When the Sparrow Sings – Bottom of the Eighth/Top of the Ninth

"We will have to throw everything we have, whatever that means." (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“We will have to throw everything we have, whatever that means.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

Bottom of the Eighth

This should be our last time batting. Ward is out for a second inning. Not because they are giving up, but because he did not pitch last night and we have the day off tomorrow and he got through the middle of the order just fine last inning. He’s good. He still has gas in the tank. He isn’t going anywhere.

Dave is up first. Dave is the best kind of player to have up in this situation. He’s been around a long time. He never gets too comfortable, nor does he relax entirely. He just is. He goes into every at-bat that same way, knowing what he can and cannot do against a pitcher.

I can imagine Kristen being like Dave when she gets a little older. They both have a steadfastness to them, though Kristen veers more toward stubborn than Dave. I’ll never be like either of them. I fold easily. I wonder, sometimes, what kind of pitcher I’ll be when I start to lose my stuff. I’ve never been good at accepting my limitations.

Kristen had a complex relationship with Dad. She resented a lot of things about him. His casual misogyny. How he lavished attention on my development while mostly ignoring her even though she worked harder than I did. These were not likable parts of Dad. But they are the same in a lot of ways, and that’s what kept them close, I think. Dad wanted to be a baseball player, but he couldn’t be, so he made me into one. Kirsten wanted to be a baseball player, but she couldn’t be, so now she puts all her extra time into this nonprofit that gets girls to play baseball. Those two things aren’t so different. It’s adjustment. Finding a different way to satisfy desire.

Kristen could see what other people wanted, though. I guess that’s because she’s a girl. I don’t know if the world will let you be a girl and pay attention only to what you want. Dad wanted me to be a major leaguer. Kristen wanted herself to be one, but she also wanted Dad to have what he wanted, so she helped. What Kristen wanted never entered Dad’s mind. I don’t know if what I wanted did either.

For a long time, it was Dad who got the benefit of Kristen, but for the last few years, I have.

Everyone was there for my debut, of course, but after that, Mom and Dad went back home and it was only Kristen. I liked having her around during my first full year. The team was pretty bad and there were a lot of guys who knew this was going to be their last or their only major league job and I think the pessimism overwhelmed the clubhouse. There were plenty of days when I didn’t like going to work, but Kristen was quick to remind me that it could be a lot worse and that teams can change in a hurry. It really takes only a couple of decent guys to make work fun again. So I held on.

Everyone knows that teams have a little section set aside for the families of players. Mostly, this is wives and girlfriends, but at the beginning, Kristen was there every time I pitched. Later, Sydney took over, but that’s also mostly to do with Kristen, too.

Dave grounds out. No big deal. But Brian is up now and I want to pay attention.

If Kristen was the first part of what I needed to be successful, Brian was the second. I think all the time about how much he helped me on the field, but even though he’s only six years older than me, he supplemented Dad really well.

Things with Dad were weird for a long time after I made it up. When I think about that part of my life, I don’t think about Dad much at all. We talked about my games, but that was all. He started to come back into the picture the same year we signed Brian. It was the year I got my first big arbitration raise – we didn’t go to arbitration, the team settled at the last minute – which was enough money that Mom couldn’t tell me to put it all away. Both of my parents refused to quit working or to let me buy them anything new, but they did let me pay off the house for them. I think the gesture really moved Dad, but I didn’t understand why. Brian had to explain it to me.

“It’s because he knows you appreciate what he did.”

Koob and Groom Double Down for the Browns
Two days, three games, and 20 no-hit innings.

“I’ve been trying to do this for three years. They just wouldn’t let me.”

“Did you think your parents would accept when you offered the first time?”

“No. I knew they wouldn’t.”

“Exactly. You re-offered when they didn’t have a reason to say no. That matters.”

“That’s insane.”

Brian reached over and tousled my hair like I was a kid. “You’ll figure it out someday, Junior.” He still drives me nuts with that crap, but he stopped calling me Junior when I won the Cy Young last year. He still puts himself in charge of me, though, which is ridiculous. I am a grown man or something close to it. I don’t need him to tell me what to do. Except sometimes when I’m pitching. Or when I’m figuring out what to do with my girlfriend.

