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Sunday Surprise Story: Coming Home

April 11, 2010

I’m recovering from having a tooth pulled so I don’t feel like writing anything new.  So here’s a story from the archives.  Since it’s the first weekend of baseball season, here’s a short story about a baseball player.  Enjoy and check back Tuesday for something new.

Coming Home

For Bill Patterson, going home meant the end of the life he’d always dreamt of. Almost completely alone in the train car—a couple and their two kids dozed a few rows back—Bill had a lot of time to think about the dream he’d left back in Buffalo. In many respects, though, Bill’s dream had ended two years ago on a sunny late summer day in the ugly, yet awe-inspiring confines of Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

He had sought the moment all his life: bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, bases loaded, and he was coming to the plate against the best relief pitcher of the hated New York Yankees. Bill had been toiling away for the Toledo Mud Hens-his third straight season in AAA ball-when the starting shortstop for the Tigers sprained his knee in late August, necessitating Bill’s call-up to the majors. While his defense remained at the same level of consistent excellence from the minors, Bill had been struggling at the plate against the veteran big league pitchers, going just one for seventeen since coming up from Toledo. His slump became so bad that the manager sat him out in favor of a utility infielder for a couple of games. But on that fateful day, against one of the Tigers’s oldest rivals, Bill found his name on the line-up card in the dugout.

The time off he’d been given did nothing to break his slump, if anything it increased it by making him nervous. He wanted so badly to make a good impression against the first-place Yankees, to show everyone he deserved to be in the major leagues. Instead, he allowed the go-ahead run to score in the fifth inning by letting a ground ball bounce off his glove and into left field. The next half-inning he tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt to get the runner on first into scoring position, but the ball didn’t roll far enough away from home plate, beginning a dreadful chain-reaction which led to an inning-ending double play. As he went back to the dugout to fetch his glove, he heard a loud chorus of boos from the stands and several profanity-laced suggestions about what he should do with himself. For the first time in his baseball career, he wanted to cry.

Before he climbed the stairs to trot back onto the field, the right fielder—who’d been around so long that Bill remembered having baseball cards of him as a kid—gave him a friendly pat on the rear. “Don’t let ‘em get to you. Just go out there and show ‘em what you can do.” Bill nodded, feeling a wave of serenity pass over him as he took his position. He could still hear the hecklers in the stands, but he tuned them out, focusing on the game.

The pep talk seemed to work for Bill. He made a great diving catch to end the sixth inning, then doubled in the seventh, driving the tired starting pitcher for New York from the game. While Bill stood near second base, waiting for the relief pitcher to waddle over from the bullpen, he heard the hecklers fall silent. Striding to the plate in the ninth inning, Bill knew he would get a hit to win the game. Not even the giant on the pitcher’s mound, his face cast in shadow by the bill of his cap, could deter Bill in this one moment, his destiny.

Bill tapped his cleats to shake out any loose dirt before he stepped into the batter’s box, assuming his batting stance. He waited patiently, his eyes narrowed with concentration, while the pitcher and catcher exchanged signs before agreeing on a pitch. Bill watched the pitcher go through his stretch, the ball flying from his hand. The white orb hung tantalizingly in the air, waiting for Bill’s bat to knock it into the left field seats. Putting all of his weight into the one crushing blow to win the game, Bill realized too late that the ball was changing directions, breaking down and away from him. His mighty swing went six inches over the top of the ball, the momentum nearly throwing Bill to the ground.

“Strike!” the umpire bellowed. Bill stepped out of the batter’s box, ignoring the frantic gestures of the third base coach, though he nodded to show he understood the signs. Settling back into the batter’s box, Bill took a deep breath and cursed himself for falling prey to the pitcher’s deception. He knew the next pitch would be a fastball, thrown inside to rattle him. As expected, the ball whizzed just past Bill’s white jersey, into the catcher’s mitt. The umpire was silent; ball one.

The next pitch—a curveball—went low and outside, forcing the catcher to make an athletic save to keep the ball from skittering back to the wall for a game-ending wild pitch. Bill put up his hand with the left palm towards the runner at third, to keep the runner from trying to steal home plate. The catcher, perhaps sensing that the last ball was cursed, got a fresh one from the umpire. Bill took a few practice swings during the exchange, trying to ignore the wild screaming of the fans. He stepped back into the batter’s box, knowing this would be the pitch to hit: a fastball over the plate.

Just like in all the movies and television shows he’d seen as a kid, everything happened in slow motion. He watched the ball leave the pitcher’s hand, realizing this was his moment. He thought back to all the hours spent in the back yard as a kid, crushing ninth-inning, World Series-winning home runs. While not the World Series, this was the pinnacle of his baseball career, the moment he’d been working for since those first tee-ball games twenty years before. He waited for the fastball to come closer, imagining his entire family at home, gathered around the television to watch this momentous occasion. Feeling the strength of a god, Bill swung the blond Louisville Slugger.

