When the Sparrow Sings – Fifth Inning

"Ramirez versus me is the real contest of this game and everyone in the park knows it." (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“Ramirez versus me is the real contest of this game and everyone in the park knows it.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth chapter of Jason’s novel. If you need to catch up, you can read Chapter Five here.

Top of the Fifth

When we take the field in the top of the inning, all of us stand straight. We bounce and prance like ebullient race horses. We aren’t trying to show up the other team, but it’s hard to contain after what just happened. We’re winning, we look in control. Why not be happy for a moment?

It’s funny how little joy you’re supposed to show as a baseball player. If I strike out Ferris, I’m not really allowed to pump my fist or shout. Unless maybe it kills a rally at the end of an inning. And even then, I can’t overdo it. As though Mike Ferris doesn’t understand that. Doesn’t know how good he is and that it’s a victory worth celebrating when a pitcher beats him. We are always told how lucky we are that we play a children’s game every day, and then we are derided if ever we act like children. The world is contradictory.

But what we do right now breaks no unwritten rules. We are allowed to look happy when winning a World Series game at home against a very good team. We are allowed to bounce a little.

I finish my warm-up pitches, and they are so easy, and I feel so good, that I am reminded of when Dad told me I’d be great. I was a sophomore in high school when he told me. He didn’t equivocate. It wasn’t that I could be great. It wasn’t that I’d be great if I applied myself. I would be great he insisted. I asked how he could be so sure.

“Because,” he said, “no one has to pay any attention to you in the middle innings.”

“Huh?”

“You tire out eventually, like everyone does, and sometimes in the first, you take a minute to find your spot. But they have to get you early or late. There’s nothing they can do in the middle.”

This was something Dad had harped on about pitchers as long as I can remember. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but he always insisted the best pitchers were the ones who made you think that if you didn’t get to them right away, there would be no getting to them at all. How great they were was all about how often it was possible to get to them early. In high school, I lost my control a lot, but he was right: If nothing happened in the first, that was it. Any runs that came in were a product of luck. It’s not something that’s changed as I’ve grown up.

We are in the exact middle of the game now, though I am a bit past my middle point. I won’t finish the game — too many pitches – but I’m hoping to make it through the seventh, at least. In any case, I am untouchable right now, especially with the bottom of the order coming up.

I haven’t even mentally acknowledged the name of the left fielder yet, but I know it. It’s impossible forget, feeling so out of place in the modern game. Art Lynch. He sounds like someone who should have played in the thirties. The scrappy bench guy for the Yankees. Cheering for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Then or now, he’s not much to be concerned with. I feel bad, sometimes, about the how dismissive I am of certain hitters, and they do burn me at times. Of course, they do. Even a poor major league hitter is still a major league hitter, but I can’t be bothered to worry about players I shouldn’t worry about. I only have so much energy for that.

So yes, Lynch. Here he is. I lean forward, my arm dangles. I nod at the signal, throw the asked-for fastball, and watch a foul ball skitter down the first base line and bounce up into the stands. A new ball is tossed to me. My arm dangles. Another fastball. An awkward swing, but contact is made. He’s gotten on top of it and it bounces quickly toward Adam at second. It looks like an easy enough baseball play. Routine. And then the kind of thing happens that none of us has any control over. The ball hits something – a hard clump of dirt, a little divot – and it kicks to Adam’s right. He gets his glove on it, but doesn’t hold on. He picks it up and makes a throw, but Lynch is on board. Easy innings are hard to come by tonight.

I’m still in the bottom of the order, though. Togneri-Jones is up. Last time, he sneaked on the way Lynch just did. He won’t reach this time, but before he’s put out, two surprising things happen. First, Lynch is off when I start into the stretch. Second, Togneri-Jones swings at a bad pitch outside. Hit and run. He makes contact, but doesn’t do anything with it other than give Adam a chance to redeem himself. There’s no play at second, so he scoops it up and tosses it to Alex for the first out. Lynch is in scoring position now, but it doesn’t feel like anything to be to worried about, not with Newhall coming up.

