Middle of the Fourth

When he was in fifth grade, he spent a restless night staring at the ceiling, wondering when and if the morning would ever come and how he was going to pass the math final exam, preventing him from having to go to summer school. Failure wasn’t an option.

When he was a high school senior, Michael spent a restless night staring at the ceiling, wondering when and if the morning would ever come, excited to get on the basketball court and prove himself worthy of the high school varsity team.

Forget the many Christmas Eves he could hardly compose himself enough to fall asleep and Christmas mornings when he would wake in full excitement before the sun even rose to wonder what was under the tree for him and what magic the day would hold for him and his family.

This night and morning were all rolled together into a fitful night where sleep was simply not going to happen. He spent it between books and the TV and the couch and his bed, desperately seeking a sleep that was destined to escape him. Anxiety, Fear, Doubt, Excitement, Joy, Hope, and all of their friends and family were engaged in a raucous house party in his head and he was helpless to stop them.

Every Opening Day was a source of pure and unadulterated excitement for him. Since falling in love with the game, Opening Day was Christmas Junior. It was not just about the game and everything that comes with it. More than the vernal equinox or Easter, the arrival of baseball heralded the return of Spring. The pitcher winding up, a batter in the box, a catcher squatting, and an umpire watching it all signaled rebirth, renewal, and redemption. Even if the temperature was still spending most of its time south of freezing and snow still sat in those giant dirty piles at the mall or stadium parking lots, it was Spring. Snow may occasionally delay that moment, but Spring was going to get its chance like it has for well over a century.

And every Opening Day, this was what he felt. Opening Day was hope played out on a grand scale of green bordered in red, white, and blue and filled with every other color one could imagine. He could taste the hope and it would charge every cell of his body, every year. There was nothing like Opening Day … until this Opening Day.

This Opening Day … this day was going to be unlike any other he had ever experienced. While he was more excited than he could possibly imagine, he was no longer a fan. He was no longer figuring out how to get out of classes so that he could watch the game. He was no longer trying to figure out if he could get a last-minute ticket and borrow a car to get the game. He was no longer thinking of excuses on how to get out of work. It was work now. He had a job to do, a job connected to a game that others were skipping their jobs to go to. He had responsibilities to take care of, people to organize, and places he needed to be. And he had done none of it before. Michael was more of a rookie than the first baseman. The first baseman had at least played a game before, while this intern had never had to talk to a reporter that had his own set of pressures on him that would be applied down to him, and there would be a whole press box full of them.

Just before dawn, with his brain burning, he made himself a cup of coffee and headed out to his “balcony”—the small landing at the top of the spiral staircase to his second-floor apartment. There wasn’t even enough room for a chair there, but he liked to go out there and stare off into the horizon. In his apartment he felt trapped, confined, but on this little tiny piece of rented real estate, he felt part of something bigger than himself. He didn’t feel smaller looking into a starry night sky; in fact, he felt bigger, like anything was possible. It was that feeling that helped push him into the car to head down to the stadium back in the fall and it was that feeling that he hoped would get him past the anxiety of what lay ahead.

On this morning, the crystal clear sky seemed created for the stars that shined high over his head in midnight blue. The sky was turning lighter in a gradient closer to the horizon. The sun was making its way to all the grand ballparks around the country … but even it couldn’t rush the night away fast enough for the Intern.

On this particular morning, he didn’t feel big. He felt fear. He felt doubt. He felt humble. This dream … this journey he was about to start (or was he completing it?) wasn’t supposed to be this easy.

He was going to be within yards of men he had watched on TV the previous summer. One was sure to go down in history as one of the top ten to ever step on the field, while another was an almost certainty to join him in the hall of fame. One of the players was on the mound with his hands thrust toward the sky, mobbed by his teammate in that very moment that cemented the Michael’s love of the game. And they weren’t even going to be the most important people that he would be within a baseball’s throw of with the President in town to throw out the first pitch. Overwhelmed in a flood of emotions about the day ahead of him was an understatement, yet it still wasn’t the true cause of his sleeplessness.

