I’m standing on a bump of red Georgia clay.
It’s muggy out here. I’m sweating beneath the stadium lights. The baseball feels slick between my fingers.
It’s the ninth inning, and the game is tied 1-1.
For a Thursday night game in northwest Atlanta, we’ve drawn a nice crowd. We’re playing a tight contest against the state champion Cherokees, and the fans have decided to stick it out to the end.
Cherokees’ fans, mostly, I figure.
Before the first batter struts up to home plate, I scan the seats. Of the hundred or so spectators, I recognize only a handful. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. My name’s not on my jersey. I’m here for me, not for them.
If there’s one thing that’s been consistent about my stint as a baseball player, it’s my anonymity.
I’ve embraced it.
I prefer it.
Normally I’d tune the crowd out, but it’s the ninth inning and I’m tired. Tonight I notice everything:
Jason’s girlfriend is loud. I smile to myself. Jason’s our catcher tonight, and he’s doing a damn fine job. For the last eight innings, I haven’t had to shake off his pitch selection even once. If anyone deserves cheers, it’s him.
Buster’s wife and kids hunker right behind the first base dugout, waving to him as he takes his spot at second base. Buster’s the only guy on the team older than me. He can’t hit a lick, but he hustles, and so everyone loves him.
I can hear Matt’s fiancé chatting with Ben’s brother and wife. Matt and Ben can’t hear a thing; they’re in the outfield awaiting my first pitch. I’m pretty sure Ben’s wife is still gushing about his first-inning home run.
As well she should.
Every other player on both teams has at least one fan in the crowd. They’ve invited friends, wives, and girlfriends. Several players’ kids zoom around in the bleachers, savoring one of their last free nights before the school year begins.
The whole crowd is a cacophony of support.
And here I am…on an island.
It’s all Jason’s fault, really. Last winter, I’d all but retired from pitching. My body felt great and my competitive fire was still intact, but I’d convinced myself to devote more time to writing and less to pursuing a baseball career that’d never go anywhere.
Because…let’s be honest.
I’ve never hurled a fastball harder than 85 mph.
The most home runs I’ve hit in a season? Three.
Baseball, like everything else in my life, was something I was good at, but never great at.
And then Jason had called me.
“Hey buddy,” he’d said with no shortage of cheer.
“Hey,” I grumbled. “Who’s this?”
“Jason,” he said. “You know…J.J. From the Muckdogs?”
“Oh. Right. Hey, Jason. How’s things?”
“Never been better,” he said. “I’m married now. Life’s great. So listen…I know you said last year was probably it for you, but I’ve gotta ask. One of our guys just went down with a shoulder injury. We need your arm.”
“I haven’t thrown a pitch in six months,” I told him. “You know that, right?”
To which he replied, “Then I guess we’d better get started.”
Jason’s butterfly wings fluttered in the breeze.
And here I was, dishing out a pretty good game against a superior opponent, closing out what was probably the best season in my career.
The inning’s first batter stalks up to the plate, and I shoot him a dirty look he probably can’t see. He’s already homered off me tonight. There’s nothing I hate more than giving up bombs. If this game goes into extra innings, it’s his fault.
I strike him out with an impossibly slow curveball. He complains to the ump, then takes his seat with a few choice words in my direction. I’m never one to gloat, but I allow myself the world’s smallest smirk.
The second batter walks up. He’s no doubt the Cherokees’ best player. Standing a monstrous six-foot five, I’m pretty sure his bat is heavier than most of the players on my team. He’s already got two hits tonight.
Focus, I tell myself. I figure if I can somehow get the big guy out, I’ll retire the final batter and give my team a shot in the ninth.
He crushes the first pitch.
The crack of the wooden bat echoes in the night.
He hits it dead-on at our center fielder, who flinches, but snares it in his glove.
I breathe the warm night air. I feel comfortable, as at home on the mound as I am anywhere on Earth. I’m no longer aware of the crowd or anyone in it. If they’re cheering, I can’t tell whether it’s for my team or for the Cherokees’ next batter.
