Author’s note: I know this type of post is a bit incongruous, particularly now that Cubs baseball has begun in earnest down in Mesa, but I don’t really have any other outlet for it. According to Medium, a writing platform I use for some of my non-Cubs ramblings, what follows is about an 11 minute read, so consider yourself warned. The idea for this story has been knocking around inside my head for a few months, but I had a bit of an epiphany the other day regarding exactly how I could best present it. While it’s a work of pure fiction, it does draw heavily from some of my own experiences. It also deviates pretty heavily from the humor and sarcasm you might be used to finding in my work. Despite that, I hope you enjoy it and that, if you do, you’ll share it with others.
“Maybe I’ll get one this time,” the melancholy man said to no one in particular as he adjusted his cap. He tossed a timeworn baseball glove into the passenger seat of his nondescript sedan and closed the door on the outside world.
Then he turned the ignition and pointed the car in the general direction of the ballpark in the proverbial first step of an annual pilgrimage fueled more by unrequited obligation than any sense of joy or excitement at this point. The smell of coffee too hot to drink tempted him, but he knew better than to give in. A scalded tongue just would not do.
He also knew that he’d soon be lulled into indifference by highway hypnosis and would only remember the caffeinated elixir after it had been rendered nigh impotably bitter by the drop in temperature. Too soon, too late, wrong place, wrong time. Story of my life, he thought as he flipped both the car and his mind into cruise. Aside from a brief desire to flip the bird at the driver of a car doing the speed limit in the left lane, it was the last cogent sentiment to pass between his ears for quite some time.
Billy Markham had been parking cars in the alley behind his house for the better part of a decade and he’d seen pretty much every kind of fan there was. Most of them were nameless, faceless schmoes to whom he bore no more attachment than the temporary umbilicus provided by the cash they handed him before heading off to the game.
This dude, though, he was different. He was a plain guy with a plain car and he wore plain clothes, but something about him was just…off. Not in a bad way, mind you, but Billy couldn’t really come up with another word to describe it. He could only recall seeing the guy once a year or so, and if you really pressed him he’d tell you that it was probably around the same time each season. He might even be willing to bet the $20 bill the man had just handed him.
Maybe it was the hat, the only thing about his repeat customer that really stood out. The guy’s melon wasn’t tiny or anything, but he wasn’t exactly Kevin Mench or Bruce Bochy either. Still, the beaten-up ballcap sat perched almost comically atop the man’s head as the last little nubbin of the snapback clung valiantly against both time and physics.
Billy seldom got more than a mumbled “Thank you” as the money changed hands, and the man generally kept his eyes downcast from the moment he left his car. To Billy, it almost seemed as though the guy was forcing himself to go to the games. He knew that idea didn’t make any sense — why would someone drive to a ballgame on his own if he didn’t really want to be there? — but the idea stuck with him just the same. So the man walked down the alley and Billy just shook his head as he watched him go. And as that odd little hat disappeared around the corner, Billy felt something akin to sadness. Or maybe it was emptiness.
From his booth just outside the ballpark’s main entrance, Ralph Kirks used the voice that had led many to tell him belonged in radio to hawk programs. He loved being in that small circular stand as the crowds streamed into the game, as though he was standing out on the bow of a ship like that actor fella in that movie about the Titanic. Ralph fancied himself good at his job, an assessment he based less on the money he got in return for his wares than for the smiles that accompanied them.
The little kids were the best, their looks of wonder reminding him of why his love affair with this game had persisted even when neither of his marriages had. Probably for the best though. Baseball had always been his mistress, so not having to sneak around to see her made things better for everyone involved. And though she had simple tastes, nostalgia didn’t pay the bills.
“Programs! Get your pro…grams.”
He doubted anyone really noticed or cared, but Ralph cleared his throat so as to make his little hitch seem more inconspicuous anyway. Assessing the crowd as he always did, he thought at first that the Little League cap coming up on his left was another of those children that made his job the best in the world, or at least in the greater metro area. But his voice, clear and true as ever in spite of his lost youth, failed him when the face beneath the brim of the cap revealed itself as that of a grown man.