He was barely out of school. His journey in life was just beginning. He had a mere “year” of real-world experience behind him, yet, here in his sleepless night, all he could think of was the wildest dream he had ever dreamt of just sitting on the other side of that dark horizon where the morning was just beginning to break. This was not one of those dreams you ever truly expect to materialize, and if it does, you don’t expect it until the very end of a career spent working toward it. This was his dream and it was just a few hours away.

The coffee had now mixed with the adrenaline and the sky was light enough that he could justify his motivation. It was time to get ready and so he showered and headed back to his room to get dressed. He pulled a white dress shirt from the closet and took a close look at it. It had a couple of small tears at one of the shoulders and a stain on the right side near the bottom. It was all he had and he determined that his suit would hide the troubled spots. He just wouldn’t be able to take the jacket off at all. He grabbed the blue pinstripe suit his parents bought for him as a graduation present. The jacket was a bit big and the pants were extremely baggy, but it served its purpose. He felt good about himself when he wore it. He threw it on the bed, and in doing so, noticed his Bible on his nightstand. He sat down on the edge of the bed and picked it up to read a few favorite verses. Before putting it back down, he closed his eyes for a moment, then stood up, ready to walk on water.

He drove his beat-up old car down to the stadium, found the game-day parking lot beneath the overpass that employees were to park in, and gathered up his overcoat and bag. It was still pretty early, as the sun was just barely over the horizon and not quite clear of the skyline. There were a handful of other cars in the lot where he parked, but the walk to the stadium was through mostly empty (for now) lots. He smiled when he noticed the new banners on the light poles celebrating Opening Day. He started pondering as to when they may have been put up. He hadn’t noticed them before, even from his normally distant vantage point.

As he got closer to the stadium, he encountered some of the die-hard and borderline religious at their cars. He wondered if they had just never left after the final game of last season. Some were just listening to the radio while others were cooking breakfast on portable grills. He envied them in one regard, but he knew that they would likely give him everything they had to go where he was headed. They added to the electricity in the air around the stadium.

Once inside the stadium, he decided to head to the clubhouse before continuing on to the press box. He had some time to kill and wanted to take it all in. He knew they had finished prepping the clubhouse and the field overnight, so he wanted to take a look at the uniforms laid out and the bunting and finishing touches that were put in place.

He had been down to the clubhouse a few times. … In fact, it was the clubhouse he remembered the most from his first week. The team had just hired a new manager and they were doing interviews on the field. He was sent in to retrieve some papers left there by his boss. Stepping into that clubhouse was one of the many surreal moments he faced since taking the job. In that first trip down in the fall, the names of the players, one or two he had known, were still on the lockers. The place was still a bit of a mess … a couple of lockers looked like they had taken the brunt of the final game frustration, sporting holes in their fine wood. There were a couple of chairs, with the team logo brightly painted on them, tipped over and scattered on the floor. The smell of sweat seemed to hang in the air. But he was still awed that first time.

Now, on Opening Day, it was a different scene. There was no sign of disappointment in the large room … no sign of broken lockers or broken dreams. Each and every chair was perfectly aligned in front of a locker and in each locker there was a brand-new, freshly pressed uniform. Everything was absolutely perfect, right down to the smell in the air … it smelled of hope. Whether it was the clean new uniforms or the freshly shampooed carpet or the polish used on the wood or a combination of all of the above, it smelled of hope.

As he quietly looked around the room, he came around a pillar and realized he wasn’t alone in the clubhouse. He instantly recognized the slumped shoulders and bowed head of the aging ballplayer sitting in the corner, staring intently at something in his hand. The Intern recognized the posture … not from Spring Training or an earlier encounter. That posture was as much a part of him as anything else. He had watched the childhood-defining play over and over. … The image of the ball rolling to the outfield wall as his favorite player scored and the outfielder on his knees in right field, head down, shoulders slumped, staring into his glove. It was iconic for him and he had watched it so often with little thought of where that player’s life went from there.

And now, so many years later, that same player sat just feet from him, still looking lost, still looking hopeless.

Michael was sure he had not known he was there and quickly backed out of the clubhouse and headed up to the press box.

The field was still cast in long shadows from the buildings beyond the outfield walls. They were tall enough that they acted as dams to the light that was washing over the rest of the landscape.