Okay, maybe he should be in charge of me.

He’s fighting like crazy up there against Ward. A bunch of foul balls, but it’s still only 2-2. He has to start his swing too early to work the count. But he keeps fouling bad balls off. This is something he’s been working on. He wants to be able to make contact with balls out of the zone so he can when he has to. I don’t know if it will work. He’s not Vladimir Guerrero. This is what I tell him, but he shrugs and tells me I’ll figure it out someday.

It’s not going to work, though. If he was here next to me, he’d see what Ward’s doing, working it farther and farther away from the strike zone until Brian swings at one he can’t touch. But Brian’s lost his head up there. He’s too busy hoping for the good pitch instead of watching for the bad ones.

And finally, it happens, a fastball way out of the zone Brian looks bad swinging at it and flings his helmet down as he comes into the dugout. He sits down next to me and starts putting his gear on. “I don’t want to hear about it.”

“You know we’re winning, right.”

“Winning and having won are not the same.”

“Always the pessimist.”

“Talk to me when you’re thirty-four.” He’s pulling the straps on his shin guards like they’ve done something to personally offend him.

“Is that when I’ll start letting hitters work me like he worked you?”

He picks up his mask like he’s going to hit me with it and for a moment I’m actually worried, but he sees me and stops. He smiles. “You asshole.”

“You did exactly what he wanted you to do.”

“Well hitters don’t get to stop in the middle of at-bats and talk to coaches, do we?”

Brian does not admit defeat so much as he stops talking about how right he is. This is not the only way Brian is the same as Dad. Having Dad come back into my life willing to talk about things other than baseball was comforting, but combining him with Brian was strange. They both liked telling me what to do and they almost always agreed. They agreed on my pitching. They agreed about what kind of house I should buy. They agreed on how I should spend the offseason. The only thing they didn’t agree on was girls.

I was never a guy who had half a dozen women — that’s just not who I am — but I could get bored easily. There are a lot of great women out there, but the kind of women you meet when you’re a ballplayer who is not really good at seeking out other people are the kind of women who are only interested in you because you’re a ballplayer. These are not the most interesting people in the world. Brian always insisted I should try to find someone to keep around for a while. “You don’t have to marry her. You can take your time, but a little stability helps, man. These guys you see trading women all the time, they get tired. I did that for a while. I got tired. Settle down. Have a quiet life. You’re suited to a quiet life anyway.”

Dad was, I think, permanently scarred by my middle school relationship with Ashley. Parents do this. At least my parents do. They grab onto certain moments in your life — things that happen long before you’re finished figuring out what you’re like — and they decide that this is How You Are. Dad did that with Ashley. He assumed that I was obsessive. That I could  focus on only one thing at a time. To be fair, there was more evidence than just Ashley for this, but still, he didn’t have to seem so terrified when I mentioned that I might want to try to settle down.

“I don’t know, son. Lots of guys, they get a serious girl and they get all that money and they get distracted. Their game suffers.”

Kristen would hear this and immediately point out all the different ways Dad was full of it, but I’m not Kristen, so I just got off the phone.

Dad would have preferred it if I’d just been celibate, but though he might have been unreasonable, Dad wasn’t naïve.

As much as Dad and Brian were trying to push me in different directions with girls, it was Kristen who actually forced my hand during the All-Star break that year. Brian had offered to have me out to stay with his family during the All-Star break — that’s a big gesture, guys don’t get much time with their families during the season — but I declined because I had Kristen in town already and she’d told me we had plans since I didn’t make the team — which was ridiculous, I was having a great year. That’s not the point though. The point was that this was when I met Sydney. Sydney spent a lot of time in the stands for me. Sydney spent most of two seasons in the stands and I have not thought about her once tonight. I don’t know what that says, but I don’t think it’s very good.

I don’t get the chance to dwell yet, though. Brian taps me on the leg and says, “See you in a few,” just as Coates grabs a fly ball from Carver’s bat. We need to get only three more outs. I watch the bench empty and my team trot out onto the field.

Top of the Ninth

Ramon Santiago is out to pitch. At times this year, our bullpen has been an issue, but we have always had two guys we could rely on. If you could get through seven with the lead, Micah and Ramon would take care of it almost every time.

