with some coworkers … friends … for a quick bite to eat. One friend produced a bag of black and orange M&M’s to share with the group. They marveled at her ability to get M&M’s in the colors of the team, but her secret was that stores loved to put out Halloween candy early.

They all exchanged nervous chatter as they ate their meals before heading out in different directions. They all had places to be but his only real job was to be around the press box if needed and keep M&M girl busy as she logged the game into the computer. He settled into his spot next to her in the press box and settled into the game with a nervous pit in his stomach.

He knew that spot well. He knew exactly what section it went in. He knew it when the ball left the bat. But it didn’t help him with the shockwave that slammed him at what he had witnessed. You stare at numbers long enough and you read the same articles and look at the same pictures enough, you learn things that very, very few others learn. And he knew exactly what it meant for that specific home run to hit that specific spot in this particular world and he nearly could not move. As the stadium erupted in a secondary shockwave of joy, he shook it off and headed through the press doors. He figured he had just a few moments, while the stadium swam in the joy, to get to where he needed to be before the tsunami of happiness slammed against the pathways he needed.

He hadn’t gotten far when he heard himself being paged over the walkie-talkie, but he had a mission and he didn’t have the time to explain.

By the time he got back to the clubhouse, he was preparing himself to have to explain how he threw away the respect of his boss and coworkers. He had been repeatedly paged, but he hoped what he had in his hand would redeem him.

What he wasn’t prepared for was the mayhem that he encountered when he walked through the clubhouse doors. His nose was immediately filled with the sweet smell of the champagne as the mist of the celebratory drink hung like a fog in the air. The noise of celebrations bounced off the walls and almost drowned out completely the noise of the loud radios playing a mixture of noise.

As he tried to make his way through the crowd, dry, he finally saw his boss standing near the hero of the game and a large contingent of the media. His boss caught him in his gaze and the joy immediately left his face. The intern made a quick line toward him as he took a half step in his direction. Before the director could say anything, the kid leaned into him and whispered in his ear. The scorn in his face immediately faded away into a shocked smile as his gaze tried to look into the kid’s hands.

The director quickly grabbed his assistant who was walking by and pushed him into the media scrum and then he quickly led the intern back through the mayhem and out the clubhouse doors. There, he was met with the woman, her daughter, and the kid. They were escorted by a handful of firefighters, and the director marveled at how the intern managed to get them all this deep into the stadium.

After shaking some hands and exchanging some words, the director turned toward the kids and said, “Go get him … I don’t care if you need to hogtie him and roll him out in a laundry bin, you get him out here.” Shocked, the intern quickly turned back through the doors and into the spray of champagne.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Celebrations

When I think of my time with the Orioles and the Mets, it is the celebrations with my coworkers and friends that I remember the most. However, one of the reasons I wanted to work so badly in baseball was because I wanted to be a part of one of those clubhouse champagne celebrations. That didn’t happen, but the celebrations with my coworker friends still stir joy inside of me all these years later.

In 1996, I was alone in the office, catching up on some work, when the Orioles upset the Indians in the Division Series in Cleveland. I got up from my desk and was celebrating on my own in the middle of the warehouse. My friend and coworker, Kevin, was in Cleveland for the game and he arrived a few hours later, somehow racing by car to beat the team’s plane and bus. We excitedly talked and celebrated as others would trickle in to be a part of the moment and get to work on the next. By the time the team bus arrived, there were hundreds of fans outside the warehouse cheering and celebrating. When the bus arrived, pandemonium erupted and I stood along side my friends cheering and hugging. It was such an awesome moment…I felt like I was in a movie.

Even in losses, there was celebration. For home games during the ALCS, there was a postgame party in the restaurant inside the warehouse for media and VIP’s. When the Yankees beat the Orioles in that year’s ALCS, employees were invited up to the postgame party and we celebrated like we had won. The intensity of the last few weeks of the season, the Alomar situation, and a frustrating ALCS (Jeffrey Maier!!!) were unleashed in a wave of emotion. It was the end of the world, so to speak, and there was no tomorrow. Later that night, a few of us not wanting to let go drove around (we did have a designated driver) looking for an open bar. We never found one, but that quiet time driving around a very quiet city, and talking with friends are moments I will always cherish.

However, perhaps my very favorite moment during my time in baseball, and the inspiration for the latest chapter of my book, came in 1997, back with the Orioles. Despite a better record, they were expected to struggle against the Seattle Mariners in the Division Series mostly because they would have to figure out how to beat Randy Johnson, who finished 2nd in the AL Cy Young vote that year, and shut down the awesome trio of MVP Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodrigues.

The Orioles were up to the task and made it seem easy, beating them in four games, with the final game at Oriole Park. It featured two of the best pitchers of that generation, Mike Mussina and Johnson. Honestly, I remember absolutely nothing from the game itself or the immediate postgame work that had to be done, but what followed that was amazing.

The Orioles offices inside that long warehouse featured hallways right down the middle, maybe 10 feet wide. Running along the hallway were low walled, built-in desks where administrative assistants and other staff worked. Behind those desks were staff offices that had windows overlooking either the walkway and field or the road in front of the warehouse.

After the Seattle game, and after our work was done, a few of us were hanging out at the desks along the hallway talking about the game and speculating about the ALCS. Our team had won 98 regular-season games and had just made the mighty Mariners, with at least three Hall of Famers playing for them (Griffey, Johnson and Martinez; Rodrigues probably would have been if he had stayed clean), had been taken down easily. We were reinvigeratorated and excited and felt invincible.

Originally, if I remember correctly, it started out as just my coworkers (and close friends) Kelly and Kevin and myself. Slowly, more and more people would join us there and the excitement and voices grew. Eventually, these rolling ice carts with beer in them showed up, I think courtesy of either John or my manager at the time, Spiro (I had moved from PR to the website before the 1997 season). I can’t be sure, but I think eventually food showed up and all of it was down the middle of that hallway. The production folks broke out some makeshift music system and soon it seemed nearly the entire staff of the Orioles were in that hallway celebrating and laughing and cheering and singing (pretty sure Tubthumping was played more than once). And since it was a late afternoon game, it was still early enough that no one felt the need to go anywhere and late enough that there was no time to do anything else. It really was one of my absolute favorite moments working in baseball.

It was truly a magical moment that still makes me emotional and gives me chills to this day. It would also be the last of so many magical moments I remembered from my time there.

Just over a week later would be one the hardest moments I had in baseball. Coming off that big Division Series win, we were the favorites to beat the Cleveland Indians and advance to the World Series. Through some heartbreaks and another Pendelton moment (Armando Benitez, who would repeatedly break my heart during my baseball career, gave up a three-run home run to Marquis Grissom in the top of the 8th inning of game 2 when it looked for sure that we were about to go up 2 games to none), we found ourselves in a 3-1 hole in the series.

The staff refused to concede and after winning game 5, we came home needing to win the final two games. We took on a makeshift slogan of “We Believe” and we had a bunch of orange signs printed up and distributed around the ballpark for game six.

Unfortunately, Game 6 was a heartbreaker, 1-0 in 11 innings. It was the second consecutive year that the team failed in the ALCS at home. However, again, a few of us gathered in the hallway to talk a bit and console each other until it was time to go home. In five full seasons working in major league baseball, the team I worked for went deep into the playoffs four times without winning it all and I never got used to that shockwave of a season just suddenly ending. After a month of intensity, of constantly having something to do and working off just pure adrenaline and to have it suddenly being over like flipping off a light switch hits you hard. So we just sat in that hallway, contemplating what to do next. It was a mix of not wanting to go home, but also not wanting to be there anymore.

