When the Sparrow Sings – First Inning

“Hey Zack, that’s a nice throw, little boy. Good job.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“Hey Zack, that’s a nice throw, little boy. Good job.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

Editor’s Note: This is the second chapter of Jason’s novel. For Chapter One, click here.

Top of the First.

There is nothing apparently terrible in how it begins. I throw the fastball as called for by Brian. I miss the spot just a bit. It’s a little too far in and the umpire calls it a ball. This is not how I want to start, but it’s nothing special. It’s just a 1-0 count. I have had thousands of 1-0 counts. They rarely lead to disaster. But I’m tense and a strike would have relaxed me. A ball only adds to the tension. Again, a finger points down. Again, I throw the fastball. Again, I just miss my spot and there are now two balls and no strikes. You are already filling in the blanks. You know what happens here. I cannot find my spots against Ramirez and he walks on four pitches and suddenly the crowd is quiet.

He doesn’t come out, but as Ramirez trots down to first, Brian hollers “relax” out to the mound. “Just one batter.” He wants me to stop thinking. I want to stop thinking. Stop thinking. Stop thinking. Stop. Think. Ing. Stop. Stop. Stop. I can’t stop. Ramirez is fast and he wants to get in my head. He dances around on first. He’s testing me. He knows what happened as well as Brian does, but Brian has my best interests in mind. Ramirez doesn’t. And so he dances to get in my head. I throw over once and he slides back. A second time and Alex is just able to dig the ball out of the dirt. I settle in to pitch to the next batter. I should not be worried about this guy at all. He should be batting eighth, but some managers want a guy who can bunt up top. I’m not worried about him. My worry is more general. Directionless. I lose it completely and the first pitch sails over Brian and over the umpire and Ramirez dances down to second. It’s a thing of beauty, it really is. I love watching those guys who are so thin they almost vanish when they run. It looks so easy. Nothing should look that easy. You blink and they’re halfway around the bases. But I can’t appreciate it right now. I am much too busy walking the second batter on four pitches. Fortunately, Brian is able to glove the remaining three – though not without some effort – and so it is only first and second.

But the crowd is silent. I could close my eyes and believe I was alone. There is not even a rumble. Vendors do not call out. This is the World Series and it is also their worst nightmare. They are all staring at me and silently asking if maybe Jerry needs to get someone up in the pen or if he should leave me out here and not blow the bullpen. But that won’t do because we lost yesterday. So the pen will have to be used. Why doesn’t he have someone getting warm now? This is what they want to know. I understand. It is bad.

Ramirez, at least, shows no sign of going. Why would he risk letting Brian throw him out? I look like I’m going to walk him home any minute.

Brian comes out to the mound.

“Are you okay out here?”

“I don’t know. I’m thinking too much. I need an out. I just need one out.”

“Take a little off if you need to. Ferris probably won’t hit a home run.”

“Comforting, Brian. Very comforting.”

He walks back to the mound and the best hitter on the other team – Mike Ferris – comes to the plate. Nothing much to see here. Just thirty-seven homers and an unwillingness to swing at anything that is not a strike. Perfect for someone who, at the moment, cannot find the strike zone with both hands and a flashlight. Brian calls for a fastball and I do as he suggests and take a little off because I know with what he has seen so far, Ferris is not thinking about swinging at all. The ball slips in and I get a strike and the crowd relaxes just a little bit. Perhaps we can wait one batter to get someone up.

I look toward the plate and Brian is calling for a slider. That can’t be right. We must have the signals mixed up. I shake him off. He runs through them again. Still slider. I shake him off, again. I can barely get my fastball over, why is he calling for a slider. He comes out to the mound again. He does not cover his mouth or whisper. He barely pauses in his stride. He says to throw what he tells me to throw and walks back to the plate.

Fine. You want a slider. Here is a slider.

And it works. I am irritated enough to not think. It is not a great pitch, but it is unexpected and it is good enough. Ferris swings and tops it and it goes right to Manny at short and Manny is sure as hell not going to screw up this double play. He scoops it up and it goes to second and then to first and just like that there are two outs.

