Impossible Dreams

How many kids grow up dreaming of becoming baseball players? (via Joel Dinda)

When a ballplayer tells you that he “doesn’t pay attention to that stuff,” he is almost certainly lying.

Kurt Hager noticed every single White Sox scout that attended a game of the Springfield Railsplitters. That wasn’t always hard — last night was the Single-A debut of teenage flamethrower Patricio Rendón, and even with the sellout crowd, it seemed like every other person was carrying a radar gun and furtively scribbling in a notebook. Kurt had come to recognize most of them by sight, some by name.

“Christ, I think that’s the GM,” the pitching coach had said to him. “Over there, in the third row.” Kurt nodded. He recognized him from spring -raining. Whenever his boss had walked by the bullpen in Arizona, Kurt tried to throw a little bit harder, get a little bit more movement. Kurt always noticed who was watching his bullpens.

And now today, Kurt’s start, he noticed how much smaller the crowd was than it had been for Rendón’s. He noticed the scout — just one — sitting over the first base dugout.

Whether it was on the field, in the dugout, on the bus, or in his bed, there was one thing in particular that Kurt couldn’t ignore: the draft had been two weeks ago. What had once been the greatest moment of his life had, two years later, become a source of omnipresent, gnawing dread. Within the next few weeks, wide-eyed players with brand new contracts would need to be placed on rosters — and, one way or another, someone else would have to be removed. The Railsplitters had already been given a taste of it — when Rendón was called up, Rolland Hunter was gone. The other players got to practice one morning and his locker was empty, like he’d been wished away to the cornfield. Granted his release. For players on the fringes of the White Sox system, like Kurt, the still-empty locker commanded the room like the casket at the front of a funeral parlor.

Kurt knew the facts. He was now 24 years old, repeating at Springfield. There was no denying that he was doing better this year— and he felt worlds better— but he was still here, in central Illinois. And the world was not kind to 24-year-olds in Single-A with an ERA of 4. No, it was down 3.98 after the last start. Not that Kurt was counting. The shortstop on his University of Central Florida team, Dorian, had been taken by Washington five rounds before Kurt had. He had just been called up to Double-A after hitting .320.

On the list of things one “doesn’t pay attention to,” minor league prospect rankings were at the very top. Kurt had never topped any lists, but he had been able to find himself somewhere in the low teens after he was drafted. Now, with post-draft rankings starting to trickle out, he had found his name on only a single top-30 ranking.

#28 Kurt Hager, SP, Springfield (full-season A)

Hager is starting to show signs of life after his brutal debut a year ago for the Splitters, but his future is muddied by some larger problems. The secondary stuff is good for his level, but the lack of a good fastball is going to get exposed the higher he goes. He has neither the command, the control, the velocity, nor the projectability to see where he makes meaningful improvements in any of those. Some scouts have wondered about a move to the bullpen, but I’m not sure that even that will be able to hide his shortcomings as a prospect. I have him as organizational filler.

The prospect rankings, the draft, Rolland Hunter, Patricio Rendón, the ERA, Dorian, the White Sox, the scout, the empty seat where the GM had been last night — Kurt tried to shut them all out as he stepped onto the mound. There was only one way to get out of Springfield: pitching better.

***

Kurt had his good stuff tonight. Five scoreless so far. But here in the sixth, he’d walked the leadoff man. The two-hole, a shortstop five years Kurt’s junior, dug in from the left side.

A first-pitch breaking ball is a sign of weakness, his pitching coach had once said. Ridley, his catcher, indicated fastball. Kurt nodded.

The batter swung at the pitch on his hands, popping it over the screen. Ridley put down another fastball. Kurt shook his head. No, the change. I’ve got him where I want him. From the stretch, Kurt let the change-up go. It was a good one, too, plunging out of the strike zone. The batter nearly threw his bat at the ball, cueing it towards third. The third baseman ranged to his left to take the easy grounder.

On Baseball, Game Design, and Output Randomness
Considering baseball through the lens of game design.

