The pitcher glared at me from the peak of a dirt covered mound, his eyes shaded by the bill of his cap. He went into his windup and released a fastball on the inside half of the plate. I hesitated for a second and by then it was too late. I gave out a weak swing in hopes of fouling off this 0-2 pitch, but just finished up the inning instead.
“Come on Wes, you’re better than that,” said Brian our starting third baseman. Brian was one of my best friends on the team and for that matter, my best friend over all.
I smacked my batting gloves on the dugout pole and a cloud of brown dust rose from the air. I grabbed my second baseman glove and jogged out to my position. As I reached my destined spot between second and first, our left fielder Joe gave me a pat on the back and said “Hey man, don’t sweat it.” It was nice to hear because Joe and I don’t usually get along very well, but, he has been battling a hitting slump too and knows how it feels to be frustrated.
It’s the bottom of the sixth and we’re up by one run. Aaron, our starting pitcher, still has his stuff and strikes out the first two batters before I know it. The third, and last, batter attempted a bunt which was easily gobbled up by our catcher, Justin, and thrown out at first.
“We may have won that game, but we all know that the Miami Braves won’t be so easy,” said coach Phillips pointing at the bracket. Sure enough there it was…
South Bend Hornets-------------vs-------------Miami Braves
This tournament was especially tough, because our team is Division II but our opponents were Division I. As coach finished up his post game pep talk I could feel myself getting hungrier by the minute.
After we left the huddle I turned to Brian,“Hey Brian,” I said “do you want to come to the Big Dog Café with me?”
“Sure I'm up for that. Let me just ask my parents.”
At the Big Dog Café I got a call from my mom. As I answered I could hear crying in the background and knew something was wrong!
“Hello, Mom, what happened? Are you okay?” I spoke in a now shaky voice and almost dropped the phone when I heard the next words she said.
“Uncle Todd… just… ohhh.” More sobs came through the phone before she finished the sentence, “just… passed away!”
My heart dropped. My Uncle Todd was a huge baseball fanatic like me and was the first person who taught me how to throw a ball. The man was the closest relative I had. I remember him telling me stories of when he played for the St. Louis Cardinals. He played for twelve years, 1961-1973 and won the ‘64 and ’67 World Series.
“Guys…” I said to Brian and Aaron who came and were eating with me watching YouTube videos on their phones, “My…” I fought back tears, I couldn’t say it. “ I gotta go.”
Uncle Todd died at the St. José Medical Hospital which was about thirty minutes from the café and forty five minutes from my house. My mom and I left the café after she picked me up and drove to the hospital.
The ride was very quiet and somewhat awkward. When we reached the hospital, I jumped out of the car and ran into the waiting room, where my mom entered shortly after I did. My father was still working but was finishing up his shift before he would come out. The doctor showed us the way to Uncle Todd’s room. He told us that the “Life Alert” necklace he was wearing had gone off after Uncle Todd fell on his side and hit his head, which, according to the doctor's report, was what killed him. We sat by his bedside telling stories of when and how he lived his life. My dad showed up and we said our thoughts and left.
“In less than two weeks is our annual Field of Dreams Tournament at the local minor league team, ‘The Dirtbags’, home field,” I said to Brian at school the next day.
“Yeah, I’m so excited to play in it again. Did you remember we had a test today?” said Brian, questioning my memory. I gave him a look of disaster like you would if you forgot to put on pants before you went into public.
Only this would be more embarrassing. I am an A+ student on the honor roll at my school and my parents have always said that unless I keep an A- average, they won’t allow me to play baseball anymore.
The worst part is that this test happens to be in my worst subject, Science.
“So…” says Brian. “You didn’t study for the subject that you’re getting your worst grades on, and the only test that consists of 78% of your grade. If you don’t get an A- on this test your grade might take you off the team.”
“Yeah, but it’s only because of my parents’ stupid rule!” I said to Brian trying to hold back the tears that were burning in my eyes.
The period bell rang loud through the hallways and caught me off guard. “We gotta go,” I said to Brian still dreading the events that would take place if I didn’t get a really good grade on this test.
Mr. Jennings, our science teacher, put the test down in front of me. As I looked it over I knew that Coach would have an empty spot where my name should be.
I started the test and finished the test in about twenty minutes and figured I would work on my excuse to my parents for the last ten minutes of class.
When I got home, my parents had no idea what grade I got on the test but still said “So I guess you won’t be playing this week unless you ace the quiz on Friday.” But, there was also good news in what they said too.
“We have a quiz on Friday? What class?!?” I said, hopeful that maybe I could bring up my grade before the weekend.
“Well, I’m not sure… but I think it’s on Math. Your favorite subject.”
The same thing that had almost died inside of me had just been given new life once more and I quickly ran to my room and spent the rest of the night, except for dinner, studying until my hands cramped.
At around 11:30 PM my mom yelled that it was time for bed. I had one more problem to do in my study guide. I finished and took a shower. When I looked at the clock as I climbed in bed I thought I was seeing things, the clock read 1:14. Was I really in the shower for an hour and forty five minutes? And if I was, did I fall asleep with the water on? ‘Huh’ I thought to myself as I finally dozed off - again.
“Alright, get up time for school” said my dad as he put his tie around his neck. I felt really tired, but I managed to remember every problem from the night before. I got up put on my t-shirt and sweatpants and went downstairs for breakfast. As I sat down my mother looked at me as though I hadn’t showered in a week. She asked me if I had slept well and I, not wanting to say that I got to bed at 1 AM told her the opposite “Yeah, I got a full night rest for our test today.” I finished my bacon and eggs then grabbed my backpack. As I left I noticed that my lunch consisted of my favorite food, Noodles and Company Mac and Cheese with Bacon on top. I couldn’t focus on anything but the test that would determine whether I go to the biggest youth baseball tournament in the country or not. On the bus ride I stared out the window at the rising sun.
