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

"I was sitting on the piles of money I didn’t know how to spend." (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“I was sitting on the piles of money I didn’t know how to spend.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

Bottom of the Seventh

Some of the luckiest moments are those in which we go unnoticed. I do not remember walking to the end of the bench. I do not remember sitting down, shoulder slumped against the wall. I remember sparrow chirps louder than any sparrow could be. Loud enough that it must have been inside my head. I remember seeing my dad in the stands surrounded by sparrows. I know I did not see this, but I remember it. No one else will remember it, but I remember it. I do not know precisely how long I spent with my eyes closed, unaware of what was happening around me, but it could not have been long. I open my eyes as the sparrow song fades and I see Takeda digging a throw out of the dirt at first. I have missed at least one batter. A moment later, Russell is announced and I know that it was only one. It was Matt I saw being thrown out at first. There is one out. There is a new pitcher on the mound, but I cannot see who it is. Things are fuzzy. I feel like I have finished a long night on the road. My eyes don’t want to focus. I blink. I rub my palms across my closed eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. I contemplate standing, but tingling in my legs advises me otherwise. I am not ready to refocus and I allow myself to fade back for another moment.

The draft happened not long after the no-hitter. I didn’t hear from Dad between that game and the draft, but he knew. If we’d talked, we wouldn’t have had any debates about it. The no-hitter happened against one of the best teams in the country. There were scouts in the stands. There could be no doubt. I was going to be drafted in the first round. Probably early in the first round. I had an agent ready to go as soon as it became official. He was the same one I’d talked to in high school. We’d stayed in touch, good foresight on his part, he was going to make a lot of money.

I knew everything was set, but it was still hard not hearing from Dad. It was the first time I missed him, maybe because it was the first time he let me miss him.

My head is clearing now and the real world is coming back into focus. I look out to the mound and I can clearly read the name on the back of the jersey. Franklin Ward is pitching for them. He pitched for us last year, but he got hurt and cut loose and like so many relievers found himself looking for a job in the spring. It’s worked out well for him, though. He’s pitching the seventh inning in a World Series. That is, he is a pitcher his manager feels confident in, and his agent gets to negotiate a new contract this winter. There are worse things.

He is also pitching to Russell.

As the season went on, the whole thing with Russell sort of faded into the background. I’ll never believe how quietly it happened. There was never any guilt that could be proven. The case was dropped. There was a pennant race and Russell was having a good year, and so soon you started to have opinion pieces like this:

With his team pulling away from the pack largely because of his own MVP-caliber season, the question now becomes when Russell Jennings will sign an extension. Or, if things go bad, how they can expect to contend without him.

And then it would go on from there. It’s unbelievable. I mean, look, some kid from the Dominican does steroids so he can be a major leaguer instead of a dirt poor kid from the Dominican and he’s the devil, never mind that you’d probably never convict him of a thing. You can talk about how they aren’t equivalent, I guess. How one isn’t about the game. But it feels like a lie.

I can’t talk, though. I never did anything. Kristen didn’t let me forget it, either. Every time I talked to her, she’d mention Russell’s season. “So it nice having the MVP on your team?” that kind of thing. Always with a bite in it that you couldn’t miss. I don’t like being that kind of disappointing.

But whether I like it or not, Russell is up and we might not be here without him. We won the division by four games. I guess we would have at least made the play-in game without Russell, but I don’t see how we win the division without him. He’s a great baseball player. He’s showing how great he is right now, actually. Ward got a couple of strikes in on him early, but Russell has the count full now, and Ward has to decide if he’s comfortable walking Russell. He is. The last pitch is a ball and it isn’t even close. I can’t say I blame him. I’d walk Russell right there, too. Don’t want to give up another run.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

People forgot even around the clubhouse. The guys who joked with Russell before joked with him again. The guys who always quietly respected his game, even if they thought he was kind of a jerk, still do.

I know just how Dad would have explained this to me given the opportunity. He would have used Bull Durham. Dad loved that movie. He hated the way Robbins couldn’t pitch and he hated that they got some of the language wrong, but he loved the movie because he said it explained everything you needed to know about sports and baseball.

One game, during my first year in the minors, things weren’t going well – I can’t remember the exact situation, but they’d scored a few and there were still men on – I did my pace around behind the mound and melt down thing that I used to do and after the game Dad was quick to tell me I wasn’t Nuke Laloosh.

“What are you talking about?”

