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

Top of the Eighth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Second

Standing there at home plate, he hears everything in the stadium … every voice, every noise, every tiny movement of the stadium itself. He hears the fathers telling their sons to be ready for foul balls and to get their mitts ready. He hears the control room assistant telling the cameraman to zoom in on the pretty girl in the high right-field stands. He hears the change falling into the pockets of the hot dog and beer vendors. Most of all, however, he can hear the grass. He can hear it talking to him, telling him how important THIS was. He can hear it telling him that he made the right choices in life, that it was his job. Tuck can hear it swaying in the wind chanting his name, almost mocking him.

He tries to ignore it. Tries to focus on the at-bat. He tries to focus on hitting the ball over the wall and then the pitch comes in. It comes in fast and he starts his swing just as the ball bursts into flames. He can’t stop his swing and fire explodes off his bat. The grass coming off the home plate circle ignites, and like a massive black powder trail, the fire spreads out across the infield, consuming the grass. In a flash, the outfield grass is aflame and he is surrounded by the tongues of fire. He can still hear every noise in the stadium, but now they are all focused on him. The fathers and sons chant his name. The vendors shake their change-laden pockets to make as much noise as they can. The assistant shouts at the cameraman to turn toward the field. Yet, they don’t seem to notice the field engulfed in flames. No one seems to notice the flames surrounding him.

As he looks around the stadium, all the people start to disappear. One by one, they simply fade away beyond the flames until, finally, there is just one man sitting in the left-field stands … his brother, who stares intently at him.

The aging ballplayer opens his eyes and sighs deeply, as he can still see the flames. He spends the rest of the night, staring at the ceiling, wondering what he is doing back in this city.

He got up and went to the window. He sees the flames everywhere he goes, but, especially, in this city … he couldn’t believe he was back here. He studied everything out his window, intently. How had he been talked back here? Why was he here? Was this where he was supposed to be? Of course, the mixture of decrepit buildings with modern skyscrapers gave him no answers. He once knew this city … this town … like the back of his hand. Tuck could walk blindfolded, from end to end. It wasn’t a perfect town … far from it, but it had been his town at one point. A focal place of pride for him. It was a town adopted by him and his brother. Although they discovered the town from two different perspectives, they both had loved it for the same reasons. Reasons that now escaped him. He loved this town, almost desperately, right up to the moment that he had to run from it to save what was left of his soul.

Why was he here?

Why was he headed to the press conference?

Why wasn’t this all behind him now?

Why didn’t he score?

He can’t let it go. He could have stepped on the inside of second base. Had he watched the ball coming out of the box too long? He could have done a better slide. It has ached at him for the couple of months since it happened and he was haunted by it. That helplessness of lying in the dirt was now living in the center of his brain and there was no shaking it. It continued to eat away at his soul.

He had spent most of the last few days arguing with his agent about this decision. Tuck insisted that he couldn’t go back … that he wouldn’t go back. He felt his journey in this town was done, and with the exception of a few series, he wanted nothing to do with being back. It wasn’t just the memories he thought about. It was his legacy. He knew he left under bad terms, but he felt the average fan … the good fans … had given him a pass on the things that happened. Coming back, when he knew his career was all but over, except for one hit, he didn’t want to hurt his fans and his legacy anymore. There were no more passes to be had. Dealing with your own ghosts was one thing, but dealing with a new set of expectations that surely couldn’t be met … well, that was something else.

Just when he thought he was through with his agent on the subject, two nights ago an envelope was delivered to his home. There was no return address, no indication of who it was from. He had no idea where it came from.

He opened it up to find the ticket. Anxiety and fear and that hopeless feeling gripped him in a sudden wash of emotions. He carefully traced the edges with his index finger, feeling for the imperfections … the notches. He recognized the smears of ink on it and the damage. It was unchanged since the moment it was first handed to him so many summers ago.

He remembered it like it was yesterday. It was a perfect day late in that summer … those days when the sun was searing during the day, but a windbreaker or sweatshirt was needed at night. And the nights were starting to come noticeably earlier each day. That particular evening was perfect for baseball and reminded him of his days playing baseball with his brother. There were days when they would play from dawn until dinner and nights like these seemed to be crowns on the top of perfect days. The crickets and cicadas would chirp and buzz, almost as if they were summoning the night. This was one of those nights when all was simply perfect with the world. However, that night would turn from perfect to nightmare and all he could think of was the horror of it as he looked at the ticket.

If that day seemed like yesterday, that night seemed like a lifetime ago … it was a foggy memory that seemed more of a dream than reality and could easily be passed off as one if it did not carry so much pain with it. However, a curious thing happened the longer he stared at the ticket … and he stared at it for a long, long time. The more he stared at it, the more the anxiety and fear started to recede. A sense of pride and purpose overtook him. It was almost as if he could feel his brother’s heartbeat in the ticket and it brought him comfort and peace. He could almost feel it transforming him on the inside. The ticket was a symbol of a moment before his world came crashing down. It was a marker of the last good moments he could remember and the longer he stared at it, the less it hurt.

