Sports Fiction posted May 27, 2011

This work has reached the exceptional level
Baseball faces reality

The Slump

by Larrypic11

The glove shot from his hand, vaulting the players as if they were quail leaping from the underbrush as it thudded against the back wall of the dugout. They were astonished by his outburst of disgust.

This was Bobby Brant, not Mareno or Casey. Bobby didn't act that way. He was smooth beyond his years. He kept his cool in tight spots; it was his trademark. Whenever he gave up a bomb or walked a batter or two, he would rebound to send the opposing hitters back to their dugout with pained expressions and grudging admiration.

Bobby came close to winning the Cy Young Award in his second year as a pro. It was unfortunate that an aging veteran had similar stats and the team he played for won the pennant that year which gave him the edge over Bobby. In many eyes Bobby deserved to win. He was brilliant on a mediocre team. Now he seemed unable to contain his emotions, nor could he get the bat boy out.

Bobby could not remember a time when he did not want to throw a baseball. When he played with his father or brothers, he was the one trying to make them swing and miss. He relished every time he turned the grimace of determination into the agony of the almost. He was never mean about it though. After his victory he would smile and laugh with such genuine joy that the urge to hit him with the bat was replaced by a meek, "Good pitch" and a silent prayer that you'd get him tomorrow. He owned most tomorrows though.

All through high school and college Bobby Brant was the "Ace", the "Go-to Guy" when you needed a win. He pitched 6 no hitters in high school and 2 in college. He was a big-time big league prospect. Even when he wasn't drafted into the pros until the fourth round due to a recent surgery, there was no doubt he would soon be on top of the rotation. He was simply that good and he knew it. Yet his broad smile, and his "Golly Gee, Aw Shucks, Pardon me Ma'am" persona were as genuine as his knowledge that he could throw a baseball better than almost anyone in the world. Until this season, that is.

Like all athletes he would have bad games, coughed up his share of home runs, laser beams and bloop hits. Usually by the next game or at worst the following, his fastball returned the baseball to the size of a pea and his curve screwed the batters into the ground. The change up he developed in the short stint in the Minors made his arsenal devastating. Now it was July and he had recorded only one weak win in the first three months of the season. The grimace of determination on the batter was replaced with the smile of hitting a baseball that looked like a basketball and flew like a golf ball. It was unbearable, and his frustration was erupting into the lava of an anger he knew very little about and less how to deal with. He didn't make it out of the second inning in this outing. The Manager and coaches were patient and encouraging. The pitching coach couldn't see anything obviously wrong with his mechanics. So they kept sending him out there in the hopes that today would be the day that Bobby Brant would rule the mound and favor the opponents with a grin of delight as they sat down.

Bobby was in no mood to go to the hospital the next day. He had promised the third baseman, Joe Wood, that he would come along to see the patients at the Rehabilitation Center. Bobby would usually just hang out before games and on off days. When his fiance was in town they spent the time exploring, making wedding plans and arranging for the life they would share after the season was over. Jamie was his girlfriend since Junior year of college, and the relationship stood the test of the pros. Eventually, they wanted to return to the Kansas City area where they grew up and had large extended families. Jamie was a rock for him during the slump. She encouraged him, cajoled him, kicked his rump, alternately, as she felt it was best to get the message across. The doldrums were deeper after this game than at any other time and even she couldn't shake the darkness. His best friend Mick, his battery mate from college, also did his best to keep his spirits up as he worked into his potential again. He refused to talk to Mick last night. Jamie apologized and made some excuse why he couldn't talk. Mick knew the truth. He had been in that state several years earlier when his body made it clear that college was the last stop on his dream.