I can relax a little bit now. I can pitch from the windup. I do not have to worry about Ramirez on third if I can get this next batter out. But I cannot relax too much. This is Marcus Martin, the left fielder. He hits almost as well as Ferris. More power, but he swings a little too much. Few of us are perfect as players. Ferris is. Russell on our team, much as I hate to admit it. I might be on my better days, but this isn’t one of those. Everyone else has flaws, even the great players like Marcus. I’ve faced him a lot. Until last year, he played for Tampa. He’s a good guy, too. I’d probably root for him if I were at home watching. One of the things I’ve found about being a player is that I pull for other players now more than teams. Every team has some jerks on it. Some teams, like ours, have players who shouldn’t qualify as human. That’s just the way it goes.

I settle in and look for the sign. After the slider, I’m feeling a little cocky. Brian calls for a fastball and sets up inside. He doesn’t swing, but the ball finds the zone and I have my second called strike of the night. I throw another fastball to the same spot, but I miss over the plate just a little. He takes a big swing and fouls it straight back. That was close. The crowd is coming back to me now. They sense that I am on the verge of getting out of this mess.

Brian wants a slider off the plate. We have the advantage and can waste a pitch trying to get him to chase. I oblige Brian, but it doesn’t work and the count is one ball and two strikes. We go back to the fastball and again he fouls it off, but this one is scarier than the last. It is long and loud and if it had been thirty feet to the left, the score would be two to zero. Brian and I both know we won’t be so lucky with another fastball. He calls for a change-up, hoping Martin will be out in front and we can go to the dugout with a strikeout.

It doesn’t work.

He’s out in front, but not enough. He sends a line drive between short and third and the score is one to nothing.

I slap my glove against my leg and I swear, but something good has happened. That was a good at-bat. I made all my pitches. He beat me, but it happens. A few minutes ago, we were having a disaster. Now we are having a baseball game. We are losing, that’s true, but at least it’s a game.

I settle in and I don’t think too much and up comes the third baseman, who is probably a better hitter than the guy I just faced (though more of a jerk), but bats fifth because the manager does not want to stack left-handed hitters together. He also has a nasty platoon split. I’ve faced him a few times before and he’s never done anything against me, and I am not especially concerned. Brian and I make him look terrible. Fastball. Fastball. Slider. Back to the dugout. The crowd is cheering so loud, it feels like they’ve forgotten that we are losing now. But really, I think they are cheering because they too know this is going to be a game and not a massacre. They can feel, regardless of what happens from here on, that I braved and – at least momentarily – triumphed over adversity. This is a good story. It’s the one everyone wants.

Except the other side.

Bottom of the First.

I run off the field and into the dugout and Dave hands me a jacket. Everyone is smiling at me. Manny comes and bumps me playfully from behind. And says not to worry, they will take care of me tonight.

“But no more of that walking. That was too much. You get the ground balls and the strikeouts and we will be fine. We will score runs.”

I say that I hope they will score runs.

Manny says, “I will even hit a home run if I have to.”

Manny does not hit home runs. Manny doesn’t really hit. He plays because of his glove. He had two homers this year. “First time for everything,” I say and he shakes his finger at me. It is a nice moment.

Though he is our leadoff hitter, Adam Reynolds looks nothing like Juan Ramirez strolling to the plate. First, and most obviously, he is an almost sickly pale. It is impossible to understand how someone can have a job that requires him to be outside in the sun nearly every day and yet, after eight months of spring training and the regular season and now the playoffs, can still be so pale. But he is pale. He is also bulky. Ramirez is thin enough to get lost in a sidewalk crack, but Adam looks like the one who made the crack. He isn’t fat, or anything like it. He’s just large.   He doesn’t run, either. Adam stole two bases last year, one when a pitcher actually fell down and the other when the catcher threw the ball into center.  He’d have been out by five feet otherwise, The only things he has in common with Ramirez are that he gets on base and plays middle infield.

Adam looks incongruous at second, nothing like the small, scrappy player you expect there. Instead, he’s kind of a Cal Ripken type; he always puts himself in the right place and he’s quick.  On lots of teams he’d play short, but we have Manny and no one is better than Manny at short, not even Ramirez.  And anyway, he hits well enough to play the outfield, so it’s really a bonus that he doesn’t trip over himself out there.  On top of it all, Adam takes a lot of walks and so, despite the fact that he does not steal a base unless he pitcher falls down, Adam Reynolds is our leadoff hitter.

I feel intent on Adam as he walks to the plate. I am interested to see how this inning goes. To see if we have any spark. But my mind starts to drift almost right away. I am in a calmer place after getting that last strikeout and when I think about my dad it is the early years before baseball became the whole world and, instead, was only a part of it.