He walked around the press box, half making sure that all the name cards were still in place and half making sure that he truly was supposed to be there … that he hadn’t imagined the last five months and somehow slipped past security that morning. Of course, he found his name and he took his seat. It was up on the second tier of the press box seating, just over the right shoulder of his boss, if his boss was currently sitting there.

Michael was nervous and anxious and questioned whether he belonged there. Why had his boss chosen him? Why was he guided down there on that random fall morning? How had he managed to push all his normal shyness aside and demand that he talk to someone that day? He could not help but question whether or not that strange chain of events that landed him there in that press box hadn’t just been dumb luck and he really didn’t belong there. How could he possibly belong there?

He could see a couple of rays of light now shining just above the tops of the buildings. He imagined that at this point, they were capturing the tops of the light stands.

In spite of his worries and fears, he knew and understood that he had really grown in the past few months. Even though he had tripped up several times early on, he had grown into the role and was actually growing the role itself. This was too important and they wouldn’t let him be there if they didn’t think he could handle it. He understood that.

As he sat there, he watched as the first ray of light seemed to escape the buildings and hit him square in the face. He then watched as it slowly drifted down across the rows of seats, back to front until it was finally lighting up the grass behind home plate. Just at that moment, the old outfielder walked out onto the field, and like himself, seemed to be taking it all in … seemingly enjoying this morning.

The sunlight then slowly engulfed home plate and third base, then second base, and finally first base. Soon, the entire field was awash in light. The orientation of the stadium, the way the grandstands were built, and the open end of the stadium gave it the illusion that its sole purpose was to capture the earliest possible rays of light, and hold on to them until the end of the day. For all intents and purposes, they were the first rays of Spring.

And the fear seemed to subside. All the insecurities, the questions about what he was doing there, and the feelings that his manager may have made a mistake all disappeared. The first rays of light seemed to be telling him that there was nothing to worry about, that the early-morning light show was designed solely for him. He knew then that it was time to get to work. He had people to make proud and his own life to change.


Top of the Fourth

High in the deep woods of a distant snow-covered mountaintop, a single solitary ray of light penetrates the darkness for the first time since Winter took hold. It settles on a single snowy ash leaf that had somehow managed to hold onto its branch through the long cold. The leaf welcomes the warmth, and the reflection of light off the bright snow brightens the branches around it. A single, solemn moment passes, and a lone drop of water falls through the trees, collecting additional drops as it goes. The melting snow opens more avenues for more rays of light, and soon the scene is repeated throughout the forest and the once death-like silences become a chorus of dripping water, falling chunks of snow, and the creak of trees as they stretch their branches out in the bright sunlight.

At the base of the trees, slowly the snow turns to water and joins the infinite drops from above in puddles or pulled deep into the earth. Eventually, the ground can no longer hold the water and the puddles begin to morph and merge and give into one of the thousand small streams that have formed across the mountainside. The streams then start to merge themselves, singing and giggling to the tunes of the birds that have awoken among the trees. They flow downhill till they find themselves in a river that happily welcomes its old friends before splashing and roaring down the mountain and into a valley.

In the valley, rivers join other rivers that have made the long journeys from other distant, once darkened forests on lonely mountaintops. At each twist, splash, and merging point the rivers seem to celebrate. They become one river before joining the enormous lake in the center of the valley, which has been fed from rivers around it.

And at this crystal clear lake in the throws of Spring’s rebirth, everything is perfect. The sun itself is reflected from its waters to all points of the valley until the valley itself overflows with light. Life of the valley itself emanates from this lake and its joyous welcome spreads back up the rivers, streams, and puddles, high into the mountaintops and to the lone ash leaf, which flutters one last time in the breeze before giving way to the bud that replaces it.

Spring has returned.

Abigail awakes to the ringing of her phone; the ringtone is the anthem of her team, and she smiles. Lying in bed for a few minutes, she talks with her daughter, Laura, the smile continues its stay on her face. She laughs a bit, talks with a mix of anxiety and nervousness, and often finds herself drifting to someplace distant outside the window. Laura knows when she has lost her mother and jokingly scolds her. She apologizes several times and her daughter continues to mock. They talk for a bit longer, exchange a few more laughs, and then say their goodbyes.