The last play tells me they are scared. They are down two and already playing for one run. Or maybe the manager just wants to get what he can out of the bottom of the order. In any case, no one in the park is surprised when Newhall bunts at the first pitch. Brian and I have anticipated this and played into it by giving him a nice change-up, happy to have the out. He rolls it, rather nicely, right up the first baseline. I have to hustle a little to get the out at first, but I do get it. There is a man on third now, but there are also two outs.

And Ramirez is coming up.

Ramirez versus me is the real contest of this game and everyone in the park knows it. It was made clear when I wet my pants in the first inning and he took advantage the way everyone expected him to. Twice he has led off an inning. Twice he has reached and scored, but this situation is different. This time, he is trying to drive a run in and extend the inning for the more powerful hitters who follow him. Also this time, I am not scared. I am in a groove. I am pitching well. My team is winning. He should be on the defensive. Still, we must take him seriously.

He steps in with his piston bounce. Brian calls for a fastball, and as I reach back to throw it as hard as I can, his body stills. He does not flinch as the pitch misses just inside for ball one. Brian calls for a fastball again. Same location. He bounces. I reach back. He stills. Does not flinch. This time, I am better. Strike one. The stadium is quiet. If he gets a hit, a run will score. It’s just a run. We’ll still be winning, but it will feel like we are losing. We will have surrendered something. I will have surrendered something. I will have shown that I cannot beat him. If they can extend the game, send him to the plate enough times, he will beat us. By himself if he has to. I think of how Dad would be at moments like this. How he would breathe only between pitches. As soon as I came set before the pitch, he would hold his breath. Wait.

It wasn’t intentional. I never told him I noticed it. I don’t know if he still did it. I don’t know if he did it when he watched me a few days ago. It’s been ages since he sat close enough for me to tell. Brian calls for a change-up. Ramirez gets out in front of it and sends it foul. One ball. Two strikes. We are winning the battle. Brian calls for a slider, hoping to finish him. Ramirez bounces. Stills. Doesn’t bite. Ball two. Another slider is called. It doesn’t find the zone either. The count is full. The stadium is still dead silent. No one moves. No one breathes. It is as though my dad is somehow filling every seat in the stadium. Brian calls fastball. It’s a good pitch. A great pitch. But it doesn’t quite finish the job. Ramirez fouls it off. I can feel everyone shifting nervously in their seats. A glance in the dugout finds everyone not in the game standing and silent. Brian wants a fastball again. I give it to him and Ramirez does something insane. He bunts.

Ramirez is a good hitter. He’s fast enough to bunt for a hit, but he doesn’t have to. Bunting now makes no sense. A foul bunt with two strikes and he’s out – the inning is over. He’s relying on this. He must be. He wants to create chaos. He wants to catch us unexpected, and he does. It’s a good bunt, off into no man’s land between home, third, and the mound. It’s my play, and I have to move quickly. I glance at Lynch as I run for the ball. He was paying attention and is dashing home. I could try a throw home, but it would be tough to get it to Brian in time for the tag. I decide to try first, which I know will also be close, but it’s just a force play. If I get the ball there first, I win. It’s an awkward move, no matter how I approach it, to pick up the ball, turn, and throw. I eschew my glove and barehand the ball successfully. I turn, whip the ball hard toward first, and fall over. As I fall, I don’t allow my head to turn. I keep my eyes fixed on Alex at first. I see Ramirez flying down the line. I see the ball pop into Alex’s glove. I hear the thump of a Ramirez’s foot on the bag. I feel the my hip and shoulder collide softly with the turf. I see the fist pumping out call of the umpire. I hear Ramirez shout and shake his fist in defeat. I smell the grass. I hear the crowd scream. I hear the crowd scream. I hear the crowd scream. I stand. I feel Manny slap my butt as he runs past me to the dugout. Ramirez cuts across the field and as he passes me, he nods. Touches his cap just for a moment.