I admit to myself – I take a sort of grim pride in having no loved-ones in the crowd. In a strange way, it’s motivating for me to persevere alone. Sure, I have my teammates. But in my mind, in this moment, they could be anyone. I want to secure the last out and win the game, not for them or even for myself.
But because it’s a pitcher’s job.
The inning’s third batter is a stout, muscular, serious-looking guy. I like him already.
It’ll be fun to strike him out, I tell myself.
I get him swinging at a slow changeup for strike one.
He takes a good hack, but fouls off a fastball for strike two.
In theory, I have him where I want him. No balls, two strikes. He’s mine to toy with.
Jason calls for another changeup. The batter wasn’t even close to hitting the first one. A changeup’s the obvious call.
Jason’s an effin’ genius.
In my narrow little mind, I’m just about to do the second dumbest thing in my life. It’s almost as bad as pouting about not getting a new video game.
I shake off Jason’s call for a changeup.
I reject his curveball and slider calls, too.
I want a fastball, I’m thinking.
I want to blow it right past this guy.
Jason looks confused, but he trusts me. I’m supposedly a wily veteran who knows what he’s doing.
I rear back and fire a fastball.
It’s got good velocity, but it’s up in the zone. And it catches too much of the plate.
Home run over the center field fence.
I don’t even have to turn and watch it soar out of the park. The crack of the bat tells me everything.
I retire the next batter, but it doesn’t matter.
I lead off the next inning with a triple, and it still doesn’t matter.
The Cherokees’ closer strikes out the final three Muckdogs, and we lose the game 2-1.
To rephrase, I lose 2-1.
After the game, my teammates are supportive. They remind me I’ve just pitched nine innings against a tough team and allowed only two runs. Some of the spectators approach me, smiles on their faces.
“Good game, man,” they say.
“That’s a tough team you played tonight.”
“Played your heart out.”
“It was you we were cheering for.”
I shrug it off. In my mind, the only thing worse than receiving a compliment for winning is earning one for losing.
And I’m deaf to anyone who says otherwise.
Later that evening, as I’m trucking home on the silent roads north of Atlanta, reality hits me.
I didn’t play my heart out. In fact, I played with no heart at all. I stood on the mound, arrogant, maybe even selfish, and I blew the game for our team. If not for my pride, we might’ve won a thriller against a tough opponent.
Instead I’m driving home in the dark, tired, alone, and defeated.
The closer I get to home, the more I awaken. I realize as the years have gone on, baseball has become a cerebral game for me. It’s all brains, no passion. All numbers, no excitement. The youthful love I once played with is now a cold, hard, competitive obsession.
I need a new hobby, I conclude. Something exciting. Something to reignite the fire.
Also, I owe Jason a beer.
Somewhere in my house, tucked away in boxes no one has opened in many years, the remnants of my baseball days lie sleeping. My old gloves are tucked away, doubtless in need of a good oiling. My collection of game-used baseballs sits in a musty corner, the seams loose in their decades-old leather. I’ve even saved my old uniforms, three in total, hidden away as keepsakes.
The Muckdogs, the Angels, the Yankees –
all covered in dust.
I wonder if they still fit.
Now and then, I crave to hit the field for one last season. It might be possible. For reasons I can’t fathom, I’ve worked hard to keep my throwing arm in shape. To this day, I leave baseballs at random around the house, which I fidget with and grip as if I’m about to throw curveballs. I even have a trio of game-ready, pine-tarred bats in my garage.
It’s strange, isn’t it?
I wonder what it might feel like to break out my gear and head out onto the mound again.
I sometimes think–
I have to be honest with myself.
Those days are over.
After my game against the Cherokees, I never again took the mound. It’s not as if age caught up to me or the fire died in my heart. It’s just that the time had come. The once beautiful game had turned into an obsession. I spent more time training and keeping my arm in shape than I did paying attention to my life.
And once I discovered writing, the two tasks were at odds.
Most days, I’m at peace with giving up the thing I loved most. I look back at baseball with the same fondness I would an old girlfriend. We had our moments of glory, she and I. I’ll always think fond thoughts of her.