Wood had to nearly drag Brant into the car to get him going. He used the word "kids" as if it were a mantra. Over and over he repeated it, hoping Bobby would get some glimmer of light in his eyes. Wood prattled incessantly during the drive, meeting Bobby's silence with cascades of words that pounded Bobby's ear like Niagara did as the Maid of the Mist appeared to come close to the treacherous rocks at the base of the falls. When they walked through the front door they were greeted by the Administrator and many of the staff members. Wood and Brant could hardly keep up with the back slaps and hand shakes. They were the heroes of Milwaukee after all. They kept them close the last few years, fighting for the pennant despite having few name players. They gave them hope. Brant and Wood were major factors in that hope. Brant gave a weak smile so as not to offend anyone. It wasn't their fault after all, he consoled himself. When a few started to ask if he was physically OK, he brushed off the question with an emphatic "I'm fine" and a step or two forward. Eventually the staff was reduced to the two that were to guide them around the center.

The first stop held a room that Bobby was very familiar with. There were patients sitting in a group off to the side. Almost all were in wheelchairs; a few were in chairs with crutches at their side. In the main body of the room there was a variety of exercise apparatus. Physical Therapists guided one or two patients through each of the various pieces of equipment that were designed to rejuvenate the patient's particular disability into full wellness. Wood had been in this facility as an inpatient for a short while when he recovered from a traffic accident last off-season. Thankfully he was completely recovered by the beginning of the season. Brant had visited him then; this was the room, he was sure. The two players walked around and were greeted enthusiastically by the patients. They signed autographs whenever and wherever asked. Bobby found their elation contagious and slowly his spirits brightened. After about fifteen minutes they were whisked to another room. Wood said excitedly to Brant, "You'll love this place"!

The next room was as large as the first, the equipment the same. The patients, however, ranged in age from six to sixteen. As soon as the Big Leaguers entered the excitement was palpable. The children and therapists stopped whatever they were doing and gaped at them in unison and in short order the room erupted in cheers and calls for their attention. Instinctively, the pitchers went off in different directions around the room, hoping to meet as many of the children as quickly as possible. As Bobby approached an apparatus that resembled low parallel bars a boy who looked about twelve years old gazed up from his effort to hold himself upright to see his idol. Forgetting for a moment the accident that impaired his spine the boys released the bars as if to beckon Bobby towards him. As he did so he fell flat on his face with a monstrous thud. In immediate reflex Bobby went to pick him up from the mat underneath the bars. The therapist blocked his path and looked down at the boy with a reassuring but firm look. "OK, Jake, Bobby Brant is here, and you moved too quickly and fell." In a gentle command the therapist went on "Now get up from there. Show him you can do it." Bobby saw the tears in his eyes as Jake lay there frustrated and mortified. With enormous effort Jake grabbed the poles that held the bar and dragged himself upright, holding tightly to the wooden parallel bar. The therapist smiled and clapped. "There ya go, Jake, you did it again! That's twice you were able to help yourself up".

Bobby could contain himself no longer. He pushed past the therapist and grabbed Jake in his arms and hugged him tightly. "Are you alright", the pitcher asked. "Yes", Jake answered. "Let me show you what I've learned." As Bobby let him go, Jake wriggled his body in position to get his right hand on the other bar. With great effort he captured the bar, turned his body straight and took two tentative steps forward. Bobby saw Jake's face rebound from the grimace of effort and pain to the elation that he was now able to step where he had not been before. "Wow' that was great, Jake", Bobby blurted as Jake returned a beaming smile. Bobby and the therapist assisted Jake into the chair.

The therapist turned to Bobby with a huge smile and said, "It's a pleasure to meet you finally". Bobby laughed as the stern figure of a minute ago that was now almost as giddy with excitement as Jake. They exchanged some pleasantries, but Bobby felt compelled to move around the room to the other children. Before he left he told Jake, "I'll see you again". He eventually crisscrossed over Wood and they met again at the door in an hour or so. They waved as the chorus of goodbyes escorted them to the door. Bobby felt lighter than he had in a long while. On the return trip Wood laughed and mockingly covered his ears as Brandt regaled him with the stories he already knew and had participated in.

Jamie could not believe the transformation in Bobby when he came home. He sprang around the house like a kitten, bounding from place to place in search of a new horizon to explore. He hugged her and kissed her, but wasn't surprised when she handed him the phone and said, "Here, call Mick".

