When the Sparrow Sings – Fourth Inning

"Ashley was Dad's worst nightmare." (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“Ashley was Dad’s worst nightmare.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth chapter of Jason’s novel. If you need to catch up, here are Chapters One, Two, Three and Four.

Top of the Fourth

Not every moment in a baseball game is filled with urgency, even if that game is part of the World Series. A lot of fans would flip out if I said this in public. They would insist that it is never appropriate to relax (unless they were telling me I was too tense). Every play must be filled with intensity. They would double down on this in the playoffs and mortgage their house on it in the World Series. They would talk about mental toughness, and the especially unaware might even mention grit. These people are idiots.

For three innings, this game has been a roller coaster. We lost the first game, and we are losing by a run in this one. I should be concerned. I should know that it is imperative that I pitch at my best. Whatever. I’m tired. Already, I am tired. I just want to pitch. I want to stare in at Brian, throw what he calls for and watch the game unfold. I don’t care if I miss the mark a little. I just want to play and get through the inning and go back to the dugout. I want to shut my eyes and let my head fall back with a low thud against the concrete wall in the dugout.

Though you might not believe it, all of these feelings are good. I get myself to this place often enough during the regular season. I suppose I’m not that different from Nook LaLoosh. Except, perhaps, that I look like I know how to throw. I do my best work when I am unconcerned. Baseball is a game of ritual and it is best performed through ritual. Tonight, I have been slow to arrive, but as I take the mound, I want nothing more than to escape into ritual.

But the ball is so damn cold.

Little things can destroy ritual, and it’s awfully hard to get a physical grip on the ball. Like all pitchers, I’m most comfortable when the hide of the ball gives under my fingers and I am hot enough for the sweat from my hands to moisten it slightly. Even the way the mound feels when my front foot lands is different in the cold. I have to work to keep the ritual tonight. I grip the ball a moment longer to let it warm. I blow onto my hand. And the best part, the part that keeps me going, is that the act of pitching—-the windup, the cocking of the arm, the jolt as I release the ball—-is always the same. It does not matter if it is cold or hot or raining. It is motion. Only motion. It is motion I have repeated thousands upon thousands of times. It is ritual.

I am enmeshed in the ritual as Mauricio Apolinar steps to the plate for his second at-bat. I was not intimidated by him in the second inning, and I am not intimidated by him now. Though, in fairness, I am not anything right now. I watch Brian closely. I nod. I grip. I pitch. I do not even register the kind of pitches I am throwing. I skip the conscious part of my brain. I am merely action. I throw five pitches to Apolinar before he lifts a low fly ball gently to right. Matt glides up to grab it easily.

The ball is tossed into the infield, around the horn, and back to me. Takeda steps back to the plate. I settle in, nod at Brian, throw what he calls for. The pitch dives away from him before I know it’s a nasty slider I’ve thrown. He waves at it. I continue to follow Brian’s directions and after two more pitches, Takeda swings at another slider and strikes out.

The crowd cheers for the strikeout like we’ve just clinched the Series. I don’t know why, but they do. Brian pops up and throws the ball back with a little extra English on it. I find myself smiling and laughing. They continue to cheer. It is such a strange moment. Can they see how calm I’ve become? Is it so obvious? Are they only desperate?

No, it’s not desperation. I can hear that much. They were just happy and somehow it’s gotten contagious and they can’t stop. I look around and everyone is smiling or chuckling. Alex, Adam, Manny. I look at Manny and ask what’s going on. He shrugs that he doesn’t know. I do the only thing I can think to do. I tip my cap. They cheer even louder. It’s just a strikeout. It’s not even the end of the inning, but still they cheer. The ump is gesturing that it’s time to get back to it. Brian flashes the sign. I do as he says. Only three pitches this time–sometimes it really is that easy–and that’s it. Out of the inning.

And they are cheering again. I trot to the dugout and sit down, but they won’t stop. This is ridiculous. We’re losing, but it doesn’t feel like it. So I pop my head out again and tip my cap again and the fans roar. All day, I have felt empty, but suddenly, I feel so full I might cry. This is a display of love, and they have no reason to love me other than the color of my shirt. Still, it fills me up, this easy love, and I have to sit down and bury my face. My undershirt is damp despite the cold, the sweat has started to gather. A bead runs down the side of my cheek. I think it is sweat. It could be a tear. I don’t know. If it were always like this, I’d never leave. I close my eyes and listen.

