Categories
Novel

Bottom of the Fifth

The pitcher stares into his catcher and waits for his sign. A batter stares out toward the pitcher waiting for his pitch. The fielders stand in the field waiting for the ball. Waiting. Everyone is waiting for someone else. But he was waiting for something else. He was waiting for one home run. He has spent his whole life waiting and he wonders how he has let his life slip by.

Waiting for buses and airplanes. Waiting in buses and airplanes. Waiting for prima donna pitchers to wind up and waiting for contracts from runners-up baseball teams. Tuck’s whole life has been spent waiting for something and now he was alone, waiting in a big-league outfield, waiting for a game to start, and waiting for a home run so that he could stop waiting and leave a kids game behind. He was tired of it. He was worn down. He was exhausted.

There was a time when he would relish the waiting. While people that didn’t understand the game often complained about all the waiting, he understood the importance of it. In those “bored” moments for the fans was a moment for a pitcher to try to read the batter, to see if he was ready for his best pitch or if he could get him to go for one in the dirt. Likewise, the batter was looking for some hitch in the pitcher’s movements, the way he moved his glove or a tell in his face that would tip off what the next pitch would be.

The good fielders of the games spent those moments trying to process all possible scenarios. If the ball came to him, what direction was it likely to go? If there were runners on, were they slow or fast, and if the ball was deep, where should he throw the ball? If it was a hit in front of him, what was his best opportunity to salvage an out or was he just going to have to eat it?

In the dugout, the manager and his coaches had to play out the scenarios amongst themselves so that they could act quickly after the next moment. Did they need the starter to stall a bit and give the bullpen time to warm up? Should they direct the pitcher to work faster and keep the batter off balance … was it more important to speed up to prevent the batter from preparing himself?

Even in the stands, the fans needed those moments to update their scorecards and make their own notes. They needed those moments to teach their sons and daughters about the game and update them on what was happening. Friends needed those moments to argue the previous pitch, play, or non-play and discuss what was going to happen next and maybe even call a home run.

Tuck wished he still cared about the game enough. He knew how awful it was that he was just waiting for one moment so that he could leave the game behind. Early in his life and career, he prepared himself for all of these little moments … they were what was important. He knew that he was being a bad teammate for simply waiting for such a selfish moment. No one would probably ever know the importance of that moment and he was fine with it. It was the only thing that was important to him now and he had no problem with it. He knew he wouldn’t have a problem abandoning this team and walking away once the moment passed and he knew that made him a crappy teammate and probably a crappy human being. But he was tired and even now, even being tired of waiting, he knew he still had to prepare himself so that he could end the waiting sooner.

He was running his warm-up wind sprints in the outfield as players finished up with batting practice. While every other player would walk back to center field after sprinting to the first baseline, he would do his warm-up from the infield dirt to the warning track in left field. It helped him feel more comfortable in his position. And he wouldn’t walk back … he would jog. It was something he had always done. He found walking a waste of time and knew that he could get more exercise if he jogged back to the starting point. He was always preparing himself, always getting ready for the next moments, always pushing himself forward. It wasn’t impatience, it was more about not wasting a moment to prepare.

During one jog back, he was glancing in at the batter and saw one of the relief pitchers with a bat in hand. Just as he was about to take his turn for the sprint back to the warning track, he saw the pitcher-batter take the pitch to his groin area. He was sure that the ball had hit the batter’s thigh and nowhere more sensitive. He instantly recognized how the batter reacted and moved … He knew it all too well. It was a similar pitch that would change the direction of his life the first time.

He and Carl were stars in Little League and his brother went on to become a star in high school. By the time Tuck played his last game before high school, he had little doubt in the fact that he was going to make his high school team. It was just a matter of waiting for that first high school at-bat. The way he had it figured, he would be starting varsity.

He became overconfident in what he thought was a simple fact of life, and despite his brother’s best efforts, he would rarely practice, instead choosing to hang out with friends and have some fun off the field. He felt he had earned it and he had better ideas of how to wait for the spring season to start. He had dominated the Little Leagues and was certain of his future domination of high school. He wasn’t going to do any more waiting on the field.

He remembers sharply that first day of tryouts. It was a cold spring day, early enough in the spring that the sun seemed to be already setting by the time they got out on the field. He stood along the first baseline in old beat-up sweatpants and a sweatshirt, his left arm holding his glove against his chest with about 30 other freshmen. He was smug as he stared at the other hopefuls. He was tired of listening to the coach talk and instead looked up and down the line trying to mark who would be cut first. He didn’t want to wait.

