Summer's End

Submitted into Contest #136 in response to: Set your story on a baseball field.... view prompt

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Contemporary American Fiction

Jack looked forward to Labor Day weekend: three days off with nothing to do but relax. On Saturday, he slept in. In fact, the morning was so enjoyable that by the time he had fully woken up, read the paper and showered, it was lunchtime. He watched Stanford football in the afternoon and a couple of movies with Ellen that night. The next morning, he headed over to his favorite bookstore and came home with three spy novels. After lunch he watched the A’s play the Angels, then picked up his newly bought books and scanned the pages. An hour later he searched the house, then the yard for Ellen.

“What do you want to do tonight?” He asked when he found her working in the garden.

“I don’t know.” Ellen thought a minute. “Relax.”

Not so long ago their weekends were filled with family activities: hiking up Mission Peak, riding the rollercoasters in Santa Cruz, or just having a picnic at Lake Elizabeth. They had barbecues with their friends and pool parties with the kids’ friends. Everyone always wanted to get together. But as the kids got older, the weekends slowed down. Family events changed to delivery tasks. Rob and Rita went out on their own and Jack became a taxi driver. By the time they left for college, he and Ellen had forgotten how to get out of the house.

On quiet days he really missed the kids and often reminisced with Ellen about old times.

“Which was worse?” She once asked him. “The day Rob left for college or the day he left for Brazil?”

College seemed worse. Rob no longer woke up with them every morning spouting new ideas on life while eating bizarre breakfast cereal concoctions like cranberry juice poured over Cheerios. The early days of teenage withdrawal and moodiness were over. Listening to an idealistic kid with big plans was refreshing, especially since his little sister had been infected with his earlier sullen temper. Rob leaving meant the house would once again be dominated by awkward silences and loud, brooding music.

Christmas, however, was perhaps the best the family had ever had since the kids still believed in Santa Claus. Rob was back to fill the house with energy and stories of college life. Rita started to snap out of the zombie stage. And the four of them talked and laughed and took the time to buy presents that the others would really like.

Each college year that passed, the feeling of Rob’s presence in the house faded. But Jack hadn’t realized how much was still there until Rob left for Brazil. There were no more end-of-term visits. No surprise drop-bys. Brazil was too far. Long, expensive flights didn’t allow for spontaneity whenever there was a longing for home. And Jack knew Rob would never call home when he was feeling lonely, no matter how much it would make him feel better, because it might make his mom feel worse. And his dad, too.

On Monday, Jack got up early, mowed the lawn, trimmed the bushes and helped Ellen clean out a closet full of old clothes. After lunch, he set up the hammock in the backyard, settled in with the portable radio and tuned into the Giants-Dodgers game. Ellen waved to him from the family room during the second inning and left him alone for the rest of the afternoon. His family had learned to live with his obsession for baseball.

He had tried to get Rob interested at an early age. Baseball, the national pastime, was an important part of every boy’s development but you couldn’t expect them to just start playing on their own; they had to learn. So the summer after Rob finished second grade, they played catch in the backyard every evening and Jack signed him up for Little League the following year.

Jack volunteered to be an assistant on Rob’s team. The manager, Frank Miller, a wiry, prematurely graying guy with thick glasses and a beard covering his face, organized a meeting at the beginning of the season for parents and kids. He gave a motivational speech about the importance of teaching kids the basic skills and rules of baseball.

“I will also teach them sportsmanship. I know that parents can be as competitive as the kids. But I’m in charge so everybody plays. If you don’t like my philosophy, I suggest you find your boy another team.”

Yeah! Jack wanted to shout, specifically to a big forearmed dad sitting at the end of Frank’s sofa.

Jack really enjoyed the practices and grew attached to the meeker boys who recoiled from infield grounders that zipped by them. Jack, not a fan of grounders himself, taught them how to catch fly balls after Frank put him in charge of the outfield. He started by throwing underhand in a high arc but the kids grimaced as the balls plummeted down at them.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to catch it. You can let the ball drop in front of you.” Jack huddled the group together and took a knee in front of them. “In a game it is more important that you don’t let the ball get past you. If it looks like it is going over your head, run back. If it looks like it is going left, run back and then left. If it’s going right, run back and then right.”

Jack got an idea for a simple exercise.

“Let’s play a game. I’ll call out someone’s name and throw the ball in the air. You go after it and if it drops in front of you, you get a point. If it goes over your head or to the side, no points.”

“And if we catch it?” Rob asked.

Jack shook his head. Rob had missed the point of the exercise. He hadn’t shied away from the ball and already caught two. But the other kids had to get over their fear of fly balls. “Let it drop in front of you to get a point.”

Jack called out a boy's name and threw the ball high up in the air. The boy ran back as fast as he could and was still running away from it when the ball dropped twenty yards away. He waited for the ball to stop then ran up and threw it back.

“Good. Next time try to get a little closer to the ball when it drops.” And gradually they did. By the end of practice, the ball dropped ten, sometimes five feet in front of them. And the boys stood their ground, watching the ball fall then giggling after it.

