When the Sparrow Sings – Second Inning

“If you can’t hear a sparrow singing, then you can stay inside.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“If you can’t hear a sparrow singing, then you can stay inside.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

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

Top of the Second.

My illusion vanishes when Jiro Takeda steps to the plate. Unless I missed something, he’s the only first baseman Japan has sent to the major leagues, and he is as far from my youth as can be. My high school in rural Indiana had eight hundred kids and seven hundred ninety-six of them were white. That was pretty much true for the schools around us, too. Sometimes, we’d play a team from Indianapolis that was a little more diverse, but it was a lilywhite world for the most part. Dad never liked that, but he didn’t care about cultural diversity. He just wanted better competition for me.

Facing Takeda, I have to remember my problem. Dad is not in the stands. But this problem must be secondary. I think Dad would applaud that, even if it means ignoring him. There was a time when his whole life was trying to get me to worry only about the game.

Takeda is good enough to hit third for a lot of teams, but he hits sixth for our opponents. His primary threat is power. He swings freely, but when he makes contact, it’s hard. But I am in a groove now and we quickly have him down one ball and two strikes. Brian calls for a fastball and I reach back and let it go. Ninety-eight. I can do that when I want. Takeda can’t touch it. Strikeout.

The crowd likes this. I look dominant. I feel dominant. Almost like that second year of college when I was truly untouchable. I can feel the reporters up in the press box writing their ledes. It was a rocky start for Hiatt, and for a moment an entire stadium stood silently on the brink with him before he stepped back to deliver a masterful game and conquer his demons. Perhaps my imaginary article shouldn’t be so cocky. There are still some demons to conquer.

The next batter is the left fielder. He’s the weak link on the team. No defense to speak of. Just enough offense to not get benched. With three weak hitters in a row, we stick to fastballs and change-ups. Here, we need a single fastball. It is grounded routinely to Adam who shovels it over to first for the second out.

I feel bad when we play National League teams. They have no designated hitter to speak of. At least most of them don’t. Usually, we end up facing their fourth outfielder. And let’s face it, outfielders don’t sit because of their gloves. Tonight is no different as Alex Togneri-Jones steps in against me. We’ve watched video and talked briefly over him, but I won’t lie, he’s not someone we’ve spent much time on. He’s left-handed, which is in my favor. He’s prone to strike out, which is also in my favor. There is a modest power threat, but it’s more of a doubles threat. I settle in and start him with three fastballs that get us to another 1-2 count. Brian calls for a change-up to try and put him away. It almost works. He’s out in front, but not quite enough. He sends a little bouncer off the end of the bat, Manny has to dive for it and he knocks it down, but the throw doesn’t get there in time and suddenly there’s a base runner.

This is the kind of thing that used to make me lose it. I did everything right. I should have beaten him and we should be in the dugout now, but instead, I have to pitch to the number nine batter, who isn’t exactly scary, but would have been nice to have leading off the third. Even my first couple of years in majors, I’d melt down about it sometimes and walk the next few batters or give up a homer where I shouldn’t. Later, I’d walk into my condo or hotel room and Dad would call – he always seemed to call the moment I walked in.

“Hey, I wanted to talk about tonight’s game, but I wanted to wait until you were home.”

I asked him often enough if he had a GPS implanted in my head or something, but he’d ignore me and launch into a discussion about how it’s just baseball and things like that happen and there’s no sense getting worked up about things you can’t control.

“Now those two guys you walked, you can control that.”

Dad was always good at smart little lines like that.

Brian fixed it though. I don’t know why what he said worked, but Brian is very smart and he knows what to say to all of us. He never messes around with me and I like that. He came in as a free agent during my third year. It was a big signing and people were pretty excited about it. He had a great reputation and he could hit. Anyway, it was the third game of the year – I wasn’t quite the number one yet – and a ball got dropped in the outfield. I was marching around behind the mound and Brian called time and marched out to the mound.

“Zack, do you want to know why you’re starting the third game instead of the first?”

“No.”

“Because you throw a fit when somebody drops a ball.”

“I’m not throwing a fit. It’s just frustrating.”

“What are you, seven? Be a big boy and get the next out.”