* * *

My sister loves baseball the right way. She loves it the right way because she was born first and, knowing his daughter could never play in the major leagues, my dad did not obsess over her abilities. He did not analyze her early batting stances or her form as they played catch. He taught her about baseball as many fathers teach their children and she loved it because she loved him. I have an early memory that may be imagined – a patched-together idea from family photos – but I believe it is real. I am still small enough to be uncertain in my steps. A diaper forces me into the awkward waddle of a toddler and my sister drags me into the family room of our house – a room that had once been a small garage – and directs me in the construction of a baseball field. There is no outfield to speak of, but four stuffed animals are used to represent the bases. She takes up a toy bat, hands me the ball, and calls to Dad that we are ready. He comes in, laughs, and joins in as the catcher. I cannot run properly, but when I throw, it sails straight into his hands – this represents one of the few times I was able to get a ball past Kristen.

“Hey Zack, that’s a nice throw, little boy. Good job.”

Even knowing what came later and how messy everything got, this memory stays clean. It is everything I like about baseball when I was young. I do not feel that Dad was analyzing me yet. He was smart enough to know that at that age, I was as likely to hit the ceiling fan as a target six inches in front of me. We are playing together, the three of us, and it happened because of baseball.

* * *

The crowd cheers and I look up, but it is one of those truncated baseball cheers that falls quickly to a groan. Adam has hit a line drive, but it has been gobbled up at short by Ramirez. It is starting to feel as though this game is between Ramirez and me, rather than Guillen and me. Guillen is a fine pitcher, but I am better than him seven out of ten times. Ramirez is a worthy opponent, though. I would feel proud to beat him.

Next, I watch Matt walk to the plate. He does not look at all like a number two hitter. He plays right and looks like he should spend his time launching balls into the upper deck. But he’s a little too short maybe and the balls he hits are a little too straight and turn into only singles and doubles. He’s not going to bunt anyone over, but he may well drive them in. I tell myself I am going to pay attention to this at-bat. I am trying to stay in the game, but it doesn’t work. I am thinking about the game with the stuffed animals and about my sister.

* * *

I was always jealous of Kristen and I think she was jealous of me and I think that is probably why we aren’t as close as we could have been. Each of us had the relationship with Dad that the other one wanted. We’ve gotten closer over the last few years, but it was hard growing up. Kristen wanted to be a baseball player. That is all she wanted to be. She turned her nose up if anyone even mentioned softball. She would have been fine with the pressure, but Dad  saw it only as an indulgence and so he was gentler with her. He knew she’d never be pro, but his love of baseball wasn’t just about that. He coached her teams in Little League. He cheered her when she made the high school team not just because we were a tiny school, but because she was really slick at second and could always put the bat on the ball.

She was the starter when I was a freshman. Even then, I had enough of a fastball to play varsity, but I didn’t have the control thing totally mastered, so I didn’t pitch much. There were a few times, though, when Kristen and I were on the field at the same time. I remember looking out at Dad in the stands and how happy he was. I think those moments, freshman year, were what made me really commit to baseball. If I could make him that happy, if I could make anyone that happy, why not do it?

The year before that had been really hard on Dad. That’s when I’d done my adolescent rebellion. There wasn’t anything special about it, really. Dad had been driving pretty hard on the baseball thing for a few years by then. I had started entertaining childish notions about being a big leaguer when I was in third grade and Dad had started me on a travel team as soon as he could. By the end of seventh grade it had gotten really intense – some of that was my own doing – and I needed a break and everything he did was stupid anyway, right? So I started diving into what had been minor interests up until then. I had some friends who played those fantasy card games. Magic and that kind of thing. My mom had always read us fairy tales growing up and I liked them. I had some friends playing the games and they seemed like the more grown-up version of those stories, so I started playing. Dad didn’t like it. He really didn’t like it.

“Why do you want to go spend all day inside with those nerds pretending to be a wizard or something? It’s nice out. Let’s go work on your delivery.”

This was the kind of mistake Dad made. If he’d said play catch or if he’d volunteered to throw batting practice to me, he might have had me. Instead, it was “work on my delivery.” That wasn’t fun, it was work, and I was kid. I didn’t like work.

“Why do you have to insult my friends?”

