When the Sparrow Sings – Sixth Inning

"If you do that again, I'll beat you with a tire iron and then we'll see how your career goes." (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“If you do that again, I’ll beat you with a tire iron and then we’ll see how your career goes.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)


Top of the Sixth

Baseball would fit right into Ecclesiastes. The season beginneth and the season endeth and in the spring, the season beginneth again. Each game does also beginneth and endeth. So too each inning with the coming and going of six outs. And each out and each pitch doth beginneth and endeth.

Or something like that.

There is a rhythm to the game. Everything does feel like a cycle. It doesn’t take long until every game situation feels like something you’ve already seen. Though it will surprise you sometimes, the only thing that changes about the game is how you deal with it.

And so the sixth starts and again I am on the mound throwing warm-up pitches. I am not letting myself look for sparrows. I am not letting myself look. I can’t lay that extra baggage on myself right now. In the cycle of the game, the sixth is where I usually start to feel a little tense. A little nervous. More than half of the game is done. We’re winning or we’re losing. I can feel the day’s pitches in my arm. Especially if many of them have been thrown under pressure.

We’re still winning, and this is starting to look like a good game for me. Five innings, two runs. If I add another inning or two, people will look back and say I did my job. I like doing my job. I’m not someone who dwells on my own performance more than the team’s. I want to win. I always want to win, but there is satisfaction in pitching well and losing. Everyone gets beat sometimes. Even on good days. It’s what I like about baseball. Not so much separates the best of us from the worst of us. A guy who can barely hold on might throw as hard as me. Might throw the same pitches, but maybe his slider moves a little less and so hitters see it a little better and maybe his change-up is a little easier to read. I’m not so different from that guy.

Except, of course, that I’m here and he’s not. It’s a thin line. And here is Xavier Coates. This is the third time around, but the first time I’ve been concerned with him. There are no easy batters now. Not at this point. Not with the game close. Brian and I also know that this is likely the last time I will face Coates. We don’t need to hold anything back, so we don’t. He fights well. He works a full count. Fouls a couple of pitches off, but in the end, he misses a slider and I get to move to the next batter.

Mike Ferris steps in and shows that sometimes there’s nothing you can do. I throw a pitch exactly where I want it. He guesses exactly right. A line drive heads out to left-center and Ferris coasts into second. One pitch. That’s all I got against him. I look at him and shake my head. I look at Brian and shrug. The next three batters are all dangerous. They could all make it a tie game if they get under one. So now, it is very serious.

Martin steps up and, for what must be the thousandth time, the crowd is silent. Playoff crowds and regular season crowds are different. If this were July, the level of attention would have increased with Ferris’ double, but people would still be trucking off to the bathroom or to get another beer. It wouldn’t be world-stopping. If Martin knocks one and ties the game, that’s a shame, but, hey, it’s July. Different now. Different in October. The season beginneth and the season endeth and we are in no hurry for the endeth. Not now.

I feel it, too. Of course I do. Some guys try to deny it. Try to pretend that every game is the same. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. I try to find the groove. I try to keep things familiar, but the tension is real. The pressure is real. It’s the World Series.

I’ll miss Dad in the regular season. I know I will. But I wish he was here right now. I wish Mom and Kristen were, too. But I have Brian, at least. I can listen to him. I can see that he feels like I do. Even behind the mask.

I get lost in this. The people who are missing. The people who are here. I follow directions, but I don’t pay attention to anything else. I know the at-bat with Martin starts to stretch and I come to when the count is full. I miss and I walk him and for some reason, this brings a wave of sadness over me and it is all I can do not to start crying on the mound. Dad wouldn’t care. He knows that walks happen. I’ve had it together since the first, mostly. But what if I don’t now?

But I am so sad. Brian sees that something is wrong. He calls time and comes out.

“What’s up, man?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hey, it’s fine. We’ll get out of it.”

“I know. I know. It’s just –” I can hardly hold the tears back and I have to stop talking. I don’t even know what I’m thinking about that’s making this happen, but it’s happening.

“This sucks. You know?” Brian says.

I look up at him and his face is dead serious.

“Your dad should be out there somewhere. The way it happened. It’s enough to make you doubt everything.”

I do not know why he has chosen this moment to have this conversation. On the mound doesn’t seem the right place. But it’s perfect, too. So much of our friendship has happened on the field. He reaches out and puts his gloved left hand on my shoulder.

“It doesn’t matter now, you know. You’ve done enough. No one would blame you losing it right now. Whatever else you do is nothing.”

