KH Brent

The Spirit of the Game

 
     It had rained all day. I finished in the weight room and stayed in the team’s indoor facility for some tee work. After that, I took ground balls with Justin. We tended to find each other for the defensive workouts and it made sense- he, being the second baseman, and I the shortstop. We would take turns hitting soft grounders to each other on the spongy turf- initially without a glove to work on keeping our hands soft. Then with tiny practice gloves before graduating to our game leather. After that, we’d grab one of the coaches and work on double-plays.
     

     It was what we did every day. Baseball is like that, a game of rigorous routine- always the same drills over and over until thought was no longer a part of the skill set, only so-called muscle memory. That ability to read and react freed the mind to anticipate all possible scenarios and understand one’s role in each and every one of them. It was this work that helped build the miniscule but significant gap separating good from great.
     

     It’s what wins championships- and we were in one this season. Yeah, we were that good- good enough to make the Division II college national championship. All that was required of us was one more series win to be labelled “great”.

     “J” and I were just finishing up with our practice-glove stage when Alan came running down the tunnel between the cages and the practice field with the news.

     “It’s Dickinson. They just beat Cal 7-3!” he said, a little out of breath. I wasn’t surprised by his wheezing- Alan’s a pitcher, not an athlete. He’s got an eighteen-inch break on his curveball, and hits ninety-four on the gun, but fielding his position beyond forty-five feet or so isn’t his gift.

     We walked over to where Alan had stopped in order to cling to the fencing separating the spaces.

     “OK, we expected that. We knew that Dickinson had the better staff,” said J. He pointed at Alan. “If you don’t count Stiller here, our pitching matches up pretty well.”

     “We’ve got better hitting than Cal had. We’ll rake!” I said arrogantly. We did too, Even Justin and I were well above league average for middle infielders and they’re usually the weak links in the order.

     “That’s not the problem,” said Alan wide-eyed. “They’ve moved the games to Tanner Field.

     Justin’s face became one of disbelief. “Oh, shit! You’re joking, right?”

     I was confused at their distress. “What’s wrong with Tanner Field? Is it a cow pasture?”

     “Naw, it’s actually amazing,” replied J. “First class venue all the way. The stadium holds around eight thousand, they renovated the locker rooms a few years back…”

     “The mound is kept perfectly graded. There’s no landing hole,” interrupted Alan. “It’s a great place to pitch because the outfield is huge. Lot’s of fly balls go there to die.”

     “The grass is perfectly maintained, and the infield uses a major-league quality dirt mix. You almost never get a bad hop there,” added J.

     I was more confused than ever. “Sounds like heaven. What’s the big problem?”

     Alan looked at me as if I was from another planet. He turned to Justin, “He doesn’t know!”
 

     “Of course, he doesn’t know. How could he? Bauer’s a Freshman,” replied J, looking directly at me.
 

     “Know what? What’s to know?” I asked.

     “About the ghost.” Alan’s voice lowered to almost a whisper as he spoke. In the tinny din of bats hitting baseballs, I thought I’d heard them wrong.

     “A ghost? Are you nuts?”

     “Nope, there’s a ghost,” confirmed J. “Everyone knows about him.”

     “Obviously not,” I sniffed. “You guys are messin’ with the Freshman. Jolly joke.”

     Alan almost burst through the fence at me. “No! It’s true! There’s a ghost at third base. He booted a ball that cost his team the championship. Came back that night and killed himself in the stadium. The place has been haunted ever since.”
Justin nodded, “That’s why they never use the field for championships. He comes back in those games and causes the home team to lose on a booted ball.”

     “That’s horseshit,” I scoffed. “Besides, even if there was such a thing as a ghost at Tanner Field, why should I care? You said he was a third baseman. I’m at short.”

     Justin grinned at me. “True dat, but it’s the shortstop who always gets the gaffe. It’s been happening in finals for years. Just pray we’re visitors that day.”

     I knew they were jerking me, but my face must have given away my concern. It suddenly seemed as though the entire outcome of a national title was riding on me. Normally, I would have relished the idea, but then throw in a cursed ghost and…?

     They did their best to put me at ease.

     “Look, Dan, it’s just a stupid story. Forget about it,” said J reassuringly.

     “Yeah, we were just bouncing you around… ‘cause it’s your first year,” added Alan. “We’re gonna win a ring and nothing is gonna get in our way!”
                                                             ***                                                 

     We were able to get outside the next day, but Justin had a class and couldn’t make it to the optional workout. Coach Connor was around at the fieldhouse offices. I stuck my head through his door and asked for him to throw me some front toss in the cage.

     We had been at it for around ten minutes when I backed out for a quick blow. I decided to ask him about it.

     “Coach, what’s up with the ghost at Tanner Field?”

     I think I caught him by surprise.

     “What the hell are you talking about, Bauer?”

     “The ghost. A couple of the guys were telling me about him and how he always haunts the shortstop.”

