When the Sparrow Sings – Third Inning

"You’re going to have to walk out there." (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“You’re going to have to walk out there.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

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

Top of the Third

I’ve gone through the lineup once and introductions have been made. I have a tie score and a clean slate. Ramirez twitches his shoulders, pulls at his batting gloves and steps in. For the second time tonight, he begins his piston-bounce. I am intimidated. If anyone has a mental advantage on me tonight, it’s him. I don’t want him on base again. He’s too disruptive. I am determined to start with a strike, but just like the first time, I miss with a fastball.

Brian throws the ball back to me and I march around behind the mound. I blow out a breath, watch it condense in the air, and climb back up the hill. Brian is calling for a slider. This, I know, is how he shows confidence in me. “You missed with the first one? So what. Let’s show him what you’ve got.” I nod and try to relax. I wind up and the pitch sails in and Ramirez lashes it foul down the right field line. He spits and steps back into the box and starts his bounce. He stares out at me. He’s not scared. He should be scared. I can throw hard. But he’s not scared. We try fastball again. Again he watches it go past for a ball. Brian calls change-up, hoping to fool Ramirez, but it doesn’t work. He sends a hard one-hopper to third. From where I stand, I know before anyone else that he’ll be on base. There’s a hard bounce in the infield dirt and a cloud of dust flies up. Carver punches his glove over and snags the ball, but it’s moving so fast, it knocks him to the ground. He pops up quickly and zips it across the diamond. Even with the good throw, it’s not much of a contest. Ramirez is well past the bag by the time the ball thwacks into Alex’s glove. He is on base. Again.

I am nervous. He is the leading run and he is on base. Coates is up next. I don’t feel nervous about him. The first time wasn’t about him, it was about me. But Ramirez. Ramirez is different. I throw over to first and he gets back standing. He looks at me and I think I see a smirk. “Try harder.” His uniform is still clean, but I know it won’t stay that way. I do try harder when I throw over a second time and he has to dive back. It’s close, and I almost get him, but it feels like a mistake. It feels like I have given him what he wants. Gotten his blood flowing. I throw over a third time and he dives back again, but he dives because he wants to, not because he has to. Finally, I start toward the plate for the first pitch to Coates. Ramirez is off the moment I twitch. I know he’s been watching tape of me, trying to parse my movements, but his jump is so good I wonder if he’s found a tell. Brian makes a hell of a throw, but it doesn’t matter. Ramirez is popping up from the bag by the time the ball gets there.

I stare back at the bag with my hands on my hips. He looks at me and bounces around on second. He is in my head and he knows it. The crowd has been with me, but a crowd can be fickle and now they are quiet. Ramirez isn’t going to make the first out trying to steal third, so I focus on the batter. This time, I expose him for who he is. Two more fastballs and a change-up are all it takes and he is gone on strikes.

Mike Ferris steps to the plate and I am reminded of Brian a few years ago. Catchers rarely move quickly, but there’s a deliberateness to the stride of the younger ones. Sometime in their thirties, they all lose it. The movement of the lower body goes from deliberate to tentative. Gingerly movement. Brian moves like that now, but Ferris is still a train or a bear or whatever your preferred metaphor is for something large and scary. I catch myself admiring him and force myself to stop. There isn’t time for this kind of wistfulness. I need to focus on Ferris because he he can hurt me. He gets talked about like Bench or Piazza and that is not hyperbole. He will crush the ball if I make a mistake. And there is still Ramirez dancing around back there. With a hitter like Ferris up, you’d expect him to sit still and wait to be driven in. Most runners would sit still, but Ramirez is different. Maybe he is going, maybe he isn’t. Still, he dances. He wants to mess with me. He wants me to be scared. I am scared. To be scared of someone so small feels absurd. I tell myself not to worry, but I’m not good at telling myself anything today. This is the kind of day when I should already be expecting a call from Dad, no matter how the rest of the game goes. “What was going on with Ramirez? So he got on base? So what. Pitch to Ferris. Ferris can hurt you more than Ramirez.” Today, I might tell Dad he was wrong. A thousand small cuts can do the job as well as anything. A bomb is just messier.

I need to be deadly with Ferris. If he gets a hit, Ramirez will score. If he doesn’t, then the odds get better fast. Maybe Ramirez ends up at third, but with two outs, I can probably get out of it.

