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Baseball’s Fated Pair

 

Of all the boys in the junior baseball league, Jack had the cleanest pants, a special feat that year with a uniform of green shirts and white bottoms.  His mother became accustomed to compliments on her laundry skills and her discipline for keeping them so pristine, even when the team had games on back to back to nights.  She would never relinquish the secret of the true reason his pants remained stainless and white in the face of a field covered in brown dirt.  Anomalous for a twelve-year old boy midway through his third season of baseball, Jack had never intentionally slid on the field.

Only once did his legs contact the ground, but the tears following his run-in with the fence drifting beneath a meandering foul ball outshined the scuffs from the crash to the dirt.  A night soaking in warm water and a bandage securing a dab of antibacterial cream cured both ailments, returning him and his pants to normal for the next game.  Jack did not concern himself with cleanliness and was likely ignorant of the state of his pants were it not for the fact that his teammates’ mothers so frequently commented on it.

For the season opener, Jack started sixth in the lineup, owing to a powerful yet inconsistently producing swing brought about by a lack of temperance in waiting for the right pitch.  In past seasons, he demonstrated his ability to drive the ball deep into the field, though his frequent retirement by strikes overshadowed the occasions on which he did.  Jack insisted to his mother on the drive to the first game that he should hold the more prominent spots in the batting order of third or cleanup.  She offered motherly encouragement, successfully concealing her doubt in response, “you’ve got to earn it, Jack.”

His first two at-bats of the season ended in two four-pitch walks at the hand of a pitcher reaching adolescence in his arm but with the lingering control deficiencies of a pre-teen.  The anticlimactic results of the prior at-bats left Jack pulsing with anticipation when he stepped to the plate in the top of the sixth inning, the last inning for his age group and likely last chance of the game.

The first pitch arrived quicker than any other he had previously experienced, higher than an impending strike but in close enough range.  Jack’s bat descended instinctively from above his shoulder, his eyes focused sharply on the ball until the swoop of the bat was met with the tingle of a light metallic thump.  The ball fired off the top of bat the few degrees backward sufficient to carry the pop fly over the safety fence behind the catcher for a foul and his first strike.

With a new ball in play, the next pitch hurdled in with equivalent velocity as the first but with a lower trajectory toward the middle of the strike zone.  The split-second whisper of the bat coming down to the ball met a decidedly cleaner and immensely stronger ping, sending the stitching rotating indecipherably as the ball ascended into the evening sky.  The muffled sound of the ball striking the grass nearly twenty feet beyond the bounds of the outfield arrived so quickly that the center fielder barely had time to turn around and see it happen.

Nearly a year to the day following Jack’s momentous home run, the overhead lights flicked on to their inauguration at the newly constructed stadium a handful of states to the west.  Striped verdant patterns took their form from weather-resistant grass suited for the dry climate.  On this opening night, the coach of the home team embraced palpable excitement for his eleven-year old son Francis to start for the first time as pitcher.  Over the summer, Francis grew nearly four inches and gained eighteen pounds, an early growth spurt on his way up to match or surpass his father’s six foot stature. Although he could not entirely escape the feeling of favoritism for starting his son as pitcher, the coach’s guilt eased mildly with the increased pitch speed that accompanied his son’s growth.

In the previous two seasons, to which the older, less flourishing field across town played host, Francis found himself stationed at third base after trial and error with several other spots in the infield and a short lived stint in left field.  Third base served as a natural fit for the strong arm and uncanny accuracy of a player still yet to enter the sixth grade.

Francis’ transition to pitcher seemed inevitable, but the time and resolve to hone the craft was lacking.  Baseball had always taken a second position to Francis’ early affection for the sciences.  He took first place in the countywide science fair in the first and second grade, topping students from the seven other elementary schools in the district.  After being called up to receive the second place trophy in third grade, the three weeks of self-doubt and sense of disappointment vanished into a new sense of purpose.  Unbridled determination ensured a chasm between his first place scores in the fourth and fifth grade and those of the runners-up.

Though gifted with the early successes of a budding scientist, Francis could not ignore his effortless natural talent for baseball.  By the time the exhaustion wore off from the two months perfecting his experiment for the fifth grade fair, his body exhibited the signs of impending, and rapidly approaching, adolescence.  Noticeable to his father and older sister, Francis seemed oblivious to the subconscious biology driving him to view baseball more favorably than the science fair.