They did the typical throwing warm-ups to start and he threw a couple over his partner’s head and missed a few easy catches. He wasn’t worried. They broke up into smaller groups to rotate around through stations. Some stations were aimed at evaluating your swing while others were designed to test your fielding and one was set up to see if you could run from home to first. When he took his first swing, he felt completely out of sync. His arms and legs seemed to be going in opposite directions while his bat flailed through the strike zone, sometimes hitting the tee and other times swinging right over the ball. Of the ten swings he took at a ball on a tee, he only connected with the ball five times and he noticed as the coach made a note on his clipboard.

In the outfield, he started back on the first ball hit to him before realizing it wasn’t hit that hard and found himself trying to catch up to a ball that was already destined to hit the grass. The next ball went over his head as he first broke in on it. The other five were somewhere in between, with him only gloving a couple. By the time he threw back the last (over the coaches’ heads) he was sucking wind and saw yet another mark go on the clipboard.

The next hour was more of the same and for the first time in his life, he felt panic on a baseball field and the panic made him worse. Carl was at his own practice and he was alone as he was coming apart. As the sun started to make contact with the distant mountains, the coach decided to have some live pitching, fielding, and hitting. By the time he came to bat, he was completely unnerved. The helmet on his head felt like a brick and the bat in his hand felt like a redwood tree. He swung at the first two pitches he saw and missed them by a mile. He was completely unprepared for this level. The pitcher, although his age, suddenly seemed like a future Hall of Famer on the mound.

The third pitch came in hard and fast and he simply froze. Like a statue, the bat was locked to his shoulder and his feet cemented to the ground. Not a single muscle even twitched until after he felt the heat of the ball high on the inside of his thigh. He winced and grabbed his leg. He heard a couple of the other players groan and then laugh. Although the ball only hit his thigh, it would have looked like it hit somewhere a bit higher to others in the field. He turned away from the infield and stood in confusion. He had gotten out of the way of balls like that countless times. He could read balls while they were still in the pitcher’s hand. He had reflexes that would make professional ballplayers jealous. He fought back tears of pain and confusion and suddenly he couldn’t hear anything else after that.

Two days later, at the end of the third day of tryouts, the coach pulled him and a couple of other guys aside and told them thank you for trying out, but there wouldn’t be any room for them on the team that year. A friend’s mother drove him and another one of the guys that got cut home, and Michael struggled to fight back the tears the whole way. When he got home, he walked through the door, only to meet the eyes of his mother. She looked surprised. He looked down and told her he had been cut. He had never felt so broken in his life. She came over and embraced him as he unleashed a torrent of tears, sobbing uncontrollably.

On the outside, he told friends and those that didn’t know him too well that the pitch to the thigh hampered his play during the tryouts, but he knew that was not the truth. He knew that he simply was not prepared. During that time between his last Little League game and the first tryout, he was waiting without preparing. The days, weeks, and months passed, and while he could have been practicing and getting himself ready, he simply sat back on his haunches expecting it would all be handed to him. His Little League teammates and opponents had gotten stronger, faster, and quicker while he got weaker and slower.

It was a low point in Tuck’s life. That pitch to his thigh would become the first big turning point in his life. When he originally got hit, he could actually see the individual seams of the ball marked on his leg. It took several weeks for the bruise to completely heal, but he felt those seams were marked in his heart forever and it changed his approach to everything for the rest of his life.

The day after he got cut, he started running every day. He would run in the snow, rain, and heat. Not a day went by that he didn’t swing a bat and throw a ball. He set up a batting tee in the basement and hit countless balls into a net on rainy days and days too cold to be outside. He would spend hours throwing balls against nets, fences, walls, and even trees, and then fielding them.

He attended all of his brother’s games and watched how high schoolers played the game. He would score the game, track pitches, and take notes of how the defense lined up in specific situations. He would give his brother pointers on mechanics and strategy after games. He’d even share tips for his brother’s teammates.

During the summer, he and his brother went back to their normal routine of spending their days in the field. They would practice and play until they were exhausted and then they would lie in the grass and talk about strategy. Sometimes, they would take turns creating scenarios and asking each other what they would do in each of them from all positions on the field.

