I want to thank Jon Goode of the Lowell Spinners for his assistance on this story. Some of the prompts the kids gave me left me scratching my head. A girl on the playground last week said, "What if a ball player fell in the lap of a girl and they fell in love?" How do you write a story about that and make it plausible. Again, thinking things through you ask yourself: what's realistic? So I called Jon to ask him what would be the likelihood of something like that - maybe a player kicking in the minors at that point where he realizes it's just not going to happen. He told me about how sometimes, because the guys who come to the Spinners are so young, they do things like write their numbers on baseballs and toss them to girls they find attractive in hopes they'll call them. Guys who are at that point of asking themselves if it's time to give up baseball are often older and kicking around different parts of the minors or independent leagues because the kids who are in Lowell are just so young and not willing to give it up just yet.
So how do you capture someone who is maybe that kind of Spike Owen or Mark Bellhorn kind of guy? The guy on the card in that megacollection of leftovers you get at a dollar store or something. So I came up with the story of a teacher who used to be that guy and what happens when his class finds out. Not quite falling in love with the fan in the first row, but an element of truth ringing through. :)
“It can’t be,” Alex said looking at the card in Alison’s hand.
“No way!” John sputtered.
“It is,” Alison said. “I’m telling you, that’s Mr. Winter.”
They all looked at the baseball card in it’s plastic sleeve. There was a the young player in a Boston Red Sox uniform, bat on his shoulder looking at the camera as if he were staring down a Jonathan Papelbon fast ball.
Again John sputtered, “No way!” as he shook his head back and forth. There was no way the “Nick Winter, 1B” was the same Mr. Winter that had just assigned them the history project from heck.
The kids in the group kept grabbing at the card to look but Alison pulled it away and put it in her jeans pocket.
“My brother gave me his old cards and when I saw this I thought I was going to scream.”
“Didn’t your brother have Mr. Winter?”
“Yeah, but he never said anything about this.”
Alex looked across the playground at Mr. Winter refereeing the four square game on the blacktop and talking to the other fourth grade teachers. “If Mr. Winter used to play for the Red Sox, we’d know. If not us, then the kids before us. That’s not the kind of thing you keep a secret,” she said.
“It’s real. I looked it up on line after my brother gave me the cards.”
They stood on the corner of the playground staring at their teacher in disbelief. How did he go from playing for the Red Sox 10 years earlier to teaching their fourth grade class? Why would anyone leave baseball to be a teacher?
“I have a plan,” John finally said. “Ask him to sign the card and see what he says.”
“That’s a great idea!” Alex agreed.
“I need to think about it,” Alison said, “What if it’s not him.”
“Then he won’t sign it.”
“What if it is?”
“Then how cool is that?”
Back in the classroom, all the kids were buzzing. Alison held tight to her card, fearing that if she let it go she’d never see it again.
“Well, you guys seem excited about something,” Mr. Winter said.
“Um,” Alison began as she pulled the card out of her pocket, “would you sign this for me?” She handed him the card.
He looked at the piece of cardboard wrapped in plastic. His smile wavered for a second and then he pulled it out of the wrapper and took the pen out of his shirt pocket. Clicking the pen and leaned over the desk and signed it. He glanced at it wistfully
then carefully put it back in the plastic sleeve and handed it back to her.
All eyes were on him as a shocked silence filled the air.
“So you guys know my secret,” his smile came back. “I suppose you all want to know how I ended up as a fourth grade teacher.”
“Well… yeah,” Bobby snapped from the front corner of the room.
Mr. Winter moved to the front of the room and sat down on the wooden stool. He looked around the room. All eyes were on him, he had the undivided attention of the class.
“Thumbs up if want to be a famous athlete, no matter what sport.”
About half of the kids gave him the thumbs up. Some kids gave him a thumbs sideways, the class signal for maybe.
“When I was your age, all I wanted to do was play baseball. I loved the game, still do to tell the truth. Who needed to do homework or study math, I was going to be a ball player. Then I met someone who changed my life. Who in here has heard of Jim Lonborg?”
Three kids raised their hands. Mr. Winter pointed at one kid and said, “Tell us who he is John.”
“Jim Lonborg won the Cy Young award in 1967 pitching for the Boston Red Sox and threw a one-hit game in the World Series that year agains the St. Louis Cardinals.”
“Very good. Do you know what he does today?”
“He’s a dentist.”
“That’s right, he’s a dentist. Here’s a guy who was one of the best pitchers of a generation and he’s a dentist. You don’t get to be a dentist by blowing off homework or school.”