Bottom of the Fourth

There is something in the air right now. I don’t know what it is. I am not one for superstition or romance, even where the World Series is concerned. I believe in baseball. Usually the best team wins, but anything can happen and usually doesn’t mean always.

But still, tonight, all of a sudden, there is something. Hector steps in and even though he is a mystery, I still love him. I love him because he is not Russell and because he is so young he makes me feel old and wise. Guillen winds up, and the first pitch floats in and even I can see where this going. Hector sees it perfectly, he rears back like he’s hitting off a tee and the ball just goes and goes and goes. He hits it to dead center and there’s still not a question. Coates doesn’t even move. The game is tied.

I thought the crowd was loud before, but that was nothing. It’s like they’re willing us to win. That’s stupid. I know it’s stupid. I know we have to do it, but that’s what it feels like. Hector gets around the bases like he’s afraid he’ll be caught. His foot stomps on home plate and I swear I can feel the smack of it down in the dugout. We all stand and cheer and high-five him. The crowd roars and roars. And now Hector has to take a curtain call. Tied. We are tied. For the first time all night, I wish Dad was here just so he could see. I mean, I don’t want him here for me. I just want him to see the game. To see how good it is right now. He was never a screamer, but I think he might now. I think he might.

* * *

Somehow, when I entered high school, Dad got himself appointed as an assistant coach. He had no connection with the school other than Kristen and me. Having grown up in the next county over, he hadn’t even gone to school there. But, well, as I’ve said, Dad had a way of getting what he wanted, and in little country high schools where sports matter more than they have any right to, things can be arranged.

Strangely, Dad would never come all the way clean about how he managed it. Unless you believe the explanation he gave, which I don’t. All he said was that they saw the talent he had produced and asked him to help out. I think it had something to do with the threat he’d made a few years earlier. Our head coach tolerated Dad, but he never warmed all the way.

I do know he did it for free. He never had a uniform, and I guess he was never officially a coach. He always sat in the stands for games because that was a line our head coach wouldn’t let him cross, but he was there every practice and was allowed on the field when no one else was.

It took a long, long time for me to admit it, but I ended up glad that he managed it. It was a good thing for me, even if it wasn’t always a good thing for the team.

* * *

And now Dave is up and as he stands there gripping the bat, I swear he is looking dead at me. He waits on the first pitch and it is a ball. He waits on the second pitch and it is a strike. He waits on the third pitch and it is a ball. He looks like he knows what’s coming. I remember how lucky Guillen was last inning. I remember suddenly that John has been very active, walking around, talking to the hitters. As I remember this, Dave whacks a ball to the base of the outfield wall. It bounces around enough that even on his bad knees, he’s able to coast into second.

* * *

Guessing how he got on the staff is easy enough, but why is more interesting. I don’t think it was all about my development, which is all he would ever admit to. I think it has a lot to do with what went on during my eighth grade year when I didn’t play. Dad didn’t like me not playing, and he obviously didn’t like me hanging around that hobby shop. When he yelled at me about girls, he knew what he was doing.

I was tall for my age and I guess I was nice looking as far as girls were concerned. My hair the right shade of brown. My eyes blue. They started paying attention to me really early. Every once in a while, if I was out somewhere with friends or by myself, I’d see a high school girl who didn’t know who I was looking over at me. I was too shy to do anything about it with older girls, but I had awkward middle school relationships with a good part of my class before we ever got to high school.

Both my parents knew, of course, and they didn’t mind, though Mom took a little persuading to be convinced that I should be left alone. Parents never realize how much kids are able to figure out from snippets of conversation, and I overheard the words “he” and “girls” enough to know that Mom thought I was spending too much mental energy deciding who I thought was the cutest while Dad insisted that if that were the case, he’d see it on the field, and he hadn’t seen it on the field, so it just showed that I was a good-looking boy. “He’d better get used to the attention. It’s going to get more intense if he makes it.”

At this point, Mom would start in about how he was counting my chickens, and Dad would insist that he knew the odds were not in my favor, but that it was a real possibility because I was special. They were both right.

