Middle of the Seventh

There might be a game where your rookie pitcher strikes out 12 batters, holds the opposing team to three hits and no runs, but your offense never gets going and the bullpen does not hold. These can be some of the more painful losses, but it is also when a loss is not a loss. The “L” is in the standings but hope has stepped up as the kid may just really learn how to pitch a big-league game. That loss might be worth 100, 200, or even 300 wins down the road.

There might be a game where a team falls behind early and by a lot and does not show any signs of life. They might be facing a pitcher that they have no right even being in the same park. They might strike out early and often, but with each at-bat, with more difficulty. Then, in a moment, they get to the pitcher, scoring several runs in a handful of innings. They may still lose the game, but they have learned they can get to the best and maybe their confidence comes back. Maybe they now know a little more about how to win and it leads to other wins down the road.

As she sipped her coffee and stared at her computer, she knew loss 22 was not a loss … it was a win. Part of her hoped, almost achingly, that loss 22 was the biggest win in her baseball life. No, not part of her hoped. All of her hoped. Every cell in her body hoped.

So long ago Abigail had given up on Brian having any interest in the game she loved. She had given up on having the connection with her son or daughter that she had with her father. Baseball was not going to be something she passed on to her children. But she had accepted it. She refused to fight it, she refused to push it on him. She accepted it and was prepared to move on.

Then the team loses number 22 and there was her son, out of the blue, asking questions about the game, suddenly interested. Perhaps he saw, for the first time, what the game meant to her. Perhaps he saw how much the streak bothered her even if she didn’t talk about it. Perhaps he simply just wanted to know.

Whatever the cause, this made Abigail happy beyond what words could describe and it felt odd and out of place to her. She realized it was an early tentative step by him, but still, she felt a joy in her heart that she had never really known. It’s not a joy that can compare to the moment she first laid eyes on her baby nor the joy of watching him and his sister grow into loving, caring human beings. It was something a bit different and she also made a tentative step to embrace and bask in it.

But such joy is also tainted with a bit of guilt. Baseball and this team were her love … what right did she have imposing it on her child? Baseball was her first love and something she carried in her heart every day. Her children were her true love. She would trade the game of baseball without a second thought if it meant that it would keep them from feeling even a bit of pain.

Therein lies the problems. Baseball is pain. A batter is celebrated if he only fails about 70% of the time. Most pitchers give up hits and runs most of the time. Fielders cannot get to every ball. Only one team wins the final game of the season.

But baseball is also happiness, and for most of her life, her memories and the experience around the game have been a simple joy in her life. Through losses and lost players. Pennant races and batting crown chases. It has always been joy for her and she wished to share that joy with her children.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door and when she opened it, there was a bike messenger. He told her he had a package for her and that he needed a signature. Confused, she quickly signed the paper the messenger was asking her to sign. She couldn’t remember ever receiving something via bicycle messenger and she certainly wasn’t expecting anything.

The package was a large, thick envelope. She quickly tore into the envelope to reveal books of season tickets to the Team. As she stared at the tickets, she noticed the section number. There was something very, very familiar about that section number. She knew they were good seats, close to the field because she knew that stadium by heart. She knew they were deep in the left-field corner. She knew you could reach out and grab the left fielder on some plays if you really wanted to.

And then it dawned on her … she knew that section. She knew that section very well. It had been empty all year. It was where, for all those years, the firefighters would sit. It was where her firefighter would sit. The old ballplayer purchased the whole section every year for the firefighters to sit if they wanted to come to the game. Even after they stopped coming, he continued to buy up that section. Even after he went to play somewhere else, those seats continued to stay empty. For years, casual fans would wonder why there was an empty block of seats there. The true fans in the city knew that it had become a quiet tribute to the firefighter brother who was lost and all his brothers who were lost over the years. Even though the seats were only empty because the player no longer wished to give out the tickets for reasons of guilt, anger, and mourning, the rest of the city looked at them as a loving tribute to their hero firefighters. The surrounding fans became protective of the seats, sending many unknowing fans looking for better views, away. In a sense, this block of seats became a chapel within the cathedral that was this ballpark.

Now, Abigail was holding tickets for that section. And she knew that they could have only come from one person. She lost her breath for a moment as she came to the realization. For years, she had hoped for some connection with the man. Beyond her love for the team that he starred with for years was the connection that only they could hold.

Those tickets were like pulling the sword from the stone.

He lost what was most precious to him saving what was most precious to her. So many times she had tried to reach out to Tuck and offer her condolences and gratitude. So many times she had wanted to just hold his hand and offer her sympathies.