By mid-season, Rob was good enough to start at centerfield and moved up the batting order. His skills improved, his go-get-em attitude impressed the coach, and his confidence grew.

During a Saturday afternoon game with two outs in the final inning and their team down by two, Rob was up to bat. They had a runner on third but there was little chance for a win. Even if Rob could get on base, he was in the middle of the batting order, so it would take a miracle for their worst batters to hit Rob home. Expectations were low. Still, Jack never wanted his son to experience the disappointment of making the last out in a close game.

The pitcher on the other team sized up Rob and scoffed. Rob had struck out swinging in his previous two at-bats and this tall, lanky kid wanted another quick strike out to end the game. Rob took one last practice swing and eagerly stepped into the batter's box with the confidence of a slugger who didn't care what had happened earlier.

The first pitch came in straight but not very fast. Rob connected but he had swung early. The ball zipped towards their dugout and everyone jerked back. Jack, the team, even the fans in the bleachers felt the speed on the ball and their confidence in Rob grew.

“Nice one, Rob!”

“Way to smack it!”

“Hit one out of the park!”

“Foul ball!” the umpire shouted.

Strike one. A good start for the pitcher. But the speed at which Rob hit the ball, made the kid think twice about throwing another easy one down the middle. He threw the second pitch so low it bounced off home plate. The plan to get Rob to chase after an unhittable ball almost worked, Rob leaned forward and almost swung at it. Ball one.

“Wait for your pitch, Rob. Wait for your pitch.”

The next one came in straight over the plate. Rob swung hard but the ball slid below his bat. Strike two.

“Nice one!” The catcher yelled to the pitcher as he threw the ball back.

Lucky pitch, Jack cursed under his breath. It was highly unlikely this kid knew how to throw a splitter. Still, Jack would have to teach Rob how to spot the spin on a ball that comes in straight then drops down at the last second.

“Tough pitch, Rob, tough pitch.”

The fans on the other team stood up and clapped—sensing victory. Their manager warned his pitcher to stay focused. But the kid got overconfident and threw the next one as hard as he could. The ball zipped by home plate so high and outside that it got past the catcher and hit the backstop. The runner on third base sprinted for home. The catcher threw off his mask and chased after the ball but by the time he got it, the runner had slid into home.

The fans in the bleachers behind Jack cheered. Another run scored. It was now five to six. Still two outs with the count two balls and two strikes but Jack could feel the expectations rising. Conversations in the bleachers changed from what to cook for dinner to realizations that they could win this.

Jack called timeout and hurried to the plate.

“Look, Rob.” Jack squatted down so they were eye-to-eye. “All you have to do is get on base. The guy’s a wild pitcher. Only swing at it if you are sure you can hit it. Okay?”

“Okay, Dad. I’ll try.” Rob picked up his bat and returned to the plate. Jack had searched for a glimpse of determination on Rob’s freckled face. When he had that look, nothing would stop him. His son had a magic ability to always succeed when he set his mind to it. It might have been there but Jack had missed it because Rob was anxious to get back and hit.

With the fans yelling to him as he approached the plate, Rob squinted at the pitcher. You can do it son, Jack whispered.

The next pitch sailed at Rob’s head. Jack’s heart stopped but Rob ducked in time. Jack yelled to the umpire that the pitch was intentional, a brushback, an attempt to scare Rob by nearly hitting him—but the pitcher had been wild all day. The umpire ignored the complaint and shouted, “Three and two, full count.”

“Hang in there, Rob!”

“Knock it out of the park!”

“Wait for your pitch, Rob.” Jack yelled to him but his advice was drowned out by the others.

The next one came straight down the middle. Rob began his swing, the type of swing you see from the professional big leaguers. It connected. The ball sailed down the left field line. Jack held his breath, ready to release a big whoop when it landed. But it curved foul. Everyone knew how close it had come, straighten it out and it would have been a home run. Momentum was shifting; the fans on Rob's team were now standing and yelling. The faces in the opposite bleachers looked worried.

He’s gonna do it. Jack clenched his fist while chewing a thumbnail.

The other manager went to the mound with the catcher and they discussed the next pitch. The three of them looked over at the kid on deck—their skinny second baseman who had very little muscle on his arms. They were going to walk Rob. Jack left the dugout and called his son over to the on-deck circle. Rob strolled up with the bat slung over his shoulder–chest sticking out. Jack wanted to savor the moment. His son was in control–a hero. How could he only be nine years old?

Jack explained that the next pitch would be a ball. He didn’t have to swing. Rob asked why. Jack explained it again. Rob had scared the other team into pitching around him. He would get on base with a walk. They wanted to face the other batter because they didn’t think they could get Rob out. Rob nodded, he seemed to understand. Jack decided to go over it again in detail after the game.

Rob stood poised in the batter’s box as the catcher stood up and signaled for a pitch out. The pitcher tossed the ball loosely–high and outside. But the ball was still close enough that Rob reached out to hit it and missed. It was an awful swing, like waving a net at a butterfly, a desperate swing from an anxious nine-year-old still learning how to play, not the confident swat of a big leaguer they had just seen before.