“You haven’t gotten called up to the show yet. You don’t want them to think you’re a head case. Be good first, then you can pace around behind the mound when someone gets on and they’ll call you intense. You can destroy water coolers and yell at your teammates. You can do whatever you want once you’re good. No one will care how you act.”

“What about Barry Bonds?”

“They still cheer him at home.”

He had a point. Dad was smart. No one cares what you do, if you’re good. Or at least, the people who matter don’t care.

That exchange is a good representation of what it was like to talk to Dad after I was drafted. In high school, he would have called me up and insulted me, but his tone was different now. He saw himself as more of an advisor. He never critiqued my pitch selection or my mechanics or anything like that unless I’d told them they were having me work on something. When they were having me work on something – especially my mechanics – I always told Dad because he’d seen me throw more than anyone. Once my coaches realized that Dad could be helpful, they’d tell me to tell him. They didn’t want him in the clubhouse, but if he would spot the flaw in my delivery, well that was fine with them.

I was in the minors for not quite two years, and it was the first time in my life I felt like Dad and I had a good relationship. I wasn’t afraid to talk to him about things. I was a baseball player. It was apparent to everyone involved that I would very soon be a major league baseball player. I didn’t understand what had changed in Dad – I wouldn’t understand it until it was almost too late – but I liked it.

Alex is up now and Brian is over next to me waiting to see if he should take off his gear and get ready to hit.

“Who’s pitching next? Micah?”

“Yeah. Only two innings left. Might as well throw our best for an inning each.”

I rock my head in affirmation.

“Are you okay? I had a feeling you weren’t all together out there.”

“I’m fine now.”

Brian doesn’t like this answer. It tells him he was right when he wanted to be wrong.

“Did you call Jerry ‘Dad’?”

“I might have, yes.”

“He should have taken you out.” Why he says this to me when professing concern about my mental state, I don’t know.

“I got through the inning.”

“You did. You did. Hell of a thing.”

“Gotta be tough, right?”

This is a joke between us. Brian says I complain about hangnails like I need Tommy John surgery. “You wouldn’t know tough if it fell on you.”

“You’ve gained too much weight. I wouldn’t want to risk injury.”

We laugh together. Alex works the count in front of us. We go quiet in that way you do when you know you’ve allowed yourself to forget something. We watch Alex at the plate. The count is full when he lifts a fly ball to left. It is an easy out.

Brian had an especially honest reaction to the Russell situation. It was a lot like Dad’s, but there was more honesty in it. I asked him if he thought I should say something to the press.

“You told the investigator guy what you heard, right?”

“I wasn’t the only one who heard it.”

“I know, I know. I heard it too, and I told the guy. And what did he do about it?”

I didn’t say anything to this.

“Exactly. Dude did it. He raped the girl. The DA’s office knows it, but can’t convict or doesn’t care to try. What’s talking to the press going to do?”

“Might make it easier for the girl?”

“Bullshit. Her life is not going to be affected by anything you do. Guy’s a rapist. He’s going to keep playing ball. If he goes near a woman I know, I’ll beat him with a bat.”

Okay, I guess Dad didn’t threaten to beat Russell.

“Don’t you feel bad, though? We win games because of him?”

“So? I can’t control who I work with. I love baseball, but it’s a job. Jerks are everywhere.”

This is Brian. Sometimes he makes me uncomfortable.

Hector is up now. Brian is technically in the hole, but he is reclined next to me, his shin guards untouched. We continue our silence, but the tension has drained out of it. We are watching a baseball game. We are leading. It’s late in the game and, at the moment, it has the feel of a game that’s already won. Our bullpen is great. It’s not a huge lead, but we don’t give the lead up a lot. So, it’s as relaxed as it can be up four to two in a World Series game. Something will happen to change that. A runner will get on or the crowd will get excited. But right now, it is calm.

Russell and I, strangely enough, debuted on the same day. We were both late season call-ups. I had been talked about for a while, of course, but Russell had outperformed his expectations. He was drafted out of high school in the second round, so it’s not like they expected him to be chopped liver, but he got here fast. The minor leagues just couldn’t hold him.

Russell or no Russell, the day I debuted, everything in my life got better. The thing about being a baseball player is that you have no idea how it’s going to work out. Can’t-miss prospects miss all the time. Injuries happen or a guy just can’t make the leap. If you’re a pitcher, a little twinge in your shoulder happens and it’s over before you get started. And then what? You’re young, sure, but you probably haven’t studied real hard and you have to start all over. That’s always a possibility until it happens. And that day it happens, well that’s a big day.

