When I Was A Kid 1.0

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a great athlete, a baseball player or basketball player, maybe a famous quarterback for an NFL team. Though I knew I would never be any of those, I still had dreams.

One day I had an idea. I placed two cinder blocks (one of them big and thick, the other thin and long), one on top of another, by the brick wall of the house. The big one went on the bottom and became the base for which the thin one sat on in a somewhat leaning manner. This was my ‘strike zone.’ The upper block was what I considered between the knees and chest—the strike zone of the major leagues when I was a kid.

Back then there was a store on State Street in Triangle Plaza called Dodds. It was a dime store (though, trust me, everything was NOT a DIME). They had great things for kids, like a bag of marbles for a buck and slingshots—yeah, you could purchase a slingshot at what amounts to a Dollar General by today’s standards. They also had red rubber balls that were about the size of a baseball. 

My brother and I spent our summers at my grandparents’ house on the Mill Hill near the river. Occasionally, my grandmother would give us a quarter or two and we would go down to Brown’s Grocery (no relation, folks, but if you’ve read any of my work, then you probably recognize the name—I like to pay homage to the mill hill every chance I get) or to the Gamecock Theater (after saving up three quarters, man those flicks were expensive), or to Dodds. Whenever we went to Dodds I would pick up a couple of red rubber balls for less than a quarter. I had to buy two at a time, not because they came in packs of two, but because, after a while of smashing the ball against a wall or the block ‘strike zone,’ the rubber would crack and the ball would split in half. There’s nothing more disappointing than pitching a no-hitter against the Yankees only to have the game end in a rain delay because the ball split in half. 

On days where we stayed home instead of going to my grandparents’ house, I would get one of my dad’s tape measures and mark off sixty feet, six inches from wall to where the pitcher’s mound would be in a baseball game. I would take a thin board and put it at the end of that measurement. This would be my pitcher’s rubber, where my foot would go before each pitch.

I spent hours on end, glove in hand, looking in at invisible batters (usually the hated Yankees or Dodgers), shaking off a nonexistent catcher until I got the pitch I wanted to throw. I had a curve ball, knuckle ball, a not-so-fast fast ball, a two seam fastball, a slider that wasn’t very good, and a straight fastball. Yeah, I had a bunch of so-so pitches. I even had a Dan Quisenberry-esque sidearm pitch that rose on the invisible batters, causing them to flail uselessly at it. 

The way it worked was simple: If the ball hit the upper block, then it was a strike. If it nipped the side of the top block, it was a foul ball. If the ball hit the wall and not the blocks, it was a ball. If the ball hit the bottom block, I would consider that a ball in play and field it. I’d have to glove the ball and make the throw to first (which was nothing more than the same two blocks by the house) before the runner got there. If I bobbled the ball, it was an error. If i didn’t hit the blocks with the throw, it was an error. 

Though I did this for hours and hours, I never became a great pitcher. You see, the imagination is an amazing thing, and though I struck out a lot of nonexistent batters and took my team to a World Series championship (beating the hated Yankees in the process), facing live batters was completely different. 

Now, I will say this, I learned how to throw and throw hard by doing that. I could play a mean third base and ended up playing fifteen or sixteen years of third base in softball. Sadly, I was not a great hitter in either baseball or softball.

My dreams of being a big leaguer ended truly before they got started. I left baseball behind for basketball, a sport I was extremely good at. But for a couple of summers, I was a big league pitcher, and a good one, at least in my imagination. 

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

Jerry Died (Free Fiction)

Jerry Died

A.J. Brown

Jerry died when he was eight. A car accident claimed his life. They were on the way home from a minor league baseball game, something both Jerry (who was a junior) and his dad, who went by Jay instead of his given name, enjoyed. It hadn’t been all that late when they got on the road, just a little passed nine. Jerry had been talking about the game (the home team won, 2-0) and how well the starting pitcher threw the ball. He wondered aloud if he would ever be able to throw like that. They were barely a mile down the road when the car in the oncoming lane veered into theirs and hit them head on. 

***

He stood on the mound, an older guy with scars running the length of both legs and his left arm. The scar on his forehead was puckered and purple and he absent-mindedly rubbed at it with the forefinger of his left hand. His blue eyes had grayed along with his hair—though his hair had grayed somewhat prematurely many years before. A bucket of baseballs sat beside him, all of them gathered over the years as he went to ballparks after games were over and scavenged the ones left behind.

The ballpark he stood in was old, run down. Kids rarely played there anymore. The infield was hard clay with patches of weeds and grass here and there. The outfield held the same weeds and grass, just much more of it. In some spots, there were crystalline spider webs on the ground. When the sun shone down on early mornings, the dew glistened off them, making the webs appear as if they were ice. 

The outfield fence had collapsed in sections, the wood panels crumbled and rotted out. The home team dugout was nothing more than a concrete bench (cinder blocks held together by mortar), while the visiting side’s dugout still had a rusted metal fence separating it from the field of play.

***

Jay slammed on the breaks when he saw the car crossing the line toward them. He tried to swerve out of the way, jerking his wheel to the right toward the shoulder. He would say later, as he laid in the hospital bed after his fourth or fifth surgery, “The guy never slowed down. He never hit his breaks.”

The metal on metal was nothing more than the sound of aluminum cans crumpling beneath the weight of a boot. The airbags deployed, front and sides. He felt the burn of the steering wheel’s bag strike him in the face. His nose exploded, his right cheekbone shattered, and he swallowed more than a couple of teeth. The airbag in the door hit him in the shoulder, breaking his arm just above the elbow. 

The car spun to the right, the tires on that side digging into the grass, catching dirt. Then it went onto its side, followed by its top. The car flipped three times before coming to rest on its crumpled top.

***

He slipped the old glove on his left hand. He hadn’t worn it since a warm night at a minor league game fourteen years earlier. It was tight around the fingers that were slightly chubbier than that night. He opened and closed his hand, the glove doing the same thing.

He was unaware that as he flexed his hand in the glove, the grip on the baseball in his other hand grew tighter. The knuckles on all his fingers, except for his pinky, were white. 

His breath hitched as he stared at the glove, the opening and closing of it reminding him of a fish out of water, gasping for breath … or maybe a person who can’t breathe, who had something pressed against his throat, his windpipe crushed.

***

12734126_10208347032850778_986475889973690833_nJay was dazed. Blood ran into his eyes and dripped onto the car’s ceiling. His face hurt and he felt like he was drowning. His seatbelt held him in place. The pull of it against his chest and stomach felt like a knife trying to cut through bone. His left arm hung over his head, the angle backwards. The bone jutted through muscle and skin.

A horn blared from somewhere. 

“Lay off the horn …”

The words that came out sounded nothing like him. They were as broken as he felt. 

Occasionally, the light tinkle of glass came as shards of window fell away and landed on the concrete. 

Jay wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard feet pounding the ground. He thought he heard people screaming.

It turned out, it was him.

***

Sweat beaded along his forehead. Wet circles had blossomed beneath his arms and what looked like a dark cone had soaked through the back of his shirt. He swallowed the lump in his throat, but it seemed to stay put. His shoulders sagged and all the energy seemed to race down his legs and out of his body. 

He lowered the glove but held tight to the ball. 

On the ground was the cracked pitcher’s rubber at the center of what used to be a pitcher’s mound. He toed it like he did when he was a teenager and pitching in high school. For the longest time, he stared down at his sneaker covered foot. The laces were still in good shape for shoes that were over fourteen years old. The white exterior had grayed over time, but the shoes fit and were still comfortable. 

He took a deep breath and looked up.

***

His head thumped. It became hard to breathe. Dots formed in his vision. His eyes began to shut. Jay was dying. He knew this as well as he knew his son wanted to be a baseball player when grew up.

Jay’s eyes snapped open. Though it hurt him to move, he tried to look into the backseat.  HIs neck screamed. His arm protested. His ribs begged for him not to make any sudden movements. But he couldn’t help it. Through the rush of blood in his ears and the approaching feet, he had not heard his son speak, scream or cry. 

He did hear people yelling:

Call 9-1-1.

We have to get them out.

Oh my God!

Help! Help! Someone help them!

But he didn’t hear Jerry at all. 

Jay craned his neck the best he could. The image of his son in the backseat, the top of the ceiling crushed in, the frame of the window bent so the bar was at Jerry’s throat. His eyes were open and he still held his glove in his hand, a ball still in it.

He yelled, loud and long and hard, until, finally, he passed out.