“I’m not trying to insult them, Zack. I’m sure it’s a good way for them to spend a Saturday. Most of them look allergic to the sun or something. I’m sure they’ll grow up to program computer games about dragons. That’s not for you, though.”

I responded to this exactly like you would expect. I turned around and left. A few days later I told dad I didn’t think I’d play that year.

* * *

I’m getting worked up thinking about this and I just want to dwell on it when Matt grounds weakly to Ramirez and I hear the PA boom, “Now batting, center fielder! Russell! Jennings!” I hate Jennings. I hate him. I do not care that he is our best player. That he will probably win the MVP this year. I’ve played with people I’ve disliked before and you get over it. You deal with it, but this is different. A good day is when he goes oh-for-four and we win. I’ll take a good day for him and a win over a bad day for him and a loss, but not by much. I don’t want to think about all that right now, though. I’m good and worked up over my dad and I want to get back to that and ignore Russell.

 * * *

What was hardest on Dad was that, yeah, he’d been pushing me, but it was at my prompting. I wanted to be a ballplayer. It felt to him like I was breaking a promise.

“What do you mean, you don’t think you’ll play?”

“I don’t want to. It’s no fun anymore.” Lies. Those were lies, but I was hurting him, and that was the point.

“Not even the travel team?”

“I don’t want to play at all.”

Dad got really mad. His face turned red and he started to shout. I was almost as big as him by then, but it was really scary all the same. “What about everything we’ve worked for? What do you think you’re going to do now? Spend the summer pretending to cast spells with those losers? Why don’t I buy you a skateboard and you can start wearing black clothes. Oh, and maybe you can start smoking. Might as well practice being a loser if that’s what you want to be.”

I had no idea who Dad was describing. None of my friends smoked or skateboarded, though some of them did wear black. I think he was just mixing up counter-cultures.

Telling my dad I wouldn’t play, and then following through on it was probably the meanest thing I’ve ever done, but it was hard on me, too. I wanted to play. I always liked playing baseball and sometimes I loved it. Dad knew that, I think. This is how I make it okay, at least. Telling myself that he wouldn’t have pushed so far if he didn’t think I wanted it as much as he did. Sometimes, in the car on the way home from practice, he would gripe about other dads pushing their sons too hard because they had flamed out in high school or whatever. “You have to let the kid guide it. Always remember that, Zack. It’s up to you, not me.”

I wanted to play in eighth grade, but I didn’t want to just play baseball. What about my friends? What about girls? I didn’t want to give up girls for baseball. Dad understood my pubescent mind, though. Sometimes, during that year, when I headed out to the game shop where we all hung out, he’d call after me, “You’re never going to get a girlfriend in that place. I’ve never even seen a girl there.” And sometimes, if he was feeling especially mean, he’d add, “Girls love ballplayers, though.”

God, he was such a jerk that year. It’s been a long time since I thought about how much of a jerk he was then.

* * *

There is a very loud roar and I watch a long, long fly ball go very, very foul. The run would be nice, but I don’t know if I want it that way. As though it matters. As though I haven’t already won games because of him. As though he hasn’t saved me runs and thus made me more money diving for balls in center.

* * *

I spent a lot of time in that game shop. A lot. It was a good place, too. It was really, really nerdy, but I didn’t mind that. I still don’t. Being a nerd is just about how you like something. There’s a little bit of obsession to it. It’s why most athletes are good. But the shop. I liked the shop. Our town was just big enough to support it. We were lucky. My dad always talked about it like it was a dingy little basement, but it was actually really nice. It was bright and always clean and there were tables for us to play at and the owner was a really nice guy who never tried to rip you off. It always had that great cellophane smell. You could go in there and feel new. Why is it so hard to feel new when you are thirteen years old? It should be easy, but it isn’t.

That shop was fun, and it pissed off my dad, so it was perfect. The angrier it made him, the more time I spent there. But it was hard going without baseball for a year, and by the time tryouts for the high school team rolled around, I was ready to go back to it.

That year did us both good. I think. For me, at least, it made baseball into a choice. It’s easier to do something when it’s up to you. I feel bad saying that it put Dad in his place, but it kind of did. He wasn’t blind. I mean, obviously he wasn’t blind – I’m starting game two of the World Series after all. Dad knew I had a lot of talent. Middle school kids just don’t throw that hard. Knowing that I might throw it away hurt him, but it also made him gentler with me. He still pushed, but he didn’t shove. Which isn’t to say we didn’t still fight about it all the time. He just had a better sense for when to walk away.

