One half of the sky was orange and the other half black.
Hundreds of people—old and young, men and women—sat in a semi-circle, staring down at the eighteen young men engaged in a battle of wits, athleticism, and sheer will. They screamed, cheered, and booed as the eighteen fought for survival.
Some of the young men stood on grass, some stood on dirt. Most wore hats, a few wore helmets. Half of them had gloves on, one of them held a wooden stick.
What would happen within the next couple of minutes, on a diamond between two chalk lines, would determine many of these young men’s future.
The baseball game had been a brutal back and forth battle up to this point; the momentum swinging like Newton’s cradle seemingly every inning. Four of the white and red-stitched spheres had been launched high into the stratosphere and out of the field, two from each team. Both pitchers had dazzled the opposing side, each throwing seven punch-outs through the first six innings.
Both teams were playing at full throttle and for good reason. The winner would go on to play in front of Major League and college scouts. The loser would go home.
The game was now tied at six as the two teams entered the seventh—and final—inning of play.
The home plate umpire signaled at the visiting dugout to quickly get their batter up to the plate, gesturing to the ominous clouds slowly rolling in from the east. If one of the two teams did not score and end the game, the incoming storm might.
The first two visiting batters were quickly retired. The first batter hit a harmless grounder to the shortstop that was scooped up and tossed to the first baseman in plenty of time. The second batter struck out on three pitches.
The sun had just about disappeared behind the center-field wall when second-baseman Logan Jackson stepped up to the plate. He knew he was the worst hitter on the team. He had been the victim of the opposing pitcher’s baffling curveball in two of his three at-bats. His other at-bat had been a weak pop-up that didn’t even leave the infield.
Jackson turned back around to see the coach waving him back into the dugout. Next to him, Greg Farley was tightening the straps on his batting gloves.
For a second, Jackson froze. Convention told him to turn around and walk back to the dugout with his head hanging. He wasn’t that good anyway and the team needed to win this game. But Farley’s not that good either, Jackson thought. His head told him it was time to take off the batting helmet, but his gut was telling him to tighten the batting gloves.
Without looking back, Jackson strode toward the plate and dug in.
The coach stood still, one foot propped on the top step, chomping on his bubble gum.
“Coach?” Farley said, bat in hand.
“Let him hit and pray that the baseball gods have something special in mind.”
Jackson tapped the plate once with the edge of his bat, slightly bent his knees, and settled into his stance. Game on.
The first pitch was a scorcher that just hit the outside edge. Strike one.
Jackson pinwheeled the bat twice before settling back into his stance. He tried to calm his nerves, but his senses were on full alert. The sound of the cheering crowd engulfed him, and every heckle and boo seemed to echo around in his brain.
Focus on the dirt beneath your feet. The bat in your hand. The ball in the pitcher’s glove.
Pitch two was a curve that started high and dove into the strike zone at the last second. Strike two.
Suddenly the doubt that he nearly always felt on the baseball diamond rushed in like a flood. I should have let Farley hit. What am I doing here?
But the pitcher was already in his wind-up. The ball came out of his hand and hurtled toward the plate in slow motion. Jackson swung and felt the wood of his bat connect with the cork and rubber of the baseball. Gone.
Jackson stood in the box for a second, oblivious to the world around him. All he saw was the white dot as it flew high into the orange sky and over the centerfield wall. Overcome with emotion, Jackson flipped the bat and pounded his chest as the dugout exploded in celebration and he made his way around the bases.
When he touched home he felt something he had never felt before. He felt like a hero. He felt like a baseball player.
Jackson walked into the dugout and was mobbed by his teammates who congratulated him with head pats, high fives, and butt slaps. The coach walked over and gave him a big hug.
“Thanks for disobeying me,” the coach said with a laugh. “But don’t do it again.”
Jackson laughed. “Sorry, coach.”
The next batter flew out to right field to end the top of the seventh inning. Three outs now separated Jackson and his team from the chance of a lifetime.
Taking his place between second and first base, Jackson once again tried to mentally prepare himself for the next few minutes. He had to be ready for anything. Grounder, pop fly, line drive. Just make the easy play.