***

dscn1683When he was in high school, he had been the third pitcher in a three deep starting lineup. He had an okay change up, but those weren’t the rage back then. He also had a good fast ball. It was better than average, but not even the fourth or fifth best on the team. The pitch he loved the most was a curve ball that could drop right off the plate as a batter flailed away at it. Even the good batters seemed to chase it when it was eyeball high halfway to the plate, only to miss as the full arc and break of the ball came into play. 

He didn’t think he could throw that curve ball now—his hand hasn’t been the same since the accident that claimed the use of the pinky. He gripped it the best he could, but knew without that pinky, he would never be able to get it to break right. It might cross the plate but hit the ground before it did so. Or maybe it would end up shooting off to the right or left and not break at all. 

He changed the grip, holding the ball with the middle two fingers on the seams, pointer finger and pinky on either side of the ball, completely on the rawhide, the thumb at the bottom, opposite the middle two fingers. He might could throw the pitch and have it move a little. The spin of the ball would be mostly off though without the aid of the pinky, which hugged the ball, but nothing else. 

He took a deep breath and switched the grip again, this time allowing the index and middle fingers to slide over the top the seams. His thumb went under the ball, opposite the other two. His ring finger and pinky sat beside each other. The only finger not touching the ball was the pinky. It sat, almost limply, by the ring finger. This grip felt right. He thought he could throw that pitch if needed.

“Two seamer it is,” he said and looked in at the batter’s box.

***

There were sirens. Jay heard them, though he had no clue where they came from. Someone kept telling him, “Stay with me, buddy.” He didn’t know who that was or who he was talking to. Jay thought it was a dream, or maybe someone else’s life.

The sirens gave way to bright lights. Stay With Me Buddy Guy was no longer there. In his place were several other voices, mostly men, but a woman (maybe two) was in the mix.

He opened an eye—the right one. Everything was blurry and bright. The faces around him all ran together. Their eyes seemed too large, their mouths too wide. The words coming from them were too loud. Everything was just … too much.

Then he was gone again, the voices and sights gone with him.

***

He had seen the headline. Well, it hadn’t really been a headline. It was more like a small heading with a six paragraph article beneath it. 

Man Who Killed Child in DUI Accident Released From Prison

He trembled when he saw it. He threw up after reading it. He threw up again after reading it a second time. There was a small image of the man to the left of the column. Prison life had not been good for him. He had aged poorly. In the image he wore a green jumper and his hair had thinned considerably. Whiskers stubbled his chin and his eyes held the thousand-yard stare of someone who had gone through a tragedy and still hasn’t come out the other side.

“How could they let him go?” he asked. His words didn’t come out quite right. Though his teeth had been replaced and the bones in his cheek reconstructed, his jaw was never the same. Surgery did no good. It was almost as if he talked with a mouth full of those broken teeth he swallowed. 

It wouldn’t have been hard to find the man—he could only go so far without a job, and his parents’ residence had come up during the trial. But Jay didn’t even have to go searching at all. The man—Collin Pickens—came to him.

The knock startled him. He limped to the door, opened it and almost slammed it shut. The two men stood looking at each other, Collin with the hopeful eyes of a guilty man seeking forgiveness, Jay, father of Jerry, now dead fourteen years, stunned and fighting the urge to punch the man across from him. 

“Mr. Hiller,” Collin said, “How do you do?”

Jay said nothing at first. He didn’t know what to say. How do you do? That’s the first words out of the mouth of the man who killed his son? How do you do? Finally, he spoke. “I’ve been better.”

dscn1703Collin nodded. His hair had thinned. He was smaller than Jay remembered from the trials. His eyes darted about, as if he were a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. “I’m sure,” he said.

“What do you want?” Jay asked, getting down to business. 

“I’m sorry, Sir,” Collin said. “I just want you to know that.”

Again, Jay said nothing right away. He stared at the man, his mind working hard and trying not to bog down. The very bane of Jay’s existence stood three feet from him. What was he to do if he wasn’t going to punch him or slam the door in his face?

“Come in,” he said and stepped aside.

It was Collin’s turn to be hesitant. Then, as if he believed he had been forgiven for his crimes against the Hiller family, he stepped through the threshold. Jay closed the door behind him.

***

The light hurt his right eye. There was no sense of feeling in the other, but the cheek and jaw ached bad. The beep beep of a monitor told him his heart still beat, which meant he was still alive. His head thumped and there was a ringing in his left ear that tried to drown out the heart monitor. 

Jay shook his head and immediately wished he hadn’t. His stomach rumbled and he didn’t get his head turned before he vomited down the front of his hospital gown and the sheet that covered him. 

“Take it easy, Jay.” The voice of his wife was strained. Her hand was cold and clammy. He could hardly make her out through the haze in his mind.

“Where’s Jerry?” he asked. It came out as “Bare’s Derbee.”

It was a long while before she answered and when she did, there were tears in her words. Though they didn’t sound like much, he knew what she had said. “He’s dead.”

Jay cried.

***

On the mantle in the living room stood a picture of Jay, Jerry and Heather. It had been taken about a month before Jerry’s untimely death. They were happy then, a family of three with everything they could want in the growing stages of their lives together. Two years after the death of Jerry, Heather followed, but not by accident or even by natural causes. She went into the night by her own hand and a bottle full of pills. Jay stood by the fireplace, just to the left of the picture. He didn’t realize he had done this.

“I appreciate you seeing me, Mr. Hiller,” Collin said as he sat on the couch opposite the mantle. His eyes were fixed on the image Jay stood next to.

“We … uh … things happen,” Jay said, though he didn’t believe the words coming from his mouth. He looked at the picture of his family. They were all smiling. Jerry had a cap on his head backward, just like his dad. Heather’s hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her green eyes shining the way they always did before her son’s death dulled them with the tears she cried. 

“I guess so,” Collin said and looked away.

“You … umm .. you want a drink or something?”

“Water would be nice,” Collin said with a nod.

“Water it is.”

***

The nightmares kept him awake. His son in the back seat, glove on his hand, ball still tucked in it. The bar of the window on his throat, his windpipe crushed and his eyes open in a begging expression that said, you were supposed to keep me safe, Daddy.

He always woke in a cold sweat, even in the dead of summer with air blowing from the window unit by the bed. He screamed until his throat hurt each time. Then he sat up in the bed, breath labored, blood pumping too fast through his veins, heart breaking all over again.

***

Water it was. 

Jay left the room and made his way through the kitchen to the room he had slept in for the last twelve years of his life. It was nothing more than his old study. The desk hadn’t been used for more than a takeout container catch all (not catching them all since some were on the floor around it). A sheet and pillow were crumpled on the couch and a clock sat on the end table next to it. 

At the desk, he opened a drawer and rummaged through it. Then the second one was opened and the third—and last—followed. It was in this third one where he found the pistol he had bought to use on himself after Heather’s death. He wanted to follow in her footsteps, just give up the living so he could give up the grieving. It was something he never followed through on. He opened the cylinder. Five .38s sat ready to be used. He closed the cylinder back and walked out of the room, stopping for a bottle of water from the refrigerator before going into the living room.

“Here you go,” he said when he entered the room. Collin had been looking at the floor. His hands were clasped together, and his eyes were wet with tears.

“Thank you,” he said and reached for the water. His hand stopped in mid reach and his eyes locked in on the gun in Jay’s right hand. 

“My son is dead because of you,” Jay said. “My wife killed herself two years later because her son was dead, so that means my wife is dead because of you. You see this gun? I bought it so I could join them, but I’m still here. And so are you.”

Collin put both hands in the air, started to say something. Before he could, Jay turn the gun around and brought it down on his forehead.

***

Jay visited the grave. He ran his fingers along his son’s name Jerry Thomas Hiller II. There were words there, something Heather wanted on the stone. Jay had no clue what they were. He never got passed his son’s name.

***

Now he stood on the pitcher’s mound. He gripped tight to the ball. A two-seamer for certain. He stared in at the batter’s box and just beyond it. The metal fence behind it had rusted over the years, but it served the purpose Jay needed it to. Bound to the fence by rope and plenty of duct tape was Collin Pickens. His arms were pulled out to his sides, strapped tight to the fence so he couldn’t move them. Tape wrapped around his forehead, keeping him facing toward Jay. His mouth was taped shut. 

It wasn’t terribly hard to get Collin there and bound to the fence—being unconscious for part of it made things so much easier. When Collin finally came to, all Jay needed to do was put the gun to Collin’s head and he stilled. Jay knew that was the worse thing Collin could have done. That just made it easier for Jay to do what he needed to do.

On the pitcher’s mound he stared in. His pinky twitched as if it were itching to throw the ball as hard as he could. 