Ramon is out to face the bottom of the order. The script should write itself. Premium closer. Bottom of the order. Two-run lead. This is not a game in much doubt. But still it is the World Series and even though we are objectively better than the other team, bad teams do not find themselves in the World Series. Caution is always merited. I used the laid back atmosphere of the eighth to recover but now, as I knew it would, the tension has returned. The crowd cheered loudly as Ramon trotted in from the bullpen and they have not stopped. Those of us still on the bench are sitting, but we are not reclined. Our backs are straight or we lean forward. Both cleats in contact with the ground.

Sydney had a fight with Dad about this kind of thing when they first met. We had been dating for four months when I brought her home for Thanksgiving. It was a big thing. I had never brought someone over for a major holiday. She wasn’t really a baseball fan. Or she hadn’t been. Kristen had convinced me to meet her by telling me, “Sydney doesn’t even follow baseball. She doesn’t even know who you are. I just told her my brother was nice. It’s not even a set-up.”

“It feels like a set-up.”

“It’s not a set-up. She’s a good friend and I think you two would get along. You need friends, Zack. So does she. Neither of you gets out enough. And she’s cute. Is that so terrible?”

“It’s a set-up.”

Kristen shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t lie well.

It was true. Sydney didn’t know who I was. She did tell me I seemed familiar and asked if we’d met before. When she asked why people kept staring at me, I feigned ignorance.

Sydney and I started seeing each other, as Kristen intended. And she, of course, learned why I seemed so familiar.

“I can’t believe I let Kristen set me up with an athlete!” was the typical exclamation once we’d gotten used to each other. Sydney was the first person other than my mom who seemed to have nothing invested in how I did on the field. She wanted me to do well because that made me happy, but that’s all it was about. She was much more interested in my long-dormant nerdy side, which she discovered in conversation with Kristen.

Like all good significant others, she learned about what I did and I tried to learn exactly what she did, though I believed her when she said it was “boring corporate security stuff,” because, well, doesn’t that sound boring? I gathered that she spent most of her time trying to prevent employees from downloading viruses and then cleaning up the mess when they inevitably did. My job was easier to engage with. The argument she had with Dad was the product of this relatively late-in-life engagement with baseball. She was a grownup and not inclined to accept standard doctrine.

“I don’t understand why the crowd just erupts for someone who’s coming in to get three easy outs at the end of the game.”

“Oh, they cheer for everybody.”

“But shouldn’t they cheer the most for the player who has the hardest job.”

“You just don’t understand baseball.”

Dad turned away after he said this but a little smile crept onto his face. He and Sydney had this same argument a lot. She’d gotten interested in all the advanced stats. She didn’t like ERA. She thought the closer was stupid. Dad wasn’t a dinosaur, but he didn’t buy into all of that either. I could tell he liked having someone to argue about baseball with. Kristen and I had gotten tired of it ages ago and Mom never had the energy, but Sydney didn’t back down from any argument and she read all the time. Dad used to tease her about that. “You’re always telling me how you read something. You ever watch the game? Do that and you’ll know why they cheer for the guy who gets the last three outs.”

Ramon has gotten a lot of cheers this year and he gets the first out when Takeda strikes out looking. Now he just has to deal with Lynch and Togneri-Jones. The crowd is getting louder and louder. They won’t quiet down until he gets the last out and the game is over.

Lynch steps in and takes his stance. Santiago throws a fastball and Lynch is way behind. He catches just a piece of it and sends it foul, but the next pitch, he starts his swing a little earlier. He’s still behind but he’s able to send down the right field line just fair. It’s not a hard hit, but it’s a solid one. He has deviated from the script.

The crowd only becomes more raucous. They aren’t concerned. The eighth and ninth batters are coming up. They can still smell the win.

But that doesn’t last long. Togneri-Jones steps in and does just what Lynch did but to the other side. A sharp little grounder into left and now there are two men on and the crowd is quiet. It is quiet because the minds of baseball fans are always several moves ahead. It goes like this: There is only one out. Unless Newhall hits into a double play, the lineup will turn over. That means you’ve got Ramirez, at least. It’s not hard to imagine Ferris up, one run, possibly more, already be in. The will have a chance to turn the game on its head. This is baseball. It does not always go how it is supposed to go. I think there’s a Twitter hashtag about that.