She tried passing messages to him through his agent, the team, and even journalists and every time she never heard a word back. She had no idea if he ever read her messages. She wondered about the weight on his shoulders and hoped to help him bear it, but she never knew if he even knew.

In the hours up to the game, she was restless and fidgety, unable to still or hold a thought long enough to make any sense to herself or anyone else. She had called Laura earlier and she agreed to go with her. She had to wait until Brian got home from school to see if he wanted to go, and this, in part, is what worried her.

Despite her son’s sudden apparent interest the day before, “apparent” wasn’t real. She wanted him to go to this game with her. At some level, she knew she needed him to go with her. Sure, she would go on living a life and everything would probably be just fine if he didn’t. The only things in life we absolutely need are air, food, and water, but she honestly felt she needed him to go with her. She pondered the perceived selfishness of such thoughts, so she was not going to force him to go.

So, as she waited for him to get home, she felt like she was back in high school waiting to ask a boy out on a date. In this case, however, she wanted her son to love baseball, or at least go out with it once or twice and see if they were a match.

Abigail didn’t hear Brian get home; she was lost in her own thoughts. When she got downstairs, her heart stopped as she saw him looking at the ticket books on the kitchen table. Before she had a chance to ask him, he looked up at her and asked her if they could go … tonight.

In an instant, her old anxieties were wiped away, but replaced by new anxieties of thoughts that he would hate it or that he would flashback to the fire. When she was honest with herself, she wanted him to love baseball.

He was full of questions and could see his excitement build. Where did the tickets come from? Why did you get them? Were they good seats? What time should they leave? Do you have a hat I can wear?

The night was near perfect with an unusual chill in the air for that time of year, so they decided to walk to the stadium. There was enough of a chill to give the night a special feel. As they walked by the fire station, she could see a couple of the guys gathered near one of the trucks. She noticed them looking through the same ticket books she had at home. It was obvious they were getting ready to split them up.

One of the older firefighters noticed her and her boy walking by and gave her an awkward half-smile and nod. She returned the awkwardness. She encountered the firefighters from that night from time to time and she always felt a tinge of guilt. She had her boy with her while they lost a brother. She wrapped her arm around her children and pulled them close for a moment.

She was amazed that there were as many people at the game as there were. She hesitated to use the word “fans” because she wondered if a majority of them were there out of morbid curiosity … Casual fans that had nothing else to do besides come out and watch a team continue to implode in historic fashion.

When they arrived at the park, Abigail could see the mix of excitement and confusion on her children’s faces as they navigated through the lines, the turnstiles, and then the crowds. Their eyes frantically moved from people to food vendors to the structure and back to the people. They were overwhelmed but smiling as they took in the scenes. They looked happy to her.

When the usher at the top of the aisle asked to see her tickets, he suddenly seemed to become very focused. He looked up at her and then at her children and then back at the tickets. He asked her where she got them as he looked at the back and ran his fingers over the print.

As he did this, she sensed a sudden presence behind her, even as her son started shifting nervously around on his feet. She didn’t want to turn around to see who was behind her for fear of drawing more questions upon herself. As the usher went to ask again, a voice behind her called out the usher’s name and said that she was with them. She quickly turned around and her eyes locked in with the old firefighter from earlier. He smiled and nodded at her. The usher gave a long broad smile of recognition and handed the tickets back to her.

As the woman and her children took their front row seats, surrounded on three sides by a group of firemen, the buzz of the ballpark picked up. With his arms folded, standing in the outfield, the old ballplayer watched the whole scene unfold, smiling.

The game started with the young rookie pitcher striking out the first batter he saw. On three strikes. The second batter came to the plate and swung three times and missed all three times … he wasn’t even close. The third batter had two strikes on him before even taking the bat off his shoulder. Her son jumped to his feet … it didn’t take him long to figure out a strikeout. He yelled in unison with the crowd, and when the poor batter helplessly swung at strike three, he leapt for joy. Almost instinctively, he started high fiving the firefighters around him as they returned his enthusiasm. It was a good start.

Her kids cheered when the team put together a couple of hits in the bottom of the first, but nothing more came of the rally. Their pitcher went back out in the second and got two more strikeouts and a weak groundout on a first pitch swinging. The third inning followed the same pattern, but this time a fly ball. He was through three innings and had struck out seven and had yet to miss the strike zone.

The batters really couldn’t get much going. A hit here, a walk here, and much like the last 22 games, a ton of missed opportunities. The pitcher continued to cruise along, almost as if he was playing in a world with a different set of physics laws to rule it.