The coach signaled for the defense to shift to the left as the right-handed lead-off batter stepped up to the plate. Jackson was now playing just a few feet from second base as the first baseman took up a spot nearly halfway between second and first.
The sun had now completely set behind the centerfield wall. The sky that had once been half orange and half black was now one-third dark blue and two-thirds black. The storm was nearly upon them.
The pitcher nodded at the catcher’s quick signs then fired a fastball over the plate for strike one. The next pitch was a changeup which the batter connected on. The ball flew over the shortstop’s head and dropped into shallow left field for a single.
Runner at first, no outs.
The next batter—a lefty—stepped up and took up his position at the plate. Strike. Ball. Ball. Strike. Crack. The ball came off the bat and flew into right field where it dropped right in front of the outfielder. He snagged it on the hop and fired it to Jackson for the cut-off who spun around, ball in hand. Both runners were safe. The quickness of the right fielder had held the batters from getting anything more than one bag.
Runners at first and second, no outs.
Jackson watched as the pitcher wiped his brow and blew out a puff of air. They needed to get an out before this rally got out of hand. Just three outs. Jackson thought as he watched the pitcher work. The count was one and one when the batter laid down a bunt along the first baseline. The pitcher jumped off the mound, barehanding the ball and firing it to first base for the first out. But the runners had advanced and were both in scoring position.
Runners at second and third, one out.
The next batter was retired quickly, hitting the first pitch he saw into shallow left field. The shortstop easily ranged back and made the catch. The runners were held at their bags.
Runners at second and third, two outs.
The tension on the field and in the stands was palpable as the home team’s star player strode to home plate, black bat in hand. This at-bat was to be the final act. The climax and the resolution. When this at-bat was finished, someone would be the conqueror and someone would be the conquered.
The pitcher nodded after the catcher flashed a series of signs. Paused. Wind-up. Pitch. The ball hit the bottom right corner of the strike zone, freezing the batter. Everyone in the stadium let out a collective breath. The game would last another pitch.
Jackson took a few steps to the right and crouched, ready for anything. The wind-up. Deep breath. The pitch.
The wind-up. Deep breath. The pitch.
The wind-up. Deep breath. The pitch.
Baseball is a game of rhythm. Long pauses punctuated by furious bits of action. This is what the game is about. The drama. The strategy. The luck. The tension that builds and then bursts forth like a broken dam after a long, wet winter.
The dam was about to break.
The wind-up. Deep breath. The pitch.
The ball flew off the bat and straight towards Jackson at second base. Like he had done thousands of times in practice, he extended his glove to make the routine catch…and the ball careened off of the tip of his glove and into the outfield.
The runner from third crossed the plate to tie the game as the right fielder scooped up the ball and fired a throw to home with everything in him. But the ball was late. The runner from second slid under the catcher’s extended glove to end the ball game.
Jackson and his team would be going home and it was all his fault.
As the home team celebrated and the losing team slowly walked off the field, Jackson remained, his glove still on, reliving the final play over and over again. He was aware of nothing save his own breathing and the phantom feeling of the ball striking the tip of his glove again and again.
They had lost because of a few centimeters. They were going home because of a few centimeters.
Jackson jumped as the stadium was illuminated for a split second by a burst of lighting. The concussive boom of thunder followed not far behind. That’s when he realized the rain. The torrential downpour that was quickly turning the dirt beneath his feet into mud.
The sky that had once been half orange and half black was now completely pitch black.
He didn’t move. Even as the winning team ran off the field to change and probably go party. Even as his own teammates disappeared into the clubhouse to change and go home. Even as the people in the stands filed out, eager to escape the rain, he still didn’t move.
He now stood completely alone between first and second base; wet, tired, and a loser. But he didn’t care. He would be back next year and the year after that. He suddenly felt rejuvenated. He wasn’t thinking about his go-ahead home run in the top of the seventh, and he wasn’t thinking about his game-ending error in the bottom of the seventh. He was thinking about the game itself.
He was thinking back to every out, every hit, and every run. He was thinking about the rhythm of the final at-bat. The stop and go. The inhale and exhale.
Yes, he would be back next year. Not because of some delusion that he had the ability to make it to the Major Leagues or even the minor leagues.
He would be back because of his love for the game.