But I can’t go back.
Unlike pitching and writing, some things aren’t at odds with one another.
For example – writing and drinking scotch.
They’re like BFF’s, they are.
It’s a balmy evening, not unlike the fateful night I last took the field. Warm mist rises from the grass beyond my back door. Fireflies float between the trees, putting their lives at risk. The local bat population has realized my backyard is a feasting ground, and they’ve turned out in droves, gobbling up moths, mosquitos, and unlucky lightning bugs by the thousand.
The G Man and I like the bats so much we’re planning on building bat houses for them to inhabit. We’re weary of the mosquitos, and we figure a few friendly neighborhood predators might help.
As it turns out, flying bats are more interactive than wooden ones.
They don’t often swing and miss.
As a toast to the bats, tonight I’m soaking up several glasses of Balvenie 21-year. This scotch is the real deal. It’s another from Speyside, Scotland, aged in casks previously used for port wine. A girl I once knew gifted it to me as a surprise. I’ll savor it to the last drop.
Balvenie 21-year’s color is darker than most scotches, and its flavor unrivaled. As I pop the cork, I’m startled by the scents of rich soil, light smoke, and sun-warmed rain. If one could literally drink the sunset, Balvenie is what it would taste like.
I wish I’d had a glass after my final game.
It might’ve made walking away easier.
It’s a cool, damp night in early November, and I’m sitting in local Atlanta bar Kaleidoscope.
Used to be, I’d come here to chase girls, rare cocktails, and long, lonely evenings at the bar.
Tonight I’m here for baseball.
Tonight, of all nights, I’m here to watch game seven of the World Series, in which my beloved Chicago Cubs face off against worthy nemesis, the Cleveland Indians.
I almost feel bad for the other people who’ve braved the night to be here with me. Jerry, a Cubs’ fan in his own right, isn’t prepared for my level of emotional commitment. I’m here to watch every pitch, every strike, ball, and tense moment in-between. Jerry likes baseball, maybe even loves it.
I’m a junkie.
Jerry thinks I’m crazy. And tonight he might be right.
Jerry’s wife Chan sees the look in my eyes. I’ve hardly touched my Long Island ice tea. Before the game’s first pitch is thrown, I’m knotted up into a nervous ball. Me, the guy who has trouble cracking half a smile. Chan’s not seen this side of me.
No one has.
And then there’s my date, who doesn’t know what she’s signed up for. Having flown into town to see me, she’s pretty much signed an oath to spend every moment by my side. I guess I probably should’ve asked her to come the week before.
The week before, when we faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, was almost as bad.
Kaleidoscope is packed tonight. I chose this spot in particular because it’s not a sports bar, which means I won’t have to spend all night in deep discussion with fellow fans. I want to be alone with my angst. I want to gaze at the television all night, uninterrupted, unnoticed, and anonymous.
It’s only here I can do it.
…friends and girlfriends notwithstanding.
During the game’s first at-bat, the Cubs’ Dexter Fowler smacks a home run. My heart roars and my blood heats up to volcanic temperatures. I’m pretty sure someone else in the Kaleidoscope masses lets out a cheer, but I pay it little mind.
Cubs lead 1-0.
The second inning arrives, and the Indians tie the game. For as happy as I was fifteen minutes ago, I’m now just as gloomy. I’d hoped the Cubs would win 20-0. And now those dreams are dashed.
My second Long Island arrives.
I don’t remember ordering it.
“You really should relax.” My date smiles.
“Relax?” I say.
“Yeah.” She snuggles close. She’s as supportive as they come, and I love her for it. “Everything’s gonna be ok,” she swears.
“Not me. I’m not gonna be ok.”
And then a few glorious things happen. In the tops of the fourth and fifth innings, the Cubs pile on four runs. They take a 5-1 lead. Every part of my body begins to sing.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Indians score twice and narrow the margin to 5-3.
My hearts skips twenty beats. My muscles hurt. I’d probably feel better if I were out there pitching for the Cubs. At least then I’d have some control over the game’s fate.
