A Team Effort


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 People have always told me about doing things for the team, as if baseball was anything but one man against another. Sure, you might have nine people out on the field at once, but nine total individual people thinking their own thoughts, dreaming their own dreams. That's the way it was with me, right up to my last day, the smell of pine tar and green turf like an elixir of youth. Forty, you say? I felt twenty and could hit as good as anyone and run some, too. Though it was my eyes that failed me, and that last day, my legs.

 Now anyone knowing anything about a ham string pull knows they hurt like the dickens. And I cursed myself silly for not stretching back at home, looking down at that throbbing leg like it wasn't there.

 "Hillard!" the coach yelled. "You need an invitation? I said get out on the field."

 "Sure thing, Coach," I said. But I didn't move.

 This was the kind of thing that ended people's seasons. With two weeks left and the team in the heat of a pennant race, I could never afford to go down. It would be a career. I might get asked back for Spring training next year if I went out in glory and the team won the series. But get hurt now and it was the showers for good. No trade talk, just dumped out on the street with contract in my hand and no job prospects.

 "Hillard!" the coach's voice echoed up the gangway.

 "Coming," I called back and stood up. There. That wasn't so bad. I could walk anyway and maybe it would loosen up later enough for me to snag a fly or two. Maybe I'd get lucky enough to have nothing hit to me. Boston, ha! They were a pack of right hand pull hitters. What did they know about right field. With them batting, right field was the loneliness place on earth.

 And then there was that look again from the coach as I eased out onto the field, that "you'd-better-do-real-good" look I'd been seeing from here a lot lately, ever since the all star break. He was evaluating me for upper management, trying to fix in his mind if I was worth keeping on for another spring.

 And true enough, the muscle eased some. I snagged some easy flies. They were serious. They knew I'd be standing around with nothing to do most of the game. The youngsters, especially the benched fellows, ran and jumped and fell and cried like a pack of wolf-cubs, all trying to catch wandering eye of the coach, all trying to make him believe they were the next superstars. None quite able to bear the thought of waiting till next spring, eyeing me as the first available position open-- as of today.

 That's what I meant by team sport-- people always vying for their shot, trying to slide into a slot. Not to help the team, but to help themselves. But I had the spot and they didn't and that's all that mattered. Maybe it would be up for grabs in Spring. My worry was keeping it till then.

 And maybe I was thinking too much, half falling asleep with thinking when the crack said the ball had been hit oddly, off the end of the end of the bat. Someone shouted it was coming my way. But it was a night game and the all the lights played havoc on my eyes. It wasn't a matter of shielding them from the sun, it was finding the small white circular object against their brilliance, a tiny shadow dropping back down to earth.

 It landed eight feet behind me and rolled to the wall. I ran after it, but just then the muscle in my leg started again, a mistaken step, a wrong angle and I was in agony.

 I didn't stagger or stumble. But I didn't get the ball either. One of the youngsters grabbed it up after running over from center field. He wasn't even out of breath, but glared at me-- the contempt of old age stark in his eyes.

 "Why don't you give it up, old man," those eyes said, though he was too busy running and throwing to say as much himself.

 Nor did the others say much when the inning finally ended after too many runs scoring. Not all because of me. But I had opened the flood gates through which the right hand monster hitters had charged. The younger players eyed me as I sat.

 "You made a fool of yourself on National Television," one of them said.

 "It's not the first time," I said, remembering vaguely a similar stunt many years before when as a rookie I had dropped a ball allowing the winning run to score.

 But the coach said nothing, just looked at me.

 "I lost the ball in the lights," I said, with a little too much vigor, like a kid trying desperately to convince his parents about where some missing cookies had gone off to.

 "I know," the coach said. But that was all.

 It could have happened to anybody and often did. The lights were treacherous and often twisted games like this into bizarre shapes, scoring runs as if by magic. And yet, such magic was not supposed to exist in a pennant race. Teams who won the series did not have such spells against them. Luck always seemed to ride on their side, not against them.

 And maybe it was the lights again when I got up to the plate to bat, or the booing fans-- in either case, the pitcher went through his motions and the ball popped into the catcher's mitt without even so much as an appearance in front of me.

 Strike one!

 I turned and looked back at the umpire. Although I knew the face and had spent nearly twenty years looking upon it this way, there was no sense of sympathy in his eyes.

 Strike two!

 I might have been nothing more than a rookie staring blindly at the field, wondering just where I fit in with its grand schemes, why the game had to go on without me.

 Mercifully the next pitch was a ball. But I no more saw that than the others, vaguely aware of the shaking head of the coach in the distant dugout.

 It wasn't just my last season, but my last game, too.

 Too much rode on these at bats to waste them on an old man. As if Reggie Jackson hadn't commanded respect right up to his last at bat. Or Mickey Mantel? Or Willie Mays!

 Strike three!

 I slunk back to the bench and sat there, slightly away from the others, daring not to look at them or the coach. A look might just be enough to have him take me out. It was a matter of dignity now, of surviving till the end of the game, swinging my bat to the very end, not so much a hero as a bull dog.

 I didn't expect mercy from management or the team. But I always played tough. It was the way my old man built houses, falling off beams in his old age, but refusing the ambulance till the work day was over.

 Nor did I expect glory-- some grand miracle that would turn booing fans into cheering ones or bad swings into hits. I got none of that. I swung through two more sets of three without a hit. I missed two more bloopers, though they were more honestly missed, dropping down in front me as I raced to catch them.

 I felt old. I felt alone. And when I came to the plate again in the bottom of the ninth, I felt lost-- as if I'd never been there before, never looked out at the tying run waiting for me on Second, or saw a mean-faced pitcher glaring in. The fans booed and hooted and howled. The pitcher grinned, his face smug with thought of me as an easy out.

 "Just take your swings and sit down, old man," the pitcher's face said, "and let me get on with the real players."

 It was looking at him that made me understand how wrong I'd been, how I'd been wrong for twenty years of bat-swinging and fly-catching. Team sport? Yeah. It was in their eyes, the youngsters on both sides of the field. On their team the joy of impending victory, on ours the look of defeat-- a collective emotion to which I was not a part. And never had been.

 "Hey!" the umpire growled. "Where are you going?"

 I looked up, the bat dragging in the dusty soil behind me. "I'm hurt," I said. "I'm taking myself out of the game."

 And slowly, I hobbled back, down the steps of the dugout, into the gangway, and was washed and out before the final clack of bat ended the game, amid cheers and boos and anxious youngsters running bases.


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