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Top of the Sixth

Winter stalks. Winter waits. Winter watches. It skulks in the dark corners of the game’s great Cathedrals, patiently awaiting its time … its moment. It will come when a team is least expecting it, pouncing from its hiding spot and attacking without mercy.

For some teams, Winter never leaves. Opening Day is the only day that Winter has no power on them, and after that, it can begin picking off its prey, one by one. For some teams, the flowers have barely bloomed when they yield to Winter. They are amongst the most downcast … They see Winter and they hear Winter and it is too much and they immediately yield to Winter.

Others also see Winter’s icy stare, but fight. They fight with all they have, with every ounce of Spring and Summer’s magic that they can spare, but they too will eventually yield. Their minds betray them, for they know, deep down, that they too will eventually give in to Winter’s inevitability.

These teams, on occasion, escape briefly from Winter. They will remember the Spring, celebrate the Summer, and make a charge toward the Fall. They feel the warmth and they fight loose and they make a run. However, it is just a cruel game Winter plays. Winter loosens its grip for a moment merely to allow them to do its bidding and bring others into the fold.

You don’t escape Winter.

The good teams know all about Winter, but they ignore Winter. They fight knowing that the Fall is there for the taking and Winter can be defeated. They charge and even when they trip, they still stay away from Winter.

But Winter will come. Winter always comes.

For them, Winter’s attack is sudden, vicious, brutal, and merciless, taking hold of a team by its heart and dragging it off as Summer helplessly watches and Fall turns its back.

Only one can survive Winter.

Losing hurts. It’s an obvious fact of life. Even the kid playing tee ball for the very first time knows that losing is not a good feeling. Sure, they don’t keep score, but even a five-year-old can tell when things are going bad. They know when they are being beaten.

As players progress, losses are taken to heart more as they are left pondering what could have been, what might have been had they done something a little different. What if I had swung a little earlier. What if I had moved closer to center field. What if I had thrown the curve instead of the fastball. Losses become personal failures.

It is what you do with the losses and how you handle them that can separate great players from the average players. You can blame yourself or you can blame others. You get nowhere when you blame others.

In some ways, losses are as important as wins in development. You learn lessons about what you could have done differently. You find out what works and what doesn’t, and by identifying what doesn’t work and fixing it, you become a better player. Success and winning are so often seeded in losses. Crops sometimes need manure mixed into their soil to flourish and grow healthy.

Losses are important to a team. However, when the losses start piling up and streaks start to form, teams can start to dramatically change.

As they move through little league and high school, losses will happen, and inevitably, every player experiences those extended periods of time when things just don’t go right. A bad throw to first on a simple put-out that sets in motion a chain reaction that leads to three runs. A ball hits a clump of grass and stalls in the infield when it should have been a two-run single. A player tripping over their own laces, falling and missing a sure out. An odd, freak storm that turns a sure win into an unofficial game. These random moments that lead to losses or extend a streak happen to all teams.

Some players step up, put a team on their shoulders, and turn things around. Some players press harder and push faster and cause more havoc. Good teams limit the damage and recover quickly. Bad teams just get worse.

Once players get to college and/or the minor leagues, these streaks are amplified and thrown into the spotlight. More people watching, and in many cases, paying to watch and bad baseball are never appreciated. The pressure is turned up. With each loss, the frustration gets worse and team morale keeps sinking.

But this is nothing compared to the major league. A four-game losing streak feels like an eight-game losing streak. A seven-game losing streak feels like a 21-game losing streak. A 10-game losing streak feels like you haven’t won all season and never will.

A 21-game losing streak, in the majors, feels like you have never won a baseball game. Ever. Going all the way back to tee ball. Any wins the team may have had before seem like a Greek myth buried in a cauldron of gold at the end of the rainbow in Brigadoon. A 21-game losing streak will change a player’s DNA and brand a team for all time.

And baseball is a team sport in that one man cannot win a game directly by himself. Sure he can star, but even in a perfect game, a pitcher can’t field the balls. A great play at third needs someone to catch the ball at first to ring up the out. A three home run game by a single batter needs pitchers to hold the runs up. There can be great individual performance, but teams win as teams.