Eventually, we did head for the exit and as I approached the door that came into our section of the warehouse, I noticed one of the “We Believe” signs taped to it. I went up to it and ripped off the “Be” so that it just read “We lieve” and we walked out with a couple of chuckles.

And that was really the end of those glory days at the Orioles. While I wasn’t there, 1995 had 2131 and 1996 and 1997 had exciting playoff runs. But with that loss to Cleveland, it was over. A lot of my friends, who were mostly seasonal, would leave that fall, and in February, I would leave for my dream job at the Mets. The Orioles would inexplicitly fire the great manager, Davey Johnson during the winter and they would put up 14 straight losing seasons before making it back to the playoffs in 2012. They have only had 4 winning seasons in the 24 seasons since I was there, which is a shame for that fanbase that loves their team more than any other fanbase I have ever seen.

While I never did have that clubhouse champagne celebration, (part of me still feels a tug at having passed up on the opportunity twice) those moments with my friends in the warehouse, even in the losses, are some of my most cherished memories in baseball.

(In my three seasons with the Mets, there was a lot to celebrate like the 2000 NLCS, the Grand Slam Single, Todd Pratt’s Division Series clinching homerun, and so on, but those are stories for another time.)

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Eighth

When strikeouts really started to pile up, the activity of the press box picked up a tick. Reporters and other agents of the media picked up phones and started making calls. One of baseball’s most revered was being threatened, and, by itself, would be enough to whip the press box and the baseball world into a frenzy. But a perfect game on top of it … well, that is why the press box activity only ticked up a bit. There was more to this. Everyone wanted to be the first one to get the story out, but, at the same time, no one wanted to miss the next big story because they tied themselves up in the first story. So, the media whispered quietly on their phones, doing their best to terminate the calls as quickly as possible while still trying to focus on the game. Some were awaiting orders and next steps from the people on the other end while others were dictating orders and next steps to those on the other end.

Michael had learned a lot about the media over the last several months. They were a special group with special relationships with each other and with the people controlling the flow of the information … the media relations department. The core writers and radio and television people spent far too much time with each other. The relationships spanned the spectrum with some that were close friends going all the way down to those that outwardly hated each other. They were all competing with each other. They all wanted The Story and wanted to break The Story before anyone else, yet, oftentimes, they couldn’t get the stories by themselves.

The good reporters dug down for the stories, looked closer at the details, and chased after what they thought were stories. Others would poke around other reporters to see what they knew … it was more of an activity to simply get ideas on a story or to add a little color to their stories. The third type of reporter served merely as a megaphone for what the media had to say or for what they saw on the field. They would add some additional quotes they pulled from the players, added their opinions, wrong or right, and off the story went.

Regardless of what type of reporter they were, they needed each other. Conversations at dinner or on the field or between innings were friendly as they looked for crumbs of information in what others had found. Teams were big and stadiums were bigger and no one person could get to all of it, so they relied on this tense, uneasy friendship between them to fill in the blanks of the places they missed.

Like a dam holding back water, there was the media relations department and the information was the water, but they were more than that. They too had roles that seemed oxymorons of each other. On one hand, they had to feed the media and help the media while keeping them in line at the same time. They were like the fun dad that sometimes had to slap their kid’s hands when boundaries were crossed. At the same time, they had to protect the players, the team, and everyone’s reputation. The media and players could be mortal enemies often and it was the media relations group’s job to serve as protector of both, with priorities often blurred. They were the mediators between the groups and it wasn’t an easy job.

Earlier that night, the press box was loud with talk. There was a very big story before the game even began and that was how this team simply could not win a game. The media relations department was pressed to its limits trying to feed the media what they needed to sell newspapers and ad time while, at the same time trying to manage a clubhouse that wanted less and less to do with the media the longer this streak extended on. Rightfully so, the media had said some very negative things about the team while a few were outright vicious in their attacks on the players, the coaches, and management itself. There were cries for players to be cut free, coaches to be sent packing, and one even suggested the team should be sold. There was no let-up and the media relations team needed a break. The clubhouse became more reclusive with each day as the media seemed to enjoy the losses more and more each day.

So, as the game began, the focus was on how many more games the team would lose before they figured out how to win. As the first few innings played out, no one seemed to notice that the pitcher was throwing as if possessed by Cy Young himself. They only noticed that the team wasn’t hitting and that they still couldn’t get on base. Cheering was not allowed in the press box, but that did not include jeering, of which there was plenty.

Something happened in the fifth, however. It was almost as if the pitcher had seen what was going on in the press box. It was almost as if he was sitting next to the Intern observing everything with him. Somehow, it seemed, he knew and it was time to grab their attention. The louder than normal pop of the catcher’s mitt followed by the loud strike call of the ump that emerged to end the top half of the fifth had two completely opposite effects within the stadium. As the fans in the stands erupted in applause and shouts, the press box went dead silent as they looked down at their score sheets and realized that there were a lot of K’s scrawled out, they suddenly took notice. The quiet lasted just a moment as they started to talk to each other, confirming counts. Just nine pitches that inning? Do you have 11 strikeouts? There haven’t been any …? With that last pitch of the fifth, the pitcher changed the conversation and grabbed their attention.

Michael, meanwhile, started getting nervous after the third. As a fan, he always paid very close attention to games until both sides had a hit. The team he grew up rooting for never had a no-hitter so he paid close attention to games until that first hit came along because he wasn’t going to miss it when it happened. So, once a team emerged from the third, he would get a bit more excited and nervous. He also happened to notice his clean score sheet. He hated math, but he loved baseball numbers, especially when there was something special about them. He noticed the three groups of three for nine batters across three innings. He noticed that his score sheet looked nearly … Even in his head, he couldn’t say the word.

As a kid, he always thought that not saying the word when a pitcher is performing a certain feat was cool, but just sort of a joke that no one took seriously. As he grew older, he knew that it wasn’t a joke. He was more superstitious as a kid … he honestly believed the things he did influenced the game. As his faith in God developed more, he realized that superstition could not exist in the same world as his faith. They were mutually exclusive. That said, he still made sure to NEVER step on a foul line and he barely even thought the p-word when he saw one developing.

As the game headed into the seventh inning, the reporters were whispering to each other and he was sure he heard the p-word among the whispers. After the seventh, someone from one of the local papers finally decided to break the ice and mention the word with full intention in an alternate context. As the rest of the press box grumbled at the man, the media relations director turned around and threw a pen at him, and it wasn’t with a smile. For those serious about this game, that was a serious breach of conduct.

As the Intern watched the game and the press box sitting in a quiet simmer, he could feel the tension in the air. There was just no way to deny it. It was almost suffocating but in a fun way. The air felt electric as the possibility of greatness loomed.

When the top half of the eighth ended, the stadium roared to life again as reporters watched the pitcher calmly walk off the mound, shaking their heads. The intern often talked to the reporters and he got to know them somewhat well. He even managed to befriend one or two. One particular reporter that he was friends with seemed bored by baseball. He had been doing his job for so long that he had seen everything and his job was just that, a job. He simply was going through the motions and continued to do it simply because he didn’t know anything else. He knew of nothing else he could do.

The intern, deep down, could sense the guy still loved the game even if he didn’t admit it. The way he talked about the amazing feats of the legends and the potential of a rookie gave him away, often. You don’t continue to stay close to the game if you are not interested.

As the pitcher made his way into the dugout after this inning, the intern looked over at the reporter and saw a twinkle in his eye. The reporter was probably the one person in the press box who was not looking at the pitcher. He was looking at the outfielders running in from the field and then staring up at the upper decks as the fans shook the stadium. There was a glassy wonder in his eyes.