I try to be perfect. Brian calls for a fastball and sets up over the inside corner. I miss and it is a ball. Brian calls for a slider and I miss again and we are down and I have to get a strike. Fastball again, middle-in. Ferris fouls it off. Two and one is a little better, but I’m not out of the woods. It’s time to change paces on him, so Brian calls for a change-up. My change-up is good. Sometimes, it gets down into the seventies. We’re hoping to get him out in front and even up the count. But Ferris is smart. He’s guessed along with us and is not fooled. What happens next is not believable.

Ferris swings and he hits the ball hard, but he’s just a little over the top. It zips along the ground. Against most teams, it would be a single into left, but we have Manny. Manny dives and stops it. He is back up so fast it’s hard to believe he was ever down. He plants and throws and if Ferris is a bear, then this throw is a bullet strong enough to down an elephant. It isn’t close. Ferris is out by half a dozen steps. Ramirez, I know, won’t have been slowed down by the left-side grounder. I turn around expecting to see him at third, but he is already half way home. Players take risks like this sometimes and Ramirez saw how I put them away in the second. He knows they might not get another shot and he is taking the chance. This time, I am doomed to be behind on the play. Alex has seen him before I have, and when I turn back, the ball is already coming out of his hand. The throw is a little bit to the wrong side of the plate and it slows the tag just enough. Brian dives across to try and grab Ramirez, but it’s no good. He’s safe and we are losing again.

Brian thinks he got the out and he pops up to argue. Jerry pops out of the dugout to argue. It’s the third inning. Why are they making a stink like this? Is it me? Are they worried about me? He was safe. I saw him slide in. I saw the tag land late. Safe. I can see the umpire starting to bristle. Brian and Jerry are both really going. Profanity is starting to fly. That’s not going to be good. It’s the World Series, and they’re losing their heads. If Brian got tossed it would be a disaster. I go to him and start pulling him away.

“I tagged him!”

“You were late.”

“The hell I was.”

“Hey, idiot, you were late. I saw. Back off before you get tossed!” This snaps him out of it. Jerry has also calmed down and starts back toward the dugout, kicking at the baseline as he crosses it.

All of this – Ramirez, Jerry, Brian – has made me angry. I am the one who is supposed to lose his head tonight. I am the one who needs to be kept cool. I am the one who is supposed to take stupid risks. This is an unreasonable world and an unreasonable game. The crowd is fired up now because they think Jerry and Brian showed guts or spark or something. Screw them, too. They don’t know. They don’t know how stupid it is to lose your head. How it never leads to anything except a few good quotes for the press later on. And if anyone loses it, it should be me. Here comes Martin. Let’s get it.

Brian puts down a one and I nod and reach back and I let it go. I’m not aiming at Martin, but it looks like I am. He goes down and the ball thumps against the backstop. The whole place goes silent. The umpire steps out from behind the plate and takes a few steps out like they do sometimes when they want to seem important and he points at me and he points at the benches. This is our warning. He thinks I did it on purpose. Martin is glaring at me like he wants to eat me. I can see his hands gripping the bat like he would maybe like to grip my neck. Now I want to hit him, but I know I can’t. I know that much.

Brian asks for the fastball again and sets up outside. I reach back and I throw as hard as I can. I’ve scared Martin and he takes a little defensive swing and pops it up into shallow center where just about anyone can get to it and where Manny finally does glove it. Martin stares at me as he walks back to the dugout, but I won. He knows I won and that is the end of things. That was routine. Normal. As we jog back to the dugout, I call Brian something I wouldn’t repeat in front of my mother. He doesn’t say anything, but he gives me a look. A sad look. And I know what it means. I know that all of that was for me. And do you know how that makes me feel? It makes me feel like shit. I wish I could take it all back. I wish we weren’t losing again.

Bottom of the Third

I put on my jacket, go down to the end of the bench, sit by myself, and continue to feel bad.

Adam is walking up to the plate. Tasked, once again, with leading the attempt to pull us even after I have given up a run. It’s only the third inning, there is still a long way to go, and it is only two to one, but it feels insurmountable. It feels like we might battle back. Pull even. Find the leading run on second and fool ourselves for a minute. But we will lose. This is what I believe. No matter that I believe we should win, with this team facing me, with our team against this pitcher. We should win this game. We are better than them. We should win. But we will fail.

Adam does not look like he feels this way. He looks like he believes, still. What will happen if we tie again or take the lead? Will I surrender it? When will I surrender it?

