When the Sparrow Sings – The End

Editor’s Note: This is the final chapter of Jason’s novel. Head over to the THT Bookstore to purchase a copy of the book.

"Sitting on the bench, I can feel the rumble of the crowd through my whole body." (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

“Sitting on the bench, I can feel the rumble of the crowd through my whole body.” (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

Bottom of the Ninth.

Dad was a cranky old man too often, but he loved baseball. I don’t know why that’s so easy to forget about him. I didn’t know anyone who was more fun to watch a good baseball game with. He always complained about bad plays, but he could really get excited about good baseball. I don’t think he’d take any issue with tonight’s game. We’ve both played really well. He knows what happened with Ramon is the kind of thing that just happens sometimes. The way I pitched, some of the plays that have been made tonight, Dad would have screamed for those. It wouldn’t have mattered which player or which team made them. Dad loved good baseball. He’d have wanted us to have won already, but he’d enjoy the game going to the bottom of the ninth in the way that all baseball fans enjoy such things.

Manny is first up. For his sake, I’m glad we’re not behind. We have able hitters on the bench and if we were behind, one of them would be announced in place of Manny. We would do without his defense if it meant staying in the game, but now he is allowed to stride to the plate at least one more time in hopes he might set the table for the more fearsome hitters to follow.

On the mound is Ben Wilson, their version of Ramon. He throws hard and not much else, though he will try to get away with a little change-up every so often. He’s not thinking about his change-up against Manny. He’s thinking about overpowering him. Strike him out and get one out of the way before he has to handle the real hitters. The first pitch comes in and I see that Manny is still swinging from his heels. He misses badly and falls over. God, Manny, just try to punch it somewhere. Just get on base. Don’t try to win it. But there is no reasoning with him. Not now. Wilson starts again. Manny’s commitment does not waver. He starts his swing early. So early he has no chance unless he guesses exactly right. I wait for him to fall over again, but instead, there is the familiar crack of wood on leather. It’s a loud crack. Much louder than Manny normally manages. I look up at the ball and across the field at the outfielders. The ball is headed toward right-center. They are breaking back hard. Outfielders play Manny shallow, as is wise, but it undoes them here. No one can get to it. It bounces just before the warning track and then off the wall. Manny trots into second base standing. Everyone is screaming and whooping. He claps his hands together and points at me on the bench. I smile and I laugh. What else can I do?

* * *

As much as I might want to blame Dad for what happened with Sydney, it’s not like he was there with us. He was only a voice in the back of my head. I didn’t have to listen to him. He just wanted me to play well. He knew when I was younger that I got distracted sometimes and didn’t play well. If he thought Sydney might be a distraction he wanted her gone. It didn’t have anything to do with Sydney or who was right and who was wrong. All that mattered to him was me playing ball.

I’m the one who lost my temper. I’m the one who was stubborn.

* * *

When it comes to games like this, I don’t care about any of the things that I see people get worked up about on the internet. It doesn’t bother me that I won’t get the win. This is fun. Or at least, it will be fun if they can get Manny the rest of the way. He’s gotten himself halfway there. All we need is a base hit. He’s quick enough. And we have good hitters coming up.

And it sure feels like fun. The crowd will cheer for anyone with the right jersey on right now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice when you have the right jersey. Sitting on the bench, I can feel the rumble of the crowd through my whole body.

Adam is announced. Adam, who is as good a candidate as anyone to win the game. He gets on base more than anyone else on the team. He starts out by taking ball one, then he swings and misses at a strike. He swings again at the next pitch, but nothing good comes of it. It’s a little ground ball to Ramirez who scoops it up and tosses it to first. It doesn’t even move the runner. Manny is still standing pat at second base.

* * *

This whole year was strange. Dad kept telling me what to do with Sydney and with Russell, but he was also a lot more willing to talk about the days when I was a kid. Usually, if you brought it up, he’d change the subject or say there was no point in talking about the past. He called me to congratulate me this year when I was named to start the All-Star Game and we talked for a little while. Just the normal kind of reflective stuff, but then he made some offhand comment about how I must be glad I’d practiced so much now, even if I hadn’t liked it at the time.