To Bill’s ears, the ball met the bat with a sound like a mighty oak tree crashing to the ground in a storm. For a moment Bill could only watch the ball sail upwards, arcing gracefully towards the left field fence, the distant gray shape of the Yankee left fielder loping in pursuit of the tiny white sphere. Bill threw his bat aside, too caught up in the moment to do anything but walk down the first base line, his eyes still focused on the ball. He could sense the crowd coming to its feet around him in anticipation of the moment. His eyes saw another flash of white as the runner at third base chugged towards home plate. The relief pitcher stood on the mound, watching the scene play out with grim fascination.

Bill’s eyes turned as big as saucers, a frustrated scream starting to build in his belly as he saw the baseball begin its descent. He willed the ball to go farther, prayed to every deity to give him just a little gust of wind. He stood frozen halfway between home plate and first base, his heart gripped with despair. The left fielder stood in the bare dirt of the warning track, his back right to the fence, calmly receiving the ball into his glove. Bill doubled over as though he’d been struck while the Yankees poured from the dugout to congratulate each other.

The game, and Bill’s baseball career, had ended.

He’d finished the rest of the season with the Tigers, his hitting woes continuing right on through spring training the next year. When the next season started, he found himself in Toledo once again. He remained a fixture at shortstop there right until yesterday, when—after knocking in a run in the ninth to win the game against the Buffalo Bisons—the manager told him he was being released by the organization.

Bill had seen it coming. He’d read in the scouting publications about the hot prospect tearing it up in Erie, the Tigers’s AA team, and knew it wouldn’t be long until the 24-year-old kid took his place on the Mudhen roster. At twenty-nine, Bill was no longer young by baseball standards, the Tigers organization could no longer waste time on him. He’d become expendable to them.

He cleaned out his locker in Buffalo with a minimum of strained good-byes before taking a cab to the train station. He thought about going back to his cramped apartment in Toledo, then saw a train scheduled to leave for his hometown in fifteen minutes. Without thinking, he bought a ticket and got on the train.

Now he found himself staring out the window as vast fields of wheat, corn, beans, and sugar beets spread out to infinity. He passed no towns through Michigan’s thumb, only isolated farms, dilapidated shacks, and abandoned machinery. The tracks crossed a few country roads, though Bill saw only rusting Chevy pick-up along the route.

He leaned back in his chair, thinking about the future now that his days were done with baseball. He could always try to play in another league, though the thought of playing in a beer league with other washed-up players held little appeal. He did have a degree in marketing from the University of Michigan; maybe he could use it to get a real job. The decision did not have to be made right away, his years with the Detroit organization had given him enough money to last for a while if he spent it wisely.

For now, he could go home and see the family he’d neglected for almost three years. After the disastrous day at Tiger Stadium, he hadn’t wanted to face his parents and two younger sisters. He hadn’t wanted to hear them say how sorry they were for him, how they knew things were going to work out for him. Except things had not worked out for him after all.

Bill closed his eyes, feeling a weariness deep in his soul. He’d spent his whole life chasing after one elusive goal: to play shortstop in the major leagues. All through his childhood, right through college, he’d never realized how tough it would be. He’d spent every waking hour practicing, playing, and studying so that he could get good enough to make the big leagues. During his first years in the minors he worked relentlessly to be the best player on the team, making his way up the ranks to the very last rung on the ladder.

Into his second season in Toledo was the first time he ever doubted his ability to make the grade. Why hadn’t they called him up yet? he’d wonder every night. He worked even harder, putting up better numbers, but it didn’t matter. The call never came. Despite the Tigers being his hometown team growing up, he started to wish they would trade him so he could get his shot at the majors.

When the call came in August of his third year in Toledo, he felt unparalleled joy. At last, after the years of work and sacrifice, his chance had finally come. He remembered calling home, almost losing his hearing from the screams of his mother and sisters when they heard the good news. Then, of course, there was the first time he donned his uniform and went onto the field for a game. The blinding lights, the screaming throng of fans, and the majestic beauty of the old stadium filled his mind once again. It was all even better than he had ever imagined.

He wondered if it would have been better not to realize his dream. It might have been better to never reach the majors, to always wonder if he had the talent to make it, rather than to realize he didn’t. If he had never been called up to the big leagues, he might have been able to blame his misfortune on the organization for not giving him a chance, whereas now he could only blame himself for not having the talent needed to survive there. If only the ball had gone just a couple of feet farther, he thought, then everything would be different.

“Are you Bill Patterson?” a voice asked. Bill looked up to see a young woman standing in the aisle, nervously brushing strands of brown hair back from her face.

“Yes,” Bill replied, suddenly feeling nervous.