And that’s how we got to high school. And that’s how Dad got to see me standing on the mound with Kristen at second behind me. That’s a nice memory to rest on. I want to find these good memories and just hold onto them because they don’t mess with my head like dad teasing me about my Magic cards or girls. I like to think of how it was before I even threw a pitch. Just standing on the mound. Or maybe running out with Kristen next to me, bumping into me playfully and telling me not to embarrass myself and hearing Dad yell for us both. And how hot it was because we always played during the day and it was that kind of Indiana hot and humid that makes your shirt damp just walking to the water cooler. I can’t remember myself pitching in high school without feeling like I’m drenched in sweat. Not pleasant, I guess, but that’s how I remember it. And Dad in front of me and Kristen behind me and no balls and no strikes and no one on.

* * *

There is another cheer and this one is merited because Russell has gotten hold of one and sent it to the base of the wall in right-center. He’s hit it almost too hard because it caroms back to the outfielder and Russell has to stop at second instead of going to third. I know it is the World Series and we need the run. And I know the crowd loves him because he smiles and says the right things and he’s very, very good. But the best I can manage is indifference. Let Manny hit his home  run. I’ll take that sliver of hope.

But all the same, I find myself finally paying attention. Russell dances around at second, which is all for show. He isn’t going anywhere with two outs and everyone knows it. A hit will score him anyway. Gonzalez is the next batter. He plays first base for us, and we all tease him and call him shortstop. His first name is Alex, which makes him the third Alex Gonzalez to play in the majors. The other two were shortstops, but Alex does not look like a shortstop even a little bit. We have all of these bruisers in the first half of the lineup. It’s ridiculous. Russell is the only one who really looks like an athlete. He exudes ballplayer, but the other three guys just look like piles of rock.

Alex is a good hitter, but he’s not as consistent as Russell. He’ll chase the high fastball sometimes, but when he hits it, it goes so far that it makes up for it. He’s patient and watches the first one go by low for a ball. He lays off the next pitch, too, but it nips the zone. There’s another ball and it’s two and one and I can tell he wants to swing because he tugs at his pants like he does when he thinks he knows what’s coming. Other teams are going to pick up on that soon and he’s going to have to stop it. Maybe they already have, or maybe this team has because Guillen throws a high fastball, and it’s a foot out of the zone, but Alex swings anyway and he makes contact, but he gets underneath it and pops it way up into the air. Russell starts running like you do when there are two outs and there’s nothing else you can do. He crosses home and stands there to watch as Ramirez finds his spot just on the outfield grass behind short and sticks his glove up. The ball claps down into the mitt and that’s it for the first inning.

I pop the snaps open on my jacket, slip it off, and grab my glove. Manny finds me on the way out and says, “Don’t worry. Just one inning. I tell you, we will score.”

“Right, Manny. I know. A home run.”

“You got it.”

You know, Manny isn’t even really that close to me. I mean, he’s a nice guy, but we don’t have anything in common really. He’s kind of the talker on the club, though. And he knows I need it, I guess, so he talks to me and tries to make me smile. Right now it’s working. Maybe he can hit a home run.

Brian tosses the ball out to me and I get loose again, but without all the fretting this time. I feel relaxed and I think that maybe tonight it can be like it was.  I pretend my sister is standing back there where I know Adam really is. It’s just a memory, but it’s a good memory. With Kristen behind me and dad in the stands.

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Comments

  1. Eric F said...

    Really liking this story so far. Will the full novel end up being posted here or will we be able to pick it up somewhere?

    • Jason Linden said...

      The plan right now (and I don’t know why this would change) is to put it up for sale as a book that you can buy or download sometime toward the end of the baseball season. Thanks for asking!

  2. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    I’m enjoying it, Jason. I wish you success. Tell a good story and you have people’s attention. It’s also important to remind people that those guys who are drowning in money are human beings, too. The part about the guys he likes and the guys he can’t stand might be a revelation for the reader. You think the player is entirely motivated by his self-interest. You think you would never leave any money on the table, but it’s different when you are in the middle of it, living it, personally involved. Barbara Tuchman does that with history. All these guys with tremendous responsibility, generals, heads of state, and they screw the pooch. Good stuff, Jason.

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