When he struck out the side in the fifth inning, she felt her pulse sharply quicken. It wasn’t as if this pitcher was just getting by … the other team looked like a bunch of little leaguers. They had struck out 12 times already by the fifth inning, had not walked, and had not gotten anything close to a hit. This was domination … pure, unadulterated domination, and she had never seen anything like it before, and for her level of games watched, that was saying a lot. Her heart raced and she felt her brain start to spin.

Her son glanced at her, looked back at the field, and then his head snapped back at her in a double take to ask her if she was okay. She nodded and told him to look at the scoreboard. He didn’t know what he was looking at and she wasn’t about to tell him … you don’t break that rule in the fifth inning of a game like this, even for the newbies.

Brian got up to get something to eat and she let her mind run away with what all this could mean, even when she knew she was overthinking. Her mind was lit up with the possibilities and trying to figure out how to explain what was going on without being the black cat walking in front of the dugout under 13 ladders and knocking down mirrors. When he got back to his seat, he looked all excited and told her about what the guys at the concessions were saying. Just before he said The Word, she cut him off and told him that they don’t speak of such things at times like this and that the person who he had met that told him that word in that situation is an evil person, or worse, a fan of the other team and he should never talk to him again. Abigail had said that only half-jokingly and Brian looked confused but went back to his hot dog. Laura just smirked with a little laugh.

By the time they were through the seventh inning, the crowd had taken on a weird energy … a strange vibe. Since she was a child, she had marvelled at the way people acted at a baseball game. It was almost as if something else was always going on besides the game. So many people seemed more interested in everything but what was happening on the field. They were looking around for vendors, standing in line at the concessions, fussing over their kids, watching all the other fans, looking at the pretty girl walking by, or discussing something else with their friends. The game itself, the activity on the field, always seemed to be just a backdrop to all the other things going on.

Tonight’s crowd had started the night no differently. Sure, there was extra buzz because of the streak, but everyone seemed to have something else going on. As this star rookie pitcher was transforming into a legend among legends, the atmosphere transformed. As this pitcher sat alone on the bench with 17 strikeouts, no walks, no errors and no … … the energy was so very different. More people were filing back into their seats than wandering off. The energy in the air had her hair standing as it seemed to be powering the lights themselves. The chilly autumn-like air turned into pure electricity.

Her kids had no idea of the magnitude of the situation and she felt helpless to explain it to them. However, they certainly felt the vibe in the air even if they didn’t know the historic story the linescore was writing or that 16 strikeouts wasn’t just good. And they certainly had no clue what it meant when you put the two together.

When the pitcher walked to the mound in the eighth inning, the stadium was on its feet. She imagined that the concession lines were empty and that the vendors had given up their calls. She couldn’t believe her eyes when the kid quickly struck out the first batter, and she was even in more disbelief that the stadium got louder.

When strikeout number 19 was registered, she felt her eyes tear up and somehow the stadium seemed to get even impossibly louder! This, of course, was nothing when the last batter of the inning struck out on three straight pitches, still not coming even close to making contact and tying the rookie for the single-game strikeout record. Not only did it seem the stadium was shaking, it felt like the whole city was shaking.

She felt ill, however, when she again realized that the score was still 0-0. Holding the other team off the board and bases was almost meaningless when you did not have a run yourself. Her anxiety was dragged into the bottom of the inning.

The leadoff batter drew a four-pitch walk as the crowd got a little quieter, only because the previous half-inning had exhausted them. When the next two batters failed to even put the ball in play, the crowd suddenly seemed irritated. They knew the consequences of not scoring and their chances seemed further reduced.

Many in the crowd became downright angry when the Old Ballplayer was announced as a pinch hitter. It was in the sharpest of contrasts to the ovations that had spilled down for the pitcher just moments ago. The boos rained down from all over as he seemed absolutely dejected. He was slumped over as he stepped into the batter’s box. He did not look like a hero tonight. However, in her heart, on a night like this, she knew that the story had already been written and all that was left was for it to be acted out. Her instinct for this game told her so.


Top of the Third

The Aging Hero sat on his stool and stared down at the black trunk. To anyone else, there was nothing special about that trunk. It was just your average-sized trunk. No wheels. No telescoping handle. No side pockets. Just your run-of-the-mill black trunk with brass hardware riveted to the corners to protect them and a wood handle. The original leather handle had broken when he was a rookie and he fixed it with a piece of wood from the bat with which he had hit his first home run. Tuck ran his hands over the World Series patch that he had riveted in place to cover a hole in the trunk. Some of the colors from the patch were bleeding out from the champagne that the trunk was splashed within the clubhouse.