Now the questions that were itching to be asked were starting to rise up. He held up his hand to stop them.
“I met Dr. Lonborg because I cracked a tooth and my dentist was on vacation. He told me that he saw me play at a recent high school game and asked me something no one else asked me, where did I want to go to college?”
The kids started raising their hands and calling out.
“Eyes on me, my story and save the questions to the end.”
The class settled down again.
“I told him I was going to play ball and he laughed. He told me he thought the same thing but promised his parents he’d go to college first. He said he thought about maybe being a doctor if baseball didn’t work out. I knew you don’t go to medical, or dental school, if you don’t do well in college and I knew then that I had to take school seriously.”
“So you wanted to be a teacher?” Alex blurted out.
Mr. Winter smiled.
“I wasn’t sure. I knew I had to work hard to get my grades up and eventually I got an offer to go to Georgia Tech. They had a great baseball team and I figured if it didn’t work out, I’d go back later. I was drafted by the Red Sox my junior year of college. I was 20 years old and my dreams were about to come true, so I took the signing bonus and packed my bags to report to Lowell.”
“I love Spinners games,” Alison said, “I have a couple of bobbleheads from games we went to and once I got to race around the bases in a giant hamster ball. It was pretty funny!”
“Yeah, I used to love some of the stuff we did at the games,” he smiled, “everyone had so much fun. But the players, well, we were young and lived in the dorms at UMass Lowell. Sometimes you’d see a pretty girl and you’d write your phone number on a ball and throw it to her and hope she’d give you a call. One day, I threw my phone number to a girl and she called me. We went out for coffee and she told me she was studying to be a teacher. I told her I was going to play for the Red Sox.”
He paused for a minute and rubbed the ring on his left hand.
“She married me and stuck with me through everything. The ups and downs between the different leagues, the injuries, the September call ups, Spring Training - everything. I even made it to the Red Sox for one amazing season until just after the All Star Break I tripped over second base and ripped my Achilles Tendon. Even after surgery, rehab and everything else I was looking at playing through the minors again and hoping beyond hope that I’d be back in Boston. My wife looked at me and said, ‘So what do you want to do now?’”
“What did you do?” Alex whispered.
“I remember lying there in bed and thinking, if I couldn’t play baseball what would I do? I called my friend at the Lowell Spinners, Jon Goode. He’s the guy who gets to drive the Mystery Machine and puts together the hamster ball races and stuff like that. I asked him what would happen if I wanted to work in baseball. He told me that I’d work as an intern, just like a college kid, and work my way up from the bottom like anyone else.”
“You mean you can’t just get a job as a coach or something?”
“How many guys do you think play baseball every year in the minors, the independents and every other league out there? Imagine how many of them give up playing every year. How many positions are there out there for coaches, scouts, front office and other jobs?”
“So what did you do?”
“I thought about the kids I met when I was playing. I thought about the kids I saw my wife teach and tutor and I realized that there are more important things than baseball in this world. So I went back to school, finished my degree and became a teacher.”
The kids sat there in stunned silence.
“You gave it up to be teacher?” John finally asked.
“Yep and I’ve never looked back. That is, until today.” He pointed at the card still sitting in front of Allison. “You have to understand that you guys come into the classroom in September with no idea what’s in store for you. Every day I teach you stuff: math, science, social studies, you name it. Some subjects are fun, some are kind of tough like when I’m teaching you how to edit and write. I get a fraction of what I made playing baseball but I have to be honest, I like this job much more than I liked playing baseball.”
A chorus of “no way” and “really?” came from the kids.
“Yes way. I got to live the dream for a few years, and I’m glad for it but this,” he opened his arms to indicate the class and the class room, “this is real. No matter how cool the dream is, in the end you have to remember that it’s reality that counts in the end. My wife, my kids, my classes, that’s real. When I tell you guys that homework matters or that you’ll use this math again or why it’s important to be able to write a concise paragraph, trust me, I know what I’m telling you is true.”
The class was still silent as he finished.
“Now, enough about baseball guys. It’s time for writer’s workshop. I want you to think about one of your favorite memories and tell me about it on paper. Tell me about the day, the weather, the sights and smells. Remember what I’ve taught you about details without giving too much information.”
“Mr Winter,” a hand was up in the back of the room.
“What is it Izzy?”
“I’m glad you decided to be a teacher.”
He smiled. “Thanks Izzy, I’m glad you guys are my students. Now, let’s get back to work.”
Looking out over the classroom as the kids bent over their notebooks with pencils in hand, Mr. Winter smiled. Playing at Fenway Park may have been one of the best jobs ever, but this, this was better.