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
Novel

Top of the Ninth

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

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

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

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

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

And fans live for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Warehouse Windows

When the Bubble Bursts

I was in the press box at Camden Yards when Cal Ripken Jr. grounded out to end the 1996 American League Championship series. If my memory serves me right, he made a desperate slide into first base, disappearing into a cloud of dust. Even down 4 runs and two games in the series, I thought a miracle was still possible. But it wasn’t.

I was in the control room at Camden Yards when Roberto Alomar struck out to end the 1997 American League Championship series. I don’t know why I was there…it wasn’t my normal spot, but there I was, hoping against all hope that Alomar would keep it going…produce some magic. But he didn’t.

I was home, alone in my living room in Queens, New York, just four days before my wedding, when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning, ending the magical 1999 National League Championship Series. That series was so full of miraculous moments and I believed, with all my heart, the Mets had a couple more in them. But they didn’t.

I was in the center field bleachers with my old roommate, co-worker and friend from my days with the Orioles when Mike Piazza drove a ball deep off the legendary Mariano Rivera with a runner on and down by two to end the 2000 World Series. I remember my friend grabbing my arm as we lept up in our seats thinking the ball might go out. But it didn’t.

Heartbreaks of your team losing in the playoffs or just barely missing them are profound when you are just a fan. When you work for the team, however…it’s like a dagger deep into your soul. There is so much intensity and hard work and sacrifices that happen on one of these runs. Night after night away from friends and loved ones. Missed family events. Early morning and late nights. Days that bleed into each other. Sleep is elusive, even in the rare moments when you are actually able to try and get it. The deeper your team gets, the more intense it gets and you are only surviving on takeout, stadium food, and adrenaline.

And then, in a flash. On a ball four or a weakly hit ball or a strike without the bat leaving a shoulder or a deeply hit ball, it is just over. Weeks of preparation and timelines and pressure are just gone in an instant. There really is just nothing like it that I have experienced. In one moment you go from having no time to all the time in the world. It is so bewildering, for lack of a better word.

I was lucky enough to see playoffs in four of the five full seasons I worked in Major League baseball and I would never, ever trade those moments, but the all together expected shockwave the end brings is so jarring…like getting punched in the stomach while enjoying an ice cream cone.

In each of those four ends, what I remember most is that for the first time in weeks, I felt the cold autumn weather. It was there and I was dressed for it, but I don’t remember the cold in all those October games in the press box, or in the stands or wandering the concourses. However, at the moment that it ended, I could feel the cold hit like a steam train.

It leads me to this image of this awful Winter figure (looking very much like Snowmiser) suddenly grabbing you with that last out and throwing you into winter. Summer disappears at that moment and cold, bleak winter begins.

After the 1997 ALCS, I ventured down to the press box and sat in my manager’s seat upfront and just stared out into the field, desperately fighting tears (F you, Jimmy Dugan…you are just wrong). It is really a blur. I think I was waiting for one of my best friends to wrap up her game duties before venturing back to the office in the warehouse. As I sat there, this guy, with bloodshot eyes and one of those 1980’s era satin Orioles jackets stood up on one of the seats to peek into the press box. His hat was kind of off to the right and his hair was attempting to escape out from under it. I recognized him as one of the season ticket holders who would stop by and talk to various people in the box.

He looked at me and asked me, in a voice that was clearly trying to choke back tears, “When is Opening Day?” I didn’t have an answer for him and just kind of blankly stared at him. He could see that I didn’t know and just sort of nodded at me, climbed down from the chair, and walked away.

That is such a powerful question for me and it really just sums up baseball for those of us that love this game. Yeah, baseball breaks our hearts and rips out our souls, but hope is always out there. Whether it is the next batter, next inning, the next game, the next series, or the next year. “When is Opening Day?” There is just so much damn hope in that question, even in a moment that feels absolutely hopeless.