He pissed me off a little bit, but I liked that he just said it instead of trying to hold my hand. Anyway, I got the out. Why does everyone think athletes are so fragile? Do they understand what it takes to be a professional athlete? Not everyone has a dad like I did, but I don’t know anyone who gets coddled. Sometimes we’re full of ourselves, but we all grew up with something, whether it was using a milk carton for a glove or taking grounders in the snow. Most of us don’t break easily.

So there’s a man on first who shouldn’t be, and I’m feeling okay, but I guess Brian is a little nervous. He doesn’t normally come out at times like this anymore, but today is different for a couple of reasons, and so he comes out.

“You remember how you used to go all crazy over this stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not thinking about doing that now, are you? Cause you look pretty good right now.”

“I feel pretty good, too.”

“All right then. Let’s get out of this inning.”

The ninth batter is their second baseman. Jerry Newhall. He looks like he could still be in high school. He’s maybe five-eight, and he’s on the team for his defense. I throw a fastball inside. He breaks his bat and lifts the least threatening fly ball you’ve ever seen straight out into center. Three outs. Dad would be proud of me.

Bottom of the Second

When you play for a very good team, it is easy to forget how good it is. You assume that like most teams, you have a few decent players. Maybe some good hitters in the middle of the order. Maybe one guy in the bullpen who can light up the radar gun. A starter like me. And then a bunch of guys who do their best but aren’t great. Will never be considered for an All-Star Game or anything like that. But it isn’t true. Our team is ridiculously good and so I should not be surprised that, even though our first four batters hit in the first inning, the rest of our lineup does not go quietly in the second.

It starts with Hector Rivas. I might know less about Hector than anyone on our team. He speaks very little English and he’s only twenty-three. He plays left for us, and I guess the thought is that he’ll have to move to first eventually because he already doesn’t have much range. His bat is coming along, though. He’s not the all-around player that Russell is, but he’s scarier in some ways. The balls he hits seem to have an extra sharpness to them. Like they could shoot through you if you got in the way. He hits the longest home runs on the team. We played the Reds in inter-league this year and he hit one clean into the river. He hit fifth this year only because he’s still green. He didn’t come up until May of last year. He’ll hit third soon either because Russell will leave or because he will eventually lose a little something and the second Russell loses something, Hector will be better.

Russell knows this, of course, and has been extra hard on Hector. Last year, Hector got a bunch of the stupid rookie hazing that goes on. Wearing dresses on the plane and that kind of nonsense. That stuff is right up Russell’s alley. Anything to make himself feel bigger. The misogyny is just an added bonus.

That is secondary now, though. Hector wastes no time and he drives the first pitch to the wall. If the angle had been different, it would have been a home run, but it’s too low and straight, so it smacks off the wall and Hector ends up at second.

* * *

I really committed to being a baseball player when I gave up on the dream of smacking a ball like Hector just did. Dad knew before I did. I’ve always been the tall, thin kid, and it’s hard to be much of a hitter with a strike zone as big as mine. That’s what I tell myself. I remember really thinking about it. I always hit seventh or eighth on travel teams.  Even on the local rec team, the best I ever did was sixth. I knew I wasn’t as good at hitting as some of the other kids. Coaches were always ready to have me pitch, though. They knew there were times when I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but, well, you know. A lot of the time I could.

The point is, when I made the decision, it was a real decision. Lots of kids want to be major leaguers in the sixth grade, but they also want to be astronauts and doctors and zookeepers. Being a child is not about deciding. But, in sixth grade, I decided. I had hit a growth spurt and my fastballs were even harder than they had been and you could hear the parents on the opposing team groan when they realized I was pitching. If I could keep it over the plate at all, there was no hope. And anyway, twelve-year-olds will generally swing at almost anything. I was so much better than everyone else that it felt like something I could really do. I let the cat out of the bag one day when Dad asked me if I wanted to take some batting practice. I knew he thought I should pitch, but he was letting me hit. He didn’t care, as long as I worked.

“No. I don’t really wanna work on my hitting. I’d rather just pitch.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’m better at pitching than everyone else. I’m not good at hitting.”

When I said this, Dad did not have the reaction I expected. He looked at me very seriously and said, “Who’re you better than?”

“Everybody.”

“Country boys. They’re just country boys. They’ll be farmers and factory workers and gas station managers. There isn’t a real ballplayer in the lot.”