When Mick answered, Bobby's words pounced on the phone and it took a good while before a response from Mick was even possible. As always a response did come, a teasing, "Well where's your head been the last few months?", or "Did you think you were the only loser out there that had to work to get what he needed?" and on and on in language only the closest of friends would dare exchange with one another.

When he got off the phone with Mick he wished there were a game that night so he could get out to the stadium. It would be unlikely he would get a chance to pitch, but he wanted to be there. He was ready.

The next few days Bobby went to visit Jake at the Center. His presence soon became accepted as a normal occurrence so there was no longer any fuss. He sat with Jake and talked, encouraging him when he went on the apparatus. He watched Jake struggle mightily to regain as much movement as he could possibly attain. Through the effort Jake continued to smile, remaining pleasant with the staff, and being as cooperative as he could. Several days after their first meeting, Jake fell again. This time Bobby resisted the urge to jump from his seat and lift him, even when the tears began to flow again. Today he asked the therapist if Jake would ever be able to walk unaided again. The therapist didn't reply, making a face that told the precariousness of Jake's situation. Bobby went to the ballpark upset that afternoon. How was it possible that all that effort might be unrewarded? Worse, why was someone so young condemned to living the rest of his life either in a wheelchair or profoundly impaired? It seemed so unfair.

He was scheduled to pitch that night and he warmed up with little focus or emotion. At least he could go straight to the mound to get the game started because they were the home team. When he finally faced the first hitter, the batter scorched the first pitch off the right centerfield wall for a double. Brant walked the next batter on four pitches. Gero was up next. He had struck out Gero almost every time he faced him in prior years. The first pitch was another ball. Gero swung at the next pitch and lined it right at Bobby's head making him fall to the ground as he tried to catch it and protect himself at the same time. The ball continued into center for a single, driving home the runner from second and moving the runner from first to third. Gero laughed out loud as Bobby lay prone. He heard a fan scream from the stands, "Brant, you're a bum". For the first time since Little League Bobby's eyes welled in frustration.

He picked himself up and shooed the trainers and the pitching coach away as they ran towards him. He walked to the back of the mound, picked up the rosin bag and rubbed the ball as if it were Aladdin's lamp. He rose to the mound and set himself to pitch. He looked intent to home plate and everyone expected him to either throw another wild ball or a raging fast ball. As he went into the stretch he surprised everyone by whirling toward first, throwing a low fast ball right into the first baseman's glove, picking off a stunned Gero who had leaned toward second base. As Gero got up and walked to the dugout, Bobby smiled at him and shouted, "Nice hit". Gero shook his head and silently took his seat. Bobby returned to the back of the mound and rubbed the ball before returning to his perch. The next pitch was a swing and miss. Bobby smiled. It was going to be OK.

The next day was another off day before they were leaving for the short flight to Minneapolis for inter-league play. After Minneapolis they were off on an extended road trip. Bobby wanted to see Jake before he left so he scurried to the center in the early morning. For the first time he saw Jake in his bed, He looked so small and frail in the large bed. Jake's face brightened when he saw Bobby. Jake immediately blurted, "I'm sorry you didn't get the win last night Mr. Brant".

"It's Bobby please, Jake, and it was the best game I ever played". Jake looked quizzically at Bobby so Bobby answered his unasked question.

"I forgot how much I love baseball, Jake. I got lost in worry about what pitch to throw and where I should throw it. I felt I had lost all control. Yesterday I remembered I never had control before so why should I have it now. I just had fun throwing a baseball. It's what I enjoy most and do best. So I guess you could say I had to get out of control before I could be back in control again. See?"

Bobby realized by the expression on Jake's face that he understood the words, but didn't fully comprehend what he was saying. Bobby wasn't sure if he truly understood himself.