“You never let up. I didn’t have a choice.”

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“You always had a choice.”

“I don’t think you remember it from my side.”

“Did you or did you not stop playing for a year?”

He had a point.

“Do you recall practicing much that year?”

“No.”

“There you go.”

“But why were you always such a hard ass when I played? You could have been more fun.”

“You know I played when I was a kid, right?”

“Of course.”

“Just had fun. I didn’t get really serious until I was a senior in high school. I was like you, chasin’ girls and all that. Except nobody rode me. Senior year my coach asked me why I’d never worked that hard before. I told him I didn’t know. He told me I could have been really good if I’d worked that hard. I was already the starting center fielder. I was one of the best players around, but he didn’t think I was really good. It got me thinking about what really good was.”

“So what? You just wanted me to see how good I could be?”

“That about sums it up.”

“What if I didn’t want to play baseball?”

“Well, like I said, you always had a choice. But when you were playing, you were mine.”

“Out with the sparrows.”

“That’s right. That was a smart little bit of improvisation on my part.”

Whenever you talked to Dad about how he did things, you always ended with how smart he was.

* * *

Matt is up now. Matt is a good hitter, but Ben makes him look like a complete amateur. Baseball is weird like that. Manny isn’t doing much more than closing his eyes and swinging as hard as he can and he ends up at second, but Matt is one of the better right fielders in the league and one of the most patient hitters you’ll ever see and he strikes out on three pitches. Closers are closers for a reason.

There are two outs now and Manny is still standing at second base. The crowd is restless, but not so loud as they have been. They’re getting ready for extra innings. They have a hearty cheer for Russell, who is exactly the player they want up right now. Russell. It just doesn’t matter. If you play well, you’re a hero. If you play poorly, you’re scum. There’s no justice.

I sit and watch.

Wilson comes set. When he bats, Russell is still as a cat preparing to pounce. He does not flinch at the first pitch, which is a ball. He watches it go by. Steps out. Taps his spikes with his bat. Steps back in. Waits. He does not flinch at the second pitch, which is also a ball. He follows the same routine. Everything is routine with Russell and baseball. That is why he is good. He never diverges from the routine. Step out. Tap spikes. Step in. The third pitch is also a ball and the crowd boos. They think Wilson is pitching around Russell. They might be right. Russell is the last batter anyone wants to face in this situation. But Wilson doesn’t usually pitch around anyone, and he hasn’t been missing by a mile. Sure enough, the next pitch, which Russell again takes, is a strike. A good strike, too. Right on the edge.

The last pitch of the game goes like it would in a movie. If you like, you may imagine it all in slow motion. It will be shown in slow motion until the next game. It is dark. the stadium lights shine. Wilson lifts his knee, comes to the plate. Russell swings. He connects. A line drive shoots off of his bat. A beautiful, arcing line that no fielders have a chance at. It is too high for Ramirez. He doesn’t even try. It is too fast for the outfielders, striking the base of the wall in left-center. Manny never has to think about where the ball will land. He hits third and makes the turn without a second thought. Russell runs through the first base bag. There are only two kinds of hits that can end a baseball game. A home run and a single. Doubles and triples are not scored. It is only the run that matters. Manny is the run. The dugout is emptying as he crosses the plate standing. The throw from the outfield is wide, late and pointless. No more than a gesture. I am not a part of the initial crowd. I sit on the bench and stare out at the field. I don’t know anything about any of this. Does this mean it matters that I pitched today? We won. We won some because of me and some because of Manny and some because of Russell. Russell will get much of the credit. They will not ask him the questions he was asked at the beginning of the season. He will sign a big contract and no one will ever think about what he was accused of.

So it’s hard to move. It’s hard to run out and scream and carry on. I can’t hug him. I can’t pat him on the back. But someone comes and drags me out of the dugout. Tonight, all the good things I do are applauded and all the bad things I do are forgiven. I don’t think you get too many days like this. Maybe you get them only when it’s too late, for one reason or another, to enjoy them.