It wasn’t so much a ticket to a game anymore, but a ticket back to a place where those perfect summer days were a metaphor for the life he had…A life he could have back if he learned to let things go.

After staring at it for half a night, he went to put it down when he noticed something written on the back: “It’s time to go home.”

The Agent, Rufus, looked at his friend, the aging Player and he was not the man he knew. This was not his friend. This was an anguished, angry, tired shell of the man that he once knew. This man pouted and stared icily through the limo windows as he sat next to him. Of course, he was his friend, but not the person he knew so many years ago. What was once a close friendship had deteriorated slowly into an almost strictly business relationship since the funeral, but he still looked out for him as a friend rather than a client.

Less than two weeks had passed since he came across the ticket stub in his scrapbook. Tuck was his first client when neither of them was known to anybody. His father had kept a scrapbook for his team in the past and he thought it appropriate to keep a scrapbook of his client to mark his milestones. Of course, he had initially intended it to be a portfolio to show potential clients, but soon only his client … his friend … was tracked in this book. He had realistic expectations that once he became a star, he would leave him for a bigger agent, but his friend stayed loyal to him, even as he became the biggest star in the game. Most of his other clients left the moment they no longer had to carry their own bags and didn’t need someone to pick up their “girls” from the local bar.

Rufus had taken the walk into the past, those careful steps with his fingers through the scrapbook looking for his friend. He knew what had happened to him, but he was lost for an explanation of why, all these years later, he had yet to recover from the devastation. That kind of loss would hurt anyone. You experience that pain and you survive it, you put distance into the void to survive. But he … he just seemed to get worse as more time passed. He alienated more and more of those around him. While a still better-than-average ballplayer, he played with anger and anguish rather than joy and excitement. He had nothing left to prove to this game and his fans, yet he went out there every day with a chip on his shoulder. He never smiled and rarely showed any emotion except frustration when things didn’t go his way. He wondered why his friend played at all anymore. He clearly hated the game and everything around it.

He skipped past the high school clippings (he had done his homework) and the minor league feature stories. He ignored the early part of Tuck’s career and went to the first newspaper article dealing with that night when everything changed. There was a lot written in the local paper, especially with the connection to a star ballplayer. The article covered nearly a quarter of the pages of the book.

He came to the article that covered the funeral. He carefully read through the details and looked through the pictures. His friend’s eyes looked hollow … empty, devoid of the light that once shone brightly from them. He remembers that it was the first time he had seen that look on his friend, but it was the only look he has seen since.

It was a well-written piece by one of the sportswriters. It wasn’t a typical piece that a sportswriter would do, but, as he understood the story, the writer had been moved by the service, wrote it, and submitted it to his editor who published it. It was almost poetry as it spun together the writer’s own words with the words of others and it was the words from a Bible passage/hymn that struck him the strongest:

   “Be not afraid. I go before you always.
   Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.
   If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown.
   If you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed.
   If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side,
   Know that I am with you through it all.
   Be not afraid. I go before you always.
   Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.”

He rubbed his fingers across these particular words, almost as if he were trying to make them more concrete. As he did so, he felt something beneath the paper … something stuck between the newsprint and scrapbook page. He carefully lifted the corner of the newspaper and saw the ticket stub. His heart skipped a beat as he realized it wasn’t just any ordinary ticket stub. It was a ticket stub from THAT night. Technically, it wasn’t a stub at all, but an unused ticket. The print was smeared on one edge from water and another edge was burnt.

Rufus thought about a stadium full of suits. Since the new stadium was built, the suits came out of the exposed steelwork. It was the hip, trendy thing. It was what suits did and they overran the new stadium, and the owners welcomed them and their open wallets. The suits had big wallets too, but the fans … the die-hard fans, they did not. A ballgame wasn’t just something they did for fun after work … that was a thing of the past. Now it was an event, something they worked hard for and maybe even saved for. It was a treasured moment.

Of course, he laughed at the irony of his thoughts, for he knew he was a suit. And he knew this ticket was a gift from a guy in a sillier suit than most to a treasured brother. On THAT night, however, part of the game was being played out by one brother while another fought a fire just a few blocks away. By the time one brother closed out the night with three home runs and five hits, the second brother was emerging from a fire with a child in his arms. As the younger brother was celebrating a career night with his teammates, the second brother’s body was being carried from the building by his fellow firefighters. By the end of the night, the younger brother was sobbing and clutching a pair of ticket stubs, cursing the world.

As he understood the story, the player’s brother, Carl, had rescued a boy from a house fire and went back in, trying to rescue a girl, when he got trapped by the flames. Knowing his fellow firefighters were about to break through a wall that would free him, Carl gave the child his mask and covered her with his jacket, and tried to stay as low as possible. The girl emerged from the flames alive and relatively unharmed. Tuck’s brother passed away on the floor of the inferno, a hero to two children.