He opened the trunk and stared inside. On the inside cover, there was a sticker for every team he had ever played for and some he even played against, from high school, through the minors, the majors, and even a Little League sticker from his hometown that they sent him a few years back. They were all there and there was no more room for any other stickers. He looked around to see if anyone was watching and then rubbed his hand along the inside of the trunk and pulled off the false wall his brother had built into it. Inside the false wall was a small piece of cardboard with a picture of him as a senior in high school glued to it. On the back were crudely written statistics. The lifetime totals were .315 average, 1,721 RBI, and 343 HR. He smiled when he saw the career win/loss record and lifetime era. His brother joked that he would be the next Babe Ruth when he gave him the card but had said he would focus more on pitching throughout his career so he wouldn’t hit the number of home runs that the Babe hit. Of course, he never did pitch a single professional game. He let his thumb rub at the home run total a little bit.

His older brother had given him the trunk when he got drafted just out of high school. He had already put his high school sticker in it and had tucked the card inside the compartment as a reminder always to have a set of goals and do everything within your power to reach them. He felt he barely had the strength anymore, both literally and figuratively, but they would have to drag him off the field before he would give in. Even if you don’t reach those goals, you’ll never be lost as long as you try.

In the opposite corner of the trunk was a stack of real baseball cards held together with a rubber band. He grabbed an envelope from his locker and pulled out another card. His friend who worked at the company had sent him a preview of this year’s card. He flipped it over and stared for a moment at the lifetime totals listed on the back. He let his thumb rub the number 342 next to home runs and sighed before putting the card with the rest back in the trunk.

He slowly took his stuff from his locker and put them in the trunk. Tuck was tired and aching and felt like he could sleep forever. The uncertainty of his immediate future was wearing him down more than the 20-something kids with 96 mph fastballs. The team was headed north after another tedious spring. Despite the fanfare around him rejoining the team, he had struggled all spring and now he was actually battling for the final roster spot. He had a disastrous spring of epic proportions and he knew that if he made the team, it would be only on the loyalty of friends he still had in the front office. He was battling some kid that played in the minors last year for that final spot. He was out of options, both in a technical baseball sense and a career sense. He would not accept an assignment to the minors and would have to ask for his release. There were two games left to decide whether he would continue to play or retire. Twenty-two years and all he wanted was one more month … one more week … maybe even just one more at-bat. All he wanted was that one last home run.

For years he had been haunted by the flames and now, since last fall, he was being haunted by the dirt and dust cloud at home plate. He replays it over and over in his head. He wonders what would have happened if he went to the right or reached for the plate with his left hand. What if he hadn’t slowed briefly at second base … surely he would have made it. What if he had started his swing a micro-instant earlier … he could have just trotted around the bases and he could be sitting at home and putting all of this past him. These were the thoughts that played in his head on an endless loop. These were the thoughts that always seemed to be interrupted by the yell of an umpire calling strike three. These were the thoughts that kept him from moving forward.

He pondered the thought that he may never be able to move forward … that as he got older, the weight of his grief would weigh him down and eventually crush everything he was and everything he could have ever been. It seemed that with each passing year, each passing day, it got exponentially heavier. They said that time heals all wounds, but when you are pinned beneath its sands, time only suffocates you. He felt that he’d never escape the weight and that moving on simply wasn’t an option.

For the first time, he wondered what would happen if he couldn’t get that last home run. What if he failed himself, Carl, and his very legacy. He knew that everyone saw him as that guy that refused to understand when to quit, and since he wore his pain and grief like his baseball cap, no one would ever tell him when to leave. And, of course, no one ever knew why he didn’t.

Before closing the lid, he grabbed a handkerchief and polished a fireman’s shield on the inside wall of the trunk, opposite the false wall. He had secured it in place to cover the hole he had put in the trunk with his baseball bat after his brother had died. Carl was the hero … He was just the guy who hit small white balls rubbed with Jersey mud with a stick. His brother was the one that ran into that burning home. He was just the guy that ran home. His brother was the guy that saved the lives of those two little kids. He was just a guy who had a talent that saved him from working for a living. The irony is that the skill that made him a “hero” kept him from taking a job that would have made him a true hero.

It was a game that their mother had taught them and played with them pretty much since they could swing a bat. She started with sitting on the couch in the living room, throwing them a baseball made from cloth and stuffed with beans from a few feet away. It seemed like just a moment later that she was throwing tennis balls from a chair down the hallway of their house as they stood at the other end. When it was nice outside, they would hit from a tee in the backyard. Home plate was a rock in the back corner of the yard and it wasn’t long before they were hitting Wiffle balls over their mom’s head and onto the roof. He never got a sense from his mother that she was doing all that to make them better players. He just felt that she loved the game so much that it was just something she wanted to share with them.