The summer before the new season, Francis’ father drove him to an auxiliary ball field crafted out of a lot adjacent to the nearly completed construction of the new field.  They measured forty-five feet with a measuring tape stored in the trunk of his father’s red convertible from a dirt mound to an impromptu home plate.  His father, who, a week earlier received the request to coach Francis’ team the upcoming season, sported a freshly-leathered catcher’s mitt.  He wiped down the oil from the outside of the mitt, unwrapped it and removed the ball stashed in the glove, the method of breaking in a new mitt passed down from his father.  Francis’ father tossed him a new ball, the red stitching glowing against the fresh white leather, almost a shame to blemish, and started practicing.

The first pitch beneath the hum of the freshly installed lights eased suspicion of the other players’ parents that their pitcher earned the role through nepotism.  The confluence of three months’ training, four inches of height and eighteen pounds of weight produced a pop in the catcher’s mitt that echoed off the dugout walls as the stunned catcher failed to hold onto the ball.  No need arose to call the strike official given the tragically unwieldy late swing by the unsuspecting batter.

Francis’ second pitch propelled into the catcher’s mitt with the same imposing pace, unmet by even a futile swing.  This time, offered the opportunity to do so, the umpire flamboyantly made the strike official by a fervent extension of his right arm and a thundering vocalization of the call.  With the ball returned to his hands, and his nerves reaching a point of settling, Francis opted to attempt a pitch other than a fastball.  Having been ardently cautioned against curveballs at the present stage of his youth, he instead curved his pointer finger against the side of the ball within the sheath of his glove.  With the same commanding motion of his arm, Francis launched the pitch as the batter started then completed his vain swing in anticipation of another precision strike.  His distraught shuffle to the bench echoed both disappointment for striking out in the first at-bat of the season and shame from having played victim to Francis’ flawlessly executed change-up.

By the mid-season break, Francis’ team had three wins and two losses, both of the losses befalling the team in the two away games in which Francis was forced, out of good optics and fairness, to resign to third base.  Not that the other boys, or even their parents, minded having him pitch all three home games.

Francis remained on the mound all six innings in each of the three games he pitched, facing a total of fifty-four batters.  Fearing an inevitable jinx, neither his elated teammates nor their parents spoke a word of Francis’ unbroken pattern of retiring every single batter on strikes.  On the few occasions when the count reached two, and twice even three, balls, the growing crowd became anxious of potentially bearing witness to the conclusion of his unblemished streak.  The nervous tension abated, however, with the increasingly apparent fruitlessness of attempting to swing at his perfectly placed pitches.

The incredible nature of Francis’ streak did not go unnoticed for the next three years, as he carried his record into the higher age groups and eventually to the high school team.  As with all things that become routine, the fascination in town and around the county inevitably faded as the one-time inconceivable feat moved toward the realm of the mundane.  That was, until, rumors floated of an equally improbable streak in process several hours to the east, this one from the batter’s box rather than the pitcher’s mound.

In conjunction with a local news story about the extension of the unbroken chain of strikeouts through the completion of the high school team’s season, the local affiliate confirmed what had previously been merely word of mouth.  Pictured next to his mother, the news story broke the ice with a question about Jack’s reputation for having the cleanest pants on the team, before chronicling the perfect record of homeruns that endured for over four years.

Concerns of jinxing them faded once the cable networks picked up the stories.  So flippant toward the notion of a jinx was the coverage that the normally unspeakable term rifled out of the mouths of commentators following the tale as if waiting to see who between Jack or Francis would misfire first.  During Jack’s junior year of high school, the local station covering his homerun streak endeavored an infusion of spice to the story by revealing the finality of his parent’s divorce the previous summer.  In the running coverage, Jack’s normally cheerful mother offered a transparent façade for the cameras, coyly directing interviews back to her son’s spotless pants to avert the awkwardness of the reporters’ feigned concerns.

While navigating the complexities of teenage years and the occasional reminder of domestic concerns, little could break either of them, and as high school edged to a close, each faced the difficult choice between plentiful college scholarships or the lucrative siren call of professional baseball.  At a year older than Francis, Jack took the earlier leap into the rank of professionals, his choice made simple by the plentitude of digits in the offer he received.

Witnessing Jack achieve glory in professional baseball, including the shattering in his rookie year of the single-season homerun record in less than two months, Francis had little trouble deciding to join Jack in the major leagues and attempt to create his own place in history.  The choice to forego college easily cemented, the more difficult decision became selecting which team’s offer to accept, as the monetary components of the contracts roughly equaled what each team had left to offer within its salary cap.  Only one team, the prior year’s victor of the World Series, lacked the ability to approach the size of others’ offers, having dedicated the remainder of its salary cap to its producer of endless homeruns.