“Some of them are pretty good.”

“Pretty good when you’re twelve doesn’t mean squat.”

“I still think I could do it.”

“Do what?” There was a glimmer in his eye. I realize now that I was just walking into the trap he’d set for me. Hindsight sucks.

“Get drafted. Go to the majors, maybe?”

He softened just a little and said, “You’ll have to work hard.”

I felt like I was being taken seriously now and I tried to sound grown up. I held a very straight face. “I’ll work.”

“Okay. Let’s finish the rec season first, and then we’ll start on the real work.”

* * *

Dave Snyder is next. When the designated hitter started, I think Dave is what they had in mind. The older guy who couldn’t quite cut it in the field anymore, but can still swing the bat. I like Dave. Everyone likes Dave. He’s the guy everyone thinks will be a manager someday. When we have our little kangaroo courts, he’s the one who hands out fines and whatnot. Nobody questions him, not even Russell, and if you can get Russell to back off, you’re really doing something. Dave’s knees are shot. Totally shot. He turns doubles into singles. Sometimes he turns triples into singles. He still hit twenty-eight homers this year, though.

Dave really has the protective older brother vibe to him, so I might be imagining this, but I feel like he’s up there trying to give me the lead. He always swings hard, it’s not that. There’s a look to him. I think there is. Dave always looks like my dad looked when he knew I was really trying. Dad wanted me to be a major leaguer. But he wanted me to work for it. To know that it would take work.

* * *

The mood around the house changed right away. Baseball had always been the biggest thing in our house. Mom was the only one who wasn’t obsessed, and even she was a fan. This was something different though. Now, at least when Dad was around, there was nothing else. I had been pitching a lot already.  Dad always took every chance to get me to do what he wanted, but this was something different. He brought out all kinds of pitcher-specific workouts. He started having me work in breaking pitches even if I was maybe too young for that. He got hold of all these videos about mechanics and execution and he made me watch them with him over and over again. Whenever we watched a game, the pitchers were all he talked about. If one of them was a lefty, it was even worse.

And poor Kristen. She spent hours providing me with a dummy batter to throw to. Dad almost never let her swing and she would complain to me after about how her arms ached from holding the bat up for so long. She never said anything about it to Dad, though. I think she saw it as a test. She wanted to believe that if she always did just what he said, eventually he’d start taking the time with her that he was taking with me. I don’t know if her commitment would have been as pure if he had pushed her that hard, but I think it would have. Kristen has the mind of a ballplayer. She always has. If the world were fair, she’d be where I am. It wasn’t going to happen, though, and so she committed herself to whatever Dad was committed to and that meant me. Sometimes she was as hard on me as he was. I think she started to view me as their project more than his project. Nobody ever asked me whose project I thought I was.

* * *

I know for a fact that, right now, most of the team thinks of me as their project. It’s kind of a vibe in the dugout. Maybe it was there all along, but I’m noticing it now. They’re happy to see me pulling it together. They want to help. Dave almost helps a lot. He hits one deep to center, but a lot of balls to deep center get caught, and this one does. It is enough to move Hector to third, though, and bring up Brian. No one is more on my side than Brian. I know this for certain.

* * *

A lot of athletes are weird about their moms. Most of our moms didn’t play sports, but as we got more and more serious, they all learned. The moms can get fervent. Everyone has heard the mom-as-number-one-fan shtick. My mom was never like that. Not the way most people see it. The truth is that she was a big fan of me and she saw that Dad was fervent enough about the baseball player I was becoming for both of them, so she devoted her energy to other things. Mom never actively discouraged me from doing anything I really wanted to do, but she definitely thought I was too young for the pressure Dad was laying on me. Dad couldn’t always see beyond himself and I think having a major leaguer for a son appealed to him more than being one himself. If you aren’t right, there’s a lot of sacrifice in raising a kid to be ballplayer. We weren’t rich. Dad was ready to make the sacrifice and to be applauded for it. It didn’t matter that I was eleven and still playing with toys and having crushes on girls, crushes that were just starting to be reciprocated. He was ready, and so I was ready. “We’ll make it happen.” That was what he always said.