“I’m not ready to come out yet.” I’m starting to get hold of myself again.

“No. I know. Come on, then. Two more.”

He turns around and trots back to the plate. I throw a pitch. Apolinar pops it up. It wasn’t a good pitch, but he missed and Alex camps under it. Two on with two outs is a lot different than two on with one out. I feel like there should be some kind of life metaphor in that, but I can’t think of one. And here is Takeda.

With two outs and the crowd relaxing, something about what Brian said starts to sink in. I know that it doesn’t matter. I have pitched almost six innings in a World Series game four days after my dad died. I have done my duty. I have had moments of uncertainty, but I have done well. Everyone will praise me. If I strike out Takeda, they will cheer loudly and I will tip my cap and they will scream and the press interviews will be reverent. If he hits a home run and we lose the lead, the stadium will be mournful, but they will still applaud me when Jerry comes out to get me. I will not tip my cap, but I may touch the bill as I near the dugout. I will have been one pitch away from a good start four days after my dad died and no one will say anything bad. They will be amazed that I was able to come so close because anyone who has thought about it knows. They know that such a loss at such a moment is unthinkable. They know that it is wrong that I have been deprived of my grief. That I have been forced to grieve here in front of them all. There is nothing I can do to hurt myself right now. It is only a matter of how much I want. I want more.

And the first pitch to Takeda is a strike. And the second pitch to Takeda is a ball. Foul. Foul. Ball. Foul. He is stubborn, but it does not matter because I cannot lose. I throw another pitch and it is a ball and the count is full for the second time this inning. And then another pitch and he connects and it sounds loud and scary, but the angle is not right. It’s too high in the air. It is loud, but unspectacular. Hector needs only a short, thunderous run to reach it. He is under that ball and waiting when it snaps into his glove.

The crowd cheers like I knew they would. They cheer because they would never have asked more of me than this. I have given them their heart’s desire and I have done it on a day when I should not have had to. I am walking to the dugout with my head held down because I do not want the cameras to see the tears that are streaming down my face. I tip my cap and wipe my eyes on my sleeve and they scream for me. They scream. If someone had told my father when I was a boy that one day I would start a World Series game and that I would not fold and that I would pitch six innings and allow two runs and they would cheer for me like this, he would have been so happy. He would have been proud. My father would have been proud.

Bottom of the Sixth

I do not care about anything going on in the game right now. I do not care how we hit. I do not care who is batting. I go find the end of the bench and I sit down and I cry. I do not sob. I do not make noise. I sniffle just a bit as the snot drips from my noise. I have tried to position myself so that cameras can’t see me, but I know, somewhere, one is trained on me. I don’t look for it because I don’t want to know for sure. I hate knowing that there will be footage of my crying later. That sports shows will use this in a teaser to get more viewers. My father’s death will be exploited for ratings. People will write commentary about it as though it is something about which commentary should be written. I think about this and it makes me angry enough that the tears start to dry and I start to see what is happening.

Brian is hitting. I want to see Brian hit. I know he would be sitting next to me if he didn’t have to hit, but I want to see him hit. It doesn’t matter that he’s not as good as he once was. Not if you’re just watching for pleasure. He still has the look. The grace in his swing. I notice there is a new pitcher. A tall, lean kid. Joel St. Onge. This is his first year, but he’s done well. They wouldn’t put him out there if they didn’t think they had a real shot at winning. He throws harder than I do. I hope Brian can handle it. I watch him swing and miss at a fastball to start the at-bat. Another fastball misses, but Brian swings anyway, misses badly and is down in the count no balls and two strikes. He’s starting his swing early to compensate. A little slower and he could still keep up, but these are coming in at ninety-eight, ninety-nine miles an hour. St. Onge touches a hundred often enough. Brian is smart, though. He knows after looking bad on two fastballs, he’s going to see another one. He gets it out into left field for a nice little single. I’m glad he’s on, even if I’d like to have him next to me right now.

I jump a little when I realize that Jerry is next to me. “How you doin’, Zack.”

“I’m fine, Jer.”

“You looked a little shaky out there for a minute. Got any left in the tank?”

“I’ll go as long as you need me.” Of course I have some left in the tank. I have everything left in the tank.

“Don’t be brave. You’ve had a great day. Your dad would be proud of you.”

I narrow my eyes and stare at him and think, who are you? Who are you to talk about what would make my dad proud? “I’m fine,” I say. “I can give you another inning, at least.”