Her daughter didn’t get it when it came to her mom’s love of baseball. In fact, it was completely lost on her. She tried to engage with her mom on the game, but often it was her doing the apologies for drifting in the conversation. Her daughter understood that her grandfather loved the game as well, but she really didn’t get the connection that is made between the generations. She often thought to herself that the game was one Lazarus away from being a full-blown religion (if she only knew).

Her son, Brian, was a much different story with the same end result. He hated her beloved game and all attempts by her to discuss it with him. It started while he was in high school, and she gave up the effort by the time he was a junior. She had her suspicions as to why he hated the game. He was young when the fire happened, but not young enough to fail to understand that a life was lost. In the days and weeks that followed the fire, they were all hounded by the media and knew exactly who the man was that saved his life. She felt that it was a short leap from there to connect death with baseball, so she would leave him alone, but longed for that connection with her children.

She felt the sun coming through the window, warming her face, and she shook the thoughts out of her head. Today wasn’t the day to contemplate such things. Abigail smiled and took in another moment or two of the sun with a smile on her face before climbing out of bed and heading down the stairs.

She stepped outside for a moment to grab the newspaper and had to pull her robe a little tighter against the chill in the air. The air had a sweet smell to it; she was certain she could smell the melting snow. It felt crisp and clean, almost as if it had been scrubbed. The sun was still taking its time in rising and was still partially obscured by the trees, bathing the street in a mix of light and shadow. It all gave her great joy. It wasn’t until her neighbor yelled “Good morning” to her as he got into his car to go to work that she realized that she was still standing in full public view in her robe and nightgown.

Grabbing a cup of coffee and the newspaper, she sat down at the kitchen table, which years ago she had set in the spot that gets the most sunlight in the morning. She went straight to the special baseball preview section and immersed herself in the projects and side stories and writing filled with the type of hope and fluff that you only see twice a year, the other being Christmas. She understood that it was more filler than fact, more hype than hope, more romance than reality, but she didn’t care. She drank it up like it was the very water necessary for life. She smiled to herself through the whole reading as her heart raced with excitement.

When the time came, she put on the jacket that her father once wore, stepped out her front door, and walked down a couple of steps. Other fans, in their jerseys and black and orange jackets and their baseball caps trickled by her one by one. Some talked to friends and families, others seemed to be studying the fluff articles in the newspapers, while others just looked nervously ahead. She stepped off her steps and joined the small trickle.

They made their way past some of the old neighborhoods, which were lined with trees and modest, well-kept flower boxes. Some houses had the state flag hanging in front of them, some the nation’s flag, while others proudly displayed the team’s flag. It seemed on each corner was a coffee shop, an occasional bar or restaurant, or a little bodega, some of which were already closed. As she walked, more and more people stepped out of their homes and into the trickle of people.

Soon, the narrow, tree-lined road crossed paths with a bigger avenue, and the rush of people from other roads was quickly and easily absorbed into the river of people along the avenue. There was still room for people to turn around or window shop in one of the many small stores that lined the avenue. She watched as a few flipped their “Closed” signs out, while others fussed with their doors to lock them. There was a steady buzz in the crowd as people acknowledged each other. While it remained obvious to most, the certainty of the destination of the person next to you was not locked in. This river of people only seemed to quiet for a few moments as they poured through a dodgy section of the journey. No good journey to any destination of greatness was completely without at least one perilous forest to navigate. Of course, there was no real danger, as what scoundrel would be dumb enough to provoke the masses?

Abigail knew, however, that the really dangerous section was about to be traveled. Sure enough, the raging, rolling river of people on her avenue merged together with another avenue with its own raging rolling river of people. It also happened to be the first spot along the journey that the steel and brick ballpark, the Cathedral, could be seen. Those not lost in the journey would immediately spot it and pockets of cheers from around the merging rivers of people would rise up. The rookies along the journey would stop, stunned by the beauty of what lay ahead, and inevitably, be bumped, pushed, and shoved by those who were more focused.

She knew better and for three blocks had slowly made her way closer and closer to a set of buildings so that, at the intersection, she could duck into a shop doorway and absorb the view.