“My son wanted to be a pitcher,” Jay said. “I bet you didn’t know that. He was eight years old when you killed him. He would be twenty-two now.”

Jay cocked his arm back and slung the ball as hard as he could. He felt the tinge in his shoulder as soon as he released it. The ball sailed to the right, striking the fence almost three full feet over Collin’s head. That didn’t keep Collin from letting out a muffled scream. 

Jay took the glove off and rubbed his throwing shoulder. “I’m a little rusty,” he said, not necessarily to Jay. “Let’s try this again.” Jay reached into the bucket, plucked out one of the many balls he had pilfered from little league fields all around the state. There was a smudge of orange between the two top seams. He put the ball behind his back and rolled it around in his hand until the fingers found the seams and his grip tightened. Jay looked at second base, just as he would have when he was back in school. Then he turned to Collin Pickens and threw the ball.

***

“He’s not getting away with this, son,” Jay said as he rubbed his fingers along the headstone with his eyes closed. “I’m not going to let him. I promise you that.”

He left Jerry’s grave for the last time the day after Collin Pickens was released from prison and the morning he read the news. There wasn’t much left to say to his son, except, “I love you,” which he did before standing and leaving.

***

dscn1707The ball struck Collin Pickens in the right shoulder with a sickening thud. He screamed his muffled scream. Tears formed in his eyes. If he hadn’t been wearing a shirt, Jay would have been able to see an impression of the seams of the ball on Collin’s shoulder. 

“A little high,” Jay said and reached into the bucket for another ball. One of the seams had snapped on this one. He slipped it behind his back, rolled it over in his hand until his fingers found the seam. Then he threw it.

The ball hit Collin in the stomach. He tried to lift his legs, but his bonds held him in check.

“My son wanted to be a pitcher,” Jay said, “just like his old man.”

He fired another ball in. This one striking Collin in the left knee. A loud pop echoed in the air and the ball bounced off the knee cap. It came to a stop in the dip of the batter’s box where feet had dug it out years ago. Another pained and muffled howl came from Collin. Tears streamed down his face.

Jay took another ball from the bucket, tossed it in the air in front of his face. He caught it and put it behind his back as he looked in at Collin—at the strike zone that was his body.  

“My wife killed herself, did you know that?”

Jay shook his head and laughed. “Of course, you didn’t. How could you?” He paused. “Two years after we buried my boy, I buried my wife—almost to the day. She couldn’t live another day without her son. She … umm … downed a bottle of pain killers—my pain killers—and she just … went to sleep.”

Tears had formed in his eyes by then. He wiped at them with his gloved hand. 

“You killed my son and my wife.”

Jay fired the ball at Collin. It struck him in the left side of his ribs. Collin squeezed his eyes shut just before impact. The sound was thick and sickening. Collin leaned slightly forward, but could go no further, his bonds holding him to the fence.

***

The nightmares never changed. They talk in the car after the game. The headlights from the other car comes into view. His son asks his dad if he would ever throw as good as the pitcher did that night. Then the sound of twisting metal and glass. It is always followed by Jay turning in his seat to see his son’s haunting eyes, the accusatory stare in them. 

As always, he woke with a scream.

*** 

Another ball came from the bucket and was quickly zipped at Collin. As did another and another and another. The balls hit him in the leg and torso and arm. One struck him in the crotch, prompting a moment of vomit that couldn’t get through the tape on his mouth, but that partially came out his nose instead. Jay only missed on two throws. The fence rattled both times that happened.

One last time he reached into the bucket. He kicked it as hard as he could. It tumbled toward third base, stopping just on the infield dirt. Sweat poured off his face and arms and beneath his armpits and down his back into his pants. By then he was tired. His face was red and that twinge in his arm was more of a not so subtle throb. It was a pain he had felt when he tore the rotator cuff in his junior year of college. He didn’t care. He had one last pitch … one last strike to throw.

He said nothing as he stared in at Collin Pickens. The man hanging on the fence was bruised and battered. Some of his bones had broken with the impact of the balls. Blood and vomit spilled from his nose. Tears fell from his eyes. His body sagged, and his arms pulled on their restraints. He shook his head weakly from side to side, as if begging Jay not to throw another ball at him.

Jay went into his wind up and threw the ball harder than he ever had. There was a pop in his elbow, and he knew immediately he had blown it out. The pain was sudden, but he didn’t drop to his knees or grab his elbow. He watched the ball as it struck home in the center of Collin’s face.

***

He slept, the man with no child and no wife and no grudge to hold to any longer. He slept with the aid of a bottle of pain meds, just as his wife had. And the nightmare came no longer.

__________

If you know anything about me, you know I love baseball. Especially little league baseball. You also know I like writing about baseball, but rarely in that nice little let’s get a long and play well together mentality. I like exploring the darker sides of everything, including a game I love. 

I wrote this story over a few days after the family went to a minor league baseball gam here in South Carolina. The game was fun and the home team won 2-0. On our way home that night, no car swerved and almost hit us. However, my mind had already started writing a story when we left the parking lot.

If you enjoyed Jerry Died (or any of the other stories I have posted), please share them with your friends on social media, like this post and comment. I would like to know what you think.

A.J.

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Voices, The Interviews: Danny

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here: HERE). If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before the first session: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 12

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMShe had not been ready for the final words Lewis said to her before looking down at his leathery hands and seeing tear drops strike the floor between his feet. He takes a deep breath and leans back in his chair. He gives a dismissive wave and shakes his head. He doesn’t have the heart to go any further.

Lisa’s mouth hangs open and she shakes her head from side to side, not knowing what to say. She wants to get up from her seat and give him a hug, but that won’t happen. 

Laughter comes from her right. Mr. Worrywart bends down beside her, his shadowy face just inches from hers. She can smell his fetid breath, feel the heat from it on her cheek and neck. “Way to go there, Lady,” he says in his smooth, sinister voice. “You’ve done went and made him cry.”

Lisa swallows hard. Though she disagrees with him, she also thinks he is right. Lewis was bound to cry at some point between his story and his interview. He doesn’t feel guilt about anything he’s done. He is lonely and had been since he found out his Michelle divorced him while he was in prison. Her questions—her final question—and his answers—his final one, specifically—was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It cracked the dam and tears were bound to flood his face as he thought about being alone for the rest of what was left of his life.

“I didn’t cause this,” she says.

Mr. Worrywort laughs again. “Sure, you didn’t.”

“I didn’t.”

“You didn’t what, Ma’am?”

Lisa turns at the sound of someone else’s voice. The man kneeling in front of her has kind eyes and dark hair, peppered with white streaks. Though his face doesn’t hold a lot of wrinkles, making him appear younger than he probably is, his eyes hold an age and wisdom in them that is unmistakeable. A half smile is on his lips, and Lisa knows instantly he can be a charmer when he wants to be.

“I … umm … I don’t know,” she says. The world around her shrinks a little. Her face grows hot. 

“You look a little upset,” the man says. He glances at Lewis, who has his hands between his knees and his eyes to the floor. “I guess I understand. The old man got a little emotional there.” 

“Yeah, he did.”

“It’s okay, Ma’am. We all have those moments where someone else’s life affects us.”

Lisa smiles, takes a deep breath, smiles and says, “Hello, Danny.”

“Hello.”

“Do you prefer Danny or Coach?”

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. All the kids called me ‘Coach,’ but no one outside of baseball ever has.”

“Then Danny it is, if that is okay with you?”

“Absolutely.” Danny stands straight, walks to his chair, picks it up by the metal back, and sets it in front of Lisa. He sits down, crosses one ankle over his knee, and places both hands on that ankle. He smiles and nods to her. “Do you have some questions for me, Ma’am?”

“I do.”

Lisa looks down at her notepad, turns the page and reads the one word at the top: COACH. She looks up at Danny and asks the first question. “Being dubbed ‘Coach’ is a respected honor where I’m from. You must have done great things with those kids.”

DSCN1640Danny shrugs in an aww-shucks manner. “I wouldn’t say I did anything great. I just listened to them, their words, their body language. Kids are fairly transparent when they are young so reading them is easy. It’s when they become teens that you really  have to pay attention to what they are saying. Being a coach isn’t about winning. It’s about teaching; it’s about showing these young people how to become young adults and then young men and women and how to respect themselves and others. Show them respect, and they are bound to respect you back.”

“Well, if we can get right to it, how old were you the first time you saw The White?”