But at the last moment he looked up, maybe to look where to throw to start the double play. The ball bounced off his glove. Everyone was safe. Two on, none out. Kurt looked up at the scoreboard, another thing he ostensibly paid no mind. A hit? Are you kidding me?

Kurt had learned early on that scouts paid a shocking amount of attention to a player’s demeanor on the field. As the third baseman tossed the ball back to him, Kurt was chewing on the inside of his cheek to keep his face steady. He should have had it.

He worked the next batter to a full count. Ridley began their silent conversation. Fastball.

Kurt shook his head. He hit that last one pretty hard.

Ridley asked for a change-up.

I can’t walk him. Kurt shook again. I can’t walk him, and he knows it.

He should have had it.

Neither the command, the control, the velocity…

The secondary stuff is good…

Ridley called fastball again. Again, Kurt shook. Slowly, almost questioningly, Ridley put down the slider. Kurt nodded.

He’s 19 years old. He knows I can’t walk him, and he wants a full-count fastball. Kurt started his motion.

The batter never even took the bat off his shoulder. Maybe he knew somehow, maybe he guessed. The ball bounced off the plate, and now the bases were loaded. Cleanup hitter coming up.

A first-pitch breaking ball is a sign of weakness, Kurt thought as he started to the plate. Fastball, inner half. The hitter swung. Kurt didn’t even look to follow it into the night. Instead, he looked past first base to see his manager start out of the dugout

5 IP, 4ER, 1HR. Note: Hager faced four batters in the sixth.

There is a gentlemen’s agreement in clubhouses that you leave an angry pitcher alone for a few minutes after he returns to the dugout, and that you never talk about what he might do to inanimate objects. No one even met Kurt’s gaze as he grabbed a bat from the rack and disappeared below the stairs.

***

In an effort to protect their money from anything that might reduce their millions of dollars in annual profits, major league owners liked to penny pinch at the minor league level. Knowing players couldn’t afford their own places on their minor league salaries, while also being reticent to pay for hotels for the home half of the season, owners instead asked nearby families to “host” players in exchange for a small stipend. Normally these were new empty-nesters with rooms to spare. Kurt, however, had been living with the Spiegels since he first arrived in Springfield. Ted and Charlotte were 29 and 28, respectively, and had been married for a couple of years. They’d bought a house with a guest bedroom, and when the Railsplitters started looking for host homes, the Spiegels offered it.

Finding out in spring training that he’d been assigned to Springfield again was a bitter pill. It had been sugar-coated, however, by the news that he would be living with the Spiegels for this season, too. Ted was often away for work, but over the last two years, Charlotte had become one of his closest friends. They would stay up for hours after games talking about baseball, life, and all the other things. She even tried to come to a game every home stand.

She wasn’t able to be there tonight, but it wasn’t a surprise to find her up and waiting for him. She didn’t need to see his woeful countenance to know what had happened. The radio had filled her in already.

There were two mugs of herbal tea on the living room table. It was always tea with her, win or lose, good start or bad. Sometimes, after day games, it was a black tea. She hadn’t forced it upon him. One day, there were just two cups of tea. It felt somehow more natural. A moment of peace.

“How bad was the grounder?” Charlotte asked. “The radio guy thought it was an error.”

After the game, Kurt had to give some report, a perfectly robotic professional ballplayer response. These things happen in baseball, I’m his teammate and I have to pick him up as his pitcher. He makes that play 99% of the time, and he’ll make it for me next start.

If there was a next start.

But with Charlotte, he was able to show himself. His real self. “It was an error. But he’s the fifth-best White Sox prospect. He can’t have errors on his scouting report,” he said.

When he looked up, her eyes were pensive. “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically. “I know I’ve been a downer lately.”

“No, it’s okay. But what’s really going on?” Charlotte was an elementary school teacher. She could have a more sophisticated talk with Kurt than she could with her students, but at the same time, her skills translated well. She had a way of making him feel at ease: questioning without judging, pushing only to where he needed to go.