* * *

Everyone in the dugout is standing. Everyone in the stadium is standing. The bullpen is going because the other manager knows this might get out of hand in a hurry. Brian walks to the plate and seeing him just now is like seeing him three or four years ago when there had only been a couple of knee surgeries. It must be a mirage, this grace and youth in his step, but I swear I see it.

Just like Dave, Brian doesn’t take the bat off his shoulder as the first pitch goes by. Doesn’t even twitch. He watches. Ball. Strike. Strike. Ball. Ball. It’s a full count and we’ve solved something, you can see it. The next pitch comes in, and Brian loads his swing and hits a sharp line drive toward left. Ramirez dives and almost catches it, but he doesn’t. The ball goes off the end of his glove and skitters into no-man’s land. First and third. No outs. The stadium is shaking. Cups of Gatorade tremble all over the dugout. A loose ball rolls to the ground. And here’s Carver.

* * *

Girls weren’t anything to be worried about. I liked the attention, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Then eighth grade happened. I really did take the year off because I was tired of baseball and because I was sick of Dad pushing me so hard, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have second thoughts. Taking the year off meant I got to see my gaming friends more, but it meant I hardly saw my baseball friends at all. A lot of them were pissed at me, too. They knew I was the best pitcher around, and they knew they’d lose more games without me on the team.

The importance of sacrificing for the team gets drilled in very early when you play sports. By eighth grade, my friends knew the language well enough, and I heard all the clichés. “You’re really letting us down, Zack.” “What about the team?” “We were depending on you to help us.” Having been indoctrinated just as they had, I thought they had a very good point. Now I’d tell them that no one cares about what an eighth-grade baseball team does and that it’s much more important at that age to figure out who you are and who you want to be than to worry about commitment to something you might not enjoy anymore. But, at the time, it was really hard.

I was on the point of breaking–the season hadn’t started yet, and there was still plenty of time to sign up–when I met Ashley.

Ashley was one grade behind me, but we went to the same school, so it was surprising I’d never noticed her before. It was more surprising because I learned that she spent almost as much time in the hobby shop as I did. Somehow, our paths just hadn’t crossed.

* * *

Carver is up now. I don’t like Carver, but I don’t hate him either, and I am on my feet just like everyone else hoping the little weasel can get something done. He’s not like Brian and Dave, though. He can’t sit still. He fouls the first pitch off. Whoever is down in the bullpen is moving fast. Carver fouls off the second pitch. He takes a ball. He’s guessing, though. He doesn’t know what’s coming like Dave and Brian did. He doesn’t see what they saw.

The next pitch comes and he hits a one-hopper right to Ramirez. The double play happens so quickly Dave can’t even think about going home. He’s stuck on third and it’s still tied, but now there are two outs. The pitcher in the bullpen sits back down. The stadium is quiet. Manny comes up.

* * *

Ashley was Dad’s worst nightmare. She wore a lot of black clothes except when she went out dressed like one of her favorite characters, her hair color changed from week to week, and she didn’t like being outside when she could be inside watching the newest episode of whatever it was or playing Magic or Dungeons and Dragons. At thirteen, I thought she was as magical as she wanted to be.

First, we have to remember that I was very thirteen. What really appealed to me initially about Ashley was that she had, to put it delicately, developed significantly more than most of the other girls I was around, and that she liked some of the same things I did. It was unusual to find girls who cared about gaming back then. I would imagine that I held similar appeal. Not that it was hard to find boys, but I was definitely different from most of the boys who spent time around the hobby shop.

Superficial as our attraction was, at the time, we both thought we were soul mates. I remember a lot of talk about how perfectly matched we were and how lucky we were to have found each other already. “It’s so nice to really know already, you know? To know for sure. It’s so freeing.” I remember her saying this, but I might have said it. We were equally stupid. I’m not trying to place myself on a pedestal.

We weren’t perfect for each other, either. Not only did Ashley not like being outside, she hated sports in general and baseball especially. “It’s soooo boring. Nothing happens.” That was definitely her.

I should have known to run the other way, but instead, I did what so many kids do and assumed that the opinions of the person I liked should be my opinions, too. Though, once again in the interest of being fair, I believe I cost her a season of a couple of her favorite shows that I declared, loudly, to be “stupid kid shows.”