All of this is why sixth grade is the first year I can remember both my parents not being at every game. Dad was there, of course. But Mom took some games off. It wasn’t mean or anything. It’s hard to explain, but she did it so that it was clear she wasn’t mad at me and that she didn’t think I should stop playing. It was like she wanted to remind me that there was a world outside of baseball. It’s hard to convey something that subtle to a kid, but Mom did it.

* * *

Brian has worked a 2-2 count when he connects to tie the game. It’s a bouncer to right field. The crowd screams like they haven’t since the start of the game. The announcers are almost certainly talking about momentum and turning things around after a rough start, but I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m thinking about Brian. This has been a tough year for him. He’s thirty-three, which is starting to get old for a catcher, and he’s been hurt a lot this year. He missed all of July and most of August and he probably shouldn’t really be playing now, but we don’t have better alternatives, and it’s hard to tell a player who’s gotten you there that he can’t play in the World Series.

It’s his knees. Just like with Dave. The cartilage is going. He can’t really push off and so his power numbers are way down. There are things they could try, but he told me he plans just to rest this winter. There’s talk of getting him some time at DH next year because Dave keeps talking about retiring. He needs to be more of a hitter for that to be an option, though. He hit worse for us than everyone except Manny this year. He should probably hit eighth, but even Jerry has a heart. Or, at least, he can’t forget how Brian hit last year. He’ll forget soon. So will Cameron. So will the fans. They’ll start talking about “finding catching help” and a year or two later that will be it. He’ll hold on as a backup or he’ll be gone.

But right now, that is not an issue. Right now, he is dancing around by first and not thinking about his knees. He is smiling and I am smiling. Brian is my best friend. We may not ever play together after this year.

* * *

I think that first year is really the perfect example of how Kristen had the childhood I wanted. She was a freshman in high school and was rejected from every form of organized baseball. That wouldn’t hold. The coach would give in and not only let her play, but start her the next year, but it was hard for her. Mom and Dad were both understanding, though. That was part of Mom’s disappearance from my games, I think. Kristen didn’t want to go to any, which is something I get now, even though it hurt my feelings then, and so Mom would often take her and her friends other places.

I don’t think Dad ever knew it, but Mom is how I got into all the gaming stuff. Mom had taken Kristen and a friend of hers to the nearest mall and while they were off being teenagers, she wandered into a hobby store, saw a box of magic cards, and bought them for me. She showed them to me later that day, and I was intrigued. They didn’t grab me yet, since I was too busy celebrating all the strikeouts I’d gotten that day.

I can imagine the fight if Dad had known she was the first one to show that stuff to me. He would have gone on and on about how she had to understand that I had Potential and Needed to Focus. Distractions were to be Minimized. I’m not being flippant when I say that their marriage might not have survived my eighth grade year if he had known.

He didn’t know, though. And he drove me hard all through the travel season. We didn’t have games or practice every day, but on the days we didn’t, Dad came up with something baseball related. This is the first time I remember being unenthusiastic about baseball. He would haul me out into the yard and we would spend hours working on whatever he had decided was important that day. Sometimes he would just make me go through my delivery over and over without a ball while making adjustments to my mechanics. When travel season ended, he kept at it. When it got cold, he kept at it. I wasn’t twelve yet. I don’t like to think about it. I really don’t. I almost never let myself think about it.

* * *

Carver is at bat now. He’s the one guy on the team who’s friends with Russell. Carver is young and he’s just good enough to hold a job. I think he knows he’s just stopping in. His destiny is on the bench. Maybe a front office guy later if he plays his cards right. I don’t think he’s a terrible person, but his association with Russell taints him. He tries too hard to be on everyone’s good side. He wants to make sure he has the right friends, but some of us will never trust him because of it. Anyway. He’s not much of a hitter because he never makes the pitcher work. His at-bat lasts one pitch. He pops up and Brian stands on the bag and watches it drop into the glove of the second baseman. The crowd gets quiet because they know Manny is coming up, and fun as he is, you don’t count on Manny for theatrics in the batter’s box. They are resigning themselves to a tie game when a few moments ago, they were thinking about grabbing the lead. I understand.

* * *

Hard as I try to keep it down, there’s one memory that keeps coming back. From that first year of hard training. It was January and it was cold. There was snow and outside looked desolate. Where I grew up in Indiana, it’s very flat. Not far to the south of us, hills rise up, but where I am, it’s just open. This is especially true in the winter, when the fields all lie empty. You can see for miles and there’s nothing. It was especially cold out and I just wasn’t feeling it when Dad dragged me outside for practice.