The fans behind Jack let out a collective “ah” of disappointment. The pitcher, catcher and first baseman all jumped up simultaneously then bounced towards each other in a jostling hug. A few kids on Rob's team got up from the benches and threw their mitts to the ground. Rob walked back to the dugout with his chin up, placed the bat in the equipment bag and sat on the bench– steely-eyed and no tears.

Their manager, Frank Miller, gave them a brief speech about close games and tough loses and the ability of champions to bounce back. He announced the day and time of the next game and dismissed them. When the kids shuffled out, he spoke to Jack.

“Tough loss, huh?”

“Yeah.” Jack tried not to show his disappointment in front of the team. “Almost pulled it out.”

“Well, it’s good for the kids,” he looked directly at Jack, “if they can learn from their mistakes.”

Jack got the hint. It was his fault. He hadn’t sufficiently explained the situation to Rob and now he had to do something about it. As they walked to the parking lot, Rob’s teammates waved goodbye and whispered good luck as if Rob was in trouble. Jack kept his voice light. Rob wasn’t in trouble. Not real trouble, not like breaking a window or stealing a candy bar, but sports trouble. There was no punishment but it still came with a lecture. Maybe it was worse because you had let your dad down.

“Tough game, huh?” Jack said softly when they had driven off.

“I guess.” Rob shrugged his shoulders.

“You almost hit one out of the park.”

“Yeah.” Rob rolled a ball around in his glove. “It felt soft, like an orange when I hit it.”

“What happened on that last pitch?”

“I dunno.”

“The catcher signaled for a pitch out—an intentional walk.”

“I know but I wanted to hit it. I wanted to hit it one more time.”

“If you had let it go, you would have gotten on base.”

“I didn’t want a walk. I wanted a hit.”

“But a walk could have helped us win.”

“I guess.” Rob looked out the window. “Dad, can I play soccer?”

“Soccer? Why soccer? You’re doing so well with baseball.”

“I know but I just want to try something else.”

“Look Rob, don’t let one little mistake get you down. You’ll bounce back.”

“What mistake?” Rob wrinkled his forehead.

“Swinging at that last pitch.”

“That wasn’t a mistake.” He looked insulted. “I wanted to hit the ball.”

“But you could have helped the team with a walk.”

Rob pounded the ball into his glove. “I didn’t want a walk. I wanted a hit. I like batting. It’s fun. Why can’t I swing at the ball when I want to?”

“Because it’s strategy.” Jack couldn’t believe he had to explain this. “Sometimes you get a hit and sometimes you get a walk but you have to get on base so you can get runs.”

“Walks are boring. I like hitting the ball.”

“But that’s only part of the game.”

“They should change the rules. The rule should be you can only get on base when you hit the ball.”

“They aren’t going to change the rules.”

Rob thought for a minute.

“Dad, do you like baseball?”

“Of course.”

“How come you don’t play?”

“I used to but now I’m too old.”

“I still want to play soccer.”

“Okay. How about next fall?” Jack didn’t see anything wrong with trying another sport in the off-season.

Rob went in the house while Jack parked the car in the garage. When Rob came out again, he grabbed his bike and took off down the street with Ellen screaming after him that dinner would be ready in five minutes. His cap hung on a dining room chair. His uniform lay on the hallway floor in a trail to his room. Jack spent many nights wondering what he could do to keep Rob interested in baseball.

The Giants beat the Dodgers 6-5. Jack clicked off the radio and got up from the hammock. Dinner would be ready soon but Ellen wanted him to bring in the hammock. It was time to store it for the winter. Jack carried it to the garage and laid it across an old box of snorkel equipment and dusty mitts. He went to bed early that night in preparation for work the next day. Labor Day weekend had ended and summer was over.

March 11, 2022 11:03

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6 comments

Shea West
20:25 Mar 15, 2022

As a "baseball mom" I really felt for this dad. My kids play and it's hard to watch them not connect when they want to, and to fall into the strategy of the game balanced with their wants. I like that you had Rob say, he just wanted to hit the ball and not walk. The loneliness that you built up in the beginning was a nice preface to the memory of playing ball with his son. Glad I finally had a chance to read this Craig!

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Craig Westmore
01:02 Mar 16, 2022

Thank you Shea!

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Mae R
17:09 Mar 14, 2022

Totally agree with the comment about the tension, you managed to make a girl in England care about baseball throughout the story. Nice job, really well written!

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Craig Westmore
19:39 Mar 14, 2022

Thank you, Mae! I tried to keep the description non-technical so it would have a universal appeal. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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09:36 Mar 12, 2022

Makes me nostalgic about practicing baseball in wisconsin with my brother and father in the backyard after dinner about 4 decades ago. A well written nugget story, with very consistent tension and tone. Good work Craig.

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Craig Westmore
18:59 Mar 12, 2022

Thanks Scott! I'm glad you liked it. Baseball makes me nostalgic too!

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