Danny rubs his hands together as if he is cold. His brows crinkle as he thinks. “I guess I was in my early teens the first time it happened. I got really sick—bad headache, an odd dazzle in my eyes that were similar to the washed-out spots on old film reels. I was sitting in the dugout. My dad was the head coach of that team. It was the championship game. I remember that easily enough. I had a hit on three at bats and made an error in the top of the inning that got me benched for a defensive replacement. I was pissed. I couldn’t believe my own dad would take me out of the game because I made an error.”

“There was this kid on the other team—his name was Scott Hall—and he was the team’s star. He struck out to end the game. I’ll never forget the look on his face—or the half look, I saw mostly white where the left side of his face should have been. I remember the intense pain bloom behind my eyes. I remember sitting on the dugout’s concrete floor, my head in my hands and crying like a baby. My dad thought I was upset that he benched me. I was, but that wasn’t why I was crying. One look at my eyes and they knew something was wrong.

“We won the game. While everyone else went out for pizza and ice cream, Dad’s treat, I went home and went to bed. Six days later, Scott Hall came up missing. A few years passed, and some kid named Reed Baker decided to dig a hole at the ball park. He found Scott’s body.

“So, I would say that was the first time the White came on. I just didn’t know it.”

“You mentioned thinking it was a migraine. Do you get migraines often?  More specifically, have you been diagnosed with migraines by a doctor?”

“Yeah, clinically the types of migraines I get are called ocular migraines. They start in the eyes and within twenty minutes or so, if I don’t take any medicine, they become full blown explosions in by head. It sucks, and when one comes on, I can never tell if it is the White or just a normal migraine, at least until I see the white wash over someone’s body. Then I know.”

“Can we talk about Coach Davis for a minute?”

“Sure.”

“To be blunt, Coach Davis did not seem like a nice man or a good person. Tell me about why you were so driven to try to save him when you knew trying to save people had not worked in the past.”

DSCN1668“There’s always a first time for everything, right?” Danny pauses. “Peter wasn’t such a bad person. He was just a bad coach. He wanted to win more than anything else. He was a lot like the guy who coached Scott Hall. His name was Barry Windstrom. I don’t remember much about him—I never played for him—but what I do remember is he yelled a lot on the field, but off of it, he was supposedly a kind man, wouldn’t harm anyone. Turns out, he was the person who killed Scott Hall. 

“There was good in Windstrom. There was good in Peter. Most people just didn’t get to see it because they saw his on field antics, specifically on the day he died, and that is what they remember about him. 

“Besides, if I didn’t try, I would have to live with the ‘what if I would have tried to help him?’ thoughts running in my head. Guilt is a horrible thing, and I didn’t want any unnecessary guilt.”

“You were shot for your trouble. You could have been killed. How do you feel about that?”

“How do I feel? Well, it told me to stop waiting around for life to happen. I had spent the majority of my kids’ lives coaching them. My wife divorced me, and I went into a small bout of depression. When I came out the other side of it, I told myself I wouldn’t ever date again. That was a mistake. I let one thing, one person, change how I viewed an important aspect of my life. When I got out of the hospital, I went back to the ball field and sought out an old friend, a team mom, and I stopped wasting time wishing I had married her instead of the woman I chose to be the mother of my children. It gave me an appreciation for life.

“On the other end of that, a good man went to jail. I’m not happy about that.”

“I can’t help but wonder why this manifests as White when other people who report similar, um, abilities describe it differently.  Where do you think this ability to see when people are near death comes from?”

“Head trauma,” Danny says matter-of-factly. “At least for me. A couple of days before I saw Scott Hall, I had been hit by a pitch.” He touches a spot above his left ear. “Right here. I walked it off. That’s what we did back then. Right after the championship game, my parents took me to the doctor. There’s a dent in my skull where the ball hit. The doctor claimed that is where the migraine came from, and I chalk it up as the reason I still have them and why I see the White.”

“That makes sense. Does it frighten you?”

“Every time.”

“So, how do you think you will handle it going forward?”

“The same way I always have. If there is a chance I can help them, maybe alter the course of their life so they don’t die, then I’ll do what I can. It’s a burden, but I have to try, right?”

“I guess so, Coach,” Lisa says. “Thank you for your time.”

“And, Lisa, whatever is there, that voice you are hearing right now, it can’t harm you. It won’t. I think it is scared of you. I think it knows the only way to get to you is to taunt you.”

“Can you see him?” Lisa asks. 

“Oh yeah. But he can’t see you—not the real you. It only sees what you allow it to see.”

With that said, Danny stands, picks up his chair, and takes it back to where he originally sat. He sits, and Lisa turns her attention to the notepad once again.

TO BE CONTINUED …

Poor Dead Fred

I haven’t written anything in days. It’s not that I have had no ideas—I have plenty. I either haven’t felt well or have been tired or both. Then there is this little factor called time. I don’t always have time to put words on documents, and sometimes when I do, other things pop up. It is called life, and life often demands our attention and demands we stop our daydreaming and word-scaping. Oh the demands of reality sucketh dry the mind and energy it takes to sit and type. And don’t think sitting and typing is doing nothing. It is exhaustive work, even if it looks like it isn’t.

What I have a desire to do is tell the story my mind conjured up about a poor, ruined baseball, one that had clearly been ran over by a large lawn mower (and certainly not the push kind you walk behind).

The Girl and I sometimes go walking out at the baseball field behind the local middle school. I usually get this request to do so later in the evening, meaning we either can’t go for a walk because it is almost dark out or we can go for a walk, but a brief one. On Friday it conveniently rained and looked as if it would storm, dampening our chances of going for a walk.

A little after six, I knocked on The Girl’s bedroom door, opened it to see her sitting, cross-legged on her bed. I said, ‘Hey, do you want to go walking?’ That’s not entirely accurate. I said, ‘You wanna go walkin’?’

She shrugged and said, ‘Sure.’

‘It’s been raining,’ I said.

‘It’s just water,’ she responded.

Off we went.

Her assessment of it’s just water stayed that way and we ended up not needing the two towels I took with us, you know, just in case, it’s just water turned into it’s just a lot of water.

DSCN2605The baseball park was deserted, except for one black Grand Am sitting near the restrooms at the parking lot. We made our first lap around the track, talking about boys and other things, but mostly boys. It rained on us, but not much. Off in the distance, the clouds gave way to blue skies.

To give you a little ground work, the track we walk on is black and rubbery. I believe it to be one of those tracks made out of recycled tires. I could be wrong. In fact, I am probably wrong. The track itself circles the parking lot and the batting cages before passing through a stretch of trees. It opens up at the back end of the ballpark where the furthest of the five fields resides. It passes the Tee Ball field before entering another smaller stretch of trees, and then circles around the playground, before ending up back where we started. As you can see, it is an endless loop.

As we passed the furthest of the five fields, I looked toward the muddy ground, the grass soaked through. A trough of water ran just on this side of the fence, ending near the Tee Ball field. On the other side of this trough was a baseball. For those who don’t know, when I see an errant baseball on the ground, and there is no one there to claim it as theirs, I pick it up and add it to my collection. On this first time around the field, I left the baseball where it sat.

We made another lap around the track, this time talking about boys and other stuff, but mostly boys. The second time we passed the ball, I said, ‘Hold on a second.’ I hopped the watery trough. Thankfully, my foot did not slide and I didn’t sprawl on the ground, either landing on my butt in the pooled water, or face first in the wet grass. I plucked the ball from its spot on the ground. It was soaked through, as I thought it would be. What I hadn’t expected was to see where the strings had split and where the rawhide had been torn. Clearly, the baseball had been  struck by the sharp blades of a lawnmower.

I hopped back over the water trough. This time, my heel caught the soft part of the ground and almost sank in. I pulled my foot free, leaving behind a slight smudge of mud on the heel. Back on the track, The Girl and I continued our walk, me letting my fingers roll the ruined baseball over and over in my palm, she talking about boys and other things, but mostly boys. Every once in a while I would glance at the ball. Some of the twine had been torn loose when it had been struck by the lawnmower. The rawhide looked like puckered skin after a knife had sliced through it. In a way, I guess a knife had done its handy work on the ball.

We finished our walk and went back to the car. Fortunately for us we got back in when we did. It went from it’s just rain to someone opened the floodgates. I held the ball a little longer, looking at it. ‘Poor dead baseball,’ I said and set it in the cup holder in the center console. The Girl looked at me like I was nuts, but shouldn’t she be used to this by now?

It was a short trip home, one where we talked about boys, among other things, but mostly boys. Once home, I grabbed the ball, hurried to the front door not really trying to dodge rain drops, but not wanting to get soaked either. I unlocked the door and went inside. I looked at the ball one more time before setting it on the entertainment center right next to the DVR.