* * *

The night it happened, we were on a plane. I heard as soon as we landed. I had a frantic message from Mom. Brian noticed me calling her back, and he stayed back on the plane while everybody else was filing off. I can’t think about Mom’s voice then. I can’t think about what she said. If I do, I won’t be able to function. What I remember now, sitting on the bench waiting for the inning to start, is that Brian stayed back with me. That he had the sense to remember that there was a huge crowd outside waiting for us. Waiting for me. The winning pitcher. They wanted to see me and cheer for me. None of them knew. Nobody knew yet except Brian. Soon, it would be all over the news, but right now, it was just a bunch of tired and happy fans, all of them clothed in team colors and championship shirts and hats, many of them a little drunk.

Only a few hours before, I’d been looking forward to it. I’d thrown a fantastic game. Two hits in eight innings. I would have gone out for the ninth, but we were up five, so there was no need. Afterward, we’d celebrated, but not too hard. Most of the team was here last year when we lost in the LCS. This was nice, but it was only a step in the larger goal. Win it all. Win the Series. So yeah, we put on our hats and t-shirts. We drank some beers, but we weren’t jumping all around like fools. That was to be saved for later.

But boarding the plane, there was still a tingle. We knew what kind of crowd would greet us, the conquering heroes. We knew it would be great. It would have been great.

“Oh God. Oh God. I can’t go out there Brian. I can’t go out there. You have to make them go away.” I was in shock and I was starting to shake.

“They are not going away. Not any time soon. You’re going to have to walk out there.”

“I just want to be alone. I don’t want to be with all those people.”

He put his hands on my shoulders so that I had to look at him. “Zack, those people are not going away. All you have to do is smile and wave. I’ll drive you home myself. I’ll stay if you want. But for just a minute, you need to pretend. Be the cliché.”

I nodded. I wiped my eyes and blew my nose and tried to stop crying for a minute. I tried to make myself feel how I normally feel starting a game. I looked down at the ground and shook myself out. I bounced like a prizefighter entering the ring. I let Brian lead. We stepped outside and the roar was instant. I jerked my head up and shot a fist up into the air. I danced down the step and onto the tarmac. I smiled and waved. I high-fived as we wandered past. I signed a few autographs. A couple of people saw the strain in my eyes. They looked at me like something was wrong and when they did this, I tried to smile more. We got through the crowd. I got in Brian’s car and he started it and drove us both away.

* * *

The crowd is cheering and I look up to see Adam rounding first. He comes into second not with a slide, but with the kittenish stutter-step of a sure arrival. He claps his hands together and I watch him take off his gloves and run them over to the first base coach. The crowd. The crowd. The crowd. They believe. They won’t know until later. They will ride it and they will roar and they will believe and we will disappoint them.

* * *

Brian stayed up with me that night. We talked a lot. I told him stuff nobody else knows. I don’t have a wife to tell that stuff to. A lot of it is pretty terrible. After we’d been talking for most of the night, Brian asked why I even still talked to my dad.

“I don’t know. I didn’t for a while. When I went to college, I was out of his jurisdiction. I was on scholarship. There was nothing he could do to me. He’d always call, though. He’d drive up for my games when he could. But I ignored him. Brushed him off the phone. Didn’t talk to him after games.”

“What changed?”

“It’s funny because I only went to college at his insistence. I got drafted out of high school, but it was sixth round. Not a ton of bonus money or anything. Scouts didn’t like the competition I faced. Dad said if I went to college, I could show them. He said I’d go first round.”

“He was right about that.”

“That was when I called Dad. I mean, I had an agent. I didn’t need Dad  to negotiate, but he made me a lot of money pushing me to go to college, and I felt bad because I’d never told Dad he was right before. And I kind of missed him, too. It wasn’t always so bad. When I was a kid, you know?”

“You remember the first time your dad takes you to a game?”

I smiled at him and let him talk.

“And there’s all this food and it smells so good.”

I laughed. “I didn’t understand why we weren’t allowed out on the field.”

Brian laughed.

“My first game wasn’t even a big league game. We didn’t have the money for those a lot, but we could always drive to Indy or Louisville for a minor league game. The first one I can remember was in Louisville, I think. It was in this terrible stadium the football team down there used. Astroturf. Fairground stands. You know what I’m talking about?”

Brian nodded.

“We were way up, even though the place was mostly empty. I wanted to move closer, but Dad had us in those seats on purpose. He wanted me to see the whole field. But we were so far away, the players were like ants. I was probably only five or six. I just got bored.”

