When the Sparrow Sings: Top of the Seventh

"The sparrows were dancing. Did you see them?" (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“The sparrows were dancing. Did you see them?” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

Top of the Seventh

Slow everything down, just one more time, because this is the end. Start with the scrape of cleats on concrete steps. Next, feel the way the stadium opens up. The excited hum of the crowd knowing that the game is drawing to a close. Knowing that my start is drawing to a close. My hand slides into my glove as I step out onto the turf. My cleats sink in as I jog to the mound. Manny, running past me, remembers his self-selected role as my guardian angel. A slap on the butt. “I told you we would score for you. See, everything is okay. One more and then you rest.” Step over the foul line. Take two steps to the top of the mound. Catch the ball Brian throws out. Relax and begin my warm-up pitches.

* * *

For two years, Dad lost me. I was at college. I avoided his calls. My only goal was to play baseball. I didn’t care about my education. I spent all my time at the athletic complex. I wanted to shake any idea of being soft or being under Dad’s control. Whenever possible, I communicated with him through Mom or Kristen. Dad was having none of it. Whenever he could, he traveled to watch me play. When he couldn’t, he called after the game. At the time, I preferred it when he came to games. Not because I liked seeing him – I would not have admitted to that – but because I didn’t have to talk to him. I would hear him cheering from the stands, but at the end of the game, it was easy to walk past him. I might acknowledge him with a nod, but I didn’t want to hear what he had to say about my performance. The phone was harder though. I picked up, usually, because Mom called often enough and I had no problem with her. When it was Dad, he’d launch right into it. On the rare occasions he was able to get a game on TV, it was even worse, but he was always amplified. He’d go on and on about my pitch selection or mechanics, but he never paused to let me talk and he never asked me a question.

* * *

I am facing the bottom of the order. Leaving a pitcher in for the bottom of the order is an easy decision. Lynch steps in. This should be easy. Bottom of the order. One more inning. Get into the dugout. I am supposed to be pitching, but my brain is somewhere else. Brian gestures out to me. I shake it off and throw a fastball and get a strike. He throws the ball back, and I’m slow again. I’m looking for sparrows. I need to see a sparrow.

* * *

He never asked a question because he didn’t want to give me a chance to get off the phone. I don’t know what that meant. I don’t know why he had to talk about my pitching so badly. I had coaches. Good coaches, too. We were a good program, but they never overworked any of us. I knew to watch out for that, but they were good. Dad would go on and on anyway and when he was done, he’d hand the phone straight off to Mom because she “wanted to ask me some things.” Mom and I would have totally normal conversation about my classes and how the game went and all that.

* * *

My next pitch is a slider and Lynch hits a grounder to Manny for the first out. One down, two to go, but I am still looking. In the rafters and the stands. Everywhere. I want to see a sparrow or any kind of bird. It’s stupid. I know it is, but I can’t help myself. I keep looking around, trying to find something. It’s been a part of my life for so long. Even in college, when I wasn’t talking to him and I was trying to ignore him talking to me from the stands, I could always pick out that word. Sparrow. Sometimes it was joyous. If I was pitching well and the other team could do nothing against me, he would shout, “The sparrows are really out tonight, Zack.” If there were a couple of men on and the game was tight, he might tell me to look at the sparrows. “Time to work, kid. Time to work.”

Togneri-Jones steps in and I can hardly keep my mind on the game or the pitch. The first pitch is a ball and the second one is a ball. Brian sees that something is wrong and he calls time and comes out.

“You okay out here?”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

“I’m fine. I just need to adjust. I’m not used to this.”

“Not used to what? You’ve been out here for six innings already.”

I want to know how he can suddenly be so thickheaded, but maybe he is trying to distract me. I repeat that I am fine, that I will calm down, and I send him back to the plate. I try to focus. I try not to think about what is missing. He is holding down one finger. Fastball. I start my windup. I try to feel all of it. The batter swings and misses. The ball comes back. One finger again. Fastball again. Swing and miss again. The count is even. Easy. Easy like it should be. Then a foul. Then a foul. Then I miss a little and the count is full. With the next pitch, I walk him.