When the Old Ballplayer was announced with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, all the positive electricity that had been in the air was quickly swept out of the stadium and the crowd turned on him. The press box had an angry shift, as well, as some outright cursed as others simply threw their arms in the air. Yeah, maybe this pitcher nails down the ninth, but without a run, some wondered if he even had the ability to pitch another inning if it went extras, let alone preserve the feat. Some mentioned that extra innings would even muddle the strikeout record, should he reach it in the ninth. It would be in a regulation game, but if it took more innings and he got more strikeouts, what was the precedent? No one seemed to know and now, the Old Player that had let the city down the night before was the one who was tasked to prevent the situation from happening.

When the Tuck crushed the third pitch he saw off the wall in left-center, like a tidal wave, the electricity came back into the stadium tenfold. There was no containing the excitement as the stadium shook.

The noise of pen on paper and fingers on keyboard suddenly became furious, even as reporters smiled to themselves, shaking their heads. This night was turning into a baseball story like no other, and if there was tension before, it had just ratcheted up tenfold again. With the run, there was now a chance for, well, a game that would probably be unmatched in baseball history. Just three outs were needed and they would all bear witness to a night of baseball that would top them all.

When the media relations director popped up, grabbing his phone, notebook, and pen, the intern realized he was heading down to the clubhouse. He whispered a few words to his assistant, and as he walked by, the intern panicked. What was his job in this situation? Where should he go? What should he do? By the time his mind processed that he should ask, his boss was out the door.

As the ninth inning started, the stadium turned almost deathly quiet. With each strike, there were loud eruptions from around the stadium before it would go quiet again. When the scoreboard flashed that the pitcher had broken the single-game strikeout record, barely anyone noticed despite it being the rarer feat. There was little reaction. The only thing that mattered was the 27th man that just stepped into the batter’s box. The intern dropped his pen and he swore that the people in centerfield must have heard it.

When the bat cracked, it seemed to echo through the whole stadium. Some writers murmured that that was it … no perfection. There were curses scattered around and even some books being slammed against the tables. When the Old Ballplayer went into his dive, all noise from the pressbox ceased and the gaze of every single person was on the one man. As he lay down on the ground, no one knew if he had the ball or not. They didn’t know if it was under him or in his glove. Those few seconds seemed to last a lifetime until finally, he reached into his glove and pulled out the ball.

There is no cheering in the press box. A firm and hard rule. But there were exceptions to every rule and this game was the absolute exception to every single game ever played before it.

There were huge smiles that night in the press box.

There were high-fives in the press box.

There were even a couple of tears in the press box.

There was certainly and irrefutably and without a single doubt in the world, cheering in the press box.

What had gone from a normal weekday night in the press box had gone from quiet to surreal over the course of nine innings.

Michael sat stunned for a few moments taking in the mad celebration on the field and watching the reactions in the press box. The stands actually seemed to be shaking as the celebration among the fans filled the air with a deafening sound. He was certain that you could not actually hear the cheering that was going on in the press box.

After a moment or two of resisting cheering, he turned to his fellow intern sitting next to him. She had tears in her eyes as she fought the urge to cheer. They exchanged a big hug and a laugh as they soaked it in. Michael then looked over at his reporter friend who just seemed to be staring through the celebration on the field and seemed focused on something that may not even have been happening now … a moment somewhere in the past, perhaps. But the long start was accompanied by a big smile and it seemed he suddenly had fewer wrinkles on his face. As the celebration started to break apart and the players headed toward the dugout, the reporter snapped out of it and turned toward Michael and gave an even bigger smile. He then abruptly grabbed his notes and his pen and jumped up to head down to the clubhouse.

The intern hopped up and followed suit. There was still work to do, even if he was unsure what he needed to do.

A couple of hours after the game, the team got on their buses and disappeared into the night and off to another stadium.The interns and all the young seasonal help had slowly, one by one, drifted back to the hallway that went through the media relations office. The intern was in charge of making sure the stats were uploaded to the statistics firm through the computer and there was just one place to do that. Others gravitated there. Their jobs were mostly done, but no one wanted to go home. The adrenaline was too high and they each had stories about the night that they wanted to share. About how even the mascot let out a cheer at the end. How they saw grown men crying in the bleachers. How they had been hugged and mobbed by random people just because they had a team employee shirt on. Some even had their own tears running down their faces as they quietly recalled the magical night.

The crowd grew beyond that of the interns. Managers and directors and camera people all drifted in, and as each person walked in, a new yell went up. Their jobs were done, the magic of the night poured out through the hallways. Soon, a cooler on wheels filled with beer and a couple of bottles of champagne was rolled into the area. The media relations director, between phone calls with the media, had sent it up from the restaurant after he heard a sort of party had emerged. Food soon arrived. The production guys went back and got radios and speakers, and a crew that was haggard and tired and fed up just hours before were now letting loose like New Year’s Eve and a World Series victory rolled into one.

Many would leave baseball after that season. Only a few would go on in the game. Most would go on and get married, have children, and move on to jobs that had nothing to do with baseball. Some might linger for a few years, hoping to make their mark on the sport or at least this team. Regardless of what they would do after that night, they had that one magical night. They would tell their grandchildren about it one day. They would tell their coworkers. They might even tell the poor woman sitting next to them on a plane who wouldn’t believe that they were there. They would always have that night regardless of what happened after.

Just as each had wandered in one by one, each wandered out one by one or sometimes in small groups. As the sun got closer to rising, the intern found himself sitting alone at his desk. He didn’t want to leave but knew he would have to. He wanted to wait for the newspapers to arrive in a couple of hours, but he knew he would need a shower and a change of clothes. The television was airing the same highlights for the fifth time now and there was nothing new. So, he finally got up and wandered off into the night himself.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Passing on a Passion…or Not

I originally wrote the chapter “Top of the Eighth: Shared Stories” about six or seven years ago. At the time, at least one of my sons was still playing baseball, possibly both. I may have even written this when they were both playing for the Little League team I was coaching at the time, the Mets.

I feel like that is important to mention should my sons one day read my book. As I was re-editing this latest chapter it goes heavy on “The Fan’s” (Abigail) need to have her kids enjoy baseball. It lays heavy her excitement at them becoming fans. It, in fact, goes on so much that one day, my own kids might feel like I am sending some sad message to them, expressing my own disappointment that, as of right now, early in the 2022 baseball season, they are not baseball fans.

The main crisis point with Abigail is that she loves the game, but is alone in that love. Her own father, her primary human connection to the game, is gone and her children don’t like the game, or, more accurately, have good reasons not to like it. However, this was a plot point I developed a long time ago when I first started writing this in 2011. The boys were fans of Thomas the Train then and baseball just wasn’t something they were too familiar with.

In fact, by then, we had been to a number of Lehigh Vally IronPig games and Ben had been to a couple of Mets games and there was a glimmer of hope that they might enjoy those little adventures. And even if they were more interested in the hot dogs and the playground beyond the left field wall at Coca Cola Park (IronPigs), there was a realistic chance at the time I developed this part of the story, that they could be baseball fans.

We introduced them to a few different sports, both playing and watching. They tried soccer, baseball, running and tennis. I had them watch, from time to time, baseball, football and basketball. In the end, they settled on the sports they liked playing, which was not baseball. Aside from the occasional basketball game and big events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl, neither of them really watch sports. Lately, both have started asking more about baseball, but I think they are really just bored by it.

I never wanted to feel like I was forcing my sports and interests on them. Yeah, I dressed them in Mets and Giants stuff and bought them hats, but I never sat them down and told them they had to root for the Mets. The games we attended at stadiums aside, we never forced them to sit and watch a game with us. I would turn it on and they could watch if they wanted and I’d be more than happy to answer any questions they had. However, I felt it was important to never push it on them.