“I don’t want to work out today, Dad. It’s too cold.”

“Oh, it’s too cold, huh? What if the Rockies draft you and it’s snowing on Opening Day and they want you to pitch?”

He paused, but I didn’t say anything, so he went on.

“You going to turn down an Opening Day start because it’s cold? Real good. Kiss the free agent money goodbye. Nobody wants a pitcher who won’t pitch. And you’re not even there yet. You’re just a kid, and you’re already packing it in. I thought you wanted to be a major leaguer.”

“I do.” I knew I was losing.

“Then you gotta work, kid.”

“But it’s so cold. How cold does it have to be to not come outside and practice?”

Dad smiled like he knew this was coming. Like he’d been waiting for it. He pointed over the house where the kitchen window was. Outside it, there were some bird feeders that my mom kept because she liked to watch them in the winter. She said it reminded her of spring. “You see your mom’s birds there?”

“Yeah.”

“You know what they are?”

“I know the cardinals.”

“There are some cardinals there. Chickadee. Nuthatches. Goldfinch, too. And a bunch of sparrows in group there. They’re all pretty if you look at them long enough, even when they don’t have their colors. They’re here all year.”

“So.”

“So, if you look outside and there’s no cardinal. No chickadee. No pretty little goldfinch. If you can’t hear a sparrow singing, then you can stay inside.”

He paused for effect.

“But if I can see a goldfinch or I can hear a sparrow, you better be ready to work or stop wasting my time.”

* * *

Manny is serious about trying to hit a home run. I hadn’t been thinking about it, but he has the crowd going. He keeps fouling off balls and he’s swinging hard. This is not his game, but it’s getting loud. The fans like it. I’d like it if I was a fan, but I know he should be trying to poke a single through the infield. That’s our best hope. But he wants the lead. He wants to give me – to give all of us – a charge. I get caught up in it, too. He’s sending lasers into the stands over and over. He’s behind everything because he’s trying to kill it, but he keeps getting the bat on the ball. That’s the one thing Manny has going for him. He struck out only fifty times this year, and that’s a bad year for him. He gets the bat on the ball, even if it doesn’t go very far. He keeps at it long enough that he is doing us a service by pumping up Guillen’s pitch count. I’m not counting, but I know he’s seen ten or twelve pitches before he finally gets one in play, and I’ll give him credit, he gets it out there farther than he usually does. Down a line and it might have a chance, but it just dies out in right-center and that’s the end of the inning.

* * *

There are times in Indiana when you really can’t play. We get thunderstorms, of course. And in the winter it can get really nasty sometimes. Lots of snow and then nasty wind across the fields. The sparrows don’t come out in that.

I hated Dad sometimes for pushing me so hard. I was too young then. In high school I maybe could have taken it, but not then. It took a long time to fix things between us, but there were times every winter, no matter how hard Dad was pushing me, when we’d find ourselves snowed in for a week with nothing to do and we’d look outside and stare at the snow for a minute and one of us would say, “I wish it were baseball season.” Then we’d go off to the living room and watch one of the old games Dad had recorded or maybe the Baseball documentary. That was always there. Even when I was in eighth grade and tried to make Dad hate me, we still watched the entire documentary together that winter. I haven’t thought about some of this stuff in years. It doesn’t make sense – the stuff from when I was a kid. I can see only two pictures. I can see the overbearing father who made me feel awful and I can see Dad sitting next to me on the couch talking about Ted Williams or Hank Aaron. And I’m sitting there listening and I’m enchanted. Or we are at a game together and by this time, I’m into it when Dad is talking and coaching me because I see the game more fully than when I was little and I love it. Or I’m in a field wishing the birds would leave the feeder because it’s cold and there are a couple of inches of snow on the ground and I’d rather do just about anything than practice baseball, but he won’t let me go in. He never touches me. Never physically forces me, but the way he talks to me isn’t much different. He takes the choice away from me and I hate him and I hate baseball. I am twenty-eight years old and I don’t understand how both of these versions can be true. Those two men seem too far apart to be the same, and yet I know they are.

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