By Tommy Vollman
Alex Frazier stared in from atop the mound as I settled into my crouch and rolled through the signs a second time. Behind Frazier, the vast expanse of Municipal Stadium’s blue outfield seats unfurled, crowned with a tangle of light stanchions that stretched into the high and cloudless sky. With 78,000 seats, it was easily the biggest place I’d ever played. But with only a thousand or so folks squinting and shifting in the sun, it felt empty, lonely even.
Before the game, Coach Dietrich gathered us in the clubhouse.
“This is what we worked for,” he growled. “Let’s get out there and play our game. Have fun,” he continued, “and soak every minute. But,” his steely-blue eyes connected with each of us, “stay within yourselves and,” he added, finally, “believe.”
I shuddered at that last word.
“Now, c’mon,” Coach said. “Get in here.” He pulled off his cap and wiped his forehead on his three-quarter-length sleeve. “Let’s break it down.”
We crowded around Coach, our hands flat, arms extended, lumped and bundled.
I glanced down at the tiny, iron-on patch—a JP in black block letters—that sat just above the Cardinals script scrawled across my chest.
It’d been three years since Jeffrey Phillips died, three years since I prayed and wished and hoped. And it’d been three years since none of it had worked.
“Believe!” we shouted, and then headed up the tunnel, through the dugout, and onto the field.
I signaled for a fastball, down and away.
Alex Frazier nodded and went into his stretch.
The batter was this big fucker named Trace Whitlock. He was a slugger—a right-hander with little speed and tons of power—and I didn’t want to get beat. Down and away was our best chance to get him and keep the game knotted at three. If we got him, we’d head to extras. I was set to lead off our half of the tenth. Then came our big guys. We’d chewed through most of their staff, and with no studs left, I figured we could win the thing, win the Midwest Club Championship and head to Nationals.
But I couldn’t think about that. Not then, not with two outs and a runner on second. I had to stay sharp and be aware of the likelihood of a play at the plate since the runner—a speedster named Garrett Browning—would surely be moving on the pitch.
Frazier hurled, and the ball spun backward toward my mitt. I sank low in my crouch, ready to get my thumb underneath the baseball. Whitlock, though, had other ideas. He went with pitch and sent a fading bleeder toward the foul line.
In shallow right field, Brendan Mills read the pitch nicely and broke early. He stabbed the ball on its second bounce, and drifted into foul territory. As a left-hander with a fairly strong arm, he immediately planted to throw home.
But Garrett Browning was flying. I watched him hit third just as Mills gloved the ball. I saw, too, the hefty Whitlock round first, confident that Mills’ throw was headed home. Getting Browning at the plate would be tough, I thought, but Whitlock, I noticed, had slowed on his way to second base. If Mills went to second, we could get Whitlock before Browning crossed.
“Two! Two! Two!” I shouted.
Mills adjusted and delivered to second base. A perfect throw might’ve nabbed Whitlock. But Mills’ readjustment took something off, and Whitlock slid feet first just under Byron Jackson’s tag.
A beat or two afterward, Garrett Browning swept across the plate and won the game.
Whitlock, Browning, and the rest of them moved on.
We were done.
My stomach knotted, and for a few seconds, I thought I might break apart. I walked off, down into the dugout, and through the tunnel. The clubbies told us there were rats down there, and I wondered as I pulled off my gear if the rats were angry at us for being there, for disturbing them with light and noise while the Indians were away. Or maybe they were disappointed. I thought of all the rats, huddled somewhere, disappointed at the way we’d played—at the way I’d played there at the end. Maybe, I thought, they’d all left our clubhouse for the first-base side, the winner’s side.
We even lost the rats, I thought as I unfastened my shin guards and dropped them on the floor. We lost the goddamned clubhouse rats.
But Coach Dietrich tried to pick me up. He assured me I’d made a baseball play.
Hollings Dietrich played second base for eleven seasons across three different Minor League organizations. Twice he made it to AAA, and once he got a September call-up.
“Look,” he said, his hand on my shoulder as we boarded the bus in the bowels of the stadium, “you made a tough call in a tight spot.” He smiled. “That’s all you can do. It’s all anybody can do.”
But despite that, despite what he and others said, I couldn’t help but think that the loss was my fault.
I replayed the moment over and over on the drive home and then that night in my room as I lay in bed: I should’ve just let Mills come home with his throw. We might’ve gotten Browning at the plate and kept the score knotted.
As much as I tried not to second-guess my choice, I just couldn’t stop myself.
