With the start of the baseball season a couple of weeks away, I thought I’d share this short story I wrote more than five years ago. It appeared in an online e-zine, and from it was born my fourth novel, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings. It’s interesting, these many years later, to note how the protagonist evolved.
“Hey, Buzz, what happened out there today?”
Eighteen years in the majors and I still don’t like tape recorders pushed into my face after a game, especially not after a loss, and not when I’m heading for the shower with a bar of soap wearing nothing but a towel, and that draped over my shoulder. I’ve gotten used to it I suppose; it goes with the game, but I don’t have to like it.
“I fouled out to end the game,” I said into the recorder. “I stranded the winning runs on base and we lost the game.”
“A few years ago that wouldn’t have happened, right? You’d have brought those two runners home, wouldn’t you?”
He was baiting me I knew, this kid reporter trying to make a name for himself in the local paper, looking for a quote from the colorful veteran. I’ve never considered myself colorful. I’ve always just wanted to play ball. I don’t think of myself as outspoken, but I say what’s on my mind; sometimes, when I’m quoted in the morning paper, they somehow manage to make me sound erudite. Most of the time I find it amusing.
I looked at his press badge, pressed it, and asked him what was supposed to happen. He didn’t get it. I decided against explaining. You could say I was in a foul mood.
“Yeah,” I said, “and last night I hit a three-run shot to extend our lead. So what the game wasn’t on the line in the third inning.”
All the reporter did was stare at me. Somehow he knew I wasn’t yet done. Maybe it was because I’d sat down on the bench. I let out a long audible sigh.
“Look, what do you want from me, a scoop? You want me to tell you I’m washed up, finished? That this is my last year?”
The kid sat down on the bench across from me and I thought back to a similar discussion I’d had with my dad twenty-five years ago, when I was playing ball in high school…
“Look, what do you want from me?” I asked.
“I want you to come to your senses,” Dad said. “Major league baseball, that’s a pipe dream.”
Both Dad and Mom wanted what was best for me, and they both thought they knew what best was: they wanted me to play it safe — learn a trade or get a degree and spend the next forty years working nine to five for someone else. I saw that as a sentence, one that would end up with me, at age sixty-five, regretting that I’d never even tried, disgusted with myself that I’d given up my dream, sans the pipe, for what my parents had wanted for me.
“I’m going to college, and I’ll get a degree” I said, “but I want to play baseball.”
“But major league baseball —”
“Is for a lucky few,” I finished for him. We’d had this discussion before. “Well who’s to say I won’t be among those lucky few? Guys get paid millions for hitting a meager .250. A few seeing-eye ground balls and bloop singles here and there over the course of a season spell the difference between mediocrity and superstardom. I’ve got some talent, Dad, and I’m hard-working. I can hit a curve ball, and if I can learn to lay off the high inside fastball I’ll be able to work a count. I’ve a pretty good glove, too. After my playing days are over, maybe I’ll end up managing, or maybe in a booth doing color. If I don’t make it, well, then I’ll have my degree to fall back on.”
I recalled Ty Cobb. His father hadn’t approved of his son’s dream either; but when he realized Ty had his heart set on playing baseball, he told him not to come home a failure. A couple weeks before the Detroit Tigers called Ty to the show, William Cobb was shot dead by his wife, who claimed she thought he was a burglar. Maybe that’s what drove Ty Cobb to become the demon he was on the diamond: that his father never got to see him play.
Dad said nothing to me after I’d made it to the show; he died the year before I was drafted. Maybe that was as much the reason I continued to play well into the twilight of my career.
Baseball is a humbling game. Trust me, I know. I was drafted… well let’s just say I wasn’t taken early. I spent a year in the minors; played solid defense at first base and hit well enough, for average and with above average power, to earn a good look the following year at spring training. I was fortunate that I had a good pre-season, so the team took me north. I worked my ass off to stay in the majors. I might not have Hall of Fame numbers, but I’ve rarely been cheated at the plate; sure I’ve had my share of oh-fers, but I’ve accumulated some three- and four-for-fours along the way, too, and a Gold Glove to boot. I haven’t won a World Series — this might be the year although it’s still only June — and have been voted an All Star only twice, but I’m proud of my career. I’ve played the game the way it was meant to be played, with adolescent joy. I’ve put up numbers good enough to have played my entire career for the same team, a rarity in the modern era, and I’m thankful each and every day I take the field, which isn’t as often as it once was.
Maybe I should’ve gotten out of the game a couple of years ago, but thanks to the designated hitter rule — a rule I despised when I broke into the game and still loathe for the sake of the game (call me a purist) — I’m still playing, at age forty, this kid’s game that I love so much.
I learned long ago not to pay too much attention to what the press writes or says about me, for good or bad, or to listen when the fans boo me. They’re the same ones who’ll cheer me tomorrow. This game, as much mental as it is physical, is filled with ups and downs, and I’m hard enough on myself without trying to please the press or the gate, and I think that has helped my longevity as much as my work ethic.
I didn’t say any of this to the kid reporter who sat looking at me, wide-eyed. I sighed, stood up and took a few steps toward the showers. When I turned back, the kid was still looking at me, still hoping for a story.
Sportswriters, I thought wryly.
I tossed him, underhand, the bar of soap. He reached for it — it glanced off the heel of his hand and landed on the floor, bouncing once. He sat and I stood, each of us looking at the other. After a long uncomfortable moment, for him at least, he picked up the bar of soap and lobbed it back at me. I snatched it out of midair, rolled my eyes, and headed for the showers.