There’s nothing interesting to say about my debut. I was a little nervous, but not terribly so. I pitched okay, though I  made it only five innings. The team was bad and had put me in the rotation to see if I would be ready to help next year, but my innings were being watched. I wouldn’t be allowed to throw too much. What was important and different about that day was how it affected things with my family.

Dad, obviously, was thrilled. But things had been kind of weird with Mom and Kristen for a long time. Mom did the typical mom thing where she worried about my career. She didn’t like how little the minors paid – never mind the huge signing bonus I’d gotten – and she worried about me never making it, about me getting hurt. Washing out at twenty-five without even a cup of coffee. Seeing me on the mound in a major league game meant she could relax a little more. People talk about the league minimum like it’s not that much, but in the month I was up, I made more than either of my parents ever made in a year. That made Mom happy.

Kristen was different. Things with her were always complicated. Like I said, she should have been the baseball player in the family. She has a Pete Rose kind of mind. She’s totally driven. But as a girl, there was just no way it was going to happen. No one would even look at her for college. She tried to latch on with a semi-pro team, but I think Mom guilt-tripped that out of her. One kid trying to make it as a baseball player was hard enough. This was Kristen’s life, pushing her dreams to the side so I could have mine.

Kristen has always been about the payoff, though, and the day I debuted, it meant all the sacrifice had been worth it.

Sometimes, when I’m out of a game, I lose track of what’s going on out on the field. Mostly I pay attention, but I think a lot and sometimes I forget to watch. I have forgotten to watch Hector, but I am awakened from my thoughts by the general upheaval of our team taking the field. Hector stands near the batter’s box waiting for his glove to be delivered. He has, it seems, struck out.

The transition between innings is something that never, ever changes. It is exactly the same now as it was in little league. Your team makes the last out. Everyone grabs their gloves, finishes their Gatorade, and trots out. Balls are tossed around and dropped and someone has to run after them. Generally, the execution is more precise than you see when you’re a kid, but it has that same air. Just a little catch to get warm. To wake your brain from the torpor that comes from sitting on the bench. I would like to go back out, but it isn’t going to happen. I have been relieved.

Top of the Eighth

Our new pitcher is one Micah Lapping-Carr. Micah got a trial a few years ago as a starter, but he had only two pitches and that wasn’t enough, so he was sent to the bullpen. It’s worked out well for him. He is our man in the eighth inning of close games. One day, perhaps soon, he will graduate and become a closer. Like so many relievers today, he throws hard. This seems to be the only weapon anyone believes in right now. Speed. Power. I can’t complain, since I make my living off that very thing, but it is nice to see the few guys out there who get by with less. Who are very good without throwing very hard. Micah throws hard, but what really makes him good is his change-up. It is routinely a full fifteen miles per hour slower than his fastball and batters can never tell the difference. His arm action is exactly the same. And so, they guess. If they are wrong, they look foolish. If they are right, his stuff is still hard to hit. I would rather be in the game, but I am glad to have him out there when I’m not.

When I first came up, Dad’s only remaining fear was that I would become a relief pitcher. He said pitching in relief was too much about what you can’t do and that teams didn’t know how to handle them. “Look how fast they flame out,” he said. And I’d point out Mariano Rivera and he’d point out, justly, that there weren’t many like him around. He also liked to point out that decent fourth starters routinely get more money than free agent relievers.

But it wasn’t much of a fear. I was close to a finished product when I was drafted. I still had occasional control issues, especially with my slider, but I had three pitches and they were all good pitches. There was very little chance of me being sent to the bullpen. Too much was invested in me.

I have been a lucky exception in that my career has gone the way it was supposed to. This was true right from the start. I started five games during my cup of coffee. I was generally pulled after five, but once I was allowed to go seven because my pitch count was so low. I struck a lot of guys out and walked a few more than the team would have liked, but there was nothing about me that was going to keep me out of the rotation. Whatever further development was going to happen would happen in the majors.

Regardless of how finished I was, I’ve always envied the role of the ace reliever. There’s something cool about it, in a way that cannot help appealing to the juvenile part of my brain. They get to pick their entrance music, and it gets played for more than the ten or fifteen seconds batters get. They get called in to pitch to the best hitters on the team because it is understood that even the best struggle against them. Micah is out on the mound to start the inning, but he was ready last inning. If Coates had gotten on, it was Micah, not me who would have faced Ferris, who steps in now looking as though he does not think this game is over. Looking like someone who knows how to keep a game like this going. Micah appears unfazed.