So, as I re-read parts of my story, I wonder if it feels like I am projecting something here, what must they feel like when they read it? I don’t mean to lay down that kind of guilt. At the end of the day, while hugely influenced by my life in and around baseball, I am not bitter or regretful that my sons don’t share this interest with me.

All that said, I feel I need to leave them a very personal and public note: Benjamin and Matthew…you have to trust me, root or don’t root for whoever in whatever sport you want. I care, but I really don’t. Please do not read anything into all of this. At the end of the day, I just want you to be happy, which is probably all the more reason to stay away from baseball…it WILL break your heart. Especially the Mets!

However, one last note, I am not try to guilt either one of you, but I feel I do need to remind you that I will need to figure out who to leave my 2000 New York Mets National League Championship ring to…Just saying.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Eighth

As an umpire, he knew he should be unbiased and not rooting for any player or team. It was his job to remain neutral, stick with the rules of baseball, and call what he sees in a game to the best of his ability based on those rules. You cannot do that if you find yourself drawn toward a player or a team. Because of this, he never fraternized much with coaches and players. He did his best to exchange just as many words as he needed to get his job done. There were some players that he felt would try to get an edge by going out of their way to be kind and amenable to him, but he wouldn’t be fooled … their strike zone was the same as the next batter’s. There were some batters and coaches that were chatty for no other reason except to be friendly, but he would just politely excuse himself from those conversations. It earned him a reputation for being cold and perhaps being perpetually angry. But he was just ensuring that he could keep his neutrality intact.

However, when that final batter lined that ball into left field, he found himself screaming “No” in his head. He never wanted an out so badly in his life. Not when it was cold and rainy. Not when he witnessed other no-hitters. Not when he was feeling ill. However, in that moment, he wanted to be a part of the history of what that game could potentially be. He had never been an umpire for a Major League perfect game. He umped World Series game sevens. He had made calls through a 23-inning game. He had seen some truly amazing pitching performances in his time. However, this game was something entirely different. This game was in a new level of special.

He also found himself running down the third base line, trying to get a closer look at the player. His friend and colleague who was stationed at third base was already making the sprint into the left field corner to get a clearer view of Tuck, who was now just lying in the grass. Both umpires were holding their breath like the rest of the stadium, possibly the city. At the end of the day, they did this job because they loved this sport.

As he got to third base,he was trying to look deep into the corner and under the padding of the wall at the warning track. He was so frantically looking for the ball in the grass that he forgot there was still a runner on the bases. The sound of frantic footsteps from the batter approaching from second base as he arrived at third reminded him he had a job to do. He turned to watch the runner just in time to see him stop in his tracks as the stadium exploded around him. He looked over to see the pitcher jump up and down a couple of times, duck the tackle of his catcher, and start sprinting to the left field corner with the rest of the field falling into step behind them.

Then he did something he had never done on a baseball field … laugh. He had never seen such a sight and the emotions of the moment washed over him. It was impossible to be in that stadium in that moment and not get awash in that pure energy of humanity. He let himself smile and then laugh, and while he would never admit it, he might have let out a few tears.

As he watched the players celebrate in left field, he noticed a baseball cap of the home team sitting in the dirt between second and third. He wasn’t sure who had lost it, but he picked it up, brushed it off, and stared at it. He then took one last look out at the players and then wandered off to the umpire’s locker room. He wanted to share the moment with his own friends.

Baseball is special in many, many ways. There is something more magical about it than nearly every other sport. In no other sport, really, can a seemingly ordinary game on a seemingly ordinary night turn so quickly into something measurably extraordinary so quickly. Yeah, every sport has records that can be set and/or crushed but nothing that can compare to a perfect game. Perfect games stand up on their own without needing qualifiers. A perfect game is just that, a perfect game. While pitchers usually need the help of the teammates around them, perfect games are historic markers on both the pitcher and a franchise. All you need to know about a perfect game is right there in the name … perfect. It stands up on its own for all of history. While some perfect games seem to weigh heavier than others, they are all, simply, perfect.

As humans, none of us are perfect. None of us are without fault or without error. When a pitcher goes out there against world-class athletes and keeps each and every one of them off base for a few hours through an entire game, they become superhuman.

It is also one of the rarest accomplishments in all of baseball, yet it can happen on any night by any pitcher. It can be pitched by a team’s fifth starter who may never pitch more than a handful more games in his life or it can be pitched by a Hall of Famer. The names of most of the men that have thrown a perfect game are not etched into the Hall of Fame. On any night in any ballpark, a perfect game can be thrown and no other sport has the equivalent.

This was the second perfect game Abigail had witnessed in person. There are baseball fans that may attend every home game of their favorite team every season and they may not see as much as a no-hitter live, and there she was, taking in the glory of a second perfect game. Yet, despite seeing one before and despite spending huge chunks of her life sitting in big-league ballparks, absolutely nothing could prepare her for this game. Combine a record shattering, perhaps a new untouchable record of 22 strikeouts with a perfect game and you get something that is unmatched in history. There were guys that struck out 20 batters in a game and there were guys that have pitched perfect games. Each, by themselves, would make them instant baseball legends and contenders for the greatest game ever pitched. The 20 strikeout games were about as rare as anything in the game. More rare than perfect by a long shot. Take 22 strikeouts and put them with a perfect game and you have just one player standing alone. In black and white, there was no gray .. .this was the greatest game ever pitched.

Throw in the fact it was a streak breaker. Throw in the home crowd. Throw in the fact the pitcher was a rookie. Throw in the struggling future Hall of Famer getting instant redemption for the night before. Throw in that catch … that amazing hit saving, perfect game saving, undeniable greatest game ever pitched saving catch. When you combine all that, you have arguably the best game ever played. A game so special that poets will write about it.

And there she was, with her kids with a front row seat to it, staring at the brother of a hero holding a ball in the air from his back as thousands of people yelled. She turned to her Brian who was now standing on his seat high fiving the firemen sitting all around them. There were tears in his eyes and tears in nearly every other fan’s eyes around them. It wasn’t long before the high fives were traded for hugs. Laura just stared out at the field, tears also in her eyes and a smile on her face. She did not know how to act in that moment.

After a few moments, she watched as the old ballplayer was able to finally get out from under the pile of joy and stand back up. He was still being mobbed, but managed to pull himself free from the arms of his teammates for a moment. He turned around and took a few steps toward her. He looked up at her and the firefighters, and with his glove under his arm, his right hand over his heart and his left hand holding the ball, he pointed at them and smiled. He patted his chest a couple of times before turning around and walking back to the dugout with the rest of his team. She looked over at her children to see tears now streaming down their cheeks. She knew they were now hooked.

After an hour or so, they were finally able to get out of the stadium. The party had poured out into the streets. The electricity that had been initially contained inside the stadium had flooded out across the city. Men honked their horns in their cars and women yelled from windows at the passing fans. In her mind she imagined a shockwave bursting out of the old ballplayer the moment he crashed into the ground and that shockwave expanding out across the field, into the stands, across the city, and rushing across the country in all directions. She imagined the prodigal sons and daughters of this city, in their homes or favorite sports bars or at their desks for their late-night jobs, jumping up and down screaming, as they got hit by the shockwave.

She imagined a fan sitting comfortably in his house watching the game with his family. She imagined how, one by one, his kids and wife went up to bed, not knowing what was happening in the game and he was bound by a sacred unwritten rule unable to tell them … even as he became increasingly less comfortable in his seat. She imagined him on his knees, hands grasped together, two feet in front of the television when the shockwave hit him. In her mind she could see him jumping up and down desperately trying—and failing—to muffle his shouts of joy. It’s what she would have been doing had she not been in the stadium.