It wasn’t the face itself, more pedestrian than the foot traffic flowing around him, that shook Ralph, but the look in the man’s eyes. He’d seen that same look when his first wife had told him she was leaving. Always so full of joy, he remembered wishing he could swim in the smoky topaz pools of her irises, particularly when the light from her smile flashed off of their twin surfaces. Oh, and then there was the liquid spark that ignited in them when she was feeling amorous. But all he saw looking back at him that day was a pair of pebbles as dull as flint and twice as sharp.
By the the time he had come back to the here and now, the man was gone. Wiping his cheek with the back of his hand, Ralph shook his head to knock free the unwelcome cobwebs that had clouded an otherwise pristine afternoon and got back to the task at hand.
“Oh, hey, check it out,” Andrea Yates said to her friend, and fellow usher, Johnna Burdsall.
“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting this is your first season. See that guy over there? Comes here every year. I could be wrong, but it feels like it’s always the same time.”
“How do you even remember that?”
“How could you forget? Look at him, with that too-small hat he can barely even snap together. Besides, he’s caused a little trouble getting aggressive going after foul balls. And he always gets two seats right on the aisle so no one sits by him. I think he’s a little, uh, what are you supposed to call it now? On the spectrum,” Andrea closes with air quotes.
“Huh. He looks kinda sad.”
“Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”
That’s one way to put it, Johhna repeats silently, turning her back to the strange man just one section over lest she think about him further.
Tim Rogers held his son’s hand as they walked up the steps from the mezzanine and out into the summer sunlight that seemed to have set the verdant field before them ablaze. Little Colin stopped short, frozen by the fire, and his father loosened his grip to let the boy’s hand fall back to his side. The boy soon felt his father’s hand guiding him to their seats, but even though his jaw was still dragging on the aging concrete, the shoes he’d only recently learned to tie on his own never touched the ground.
They walked past a pair of ushers who seemed occupied with with a conversation about a fan and made their way to their section, walking down the aisle to their pair of seats. Colin had never been to a real baseball game, but he’d been to other events and was always concerned that a big person would be sitting in front of him. He hated having to move around to see, so his relief was palpable when he saw that, while his dad was behind another adult, the seat in front of Colin was unoccupied.
“Dad, why’s that man wearing that hat? It’s too small for him.”
“Hey, buddy, it’s not nice to talk about people like that,” Tim leaned in to admonish in a whispered tone, casting a sidelong glance to see whether the fan in front of him had heard.
“You wanna go grab a pretzel, bud?”
Tim couldn’t help but smile a little at his son’s observation. While he’d chided the boy, he had to admit he’d been thinking the same thing. What the hell was the deal with that hat? Oh well, the guy didn’t seem to have heard or at least hadn’t given Colin a dirty look. Small victories.
But no sooner had it touched his lips than his thoughts turned to that incongruous hat and inverted Tim’s grin. He’d been looking forward to taking his son to his first game since he’d first held that squirming bundle swaddled in a hospital blanket, but now the last thing he wanted to do was to face 9 innings of staring at that flimsy plastic band.
“Oh, the thing we do for our kids,” he said as he hustled to keep up with Colin’s hastening steps.
Shawna Stevens loved day baseball because it reminded her of her dad, of growing up listening to the games on the radio as they drove or watching on TV on his rare days off. Mom was never much for sports, had always wanted her only daughter to share some her interests. But Shawna had always been a bit of a tomboy and enjoyed being out on the court or the field than playing with Barbies. For her, the ballpark was home and the rest of the fans family.
As such, she would scan the crowd at every game to see who was in attendance at that particular reunion. There was a bachelor party out in the bleachers and what looked like a sorority group in the upper deck. Then Shawna looked across the diamond to see a father and son eagerly pointing around the ballpark. First game, definitely. And who was that immediately in front of them with the hat?
He seemed familiar but in a way she couldn’t place, like that cousin you’ve never met but who has your grandpa’s nose. Kinda got that creeper vibe too, no wonder no one’s sitting next to him. Good thing the game’s about to start.
