Top of the Second

Abigail thought about having them put into a series of nice frames with a fancy mat or even have a custom-made table with them between the wood and glass, but then she wouldn’t be able to take them out, touch them, run her finger along the perforated edges. Each one of these ticket stubs was a little masterpiece of art, in her mind, and grouping them together under glass was like making a collage out of Da Vinci’s original works. Of course, stuffing them in an old cigar box in a stack didn’t do them justice either, but traditions often are born from the mundane, and treasures like these are meant to be touched and experienced.

In high school, she remembers doing a research project on the Grand Canyon and how it had been slowly carved away for eons by a river that sat at its bottom. She was fascinated by the wonderful pictures that highlighted all the layers stacked on top of each other, each a different color and shade than the previous ones that made up the inside walls.

In one of the pictures, it showed inset pictures representing the various eras of earth’s history and the history of the canyon with lines pointing to specific layers. There were drawings of dinosaurs and ancient sea life and diagrams of geological events. They were literally layers of time represented in the canyon. The thickness of layers often told stories as important as what was in the layer itself.

This is how she viewed her tickets in the box. While some of the tickets represented the key moments in her life in and of themselves, some tickets were more representative of what was going on in her life. Each ticket was a layer of her history and sometimes, even the time that elapsed between the dates on the tickets, told a story of her life. There were stretches of time when her kids were born that there were just one or two tickets, while other stretches, when she was a kid, had a number of tickets. The closer to the bottom of the box she dug, the further back in her childhood she went.

Her first baseball game was Opening Day on her ninth birthday. Her father took her out of school, and they walked up to the stadium, which was about 15 blocks away, with throngs of other fans—all dressed in orange and black. There were old men and young women. There were men in shirts and ties and there were men like her father, who somehow managed to get out of the factory for the afternoon. There were mothers bravely venturing into the masses alone with their children. There were people of all races and colors dressed in a single set of colors, calmly racing toward the ballpark.

As they got closer, chants started rising from the crowds, and a buzz of excited talk rose like a beehive. There was laughter and smiles and even the occasional somber old-timer. Abigail particularly liked those fans. They liked to observe Opening Day like a religious holiday, celebrating rebirth, remembering players, moments, and seasons of the past while memorializing the heartbreaks that went before. Regardless of who they were or where they were from, they all excitedly made their way to the stadium, with her among them with her hand in her father’s hand.

They had walked for what seemed like an eternity among the three-story apartment buildings and storefronts, some of which were closing up for the game. They came in and out of the sunshine as they crossed streets and alleyways. Just as she was starting to wonder if they would ever make it, they were there.

They walked out of the last shadow, came around the corner, and suddenly she was awash in the sun’s full glow. They stepped off the curb into what seemed like a vast ocean of sunshine. Her eyes made their way across the parking lot, hardly noticing the array of cars and people that had gathered there, to the stadium itself, which sat in the center of the sunlight on a slight hill.

Looking at the grand stadium from straight on and at a distance, the main facade face was tall and majestic, with its sides sloped quickly away from the center until they met with the horizon. The giant silver letters at the top of the stadium’s face reflected the afternoon rays brilliantly. The tan and pale red bricks appeared to be on fire. It all came together to give the stadium the appearance of the sun itself, escaping from a long Winter’s night.

She hadn’t realized that she had stopped walking and felt her dad give a gentle tug as he now stood just to the right of where the stadium was rising up on the horizon. He smiled at her and the image was burned into her brain for life.

Abigail doesn’t remember much else from the game, except getting back to their house afterward. She was clutching her ticket tightly, feeling that if she let go of it, she would lose that feeling … that memory … forever. When her mother asked her to go wash up for dinner, she looked at her father nervously. He understood exactly what the problem was and told her to wait there before disappearing into the living room. He returned with one of his empty cigar boxes, opened it, carefully took the ticket from her hand, and placed it in. He smiled again at her and handed her the box, telling her to go put it in her room and clean up.

Since then, every ticket for every game she had attended went into that box. He only smoked cigars while watching his boys play, and the smoke would gather around his head and just above him as, for the most part, he would calmly watch and listen to the games unfold from his chair in the living room. He didn’t particularly care for the television announcers, so he would have the sound down on the TV with the radio broadcast on. Every so often, when there was a big game or a particular pressure-filled moment, he would sit at the edge of his seat, with his teeth tightly clutching the cigar. There was more than one time when he inevitably chomped down on it during a particularly frustrating moment. Of course, the moment was made worse when he was left gagging and trying to spit out the loose tobacco leaves that were now stuck to his teeth and the inside of his mouth.

There are times when, if she opens the cigar box on a lazy Sunday afternoon and the sunlight is pouring through the windows just the right way, that she can see the ghost of her father sitting in his chair … the hunter’s chair … in the center of her living room, directly in front of the television. She can see his strong, freckled hand, made rough by what seemed like two lifetimes at the steel mill, calmly tapping the face of one of the hunting images that made up the rustic pattern of the chair. She knew exactly how many hunters and deer and wild turkeys and ducks were on that chair … as a child Abigail had counted them over and over again as hours were washed away by baseball games at her father’s side. It was his favorite chair, but the funny thing was that he never even hunted. He didn’t even like eating venison. Yet it was centered in front of the television and directly to the left of the radio and if he wasn’t sitting in a seat at the stadium, he was sitting there for every game.