I guess I looked kind of depressed about it or something because Brian asked me if I still felt bad about it.

“No. It’s a good memory. Dad was really patient. I mean, I didn’t even know how to read the scoreboard yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“The stadium only had a board that showed runs, hits and errors. And I just read the three together as one big number. Like I thought it was four eighty-two to two forty. I remember a guy hit a homer and I asked Dad how come they got two hundred points and he just laughed and explained it to me.”

* * *

With Adam standing at second, I stare down the bench at Brian. He is looking at me. When he sees me glance in his direction, he gets up and walks toward me.

“I’m sorry, man.”

“It’s fine.”

“I’m pretty messed up right now.”

“I know.”

“Anyway, what are you doing trying to get thrown out of the game?” I try to say this so he will laugh. He smiles at least.

“Fine. I won’t try to get outs for you anymore.”

“Yeah, because arguing safe calls with an umpire has ever worked.”

“First time for everything.”

It’s not much, but it’s enough. With Brian sitting next to me, I’m able to see the romance of the game a little better. It’s still cold out, but Brian always sweats in his catcher gear and his hair is wet from it. He wears eye black for reasons that completely escape me as he hasn’t had to worry about the outfield sun in his eyes since Little League. His shin guards are scuffed. I look at Brian and I look at Adam standing out at second base and I think maybe I am wrong and we are not doomed to defeat. It would be a good story. I wouldn’t mind reading it, probably, in twenty or thirty years. The time Dad died, but I won a World Series game anyway. If I hadn’t pitched, Brian wouldn’t be here next to me. No one would be talking to me. I wouldn’t really be part of the team, even if I did have a uniform on.

Matt comes up and for the first time tonight, I feel impelled to watch the game. I stand and move to the railing. I have that tense hyper-aware feeling I get sometimes when I’m excited about a game. My hand rubs against the cross bar and I feel all the places where the paint has chipped off and been repainted and chipped again. I put myself in Matt’s head, which is a nice place to be.

One of the best things about Matt is how levelheaded he is. It may be the World Series and we may really need this run, but he knows Guillen isn’t the greatest pitcher in the world and he knows better than to panic and hack at everything in hopes of driving in the run. He works the count beautifully. And gets to three and two. Guillen is better off missing outside the zone than in. Matt knows this and he sits still and watches ball four go past him. He is about to toss his bat and trot to first when the umpire calls strike three.

I can tell it gets to him. It’s a bad enough call that it’d get to me if I were hitting and pitchers do not ever complain about a bigger strike zone. But it’s not worth arguing. Matt says exactly what he always says when he doesn’t like a call, “I disagree.” It’s hilarious. He always plays it straight. He never yells, and then he walks back to the dugout. It works, though. Matt gets a lot more strikes called as balls than balls called as strikes.

Still, it hurts to have the first out and Adam stationary at second. But here comes everyone’s favorite hero. Russell. There’s always hope when he’s at bat. For my part, I lose interest in the game and go back to sit with Brian.

“You think pretty boy there will bail you out tonight?”

“I don’t know if I want him to.” When I say this, Brian gives me a disapproving look. He probably feels the same way, but you’re not supposed to say it.

* * *

If anything makes me sick about the industry that is major league baseball, it is the success of Russell Jennings. Russell, unlike most major leaguers, has national endorsements. Russell is beloved nationally as a stand-up guy for the work he does – or pretends to do – for charity. Russell is a Hall of Fame player if he stays healthy. Russell is beloved by the media and the fans. Most of us hate him.

That hatred is fairly new. Russell was never especially likable. When the cameras are off, he’s full of himself and standoffish. We could put up with that, of course, as long as he played. And he definitely plays. Gold Glove last year. Batting title. Thirty-five homers a year. Yes. You can be a jerk if you put up those numbers. I don’t even care if you play the media game and turn on the smiles and charming quotes for the cameras.

But what happened this spring was something else.

* * *

If Russell has a flaw as a player it is that he craves glory. In this situation, he knows what a home run will do. It will guarantee him a mention in the recaps and wrap-ups, even if we lose. If we win, it makes him the star of the game unless I strike out the next eight or nine batters. Guillen’s first pitch is a strike, but it’s not Russell’s pitch. He should know better and lay off, but he takes a big hack and misses. Lucky for him. If he’d put it in play, he’d be out on a routine grounder.