If it was raining, they would go down in their basement and go through a normal regimen that includes the batting tee, weights, and fielding work. They ate, slept, and breathed baseball until it became part of them. When school started up again, they continued the regimen as much as they could, sometimes even involving other potential teammates.

When the spring tryouts came around, there was no doubt that he was a transformed player. Tryouts came and went and before the first game of the season, he had leapt over the JV squad and was a starting outfielder for the varsity squad. For two years, he and his brother terrorized every other team in their conference and led the way to two straight state titles.

During his senior year, even though they would lose the state championship series, he wrapped up nearly every offensive record for the school and about half the records for the state. There were scouts at nearly every one of his games with schools trying to convince him to not skip college and professional teams begging him to enter the draft.

His transformation was complete, and for a long time, he welcomed waits. Waiting, for him, was an opportunity to prepare and get ready for the next moment, whether it was while standing in the outfield between pitches, the time between the final out and Opening Day, or while standing on third while the catcher talked to the pitcher. In that awful moment of his freshman year, he learned that the next moment will be destined by what you did while waiting for it. Even in such a mundane moment as waiting and standing at third, how he prepared himself for all possible scenarios that could happen once the pitcher released the next pitch could determine whether he was left standing on third and missing out on an opportunity or if his team won by one run.

Suddenly coming back from the thoughts that took him meandering back in time in his own head, he realized that he was in a full sprint, staring off into space and about to crash into the concrete wall in front of the stands. Tuck tried to stop and braced himself before making a last-second try to jump the wall. All he could muster was a bit of a bunny hop as his inner thigh caught the point of the top of the short wall. He winced but understood Irony’s message.

Categories
Novel

Top of the Fifth

He stood quietly in front of the dugout, not really sure what to do. Michael felt obvious, conspicuous in the fact he had nothing to do except stand in that spot. There were plenty of people wandering around in the corridor that ran from about first base, around behind home plate, and half way up the visitor dugout. The first base path was the border, but in reality, you’d have to answer to the grumpy groundskeeper if you had any inkling to put a toe on the exposed grass. He pondered the tarps that cover the grass in the area and wondered how that was any better for the grass than people walking around on it directly. However, that was not his job … his job was to stand there and wait.

And there were a lot of people out there doing nothing more than waiting, but they seemed to be doing it with a lot more confidence. Some were waiting to talk to a player, a manager, or some team official for a piece they are writing on said player, manager, or team official or some other player, manager, or team official. Others were waiting for word from some television studio either a couple of miles away or an entire country away so that they could do a 30-second live mention that they were indeed at the game and would have updates on the late news. A few were waiting for his boss, trying to get a pass for a friend, a ticket for a meal, or access to a player. Some were simply waiting until someone kicked them off the field because they did not have the proper credentials to be there, so they might as well be there. And why not, the Intern thought. Why not hang out on an absolutely perfect field on an absolutely perfect spring evening and watch the preparations for an absolutely perfect game.

Regardless of their reason for waiting, each and everyone looked like they belonged there. Some stood with their arms upon the batting cage, as if studying the current batter’s swing, even if it were a pitcher. Some wandered in and out of the clubhouse, by way of the dugout as if looking for someone. Some simply paced up and down the field, looking lost in their thoughts. He was certain that of all the people out there, he was the one who belonged on that field the least. This made him nervous, but he still tried to take the scene in. He made sure to look around the field and commit it to memory.

His official job at that moment, as specifically explained by his boss, was to wait. No one else on that field would admit to simply waiting … however, it was his current title. His boss was waiting for the names of some last-minute additions to a player’s ticket allotment for the game. He was waiting for his boss to hand him the names so that he could bring them to someone in the ticket office who was also waiting so that he could pull the tickets together and get them to the family that was waiting outside the stadium to get in. It was a chain of people waiting and the only one who wasn’t was joking around in the outfield with another player.

In spite of how uncomfortable he was, he could not think of anywhere else he’d want to be at that moment. Even though at the moment he felt like an outsider looking in, he felt like he was part of the team and something much larger than himself. The transition of off-season Intern to in-season Intern was a dramatic transition. While much of the day-in and day-out stuff never changed, the season brought on a whole other set of responsibilities, responsibilities that he enjoyed and had become comfortable with, even if he still occasionally stumbled in them. He was beginning to feel like he wasn’t just there to fill a role but was there because he was needed. He felt that while others were capable of doing his job, he wasn’t sure if they could be as reliable as he was.