In the sixth, the Cubs score another run on a David ‘Grandpa’ Ross homer. It’s his final at-bat in the major leagues, and he goes out in style.
“A home run in his last at-bat…in the World Series?” I shout to no one in particular. “You have got to be kidding me.”
Cubs lead 6-3.
Life as a baseball fan, hell…life as a human being just got better.
Two scoreless innings pass. The Cubs’ Jon Lester steps into the game and looks just as good as ever. After three solid innings of work, he steps off the mound.
And up steps Aroldis Chapman, he of the 101mph fastball.
I’m feeling good about where we’re at. A 6-3 lead late in the game. A third Long Island. The Kaleidoscope crowd gradually turning over to the Cubs’ side.
And then, with two outs in the eighth inning, disaster strikes. Chapman leaves a slower-than-usual fastball up in the zone, and Rajai Davis of the Indians hits a three-run homer, tying the game at 6-6.
Jerry looks at me, awaiting my implosion.
Chan takes the opportunity to ask for the check. She’s not interested in seeing my heart shatter and spill all over the floor.
My date, luckily not a baseball fan, shrugs it off.
“They’ll still win,” she says. “Just watch.”
“No…” My mouth hangs open. “No, this isn’t happening. One-hundred eight years, and we blow a lead to lose in game seven? No, no, no.”
“Relax, man,” offers Jerry. I’m envious of how tipsy he is. I probably should’ve downed my Long Islands before the ice melted. They’re mostly water now.
It’s then I make the third worst decision of my life. It’s not as bad as talking back to my grandma or throwing a fastball when Jason called for a changeup.
…but it’s close.
“I’m leaving,” I announce.
“What?” Jerry sits up. “You can’t just leave. Game’s still tied. There’s more baseball to play.”
“No.” I push my chair away. “I can’t do it. I can’t sit here and watch the Indians walk off the field with a win. I just can’t.”
I pay my tab and pull the car around. My date hops in, and we’re off. She doesn’t understand the significance of my leaving. She doesn’t know about 1985, when the Cubs had a 2-0 game lead and blew three games in a row. She wasn’t with me in 2003 when the infamous Steve Bartman reached for the ball and undid an almost certain trip to the World Series for my beloved Cubbies.
She doesn’t know and she doesn’t care.
Ignorance is bliss.
We pull into my driveway. It’s late, as in late, late. I’m a thousand-percent sure I’m going to walk into my house, check the score on my phone, and learn the Cubs gave up a run in the bottom of the ninth to lose the series.
I check my phone.
No one has scored since I abandoned Kaleidoscope. The game is tied 6-6 in extra innings.
I should’ve stayed.
My phone rings. It’s Jerry. He’s still at the bar. He’s braver than I am.
“You watching this?” he asks.
“I can’t,” I groan. “I mean literally can’t. No cable here. I can’t— wait…I’ll listen on the radio.”
“Can’t believe you left, man,” he tells me.
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
I hang up on Jerry and scramble to find a radio feed. I get lucky, and within moments the top of the tenth inning pumps through my living room speakers.
And there I sit, on the floor.
My shoes still on.
My heart pounding again.
My date smiling in the background. She gets it now, at least a little.
I listen to the radio feed as though I were a kid:
Ben Zobrist, a wily veteran with a penchant for big hits, slaps a double down the line. The Cubs go up 7-6. I start vibrating.
Miguel Montero smacks a base-hit to left field, lifting the Cubs to an 8-6 lead. I’m not just vibrating anymore. I’m quaking.
I only wish I could see the action, not just hear it.
And then, clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the tenth inning, the Cubs’ Mike Montgomery stands on the mound. I imagine his face as the Cleveland crowd roars all around him. I wonder if he’s as calm as I was.
There’s two outs.
Cubs are up 8-7.
Two men are on base.
The radio announcer goes silent for a split second. Montgomery bends one in, and the hitter rolls a soft ground ball to the Cubs’ third baseman, Kris Bryant.
I’m paralyzed. I can’t see anything. It’s all in my imagination.
* * *
If you like stories like these, go here.
If you prefer red wine over baseball, try this.
J Edward Neill