Categories
Warehouse Windows

Opening Day > Christmas Day

It felt a bit weird to be publishing the chapters about Opening Day around Christmas and New Year. Dodging snow, bundling up to head outside, and stocking the fireplace all could not be any further than the ideal pristine thoughts of the perfect Opening Day. Warmth. Sunshine. Perfection.

However, the more I thought about it, the more it feels. Christmas and New Year are about hope and new beginnings. It is about possibilities, starting over, and joy. For those of us that love baseball, oftentimes there is more excitement around Opening Day than Christmas for all the same reasons, plus the fact that if everything goes right, you get to feel that excitement every day for more than six months.

When I was younger, I was always so excited for Opening Day. In my book, it was a holiday. Anything is possible for your team, even if the pundits tell you winning is impossible for your team. It starts a long stretch where, nearly any day, anything can happen. On any pitch, the little things like an impossible diving catch, a bunt that stays just inside the third baseline, or a ridiculous pitch that leaves the batter frozen are always possibilities and have their own excitement about them. On any day, the big things can happen like a perfect game or someone hitting for the cycle. And it all begins on Opening Day in the warmth of a hopefully beautiful sunny day and doesn’t end until a cold brisk autumn night. How could someone not be excited about that?

In more recent years, Opening Day has snuck up on me. Whether it is lost faith in the Mets or just being busy, baseball comes upon me like quickly and unexpectedly (not unlike Christmas these days). However, Opening Day always feels special. I get introspective and recall Opening Days of the past. Darryl Strawberries long home run into the roof in Montreal, Gary Carter’s game-winner in his first game as a Met and Alberto Castillo’s 14th inning game-winner in my first game working for the Mets all come to mind.

When it came to Opening Day in the novel, I wanted to show three sides of it. More importantly, for the Player I wanted to show that even the most hardened beat down individuals will still hold an air of hope around Opening Day. Regardless of what is ahead and what is behind, I like to think that even the grizzled veterans enjoy and welcome opening day…that it is a special day for them, as well. I don’t know if that is actually true, but I like to think it is.

In the current climate, however, it is frustrating with the lockout. Right now, March 31 is the scheduled Opening Day, but who knows if that actually happens. However, regardless of when “Play Ball” is shouted, it will feel like Christmas morning.

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Fourth

Looking around, he wasn’t really sure how he had gotten here. Sure, he remembers driving his car and a couple of people welcoming him back and wishing him well, but he felt like he had sleepwalked here. One minute he was lying in bed and the next he was staring into his locker. He managed to hit two home runs and made a couple of key plays in the outfield and earned himself the final spot on the roster in the final exhibition game. For that, he was very much relieved for a number of reasons; the biggest, obviously, was that he had made the team and he was going to get a shot at that last home run. He regretted that a kid was sent down, but he was certain he’d be back soon enough. He was also relieved that he could still hit a home run. It was the first two of the spring and was desperately needed. The sooner he could hit his regular-season home run, the sooner he could get out of there and disappear from the game for a while.

Tuck took his brother’s fireman shield out of his pocket and rubbed his fingers across the numbers a couple of times. After looking at it for a few moments, he rubbed it on his pant leg to remove the smudged fingerprints before tucking it away in a spot at the back of his locker.

He always loved Opening Day. It was Christmas morning to him, even as a child. Their mother producing a set of game tickets on the morning of Opening Day was like Santa Claus coming down the chimney. Despite his sense of urgency to escape the game, he did his best to still enjoy the day because it was always a sacred holiday for him. Despite being alone now, he felt he still owed it to his family to do his best to enjoy it. He also knew it was the last one of his career … perhaps the last game of his career.

He wandered out of the clubhouse and down the long tunnel that leads to home plate. He enjoyed that view of walking down the tunnel. It reminded him of being a kid and emerging from the stadium concourse and into the seating bowl. The way the sun just lit up everything upon that moment of emerging always made him stop in the walkway. His brother would, inevitably, shove him out of the way.