My envy for Micah is tied up a lot in Dad’s view that no inning should go unfinished. I wish that no game had to go unfinished. I have six years in the majors and I have stood on the mound at the end of a game only five times. Only four of those were for a win. So much has been written about how good I am and how much I have helped this team win and yet, at the moment of victory, I am almost always on the bench watching.

I am watching now and Micah strikes Ferris out. Ferris works a full count first, but a strikeout is a strikeout. Relievers don’t have to worry about pitch counts. It’s fun to imagine what I could do if I had to pitch only one inning.

But I never have. I have never, if you can believe it, pitched in relief. Not in little league, not in high school, or college, or the minors. Never. Of course, I threw complete games all the time before I was drafted. That was easy; the hitters were usually so overmatched that if I didn’t shoot myself in the foot, there was no reason to take me out.

But that first year or so in the major leagues, Dad was worried. It was a kind of sheepish worry and he didn’t talk about it much, but he’d seen so many pitchers shifted to the bullpen that he convinced himself it might happen with me. Especially as I struggled to get my head under control. There was one stretch during my first year when I had three bad games in a row. In two of them I didn’t make it out of the third. It’s the kind of thing that happens to every pitcher at some point, but it was my first year,  so there were stories about how I still needed to develop my control or about my makeup or whatever.

Mom and Kristen weren’t worried though. They were happy just to have me in the majors. That had always been the goal. Kristen was pretty thrilled because she’d started working with this thing called Baseball for All that gives girls opportunities to play baseball instead of softball, which is pretty cool. Anyway, as soon as I was called up, she was on me to come to events and camps and all that. I couldn’t tell her no. She spent too many years holding a bat while I pitched. I’ve probably hit Kristen with more baseballs than everyone else I’ve ever faced put together.

Now that Ferris is taken care of, Micah is facing Marcus Martin. It’s lonely on the bench, after a start. It’s just me, the coaches, and the other bench guys, so I’m sitting by myself here watching a game.

One of the weirdest things about being a pro. I almost never watched games on TV, and I never, ever watched them with Dad. When would I? Sometimes, on the road, if I was tired and didn’t feel like going out, I’d turn on a late game and treat it as background noise. It was weird getting used to watching games on my own. Dad talked all the way through games, but watching by myself, it was easy to stay quiet.

There was a lot of quiet in those first few years. Sometimes, there would be a girl who I’d see for a while, but otherwise, I didn’t go out a lot. I’ve never been really good at talking to other people. I’ve always been more of a listener. Growing up with Dad, I didn’t have much of a choice. You had to listen when Dad was around. But in the majors, he wasn’t on me all the time. We talked, but it wasn’t constant like it had been. From the way I lost it on the mound sometimes, I got the reputation of being kind of touchy, so no one really wanted to go out with me after games. I’m not complaining. I’m not a bar guy. I don’t like clubs. It wasn’t that I wanted to go out with the other guys on the team or whatever, it was that I didn’t feel a part of things in the same way I thought they must.

Micah is a little bit like I was, I think. I try to talk to him about it sometimes, but it’s hard when neither of you is really a talker. I think we might work out together a little during the offseason, though. And now he’s struck out Martin, too. He’s having a good night.

Thinking about it now, I wonder if the time after I went pro was as good for Dad and me as I thought it was. I mean, we didn’t have any fights or anything and he was a lot calmer than he had been when I was a kid, but I was pretty lonely. I remember during a road trip my first year in the minors, we’d been on the bus forever – which is the story everyone tells, though it’s plenty true – and I felt so incredibly lonely. Dad called and started talking about my start the next day and I wasn’t up for it.

“It’s lonely out here, Dad.” This wasn’t enough for Dad. I don’t know why I even bothered, but I didn’t feel like there was anyone else.

“What do you mean it’s lonely out there? Sure it’s lonely. You’ve gotta pay your dues, though.”

This felt like the canned comments Dad was always on me to use in interviews, and I realize now that he didn’t know what to say. Dad has never been lonely a day in his life. Dad finds people to talk to. I don’t work that way. I take ages to get to know people and in the minors your teammates change all the time, especially when you move through the system like I did. With Dad, we’d talked about baseball because it was all we were concerned with, but somewhere along the line, it killed everything else, and once I was drafted, we found we couldn’t talk about anything else. That’s pretty rough.