“All right, then. I can’t ask more than that.”

I’d pitch forever. I’d throw into extras. I’d never stop. I don’t want to stop.

Carver is up and I haven’t been paying attention. He hits a grounder to third. It looks like a double play, but the third baseman has to double pump and they only get Brian at second. He says a few words to Jerry that I can’t hear and then he comes and sits next to me and I relax.

“Jerry says you’ve got another inning.” As he says this he bends and starts putting his shin guards back on. Being a catcher means constant wardrobe changes.

“That’s what I told him.”

“You haven’t thrown that many pitches today, but are you sure you’ve got more in you?”

“I could throw all night.”

“Don’t be a hero, Zack.” He moves to the other shin guard.

“Who’s being a hero? I just feel good. My stuff is still good.”

“You know, what I said out there is true. You don’t have to do any more than you’ve done.”

“I know. I can do as much as I want now. I feel good.”

“Okay. Good. Let’s see how much you’ve got.”

Brian is quiet and takes to watching the game, but he stays next to me. There’s a friendliness to it. The way he sits relaxed beside me. There could be beers or maybe an open bottle of bourbon in front of us. Maybe I’ll come out and stay with him for a while in the offseason. I did that last year. He has a wife and a couple of kids and a big place down in Florida. It’s nice in the winter. Warm. You can run outside, and his kids are sweet. I’ve been afraid of kids for a long time, but I don’t know. Maybe I could do it differently.

* * *

Dad and I had a good couple of years in high school when he was helping coach, but I should have known it wouldn’t last. For those few years, our interests were in sync. The team was good, but not great, and we were never a real threat to go beyond regionals because I couldn’t pitch every game, and we never had much offense. So those years, it was all about my development. Refining my control. Trying to add off-speed pitches. But senior year was different.

One of our other pitchers was a year behind me. Chad Bailey. He was solid against the lesser teams, but he didn’t have much velocity so the more developed hitters could pound him. But he grew four or five inches in a year and suddenly added seven miles an hour to his fastball. No one saw it coming, but it gave us two pitchers who most other teams couldn’t handle. The other, less surprising, thing was that our first baseman started hitting the ball a mile. We knew it would come eventually, he’d been slowly bulking up, but he finally hit a kind of critical mass. It was a perfect storm kind of year, and we all knew there was a chance we’d win state. It doesn’t get much bigger than that in high school. Especially a small high school. As much as Indiana is all about basketball, our school forgot about basketball for a while. We were better than they had ever been.

We killed almost everyone in the regular season. We lost a few games when we had to use our number three pitcher and I remember I had a game where I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but otherwise, I don’t remember anyone being able to touch us.

We were all giddy about it. When you’re seventeen or eighteen and everyone in your school is paying attention to you – especially the girls – and there are even scouts showing up to watch you pitch, it feels like the world belongs to you. We were lucky that the playoff schedule was such that you needed only two pitchers. Each round was two games and the rounds were a week apart. We breezed through sectionals. That wasn’t anything special for us, though. Regionals was the big hurdle. We’d never had the pitching we needed to make it through. I pitched the first game and it was great. I pitched a complete game. I needed only sixty or seventy pitches because I was on and those games are only seven innings. They got one run almost by accident and we won 6-1. Chad won the second game and we were on to semi-state. This is where the problems started. It rained during semi-state and the schedule got all screwed up. Chad pitched the first game, but it was four days before we could play the second. I was as rested as I could be, but I pitched only five innings because we were blowing them out and, as I would find out soon, the coach had plans he had not told my dad about.

* * *

Manny is up and even though we are winning, he is still swinging for the fences and is in the process of striking out in embarrassing fashion. Brian says, “Somebody needs to remind him he’s not as big as it says he is in the media guide.”

“He’s hit a few.”

“A very few. He’s wasting at-bats.”

Brian has this side. It’s why he’s still good enough to start. He is incapable of overestimating the abilities of anyone on his team, including himself. He always assumes he is slower than he is, that Russell doesn’t have as much power as he does. Most of the other guys try to avoid talking to Brian about hitting because they don’t want to hear him tell them what they’re doing wrong. He wants to coach or manage later. I know this, though no one else does, but he needs to soften a little if it’s going to work. People want to hear that they’ve done well sometimes.

He’s just as hard on himself, though. He’s lost a lot of bat speed now, but he had a good line this year because he can still out-think most pitchers.

“How bad did he have you fooled with those first two pitches?”