He emerged onto the field in the shadow of the buildings beyond the outfield wall. They stood as tall, imposing silhouettes, fighting back the morning’s earliest rays. He wandered up to home plate and thought to himself, Just one more, brother. No sooner had he thought that, a ray of light finally escaped from behind a building and hit him square in the eyes. For a moment, the entire field, stadium, and city disappeared in the flash of light, and for a moment, he saw his parents and his brother looking back at him from the light. His parents had a look of concern, while his brother stared at him with a knowing smirk. Then, once again, they were gone, just as suddenly.

He crouched down for a moment, sitting on his heels, and ran his hand through the dirt around home plate. He thought about the dust cloud at home that ended the previous season and shook his head. He stood up and brushed the dirt off his hands onto his pants and headed back to the clubhouse.

Patient … patient, he thought as he stood at the plate in his first at-bat of the game. Wait for it. In a split second, his foot lifted slightly and he transferred all his weight forward as his arms jerked the bat around. As if every muscle in his body had suddenly transferred its energy up through his core, through his shoulders, arms, and out into the bat, the piece of wood violently ripped through the cool spring air. His eyes grew wider for just a moment and the last bit of exhaled air left his mouth as bat met ball in that somewhere less than random point in the universe.

In a moment, the ball rose above the infield so quickly that not one of the fielders reacted to the explosion of power. The center fielder immediately turned his back to the stunned infielders and ran toward the wall at full speed. The three runners on base immediately started their turn around the bases, each of their cleats making contact with the next base at nearly the same time that the center fielder reached the wall. He made one last desperate leap at the ball as the old Player held his breath as best he could while running full speed. For a moment, he thought he had just touched first base for the last time.

In the next moment, the ball was bouncing and rolling through the grass and he pulled into second base just as the right fielder picked up the ball. All three runners had scored and the crowd was on its feet. He was bent over at second trying to catch his breath as the crowd began a loud chant of his name. Even as the cheering began to engulf the entire stadium, he refused to acknowledge it. He briefly let his eyes fall on the empty block of seats he had bought up for the season. He shook his head for a moment and waited for the cheering to end.

It wasn’t until the seventh inning, as he stood on third, that he was able to observe just how majestic the stadium was. The contrast of the bunting against the dark green of the faces in the stands struck him sharply, recalling images of being at Opening Day with his family. He observed how the weather at this time of year brought about a weird mix of attire on the fans. There were those fans wearing full, thick winter jackets that someone might wear to ski. They usually had hats and gloves that muffled every clap. They were mixed in with the individuals who rallied toward the sun with just shorts and a jersey over a T-shirt. They weren’t going to let a lingering winter get in their way. The former were probably too hot and the latter were too cold and only those in layers were just right.

He wasn’t sure why this struck him so strongly. Was it the visual manifestation of transition that he felt his heart was in? Was it a reminder that regardless of how blue the sky was and how many teams were playing the Game that day, that they were still dangerously close to Winter’s domain? He wasn’t sure it even mattered.

There were going to be a lot of questions from the media for him after the game. If you get four hits and drive in five runs, you are going to get the full force of the post-game media. If you do it on Opening Day, you are going to get the full force of the post-game media times 10. If you get four hits and drive in five runs on Opening Day in what is your first game back after a self-imposed exile from a city that never wanted you to leave, you are going to get the full force of the post-game media times 100. He suddenly dreaded returning to the clubhouse.

It wasn’t the most well-played game, but thanks to his contributions, the team earned the win. The starter, the Ace, pitched the type of game that he was supposed to pitch. He wasn’t perfect but got the outs when he needed, only surrendered a couple of runs, and left the game with a solid lead. The infield had a couple of errors after that and the bullpen nearly coughed up the game, but they too got the outs when they were needed. When the last one came on a strikeout with the bases loaded, the crowd, already on their feet, escalated their screams to a level that, had the stadium not been an open-air stadium, probably would have brought it down.

As the clubhouse rocked with the excitement of an Opening Day win, the Tuck was hiding in the batting cages. He needed to collect himself. He had to try to figure out what questions he was going to be asked and what answers he needed to give. He had to figure out how his teammates might approach him and what they might say. He preferred to be left alone, but for the right reasons. Not for being a bad teammate.