Bottom of the Fifth

The cheers of the crowd come down like a thunderstorm. The stadium rumbles. The ground shakes. It takes me just a moment to remember that I am supposed to run back to the dugout. When I get there and sit down, I close my eyes and listen to the downpour. If it was real and the heavens had opened up like this, the game would be over. It is the bottom of the fifth and we are winning. If the game were called, it would be over. I could say, “I did it, Dad. I won a World Series game. I won. Five innings. Two runs. That’s not bad. I did it, Dad. I did it.”

If I could say that. If I could say it and be heard. If I could.

But the downpour slows to a patter. I open my eyes. Remember. A clear night. The moon rising now, not quite full. More game to be played. Russell Jennings coming to bat.

* * *

Watching the media circus around Russell this year was something. Our fans were, of course, immediately supportive. After all, he had just led the league in OPS. He had finished an unfair second in the MVP vote. Can’t boo that guy. We started at home this year and when his name was announced, he got the biggest cheer of anyone. Even bigger than me, and I’d won the Cy Young and hadn’t been accused of any violent crimes. Of course, I am quiet and not a good quote. The reason Russell got such a cheer is that he handled the media and the fans like he handles the bat. He gave an interview a few days before Opening Day that was calculated to give him exactly that kind of ovation. I still have the article saved on my phone. I look at it when I want to feel bad, I guess.

Do you have anything to say about the ongoing allegations?

Well, my lawyers are going to be really mad at me for this – I haven’t warned them or anything – but it’s time to tell the truth. The truth is, yes, she was in my room. Everybody knows that already, there’s no use denying it, and I don’t like lying. But I didn’t do anything wrong.

What happened then?

Oh come on, now. I don’t want to drag the girl’s reputation through the dirt.

But just saying she was in your room…

There’s going to be a lot of he said, she said. The only people who will ever know what happened are the two of us. We’ve been fully cooperating with the police, as they’ll tell you (ed. Local police confirm that Jennings has made himself readily available). I didn’t do anything wrong. I let a pretty girl come up to my room. I learned later, I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about this, but I learned she’s had some problems. I wish we could help her out. But now, it would look like something it wasn’t.

That’s going to read as pandering, you realize?

So what if it does? The truth reads like a lie often enough. Look at how I present myself. Talk to the people around me. Talk to my teammates. This isn’t the kind of person I am. I don’t do things like this. I like to go out, I like to have fun, but I don’t want to hurt anybody. I have women in my life. My mom, my sisters. I’m not going to do anything to hurt a woman. I was raised better than that.

It went on from there. I don’t find it particularly convincing, frankly, but I guess it could be, if you were already looking for a reason to be convinced. I think the reporter should be fired, though. He was making it much too easy. But then, Russell is too smart to do anything uncalculated. He knew the reporter was friendly. There’s a reason he picked a national writer and not one of the local guys. I bet his lawyers knew what was up, too.

* * *

The roar is just as loud today as it was on that first day. The crowd can’t stop cheering him. I have no need, though. Let him strike out. Let him look silly. I don’t care. We’re winning. There’s nothing he can do for me right now.

Guillen looks focused. He’s on a short leash and he knows it. The bullpen hasn’t quieted all the way. Two guys are out there tossing gently, staying loose in case they have to get ready in a hurry. He starts off with a fastball and Russell watches it go by. Three more pitches and Russell still hasn’t taken the bat off his shoulder, and he’s ahead three balls and a strike. They’re scared of him. They go ahead and make the fourth ball intentional and the crowd goes off. It’s the World Series and they want to see him hit. They love him and they know he gives them a chance to win. But no one wants to risk grooving a pitch to him, so down to first he goes amid a shower of boos. If the boos were meant for him, the world would be a little more just.

* * *

When the season started, Russell would get some boos on the road. He’d get some signs expressing displeasure, but he always knew how to handle it. He’d get questions from the local media and feign earnest frustration. It’s hard, man. What am I supposed to say? When someone commits a crime, you expect them to deny it. When they don’t, you expect them to deny it. There’s no evidence I can put forth. I just have to rely on my character. People know me. I feel like the fans know me, and they believe me. I have to rely on that. I’m just glad I’ve lived my life so that people will believe me.