“Wow, I hate to admit this, but…when you played for the Tigers I had kind of a crush on you.” Bill sized up the young woman: she had a short, trim build with medium-sized breasts visible under her tight top. From the smoothness of the skin around her mouth and green eyes, he estimated that she couldn’t be more than twenty-five years old. He couldn’t help feeling aroused—he hadn’t been with a woman in at least three years—and hoped she didn’t see his budding erection.

“Well it’s always great to meet a fan. Have a seat.” Bill motioned to one of the empty seats facing him. “So…have you always been a baseball fan?”

The young woman giggled nervously. “No, my boyfriend got tickets from work, I really didn’t know what was going on the entire time. I remember the old drunk guys next to us giving you a hard time for the whole game until my boyfriend, he’s a firefighter in Royal Oak, told them to shut up.”

“I guess I should thank him, is he on the train?”

“No, I haven’t seen him in over a year. We broke up just about a year ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, he’s a jerk,” she replied, the pain from the break-up still evident in her voice.

“So where are you heading?”

“Chicago. I start a new job on Monday.”

“That’s a nice town. What kind of work do you do?”

“I’ll be working as a legal assistant to a firm there, but I’ll be taking classes at night so I can take the bar exam.”

“A lawyer, huh? I’ll make sure not to cross you.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t dream of suing you! My old boyfriend maybe, but not you.” The woman shifted nervously in her seat. “You know, I almost didn’t recognize you. Didn’t you have a goatee when you played for the Tigers?”

Bill rubbed his bare chin and nodded. “Yeah, I shaved it off a couple years ago.”

“You should have kept it, it was cute. Do you still play baseball?”

“No, I’m kind of retired now.”

“That’s too bad. So what are you doing now?”

“I’m going home to help my dad with the farm until I can think of something else to do.” Bill heard the train whistle blow and knew his stop was up next.

The young woman must have sensed Bill would be getting off the train soon. “Well, if you’re ever in Chicago, maybe we could have a drink together.”

“I’d like that…I don’t think I ever got your name.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Susan McDonald, I think I have a card in here somewhere.” Susan rifled through her purse, finally pulling out a business card, which she handed to Bill. “I don’t have a phone at my apartment yet, so if you want to reach me, just call the office.”

“I will.” Susan stood to go, but Bill called out, “Wait!” He pulled down his duffel bag from the overhead compartment, rummaging through it until he found an old baseball, the one he’d knocked into the right field seats of Comiskey Park in Chicago for his only major league home run. He took a marker from his jacket pocket—kept there just in case a fan should ever want his autograph—scrawling his name and the telephone number for his cell phone on the baseball. “Here, take this.”

Susan’s eyes brightened. “Thank-you!” she squealed, kissing Bill on the left cheek. He could feel himself blush as he watched her walk down the aisle, into the next car. For a moment he just stood there stupidly, still feeling the kiss in his mind. He sat down, clutching the duffel bag tight to his midsection to disguise the bulge in his pants.

The train jerked to a stop, the family behind Bill rubbing the sleep from their eyes and gathering their things. Bill followed them down the aisle to the steps descending to the platform, feeling a rush of cool air wash over him. He smelled the sweet air, knowing right away he had been away from home for too long. He looked around anyone he might recognize, his eyes stopping at a young man loitering at the opposite end of the platform.

The younger man—Bill doubted he was much over twenty—seemed focused on the family that had gotten off ahead of Bill, who were laughing and chatting with some acquaintances. The look in the young man’s eyes froze Bill in his tracks, recognizing it as a mirror of his own when he had boarded a train to leave home eleven years ago. The other man did not have the athletic build to be leaving for a career in baseball, but clearly he was leaving home to chase a dream of his own.

Bill considered going over to talk to the young man, to warn him about the dangers of dream chasing. Maybe he could make the other man understand that no matter how hard you tried, you might never be able to achieve what you wanted, or worse yet, you might find out you simply didn’t have the talent. Seeing the mixture of sadness and determination in the younger man’s face, Bill knew nothing he could say would make a difference.

He realized there would always be young men and women like him, Susan, and the young man now boarding the train, who would risk leaving everything behind for a chance at their dream. Many, like Bill, would fail in their quest, forever cursed to find what they most wanted always out of reach. Yet people would continue to hope, to dream, no matter how stacked the odds were against them.

Bill watched the train chug forward, gaining speed until it disappeared from sight. He shouldered his duffel bag, walking into the station to sit down. Reaching for the cell phone on his belt, he saw he still had Susan’s business card in his hand. Perhaps it’s time for a new dream to chase, he thought as he tucked the business card into his wallet.

He turned on his cell phone, dialing the number for his parents’s farm. After about ten rings, he heard his mother answer the phone, her voice sounding as though she’d just been running a marathon. She’d probably heard the phone from outside, and then dashed into the house to pick it up. He smiled, wondering if he could convince them to get a cell phone or at least a cordless telephone to take with them while they worked outside.

“Hi, Mom, it’s me. I’m coming home,” he said at last.

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