Sydney dove into all the online stuff. I try to stay away from it because so much of it is so stupid. You have one bad game and all of a sudden everyone is questioning your manhood and calling for you to be traded. It’s a weird place. I mean, do these guys never have a bad day at work? But Sydney thought it was interesting. She kept telling me I just needed to learn how to filter what I saw. She wanted me to learn about the “data.” I told her I knew about that stuff. We’ve all been on FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference and all those sites. It’s not like we have our heads in the sand, but so much of it feels totally divorced from playing the game. At least it does to me. I mean, if I were a GM, I’d be all over this stuff, but as a player, I don’t know how much good it can do me. Those sites all love me anyway, so I figure I’m already doing what I’m supposed to do.

Dad never got into computers at all. My parents had one, but Dad used it only to watch my games. That was the extent of his internet sphere. I wish I was as good at holding back on it as he was. But I can’t just not get online. That would be weird.

Dad disagreed with pretty much everything Sydney said about baseball, but I think he liked her. He never pushed me to marry her or anything, but he also never talked about how I shouldn’t divide my focus or any of the other crap he was always so quick to come out with. He respected that she was smart. Mom is smart and Dad always talked about how stupid it was for men to be afraid of smart women. Maybe that’s what he was afraid of. Maybe he just wanted me to end up with someone like my mom. Sydney’s like Mom in some ways. I don’t know.

Newhall does not ground into a double play. He does scare the entire stadium into total silence with a very deep fly ball that takes Hector all the way back against the wall at a run. He catches it, but he bashes into the wall awkwardly and both runners are able to tag up and advance.

Ramon doesn’t speak English great and I don’t speak Spanish at all so we don’t talk much. I’d like to ask him about this moment though. About how he feels. I’d be freaking out and trying hard not to look like I was freaking out. But Ramon comes into situations like this all the time. He’s supposed to love it. He’s supposed to thrive on the pressure. Does he? Does he really love it or is he just trying to execute and relying hard on his stuff. That’s what I do in those situations. And he doesn’t have to worry about how many pitches he’s throwing. He’s here for just an inning. That can be fun. I got to start the All-Star game this year, and I knew ahead of time I was going to pitch only one inning, so I just let go. I got up over a hundred on a couple of pitches. It was  great. I wonder if that’s what it’s like for him. Just fun. No need to think too much. Just throw and rely on your stuff.

But he’s got to be thinking now, doesn’t he? Ramirez is up and there are runners on second and third. There are two outs. It is the ninth inning. The crowd is screaming, screaming, screaming. Ruh-Mone. Ruh-Mone. Ruh-Mone. He gets a chant. Closers get all the cool stuff even if they don’t make as much money as starters do.

Ramirez is up and he can do serious damage. The only good thing is that he is not my problem. I am able to watch with a little less emotion his piston bounce and the perfect stillness as the pitch leaves the hand. His Rickey Henderson crouch that shrinks the strike zone to the size of a large apple. He works the count. Piston bounce. Stillness. Ball one. Piston bounce. Stillness. Foul. Piston bounce. Stillness. Ball. Piston Bounce. Stillness. Strike. With every strike the crowd gets louder. With two strikes, they are roaring. Two strikes and two outs and a great player up and the game on the line. This is the little boy moment, isn’t? This is what we all wanted. The only difference was which side of the ball you were. Brian was hitting against Randy Johnson. I was striking out Barry Bonds. I wonder what Ramon was doing? It doesn’t matter now. He will always be facing Juan Ramirez. He stretches. It’s a fastball. Everyone knows this. It’s too far inside. The count is full. Everything feels pulled. Stretched. Ages and ages pass between pitches. The game is about to be over if only one more strike will come or a fly ball or a ground ball or a liner that Manny dives for and snags. It doesn’t matter. Just an out. Any out will do. Ramirez bounces. Ramon stretches. Ramirez stills. Fastball. Everyone knows it. Ramirez knows it. His swing is fast. Everything about him is fast. He shoots a line drive over Adam. It takes one bounce between Matt and Russell before it hits the wall. The game is tied. There is no question about that. Russell gets to the ball first, but there is no thought of throwing home to try to get Togneri-Jones. It goes straight to the cutoff man to hold Ramirez at second. It doesn’t work. He’s rounded second and is halfway to third by the time the ball is on the way to the base. He slides, but the play is not close. He would not have gone if it was going to be close. He is too smart to make the last out at third.