She imagined two strangers who had entered the bar separately but had gravitated next to each other in front of the only television showing the game. She imagined the strange looks the pair received with each shout they let out as the later innings unfolded. She imagined every other television in the bar, one by one, clicking over to the game, yet the pair refused to move from their seats. She imagined a large group of people tensely forming around them as the ninth inning started … some drinking more than before, some drinking less. In her mind, she saw the bar explode in joy when the shockwave hit as two strangers, who didn’t even know each other’s names, hugged like two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years and anointed a bar full of other strangers honorary citizens of their hometown.

She imagined a worker sitting at her desk in the corner of an office on the other side of the country, refreshing her computer for score updates in between processing the pile of paperwork in front of her. She imagined the updating becoming more frequent and less paperwork being processed as the game moved along. She imagined her refreshing her computer every 10 seconds and her pumping her fists silently in the air. She imagined the giant pile of paperwork flying into the air as the shockwave hit with the woman’s coworkers now all staring at her in her corner.

She relished this moment. The whole city seemed to relish it. The whole city felt more alive than it had ever been. It felt like someone had suddenly woken up this city and it felt like no one was currently asleep. It was an ordinary weeknight and there was a buzz as if it were noon on a Saturday. And she enjoyed every moment of it.

She draped her arm over the shoulders of her son as they walked. The firefighters had become their entourage as they excitedly relived the game. The old-timers often seemed to stare off into another world for a few seconds as they played what they just saw through their minds before snapping back into this world with a smile and a shake of their heads.

She paid special attention to her son as he would drift from confusion to giddiness. She wasn’t sure if he completely understood the magnitude of what had just happened, but he was feeding off the energy of everyone around him. He kept talking about the catch that ended it and he kept talking about how he thought the player was looking at him just after it. She couldn’t recall the last time she had seen him so animated. She was embarrassed by how happy and proud it made her.

The firefighters, meanwhile, continued to fuel the kid’s new passion and went beyond it. They joked with him and teased him in such a way that only old friends do. They laughed at his wide-eyed gaze as the fans exploded around him. They teased him about how he nearly committed a mortal sin by speaking the phrase “perfect game” and how they would have been required to tie him to the foul pole with a sock stuck in his mouth if he had said it. They joked with Laura, as well, but Brian seemed to glow in the good-natured abuse.

Underneath it all, she could tell that the older guys were trying to dig into what kind of kids they were … what kind of man and woman were they growing into. Some of their jokes had tests in them to measure them. Some questions were direct, like talking about school and what they planned to do. Some were more vague but loaded with meaning, like who their friends were. Abigail knew that they wanted to know if they were good people. One of their own died for them and while each of them would tell you it didn’t matter if they were good people or not, it made their burden lighter

Eventually, they made it to the fire station. As they were getting ready to say their goodbyes in the doorway, Brian noticed a shrine on the wall next to one of the trucks. There was the picture of a man he vaguely recognized draped in black and purple. Under it was a small shelf with a beat-up and burnt helmet, some flowers, and a candle. There was also an article about the Tuck’s brother Carl dying saving a family. In the article was a picture of a house burning. The new fan suddenly realized who the picture was of. Caught up in the night, he had not connected the dots on the firefighters and the tickets and what all of it meant.

The firefighters suddenly went quiet once they realized the boy had noticed the small shrine and his mother gasped like she had suddenly been hit in the gut. The boy went over to the shrine to get a closer look and to read the article. He reached up and touched the helmet, getting a little bit of that black smudge of soot on his fingertips. He stared into the eyes of the firefighter’s picture for a few moments before his mom and sister came over and put their arms across his shoulders. He looked at his mom and then reached into his pocket, pulling out his ticket stub from the game. He took it and placed it on the shelf next to the helmet, letting his fingers linger on the stub.

Finally, they turned to leave and found some of the firefighters in tears. The older firefighters shared long lingering hugs with her and Laura. With her son, there were as many hugs but some handshakes. Each of the firefighters had different shades of emotions in their eyes. Maybe some had a little bit of sadness. Some had a bit of joy. Most were far more complex than simple one-word emotions. However, regardless, all of them looked at them with pride. They had just met this family and honestly they knew very little about them, but they felt they were worthy of the sacrifice and it made their sacrifice that much less trying.

Not wanting to say goodbye, a few of the firefighters offered to walk them the rest of the way, but Abigail declined, knowing that the city was too excited still and nobody was going to bother a mother, her daughter, and her son dressed in team colors that night. She also knew it was time for some alone time with her kids.

As they walked, the boy’s tone was noticeably softer. His questions moved rapidly from the game, the player, his brother, and the fire. He admitted to having mentally shut that out for so long and how it seemed like it was a movie of someone else’s life he had watched, yet he still felt the guilt of someone else giving up their life for him. He asked about the player and how he had dealt with it all these years and how he knew the player had looked at him after catching the ball. He asked how the ballplayer had been and if she had any contact with him.

Just before they arrived home, he became very quiet before he just started weeping uncontrollably. She turned and grabbed him in a big hug, where they stood for a long time.

After arriving home, she grabbed her children by their wrists and took them over to the coffee table where the old cigar box was sitting. They sat down and she opened it. She took Brian and Laura on a walk through past games, as she flipped through the ticket stubs. She shared stories about the other games she saw and the moments shared with her dad. She lingered on the ticket stub that marked the death of her father. She lingered again on the ticket stub that marked the night of the fire. When she reached the top of the pile, she took out her ticket sub and placed it on top of the pile. She told them that this ticket meant more to her than any other. Not because of the perfect game or the Old Ballplayer or even the firehouse. It was because they had shared all those moments with her and that she would never forget that.

They sat up and talked for a while longer that night. Laura fell asleep first, but Brian was just simply too wound up to be able to settle down, while she simply didn’t want the night to end. They turned on the news at one point to see if they could catch the highlights of the game. When they came on, they kept looking to see if they could see themselves in the shot where the ballplayer had caught the ball. They were easy to spot among the backdrop of the firefighter’s uniforms. Eventually the TV was off and they started making plans for future games and discussing what direction the team would go from there. He had so many more questions for her about plays scattered throughout the game. The game had suddenly become a giant cake placed in front of him and he wanted to eat up as much as he could.

Sometime in the early morning, he started to drift off in his chair and she, hesitantly, told him it was time for bed. After he gave her another long hug, he wandered up to bed. She sat in the semi-dark living room with the box of tickets in her lap. As she stared at the ticket on top, she started sobbing through a smile.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Seventh

He sat in the corner of the dugout, as far away from others as he could. In the past, he relished and welcomed the isolation. He sought it out and he felt at home in it. As he sat there now, he analyzed the loneliness he felt for the first time. He felt it in his gut, perhaps he even felt it in his soul.

As Tuck, the Aging Ballplayer, thought more about it, the loneliness wasn’t new. He has been dealing with it for years. The death of his brother brought on the fog of sadness and depression. In that fog, he lost sight of everyone who had ever tried to reach out to him. His friends, teammates that he was once close to, his agent, the fans, and even the family that his brother had saved. In that fog, he felt only he himself could get him through the pain. Sadness and depression have held on tight, but the fog dispersed a bit and it was too late. The people that loved him had grown cold toward the bitterness that lashed out at them and backed away from the fog, and now he was left alone.

Somewhere in his mind, in the darkness, he had felt that they were all still around even if he ignored them. The incident from the day before shone a light onto him and it was the first time that he could see he was wrong and no one was left around him … he was alone.