Russell has always been about his public image. Most all of us give to charity, of course. I mean, if you make as much money as we do and don’t give some of it away, people give you dirty looks. I think that’s fair. I don’t make a big deal about the money I give out. Some do. Some like to be out working with people. Sometimes just because they want to help and sometimes because they want to be seen as helping. I probably should be a little more public, but I don’t want to be, so I’m not. I don’t think it makes me better than the next guy or anything. I’m just chicken is all.

Russell’s always been about shaking hands, though. He gives away enough money that no one can complain, and he’s always public about it. He has these little projects that he supposedly runs, but really, he just shows up for photo ops and does what his people tell him to do. He could be a politician if he wanted. He’ll be one of those players who retires into a nice TV contract. He’ll play it right, and he’ll be the kind of guy who gets to break juicy little tidbits. And if he keeps up like he is, he’ll get into the Hall, and that’s only going to boost his credentials.

I was really sick about it for a while. A few of us talked about it. Those of us in the rotation all stick pretty close and we get along well. Joel is our number two, and I think he was the first one who said something, actually. It’s a coincidence that we all have sisters. Having sisters helps, I think. Though it shouldn’t be necessary, and obviously, as you can tell from Russell, it doesn’t always get the job done. Joel said something about not wanting to see Russell anywhere near his sister. We all agreed, though generally, our sisters have been around long enough that they don’t have interest in ballplayers.

So we all talked about it for a while and somebody brought up the idea of leaking things to the press. I thought it might be a good idea, and I called Dad about it.

“Won’t do any good.”

“Why not. People should know. He’s getting cheers everywhere.”

“He’s getting cheers because he’s being upfront – pretending to be upfront – in every city. Some little bit leaks out and it just reads like sour grapes. Some other player on the team who doesn’t like the attention Russell’s getting. You want to get him, you’d have to go on the record.”

“What if someone did?”

“They’d lose a lot of money on their next contract I bet. And Russell’d denounce them, which would count for a lot since he’s so good. Lot of boos at home for that player.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You could maybe do it. You’re good enough. You’ve got hardware and Russell doesn’t. You’re having just as good a year as he is, so no sour grapes. Still, the fans wouldn’t like it. And you’re about to be a free agent.”

“Do you think it would make a difference?”

“It’s not putting him in jail. I can tell you that. Might mess up the season for you guys, though.”

Having this piece of knowledge and not knowing what to do with it is hard. I wasn’t happy with what Dad told me, so I called  Kristen and asked what she thought. I kind of knew what she’d say.

“He said what? And the prosecutor’s office reacted how? Zack! How have you not said anything? You have to tell somebody.”

“But do you think it will do any good?”

“Will it do any good? Zack!” She was livid. When she said my name, she stretched it into two syllables so she could squeeze in all her exasperation. Za-ack!

“It’s just, I was talking to Dad.”

“Oh yeah, Dad.  I think we all know what Dad would have to say about that.”

“Well, actually, he said I was probably the only one on the team who could do it.”

“Did he encourage you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Uh huh.”

“Kristen, come on.”

“Zack, do you have any idea how many of these guys are out there? And they all think they can do it because everyone turns a blind eye.”

She was right. I knew she was right. You can’t really argue with someone when they are so clearly right, so I shut up and let her lecture me and let her make me feel terrible and then, I guess because she’s my sister and she loves me, she said this:

“Zack, I understand if you don’t say anything. Dad’s right. It probably won’t do any good. I’d like you to say something. I’d like someone to call him out. Someone should. But I get that it won’t matter. That it might mess things up for you. I get it.”

I went back after that and talked to the other guys in the rotation. It came up over and over for a while when different guys told their sisters about it, but eventually it just faded into the background. Something we put up with. Our sisters all said they understood or had no reaction. None of us ever said anything, on the record or off. I wonder if we understood.