Over and over, I thought about that at-bat and what came immediately after. I slowed it down, sped it up, paused it here and there. I wore that moment out from the inside. And I wondered if I just hadn’t believed enough—believed in myself, my teammates, and the moment.
I thought about what Jeffrey Phillips might’ve said if he'd been there. Over the last year or so, I'd found myself thinking about Jeffrey less and less, which worried me; perhaps I was beginning to forget him.
Jeffrey Phillips was only 13 when he died.
The last time I saw him, he lay twisted, gasping for air. I stared at him then, and I prayed because I couldn't think of anything else to do. I prayed as hard and as quickly as I could.
Jeffrey was one hell of a ball player. At 13, he could flat out mash. Back then, we played on a 70-foot diamond. Most of the fences were 200, 225 feet. Jeffrey would blast dingers 250, 275, even 300 feet. They were moon shots, and they happened too regularly to be flukes or accidents. People wondered how far he'd go. People talked about him as if he was a sure thing. I suppose he might’ve been.
About a week after Jeffrey Phillips’ funeral, I got up in the middle of the night, sat down at my desk, turned on my lamp, and made a list of all the things Jeffrey Phillips would never do again. Then, I made a list of all the things Jeffrey Phillips would never do at all.
I’m not exactly sure why I made those lists, but I know that for a while they made me feel better. I didn’t feel good, but I felt better, as if writing down the things Jeffrey wouldn’t do somehow gave shape and substance to who he was.
But then I kept writing and writing and writing—I wrote things I hardly understood—and the lists made me feel worse; they made me feel awful.
So I stopped writing, and when I stopped writing I began to think about my prayers and why they hadn’t worked.
I hardly prayed at all after that day, after the day Jeffrey died.
I first read Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night on the bus ride down to Tampa before my second Minor League season—four years after that season-ending loss up in Cleveland at Municipal Stadium.
I became obsessed with O’Neill’s characters—his parade of tragic, fringe dwellers—their disillusionment and despair. There was something about their persistence that threatened to possibly empower my own. I wanted like the hell to claw my way to the Big Leagues. But I wondered if my efforts were perhaps angling toward failure, spoiling the very marrow of my dreams.
Persistence had become what I valued most; it became my measuring stick. My desire to relinquish outcomes offered some potential benefits, but I was too concerned with losing what I’d gained instead of gaining what I could lose, so I never fully reaped the benefits. The very promise of a next pitch, a next at-bat, a next game was an opportunity, but one I never really embraced. I stayed a baseball middle-classer; unwilling to push through success into the possibility of something more, something unknown.
When I finally made it to the Bigs, I was terrified I wouldn’t last. My foundation, I feared, was far too fragile.
I played one game in the Bigs. I had one single at-bat, nothing more. My Big League career stretched through portions of three separate days, but I actually only played for a grand total of about seven minutes.
And I wouldn’t trade those seven minutes for anything.
But what is seven minutes—a mere 420 seconds—in relation to all the time and energy and hoping and wishing and worrying, all the anxious, restless thoughts and uncertainty. For decades, I walked a tightrope between believing in myself and believing beyond myself.
I was told, over and over and over again, that believing in myself was key. Everyone, it seemed, agreed. People talked about it all the time. But no one ever talked about what to do when believing in myself wasn’t quite enough.
My Catholic schooling—all twelve years of it—was sewn through with a common thread: humility. Before long, though, I uncovered an impasse: Humility and belief in one’s self were nearly incompatible. I learned that I could believe in myself, but not to the point where my belief in myself superseded my belief in anything else.
Back when I played for Hollings Dietrich, in-season workouts were held on Sunday mornings. Hollings would start things with a light jog, then a little bit of stretching before we hopped into our throwing progression. After that, it was square drill and hitting, hitting, hitting. We took so damn many swings those mornings.
At first, the Sunday morning practices seemed strange. In time, though, that strangeness wore off.
Hollings never referred to it as practice; instead, he called it church.
“All of our faith,” he said at the beginning of our second or third practice, “lies here, “ he pointed, “here, between the foul lines. All our faith,” he smiled, “and belief. You gotta believe,” he added, “because ain’t no one else gonna do it for you.”
Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. For many years, he was a baseball player. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. His stories and nonfiction have appeared in The Southwest Review, Two Cities Review, Hobart, The Southeast Review, Palaver, and Per Contra. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes A. Moonlight Graham, Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He's working on a short story collection and has a new record: Hope.