OK... we had another story that I just don't like and I'm not going to post... so instead of posting Story Fourteen, this is Story Twelve and is "what if a kid in the stands inspired a player?"
I have long been frustrated at the forcing of girls into softball. As Stephen King once pointed out, Little League effectively forced girls out of baseball by starting a softball program. As a former Little League president, I watched girls constantly being told "wouldn't you rather play soft ball with the other girls?" once they were over the age of 8 or 9. I asked a parent to leave the fields once when I happened to hear him call out to his son, "You're not gonna let a girl get a hit off you are you?" He did apologize, but that I had to be the one to speak to him rather than any of the other parents on the sidelines bothers me still years later. I remember when my son was little, there was a girl on his team that was a good baseball player. She struck out and kids began taunting her for "playing like a girl." My son draped his arm over her shoulders and said, "Hey, even Sammy Sosa strikes out, what makes you think you'll get a hit every time? Next time you'll knock it out of here." He was right, it fueled her to deliver a critical hit for their team at her next at bat.
So what if a kid inspired a player? Who knows, maybe in inspiring him she inspires herself to move on as well....
Aaron Hill loved baseball. It was the one constant in his whole life. No matter what happened, baseball was there for him. But now, he was at the end of his time on the field. In the early October sun, he could feel the changing air and knew, somehow, even Mother Nature was telling him it was time to hang up his cleats and discover what comes next.
The problem was, he didn’t know what would come next. As a result, as the team chased the last playoff spot, he was in a slump. His wife was nagging him about retiring, he had no prospect beyond the end of the season and his spirit had given up. Unless he could get his head back in the game today, the possibilities of a team win and that ever elusive playoff berth would be down the drain with his hope and dreams.
He dreaded batting practice today. He knew the chorus of Boston fans would start early and sing often. “Hill you suck!” “Get off the field old man,” were some of the kinder choruses he heard. Usually the jeers were punctuated with profanity and questions about his manhood.
Would it be such a bad thing to leave baseball at this point? After all he had done for the team over the years, would it be so hard for one fan, just one to remind him of the player he used to be? With a deep sigh, he emerged from the tunnel and through the dugout to the field and slowly took his position in line.
Ellen Byrne had been a Red Sox fan since before she was born. Her mother claimed that if a game was on, Ellen would kick and kick until her mother turned it on. She was told that she practiced sliding into base using her mother’s kidney as her target. As a toddler, she could throw anything with an accurate aim, more often than not it was either one of the cute “girl” shoes her mother would buy for her hoping that Ellen would settle down just a little.
It didn’t work.
Now, at the age 12 and knowing she had just aged out of Little League, Ellen sulked at the unfairness of it all. There were no baseball teams for girls beyond this. She would be pushed towards softball and always heard the same lie, “it’s the same thing, just a different ball.”
Softball was not the same thing. It was the booby prize. Today’s seats behind home plate was her mother’s way of apologizing for the unfairness that was life. Had she been born a boy, had she been Allen instead of Ellen, there would be no question about her going on to play baseball in middle and high school. Boys got to walk away on their own terms, girls walked away on society’s terms.
And it sucked.
She melted into the seat, hand crossed across her chest, a scowl on her face. She didn’t care that the camera would catch her sulking. Let people think she was dragged to the most exciting game of the season. What did she care, it’s not like they cared about her dilemma.
With a sigh she listened to her parents’ cheery voices, “Wow, of all the games to get these seats, this is the game to be at!”
“We’ve been through this Ellen. I know you want to play fall ball but it’s time for you to think about what comes next. You know that the boys are getting bigger and will try to hurt you deliberately. Better you dominate at softball than not be able to play at all.”
“Whatever,” Ellen said again hoping her mother would take the hint.
Her mother sighed. “I give up. Well, if you won’t enjoy the game, at least I will. Look, we’re even here in time for batting practice. Isn’t that the player you love?” Her mother pointed at Aaron Hill getting ready for the cage. He laughed easily with a couple of the younger players, including the guy who would probably take his place at third next year.
Ellen sat up a bit. She had been fascinated by Aaron Hill because he was the guy who defied the odds. The seven time all star, three time MVP and, until recently, reliably stable force at the hot corner keeping the Sox in the hunt year after year stood in front of her. He looked how she felt: tired and frustrated.
Her heart softened a little. She knew what it was like to have to give up the one thing you loved more than anything else in the world because the universe wasn’t fair. He looked towards the stands, as if he were looking for something. Meeting Ellen’s eyes, she smiled.
“Knock it out of here!” she yelled.
He smiled and stepped into the cage. With a crack of the bat, he sent the ball sailing towards the bleachers. He next swing sent the ball sailing up towards the monster seats. With each swing, the ball peppered a different part of the park: off the wall, center field, right field, line drive up the middle… he felt as if the weight was off his shoulders and his bat become lighter than it had felt all season.
Ellen cheered, “You show them!” she yelled and stomped her feet.
The guy settling in behind her looked and guffawed.
“Now if they throw him meatballs during the game like they do in batting practice, we’re all set.”
She turned around and glared at the middle aged man, his belly pushing against the buttons of his white jersey.