“The first time was just as bad as it looked.”

He doesn’t say anything else, but I see him smiling because he wants me to ask about the second time.

“Not the second time, though.”

“My bat’s not that slow.”

“I’m glad you’re on my side.”

“Give it another year or two and you’ll wish you could pitch to me. I won’t be able to keep up with your weak shit.”

“My what?”

“You heard me. You lost three-tenths off your fastball this year.”

“You never turn off.”

“Never.”

* * *

We were having practice the day before the first game of state when everything went bad. We all assumed there’d been some discussion about how the pitching would be set up, but no one knew what the decision would be. I knew something was a little off when the coach walked up to me the moment my dad went off the bathroom.

“Big game tomorrow,” he said.

“I know. I think we’ll get through it, though.”

“You’ve been with us for four years, Zack. I’d love to send you to the pros with your first real championship.”

This had become a popular idea around the school and especially within the team. Scouts had been around all year, and I’d talked with some of them. The state tournament mattered because they wanted to see me against top-level competition. Dad, typically, had been circumspect about the draft. We’d enter, probably, but he wasn’t sure about it.

I was seventeen and, of course, could not have been more enthusiastic about winning a state championship. “Yeah, coach. I’d love that.”

“I think our best shot is going with Chad in the first game. Chad’s been awfully good this year, but if we make it all the way to the end, I want you on mound.”

I smiled broad and stupid.

“I know you’ll be on short rest by a day.”

“I don’t care, Coach. I’ll be fine. I’ll bring it home.”

Coach reached out and patted me on the shoulder. This is the kind of faith every athlete wants to inspire. I’d told him right there I’d do it. I didn’t check with Dad. As far as I was concerned it was my decision.

* * *

Adam is up now with two outs and Carter shuffling around out at first base. Brian, apparently, has decided to offer a steady stream of commentary – maybe he’s trying to relax me. “Poor kid. He only has a couple of good years left, and he doesn’t even know it.

“Adam? He’s only twenty-nine.”

“Second basemen, man. They get old fast.”

“Adam takes care of himself, though.”

“It’s not about that. He lives right on the edge. He doesn’t hit homers. He’s good at positioning, but he doesn’t have a ton of range. It doesn’t last forever.”

I shake my head at him. “It’s nice while it does last, though.”

“It is. And hey, we don’t have to worry. I’ve got my big contract. You’ll get yours next year from somebody.”

I don’t say anything because I don’t want to think about the possibility of someone else being my catcher next year. Russell and I are both free agents this year, and not many people think the team will sign both of us.

“Anyway, Adam’s good now.”

Brian nods but doesn’t say anything. As if on cue, Adam hits a ball to right center. Coates has a little run, but he gets to it.

* * *

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

But Dad isn’t answering me. He’s already off to tell his decision to Coach. I follow as soon as I come to my senses, but they are already raising their voices by the time I get there.

“We may never have another chance at this.”

“I don’t care about your small town ambitions. Zack is going places. I won’t have you messing with his arm.”

“It’s one day. One start on short rest isn’t going to end his career. And he already said yes. It ought to be his decision.”

“Maybe it ought to, but he’s still seventeen, and that makes it mine.”

I’d heard enough at this point and decided to assert myself. “I want to pitch.”

“That’s nice to know, Zack, but I’m not going to let you.”

“I’ll be eighteen in two weeks.”

“You’re not eighteen now, son. And I’m glad. Do you really want to risk messing up your pro career for a stupid state championship?”

This did not sit well with me. Dad may have thought that all we had been doing for four years was working on my development, but I had also been trying to win every time out and I had really been trying to win in the playoffs. A state championship seemed a lot like the World Series to me at that point. I didn’t care about my pro career. I cared about winning. I cared about doing what my coach asked. I wanted my dad to shut up. He was still standing there talking to Coach. He was calm as everything. I didn’t hear what they were saying, but the longer Dad talked, the madder I got. Eventually, he turned to me. “Why are you still here?”

“I want to pitch!” I didn’t shout at my dad. Not ever. But I shouted that.

He was unmoved. “Not happening.”

I hated how calm he was. I wanted him to be mad. I shoved him so hard he fell over. “It’s my choice!”

I hadn’t seen Dad angry in a long, long time. Not like this. I was a tall, strong high school kid, but my dad had the strength you can only get from years of hard manual labor. He stood up and came toward me fast. He picked me up by my jersey and threw me ten feet. I landed on my ass and flipped. He walked up to me as I lay there and I was scared.