Teams lose as teams as well. Just as there are great individual performances, there are also awful individual performances. A pitcher that can’t get an out in the first. A fielder that makes three errors in a game. A batter that strikes out twice and grounds into three double plays. They all reduce a team’s chance of winning, but there are always chances for the rest of the team to stand up and win.

When a team loses 21 straight, it’s no one man to blame. No one bad play, no one bad pitching performance, no one bad day in the field makes a team lose 21 straight. Teams lose that many games in a row as teams. It becomes difficult to look at your teammates because everyone has let everyone else down.

Rookies don’t get it, Tuck thought. They don’t understand. They pitch a couple of decent games and they walk around the clubhouse like they own it. Even in the midst of a 21-game losing streak, this guy didn’t get it. This particular rookie was particularly disrespectful, he thought.

Sitting next to his locker, stewing, he tried to ignore the blaring crap music that made the vast clubhouse feel claustrophobic. He watched as some of the smaller things in his locker bounced in rhythm to the music. He could feel his blood pressure bouncing higher with each beat.

It had a cascading effect … to be heard over the music the others talked louder … joked louder … laughed louder … all as the anger in his head yelled louder. He thought about respecting the game. Respecting a losing streak. Respecting yourself. His fate wasn’t tied to these clowns. They wouldn’t help him get that last home run and get out of the game. But still, his present and immediate future were tied to them and that did not make him happy. And, although he wouldn’t admit it, it wasn’t about respecting the game … he was angry because he didn’t feel they were respecting him.

They had lost 21 straight games … tying the worst such streak since anyone really cared about these things. Three weeks ago, they were breathing down the neck of first place. It was in their grasp, but the team was mostly under the radar as the team ahead was barely winning. Nearly the definition of mediocrity with the hope of more. And there was no spotlight. Now, they were scratching at the dirt in the basement, looking to see if they could go any deeper. They had become a joke and he, by association, was a joke … perhaps even the punchline.

And here was a rookie dancing around the clubhouse when no one had any idea about how to avoid a modern-day record. He held court of other rookies and players that probably should have known better. But he led the team in wins and strikeouts and nearly every other pitching stat that meant anything. So, no one said anything to him. No one corrected him and so he did what he did and had no respect for the game.

The music continued to pound. Tuck thought about the last few games. And he started to sweat. He thought about the post-game media attention; he could feel his face getting red.

He thought about home runs.  He thought about this rookie’s home run. He thought about the Rookie standing at the plate. Tuck was already rounding third when he saw the Rookie still standing at the plate with a giant smile on his face. He watched him watch the ball clear the center field fence.

That smile boiled his blood. He was a pitcher. He was a rookie. He shouldn’t be standing there, still holding his bat, watching his home run go. He was losing the game. He was a rookie. He was a pitcher. And the music pounded louder in his ears. He was a punk. He was a rookie punk that had no right hitting his home run.

Before he knew what he was doing, Tuck grabbed a bat from his locker, walked over to the shelf that held the radio and swung. For a moment, the loud bass beats and laughter mixed with the crunch of the radio, but by the time the countless pieces of plastic and electronic bits rained down across the clubhouse floor, there was only silence.

He then turned and glared at the rookie pitcher who stared back in both shock and a building anger. When the Rookie finally clicked into the reality and meaning of what just happened, he stared back in only rage. The Veteran then threw the bat down at the pitcher’s feet and walked back toward his locker.

He hadn’t gotten very far when he felt a hand grab his shoulder and quickly spin him around. The Rookie stepped up to him, nose to nose with the Old Ballplayer, shouting nearly every obscenity available in his vocabulary. The Veteran just stared back. Realizing that obscenities weren’t getting him anywhere, the pitcher shoved him backward and started a fresh attack … a very personal attack … a very real attack, focusing on the Veteran’s lack of commitment to the team. His lack of advice to the rookies. His lack of leadership. The fact that the only emotion Tuck had shown in nearly five months of baseball was him smashing a radio.

