The Only Game ONE
After what had been the longest year of Jack Callahan’s life, it was baseball season again.
It had always been the best season for him. It was like Christmas came in the spring and lasted all the way through summer.
It was the first official day of baseball at Highland Park, the real center of town in Walton. The center of town and the center of baseball in the town. They had four Little League fields, all of them looking brand-new, as if the grass had been painted a perfect green and the dirt had been brought here from the big leagues for the batting box and pitcher’s mound and base paths. Even the white numbers set against the dark blue of the outfield walls looked as if they had been painted that morning.
From the time he’d been old enough to play Little League, after he’d moved up from T-ball, this field or the one next to it or the two at the other end of Highland Park had felt like Jack’s home away from home.
Always, no matter what else was going on, he’d felt happy here, and safe.
Safe at home.
When they’d arrived at the field, he’d pointed out to his best friend, Gus Morales, how new everything looked, and Gus had said, “Yeah, because the first day of baseball never gets old.”
Gus’s family had come to the United States from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic when Gus—full name Gustavo Alberto Morales—was still a baby. Gus had always told Jack that baseball in the Dominican was even more serious than Jack had read or heard. Baseball was like the national religion of Gus’s country, and a really good ball field, like the ball fields at Highland Park, was like church.
Gus told stories that his father had told him: stories about being so poor when he was a boy that he’d played ball in abandoned lots or in the street, using broom handles for bats and old milk cartons for gloves.
Maybe that was why Gus loved baseball as much as he did. Just not as much as Jack did. And as good a player as Gus was, a big first baseman with power, a lefty hitter and lefty thrower who could field as well as he could hit, he wasn’t as good as Jack Callahan.
Jack was the best seventh grader in town, the best pitcher and the best shortstop when he wasn’t pitching. He’d have been the best outfielder if his coaches had ever needed him to play out there. There were two leagues at the sixth-grade/seventh-grade level in Walton, one called the Atlantic and one called the Pacific. The best kids went to the Atlantic each year. Back in February, tryouts had been held in the gym at Walton High School. The gym was filled with baseball that day, even though it was still winter. Jack had graded higher than any other kid in town his age.
Nobody was supposed to know the scores, but by the time they all left the gym that day, everybody knew his.
“Shocker, you scoring like that,” Gus had said. “For you baseball’s like this test where you already know the answers.”
The next week he was the first player drafted when the coaches held their draft.
“Another shocker,” Gus said at the time.
“You know I don’t care about any of that stuff,” Jack had said. “I’m just glad you were still around when our team picked again.”
The start of the season seemed so far away to Jack then, with snow still on the ground outside, Jack thinking about the baseball season the way he always had.
Gus had said, “If another team had picked me, I would have demanded a trade. Dude, we’re the team.”
Their team was the Rays this season. Last season they were sixth graders and good enough to play in the Atlantic division. They’d been on the Red Sox and had rolled through the league, losing just one game before they lost in the finals by a run, bottom of the last inning.
And this year the stakes had been raised, this year was their shot at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The way it worked in Walton was they sent two teams every year into the County All-Star League; one was the winner of the Atlantic, and the other a team made up of the best players from the rest of the division.
Then the winner of the County All-Star League was the one that punched its ticket into the tournament that finally put you into the World Series if you kept winning through your region and your state.
Gus was already obsessed—totally—with the chance that he might not only get to Williamsport, but play baseball on national television, because ESPN had been televising the Little League World Series since before they were both born.
“You know the team everybody’s going to want to watch this summer?” Gus was saying now at Highland Park. “Ours.” Then he put out his right hand to Jack and started one of those complicated fist bumps and handshakes and arm moves—everything except a couple of dance steps—that were sometimes more complicated to Jack than seventh-grade algebra.
“You think there are cameras on you even when they’re not,” Jack said.
“Exactly!” Gus said. “That way, when the real cameras are on me, I’ll be ready.”
“You’ll be right there with me,” Gus said, “because you’re like my ticket to it all.”
For now, a long way from Gus’s dream, Jack took in the scene all around them: first official day of practice, all the players on the field for the first time, players from some of the other teams in their league on the three other fields.
Jack Callahan: back out there with Gus and the rest of the guys, taking it all in, baseball and him back together.
Wanting to love it even more than he ever had before.