With the home team up a run in the 6th, the cleanup hitter got under an outside pitch. Shawna tracked the foul pop as it arced toward the father and son and the dude with the too-small hat. As the latter jumped from his seat, she noticed that he was wearing a too-small glove on his hand. That mitt darted out to snag the ball before it could fall into the waiting hands of the kid behind him. Crestfallen, the little boy began to cry.
“C’mon, man, give it to the kid,” Shawna exhorted, hoping that the karmic influence of her words will bear fruit.
She was too far away to tell for sure, but as she looked back it appeared as though the man in the hat was crying as well.
Mike Jonas rose along with the rest of the home crowd to exhort his team to get the final out. He glanced down to his left to see a dude heading for the exit and, wait, isn’t that the foul ball guy? Yeah, that’s gotta be him. Shoulda given that ball to a kid. Despite the energy in the stadium, the man appeared almost somber and uncaring. A few beers deep and still a little pissed at the guy for failing to hand the ball to that little kid, Mike was feeling a little froggy.
“What the hell, chief, there’s only one out to go!”
What Mike saw when the man looked his way in acknowledgement turned his boisterous applause into a golf clap and doused his spirits with all the comfort and subtlety of a fresh beer being tipped down the back of his shirt. The man was wearing what might be loosely defined as a smile, but he had tears streaming down his cheeks, and the combination was as off-putting as any of those found-footage horror films Mike’s girlfriend was so enamored of. The emotional inertia passed as the man broke his gaze and continued out to the mezzanine, though it felt to Mike as though a bit of him had left too, like getting your shirt caught on an exposed nail and leaving some of the torn fabric behind.
Dave Mitchell was just finishing up with the weed whip in the back corner of the graveyard, one of his least favorite jobs. His dad had won the bid on the cemetary a couple years ago, a development about which Dave had conflicting opinions. What had started as a favor for a few old ladies in the neighborhood was now a thriving business. David Mitchell the elder had actually been able to quit his teaching job, had had to really, when the lawncare gig took off. But that didn’t mean his son had to enjoy every aspect of it.
Dave often tried to avoid reading them, but this time his eyes were drawn to a tombstone with SANDERS engraved on it. Just below was the name JARED. While they hadn’t been great friends or anything, Dave and Jared had played on the same Little League team. Carpenter’s, was it? Yeah, that was it. They used to go out to a real ballgame every year after the season had ended, a bunch of kids getting the chance to see they players they tried to emulate on the diamond.
When they’d gone to those games, Dave remembered, Jared was always trying to catch foul pops. Didn’t matter that he had no shot, he would always stretch for them. Mr. Sanders had helped out a little with coaching and he’d always chaperoned those trips. He used to laugh when Jared would go diving around, just enjoying his kid being a kid.
Jared never got the chance to play that last year of Little League, though. Dave put on the memory like a lead vest, recalling the news that his teammate had been killed in a car accident not long before school started up that fall.
And that’s why you don’t look at the headstones.
Sufficiently depressed and finished with his work, Dave turned to head back toward the truck. Tired as it was from working the trimmer for the last hour or so, he still managed to raise his left hand in a passive greeting to the car rolling by. It was a habit he’d picked up from his grandfather, a longtime circuit court judge who’d regularly run unopposed as a Democrat in a Republican county. Grandpa waved to every car he passed on the road, explaining that you never knew when a potential voter might recognize you.
Dave wasn’t planning on running for office at any point, certainly not in his hometown, but he figured it was sound advice just the same.
No one saw the melancholy man as he got out of his car and walked over to kneel before the marble headstone, removing his too-small blue hat emblazoned with the word Carpenter’s in fading red script and setting it beneath a date that matched today’s, but for the fact that it was frozen 10 years in the past. No one watched as the man once again reached for a baseball, pulling the long-awaited prize from the pocket of his cargo shorts and placing it next to the hat. And even if anyone had been paying attention, it’s doubtful they’d have heard the muffled words forced out through wet sobs.
“Happy birthday, pal. You finally got one”
And then Eric Sanders did something really strange, at least for him: he laughed.
The recollection responsible for triggering his first authentic chuckle in nearly a decade is hidden from even the omniscience of the author, but you can probably guess who and what was at the center of it.