I couldn’t even joke with Dad. When I got my signing bonus, I did what every first-round pick does and bought a ridiculous car. What was I supposed to do? I was twenty. During my first full year in the majors, all this money was coming in and I have didn’t know what to do with it. I mean, I know it’s chump change compared to what I make now, but the first time you make half a million dollars, you are constantly aware that this is a great deal of money. At least you are if you come from a place like where I came from. I told Mom I wanted to pay off the house, but she wouldn’t let me, “Save it, Zack. Save it.” So I bought another stupid car and a nice condo, but there was still a lot of money. Dad asked what I was doing once and I told him I was sitting on the piles of money I didn’t know how to spend. He didn’t like that at all and got all indignant about how I should be grateful for all I had, especially after how hard he and my mother had worked and all that kind of talk. It was terrible. I didn’t mean it like that. I just didn’t know what to do with it. I really didn’t. I still don’t. Things like that stress me out. I do better when I know what is expected of me.

Apolinar is up now. If Micah gets him out, he will go home tonight having faced only Ferris, Martin and Apolinar. That’s a night for you.

I was lucky I had Kristen. I am lucky I have Kristen, still. I was promoted to Double-A toward the end of my first year in the minors and Kristen called to congratulate me. We’d talked over the course of the year, but it hadn’t been anything deep. Just keeping in touch.

“Hey, little brother, you’re almost to the big leagues now.”

“I guess.”

“Whoa, now. Don’t get too excited.”

“I wish they’d waited until next year.”

“Isn’t it a reward, though. Isn’t that why they promote players with a month to go?”

“Yeah, it’s supposed to be. I’d rather finish where I am, though. I’m starting to get to know some of the guys here.”

“So? Get to know some guys in Double-A.”

“You know I don’t work that way.”

She stopped talking for a minute. Kristen and I didn’t really talk about feelings. I don’t really talk about feelings. I try not to have feelings. They are inconvenient.

“Are you okay, Zack?”

I’ll spare the messy details of the conversation. They don’t really matter. It was heartfelt. I talked about my loneliness. She told me to try to relax. I told her I didn’t really know how to do that. She acknowledged the truth of what I said. It didn’t seem earth-shattering, but she started calling me every week after that. She didn’t make a big show of it as charity. She talked to me about what was going on in her life. How she was trying to decide if she wanted to move. She asked me what I thought about different things in her life. That was my favorite part. No one ever asked me what I thought. I was always expected to follow directions. She listened sometimes, too, which was nice.

During the offseason we hung out a lot. She even worked out with me. This is what Kristen is like. She decides to do something and then she does it. Because I was lonely, she decided to be close to me and then she was. I never doubted it. There was nothing disingenuous about it. She doesn’t do things she doesn’t want to do. If she didn’t like me, she wouldn’t have done it. Kristen is different than Dad like that. With Dad, you always wondered how much was about you and how much was about him.

Micah gets Apolinar on a fly out. Why does he get such an easy inning off those guys? It doesn’t matter. I did my job. I spent all night freezing out there on the mound, and I now I get to sit here with my jacket on, and there are heaters so even though it’s a cold night, it isn’t that cold. It doesn’t matter if I’m cold right now, though. I can sit here all night and my muscles can get tight and chilly and it doesn’t matter. I like being cold. I like being cold and not doing anything in it. Once I went pro and was completely out of Dad’s hands, I stopped working out in the cold. That winter when Kristen and I worked out together, we were always in a heated gym. I’m happy to run on a track. Just because the sparrows are out doesn’t mean I have to be out with them. I do my work. I always do my work. Kristen can tell you, we still work out together. My second summer in the minors, she called me and told me she missed me. Hard to believe. She asked how long I thought it would be until I got called up and even though I said I didn’t know, she moved here. That is a crazy thing to do, but she said she needed to move to a city for work anyway, and she might as well be close to her brother. Kristen doesn’t come to all of my games, but she comes to a lot of them. In some ways, it’s weirder not to have her here tonight than Dad. He always had to travel. He mostly watched me on TV. After I got called up, it was really Kristen who took care of me.

I wish she’d been here tonight to take care of me, but I know she’s watching at home. I know she’ll call me when the game is over. Anyway, I don’t need taking care of right now. Right now, my job is to sit here in my jacket near a heater and stay warm and watch my team finish off this game.

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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Eric F
9 years ago

Really loving this Jason. Can’t wait for the conclusion to this amazing story next month!

Yehoshua Friedman
9 years ago

Portrait of the ballplayer as a human being. I love it! Just let it keep coming!