It was among the favorite views of the Cathedral in town. Like its predecessor, it sat at the top of a long subtle hill, giving it the impression that it was perched on top of a pedestal. The noon-day sun seemed to have settled just above it, lighting it up like an art gallery lamp. Just across the street from where she was, on the right, was the old gray train station, majestic and tall. Just behind it rose the last of the steel blast furnaces, nobler now in their decay than the many years that he and his brothers poured smoke into the sky. Across from the train station was a brand-new, 20-story glass office building that shimmered in the bright sunlight. The three buildings stood in a natural contrast to each other, but seemed to align in perfect symmetry to create a frame for the Cathedral and tell the story of this city. The Cathedral itself seemed posed as both a figurative and literal bridge between the old and the new; industry and technology; even generations themselves. That single view encapsulated the city itself. A city with no clear identity, yet somehow, it just worked, with all the pieces meshed together perfectly.

She took in the view for a few minutes before diving back into the river of people, where she was quickly swept in. The trickle turned rolling, boiling river was now just a wide, powerful, slow-moving river that engulfed everything in its path. It moved past the new chain stores that were put in place as part of the city’s redevelopment efforts. Any unknowing casual shoppers who had naively wandered into the stores not more than a half hour before found themselves hopelessly swept into the mix or desperately trying to find a way across. Those who chose to drive along the avenue found themselves blankly staring out their windows, thankful for the opportunity to move even an inch forward, as the occasional stream of people moved between their cars with ease. Occasionally, the river would part as the tram car rumbled down the tracks on the right side of the avenue. She could see the cars of the tram packed to standing-room-only status with throngs of people dressed in orange and black.

From this big, wide, raucous river of humanity, with the bright spring sun shining down, the chorus of chants and cheers and songs started to rise, rarely in unison. The laughter, the nervous discussions about the state of the team, and the wild predictions of the largely optimistic crowd were set as the background music. All the individual voices and chants and songs and laughter, like instruments in a marching band, came together to produce a joyful song that electrified the air. Even those who were mixed into the crowd, alone, felt part of something much bigger.

Once the river hit the outer edges of the stadium, it split and diverged around the building as people headed in all different directions to get to their gates, and ultimately, their seats. There was no tailgating, no lingering outside of the stadium, no stops at the vendors. This was Opening Day and the field … the grass … was, for most of them, the first glimpse of Winter’s demise, so there was no waiting to see it. A child doesn’t wait in their room on Christmas morning and fans do not hang around outside on this day.

As Abigail made her way to her gate, she ran into people she knew here and there. Rarely did they stop to talk; they just fell in step with each other and talked as they walked until it was time to part ways again.

She stopped only once to get her program and scorecard from the vendor she always retrieved them from. She exchanged a few happy words with him, summing up the last six months of their lives with a few simple pleasantries. They could catch up over the course of the next six months, but right now, it was time to see the grass.

As if guided by some internal mechanism, her legs made their way through the crowd, around the usual bottlenecks and congested spots. She barely looked where she was going as she weaved her way to the turnstile. Again, she exchanged more pleasantries with the ticket taker, another old friend. When he handed back her ticket stub, she quickly stashed it away in some unseen internal pocket of her jacket to ensure it would be there when she got back to the cigar box.

She quickly made her way to the ramps she used … she couldn’t be bothered with the escalators; too many slow people. Her heart was racing now, less because of the climb and more out of excitement. There were times over the last six months that baseball was the furthest thing from her mind. Days and weeks would even pass without a single thought drifting to the game. It seemed even her dreams were devoid of this love affair. Now … now that she was so close, it was all she could think of and there would be nothing that could hold her back from her friend. While the pain of the previous fall still sat in her gut like a bad meal, a new season was upon her and the past would be forgiven.

Finally, she was at her section and she entered the short, dark tunnel that led into the seating bowl. It was as black as night, she thought, and the light at the end that washed everyone in front of her into a silhouette only seemed to make it worse. It was the gateway from the past, from the darkness, and it was cold, as she expected it. It was the last gasp of Winter and she took one last deep breath before taking that last step out of the tunnel.

Instantly, she was warm as the sunlight bathed her. Instantly, the chatter of the other faithful met her ears. Instantly, the smells of the popcorn and hot dogs, and various other foods from around the park, came together. Instantly, she could literally taste the air, with all its electricity, on her tongue. Instantly, before her eyes were the field, the players, the grass, and a thousand other visions of beauty that can only be found in a ballpark.

Spring has returned.