The Veteran clenched his fists and the Rookie got more brazen, shoving him a few more times, all while stringing together a list of grievances. Times when he should have hustled to get to a ball. Times when he should have slid. Times when he should have offered an encouraging word. Times when Tuck should have just acted like a ballplayer.

The Veteran just took it. Just let him roll. Just let him verbally lay him out. As much as the team was shocked by his outburst, he was shocked by the Rookie’s ability to know bad baseball and the courage to call him out on it. He assumed the Rookie wasn’t paying attention. He assumed no one was paying attention. He assumed the Rookie wouldn’t care enough.

With a final shove, the Rookie let out a final obscenity and walked away, muttering. The Old Ballplayer looked around the silent clubhouse for a moment. All but one pair of eyes were on him as his eyes returned to watch the Rookie walk away. He was surprised one last time by what he saw … a dejected, defeated man. He didn’t see the strut of a boy with the world at his feet, but a man who had been completely demoralized.

Still stunned and still unable to respond nine innings later, Tuck didn’t react to the crack of the bat, at first. Nine innings later, he was still unsettled, perhaps a bit lost … more lost than normal. Nine innings later, he found himself contemplating the grass.

Grass was, at one time, his love and joy. To stand in the tall grass and wait for the moment when he could go running through it after a ball. He played this game to field, not to bat. He learned to become a good batter so that he could spend his life standing in the outfield of some baseball diamond. Hell, he didn’t even need a diamond … he could be content with his brother throwing a ball in the air, away from him, giving him a chance to run it down. Forget the crack of the bat … it was the swish of his cleats through the grass followed by the pop of a baseball on leather. That was the noise that brought him joy … that was what had him pursue this game.

He and his brother used to play the game that every kid plays on a rainy day. You climb around the furniture trying to keep your feet off the floor. The floor was lava. That was what the grass was to him now. It was lava that burned at his feet. He wanted out of the game and off the lava that burned away at his insides.

This is what he was contemplating when his mind was too distracted to interpret the crack his ear heard. Like a guided missile, there was no changing the course of the ball as it lined rapidly toward him, but he still had not noticed it until the center fielder had yelled his name. It was too late. He got his glove up but not open and the ball glanced off the tip and landed in the grass behind him. By now, the center fielder was there to pick it up and throw it in. The tying run had already scored and the go-ahead run slid into home just ahead of the ball.

The stadium almost immediately crashed down on him. A stadium that had waited weeks for something to cheer about poured anger down on him and he stood shocked. They had enough of this player. The center fielder walked slowly away from him, shaking his head.

The pitcher quickly got the next out, with the damage done. Baseball is a cruel game and decided it was not done with him for the day, as the Old Player struck out, with the bat on his shoulder, to end the game. It stayed there for nearly five minutes as he stared down at home plate. 22.

For the first time in years, Tuck heard the crowd. For so long, he had been able to shut them out. He had been able to ignore both the cheers and the seldom boos. It never mattered to him, so he paid it no attention. Now, in the instant that ball sailed past him, his ears opened. He heard the background boos and moans and the grief. In the foreground he heard the individual insults, obscenities, and cries. They crashed down on him like a tsunami. For the first couple of moments that he stood there with his bat on his shoulder, the tide of boos just became deeper, but after five minutes or so, the tide had gone back out.

He was the one who had no respect for the game. He was the one who had stopped respecting himself. He was the one whom they had booed … mercilessly.

Finally, he dropped his bat into the dirt, as the grounds crew tried to work around him. He slowly walked toward center field. He walked around the pitcher’s mound and stepped over the spot where second base had been. He got to about the midpoint of center field when he crouched down in a squat. He stared at the grass for a moment or two before taking one hand and slowly waving it over the individual blades. By now, half the lights pointed at the field were turned off, casting a long shadow of himself across the grass in front of him.

He was careful not to touch the grass. He could almost feel the heat coming off of it. He was confused and tired of the heat that was all around him. He could feel the lava consuming him, bit by bit.

After a while, Tuck turned and headed back to the dugout, hoping he would not have to face his teammates.