After that aggressive swing, Guillen and Ferris are looking to get him to chase. Guillen goes to his curve, which is really good when he’s on, and lets the bottom drop out so that it bounces and Ferris has to block it. There is no concern about the ball getting by Ferris and sending Adam to third. Balls do not get by Ferris. Russell isn’t biting, though. He’s aggressive, but he’s not stupid. One ball and one strike.

* * *

There are plenty of ballplayers who are not what you’d call respectful of women. I don’t think it’s most of us, but it’s not an insignificant piece of the major league population. These are the guys who have a different girl in every city. Sometimes more than one girl. It goes on. It’s not nice. You sure don’t want them hitting on your sister. But it’s part of the deal. You look the other way. And really, what can you do? Trash talk them to the media? That would not make for a happy team. And anyway, “Twenty-something guy with money sleeps around” isn’t a surprising headline.

We thought Russell was one of these guys for a while. By which I mean, we thought he had women everywhere. We’d all seen him turn on the charm with some girl in the stands before a game just like he did with the media. He’d finish his batting practice with a long homer and then saunter over.  He’d casually sign autographs for a few kids to set the stage, then a few minutes later, he’d walk away with her phone number. He’d text her from the dugout. If there were no reporters around, he’d do this while saying exactly the kinds of things you’d expect to whomever would listen. Usually Carver. It was gross. But nothing to be done.

Then this girl, Anne White, accused him of raping her. My reaction, and the reaction of most everyone on the team, was “Well, of course he did.” It wasn’t hard to believe. He was a jerk. He used women. He liked to be in charge. It was obvious.

But the fans certainly weren’t having it. Signs at the ballpark supporting him. Footage on the news of people saying she must be lying to try and get money out of him. Baseball writers focused on whether the “allegations” would affect his on-field performance. Pretty much nobody thought about the girl. Craig Calcaterra is the only one I can remember who said something along the lines of, “Hey, a woman might have been raped here. And you know, people don’t lie about this stuff often.”

I get that it hurts when your favorite player turns out to be an actual bad person, but being a human should matter too.

* * *

On the third pitch, Russell almost gets the RBI he wants. Almost. He hits a hard line drive, but there is Ramirez diving to catch it. Adam just barely gets back to second in time. I feel Brian twitch next to me. He fidgets in his seat. “Damn,” he says, because he wants to win more than he hates Russell. And I know I shouldn’t be happy. We are trying to win the World Series, and I am definitely trying to win the game. But the hate is a little more for me than it is for Brian. It’s almost enough to not care about winning. Almost.

* * *

But I’m pretending I couldn’t have been one of the apologists. High school locker room talk is not that different from major league locker room talk. There’s a sense that what’s said there isn’t public. You watch it a little more as a pro, but still, your guard is down.

Kristen tried out for the high school team during her freshman year and got cut, but sophomore year, she was too good and they had to keep her. She had a really hard time. She managed to straddle the line between conventionally attractive and athletic and the boys on the team didn’t know how to behave. She was supposed to start at second, but she came home crying from practice one day. She wouldn’t talk to me or Dad, but she told Mom what happened. I learned much later that there had been some grabbing. That she’d been held up against a wall where the coaches couldn’t see.

Mom told Dad, and then Dad came out of their room with his mouth set hard. He didn’t look at me at all, which was strange because I was used to being the center of his world. He bent down and gave Kristen a hug. “I have to go out for a little bit,” he said. “But I won’t be gone long.”

Again, oblivious as I was, I didn’t figure out until way later that he went to the coach’s house. When he came home, I don’t think it was even an hour later, he told Kristen that she shouldn’t have any more trouble and to let him know if she did.

I was in my first year of college when something came up with another player on the team. I was talking to Kristen about how he was a good guy and I didn’t see how he could have done it.

“Oh, they’re always nice guys. Or they pretend to be.”

“No, he really is. He said she changed her mind afterward.”

“Okay.”

“What?”

“Don’t you know what happened to me in high school?”

“What are you talking about?”

She told me. And other stuff too. I guess it had mostly blown over by the time I got to school, but for a couple of years, she was left alone by the team when she was around, but they still talked. I guess they said she was a tease. It gave her a reputation at school and she got harassed for it.

“Which was stupid for every reason you can think of,” she said.

“What does that have to do with this, though?”

“Come on, Zack. Don’t be so thick. What could this woman possibly gain from lying about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Exactly.”