He was shocked when his manager called down to him to get a bat. In a game like this, the past needed to be buried for the sake of the future and he had the best numbers by a large margin of anyone else on the bench against this pitcher. And the team needed a hit. With a runner on first, a perfect game in the balance and a streak in desperate need of being slayed, the team needed a very … very … big hit. So, he was shocked when he was called on to get it.

He normally was able to ignore the crowds. In hindsight, he felt, you can be an asshole for only so long without being able to turn a deaf ear to the boos. He wasn’t sure he could blame them and he wasn’t sure what he was doing in this game. However, here he was, his team riding one of the worst losing streaks in modern history, his pitcher carrying a perfect game through eight innings, and he was being asked to deliver it all, or at least give them a chance to do so, in this at-bat. Get a hit, end the streak, make history. And here he was, being booed.

As he stood at the plate, with the boos raining down, he thought about that home run. He thought about getting that one last big hit and he could step on the plate, and just keep walking right into the dugout and into the clubhouse, leaving it all behind. That at-bat would be the perfect time … he would shut up the booing and just walk away.

As a strike zipped past him, he was still lost in his thoughts or, perhaps, just simply lost. He stepped out of the box. As he tried to pull himself together, he glanced down at the runner on first … and he realized that was all he was to him … a runner. He wasn’t his teammate in his head, he wasn’t a friend, and he struggled to even remember the man’s name.

He then turned and looked into the dugout. Half of the guys were on the top step looking out and the other half were sitting on the bench. The young pitcher sat in the middle of the bench, looking down at his hands, no one around him. Everyone, except for the pitcher, had mixed looks on their faces. Some had the clear look of anxiety. Some, a look of excitement. Some just looked dejected, obviously unable to hide their contempt for him.

But there was one thing they all had in common (except the young Ace) … they were all looking at him. They were looking at him to deliver. The looks on their faces only expressed the degree in which each man believed that he could deliver. These weren’t just ballplayers. These weren’t just men thrown together. These weren’t just a group out trying to collect a paycheck. They were a team who were in desperate need of just a little bit of luck or maybe just a little bit of leadership. They were his teammates in desperate need of a hit and in desperate need of him delivering that hit.

He stepped back in the box as the anxiety of the entire stadium continued to come down on him. The fans were in the same boat. They were all looking at him to deliver something big. If he didn’t deliver, they would be angry, but they would go on with their lives. They didn’t need him to get a hit to live the rest of their lives. However, they sure as hell wanted it, in that moment, about as badly as anything they wanted in their lives. Some had other troubles in their lives, whether it was a small bank account, a sick loved one, or trouble with work. Every one of them had their own problems and issues … things in their life that they truly needed. At the moment, at that point in time, there was only one thing they wanted more than anything else … a hit.

As he took a ball, he thought about the fans and their passion and what the jeers really meant. He thought about the pitcher, the kids spinning a masterpiece on the mound tonight for a last place team. He thought about his teammates and what that at-bat would mean to them.

He thought about his brother and that family and suddenly he didn’t want to walk away. He wanted to stay. He suddenly realized that he had to make up for everything.

He thought about his brother and his mother and his father and how proud they were of that first home run he hit. Then he thought about how proudly they looked at him when he was six years old and he simply picked up a baseball. They weren’t proud of him for hitting a home run. They were just proud of him for being him. They certainly would not be proud of him now. They would be ashamed of how he acted over the last several years. They would not have liked what he became.

Then he realized what he had to do. He knew that there was still time for redemption. There was still time for him to save his own baseball soul. And suddenly, he felt newly baptized in the jeers that rained down on him, and first, he smiled. And then he laughed to himself. And then he stepped back into the batter’s box.

He adjusted his hand up slightly on the bat and made a subtle adjustment with his feet. He held his bat a bit lower. And he looked down toward the pitcher. In that moment, before the pitcher had even started his windup, the old ballplayer already had the biggest hit of his career … his life.

And in that sudden moment, his eyes opened wide as he saw the pitcher winding up. A moment later, his bat let off a resounding crack and the ball disappeared quickly. He sprinted out of the box as he watched the ball bounce off the wall. The runner that had been on first was rounding third as the fielder made his throw.

The team had the run they needed and now they just needed the kid to finish it.

As he took his place in left field, the crowd was still buzzing over the exciting moment of the previous inning. He could hear the voices of some cheering him as he stepped into place. For the first time, in a very, very long time, he felt comfortable standing in the grass of that outfield. That was his corner of that field. It was his grass. He felt his heart pounding and felt that old feeling of joy return that he carried with him for most of his baseball career. He was home again.

When the first batter struck out, the stadium started to shake in the wake of the explosion of cheers. He looked up past the fans and the seats and at the lights and there seemed to be a subtle wobble in them. One of baseball’s most sacred records had just fallen to the arm of this rookie … 21 strikeouts.

When the second batter struck out with the bat sitting on his shoulder, he could no longer even hear himself think. He thought he felt himself wobbling a bit. He thought to himself how fitting it would be if 22 was the number of strikeouts the young Ace finished with and wondered if the Kid could finish off unprecedented history.

When the third batter stepped in and raised his bat, it was like someone suddenly turned down the volume. It got almost dead quiet with the exception of one or two voices that defied the tension and yelled out encouragement.

Despite the near silence, he still felt a wobble, almost as if the thumping of 50,000 hearts had synced up and were now shaking the world.

The silence was suddenly shattered by a loud, explosive, and distinctive crack of wood on a ball. It was a crack that rarely meant anything good for the team on the field.

It was a quickly sinking liner toward the deepest corner of the field that his feet instantly sprinted for. It was almost as if he knew where the ball was headed before the ball did. He could feel his heart racing in an instant, not because of the effort, but because of the moment. As he had done a million times in his life, his body was sent hurtling toward a spot that his mind had effortlessly calculated as the right spot to be. It wasn’t a question of where the ball was going to land. It was a question of whether his legs would get him there in time.

About halfway through the all-out sprint, and in the last stretch of the arch of the ball, his heart slowed just a bit and his mind confirmed the necessary course of action. The ball suddenly seemed to suspend itself in mid-air and he felt a smile cross his lips. He took a few more quick steps and then a giant step as he guided his body to become parallel to the ground … parallel to the grass and perpendicular to the wall. For a moment, he was suspended over the grass, cheating gravity for a moment. His glove was in full extension as the entire stadium was silent.

And then he crashed hard into the ground, his too-old-for-baseball body absorbed the wrath of gravity, forcing his body into a roll. He found himself on his side and he looked up for a moment and saw he had stopped just short of the warning track in fair territory, directly in front of the section of seats that his brother once sat in. For a moment he thought he saw his brother staring back. It wasn’t the firefighter version of his brother but the teenage version of his brother. The version that he spent his days in the grass with, practicing these exact types of catches. Over and over again. His brother had that smile that was a mix of excitement, wonder, and fear. A smile that asked if he had just seen what he had seen. A smile that asked if such a thing was possible. A smile that asked if he was okay. The old ballplayer smiled back. He knew it wasn’t his brother standing in the stands with a fist over his heart. He knew who that boy was.

His smile continued as he rolled onto his back, exposing a uniform covered in grass stains. He felt the grass on the back of his neck and he felt at peace for the first time in what seemed like forever. He stared through the haze of the stadium lights and into the deep darkness of the sky beyond.

In all his years he had never heard a stadium so quiet. Not a word was spoken, not even from the rebels who had a moment ago tested baseball’s wrath, and he was sure that not even a breath was taken. He could still feel the heartbeat of the stadium, of this team, pulsing up through the blades of grass. Staring up, it was easy to imagine he was lying in the grass back home, the way he used to with his brother. His breath slowed and he closed his eyes just as a tear freed itself. In that moment, he knew it was time to move on. Time to play the game the way he used to.