When I am out on the field, I smile. Everyone swirls around me. Brian hugs me and Manny hugs me and says, “See, I told you we’d win it.” And this makes me cry. Manny feels me weep and he holds on tight and turns me so that I don’t face the cameras. “You did good, Zack. You did good,” he says. And he holds me and for a few minutes I weep and then I pat him on the back to let him know I am okay. He pulls back and I am sure the cameras are zoomed in on me. I am sure they see that my eyes are still wet. Alex hugs me. Adam hugs me. Carver. Hector. Russell taps me on the shoulder. This is how it is. Brian comes back and puts his arm around me and stands next to me during all the interviews. He deflects questions about Dad and lets me talk about pitching with all the clichés Dad taught me to use. Then it is time to head off the field and down into the clubhouse. As I head down the steps into the dugout, I raise my cap and wave it to the crowd and they cheer loudly. A few minutes later, I hear the same thing just before Russell comes into the clubhouse. I guess I did what they asked me to do.

Postgame.

We lost. There isn’t much more to it. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t pitch again. Two of the games were close, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that after all that, we lost.

After my game, I stayed in the clubhouse a long time. Brian tried to wait for me, but I told him to go home. I was the last one there. I was just about to go when my phone rang. It was Sydney. I was surprised but I picked up.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call until now. I didn’t know what to say.”

“It’s okay.”

“You pitched great tonight.”

“I was okay.”

“You’re always too hard on yourself.”

“Especially after the bad games.”

“I’m sorry about your dad. I liked him.”

“I think he liked you, too.”

“Zack, tell me if you need anything.”

“I will.”

This was the best I could do, right then.

Three games later, we were on a plane back home. It’s strange to come back to your home city after a playoff loss. Fans are there to greet you. They cheer, but everyone knows that it’s kind of weird. That’s sports, though. Most of the best teams finish their seasons with a loss. We had a great year, but in the end, we didn’t win the World Series.

The stories and commentary that came out ranged from the normal boring stuff to absolutely terrible. One idiot on TV went on and on about how my team should look at me and learn about toughness. Like he was on the mound. Like he has any idea how tough I was or how lucky I was or what any of that has to do with that night.

But it was the falsely sentimental crap that really got to me.

There are some out there who can tell you about what Zack Hiatt went through. There are, no doubt, other athletes who have performed under tragic circumstances. Even others who have performed well while their teammates flailed helplessly around them. Zack Hiatt is not unique. But he is rare.

While we cannot overlook the contributions of Russell Jennings who provided the winning hit in Hiatt’s game and was otherwise stunning throughout the series, it is on Hiatt’s shoulders that we must lay credit for the lone victory in an otherwise disappointing series.

Pitching only days after the death of his father – a father, it must be noted, who had devoted his life to make his son a big league ballplayer – Hiatt was visibly struggling with his emotions early in his start…

Well, at least they’re right about the beginning. They didn’t spot the struggles at the end, though. I was having a breakdown, but even now, I think Brian is the only one who has any clue about it. I got out of the inning in impressive fashion, so clearly, I was being tough and not hallucinating.

And then there were the articles that lumped all of the team’s “struggles” together. Anyone who compared what I went through to what Russell “went through” assured themselves that they would never get another quote from me. Russell showed toughness, too, they said. Dealing with those accusations. That’s all Anne White is now, an accuser.

The fans were pretty bad, too. I got a lot of letters and whatnot thanking me for helping the team. Thanking me for giving them at least one World Series. Saying they hoped I understood how much they appreciate what I did. No, I do not understand because you don’t appreciate what I did. You don’t know anything. You didn’t stand in the snow with my father being lectured about birds. You didn’t hear him threaten to beat you with a tire iron. You didn’t see him come to every game. You didn’t have him as a sounding board whenever something went wrong. You don’t understand what it was like to pitch for the first time without him watching. You don’t know. Your presumption that you do know disgusts me.

Talk moved to who the team would sign before our uniforms were even clean. Russell and I were both free agents when the World Series ended. He was going to win the MVP, I was a front-runner for the Cy Young. That’s a lot of money on the table. The general assumption was that they could afford to keep one of us. I made it easy. I told my agent to find the highest offer he could in a different city and take it. The taste in my mouth was too sour. I didn’t want to play in front of these fans any more, even though I knew they were the same as any other set of fans. I didn’t want to play with Russell anymore, though he’s certainly not the only asshole rapist in the game. I wanted to move on, and so I moved.