* * *

Near the end of my sophomore year, I threw a no-hitter. It was on the road and Dad wasn’t there. When my phone rang, I knew who it was. I didn’t want to hear him. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to know if he thought I’d been great or just lucky. I wanted to celebrate with my teammates and forget about Dad. He kept calling. I kept sending him to voicemail. He kept calling. Finally, I excused myself from the room and picked up.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Zack. It’s your Mom. I know you’re out celebrating, but your dad and I wanted to tell you how proud we are of you. It wasn’t on TV, but we listened to every pitch on the computer. Your dad didn’t sit down for the last three innings.”

“Oh. Thanks. Uh, thanks, Mom.”

“Well, I won’t keep you. Have fun tonight.”

“Okay, Mom. I will.”

“We love you, Zack.”

“I love you, too… Um, Mom?”

“Yes, honey?”

No. I couldn’t. “Never mind. Love you. Bye.”

* * *

Jerry Newhall is up now, and I need to get him out. The lineup is about to turn over. Unless there’s a double play, Ramirez will be up next. I don’t want to think about that.

* * *

I got a call from Kristen the next day. “Hey little brother, you had yourself a game last night.”

“I was okay.”

“Dad must have talked your ear off.”

“No. Um, I only talked to Mom.”

“No way.”

“Well, I missed the first call because we were out and I guess I didn’t feel my phone vibrate. That might have been him. But it was Mom the second time.”

“That’s weird. Is he okay?”

“I think so. Mom didn’t say anything. It was probably just late. You know Dad has to get up early.”

* * *

I get behind again. Two balls and a strike. I shouldn’t be working from behind like this, but I’m starting to lose it a little. I’m getting tired, I think. But I want to finish. Newhall helps me out by swinging at a bad slider. He hits a little bouncer right to first. Alex doesn’t have a play at second, but he taps on first base to get the second out.

Ramirez steps in. Again with his bounce. “Sparrows are out. Time to work.” That’s what Dad would say. I look out into the stands, but I can’t find him. I throw a fastball and he fouls it back. One more out, and I’ll have it. Two more strikes.

Dad always taught me to finish innings. He didn’t like the look of a pitcher giving the ball up and leaving with his head down. “That’s a slow walk,” he said. “Don’t make the slow walk. Finish your job.”

Sparrows are out. Time to work.

I can’t believe he’s not here. I threw a no-hitter last time and he’s not here. He can’t really be that mad can he? I was celebrating. I should get to celebrate sometimes. I shouldn’t always have to check with him.

The next pitch I throw is a slider. Ramirez doesn’t swing and the count evens up.

Where is he? Doesn’t he know what kind of game this is? I should have picked up his call last time, but I just wanted to have fun. He never let me have fun. Remember the state championship, Dad? That would have been fun. Everyone would have cheered for me like they’re cheering for me now. I wouldn’t have broken. I’ve never gotten hurt. I’ve never been on the disabled list. I could have done it, it was a just a day early.

The next pitch is a ball, too, and I am behind in the count now.

Where is he?

Another ball.

Dammit! Where are the sparrows? I need to work. I need to work.

I walk him. Here comes Jerry out of the dugout. There’s somebody getting warm out there. He’s not moving too fast though. Good. They aren’t taking me out. They aren’t. He just wants to see that I’m okay. World Series. Late in the game. Lot of pitches. Gotta check on me. I’ll finish it, though. No slow walk for me. I’ll jog off when I get this last out. I’ll jog off like you’re supposed to. Here comes Brian too. We need to talk about strategy.

Everything is really clear again. It’s like when the game started. The crowd is all rumbly and on edge, but that’s okay. I can smell the food. It’s cold, but the hotdogs and the popcorn make it feel not so cold. It would be nice to sit out there in the stands with Dad and be warm in a jacket with a hotdog. I bet they’re selling hot chocolate, too. That’s not really a baseball drink, but it would be nice. I can’t believe he isn’t here. Here’s Jerry, though.

“How you feelin’, Zack?”

“I’m okay. Missing my spots.”

“You wearing out?”

“No. I feel good. I feel real good.”

“What do you think, Brian.”

“His stuff is still good. You’re dropping your arm a little though, Zack. You’re wearing out.”

“No, I’m fine.” See, there they are. Over on top of the dugout. A couple of little sparrows just like we used to have at the house.