Kurt took a sip of his tea to buy a second. Her eyes were bright, expectant.

“I think the White Sox are going to have to make a decision about me. Soon.” Kurt said at last. “And I don’t know what it’s going to be.”

“And you’re afraid of getting released?”

“I am, but –” He stopped, considering. “But that’s the thing, I guess. If they do promote me, wouldn’t I just be living on borrowed time? I don’t think there’s some secret I’m missing, some corner to turn. I’m the best pitcher I’ve ever been. The best pitcher I can be. I feel like…” He trailed off.

Charlotte waited. She said nothing, her eyes glowing.

“I feel like I won’t be a major league baseball player. And if that’s true, then if they send me to high-A, I’d be pulling up roots again for nothing. I’d be leaving Springfield for nothing.”

Leaving you.

Charlotte took a long draft of her tea. Kurt wondered if she, too, was stalling. When she spoke again, her voice was soft.

“I spend so much time telling my students that they can do anything they dream of. And it’s hard because I know that most of them never will. I’m not the lucky teacher who has a classroom with nine astronauts.”

Kurt laughed.

“I’m serious,” she said, but she was laughing too. “Did you know that four of them last year said they wanted to be President?”

“Watch out for those ones.”

“Kurt.” She took looked down at her mug, then back up, with a kind of determination. “We all start with some sort of wild, unbelievable dream. Almost none of us make it, but you still have a chance at yours. I won’t lie to you and tell you that it’s a good chance. But all of the children in the world who say they want to play professional baseball, how many of them even get drafted? How many of them even ever have a scout watch them throw? How many people ever get to play for the Springfield Railsplitters? I know you feel like you’re a million miles away, but you’re really just an inch or two, even now. We all have the rest of our lives to regret, but such a short time to make something permanent of ourselves.”

Kurt was silent for a while.

“What was yours?” he asked.

“My what?”

“Your dream.”

“I…” She looked down and started fidgeting with her now-empty cup. “I wanted to be a biologist. I wanted to see the world. I remember telling my first-grade teacher that I was going to find a new species of shark.” There was a sad shade of laughter in her voice. “There are not terribly many sharks in Illinois.”

“I like that, though. Is that what you studied in school?”

“At first. A biology degree was a lot, though, with the amount I had to work to pay for it all. I couldn’t do that coursework and keep my job. Jobs, plural, sometimes.” She ran a hand through her hair. “I liked tutoring, though, so I switched to elementary ed my sophomore year. Then I met Ted, and… here we are.” She gestured around the house, something flickering behind the usual warmth of her face.

“It’s not the same as diving expeditions, but I like it here,” Kurt said. “I like the people, here. You guys.”

“Oh, it’s just fine here. I just wonder sometimes if this would be different.” She let the start of the sentence hang in the air before finishing. “If other things were different. When the dream falls apart, you make the best of what’s left. Find a new dream, one a little smaller maybe.”

“I like it,” Kurt said. He raised his empty mug in a toast. “To sharks, to baseball, to dreams.” Amused, Charlotte raised hers, too.

“To every man his Dulcinea,” she offered. Once last year, during an off day while Ted was again away, Charlotte had taken him to see Man of la Mancha at the high school. It was probably his happiest memory of that awful season.

They stayed up for a while longer. In the early hours of the morning, Kurt finally started to climb the stairs to bed. As he did, Charlotte called after him.

“Kurt,” she said, “I’m just curious. If it doesn’t happen, if they do release you… what will you do?”

He started to answer, but something in his throat caught. And he realized all of a sudden that he didn’t have one, not really. In his mind, it hadn’t been a choice between baseball and something else. It was baseball or something akin to death. When the White Sox called, he would either be a professional baseball player or be cast into oblivion. But Charlotte was right: even in the face of failure, we have no choice but to reforge ourselves. Find a smaller dream.

“I don’t know.” He took a step forward. “Every time anyone’s ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be a baseball player.”