And so, he dutifully stood there and did his job and waited. As he did so, one of the local beat reports came over and they exchanged a couple of odd jokes and small talk before he asked the Intern to look up some statistics. The Intern agreed to get them to him in the first inning and the reporter quickly walked off somewhere else to wait. This seemed to suddenly draw attention to the other reporters that he was there and each came over and repeated the same dance and request before walking away to wait elsewhere.

Finally, the player came jogging in and was stopped by the Intern’s boss. They joked for a moment or two before he jotted something down on a piece of paper. A couple more jokes were made before the two parted ways. Michael was handed the piece of paper and his boss motioned toward the field and mentioned that there were worse places to spend the last half hour of his life. The Intern happily agreed and then quickly darted off into the bowels of the stadium to run his errand.

Being in the visitor’s locker room, after a loss to the home team, was always so awkward. He couldn’t wait to be out of there. Normally, he could get in there, grab a few quotes from the key players and the manager by eavesdropping on the reporters, and get out of there. He wasn’t supposed to ask questions and nearly no interaction with the players was preferred. He was fine with that. He had time to develop his “player skills” and get used to the interactions with nervous rookies, impatient veterans, and intimidating future Hall-of-Famers. He had no problems with that.

However, this mission, this reason for being in the clubhouse nearly an hour after the game had him feeling nervous to his stomach. During the sixth inning of the game, the star first baseman for the other team had hit a sharp ball down to third. The third baseman had made a diving stop of the ball but fumbled it as he came to his feet to throw it. The official scorer had ruled it an error. You could tell the player was more than a little angry as he stood on first. Every so often, he glared up at the press box as he worked his way around the bases that inning. He looked ready to explode.

And it was this live explosive that he was sent to disarm, and he feared for his life.

Michael knew this player well. Extremely well. Or, at least he knew exactly how the man stood at the plate, all six feet six inches of him. How he held the bat up high with the head pointed back at nearly a 45-degree angle to the ground but perfectly in line with home plate and the pitcher’s mound. He knew how he held his left elbow straight out, parallel to the ground, while his right elbow rested against his body. His right leg would be no more than two feet from his left leg, which was lined up with his back elbow. And he would calmly stay in that position … so calm and steady that you would think he was a statue in the park. It was amazing that pigeons didn’t come down to rest on his bat. And he stayed this way until the pitcher was midway through his windup. Then, all of a sudden, his weight would shift back to his left leg, his knee seemingly crumbling under the weight of his massive frame. He would lift the right elbow of his body, dropping the head of his bat until it was nearly parallel to the ground, just as he lifted his right leg. As the ball approached home plate, in one fluidly explosive movement, his right leg dropped and all 267 pounds of him seemed to transfer into the bat as he swept it through the strike zone, inflicting catastrophic damage to a pitch that didn’t stand a chance.

He knew this because just last Summer while hanging out with his high school friend and his brother, they spent hours dissecting different players’ batting stances. “The Beast,” as they liked to call him, was the brothers’ favorite enemy player. The two of them took turns mimicking and showing off the swing and alternately critiquing. So, he got the full detail of exactly how this man swung a bat.

As Michael stood there in the clubhouse, he was grateful for that detailed dissection because it allowed him to mentally prepare which way to duck when he became the target of the legendary temper that was second only to the man’s swing in explosiveness.

He pondered his best strategy for ambushing The Beast. He thought about going up to him while he was by his locker, but that was in the back corner, surrounded by the lockers of relief pitchers who were nowhere to be seen, mostly because of their own fear. And, he swears there was a lightbulb or five out in the corner, which made it even more foreboding. He was sure that if he went back there, he would never return. They wouldn’t find his body for another 50 years when they were tearing down the stadium.

He then thought he would just walk up to him and interrupt him while he was talking to the other players. While this would take more nerve, there would be witnesses. As it turned out, he didn’t have the nerve and the player quickly disappeared into the shower.

So, the Intern made up his mind and planted himself in a spot between the shower and the corner locker. There, he waited once again, hoping that the fact that since the man was naked, it would make him more docile. When The Beast emerged from the shower, the Intern stepped into his path and extended his hand (making sure it was high enough so that there was no confusion about his intentions), and introduced himself. The man looked shocked for a moment, and without saying a word, shook the Intern’s hand. Without wasting a moment, he quickly blurted out that the official scorer had changed his call and that what was originally scored an error was now going for a hit. The Beast stared at him for a moment, released his hand, and continued his way toward his locker, mumbling something about how he was happy but that someone was going to be bludgeoned and buried beneath his locker, or so the Intern swears he heard before he himself quickly withdrew from the clubhouse.