The stadium is quiet.

The playoffs last year were what started the end for Sydney and me. I don’t have bad games often, but when I do, I’m not pleasant to be around. I have been known to turn over a cooler, though that was mostly when I was younger. Now, I tend to fume and start shouting matches with anyone who talks to me.

We didn’t make it to the World Series last year. The Championship Series went seven games, and I lost both of mine, including Game Six, which went terribly. I didn’t have my control and I gave up a home run at a bad moment. I made it six innings, but I gave up six runs. It was miserable. Sydney wanted to talk afterwards. I don’t want to think about it too much. There are times in our lives when we do not acquit ourselves well. That night, I did not acquit myself well. It took a while before I was able to admit it to myself. Dad didn’t help. He called because of course he called. It was after a big game. I hadn’t done well. He needed to break it down with me. Mostly, he wanted to tell me not to worry about it. “Everybody has days when they don’t have it. You didn’t have it. Too bad it happened when it did, but nothing to be done.”

When I told him I’d had a fight with Sydney he was mad at her. “Doesn’t she know anything? You’ve got to give an athlete time to cool off after something like that. Just shows she doesn’t understand.”

I don’t know what that was. I don’t know if he saw his chance to get rid of Sydney and pounced or if he was incapable of being on anyone’s side but mine. I don’t know, but it started the spiral. Sydney wanted me to apologize. As far as I was concerned, I had nothing to apologize for. There were some overly quiet dinners. Some phone calls where not much was said. We never broke up officially. We just stopped seeing each other. Even this year she came to a few games, but I never told her about any of the stuff that was going on. I was relying on Kristen and Dad for that. I could have used someone to talk to about Sydney, but neither of them were any good for that. Kristen had told me that I was wrong. She wasn’t going to change her mind, but she wasn’t going to bring it up if I didn’t. So I didn’t. I mentioned to Dad once that Sydney had come to a game.

“What’d she have to say for herself?”

“She just said she liked watching me pitch.”

“Hm.”

“What’s she supposed to say?”

“Something better than that.”

He didn’t have anything else to say about it. You’d think he might since he thought she should have more to say.

The bench is not as silent as the rest of the stadium. We haven’t won, but we are aware that the game isn’t over. There will be a bottom of the ninth. There is some swearing, some kicking at inanimate objects, some beating of hats against the railing. Coates is up. His at-bat is not as weighty as Ramirez’s was, but it is not without significance. What happens here is the difference between needing to score to win and having to score to keep from losing. The game is tied. A tied game in the bottom of the ninth favors us. Let him send a flare to the outfield, though, and the odds swing dramatically. It becomes desperate. We will have to throw everything we have, whatever that means.

But Coates is not Ramirez and he is not Ferris. And this is why hitting someone like him second is folly. Tradition and the book be damned. He is no match for Santiago. He swings and misses. He takes a ball. He watches a strike go by. On the next pitch, Ramon goes way outside. Ramirez or Ferris would never swing at it. But Coates does and looks foolish.

The top of the ninth is over, but not the game. I watch my teammates jog off the field. We’re not losing. We’re tied. We haven’t won, but it is up to us. Manny will be up first. He grabs his bat, but before he goes up to hit, he comes over to me. “Don’t worry. It will be fine. Just like I tell you. You won’t get the win, but you earn it. They won’t take this. We won’t let them.”

I smile at him and shrug. What else can I do? I am a spectator now and not much more.


Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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hoya33
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hoya33

I enjoyed it thanks for your time writing. When I was a kid I loved reading The Gil Thorp comics and those Chip Hilton sports books I think that’s the right name? Sports in fiction is wonderful for a old man like me because its what I dreamed as a kid. Thanks

A passerby
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A passerby

Great stuff. Well written, held my interest from start to finish. I think you can help the team.

Santiago
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Santiago

This is great, I really enjoyed it.