Their father, when he wasn’t working, would pitch to them, explain the mechanics of a swing, and would always yell at them to use two hands when fielding a fly ball. His father had fantastic accuracy on his pitches … he would hit the strike zone over and over again and could put the ball right where they wanted it. But he couldn’t throw a curveball to save his life. He had this one pitch in which he would hold the ball with a grip somewhere between a knuckleball and a slider that he would try to throw past them every so often, which he usually did. Eventually, he and his brother would hit it every time, mainly because they could see their poor father grimace and groan just before releasing it. As they got older, they would purposely miss it just to give their poor dad a sense of personal satisfaction. Their father was a good man. A proud man.

On weekends, the four of them would walk down to the softball field a few blocks away. Their mom would pack a picnic basket and play baseball for hours. Often there would be other kids or families there and they would all play together, but it was often just the four of them and the grass. Sometimes they would just lie down in the grass, talk about school, baseball, or the clouds that looked like fire trucks. Many times they just sat silently and watched the sunset.

His parents lived long enough to see him make the majors. They were in the stands with his brother when he got his first major league hit, a home run. He could see them in the left-field stands as he approached second base … the three of them were crying and jumping up and down. He had never seen them happier.

Years before, he had bought out a block of season tickets at about the same location in the left-field stands of the new stadium and gave them to his brother and fire company. He offered to get them a suite that they could use for events and anything else they had going on, but they preferred to be down with who they called the “Die-Hards.” They liked being in the middle of the throngs and feeling the heartbeat of the team’s pulse through the crowds. They didn’t belong in a suite, they said. So, a stack of season tickets sat in the firehouse and whoever could make the game on any particular day would just grab what they needed and go (after his brother got his, of course).

Tuck would continue to buy the block of tickets through the years, even after the fire. They would remain largely empty through those years, even during sellouts. They became something of a legend in baseball … a silent, unmarked, almost living memorial to a hero.

The night of the fire, the Player in his prime played a career game, a legendary game, as he extended a hitting streak to 33 games. He first sensed something was wrong, however, after hitting a home run in the seventh inning for his fifth hit of the night and noticed that the block of seats was completely empty. Carl and a few of the guys were in those seats at the start of the game and Tuck had a pit in his stomach as he touched home plate. He knew that something was wrong.

It would be a little while later when his manager would abrubtly clear the media out of the clubhouse as his agent arrived holding a pair of ticket stubs. Rufus solemnly approached Tuck and asked him to join him in the manager’s office. Tuck noticed that the tickets were blackened around the edges and realized what happened before Rufus could tell him about the fire and explained that the brother-hero had always put a pair of ticket stubs in his helmet before racing to a fire.

Tuck doesn’t remember much after that until he found himself at home. He realized that for the first time in his life, he was alone. Carl was his last connection to his parents and now he was gone. He could feel the world completely collapse around him and he knew right away that he’d never be able to move on. His own life seemed to go into the flames with his brother’s.

The devastated player would come back to his job two weeks later, a broken man that seemed to age overnight. He would struggle for the rest of the season and most of the next before asking to be traded. Tuck couldn’t play in that city anymore. His brother’s brothers at the firehouse couldn’t bear to be in the seats anymore than the Player could bear the memory of his brother in their eyes and so they stood empty the rest of that season. The team left the block of seats empty the following season, as well. The aged Player just could not look at the empty block anymore. He needed out.

Tuck noticed the burnt ticket stub in his trunk, tucked in behind the shield. He had originally taken both stubs and thrown them in a trash can at the funeral. His agent somehow had gotten one back and used it to talk him into coming back to the team. Apparently, some woman had seen him throw them away and took them out of the garbage can. She had given one of them to his agent, somehow knowing that one day he’d want it back. The woman, Abigail, was the mother of the two kids that his brother had saved that night.

The sound of a suddenly empty clubhouse snapped him out of his daze and he looked around, confused for a moment. He sighed deeply, a mix of emotions raging inside of him. He felt almost crippled at the thought of returning to that city … that park. It is one thing to be there in the dead of Winter’s brutal grasp. It was something entirely different to be there in the full glory of the Springtime sun … a time that was primed for ghosts and visions of a lost life. However, Tuck was determined to finish what he started … to do what he needed to do. He was determined to honor his brother the only way he knew how.

He carefully made sure to clean the number on the fireman’s shield—343. One more at-bat, thought the aging ballplayer … then the rookie could get his shot. And he could retire and maybe, one day, he would get The Call … the call that would bring him, the number 343, and his brother to Cooperstown.