As a kid, Michael had a strange love-hate relationship with the grounds crew. At times, he loved watching them, so methodically, go about their business. The way they would comb the infield and water it. The way they would lay down the line of rope so that they could put down the chalk lines. He loved watching the batter box being built with an actual box and then tapped for the chalk. He would get lost in the process and perhaps watch it all day. Ultimately he knew they heralded in the start of the game like the torch bearers herald the start of the Olympics.

But on the flip side, there was still time to wait to watch the game he loved to watch. It meant the game was so close and he could barely wait that small amount of time longer, and watching them go about their business made him antsy and anxious for the game to begin. He would find himself irrationally annoyed with these poor guys just going about their business … He wanted them to stop delaying the games.

Now, he made a point of getting himself to the press box in time to watch all the pre-game preparations. Usually, he was done with what he needed to do by about 20 minutes before the first pitch, so he’d grab an ice cream from the media lunchroom and go sit in his boss’s chair and watch the field preparations.

On this particular day, he couldn’t help but watch the fading star doing wind sprints in the outfield. He watched the old man walk slowly, staring at the grass. It wasn’t the type of stare that one might expect for such an activity. You would expect someone to maybe just be looking toward the ground as if to catch their breath or collect their thoughts, barely even realizing that the grass is there. But he was staring at the grass as if the grass itself was the focus of his attention. Although the Intern was a significant distance away, he could tell that this man wasn’t merely in a breath-catching daze, lost in the grass. He was trying to burn a hole into the grass with his stare.

Once the player got to about right-center field, he would run at full charge toward the stands, with his gaze seemingly fixated on one point in the stands. And this wasn’t the charge of someone warming up; this was a charge of a hurt bull running full speed at the red cape of a matador. One time, the player was charging so hard, he forgot to slow down fast enough and was still at half speed when he crashed into the wall. With barely a reaction and blood dripping from his forearm where he caught himself against the wall, he just turned, focused on the grass and walked back.

The Intern was, of course, intrigued by the Tuck. Opening the media guide that he helped put together, he found the player’s pages and read through them. His only knowledge of the player prior to him joining the team was the error he had committed in the World Series that would help turn the Intern into a baseball fan when he was a kid. As he read more, this was a man that seemed absolutely destined to be one of the all-time greats. His stats, from the very beginning, were on pace to be Hall of Fame worthy. He didn’t hit a ton of home runs, but his average was consistently in the league top five with a few batting titles. He regularly finished in the top two for RBI, with a handful of titles there, as well. But it was the detail of his stats that truly shone. There were few better in the history of the game with two outs and runners on. No other player ever topped his average with runners in scoring position in those early seasons. And he was even better at home.

Then, suddenly, his numbers tailed off. This was something that was well known and well discussed around baseball … How this great, great player, almost overnight, just stopped hitting. There were a number of theories, but it seemed few made the glaringly obvious connection.

As he read through the player’s bio, he was startled to discover that not only was his first big-league game a no-hitter in which he hit the game-winning home run in his first at-bat, but it was also the Intern’s birthday. No, not the actual anniversary of his birthday, but his actual day of birth.

The story is well told in his family how, when his mother went into labor, they couldn’t find his dad. His dad was with the Intern’s uncle at a baseball game. Eventually, when the game was over, a no-hitter, his dad returned home triumphantly to find an empty house and the phone ringing. Later that night, the future Intern was born into the world with his father by his mother’s bed.

Years later, and in a different city, when he was thirteen, the young Intern fell in love with the sport when the home team won a dramatic World Series. The boy became obsessed and began questioning his dad endlessly about the game. That year, for Christmas, after all the other presents had been opened, his father presented him with a small box, telling him it was the one possession that meant more to him than anything else he owned, but he now wanted his son to have it. Michael opened up the box and pulled out a glass box with a ball in it. His father went on to explain how he had caught the ball during the game he was at the day he was born.

As the Intern thought about the ball that now sat in a prized location in both his room and his heart, he wondered how he had never put it together in the months since he started working there and the years since this player had dropped a ball that made him a fan of the game. He stared into the media guide in a daze, trying to fight back tears. He looked back up, out at the player, and thought for sure the player was staring at him now.