When they took the field, he ran out to shortstop, Gus was at first, Brett Hawkins—known as Hawk—at third base, T. W. Stanley at second, Scott Sutter at catcher. Coach John Leonard stood next to Scott at home plate, hitting ground balls, chattering away like he was as excited as any of the players on his team to be out here today, at least as excited as his own son, Gregg, out in center field.
All this baseball, between the green grass and the blue sky.
“Guy I heard on TV one time, some sportswriter, called baseball the greatest game ever invented by mortal minds,” Coach said, then slapped a hard grounder to Jack’s left, toward the middle of the diamond.
Jack didn’t hurry. The parents who’d watched him grow up in baseball, especially the ones who’d played ball themselves, talked about how he never rushed himself, even on the toughest plays. How sometimes he seemed to be moving to the ball before the ball was even hit.
And how once he was in motion, it was as if he was gliding.
So Jack was gliding to the ball now that they were on the field and in the middle of infield drills. He moved to his left after a ground ball up the middle, almost as if he knew where it was going to end up better than it did. He cut the ball off in front of the second-base bag, reached down, and felt the ball in the pocket of his Dustin Pedroia glove, the one he’d broken in perfectly by the end of last season.
Not even breaking stride as he kept moving to his left, to the rightfield side of second now, making the transition of glove to bare hand, his eyes picking up Gus at first base even though Jack knew he could make a play like this blindfolded. He whipped a perfect sidearm throw to Gus, perfect strike.
“Yeah!” Gus yelled, smiling at Jack, pointing with his glove, like he wasn’t just the happiest kid at Highland Park in that moment, but the happiest kid in the whole town.
Jack pointed back at him and ran back to short as Coach hit the next grounder to T. W. Stanley.
Jack took off his cap, the same blue as the one the Tampa Bay Rays wore, the logo exactly right. He used the cap to wipe some sweat off his forehead, even though his teammates said they never saw him sweat. Even though the caps they were wearing were adjustable, they still looked exactly like the ones the real Rays wore. No surprise there. They did things right in Walton when it came to baseball.
Oh, the other sports were big here too, for boys and girls. Jack and Gus played football and basketball together, and the soccer program in town was huge. So was the lacrosse program, one that took away kids that Jack knew would have been awesome in baseball. Jack’s father explained it by saying that the best lacrosse players in high school could usually punch their own ticket to the best colleges, and their parents wanted to get them started on that road as early as possible.
“You think they love lacrosse the way I love baseball?” he’d asked his dad one time last season.
His dad had smiled and said, “The only love greater than that is the one I have for you, kid.”
More than anything, Walton was a baseball town, in a baseball region, in a baseball state. Now, because their team looked even more loaded than it did last season, baseball in Walton felt bigger than it ever had. Everyone was dreaming about making it to Williamsport and the World Series.
It just seemed that the guys around Jack on this field were dreaming a little bigger and a little harder, starting with Gus Morales.
This season was going to be the one they would talk about for the rest of their lives. Gus had been saying that for weeks, from the time their team was set and they knew John Leonard was going to be their coach. Gus knew they were going to have the best team of kids their age anywhere in the state or in the region or in the country.
“Why stop there?” Jack said. “Why not the greatest team of twelve-year-olds in the history of the planet Earth?”
“Go ahead, mock me.”
“If you insist,” Jack said.
This was when they had been stretching in the outfield grass, more to feel the grass under them than for the stretching. Gus talked about how he’d been waiting for this day since they’d lost to Cortland Lakes.
Jack knew Gus Morales had great parents, a great sister, a great life being a kid in Walton. But the good life to him meant baseball, green grass underneath him and the sun high in the sky, two more hours of practice ahead of him, the whole season after that. To him, that was living.
Gus always liked to say that he wanted to be as good as Jack, having no idea—none—how much Jack wanted to be him today.
His friend, born in the Dominican and born to a love of the game, to whom none of this got old, Gus with his new first baseman’s mitt and his new cleats and his new blue batting gloves.
Jack had tried to stop his parents from spending as much as they had on new cleats for him—Michael Jordan kids’ cleats—and spending as much as they had on a new bat, way too much on the bat, a yellow-and-black Easton S1. But there was no stopping either one of them; they were on a mission. Jack’s mom said last year’s spikes were too small. His dad said you needed a new bat every year as you got bigger and your swing speed increased. That was just common sense.
“Besides,” Jack’s dad said, “if you’re going to have the best season of your life, you need the best equipment. Case closed.”
It was as if, Jack thought, his parents thought they’d be playing the season right along with him. Like they wanted this season to be as great as Gus was sure it was going to be.