Eventually, I would wise up, and in a different era, my parents never would have known how serious we were. I wasn’t intentionally forthcoming with any information, but I didn’t have a cell phone yet, either. They were still new and pretty expensive, and neither of my parents could see the use. Ashley didn’t have one either, which meant that all of our meetings had to be set up from our home phones. Later, when things began to heat up to a point that might have alarmed our parents, we’d send notes through friends.

Seeing me talk to a girl wasn’t an odd experience, but seeing me talk to the same girl for several months was. Mom was the first one who pieced together that there might be a little more going on than either of them had seen.

“So, you and Ashley seem to like each other a lot.”

“Yeah, she’s cool.”

“You see her down at the game shop, right?”

Here I would shrug my shoulders in a vague attempt to make our encounters seem unimportant. “I guess so.”

“Is there anything we need to talk about with that?”

Since the dawn of time, sentences like those have signaled to kids that their parents might want to talk to them about sex. I would have perked up and said whatever I needed to get myself out of there. I probably could have used a bit of a talk at that time, actually, but I sure wasn’t going to say anything to Mom about it, if I could help it.

It was maybe a week after that conversation when Dad showed up at the hobby shop. This was strange for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that my dad hated that place and never set foot in it if he could help it. I can’t remember what his trumped-up excuse was for coming to find me instead of calling the store and telling me to come home, which is what he normally did, but it was very apparent that his real reason was to see Ashley. He talked to her a lot more than he talked to me. I was disgusted by his behavior, and I wasn’t shy about letting everyone know it when he left.

“Stupid old man. Why can’t he just respect me?” This with my best adolescent puffery.

If I was mad then, I was furious when I got home and had to listen to Dad’s opinion of Ashley over dinner.

“Why don’t you want to hang out with normal girls?” Then he looked at my mom. “Orange, Steph. Her hair was orange.”

“Well she sounds perfectly nice to me. I don’t know if I’d want my hair to be orange, but she can have hers however she wants it.”

Mom had her concerns about the relationship, but she also wanted me to know that she thought my dad was full of it. She couldn’t fight both battles at once, so she picked a side.

* * *

Something is happening that pops me out of my memory. It takes me a minute to find out what it is. I don’t know how long I drifted off for, but Manny is still at bat. The scoreboard says there’s a full count. I see him foul off a pitch. And then another. And then another. The crowd gets louder the longer the at bat goes. Another foul. Guillen doesn’t want to walk Manny, but he doesn’t want to give him a pitch he can handle. Manny is trying to stay alive. Another foul. Each time Manny makes contact, a cheer goes up.

The next pitch is perfect. a curveball that the bottom drops right out of. Somehow, Manny gets underneath it just enough to get it into the air, but not high into the air. I see Newhall, the second baseman, jump, but it’s over his head, and even though the outfielders are playing in, neither of them can get to it. Dave, who was off with the pitch, trots home. We all scream and point to Manny, who points back, waves to the crowd and starts bouncing around first. We are winning.

* * *

I spent a couple of months deriding baseball before I couldn’t take it anymore. I might not have wanted to play that year, but that didn’t mean I was totally ready to cast it aside. I see now that Mom and Dad both had come over to the same side and were working together. Baseball was on the TV all the time and dad mentioned one night, when he caught me peeking at the game, that he thought I might like to go down to Louisville for a game soon. “It’s been a while since we’ve been down there. We can eat at that spaghetti place you like.”

“What about Kristen?”

“Oh, she’ll come, too. And Mom. Hell, maybe we’ll make a weekend of it and go to a couple of games.”

This was a big expenditure for us. We didn’t just take weekend trips, and to thirteen-year-old me, it sounded awesome. Two baseball games in a weekend and food I wanted to eat. I couldn’t really ask for anything more. He broke me.

When I told Ashley about it, she was indignant. “You’re going to be gone the whole weekend to watch some stupid baseball games? I thought you didn’t even like that stuff anymore.”

“I still like to watch games. I’m just not sure I want to play.”

I remember she gave me an exasperated look and rolled her eyes at me and then we went back to normal. She was pretty cold for a while after that. It’s funny the stupid stuff that matters when you’re that age. I play baseball for a living now, and I don’t think I’ll care if I end up married to someone who doesn’t like it. That might be nice given how all-encompassing it can be.