Marketers salivated over the fanfare surrounding the entry into the sport, for the second time in as many years, of a player with a running amateur streak of perfection.  Endless media coverage could not be avoided with Jack and Francis adorning everything from magazine covers to souvenir shirts.  Even before Francis’ first outing as a major league pitcher, and despite never having faced each other, the media portrayed him as Jack’s vehement rival, playing off the obvious fact that their inevitable face-off would result in the sunset of at least one, if not both, of their streaks.

Headline grabbing attention grew more intense as Francis’ record crossed the threshold from the amateurs and into the big leagues, and withstood his entire first full season.  Playing in separate leagues, with their teams not meeting every season and Francis’ team failing to advance to the World Series after devoting excessive salary solely to him, avoided the showdown that professional sports, and the media covering it, feverishly anticipated.

The random number generator that creates league schedules took three years to pair Jack’s and Francis’ teams for a four-game series.   This was the second time the teams were slated to face each other, the first annulled by a players’ strike in the midst of the prior season, postponing the matchup.  To the delight of baseball’s promoters, the four game stretch would not occur until mid-August, affording more than adequate occasion to hype the event over the course of the season.

Known well within the inner circles but unknown to the public, lest the aura of their odious rivalry vanish, Jack and Francis had not to that date met in person.  They had appeared together on several magazine covers, each of which a composite of separately captured images.  To the uninitiated, the official reason for the lack of a face to face meeting consisted of scheduling anomalies, differing practice schedules, professional commitments and utter coincidence.  Francis’ contract forbade him from participation in the all-star game to preclude the risk of injury during a non-scheduled game.  The masterminds behind the schedule quirks, however, kept secret their fear that the two would bond, owing to their equally affable personalities and happenstance concurrent re-authorship of the record books.

With two months of their fated season behind them, in the early days of June when the warm weather could finally be taken for granted, their first in person interview was set.  Seemingly kindred, Jack and Francis both felt an uneasy wave of nervous energy that, after years of performing in front of thousands live and millions more on television, had become uncommon.

Dressing rooms staged down the hall from one another, Jack and Francis appeared, at the producer’s request, with the company of their parents; Jack’s mother easily recognizable by her spotlessly pressed dress and Francis’ father toting a catcher’s mitt as a memento he would unveil on the show.  While the meeting between Jack and Francis stood in abeyance to take place on the air, the same constraint did not govern their parents.  In wardrobe, Jack’s mother and Francis’ father could not avoid mutual introductions, both possessing the pleasant geniality of their sons.  The conversation turned quickly from pleasantries to reminiscing about how the boys started on their paths to fame.

On-air, the perception of a tense rivalry quickly fell to reality; Jack and Francis played for the cameras, feigning tension when prodded, but their acting reeked of transparence.  Their parents made a brief appearance to offer sound bites about their feelings on the now-inevitable conclusion of one of, if not both, of their sons’ perfect careers.  Their contributions completed, the unaccompanied parents settled into adjacent seats in the studio audience.  The joint interview ended with a bid to see each other at the match-up in August.

Fans became accustomed, even muted, to Jack and Francis adorning banners in nearly every stadium and appearing on every sports page as their streaks continued unblemished through the day of their heralded encounter.  Postponing the end of the publicity bonanza for as long as possible, pitcher rotations on Francis’ team changed in the weeks leading up to the game against Jack, leaving it a guess as to which game in the series would be the fateful one.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first two games of the four game series sacrificed Francis’ colleagues as victims for the continuation of Jack’s homerun streak.  Despite a total of eight homeruns by one man alone, three of which with one man on base for a total of eleven runs, the series split one and one leading to the third game.

No championship game had yet matched the expected turnout.  Bleacher tickets sold on secondary markets for thousands of dollars, and the price for commercial time slots during the first inning’s intermission surpassed records.  A live performer sang the national anthem in place of the normal recording.  In the stands, Jack’s mother and Francis’ father, seated adjacent through a fate conceived by the network airing the game, offered each other the only comfort for nerves of their own.

The media branded Jack as the “emperor,” not only by reason of his place atop the homerun records, but due to his off-field sartorial flare.  On the night of his match-up with Francis, the “emperor” had home field advantage, and remained in his permanent role at the fourth position in the lineup.