* * *

Alex is up now. I have a feeling that Guillen is running on fumes. I’d like to see things get out of hand for him quickly, but you never know in baseball. Alex gets deep in the count, too, and ends up with a full count. This is good for us. Guillen is going to be lucky to get out of this inning. Alex doesn’t quite get it done, though. He hits a big, deep fly ball. In the heat of August, it probably goes over the wall. But now, in the cold, it drops just in front of the wall for the first out of the inning. Still, the bullpen is working.

* * *

When I talked to Dad about Russell, it was just as impossible as it always was to figure out what he actually thought. I think what he said was true. I don’t think anything I could have done would have sent Russell to jail. I think, all things being equal, that he’d have been happy to see Russell get what he deserves. But then, why mention that saying something would cost me money?

We talked about it a few more times throughout the season, and every time he gave the same impression. It would be “right” to say something, but it would do more harm than good, so what would the point be? I came to feel like I was being manipulated. Effectively manipulated, I guess, since I’m sitting in the dugout at the very, very end of the season and still haven’t said anything.

Dad and I got along a lot better when I was in high school, but looking back, it’s been hard to wonder if it wasn’t just a change in his approach. When I’d been smaller, he’d been willing to bully me to get what he wanted out of me. That’s what the sparrow speech started as. But in high school, it was different. There was the coaching thing, for one, but around the house he was a lot different.

I was a star on the team right away, and that came with some ego. Dad wasn’t going to try to take me head on anymore, though. Sometimes, I’d be sore or tired or just lazy and there was no way in the world I was going to work out unless it was a team practice. The first time it happened I was sitting in my room playing video games when Dad walked past and then stuck his head in.

“You get up early today?”

“No.”

“Shouldn’t you be doing the morning workout, then?”

“Too sore today.” I didn’t even look at him. I was focused on my game, and I didn’t want to make eye contact if I could help it.

“Huh. Looked nice out. I’ll have to look again, though. Thought I heard a sparrow out there. Must be wrong.” And then he walked away.

I sat there for a few minutes, trying to focus on the game, but he’d gotten himself into my head, so I hit save, turned it off, and went outside to work out. It was a nice day. There were birds everywhere.

* * *

Now Hector. Ferris walks out to the mound to discuss how they want to approach Hector. That didn’t happen at the beginning of the season, but as he’s come on, teams have gotten more cautious with him. Whatever their plan is, it doesn’t work, even if they do get the out. Guillen throws a curveball that doesn’t break and Hector hits a hard, straight line drive the rattles against the wall in left center. Russell moves quick and is waved in, but Coates has an arm and this throw is every bit as hard coming back as the hit was going out. They get Russell at the plate. Maybe I chuckle a little. Can’t say.

The manager comes out and there’s a pretty good discussion out there on the mound. You can tell Guillen doesn’t want to come out. It would be humiliating to come out of a World Series game in the fifth inning, but it’s also pretty clear he doesn’t have much left. He’s lucky the score isn’t more lopsided than it is. Managers like the idea of a pitcher finishing an inning, though. And I guess they aren’t quite as afraid of Dave as the guys coming before him. That’s fair. Dave can be beat if you change speeds on him, and Guillen’s good at that.

* * *

After that first time, it wasn’t long until the whole sparrow thing became a point of affection between us. It was a way for him to call me out without directly challenging me, which would never have worked. “Raining a little, but the sparrows are still at the feeder.” “Cold out today. Did you see how hungry the birds are?” Sometimes, I’d still blow him off, but most of the time, I’d roll off my bed or out from in front of the TV and go work out.

Dad’s other big tactic at the time was to find video of top prospects and show it to me. “See this guy. 95. Decent curveball. Control issues.”

“I have control issues.”

“This guy just got drafted in the second round by the Mets.”

“Huh.”

That’s a hard feeling to articulate –- being fifteen or sixteen years old and seeing players who are supposed to be in the majors in a few years and thinking, well, I can pretty much do that.