As the test approached I felt as though nothing could stop me. Yet when the third period bell rang I rushed to math class for a good seat right in the back so no one could copy my work. Only to find myself constantly looking at the clock. Mr. Newton entered the classroom, went to the whiteboard and wrote down ‘test today on geometric proofs’. As he set the three page test down in front of me I looked at the questions and knew I could ace it.
When math class let out I met Brian in the hallway and we talked about the tournament.
“Do you want to bunk with me?” I asked.
“Yes, but, I have to ride with you.”
“That’s fine, we have a seven-seater.”
“Then I’ll come with you.” It was done! I had aced my test and my friend was coming to the tournament with me.
“Honey, I’m home!” said my mom as she entered the back door “how was the test?”
“Great,” I said “ I got an A+ with two extra credit points!”
“That’s great! How’s Brian?”
“He’s good, speaking of him...” I answered,” can he stay at the tournament with us?
“Sure, if it’s okay with his parents.”
“Sweet!” I had only one thing to do - get packed. “Four shirts, four pairs of pants, five pairs of socks, jersey, pants, cleats, hat, am I forgetting anything?”
“How about some underwear,” said my dad who was looking over my ‘packing list’.
Three days until the tournament everything was falling into place, my grades were up, my parents were okay with taking my best friend, my coach has a starting spot on the roster with my name on it and it all was happening in three days.
The days went fast and in 72 hours it was time. We stopped by Brian’s House before driving out to I-94. We played multiple car games and slept a lot, we even watched a movie on our fold down car tv. But sixteen hours later we were at the Cal Ripken Experience in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
We arrived at the hotel and found our room, a three bedroom condo with a balcony overlooking the ocean. Brian got the top bunk in my room and I took the lower. We put our clothes in the dresser but kept our bathing suits out. We finished unpacking and made our way down to the beach with our bathing suits on.
I had never been to the ocean before and neither had Brian. As we took in our surroundings we both noticed, seemingly at the same time, that there was a fin poking out of the water. A shark? No. A dolphin! We ran over to the lifeguard and asked if it was safe to swim with it. He answered with an authoritative yet calm “yes.” We made our way into the water and waded out until we had to swim to a sand bank about forty yards off shore where the dolphin was attempting to backflip out of the water. The dolphin succeeded and gracefully made its way back out to sea as it had noticed us standing there in the waist deep water watching him in great captivation. We headed back to land while diving into waves. When we reached land we dried off and went to the Sea Side restaurant where we got two non-alcoholic pina coladas. After finishing our beverages we went back to the condo for dinner.
“Hey boys did you have fun?” said my mom while she was made her famous baby-back ribs.
“Yeah, we saw a dolphin!” said Brian, eyeing the ribs.
“A dolphin!” said my dad who’s attention was no longer on the football game. “How big?”
“About yea’ big” I said as Brian and I demonstrated the size.
“Wow. Did you boys have anything to eat?”
“Only two pina coladas,” Brian answered. We made our way over to the tv which was on a different football game now.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” said my mom in the other room.
We ate our dinner watched some football and got to bed around 9:30.
The morning sun pierced our eyes even through the blinds. Brian and I got up and put on our uniform in time to make breakfast which was my dad's pancake and sausage “Breakfast of champions.” We finished our breakfast and went to the field.
We were scheduled to play four games but could possibly play five. The teams in my division were all seeded by how their previous record. When we saw that we were the one seed and got to skip the first round we went to the complementary players spa and relaxed until our 4 o’clock game. When four o'clock came around we destroyed the six seed 10-3. The next game was a seven o’clock game which again we won 10-3. The third game was not so pretty, we lost in the last inning with a walk off two run homer, 4-5. We had made it to the last game of the tourney, a seven o’clock game against the two seed.
The whole team seemed to arrive all at once. They walked in sat down there equipment and headed to the batting cages while my team headed to the practice field to work on our 6-4-3 double play. A half hour later we hit the cages and then went to the field. We set up before the game like any other, play catch, hit wiffle balls, take grounders then take the field. The first the innings were uneventful with no runs. But in the fourth inning the PBA (Premiere Baseball Academy) from Florida put up four runs. We countered with none. The fifth and sixth were also uneventful, but in the bottom of the seventh and final inning we loaded the bases with one out. Justin was up to bat and knocked in a run with a line drive to center. Joe was up next and struck out on a 3-2 curveball. I was up and as any kid would have imagined it was the last inning, bases loaded, two outs down by three. I stepped up to the plate grinding my foot in the back of the box then planting my left foot in the front. I settled in and let the first two balls go by. But the next one I hardly saw coming. It was a slider on the inside half of the plate, 2-1. I thought of what my uncle had always told me, relax in the windup, fire through on the pitch. I stepped in, doing the same routine as always, before fouling of a changeup that was slightly low in the zone. The 2-2 pitch that he threw next almost caught me swinging but I laid off the fastball in the dirt. On the last pitch of the at bat the crowd was cheering but I didn’t hear it. I was focused on one thing “contact.”
It all seemed slow motion, the nod of the head, the windup, the pitch and the swing of the bat. The ball jumped off my bat and floated out to right field but cutting right sharply. Foul ball. The same thing happened on the next pitch and I could tell it was wearing on their pitcher. He nodded to the pit]]]and let out a hanging curveball. Then the ping of the ball off my bat. It flied through the air hitting off the wall and bouncing away from the left fielder as I rounded second. My third base coach held up the stop sign but I blew right past it. The ball had been thrown but now all that mattered was how accurate was the throw and how fast did I need to be to out run this ball. About 10 ft. in front of me the catcher caught the ball but began to fall back. I slid into home. I was safe!