“Anyway, we’ve got Coates coming up. I’m not worried about him, but listen, Zack, he’s your last batter. I don’t want you facing Ferris with the bases loaded.”

“I’m not coming out before the inning’s over.”

“Get Coates and we won’t have to worry about it.”

“I’m not coming out, Dad.”

“What?”

What did I say? “I said I’m not coming out, Jer.”

“Just get Coates.”

And then he looks at Brian and Brian nods at him and I think I hear one of them say something, but I don’t know.

“Sparrows are out. Time to work. Let’s work, Brian.”

Brian taps me in the gut and says okay and jogs back to the plate just as the ump is about to break us up. And I settle in for Coates. I lookout over the dugout and the sparrows are just dancing. They look so happy. I bet they’re getting lots of popcorn and sunflower seeds. I bet they’re living high. Time to work. Brain calls for a slider and I like that because I don’t want to mess around. Hell yes, a slider. Here you go. He waves at it. He can’t touch me. He can’t touch me. Time to work. Brian wants a fastball now and I throw it and it goes just a little high and the count gets all even. Boy, Dad is going to be sorry he missed this. I can’t believe he’s not here. The World Series, and right after I threw a no-hitter. How can he miss it? How can he miss it? It’s okay, though. I know how to do it myself, Dad. I learned. It took a long time, but I learned. When it gets tight like this, I just look around and try to find a bird. Best if it’s a sparrow, but any little songbird will do. I just find one of those and I know it’s time to work. It’s time to work right now. Brian calls for another fastball, and I let this one go. I mean, I really let it go. Coates can’t touch it. He swings, but he can’t touch it. Can. Not. Touch. It. I am bad right now. I’m humming. I bet Dad wishes he were here. I bet he’s watching on TV. But that’s okay. We’ll talk tonight. After I win a World Series game. A World Series game, Dad, look at me. Almost through seven. You knew. You knew how important seven was. You told me to take some off if I needed to, so I could go deeper into games. People will complain about five or they’ll praise you for seven. That’s what you said, so I learned to control it better. Always go six. That’s the job. Always go six. Seven is better. Don’t take the slow walk. Brain wants a change-up, okay, here we go. Coates just catches it. Just a little foul. Almost had him. Almost. Almost. That’s okay. I’m working. The sparrows are out. Look at them dancing on the dugout. Look at them. Dad can see them though. He’s right there behind the dugout. Look at me Dad. Look at this. Look at what I’m about to do. The World Series, Dad. And a no-hitter. Look, Dad. Look. Look how hard I can throw. They can’t touch me. Brian wants a slider. Yeah. That’s good. Let’s finish him with a slider. Here you go. Here you go. Oh come on, now. The crowd doesn’t like that one. That should have been a strike. Why are you calling it a ball. When I was a kid and we would listen to games on the radio, Dad would always chuckle because the umpires were sponsored by an eye doctor. Do you remember that Dad? What was the guy’s name the one who sponsored the umpires? What was his name? I’ll ask after the game. When we’re celebrating. We can have drinks now. Not like when I was a kid and it was milkshakes at the cheap place because money was always tight and what the hell difference did it make where the milkshakes came from. I’m going to buy you a new truck, Dad. And you won’t need it because I’ll pay people to work for you, but you’ll have it. Look at this,  Dad. Can you believe it? The World Series. Brian wants a fastball. I have to throw a fastball. This is it. Let’s get it done. No slow walk. We want a nice little jog while they cheer. A nice little jog. Here you go. Hard as I can. There we go! There we go there we go there we go! I did it, Dad! I struck him out. Seven innings. In the World Series. The sparrows were dancing. Did you see them? Right in front of you? Look at me, Dad. I’m jogging off. No slow walk. No sir! I’m jogging. And they’re cheering. Listen to them. Should I tip my cap? Damn right I should! Listen to them. They love it. They love me. Look what I did for them. Did you see it, Dad? I wish I could talk to you right now. We’ll talk after the game. I hope you like the seats I got you. Oh I’m tired. They’re cheering loud, though, and everyone here in the dugout is high-fiving me and telling me I did a good job. I need to sit down though. I need to close my eyes for just a minute. I feel shaky. That was a big game. Did you see me, Dad? I need to sit down. Did you see me?

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