“Hey!” It was Coach Leonard, calling out to Jack from the batter’s box, ball in his left hand, bat on his shoulder, ready to go. “Is my shortstop’s head in the game, or is he staring into outer space?”
“Sorry, Coach,” Jack said. “You got me. I zoned out there for a second.”
Coach Leonard was smiling. “Season already starting to drag a little bit for you, Jack?”
“Little bit,” Jack said.
The guys around him in the infield laughed.
They worked on double plays for a little while then, starting to read one another a little better with each play, timing their throws just right. Jack took one underhand throw from T.W. that was too high at second, high and wide to the third-base side of the bag. But Jack reached up with his bare hand, not breaking stride or losing where the bag was, making the catch and the throw to Gus in one graceful motion.
And heard T.W. behind him say, “You should be playing for the real Rays.”
Jack slapped him lightly on the shoulder with his glove as he headed back to shortstop. “You just gave me a wide-right throw to make me look good,” he said.
“I wish,” T.W. said.
T.W. came over and stood next to Jack while Hawk fielded bunts. “You okay?” he said.
“Okay to ask?”
Jack slapped him again with his glove and said, “Yeah, it’s okay. We’re teammates, aren’t we?”
Before long it was time for their first batting practice of the season. Coach Leonard said he hadn’t set the whole batting order in his mind yet. But he said that he wanted the first four hitters today to be the four he thought he was going to put at the top of the order when the season started:
Coach Leonard pitched, from behind the mound. “Stay loose, boys,” he said. “I’ve got a lot more arm than an old man is supposed to have.” When it was Jack’s turn to hit, he walked to the plate with his new Easton in his hands—no batting gloves for him, not one time since he’d started playing organized ball. He wanted to feel the bat, and he was now, swinging like it was the middle of the season already.
He pulled the first pitch he saw, hard down the leftfield line. Line drive over second next, T.W. saying it sounded like a police siren going past him. Then Jack pounded one up the gap in right-center, the ball rolling all the way to the wall.
He told himself he might as well make these swings count.
His next swing put the ball over the leftfield fence.
Jack finished by dropping a perfect bunt down the third-base line, running it out like he was trying to beat the ball out in a game. Then he moved around the bases while Gus took his swings. When he got back to the bench, he grabbed his Pedroia glove, took off his batting helmet, and ran out to short.
Now he told himself not to lose focus, not this close to the end.
There was all this chatter while the rest of the guys hit. All of what his dad called the music of baseball. Jack’s dad, who’d been a star shortstop himself at Walton High School, then a good enough prospect later that he was drafted by the Red Sox out of Boston College before he decided to go to law school instead.
“But you’ve got all those trophies in your office,” Jack had said the first time his dad told him he knew he wasn’t good enough to ever make it to the big leagues. “And you say you loved it the way I do.”
And his dad had put his arm around him that day and said, “Sometimes it’s about more than the love of the game.”
Jack remembered that now, for the first time in a long time, as if it had happened yesterday.
They finished practice with some situational drills, guys taking their infield and outfield positions, other guys running the bases, some cutoff plays. Guys tried to score from second base on balls Coach Leonard would hit in front of the outfielders.
When they were done for the day, Coach gathered the players around him in the grass behind shortstop, telling them he knew they had high expectations for themselves this season and that he was cool with that.
“But here’s my biggest hope,” he said. “That by the end of the season every one of you will be a better baseball player than he is right now.”
Some of the other guys, the ones whose parents hadn’t shown up yet, went back to the outfield to throw the ball around, goof around, throw high fly balls. Gregg Leonard got whoops when he caught one behind his back.
Jack’s mom had told him she might be a little late; she had to stop and do some shopping for dinner.
Good, Jack thought.
Eventually the last two players on the field were Gregg Leonard, the leftfielder, and Andre Williams, who was going to be one of the starting pitchers. They were running races around the bases, timing each other with the stopwatches on their phones.
Now or never, Jack told himself.
Coach was at the end of the bench, tossing batting helmets into a duffel bag.
Jack took one last look around: his boys running the bases, the advertisements for town businesses across the outfield walls, the outfield grass, still remembering the way the ball had felt coming off his bat when he had hit his shot over the leftfield fence in batting practice.
It was official, on the first official day: He loved baseball more than he ever had.
Jack put his bat and glove and cap into his new bat bag now, took a deep breath, walked over to Coach, and told him he was quitting the team.