It seemed as if the entire city had turned out for the funeral, along with the entire team. Other players, former teammates, were given the time away from their teams to support their friend. Many members of the opposing team were there as well. The scene of professional athletes walking and talking solemnly with heartbroken firefighters was a scene that he will never forget and a scene that he wishes he had never had to witness. The outpouring of love for the brothers in that small city touched everyone, even Tuck. Ultimately, it was this that would drive him away.

Rufus pulled himself back to the present and spent the rest of that night staring at the ticket and rereading the article over and over. He hadn’t seen the ticket in seven years … he barely remembers sticking it in the scrapbook. By dawn, he knew what he had to do. He knew it was going to be a difficult battle, one that may even cost him what was left of their friendship, but he knew what must be done.

He still felt resolve now, as he stared at his friend who continued to look out the window, like a captain who searches the horizon for safe harbor in a storm.

Categories
Warehouse Windows

Diving in to the Cigar Box

I can’t say that I have every ticket stub to every game I have ever been to. I can’t say that all the ones I do have are neatly collected in the same spot. However, I do have a cigar box with a few old ticket stubs (including Jets, Giants, and NY/NJ Knights football), my 1996 Orioles Employee ID, a couple of media passes, parking passes for Camden Yards, 2000 World Series Pre-Game Party tickets, a business card for October Turtle Statistics Services and a small crucifix that my father gave me at the end of a retreat I went to when I was a junior in high school.

At one point I had one of those old-timey barbershop hats made out of styrofoam with Mets logos on it. I am not sure if it was a giveaway or what, but for a very long time, I would put my ticket stubs in between the hat and paper band around it. I wonder if I still have that hat.

Anyway, I’m not going to lie…there is no special story around the cigar box…I had actually blindly bought it on eBay just a few years back along with a few others after I had written the previous chapter. So, there is no significance to this cigar box.

The tickets in the box include the first Mets game I had ever gone to. Wednesday, May 4, 1988. Mezzanine Section 8, row A seat 12. Before looking at the ticket, the details I remembered were that this game was in May of 1987 against the Astros, was in the Mezzanine in section 8. Sid Fernandez was pitching and Jesse Orosco pitched as well. Howard Johnson hit two home runs and the Mets won by a lot. After looking up the ticket and then the boxscore, I had some details wrong, but mostly, my memory did not let me down. I had the correct section, but the wrong year (I originally thought it was in 1987). Fernandez did pitch 5 innings giving up just one hit but Orosco did not pitch. Terry Leach did. HoJo did not hit two home runs…just one. Tim Teufel hit the other homer. (I still remember the thrill of witnessing my first live home run, but apparently, I don’t remember any of the details because I thought it was HoJo to right field, but it was Teufel to left-center.)

All that said, the contents of the cigar box really strikes an emotional chord with me at the moment. In a big way, it somehow encapsulates what this project…this book is about. My love of baseball is abundantly clear through this, but also lessons in chasing dreams.

October Turtle was a baseball statistics company I attempted to start. I wrote and sold a piece of software to the Orioles as well as some other services. Ultimately it failed. However, my Orioles ID and the Mets tickets show that some dreams do come true, even when others fail, a desperately needed reminder as I embark on this dream.

While baseball first inspired me to write, I was only writing for myself. I didn’t show anybody else what I was writing because I was afraid. I kept my candle under a basket. During my Junior year, I attended a retreat through my high school. That retreat would play a pretty important role in turning my life around. While it is a story for another time, it ultimately resulted in my sharing the things I wrote with my friends and family. The crucifix in the box was given to me on the last day of the retreat at the closing mass by my father who had it from a retreat that he had gone on when he was younger. In giving that cross to me, he revealed a side of himself I had seldom seen and I was deeply touched that he would share that with me. I still remember the moment like it was yesterday and it helped inspire me.

I forget exactly how it came about, but around that time I started using “Michaelangelo” as a goofy name during subsequent retreats and ultimately as a penname during college. I remember that I use to have an “elevator pitch” ready to explain why I used Michaelangelo, but for the life of me, I cannot remember why. I just know it had to do with some metaphor with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

So, anyway, the strangest part about this trip into the cigar box that I literally just noticed today…the box has the name of the cigars on the side: Michelangelo (yes, spelled differently than the version I used). I don’t ever remember noticing it before. With my memory getting old, it is possible I bought that box just because it said Michelangelo, but I feel like that would be something I would remember, even if I can’t remember what I had for lunch today.

Despite being involved in retreats and church groups in my teens and twenties, these days I mostly keep my faith to myself. However, in the next couple of weeks, my book and these blog posts will delve into that a bit more. However, finding that cigar box and its contents just reaffirms my faith and gives me hope.

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.