And then she hung up on me. Later that night I got a long email with a bunch of links and, well, I suddenly found it awfully hard to believe my teammate, even if he was nice.

* * *

Gonzalez is up now, but the air has gone out of the stadium. With two outs, it’s a hit or nothing if we want to score. A pretty good hit, too. Adam’s not a snail, but he’s not scoring on a standard issue single.

* * *

The guy at school eventually got off with just a reprimand, which is pretty much normal. Shameful as that is. That guy, at least, had the sense to deny it to everyone. Russell can’t be bothered to go that far. When somebody asked him about it all he said was, “What did she think was going to happen? A ballplayer’s hotel room on the road? How’s she gonna change her mind then? She wouldn’t have been there if she didn’t want it.” The sad thing is, it just shows he was smart enough to know that’s what everyone else would think.

* * *

I’ll give Alex credit; he’s going at it just as hard as everyone else. Guillen is lucky to still have the lead, and I suspect he knows it. If things break just a little differently, there are two men on, no outs, a run in, and a couple of scary hitters coming up. Baseball is funny like that. Lots of guys, especially TV guys, will tell you that there is no luck in baseball, but I don’t know how they explain an inning like this. A ball four called a strike. A liner that can be caught only by Ramirez or Manny. I mean, yeah, there’s some skill there, but it’s easy to see Guillen on the ropes. It’s easy to imagine us putting up three, four, five runs. Maybe even putting the game out of reach.

Dad was smart enough to know that. It was actually kind of funny to be around him when an announcer started going on about controlling the direction of the ball off the bat.

“Ninety-five mile per hour fastball, and this idiot wants it two feet further to the right. Unbelievable.”

Alex is up there giving it his all. I’ve lost track of how many pitches he’s seen, but it’s been a full count for a while. Maybe we don’t score this inning, but we’ll see the bullpen an inning earlier than we would have otherwise. I always laugh at the old-school managers who want their players swinging. What was it Baker said once? Clogging the bases. Yeah. Don’t clog the bases against me. Swing those bats. Our guys don’t do that, though. Patient as can be. Watching Alex, or any of our first seven really, makes me glad I pitch for this team so I don’t have to face them.

I am thinking this when I hear Russell grumbling down at the other end of the dugout.

“Any other team, and this game is tied.”

“Not against me,” Manny says.

“Shut up, Manny.”

Every silver lining has a cloud.

* * *

Dad came down to spring training this year for a few days, just to visit and be around baseball, and we were having a beer one night when I told him what Russell said.

“You tell anyone about that?” he asked.

“No.” I couldn’t tell what he thought I should have done.

“You think it would do any good?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, somebody will probably be around to talk to you all. When they come, tell the truth. It might not matter, but at least you’ll have done what you can.”

He was right. A few days later, the DA sent someone down for due diligence. I told him what Russell said, and I’ll never forget his response, “Well, Jennings has a point there.” That’s when I knew it was hopeless.

I called Dad that night. He wasn’t surprised. I asked him if he remembered the thing with Kristen in high school.

“Sure I remember.”

“What’d you do when you left the house?”

“I asked the coach what he thought about it. He said that was why he’d cut her during her freshman year. Said she had to expect that kind of thing.”

“What an asshole.”

“Yup.”

“So what changed?”

“I asked him if he knew about my son.”

“Of course he knew about me. What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, he was counting on having you pitch in a couple of years. I never told you this, but he wanted to move you up early. I wasn’t having it. I wanted you to progress naturally. I told him I wasn’t going to have my son learning those kinds of values and if the coach couldn’t keep his own players in line, he’d be out a second baseman and the best pitching prospect south of Indy.”

“Wow.”

“Meant it, too. I’d have found somewhere for you to play. You were too good for that little school anyway.”

The way he said it made it clear that he never had any doubts about how things would go. Dad was always good at having his cake and eating it, too. He would have held me out if the coach hadn’t budged. He would have found the money for a serious travel team. But he knew he wouldn’t have to. Together, Kristen and I made the team a regional contender and one not to be taken lightly at state. Without us, they were nothing special. Coaches in small towns have to grab opportunity when it comes or they might not see it again.

* * *

But our opportunities are done, at least for now. Alex badly mishandles a curveball and grounds out to third. The stadium has a dissatisfied hum like a too-full restaurant with bad service. Brian stands up off the bench like an old man and grunts as he climbs the steps. I wait a moment for the others to take the field and wonder if the moment of hope I felt was an illusion.

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