During the offseason, I started talking to Mom a lot more. I missed Mom without even knowing it. You call your parents and one of them picks up and you talk and you feel like you’ve talked to them even if you’ve talked to only one of them, and if the same one always picks up that phone, you can forget. I forgot about Mom and I shouldn’t have. We talked about Dad and we talked about Sydney and we talked about whether I wanted to stay. She made it easier for me to do what I wanted to do. She made it easier for me to apologize even if it didn’t matter because I was moving and long distance seemed like too much.

And now, I’m somewhere else. I pitch for a different team. I’m having a good year, but not as good as the last few years. That was bound to happen eventually. You can’t get better forever. I still have a while, though. My contract is long and lucrative and I’ll do my best to fulfill it. To be good all the way through.

I still think about last year a lot. But it’s not so much the World Series I think about the most. It’s what came right before. The last year, Dad and I started talking about how things were when I was a kid. He had softened a lot. He had told me he was sorry, but one thing lingered. I’d never asked him about it and he’d never brought it up. I think because it hurt both of us.

The night I got us into the Series – the night Dad died – he came down into the clubhouse and stayed for a long time. All the reporters were gone and it was almost time to go home. Dad wasn’t leaving until the morning, so he could stay until I left. I waited a little longer than I should have because it felt good to be there with him. There were a few minutes when we were alone in the clubhouse, and I don’t know why I picked that moment to ask him about the no-hitter, but I did.

“Why didn’t you talk to me after I threw that no-hitter in college?”

I saw his shoulders fall when I said it. He’d been smiling before. He’d looked like a younger man, but now I could imagine what he’d look like when he was older. “You know, Zack, tonight was everything I ever dreamed about when you were a kid.”

“I know. We both dreamed about this.”

“No, we didn’t. I dreamed about it, Zack. You were just a kid when I knew what you had. You dreamed about Christmas. If you dreamed about baseball, it was about meeting your favorite players. You just wanted to have fun.”

I looked at him for a minute. I didn’t know what to say to this. He was right in his way. I didn’t dream about it in an adult way, but I did dream. Me and Barry Bonds in the backyard. That was a dream. I had dreamed, but they were kid dreams. Dad’s were different. Maybe. I’m almost as old now as he was then and I don’t know if I dream any differently than when I was small. Maybe the difference is in understanding whether you might be able to have it. I thought about this as I looked at him. I wasn’t going to say anything.

“You’d been pitching well the whole time you were in college. You were getting better, too. But when you threw that game… Well, I called. I know you know that. I called you over and over again and then your mom said you were probably out celebrating and that I should let you celebrate.”

He stopped again. I think he wanted permission from me to stop talking, but I wanted him to get to the end. I wanted to really hear the answer, so I kept looking at him.

He let out a long sigh before he started up again.

“Your mom was right, I knew she was. I also knew that you didn’t need me to coach you anymore. You were going first round. They’d have pitching coaches and trainers wedged so far up your ass you wouldn’t be able to think about passing gas without someone asking how your arm felt.”

“But you didn’t call at all after that.”

“What the hell did you want me to do, Zack? You hadn’t said three words to me since you left. I didn’t know if you were playing because you wanted to or if you were playing to spite me, but I knew you weren’t playing to please me. Anything that happened after that was on you. It was your dream from there. It had to be.”

It hurt to hear him say all of that because he was right. Looking at it now, with some distance, it was easy to see. When you’re a kid, it’s easy to forget that your parents have feelings. I don’t know if it’s even forgetting so much as a failure to realize. I’d hurt his feelings. That was all. He didn’t call because he was tired of being hurt.

“Tonight was pretty good, though, wasn’t it, Dad?”

“Yeah. It was. Tonight was pretty good.”


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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Phillies113
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Phillies113

This was an incredible read. Thank you for telling this story. I’ll definitely be buying the novel.