I sat to read, but my mind kept wondering back to the baseball I had found, to its flayed rawhide, split strings and ruined insides. Poor dead baseball, I told myself again.

As the night went on I kept going back to the ball, thinking of the many ways it had been used before it got shredded by the lawnmower. Then I thought of its horrific ending. He had probably been laying in the grass, minding his own business, maybe even basking in the sun, working on his tan. Or he may have been sleeping. Then he probably heard the heavy rumble of the riding lawnmower (because that is the type they use at the ballpark). The baseball probably tried to roll away, but found he couldn’t, not without the stimulus of someone picking him up and tossing him. I imagine there was a scream as the sunny world he had been laying in was suddenly dark, and then the blade struck him, shooting him out the side. He probably flew through the air at a high rate of speed, before landing near the fence where I found him. And there the ball lay unnoticed by the monster that had dispatched of him mercilessly. How many people passed him by? How many folks just thought he was a ruined baseball and not worthy of their time? How many kids walked by him, maybe even picked him up, thinking they had a ball to play with, just to see his ruin exterior and drop him back to the ground?

Poor dead baseball.

Two days have passed since we brought the tattered thing home. It has sat on the entertainment center, ‘drying out.’ That sounds so creepy, when you consider how my mind conjured up this inanimate object’s death.

Here I sit, typing these words, the baseball off to my right. I paused midway through this piece and grabbed a pencil. Taking the baseball in hand, I did what I felt came naturally. Then I grabbed Cate’s Sharpies and went to town.

I now call this baseball Dead Fred. I may also have a new hobby for my baseball collection. Time will tell.

Thank you all for reading. I hope you have a great day. Until we meet again, my friends, be kind on one another.

A.J.

If You Build It …

Off 601 in Lugoff, South Carolina is a field. Well, it was a field at one time. I’m guessing it was just a big, open expanse of land that maybe had some trees on it, some shrubbery, possibly a few holes in the ground. Part of the land is on a hill that leads up to a couple of houses. That really doesn’t matter much, but who knows, it might before we’re all said and done here.

Cate saw the field before I did. She slowed before we reached it. Then I saw it. My eyes widened. It was a baseball field. One that looked like it had seen much better days. I looked at her, wide-eyed and somewhat excited. I’ll say this: I don’t think she understands my love for baseball fields. I’m not even sure I understand it. There is an attraction, a pull, like a magnet (the field is the magnet and I am every bit the metal) that makes me smile every time I see a ball park. Not just any field. Little league fields. There is an eternal innocence to youth baseball that I find is left behind on the field, long after the games are over and the kids are gone. Maybe it is this innocence that intrigues me so much about these ball parks.

This ball fDSCN1936ield was different though, and it was evident before we even got out the car near the outfield fence. It was huge—the outfield was deep, as in minor league deep. The fence was old and falling down in spots. Weeds covered it from top to bottom and stretching its full length. There was also an orange in the outfield. Yes, I am talking about the fruit here. I don’t know why there was an orange there, but there was.

As we walked from the outfield to the infield, I saw it was similar to any old field that hasn’t seen a game in months or years … or decades. The outfield grass encroached on the infield. The bases were dirty and worn, but they were supposed to be. The pitcher’s mound wasn’t really a mound and home plate sat all alone near the backstop, which was grassy and on a slight incline.

The dugouts were small wooden structures. The benches inside were made of wood and cinder blocks. In one of the dugouts were buckets and some tools and a couple of baseball bats. Beyond the field were bleachers made of metal and blocks and wood. And yes, there was a bathroom away from the field itself, complete with running water, but no lights.

DSCN1944Further from the field and toward those houses were toys and five guard dogs that barked the entire time we were there. I’m guessing the owners of the field live there.

Unlike most of the ball fields I’ve visited, this one didn’t have my imagination running with the ghosts of children’s past. No, this time, I was reminded of the movie A Field of Dreams and the one phrase from it that most people will probably quote before I even write it here.

If you build it, they will come.

I got that impression as I stood on the field, just behind home plate. I could hear saws cutting boards. I could hear hammers pounding nails. I could hear chainsaws cutting down dead trees and I could hear someone’s truck pulling stumps free from where they were anchored in deep, its engine revving, its wheels digging into the ground until either the truck bogged down or the rooted stump came free, being pulled like a pesky broken tooth. I could hear rakes going across the grounds and see tillers digging up the infield before being leveled out, possibly with two by fours weighted down on each end, dragging the ground behind a truck or a mule or maybe even two or three guys, sweating and straining.

They would be tired at the end of the day, but guess what? These men and women would come back the next day and work on it some more. Someone had to put that fence up in the outfield and build those dugouts and bleachers. Someone had to spend money for those supplies and all of the equipment needed to turn a field of trees and holes into a field of dreams.

DSCN1951Then, as I stepped off the field to get a picture from the bleachers I saw a sign. It was nothing more than a metal placard affixed to the cyclone fence stretching down the first base line. It read:

THIS BEAUTIFUL PARK WAS CREATED THROUGH HARD WORK FOR YOUR ENJOYMENT. PLAY SAFELY. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. WE WILL NOT BE LIABLE FOR INJURIES.

A few things about this, starting from the end of this sign and working my way to the top. Liable: the builders of this park knew the possibilities that someone could get hurt, so if they did, it wouldn’t be the owners’ responsibility to foot the bill. It’s sad they had to do that, but I wonder if someone tried to sue them because their kid got hurt there. That leads to the enter at your own risk statement. It is there as a warning. Again, it would not be the owners’ responsibility to make sure everyone is safe—it is clearly implied with the sign.

The third thing, I believe, lends right into the second. Play safely. That doesn’t mean don’t play hard. It means play safe, for you, your teammates and the opposing teams’ players, as well.

DSCN1942The fourth and fifth things are the hallmarks to a field like this: This beautiful park was created through hard work for your enjoyment. I wonder if the builder or builders of this park had little boys (or girls) who wanted to play ball, but had nowhere to do so. I wonder if the parents didn’t say, ‘hey, let’s give our kids somewhere to play, somewhere everyone can play.’ And so they built the park. To be cliche, it was a labor of love.

I imagine, from the way it looked, the park had been there for a while, and many kids had come and gone, including those the park was originally built for.

Not once while we were there did I picture kids playing a game. But I could see those adults, both men and women, building the park. Day after day, they worked, until it was complete. I don’t know if there was a ceremony where the first pitch was thrown out, but I can imagine those adults who put in all that hard work probably sat in the bleachers and smiled and cheered with joy, their hearts swelling with pride as their kids played the game they loved.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

Through the Lens

I’ve always felt like I’ve lived my life on the outside looking in. It’s as if I see myself and my actions through a camera lens. There is a crack that runs down the center of that lens. On the left side everything is clear and easy to see and understand. On the right side everything is blurry and odd and I struggle at everything. Very rarely do I see through the crack where everything makes sense.

It sounds crazy. I know.

dscn1629This is the way it has always been for me. It’s as if I am watching myself through that lens, whether on the left side or the right side, and sometimes in the middle. It is through that lens that I bring you this story.

[[The lens zooms in on him, possibly starting with one blue eye and then panning out, showing the blemishes of age on his face and the gray in his dark hair. It would show a kitchen, the light on, and he would be letting the dog out for the morning.]]

He has been awake far longer than he wants. His face is unshaven. He wants coffee. He wants the almost bitter taste of it, sprinkled with a bit of sugar and some cream. He wants the first hot sip and then the last deep warm swallow. He wants the aftertaste that will stay with him for an hour or so, at least until he either drinks another cup or brushes his teeth.

He can’t have coffee—not the real stuff, at least. Decaf is okay (and yes, he knows it has a touch of caffeine in it anyway). Though he wants the coffee, he wants a drive as well. He wants to take to the road and follow the nose of the car to wherever it leads. He doesn’t care where he ends up, as long as he takes the journey. For him, that’s really what it is about, what it is always about: the journey.

It’s unusually warm for February—already in the upper sixties by eight in the morning. A crispness hangs in the air. Dew dampens the ground and has fallen on the car, and covers the windshield. He dons shorts and a T-shirt, socks and sneakers and he is out the door, leaving the family to sleep in on that Saturday morning.

The car is fairly new and comfortable. Behind the wheel reminds him of all those Saturday mornings before he and his better half had child number one and then three and a half years later, child number two. On those mornings he would be up before six and out the door half an hour later. And he drove with no particular place to go, just him, the car and music. Sitting there he recalls how he ended up in Spartanburg one morning and Newberry another and Charleston another. Sometimes the drive was all he wanted, maybe even needed.