When she was younger, he would carefully explain everything going on and the rules of the game as they applied to a particular situation. When she got older, he would continue to carefully explain everything going on and the rules of the game as they applied to a particular situation. In high school, she used to get mad at him, feeling he was treating her like a child. During college, she looked forward to coming home and listening to his voice, and explaining it all over again. Of course, he always also shared his strategy if he were the manager and stories of players long gone. What she would give to hear his voice again, even just to hear him explain the right way to tag up.

She would always look through her box of baseball tickets (with a few other sports mixed in) during the dead of winter so that she could remember the chilly, hope-filled springs, the warm, life-giving summers, and the adrenaline-charged autumns. Sometimes, if she was just feeling nostalgic, she would take a trip back in time with them, and she would always notice something new about them. Something about them made her feel whole again, after a particularly troubling time.

Abigail kept the box on the coffee table or the bookshelf or the mantel in the living room so that it was always handy. Just looking at the box itself, on some days, was enough to make her smile. The sides of the box had some scratches and a few crayon marks from her kids coloring on it at times. One side was a bit scorched, and every time she noticed that, it made her wonder about miracles.

On this particular day, she journeyed back through the layers of her life in that box as she listened to the local sports radio show. They were going to cut away soon to a press conference at the Ballpark where the team was going to announce the city’s worst-kept secret, that they were bringing their prodigal son home.

She dug down through the cigar box, scanning dates and opponents on each ticket until she found the one she was looking for. With the exception of some special occasions like playoff games or Opening Day, tickets did not shout out their importance. Just like the game they heralded, it was numbers that often told the whole story. The only clue that a ticket witnessed history was in the date on the face.

She stared at this particular date and she is guessing that most people wouldn’t know the significance of the date … mid-April, 22 years ago. She had come home from college for the weekend for one last mental break before the final push and she and her father, last minute, decided to take in the game. There was some kid that had been ripping it up in the minors and was brought up to replace another rookie who had a better spring, but who, now, couldn’t get his bat on the ball. Her father had been tracking him since he was drafted and was excited to see him get his chance.

Their seats were in the second level, overlooking left field. She sat amused when the kid lay down in the outfield grass while his teammates were warming up. Surely he was going to get busted on by his teammates after the game. Abigail remembers the pride in her father’s eyes as they stood cheering in the second inning with the kid rounding third and heading home after hitting a home run in his first major league at-bat and thinking that his teammates wouldn’t give him that much grief after the game. She remembers the giddy chatter between her and her father as they walked home after the 1-0 win, where the only hit in the game by either team was by the rookie, and laughing about how the kid would be an instant legend to his teammates.

Throughout the game, her father continued his lectures on how the fielders should be playing the different batters and how the mechanics of the stars were off. For the first five innings, he even proceeded to talk about how the pitcher for his boys looked flat and that he was only getting lucky. He ended up with a mouthful of cigar leaves when the first baseman misplayed a ground ball for an error in the seventh. He was let off the hook for a bit. Then the pitcher hit a batter in the eighth, and by then, her father’s eyes were wide and the only thing coming out of his mouth was the cigar smoke. It was the only time she had ever seen him so quiet during a game.

Before they had gotten to the later innings, they had talked about school and how her classes were going. She told him of the jobs she hoped to get when she graduated. She even told him that she was going to apply for part-time jobs and internships with the team. He was always good at making sure he had the time for her and not just the game. She felt the pride he held for her right down to her soul. Even after four years in college, Abigail’s favorite thing in life was spending a sunny afternoon at the ballpark.

It was one of the most amazing games she had ever witnessed in her life, and her father, in the way he went on about it the rest of the day, confirmed the same for himself. She wasn’t sure if she had ever seen him happier. She likes to think that game was the last thing that her father was thinking about later that night when he passed away in his chair.

Abigail had found him when she came back from a night out with her friends; the late news was showing highlights from the game. Although he was long gone by then, she thought it fitting. The next several hours would become a blur with all the people in and out of the house, and the next concrete memory she had was sobbing in a heap next to that chair.

The ticket she held now wasn’t even her ticket, at least from a technical standpoint. At the wake, she had slipped her ticket into the suit pocket of her father. She had taken his ticket off his dresser and had put it in the cigar box.

Anyone else going through that box of tickets would have skipped right past that one. She would always feel an especially strong bond with that player for the central role he played in the beautiful and utterly special last day she had with her father. She found tears streaming down her face as she listened to the team’s GM talk about how happy they were to have the player back, at both a personal and professional level. She listened to the player’s brief comments that hinted at a final season.

She had a few of her father’s other tickets in there, but most of the rest were hers. Except for one. In the earth layers inside a canyon, scientists often look for that smoking gun layer … the layer that clearly marks the end of the dinosaurs. They look for that dark, ash-filled sediment that clearly identifies when and from where the giant asteroid changed the course of the earth’s history.

In Abigail’s cigar box, the edges of one ticket … blackened and burned … stood out among all the others. It wasn’t her ticket, but it was her ticket. In the same way that the asteroid didn’t belong to the earth but is indelibly part of the earth. There were just a few layers of her life that came after that ticket and she carefully removed them and placed them to the side so that she could take a long look at the burned and blackened ticket. As she listened to the Player’s voice, as she listened to him talk about what this city meant to him, tears swelled in her eyes until one fell down to the face of the ticket. It was not the first time that a teardrop had fallen on that ticket.