No scouts were paying attention to me, though. We were in the middle of nowhere in Indiana. Small high school. Good, but not great. I’d get some looks later, of course, but as a sophomore, I wasn’t on the radar yet.

* * *

Dave steps in. One way or another, I have to believe this is it for Guillen. If he gets the out, he finishes with five innings. Not great, but not a disgrace. If Dave gets on, Guillen gets yanked. I’ve always hated getting yanked. That’s Dad’s fault as much as anything else I do. Dad had a weird tick about pitchers who couldn’t get out of the inning when they ran into trouble. He had an even bigger thing about managers sending a tired pitcher back out. He used to swear at the TV over it. He’d go on and on about how this or that pitcher better call a surgeon. Most of it had to do with Dad’s sense of order. He liked clean innings. He liked clean games.

* * *

“He takes the sharpness out of games now.” This was what Dad said to me after a few months of watching Russell this season. “All the fans screaming for him or against him. It interrupts the flow.”

“No one really boos him now, Dad.”

“My point stands. He’s a spectacle. Never be a spectacle, Zack.”

“I know, Dad.”

Never be a spectacle. I don’t know when this became Dad’s philosophy. But he sure held to it. That’s why he hated a pitcher coming out. He said it was a spectacle. The manager coming out to fetch him like a parent busting a pot-smoking teenager.

“It’s humiliating. You have to see it coming. Managers don’t pay enough attention and they’re greedy. They always want more. It’s a spectacle.”

My dad knew a lot about baseball, but he never understood this. He thought he could see it because it’s always easy to see things in hindsight, but I’ve been on the mound a lot more than he has. I won the Cy Young Award last year. I know about pitching. I know that sometimes you feel fine and then the next pitch, it’s gone. That sudden. It can be in the middle of an inning or the middle of a batter. Sometimes you tire slowly. Sometimes you don’t.

* * *

Guillen should be out, though. He’s spent. Dad would be screaming furiously at the TV right now. He would hate what’s going on. I can hear it. “They’ve had the bullpen up half the night. Use the pen! That’s what you have them for.” The last sentence he’d almost sing, his voice rising in the condescending way of a parent who has watched his child make the same stupid mistake over and over again.

But no. The manager is being greedy. He wants one more out. He wants his first reliever to start the sixth out fresh.

Guillen starts with a fastball and it’s just a mess. He’s dropping his arm and he’s losing velocity. If the ball had been anywhere near the plate, we’d have two more runs now. Ferris can see it, I’m sure. Guillen probably can, too. The next pitch is a curve. Guillen still has his curve. He’ll probably be able to break that pitch off when he has grandkids. It drops through the strike zone and Dave watches it for a strike. The next pitch is another curveball that Dave fouls off. The crowd is pretty pumped up. They want Dave to hit one out. Four runs feels like it would be too much for the other team. The game would be as good as won. Like my dad, they don’t understand how fast it can turn.

* * *

The sparrow thing never left us, but it changed a little. Later in high school, when scouts were looking and Dad didn’t have to make me work out, it was something he’d yell out at the mound when I was starting to lose it mentally. “Sparrow dancing around here by the bleachers, Zack, time to work.” Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. It was like a mini-mound conference where Dad told me to stop thinking so much. Just work. Pitching was an art. Work was work. Don’t be an artist.  Follow directions. Do as I was told. Dad knew me well enough to know this was a good strategy with me. Sometimes, I just lost it, and there was nothing anyone could do. But Dad helped the most.

* * *

Guillen has lost it, but that doesn’t always matter. Dave gets on top of a curveball and sends a sharp little grounder to Ramirez. Not that it matters how hard it’s hit. A ball would have to levitate above the infielder for Dave to beat out anything. The inning is over.

It’s silly, but as I grab my glove and jog out to get ready for the sixth, I look around the park. You see birds sometimes. They come after the discarded food. The hotdog buns and popcorn. I can’t usually tell what they are, but sometimes I notice a sparrow. I know all the sparrows. I’m looking for one now, but I don’t see anything. I sure would love to see a sparrow, but there are no sparrows. Just the crowd.

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