And so it is that he pulls from the yard and drives away. At the stop sign he makes a right and shortly after that, he turns the radio on, finds the grunge channel and follows the road.

dscn1683[[The score for this scene and several that would follow with him driving would begin as he makes that right turn. We wouldn’t necessarily see him, but we would hear the music. He likes the grunge from the nineties, so chances are the song that would play would be something from Nirvana or Bush or Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam. Maybe Temple of the Dog would say hello to Heaven or maybe they will go hungry.]]

Song after song plays as mile after mile disappears beneath his tires. Small roads lead to larger ones and larger ones lead to longer ones. Those longer ones lead back to smaller ones, until he is moving along a country road, passing country houses and fields.

The sign catches his eye. At first he just glimpses it. He’s not even sure he saw it after he passed it. He slows, checks the rearview mirror and sees the reverse side of it is the same as the front. A smile forms on his face and he turns the car around. Heading in the opposite direction he slows and reads the sign: WARRIOR BASEBALL. An arrow points in the direction of a street on his right. He turns, follows the road as it winds through a small neighborhood with nice cars in driveways of even nicer homes. The houses thin out. The road ends in the parking lot of a baseball complex. It’s not as new as the neighborhood, but it still stands in what he takes is the heart of the area.

A moment passes as he sits in his car in the middle of the parking lot, the motor purring. The beating of his heart matches the smile on his face. He parks between two faded white lines, flips the music off (currently Pearl Jam is singing Wish List. Eddie Vedder’s voice is cut off as he wishes he were a brake peddle you depended on). He is out of the car and popping the trunk even as the door closes and locks.

At the back of the car, his smile grows wider when he sees his wife’s back pack. If he is right, one of her cameras is in there. He unzips the front pouch and there the camera sits in its own case. He pulls it out and opens the case. He presses a small button and the camera turns on. The lens extends and he unfolds the view finder. The battery has a full charge.

[[If this were a movie, the scene would pan out and away from him. We would hear the trunk close and possibly the sounds of pebbles crunching under his sneakers. Then we would see him walking toward the baseball field, the camera in hand.]]

He approaches the field. Though it is old, it has recently been graded and then smoothed. The grass has been cut. Chalk lines run down the first and third base lines and form the batter’s boxes, the pitcher’s circle and the on deck circles just outside of each dugout. The lines aren’t crisp and clean—the field has been played on.

dscn1707He walks through the dugout gate. A metal bench stretches the length of the dugout. He leans down, sets the camera on one end so the view finder shows the entire bench. He presses a silver button and the camera clicks twice. In the view finder he sees the bench. On it are three little boys, each one wearing a red and white uniform with the team name, Warriors, written in cursive script across the front. One of them is blowing a bubble from the gum in his mouth. The other two are laughing at some unknown joke. It’s probably something to do with passing gas.

As he looks at the image, he thinks, oh yes, passing gas.

[[The scene would go from the image on the camera to the bench in front of him. One would show the ghosts of children’s past, while the other just shows a metal bench.]]

Outside the dugout and on the field, he looks around. Just beyond the infield is a dirty ball. No, it’s not a baseball and not a softball, but one that is in between. It is yellow and dirty and looks as if part of the rawhide has been scorched. He smiles.

[[Again, the film would show his feet, the sneakers crossing the hard packed orange ground. We would see the backs of his legs as he steadily approaches the ball. Then we would see the ball between his feet and his hand pick it up. He brings it to his face, where we see his blue eye again.]]

The ball gets placed by first base. He sets the camera on the ground, presses the button and waits for the click. Then he looks in the view finder. It’s almost perfect. He backs up fifteen or so feet and takes another picture, this one of the first base bag from a standing position. In the view finder, a little boy with blond hair and a gray uniform with no words on the front, but the number 3 on the left side in red. He is bending down to pick up the ball.

He nods, walks over and plucks the ball from the ground. He tosses it into the outfield. Before the ball can fall to the ground, he has the camera up and snaps several shots. In those images, a young child with skin the color of smooth chocolate has his glove up, his eyes on the ball. He thinks the boy calls ‘mine’ before the ball reaches him.

He takes a snapshot of the pitcher’s mound next. The boy standing there is caught in full wind up, his leg kicked up, arm back and ready to throw the ball.

[[In the movie about the man, we see him turn and take pictures and we see the boys of yesteryear in them. They may be just in his head, but they are there, none the less. We would hear music, maybe Centerfield by John Fogerty or even the Eddie Vedder tribute song to the Chicago Cubs for finally winning a World Series.]]

The sun is now overhead, but it is still comfortable outside. He checks his watch. It is after eleven.

dscn1703I should get back, he thinks. He makes his way toward the dugout and stops. He’s still holding the ball in one hand. He turns and cocks his arm back to throw it. He stops, looks at the ball and lets out a laugh. Instead of throwing it, he tosses it in the air, catches it and leaves the field, a hum on his lips.

[[Here we fade to black or maybe we just pan out as he walks away, the camera in one hand, the ball in the other and that hum … that hum is probably a song he likes, maybe Boys of Summer by Don Henley. We see him get in his car, and we hear the car’s engine come to life. Then it pulls out of the spot and he drives away. Like all good films, we would hear the lyrics of the song, the music, he had hummed on his way to his car. Then, the car would be out of sight and the credits would roll. And yes, there would be a fade to black …]]

As I said earlier: I’ve always felt like I’ve lived my life on the outside looking in. It’s as if I see myself and my actions through a camera lens. There is a crack that runs down the center of that lens. On the left side everything is clear and easy to see and understand. On the right side everything is blurry and odd and I struggle at everything. Very rarely do I see through the crack where everything makes sense.

For me, baseball is one of the things in that center. When I find a new field, I see myself, my actions, and my thoughts, not as if I am living them, but as if I am watching them. Sometimes, that is not a bad thing.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Baseball and Life

I went for a walk by myself this morning. The sky was overcast and there was a breeze blowing in. It was nice enough out that the chill from the breeze didn’t make it too cool to where shorts and a t-shirt. The birds chirped madly and flew about from tree to tree and power line to power line.

A storm was coming. Or so it seemed.

This much is almost certain. When the birds act as they do right then, a storm is coming. My grandfather taught me that one day while standing on his back porch when I was a teenager and he was still around and life had yet to slap me in the face a few times.

Back to this morning. As I always do when I am by myself and want to walk, I drove the two miles to the middle school my daughter went to and my son now attends. Behind it is a baseball park. A walking path circles the park. This is where where I walk.

When I go on these walks I tend to pray for the first half of it. I don’t look at it as prayer though. I look at it as a conversation, though one sided, with God. It’s not a ‘hey I need something’ type of thing, or a ‘hey I screwed up type’ of thing. For me, these mornings are a ‘hey, I just want to talk,’ type of thing. They are good for me, good for my soul.

The second half of these walks is when I think about writing, but mostly, I just think about baseball. Seriously. At the end of these walks and before I go to my car, I walk to the baseball complex. There are four fields in the main section and a fifth field off to the side (this is where the younger kids play tee ball). In the center of the main section is the concessions and bathrooms. There are metal bleachers on each side of each field.

Today I walked to one of the fields and stared through the fencing surrounding it. The grass was freshly cut, the field newly raked. There were perfect chalk lines marking the first and third base lines, the batters boxes and the on deck circles. The pitcher’s mound had been recently formed, with the rubber in the center of it.

12734126_10208347032850778_986475889973690833_nThis is going to sound crazy, but for the first time since I was a kid, I didn’t miss playing the game. What I did miss—do miss—is coaching. I miss watching the lights turn on for a kid once he or she ‘got it’. I miss cheering the kids on or throwing batting practice. I miss those tougher teaching moments that is difficult for the kid, but what they don’t realize is it is difficult for the coaches as well. We want to make them better, teach them the game, but a good coach teaches them not only the game, but to have fun and to carry that over into life.

That brings me to my point today. Baseball is a unifying sport. You may not like the game and that is okay. But for those who do play it and for their families, it is unifying.

One season I was fortunate enough to coach a special needs child. It was one of the most rewarding things I have ever been a part of. Another season, our head coach had heart issues and ended up missing most of the season because of heart surgery. I met kids and parents and grandparents. I saw kids with two parents in the household and kids with just the one. I also met kids whose parents were absent and grandparents had taken them in. Baseball, for these kids, meant a couple of hours away from the reality of no mom and no dad.

Baseball is life. No, I don’t mean that baseball should be lived and breathed like oxygen. I mean baseball is life.