"Look, Jake. It's like the day we first met and you fell. You cried from pain and frustration. When you got up and forced yourself to take the step you were coming out of your skin. You didn't know you could make the step, but you did it. You had to let go from thinking you couldn't to allowing yourself to just go do it"

"You mean if I just keep letting go and trying as hard as I can I'll be able to walk again", Jake excitedly asked?

Bobby shook his head and with an understanding smile responded, "No, Jake. I don't think it's that simple. I don't know if I'll ever strike out another batter or win a game again, let alone maybe win the Cy Young award. All I know is I love to pitch, and I'm going to do it until I can't any more. There is no end of the road. It's only what's happening now that matters. Does walking matter to you?"

"Yes, Mr. Brant, more than I can ever say."

"Then just keep trying until either you can or you can't, Jake, Just keep trying. And it's Bobby, please".

The friends leaned towards one another and shared a hug. "I'll see you in about a week and a half, Jake"

"What if I'm not here,"?

"Oh, I'll find you. Friends ain't easy to come by" They smiled broadly at one another as Bobby headed for the door.

As Bobby started the car he giggled to himself. "When did I get so damn philosophical" he almost said out loud? He shook his head and let out a laugh. He didn't see the semi as he left the parking lot. It smashed into his car on the driver's side, killing him instantly, and turning the car into a gnarled pile of scrap. When the EMS people finally arrived they were barely able to drag his mangled body from the wreck. To their astonishment, they looked to one another and remarked how he had the most angelic smile they had ever seen. As they were wrapping the body one of them recognized Brant. 'This is Bobby Brant! I saw him pitch last night! He was great! After a rocky start this year he was awesome the last game!"

Another responded wryly, "Well he won't have to worry about the slump any more".

The other shot back, "I only saw him get upset once. What I'll remember most is the smile that was always on his face. Just like now.............

"Maybe he was thinking about baseball" the second man guessed.

"Maybe", returned the first man, 'he was just seemed thrilled to be alive. He always seemed to smile".

Inside the building, it was Jake's turn to walk on the apparatus. As he stood there about to begin, there was a loud commotion in the hallway. He heard one of the nurses ask who it was in the accident. He heard the reply that it was Bobby Brant. He flopped back down in his wheelchair and sat there staring straight ahead. The therapist put a hand on his shoulder and said nothing as a tear rolled down Jake's cheek. In a short while the therapist said, "I'm so sorry, Jake. Would you like to skip today"?

Jake shook his head violently in the negative and almost pushed the therapist aside as he pulled himself up on the bar. He took a tentative step with enormous effort. As he attempted the second step he fell face first to the mat. This time the therapist went to assist and Jake shooed him away. He dragged himself up onto the bars again, composed himself and took another tentative step, took one more, and with a shout he took yet another. Jake motioned to the therapist to help him back into the chair. "That was great, Jake", the therapist said in awe.

Jake gave a broad smile and said, "One day I may want to find another friend. I don't think they're very easy to come by".

The therapist shook his head. "No, Jake, I don't think they are".

They walked silently to Jake's room where his parents greeted him in the doorway. He reached up to them and they almost lifted him from the chair. They began to weep in unison. It had been a long while since they shared a good cry and a hug of restoration. As they placed Jake back into bed, his parents spied the mail for the day on the nightstand. When he opened the first there was a card from his Aunt Marie with puppies all over it. The second had no stamp, the handwriting was a scrawl, as if written by someone who couldn't hold a pen very well. Inside the plain card was a picture of Bobby and Jake taken several days ago. On the back of the picture, in the same rough handwriting was a short note:

"Jake, it's great when the slump is finally over" and signed, "Your friend, Bobby Brant."

His parents were puzzled by the card, picture and note. Jake was too in awe and happy to try to explain that his friend had found him, even if he was forced to move on.

Larry Picarello


I would appreciate your comments on this story good, bad or indifferent. The ending especially.
The picture is of Andrew Bailey who now pitches for the Oakland Athletics and my son, Mike, who was known as "Pic" to his college teammates. The personalities in the story are loosely based on them, if not the finale, thank goodness.
Baseball and Memorial Day. Gotta love it.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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