Three batters down on nothing but strikes closed the bottom of the first inning.  Francis’ team fared poorly in its offense that season, continuing through the top of the second inning with all three batters down in under six minutes.  As the inning turned to the bottom, Jack commenced his walk toward the plate as the cheers and screams from the stands overpowered the ambient atmosphere.  Almost in unison, the crowd rose from their seats, while, unseen to them, millions watching at home, in bars, restaurants and makeshift venues, did the same.

In an attempt to trick Jack into swinging, Francis’ first pitch arrived in the form of his now-renowned curveball, dipping nearly a foot below the strike zone.  Jack prudently left the bait untaken, followed swiftly by illumination on the scoreboard of the dot for the first ball.

Noise from the crowd muffled the scream of the red laces tearing through the August air as the next pitch rocketed toward the plate.  A sharp pop of the bat silenced the crowd as the ball took flight, firing into the night sky and becoming lost within the halo of the moon until returning to the earth in the third deck of seats in left field, a mere three feet outside the bounds of the fading yellow foul pole.

Millions of heartbeats collectively slowed to normal as the umpire threw Francis a new ball.  His own pulse descending back toward its regular interval, Francis planted the unscuffed white ball in the back of the catcher’s mitt millimeters within the inside corner of the strike zone, prompting the umpire in the absence of a swing to howl the call of a strike.  Sensing fate in his favor, Francis shrugged off two suggestions from the catcher until receiving the only one he fathomed appropriate for this circumstance.

Francis curled his forefinger against the ball in his glove, disguising the identity of his intention by employing the same arm motion as his fastball.  Possibly from his faint nerves, or otherwise from a drop of sweat occasioned by the humidity, Francis released the pitch a shade above the arch of his forward motion, sending the ball sailing past Jack chest-high for ball two.

Two deep breaths calmed Francis’ burgeoning nerves as he elected a classic fastball to close out Jack.  Spreading his index and middle finger over the seams under the shade of his mitt, Francis rocked back, extended his throwing arm, rotated his shoulder while striding forward and released toward the plate.  Invisible beams flooding out of the radar gun scattered apart against the surface of the ball, registering triple digits on the device.

At the plate, Jack’s bat descended from above and behind his right shoulder and over the batter’s box harmoniously with a rotation of the hips and shoulders toward the oncoming pitch, meeting the ball squarely in the center, microns below the thickest part of the barrel.

The fusing momentum propelled the ball straight out with the force of a bullet, failing to rise above five feet in altitude, only coming to rest as it struck Francis’ forehead sixty feet from the plate.  The crowd bellowed a collective gasp as the shards of Jack’s shattered bat finished rained over the infield.  With the focus toward Francis, the crowd nearly missed that Jack had fallen to the dirt in agony as his arm dislodged from the force of his fracturing elbow.

Their parents gripped each other’s hands for a fleeting moment before scaling the barrier separating them from the field, racing to the aid of their respective sons.  A low murmur of disbelief replaced the raucous cheering as the crowd once again took their seats and medical technicians rushed to the playing field.

Watching replays at the hospital renewed the physical anguish of their injuries, and the formal diagnoses simply confirmed what everyone already knew.  Francis’ fractured skull with traumatic injury to the brain and Jack’s completely shattered elbow meant the end of two storied baseball careers within the same fraction of a second.  The records books needed volumes to chronicle their accomplishments, but their conclusions warranted no more than a paragraph.

For their parents, the abrupt conclusion of their sons’ careers within a single instant served as an ironic reminder of their younger days.  For Jack’s mother, the image of her son lying in the dirt defied every characteristic of his ascent; while for Francis’ father, the boy who turned science into baseball back into a science appeared incapable of grasping even his own predicament.

Their sons’ vulnerability could not help but elicit memories of their failed marriages and the fact that they were the only ones by their sons’ side.  The forgivable strain of passing eighteen hours a day at the hospital cried out for respite in coffee, which over the three weeks of hospital visits, became a nightly routine.

Few people in the history of the sport transitioned as readily to network broadcasters as the two whose upending of the ideals of greatness ended in an instantaneous fluke that precipitated a lasting bond.  Their rapport grew as strong as their friendship while they attended physical and vocational therapy in the same facility.  By their second week of broadcasting, the public no longer saw them as what could have happened to the game, but as continuing to make the sport an enjoyment to watch.  For their one-week vacation that coincided with the mid-season break in early July, they traveled together from their on-air location in the west to a small hamlet in the northeast.  Dressed in matching tuxedos, they watched tearfully as Jack’s mother, in a spotless white dress, wed Francis’ father, whose shoes shone of freshly polished leather, and became brothers at last.

 

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