Finally, he emerged from the hall to the batting cages and stepped into the doorway of the clubhouse. The Ace stood holding court among the media, camera lights reflecting off his blue eyes, amplifying the mischievous twinkle that was already there. The Ace was just a couple of years younger than himself and rarely gave a straight answer to the media. They pretended to be good sports about it, but they secretly hated being treated like that. They were serious people with serious jobs and serious deadlines. The Ace approached all his games the way he was supposed to. He did his homework, he was serious and professional on the day of the game, and he was consistently focused on the job he had to do. Once he was out of a game, however, his demeanor changed and he became a clown of sorts.

The Closer sat next to his locker, half-heartedly joking with another pitcher. He was a bit slumped over, trying to figure out what had happened out there. While most people would look at it as what almost happened, he was a perfectionist and in his head, he blew the game. He fielded a couple of questions from reporters but he was replaying the inning in his head. He was processing each pitch and swing … every one locked in his photographic memory. He knew that the last pitch was fast and that the only reason they were celebrating a win right then and there was because the hitter saw hero in the pitch and got overly excited. He already had himself trotting around second when he overswung on the ball and missed it completely. The Closer knew he wouldn’t be so excited next time.

The sophomore show-off second baseman danced around the clubhouse trying to entice the others to join with him. He was louder than the radio and constantly had the eyes of the reporters looking over their shoulders. He had a couple of hits and scored a couple of runs, but also had a couple of errors that resulted in a couple of runs. He was oblivious to it. He only saw a “W” and was very much okay with it. There were enough guys in the room who would break down every pitch of the game. It was good to have the blind enthusiasm in the clubhouse.

Finally, the reporters caught sight of Tuck and every last one of them immediately headed to his locker, joining a couple of guys who were camped out there for some time. The rest of the players took notice as well … they respected the man and some even seemed to understand him. A couple came over and patted him on the back. The Ace, who he had played a season or two with in the past, came over and gave him a hug, whispering something in his ear that seemed to get the first smile from the ballplayer in a long time.

The questions were what he expected. Nothing came as a surprise to him and he was as gracious as he could be. He shook a couple of the reporters’ hands before turning back into his locker. He had gotten through it … now he wondered how many more times he would have to survive it.

He was renting a modest apartment a short distance from the stadium. Far enough away that he would have to drive to the ballpark on most days, close enough that he could walk home when he wanted. He grabbed his bag and headed out the same exit that other fans would use. Somehow, he managed to make it out the door and mix in with the remaining stragglers without being noticed. He couldn’t help but hear them talk excitedly about the game, joyously exclaiming his return, and discussions about who they might face in October. It was Opening Day and a perfect record led to a lot of imperfect logic … and that was perfectly okay.

It wouldn’t take long before a few noticed him and yelled out his name and congratulations. He wouldn’t acknowledge it for fear of more noticing him. He was enjoying the air of downtown … it was still filled with electricity from the game. As he wandered past the bars with people overflowing onto the street, he sensed something special, but he wouldn’t acknowledge it for fear of getting attached to it. It was just one game and they had a long way to go.

The sun was low in the sky now, casting long shadows around the city. The air was growing chillier and a crescent moon hung low in the opposite sky of the sun. He was lost in his thoughts, and before he realized it, he was walking past his brother’s firehouse. His heart started pounding almost immediately. He hadn’t been down there since the funeral and he wasn’t ready to be there. The last time he saw it, it was draped in purple and black, flag at half-mast, and in the rain, it seemed to be crying. Now, it was draped in red, white, and blue bunting and the red brick glowed a brilliant orange in the late afternoon sunlight. It looked beautiful and American and the ideal he used to think of when his brother worked … lived … there.

In one of the garage door windows, there was a sign that said “Welcome Home” with his picture. The other door was open and he could hear the happy voices and laughter of his brother’s brothers and all he could do was stand there, frozen in place and maybe even in time. An eternity seemed to pass as he stood there, when suddenly, the laughter and voices stopped. Before he could react, the familiar faces with nervous smiles were peering out at him from the open doorway. He wasn’t ready and panicked. Tuck gave a forced smile and a wave, before quickly turning around and heading back across the street. He could hear their voices, calling after him. And it wasn’t just their voices he heard. He wanted to go back to them. He wanted to give in to their obvious welcome. He wanted to remember his brother with them. But it wasn’t time. He wasn’t ready. He needed to just get out of there.

Categories
Novel

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.