In a typical game there are nine innings with a break between each half inning as the teams switch sides. Batters go into the field and fielders come up to bat. Each team gets three outs an inning to score as many times as they can. There are hits and walks and strikeouts and pop outs and ground outs and long fly ball outs. This is much like life.

Let’s just say each inning is equivalent to ten years of life. That would make the first inning the growing years of childhood. The second inning, the learning who you are years. The third inning would be the years of establishing who you are as an adult. And the next three innings would be the working years. I know, that sounds absurd, but it’s not. Not really. The last three innings are the golden years, and if you are fortunate enough to make it further than the age of ninety then you go into extra innings.

There are times we do things well and get hits. Sometimes we do great things and those amount to doubles and triples. Then we do a couple of things that are fantastic or amazing or awesome or whatever you wish to call it. Those are home runs. There are times we succeed in a venture. Each one of those is a run scored. Sometimes we help someone succeed. Those are runs batted in. And yes, just like in baseball, those folks with the many runs, rbi’s and home runs are generally the stars.

Then there are the outs. Sometimes we strike out. These are the times when we just don’t try all that hard at something. Then you have pop outs and fly outs and ground outs. Those are the efforts we put in, but we still don’t succeed at something. The average batting average in major league baseball is between .260 and .275. That means the average player gets a hit only 26% to 27.5% of the time. That equals one out of every four plate appearances. This means failures are easier to achieve than successes.

Occasionally, we get a walk in life, a gift that we don’t have to earn. Those moments don’t come around all that often, so best to relish them while we can.

Sometimes in baseball, as in life, we get a lucky bounce. Sometimes, that bounce isn’t so lucky after all. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. Hits, outs, walks, runs … it is all life.

Baseball takes effort. You learn how to hit by practicing. You learn how to throw by practicing. Life is the same. You learn how to write by practicing. You learn how to drive by practicing. You learn how to do various things in life by working at it. So many similarities.

In my life I have hit four home runs. Being saved. Marrying my wife and being a father to my two kids. In my life I’ve had quite a few good hits, a couple of walks and a lot of outs. But here is the thing: I’ve worked really hard at life. I’ve lived life and played baseball. I’ve taken my outs in stride with my hits and runs and I will continue to do so as the innings of my life play out. I encourage you to do the same.

As I stood at the baseball field this morning, I listened to the world around me. The wind was blowing and the flag flapped with it. The chord and metal hooks that hold the flag in place clanked against the flag pole. There were crows cawing and other birds chirping and flying about. Somewhere a dog barked. It was a moment to sit in the dugout and reflect on the game of my life so far. Are there things I would like to change? Sure. Are there things I would have liked to succeed at? Absolutely. Would I change anything. No.

Then I walked away, not missing the game I loved, but knowing that I gave both the game and my life to this date all I have. I’m good with that. The bat’s on my shoulder, a glove dangling from it as I leave the dugout and head back into the game. How’s your game coming along? Are you swinging for the fences, or riding the bench? Don’t ride the bench. Get in there and play ball.

As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

The Forgotten Ball Field of North Means Street

On a dead end road off of East Church Street sits a baseball field—or maybe what is left of it. You don’t see it from East Church, and you may not even think anything of it. What probably draws you in is what looks like an entrance to a building that is no longer there; the brick and concrete doorway looks somewhat out of place. It is as if you can step up on the platform and step through the structure with the green vines growing up one side, and maybe you would step into another world. Or maybe another time.

dscn1515As you turn from off one street and onto another (East Church onto North Means Street) and drive toward the odd doorway, you not only notice the doorway, but you notice the aluminum bleachers and four tall pine trees that stand in front of those bleachers. A little further down the road you see the top of a fence that would be considered a backstop. It is tall enough to keep balls from flying backward toward anyone in those stands behind that fence.

dscn1518Drive a little further and park your car, truck, motorcycle or super trike. Get out and walk toward the field. It is a marvel as old as the day is long. There is a set of bleachers along the first and third base sides. These bleachers serve as the team’s dugouts. Yes, that’s right, there are no dugouts for the teams to sit in when they are not in the field.

A closer look shows the outfield grass is creeping in on the infield, but that isn’t the only thing that catches your eye. On the infield, right into the first twenty or so feet of the outfield, are deep grooves in the form of circles. Someone has driven onto the field with a truck and has done donuts. It is also clear that this happened a while back—the grooves are hard, even though it has rained within the last three days.

dscn1525The outfield grass holds many sparkling spiderwebs, the dew of the early morning like glassy diamonds shimmer, even on this gray, overcast day. Try to ignore the glassy spiderwebs and keep walking toward this wooden post, old style cyclone outfield wall, which is barely three feet tall and looks more like it belongs around a farm than on a baseball field. Just before that fence is a blacktop path that could be considered the warning track. More than likely it is a walking trail, and if you look to your right and left, you will see this is exactly what it is. The path leads outside the field and behind an old house in one direction and dead-ending at the road in the other.
Just beyond the outfield fence is a tree line that dips into a valley. Many of those trees have been downed over the years, either felled by age or weather, or maybe even axe and chainsaw. There are a couple of structures back there, houses maybe, but it is kind of hard to tell through all the trees.

If you walk from centerfield to home plate, you will find it is 291 feet, and for little kids, it would take a hard swidscn1526ng, and a long fly ball to hit a home run.

Before you leave the dilapidated field, touch one of the bags, first, second or third. Go ahead. It won’t bite you. Though the exterior is slightly hard, the base is soft. You can push on it with a couple of fingers and the base gives. Yeah, old school bases are the best.

As you go to leave, don’t just look at the doorway to a building that is no longer there. Walk up to it, pull yourself up on it. Touch the cold clay brick and the smooth concrete arch. Now, step through it. Go ahead. Just do it.

What do you see on the other side? What do you hear?

The sky is no longer gray, but the sun is out and shining down. The cool of the air when you arrived is now warm and that coat you are wearing feels like too much. The road to the left is no longer paved, but red clay, just like the field that is surrounded by the short fences. Take a look now. There are folks in those bleachers. Maybe they are from the fifties or the sixties or seventies. Maybe they are from last year—does it matter what time period the ghosts of games passed are from?

dscn1523The kids on the field aren’t wearing fancy uniforms. Most of them are in jeans and t-shirts and raggedy shoes (not cleats, folks). They wear their favorite teams’ hats and those, like the rest of their clothes, are fairly dirty, some because of superstitions, some because they don’t want those hats washed—it gives them character, you know?

They toss the ball around after every out. They tap their cleats with the bats on every plate appearance. The catchers talk trash behind the plate. It doesn’t bother most of the kids, but every once in a while, one of them takes offense. The only kids sitting on the bleachers down either of the base lines are the ones who are not playing. The others walk around and talk or toss the ball back and forth to keep their shoulders from getting stiff.

There is a pitch and a swing. The crack of a bat and the ball is airborne. It comes down in the right fielder’s glove with a loud smack. He tosses the ball to the shortstop. In turn, he tosses it to the first baseman and then it goes to the pitcher. The game has just started and the fans sitting on the home side bleachers cheer the out and yell their ‘at a boys’, while those on the visitor’s side clap at the effort of the batter and yell their ‘get ‘em next times’.

dscn1528It’s mesmerizing, this game I so love (though maybe you don’t), and no, this history is not in black and white, but full on technicolor.

Don’t go back through the doorway just yet. Don’t go to your super trike or moped or your Porsche. Instead, hop down from the landing of the doorway and stroll to one of the bleachers. Grab a seat and sit. Enjoy the game. As I said, it’s just getting started and the old field you drove up on that no one plays on anymore is awake and alive and about to put on a show for you.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

Five Ounces of Hide and Red Stitches

I sit on the front porch this evening, looking across the street at the Hispanic family building a shed in their back yard. Currently, it is 91 degrees and the sun is going down. The man is wearing long green work pants and heavy boots and a long sleeved shirt. Yeah, in this heat. That’s what I thought, too. The woman working alongside him, holding up pieces of tan vinyl siding as he tacks them into place, is also wearing long pants and a long shirt, and I haven’t heard her speak at all in the time I have been out here. As I type this right now I’m wondering if it is a shed or a small house they are building.

A car goes by, silver with tinted windows, a heavy THUMP THUMP coming from the speakers and fading away as it heads to the stop sign. It makes a right turn and is gone, taking its base thumping with it.

I look back to the Hispanic couple and just beyond them. Three kids are playing on a mattress on the ground. When I was a kid we called that a poor kid’s trampoline. Been there, kiddos. Been there. The kids are two girls and a boy. I believe the boy is the middle kid.