“He has the dream the rest of us mortals dream of and I bet you couldn’t hit one of those ‘meatballs’ if you tried.”
“Keep dreaming kid.”
“Ellen,” her mother hissed.
Angrily she turned around in her seat as the Sox headed into the locker room and the Baltimore Orioles took to the field.
“Fifty bucks we can’t beat the cellar dwellers of the league,” the guy said to his friend.
“You’re on my man. This game is too big to lose to those dinguses.”
The game was a tight game, the lead trading back and forth through out. Aaron played third well, but at the plate he had a hard time finding his sweet spot. He would look to that girl in the stands right behind the plate. She seemed to be on the edge of her seat every time he approached the plate. He knew he had to drive one deep for her. He just knew that it was that important to both of them.
As he approached the plate in the bottom of the ninth, they were down by a run. The lead off batter was on first and a double would drive him in. Anything more than that would win the game.
The first ball sped by. He could hear the slap of the ball hitting the leather of the catcher’s glove.
“Stee-rike One!” yelled the ump.
Aaron backed out of the batter’s box to take a second to breathe.
Stepping back in, he ran through his check list starting at his feet. Was his weight distributed properly? Were his knees bent? Was his back straight, his elbow down, was his eye on the ball?”
Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself only for the pitcher to call time.
Frustrated, he stepped out of the batter’s box and tapped the bottom of his cleats with his bat. He glared at the pitcher trying to make his annoyance clear and send the message he was ready to channel it into something.
Ellen watched anxiously. She knew that her favorite player would either be the hero or the goat of the game. A win meant that there was no way the Rays could catch the Sox for the wild card slot. She needed for him to be a hero. So far today he had hit a dribbler up the third base line and a bloop single. Plays that moved runners along and kept them in the game, but they still lacked the power and heart that she knew he had inside of him. He needed someone to believe and he needed to know that she believed. He had been watching her all game, which is why he beat out the throw back in the second when hit the dribbler up third.
But how could she let him know?
Then she remembered. She remembered the song her mother used to sing to her whenever she needed to know someone to believe. Ellen had never been a singer, but she knew this wasn’t about her, this was about the two of them having to face their fate as they moved forward in October’s cruel embrace.
Closing her eyes, she started to sing.
Then he heard it.
A small voice from right behind him.
“Think about how many times I have fallen….”
He recognized the words, the tune but it was taking him a second to place it.
“Spirits are using me, larger voices callin’…”
In that moment, something woke up deep inside. He stepped back into the box with a scary grin on his face. The pitcher looked and a flash of fear shone in his eyes. In spite masking it quickly, Aaron had already seen it and the damage had been done.
He saw the sign from the 3rd base coach, swing away.
The staff recognized what was happening as well.
More voices joined hers, “What heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten. I have been around the world. Looking for that woman - girl.”
More voices, the section was joining in as the pitcher went into his motion. Then, in slow motion, Aaron recognized the fast ball heading right into the zone and his smile grew.
“Who knows what love can endure,” the chorus swelled, “And you know it will.”
His bat met the ball and there was no mistake of the sound of the crack. The crowd were on their feet watching the ball sail up towards the monster seats. He started down the first base line watching rise up and up until it was over the wall.
The noise of the cheers erupted as the park jumped to its feet as one. The team poured out of the dugout and onto the field to wait at home plate for him. He trotted in to the good natured pounding and jumping and cheering.
They had won. More importantly, they had won the playoff berth with today’s win. Fans pressed up agains the walls as security and the police detail at the park quickly filed onto the field to keep them from charging the field.
He would have one more chance, one more day in the sun. Another couple of weeks before he’d have to hang up his cleats for good. Facing October’s taunting fate, he smiled. He would have a new song as he stepped up to the plate as he finished out his career, but first he had something to do. Speaking to a security person, he pointed in Ellen’s direction. The security guard nodded and spoke to the person next to him as Aaron went back on the field to another round of wild applause. Someone stuck a microphone in his face.
“How does it feel to know you won us another play off spot.”
“I just want to say not only does it feel great, but I really want to thank the fans who believed in the team and in me. I love you Boston!”
The crowd cheered again and he pushed his way back towards the dugout.
“We found her sir. She’s waiting for you just inside the locker room door.”
He bounded towards the anteroom at the locker room entrance. There she stood in her jeans and gray Boston jersey.
“Can I see who’s on the back?”
She smiled and turned around, there he saw his name and number on her back. She then hugged him, tears leaking from her eyes.
“Thank you. I can’t play baseball anymore now that I’m too old for little league. I don’t like softball, but it’s better than nothing. Thank you, thank you for giving me one more bit of time to dream.”
“Thank you for believing,” he said in return. “I’d like to give you something,” he said. She stepped back and he handed her his bat.
“Have a sharpie? I’ll sign it for you.”
She pulled one from her pocket and handed it to him.
“What’s your name?”
He wrote, “To Ellen, love endures, dream live and hope never dies. Thank you.”
That afternoon, as Ellen and Aaron left the park, October didn’t seem as scary anymore and the possibility of their lives seemed wide open.