He stood over me.  His fists were clenched. His arms and legs twitched as if he was only just able to restrain himself.

“You idiot. Don’t you ever attack me. If you do that again, I’ll beat you with a tire iron and then we’ll see how your career goes. I said you’re not pitching and you are not pitching. Get used to it.” Then he turned and walked away. I lay there on the ground until and watched him walk all the way to his truck, get in, and leave.

As I finally stood, I realized this mess had played out in front of the entire team. I had no idea what to do with myself. No one came up to me. Even Coach just stood there and stared at me. Wise or not, I decided the best way to defuse the tension was to go into the dugout and destroy everything I could get my hands on. Coach waited for me to finish, then he made me clean it all up. By the time I was done, everyone else was gone. He drove me home.

“As much as I don’t like it, Zack, it is your dad’s decision. We’ll still go with Chad in the first game. We’ll just have to cross our fingers about that second game.”

I didn’t respond so much as I made huffy sounds of discontent. Dad had never used force with me before. Never. He never would again, either, but that moment and what followed ruined things for us for two years.

When Coach dropped me at home, I was scared to go inside. I peeked in the garage first to make sure Mom was home, too, and even then I shuffled around on the porch for a minute before I went inside.

When I came in, Dad was sitting in the living room watching a taped game. He looked straight at me, completely unassuming, and said, “How’d your extra work go, Zack?”

Mom was there, too. She got up and gave me a hug. “I know you’re disappointed that you won’t get to pitch in state.”

I think she expected me to say something, but I had no idea what was going on.

“It says a lot about what people think of you that your coach won’t send you on short rest. Everyone thinks you’re going places, Zack.”

So there it was all laid out. Dad had beaten me home and told Mom a lie and there was no way for me to tell her otherwise. What was I supposed to say? “Hey Mom, what really happened is that Dad wouldn’t let me pitch, so I shoved him, and then he threw me halfway across the field and threatened to break my arm with a tire iron.” Wouldn’t fly. No point. His story made more sense than the truth. I clomped off to my room which, in her eyes, was a perfectly normal response to being told by my head coach that I couldn’t pitch.

State went, well, you can fill in the blanks. Chad got us through the first game just fine, but our third best pitcher had no business pitching for a state championship. He got shelled badly and we lost 9-3. That wasn’t even the worst part of it. There were scouts hanging around throughout the playoffs and before the game one of them asked me why I wasn’t pitching.

“I would have been on short rest.”

“That young arm can’t go a day early when it needs to?”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want him to think I was weak, but it felt weird to blame my dad. That didn’t stop me from doing it, though.

“Your dad have a lot of influence on you?”

“I guess he’s been coaching me since I was a kid.”

I didn’t understand at the time how important that conversation was. For months, Dad had been on me to go to college instead of the draft. He said the competition hadn’t been good enough and all the reports we saw had me listed as a second-round pick at best.

“You go to college for a few years and then see how they like you. You’ll go first round. Plenty of bonus money.”

I told him I didn’t care about bonus money and he told me not to be stupid. A team wasn’t going to give up on me if it had a lot of money behind me. This was how the world worked and I’d better learn to see it.

Still, I’d put off committing anywhere while I waited to see where I was drafted. I didn’t commit because I wanted teams to know that my first priority was going pro. On draft day we waited and waited for a call. I sat in the living room all day with my dad watching his DVDs of the ’76 World Series. Well, he watched the DVDs. I watched for a while, and then I stared at him. When he bothered to look at me he would only smirk. I didn’t go in the first round or the second. I fell all the way down to the sixth round. The Astros took me.

I don’t know if Dad had planned it this way, but he knew about the conversation with the scout. He knew what I took a few years to figure out – that every major league team either thought I was soft or that I’d want my dad along as a coach wherever I went. Both of those were a lot to put up with for a high school pitcher who’d had almost no experience against top-flight competition, stuff or not.

It was hard to let Dad win, though. I talked to the Astros. They didn’t offer much bonus money, but they said they thought I had a lot of potential. I could tell they weren’t really that excited about me. I had “make-up issues.” They expressed reservations about my occasional control issues – as though all hard-throwing high school pitchers don’t have control issues.

Dad threw a college brochure down in front of me. “This is good program. Top ten for the last four years. You’ve got a scholarship there if you want it.”

I didn’t reply to him. I’d barely spoken to him since the incident on the field. I didn’t need to tell him he’d won.

I went to college.

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