It’s the boy who holds my attention for a moment. He jumps on the mattress with the two girls, but unlike them, he is not laughing and smiling and having a good time. He looks like he would rather be doing anything else, but playing on the poor kid’s trampoline.

I get it, little dude. I get it.

I guess the reason the boy holds my attention is because in my hand I hold a baseball. It is a Wilson brand. When it was new it was white and unscuffed and the cursive Wilson was a deep black. It weighed all of five ounces. The red laces—all 108 double stitches (that’s 216 single stitches if you’re counting)—were still perfect, and still holding the white rawhide tightly together.

Now the ball is somewhat brownish/orange with very few white spots remaining. It had been struck by a lawn mower at some point. This much is obvious. There is a gash near one train track stretch of stitches. An inch or so away and right on the red seam is an inch and a half long tear in the rawhide. The stitches are still in place, undamaged by the mower. The Wilson is faded and there are nicks and scrapes and smudges throughout.

Though the ball is battered and scarred and will probably never be used in another game, it is still perfect. Perfect, like 27 batters up and 27 batters down. Perfect.

I roll the ball over in my hands, no longer looking at the Hispanic couple working on the shed. I’m no longer watching the kids jumping and laughing (well, at least the girls are laughing) on the mattress in the middle of the yard.  I’m interested in the baseball, in who might have used it, or if it was used in a game or just in practice. How did it come to be run over by a lawnmower?

How did I come across it?

That one is easy. I was walking the track at the baseball park with my son. It was crazy hot and we had only made one full lap. We cut between two fields on the dirt track that led to the parking lot. There is a drainage ditch that runs the length of the outfield of Field Number Two. It had rained the day before, so there was water in the ditch. And sitting on the edge of the ditch, just in the water, was the baseball. I picked it up and wiped it off. It dripped a bit of water from the gash in its hide. I rubbed it as we walked to the car, trying to dry it out some. Over the next couple of days it did dry out, and now I hold it in my hands

And I can’t help but daydream. I can’t help but believe that a kid, probably around eleven years old, had held it in his hand, rolling it around on his palm before coming set and then slinging it toward home plate. The ball never reached the catcher’s mitt, but was connected by a bat held by the opponent. There is nothing like the sound of aluminum on ball. And the ball soared high in the air, landing somewhere on the grass beyond the fence. That is where it stayed until a lawn mower blade hit it and tossed it into the ditch, where I would later find it.

The ball had been hit. Do you see the glory of that? The ball I hold in my hand had once been thrown and hit and caught and hit again. It was used in the game many little boys (and girls) love, in the game I love. To me, even now, many years after I last put down a bat, find the baseball to be the most perfect of spheres. The way it is constructed. The white hide, the red stitches, the mile’s worth of string encased in it and wrapped around a cork center. It tumbles when you throw it, it makes a beautiful sound when it hits a glove. It’s the diamond of the sports world, which is somewhat appropriate.

As I look at the ball, I become aware that the Hispanics have gone inside. The sun is almost down. I think of the little boy who looked like he would rather be somewhere else. I wonder if he ever played baseball, or if he ever dreamed of playing like I once did. I roll the ball in my hands one more time and stand. I stretch my back and walk inside. Iowa is playing Kentucky in the Little League World Series. I think I’ll sit and watch the game and listen to the sounds I still love.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

Dreams of a Poor Child

I was once asked where story ideas come from. Well, it didn’t happen just once, but many times. I always say, ‘they come from everywhere and everything.’ Yeah, it sounds lame, but it is true. Story ideas really come from anything I see, anything I hear, anything someone says.

Today, we took a road trip out to Hartsville. It was just a little day trip to get out of the house. On the way home, we drove through Bishopville and did a bit of exploring. We came upon an old baseball field…and the story you are about to read is directly inspired from it. Enjoy.

Dreams of a Poor Child

Picture this:

A long country road, cotton fields on one side, separated by slat board houses, open fields on the other side for as far as the eye can see. Cotton may have grown on that side as well, but now it’s mostly weeds and trash tossed from cars passing by (mostly bottles and cans and faded chip wrappers). Not too far away and left behind in the rearview mirror sits a prison, big, impressive and as out of place in that space of country just between two little towns. The prison isn’t important for this story, but it is part of the area, and now it is an afterthought.

What does matter for this story is on the left hand side of the road (as you go away from the prison and head south). There’s a park, complete with a large playground that has several slides, ladders and monkey bars. There are swings, both for able-bodied kids and the disabled ones. There are benches for the attentive (or unattentive) parents or adults that aren’t parents at all or maybe the teenagers who begrudgingly take their siblings there. It’s a respite for them; an opportunity for peace from the whining and nagging rug rats their parents don’t want to take care of.

A kid is on the playground. He’s maybe eight and his red shirt has a hole in it, as does both the knees in his faded blue jeans. He’s swinging, swinging, swinging and dreaming of jumping out and flying away from there.

Like the prison, the playground isn’t all that important either, but it’s part of the scenery in this low-income part of the world. What is important sits just beyond the playground. It’s a place where dreams are formed, but so few of them come to fruition.

The ballfield is closed in with cyclone fencing that has rust spots throughout its length and on all sides. It forms a cone around the field. The dugouts are to the left and right of where a cracked home plate is forever embedded into the ground. Each dugout holds a wooden bench, which at one time had been smooth wood painted blue, but now is bare of any paint and splintered throughout its length. The outside of the dugout is nothing more than painted plywood that has warped over the years, Mother Nature having done a number on the untreated lumber.

An opening where a gate should have been at the dugout’s entrance leads to the field, which had once been taken good care of. Now, after the unusually wet fall and early winter, the infield is an orange clay mud pit. The bases, which were never soft to begin with, are hard as rock. Stepping on one of those the wrong way could lead to a broken ankle or worse. Yes, there are worse things than a broken ankle.

The outfield grass had long since encroached upon the infield, covering the base path with what amounts to thick patches of moss. The outfield, itself, is deep to center and left, but shallow out to the right. The outfield fence stands eight feet high, a black rubber pad along the top having begun to crumble beneath Mother Nature’s watchful eye—yes, Mother Nature and her vengeful eye had her way with that part of the field as well. There’s a gate in left center. One would assume it was there to make it easy to retrieve balls hit out of the park. Or maybe it was a shortcut to a neighborhood that once existed nearby.

Beyond the ballpark is a football field, minus the goal posts, and a basketball court with no goals and a cracked concrete surface. Like the prison and the playground, none of those things matter. Neither does the wooden bleachers on either side of the baseball field or the concession stand with its boarded windows that is near a dirt road that leads to the parking lot.

Pay attention here. You can’t see this, and even if you can, just listen.

That’s the sound of young boys and girls on the field, playing baseball or softball. It doesn’t matter which. You can hear them screaming from the dugouts, we need a pitcher, not a belly itcher. That’s the sound of a wooden bat on the rawhide of a baseball, a thwack that is distinct and easily recognized.

Keep listening. A young boy just called out, ‘I got it,’ or ‘mine, mine,’ the universal language for I’ll catch it. Someone calls the out. One. Two. Three. Change sides. Batters head to the field. Fielders head to the dugouts.

Still, listen. Is that the sound of a ball slapping a mitt? Is that a called strike? Maybe it was a ball, just a little off the plate.

Strike three, you’re out!

Ball four, son, take your base.

In this impoverished area where stomach grumble after a meal of half a bowl of rice and no water to wash it down, where shoes so tight feet are cramped and blistered and damaged for life, where gloves are stitched together with shoe laces or wire or maybe there’s no gloves at all, but a milk carton tied to a hand to protect the palms from the sting of a hot shot from a bat; yeah, in this place the game—the dream—is the escape. And it’s the dream that often goes unrealized once life invades and washes away the innocence.

But if you listen carefully you can hear the game being played by those young boys (and girls, let’s not forget them). Close your eyes and listen.

Just listen. Open your mind. Open your heart. Listen.

And when you do open your eyes, look to the field, to its dilapidated dugouts and mud caked field. And what do you see? Yeah, there’s a little boy—the same one who earlier had been swinging on the playground dreaming of some place besides there. He stands on the pitcher’s mound, the rubber long gone. He is slightly hunched over, one hand behind his back, an imaginary ball spinning with the movement of his fingers. He stares in at a batter who is only there in his mind.

He straightens. Both hands come out in front of him, coming together in front of his chest as if he is in prayer (and he just may be).

His arm goes back.

His front leg kicks out in front of him.

And he fires the ball toward home plate…

Thank you for reading, and until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.