It was the beginning of the end for Ashley and me, though. Mom and Dad knew exactly how to handle things. They even made a point of stopping by some of the gaming shops in Louisville, which were much nicer than what we had. I could see that dad thought it was stupid, but the gesture mattered. And it was hard not to get back to loving baseball after that.

* * *

Guillen is drenched with sweat. The crowd is bouncing. The bullpen is busy again, and Adam settles in. There are times in a baseball game where the outs are more surprising than the hits. That should never be the case. Even a great hitter against a mediocre pitcher is at a disadvantage. Guillen is good. He wins more than he loses. This year, his ERA was 3.10. Even tired and against the ropes as he is now, he shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Adam knows this. Others on the team might not, but Adam does. His approach harkens back to the way Dave and Brian handled Guillen, but somehow, it seems to Guillen’s advantage to slow things down. You can see him regain control of his emotions. He gets ahead of Adam one ball and two strikes. The crowd is happy, but they don’t want to see the inning end.

Then Adam does what he does best. He swings flat and hard and true and sends a rope into right-center. Manny is running hard. He’s around second and heading to third, and he’s being waved in, but he doesn’t look at the coach. He hits the third base bag and throws himself to the left, the perfect turn. Martin has the ball and unleashes an insane throw that comes into home on the fly. Ferris grabs it and brings the tag around. It’s close, but it’s not a photo finish. Manny is in, foot across the plate before Ferris has turned all the way.

* * *

That trip is what got me back on the path. On the drive back home, I made some comment about a pitcher we’d seen who was supposed to be the next big thing. Dad pounced. “You could do that, you know. If you decided you wanted to play again.”

I fidgeted in my seat.

“Are you telling me you haven’t been missing it?”

“Maybe a little.”

“High school, too. The games get bigger there. You can play in tournaments. It won’t be like the basketball team, but still, it might be nice.”

He couldn’t be as direct with Mom in the car, but I knew what he was implying. Lots of girls paying attention. They both knew I hadn’t been talking to Ashley as much on the phone. The idea of more girls was getting more appealing by the day.

Mom and Dad sat in silence in the front of the car for a while and let me stew, then Mom chimed in. “You know, Zack. I know you love baseball. Just because some people don’t doesn’t mean you have to give it up. Do what makes you happy. You don’t have to play if you don’t want to, but don’t let others tell you what you want.”

That’s such a mom thing to say, but she said it and it worked, which is probably why moms say that kind of stuff all the time.

“I might like to play this year.” Dad got so excited he swerved into the other lane for a second, but no one said anything. Except Mom, who reminded me that I could play card games and baseball, which was very Mom.

* * *

The manager comes out and talks to Guillen. I can see from Guillen’s expression that he wants to stay in. It’s only the fourth, he’s saying. It’s early. If it were me out there, I’d already be gone. We lost the first game. Jerry’s not going to let this one get out of hand. But they have some padding. Taking Guillen out now could screw the bullpen up a little, even with the off day tomorrow. Anyone close enough to see can lip read what the manager says. “You’ve got one more batter.”

* * *

Ashley and I called it quits as soon as I told her I was going to play again. I’m really giving this silly middle school relationship more thought than it deserves, but it was a turning point. Dad finagled the coaching spot because he wanted to keep an eye on me. Mom let him because she wanted an eye kept on me. I probably had gotten a little too serious about Ashley, which Mom didn’t like, and Ashley’d almost kept me out of baseball, which Dad didn’t like.

And so Dad was around as much as he could be. More than he had been. But he wasn’t so much of a jerk. He had his moments, but he didn’t want to lose me or my potential career. It was still weird. It would always be weird, the way Dad was so invested in my pitching, but for a while, I didn’t mind it.

* * *

Matt comes up, Adam is on second, and Guillen is giving home plate the death stare. His fastball gets up to only ninety-two, but it moves. The first one gets by Matt for a strike. The next pitch is a curve that drops in for a strike. Matt smartly sits tight for the next two pitches, both balls, but then he pops another curveball up behind the plate. Ferris grabs it. Guillen is still in the game, but he’s not winning any more.

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