It was time to free the crowd.

With his bare hand, he reached into his glove, pulled out the ball and held it with his thumb and index finger high over his chest, and opened his eyes. He looked at the ball against the night sky and it looked like a full moon. He smiled wider and closed his eyes again.

And the energy was released. The energy of the thousands of fans cascaded down from all corners of the grand old park and washed over him. He thought that this was what it must feel like to get hit with a sonic shock wave. For a moment, the arm holding the ball shook as it absorbed the energy wave. He felt that energy like he had never felt it before. And it wasn’t just the energy of those in the stands he felt wash across him, it was the energy of the entire city and an entire fanbase.

He opened his eyes wide in time to see his teammates flying toward him, the Kid, his pitcher leading the way, arms in the air, his eyes wide with joy as well. A moment later he was being smothered at the bottom of the pile. A bonfire of joy.

Winter shuddered. Like a man who gets that first gust of cold winter air, Winter shuddered against the explosion of energy from the stadium. He was there to collect this team … to take this team into the cold night. He was waiting for this stadium, these fans, this player to give up and allow him to collect the empty shell of Summer. He expected Summer to crawl out and instead Summer exploded into the night sky. And Winter shuddered and took two steps back. He would have to wait.

Later, in the quiet of the clubhouse, after each of the night’s heroes had exhausted themselves recounting their stories to the masses, they found themselves alone. Tuck went to sit down and found his glove sitting in his chair where he had left it earlier. In it was the ball he caught for the last out. He took it out and looked at it. There was just one mark on it, from the bat that hit it. Otherwise, it was perfect.

He rubbed it between his hands and grabbed a pen. He walked over to the young Perfect Pitcher and reached out with the ball and pen, and asked him for his autograph. The Kid, for a moment, wished to have the ball for himself, before realizing something more to the moment. A legend. A certain to be Hall of Famer. A player with more hits than all but a handful of other players and more RBI than all but an even smaller handful of other players had asked him for an autograph. The pitcher smiled, took the ball, and signed it. He laughed as he handed it back.

The old ballplayer looked at it and wrapped his arms around the Kid and said thank you.

And Winter was knocked to his back.

Categories
Novel

Middle of the Seventh

There might be a game where your rookie pitcher strikes out 12 batters, holds the opposing team to three hits and no runs, but your offense never gets going and the bullpen does not hold. These can be some of the more painful losses, but it is also when a loss is not a loss. The “L” is in the standings but hope has stepped up as the kid may just really learn how to pitch a big-league game. That loss might be worth 100, 200, or even 300 wins down the road.

There might be a game where a team falls behind early and by a lot and does not show any signs of life. They might be facing a pitcher that they have no right even being in the same park. They might strike out early and often, but with each at-bat, with more difficulty. Then, in a moment, they get to the pitcher, scoring several runs in a handful of innings. They may still lose the game, but they have learned they can get to the best and maybe their confidence comes back. Maybe they now know a little more about how to win and it leads to other wins down the road.

As she sipped her coffee and stared at her computer, she knew loss 22 was not a loss … it was a win. Part of her hoped, almost achingly, that loss 22 was the biggest win in her baseball life. No, not part of her hoped. All of her hoped. Every cell in her body hoped.

So long ago Abigail had given up on Brian having any interest in the game she loved. She had given up on having the connection with her son or daughter that she had with her father. Baseball was not going to be something she passed on to her children. But she had accepted it. She refused to fight it, she refused to push it on him. She accepted it and was prepared to move on.

Then the team loses number 22 and there was her son, out of the blue, asking questions about the game, suddenly interested. Perhaps he saw, for the first time, what the game meant to her. Perhaps he saw how much the streak bothered her even if she didn’t talk about it. Perhaps he simply just wanted to know.

Whatever the cause, this made Abigail happy beyond what words could describe and it felt odd and out of place to her. She realized it was an early tentative step by him, but still, she felt a joy in her heart that she had never really known. It’s not a joy that can compare to the moment she first laid eyes on her baby nor the joy of watching him and his sister grow into loving, caring human beings. It was something a bit different and she also made a tentative step to embrace and bask in it.

But such joy is also tainted with a bit of guilt. Baseball and this team were her love … what right did she have imposing it on her child? Baseball was her first love and something she carried in her heart every day. Her children were her true love. She would trade the game of baseball without a second thought if it meant that it would keep them from feeling even a bit of pain.

Therein lies the problems. Baseball is pain. A batter is celebrated if he only fails about 70% of the time. Most pitchers give up hits and runs most of the time. Fielders cannot get to every ball. Only one team wins the final game of the season.

But baseball is also happiness, and for most of her life, her memories and the experience around the game have been a simple joy in her life. Through losses and lost players. Pennant races and batting crown chases. It has always been joy for her and she wished to share that joy with her children.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door and when she opened it, there was a bike messenger. He told her he had a package for her and that he needed a signature. Confused, she quickly signed the paper the messenger was asking her to sign. She couldn’t remember ever receiving something via bicycle messenger and she certainly wasn’t expecting anything.

The package was a large, thick envelope. She quickly tore into the envelope to reveal books of season tickets to the Team. As she stared at the tickets, she noticed the section number. There was something very, very familiar about that section number. She knew they were good seats, close to the field because she knew that stadium by heart. She knew they were deep in the left-field corner. She knew you could reach out and grab the left fielder on some plays if you really wanted to.

And then it dawned on her … she knew that section. She knew that section very well. It had been empty all year. It was where, for all those years, the firefighters would sit. It was where her firefighter would sit. The old ballplayer purchased the whole section every year for the firefighters to sit if they wanted to come to the game. Even after they stopped coming, he continued to buy up that section. Even after he went to play somewhere else, those seats continued to stay empty. For years, casual fans would wonder why there was an empty block of seats there. The true fans in the city knew that it had become a quiet tribute to the firefighter brother who was lost and all his brothers who were lost over the years. Even though the seats were only empty because the player no longer wished to give out the tickets for reasons of guilt, anger, and mourning, the rest of the city looked at them as a loving tribute to their hero firefighters. The surrounding fans became protective of the seats, sending many unknowing fans looking for better views, away. In a sense, this block of seats became a chapel within the cathedral that was this ballpark.

Now, Abigail was holding tickets for that section. And she knew that they could have only come from one person. She lost her breath for a moment as she came to the realization. For years, she had hoped for some connection with the man. Beyond her love for the team that he starred with for years was the connection that only they could hold.

Those tickets were like pulling the sword from the stone.

He lost what was most precious to him saving what was most precious to her. So many times she had tried to reach out to Tuck and offer her condolences and gratitude. So many times she had wanted to just hold his hand and offer her sympathies.

She tried passing messages to him through his agent, the team, and even journalists and every time she never heard a word back. She had no idea if he ever read her messages. She wondered about the weight on his shoulders and hoped to help him bear it, but she never knew if he even knew.

In the hours up to the game, she was restless and fidgety, unable to still or hold a thought long enough to make any sense to herself or anyone else. She had called Laura earlier and she agreed to go with her. She had to wait until Brian got home from school to see if he wanted to go, and this, in part, is what worried her.

Despite her son’s sudden apparent interest the day before, “apparent” wasn’t real. She wanted him to go to this game with her. At some level, she knew she needed him to go with her. Sure, she would go on living a life and everything would probably be just fine if he didn’t. The only things in life we absolutely need are air, food, and water, but she honestly felt she needed him to go with her. She pondered the perceived selfishness of such thoughts, so she was not going to force him to go.