***

What will you do?

Six days later, it was Kurt’s start again. He’d sat on pins and needles for the first few days after the last start, secretly checking his phone several times a day for White Sox news. It wasn’t until his next bullpen session that he’d started to relax. Surely it would be some form of cruel and unusual punishment to make a pitcher throw a bullpen just to release him.

Charlotte wasn’t able to make this game, either, because of some sort of meeting she refused to discuss with him. She had seemed strange all week, like there was some energy animating her.

Deep in thought, Kurt took the mound.

What does an ex-baseball player do with a math degree?

Ridley, catching again, called slider. The word cowardice bounced around Kurt’s mind, like an echo from a past life. No matter. Kurt threw the slider for a called strike.

I do have the math degree. I could teach.

Fastball. Slider. Fastball. Change. Whatever Ridley wanted, Kurt threw. At one point the batter changed. At another, Kurt charged off the mound picked up a ball, and fired a strike to first. Routine.

I bet I could even coach high school. That wouldn’t be so bad. No sense quitting cold turkey. Springfield has some good baseball programs.

Both Ridley and the batter stood up and walked away from the plate. Kurt stood for a moment before realizing that the inning was over.

The length of an arc is equal to the circumference of the circle, multiplied by the fraction representing the arc’s percentage of the circle.

The two-seamer ran back over the plate. The designated hitter, a mountain of a man who seemed likely to hit 50 home runs before one triple, dropped his bat in disgust. He tipped his helmet to Kurt as he walked back to his dugout.

For this function, it is impossible that the result will ever reach 2. This is a concept we refer to as a limit. 

Double play.

I wonder if I could still live with Charlotte.

The batter fell to one knee as the slider passed harmlessly beneath his bat. As Kurt walked down the stairs into the Railsplitters’ dugout, his teammates patted him on the back. Seven innings, one hit. 11 strikeouts.

After the game, the manager called him into his office.

“That’s the best start I think you’ve ever had, Kurt,” Leni said.

“Thank you. I felt completely in control.” And he had— he felt almost detached, as though the game were a bullpen session on the backfields in March, instead of the most important innings of his career. So Leni’s next words came as a particular shock.

“But it is the last start you’re going to make for us. The White Sox just called me.”

What will you do?

***

Charlotte was up waiting for him. The table was empty. No tea. Just Charlotte’s nervous hands, twisting and untwisting themselves.

God, please tell me nothing’s out. I want to tell her myself. Kurt forced a smile.

“Someone looks cheerful,” he said.

“I’m sorry for keeping it a secret, but I was so nervous.” The words tumbled out of her mouth. “But that meeting? It was a job interview. After we talked, I was thinking. And then, all of a sudden, the middle school was looking for a biology teacher — someone got sick, and it was this short-notice thing. This school district is so understaffed. And –”

“And?” Kurt said, knowing the answer.

“I got it!” She sprinted over and threw her arms around him. “God, I’m so happy right now. I want to call Ted and tell him soon, but I just had to tell you.”

Noticing something off, she backed away.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Charlotte, I — ” he started. His smile broke. “The White Sox called. They’re promoting me to Cocoa Beach. My plane leaves in two days.”

As it dawned on her what he meant, her face changed. There was a sadness in her eyes, but the smile was genuine.

“Kurt! Congratulations!”

“I’m going to miss you, Charlotte. And Ted. I can’t thank—”

“No, stop, enough, you’ll make me cry. Tonight we’re celebrating. For both of us.” She grabbed a bottle of wine and poured some into two glasses.

“No tea?”

“Oh, we’ll make an exception for tonight.” She handed him one and raised her glass to his. A tear in her eye and a big grin on her face, she gave her toast. “To the Cocoa Beach Rockets.”

“To biology,” he said with a sad smile of his own. As the glasses touched, Kurt wondered who Dulcinea really was.


newest oldest most voted
ScooterPie
Member
ScooterPie

Fantastic!