So, as she waited for him to get home, she felt like she was back in high school waiting to ask a boy out on a date. In this case, however, she wanted her son to love baseball, or at least go out with it once or twice and see if they were a match.

Abigail didn’t hear Brian get home; she was lost in her own thoughts. When she got downstairs, her heart stopped as she saw him looking at the ticket books on the kitchen table. Before she had a chance to ask him, he looked up at her and asked her if they could go … tonight.

In an instant, her old anxieties were wiped away, but replaced by new anxieties of thoughts that he would hate it or that he would flashback to the fire. When she was honest with herself, she wanted him to love baseball.

He was full of questions and could see his excitement build. Where did the tickets come from? Why did you get them? Were they good seats? What time should they leave? Do you have a hat I can wear?

The night was near perfect with an unusual chill in the air for that time of year, so they decided to walk to the stadium. There was enough of a chill to give the night a special feel. As they walked by the fire station, she could see a couple of the guys gathered near one of the trucks. She noticed them looking through the same ticket books she had at home. It was obvious they were getting ready to split them up.

One of the older firefighters noticed her and her boy walking by and gave her an awkward half-smile and nod. She returned the awkwardness. She encountered the firefighters from that night from time to time and she always felt a tinge of guilt. She had her boy with her while they lost a brother. She wrapped her arm around her children and pulled them close for a moment.

She was amazed that there were as many people at the game as there were. She hesitated to use the word “fans” because she wondered if a majority of them were there out of morbid curiosity … Casual fans that had nothing else to do besides come out and watch a team continue to implode in historic fashion.

When they arrived at the park, Abigail could see the mix of excitement and confusion on her children’s faces as they navigated through the lines, the turnstiles, and then the crowds. Their eyes frantically moved from people to food vendors to the structure and back to the people. They were overwhelmed but smiling as they took in the scenes. They looked happy to her.

When the usher at the top of the aisle asked to see her tickets, he suddenly seemed to become very focused. He looked up at her and then at her children and then back at the tickets. He asked her where she got them as he looked at the back and ran his fingers over the print.

As he did this, she sensed a sudden presence behind her, even as her son started shifting nervously around on his feet. She didn’t want to turn around to see who was behind her for fear of drawing more questions upon herself. As the usher went to ask again, a voice behind her called out the usher’s name and said that she was with them. She quickly turned around and her eyes locked in with the old firefighter from earlier. He smiled and nodded at her. The usher gave a long broad smile of recognition and handed the tickets back to her.

As the woman and her children took their front row seats, surrounded on three sides by a group of firemen, the buzz of the ballpark picked up. With his arms folded, standing in the outfield, the old ballplayer watched the whole scene unfold, smiling.

The game started with the young rookie pitcher striking out the first batter he saw. On three strikes. The second batter came to the plate and swung three times and missed all three times … he wasn’t even close. The third batter had two strikes on him before even taking the bat off his shoulder. Her son jumped to his feet … it didn’t take him long to figure out a strikeout. He yelled in unison with the crowd, and when the poor batter helplessly swung at strike three, he leapt for joy. Almost instinctively, he started high fiving the firefighters around him as they returned his enthusiasm. It was a good start.

Her kids cheered when the team put together a couple of hits in the bottom of the first, but nothing more came of the rally. Their pitcher went back out in the second and got two more strikeouts and a weak groundout on a first pitch swinging. The third inning followed the same pattern, but this time a fly ball. He was through three innings and had struck out seven and had yet to miss the strike zone.

The batters really couldn’t get much going. A hit here, a walk here, and much like the last 22 games, a ton of missed opportunities. The pitcher continued to cruise along, almost as if he was playing in a world with a different set of physics laws to rule it.

When he struck out the side in the fifth inning, she felt her pulse sharply quicken. It wasn’t as if this pitcher was just getting by … the other team looked like a bunch of little leaguers. They had struck out 12 times already by the fifth inning, had not walked, and had not gotten anything close to a hit. This was domination … pure, unadulterated domination, and she had never seen anything like it before, and for her level of games watched, that was saying a lot. Her heart raced and she felt her brain start to spin.

Her son glanced at her, looked back at the field, and then his head snapped back at her in a double take to ask her if she was okay. She nodded and told him to look at the scoreboard. He didn’t know what he was looking at and she wasn’t about to tell him … you don’t break that rule in the fifth inning of a game like this, even for the newbies.

Brian got up to get something to eat and she let her mind run away with what all this could mean, even when she knew she was overthinking. Her mind was lit up with the possibilities and trying to figure out how to explain what was going on without being the black cat walking in front of the dugout under 13 ladders and knocking down mirrors. When he got back to his seat, he looked all excited and told her about what the guys at the concessions were saying. Just before he said The Word, she cut him off and told him that they don’t speak of such things at times like this and that the person who he had met that told him that word in that situation is an evil person, or worse, a fan of the other team and he should never talk to him again. Abigail had said that only half-jokingly and Brian looked confused but went back to his hot dog. Laura just smirked with a little laugh.

By the time they were through the seventh inning, the crowd had taken on a weird energy … a strange vibe. Since she was a child, she had marvelled at the way people acted at a baseball game. It was almost as if something else was always going on besides the game. So many people seemed more interested in everything but what was happening on the field. They were looking around for vendors, standing in line at the concessions, fussing over their kids, watching all the other fans, looking at the pretty girl walking by, or discussing something else with their friends. The game itself, the activity on the field, always seemed to be just a backdrop to all the other things going on.

Tonight’s crowd had started the night no differently. Sure, there was extra buzz because of the streak, but everyone seemed to have something else going on. As this star rookie pitcher was transforming into a legend among legends, the atmosphere transformed. As this pitcher sat alone on the bench with 17 strikeouts, no walks, no errors and no … … the energy was so very different. More people were filing back into their seats than wandering off. The energy in the air had her hair standing as it seemed to be powering the lights themselves. The chilly autumn-like air turned into pure electricity.

Her kids had no idea of the magnitude of the situation and she felt helpless to explain it to them. However, they certainly felt the vibe in the air even if they didn’t know the historic story the linescore was writing or that 16 strikeouts wasn’t just good. And they certainly had no clue what it meant when you put the two together.

When the pitcher walked to the mound in the eighth inning, the stadium was on its feet. She imagined that the concession lines were empty and that the vendors had given up their calls. She couldn’t believe her eyes when the kid quickly struck out the first batter, and she was even in more disbelief that the stadium got louder.

When strikeout number 19 was registered, she felt her eyes tear up and somehow the stadium seemed to get even impossibly louder! This, of course, was nothing when the last batter of the inning struck out on three straight pitches, still not coming even close to making contact and tying the rookie for the single-game strikeout record. Not only did it seem the stadium was shaking, it felt like the whole city was shaking.

She felt ill, however, when she again realized that the score was still 0-0. Holding the other team off the board and bases was almost meaningless when you did not have a run yourself. Her anxiety was dragged into the bottom of the inning.

The leadoff batter drew a four-pitch walk as the crowd got a little quieter, only because the previous half-inning had exhausted them. When the next two batters failed to even put the ball in play, the crowd suddenly seemed irritated. They knew the consequences of not scoring and their chances seemed further reduced.

Many in the crowd became downright angry when the Old Ballplayer was announced as a pinch hitter. It was in the sharpest of contrasts to the ovations that had spilled down for the pitcher just moments ago. The boos rained down from all over as he seemed absolutely dejected. He was slumped over as he stepped into the batter’s box. He did not look like a hero tonight. However, in her heart, on a night like this, she knew that the story had already been written and all that was left was for it to be acted out. Her instinct for this game told her so.