     Coach Connor was an older guy, probably in his fifties. He was big, not fat but just large-framed like the cornerman he used to be. He always seemed to have a couple of days grey stubble and right now it framed a slightly open mouth. He stood tall from behind the “L” screen and gave me a hard stare, as though I’d asked him where the bodies were buried.

     “You really want to go there?” he asked gruffly.

     “I’m the shortstop. I’m the one he haunts,” I asserted, trying not to appear nervous.

     “Oh, for Christ’s sake! There’s no ghost!”

     “But there has to be something to it. Stories like that don’t just get made up.”

     Coach Connor lost the scowl. “There’s a story, and it’s true… to a point.” He began walking over to the baseball buckets and motioned for me to join him. We each sat down on one, side by side, and he pretended to watch the on-field practice as he spoke.

     “Tanner Field is one of the oldest ballparks in the minor league system,” he began. “Goes back to the forties, so it’s got a lot of history. Lots. It’s been used over the years by all levels, from high school right through to professional, mostly “A” ball stuff.

     “Back in the seventies, it was the home park of a triple “A” club known as the Monroe Mallets. They were a pretty solid farm team at the time. I remember going to their games as a kid. The Mallets had a third baseman named Pete Green. He was a tough, hard-nosed kind of player. Big power hitter and could flash the leather too. This guy was destined for the show. He was great- and he knew it. Cocky SOB but could he back it up!”

     Coach Connor was a dip guy. He paused to spit into the cup he always carried with him and then resumed his narration.

     “Back in seventy-six, the Mallets had made it to the finals against Durham. They had split the series 3-3, with the last game to be played at home. It was the top of the ninth and with Monroe up by a run. Durham had loaded the bases with one out when the batter smokes a grounder toward short.

     “Pete Green cuts across in front of the shortstop to field the ball and turn two. It’s a play he’s done a thousand times, and even though the ball probably would have gotten out to short to start the double-play, Green is so quick and so good that he doesn’t hesitate. He goes for the kill. And it clanks off of his glove, changes direction and ends up splitting the middle into centerfield. Two runs score and now Durham is up by one.”

     I jumped in, “That was the right play. He should have cut across short if he could make the play.”

     Coach Connor looked away from the field and at me. “You’re right. It was the play, and no one who understands the game would have held it against him. No one except for Pete Green himself. It gets worse. The Mallets get their at-bats in the ninth and have a chance to tie with men at second and third and one out. They decide to try a suicide squeeze. The pitch comes in and the batter misses the sign, or ignores it, and swings through the pitch.

     “Caught stealing at the plate. The batter strikes out on the next two pitches. Game over.”

     “I think I know how this is going to end,” I said. “Pete Green was the batter.”

     Coach turned his gaze back toward the practice and nodded. “Pete Green was the batter. He committed the one mistake that a ballplayer can’t make- he brought that error with him into the batter’s box. He was so determined to make up for it that he tried to win the game with the big hit, instead of extending the game with a tie. His arrogance cost Monroe the championship.

     “Now, Green wasn’t stupid- he realized what he had done, and it ate away at him. That night, he went back to Tanner Field, broke into the home team’s clubhouse and hung himself with his belt.”

     “Ok, so why doesn’t his ghost just stay in the clubhouse?” I asked. “That’s where he died, isn’t it?”

     “The legend is that Pete Green’s ghost haunts the park. It always makes its presence known at championships, always when the home team is in the field, and always at a critical moment in the ballgame,” answered Coach Connor. “His ghost is forever reliving that moment. When the ball is hit to short, it cuts across in front to make the play that it couldn’t when it was alive. But it never succeeds- the ball ends up in centerfield, the home team loses. The past repeats itself.”

     “Does anyone ever see the ghost of Pete Green?” I asked.

     “Well, early on and from time to time, a shortstop would swear that they had seen the ghost cut in front of them, commit the error, and then just lay on the ground until it faded away.”

     We were both silent for a few moments, listening to the sounds of the practice in the background. Finally, Coach Connor spoke as he stood up.

     “Of course, that’s all a load of crap. There’s no such thing as ghosts, for one. I have no idea how any championship games at Tanner Field were won or lost, and if they were because of a shortstop booting a ball, he probably didn’t need a ghost to help him make an error.”

     He looked right at me again, “If there is a curse at Tanner Field, you’re just the guy to break it. Now, story-time is over. Let’s get back at it.”
                                                            ***

 
     That night, I went back to my room after dinner and jumped online. I couldn’t leave the legend of Pete Green alone. I had to find out what was true. I decided that the easiest way to do that was to look at the archives of the local paper, The Monroe Clarion. I was supposed to be working on a paper for my civics class, but I blew it off. I figured I could get what I needed in an hour or two.

     I ended up being really late looking at old newspaper stories. It wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be. Coach Connor had said that Pete Green had killed himself after the 1976 championship. It turned out to be 1978. That threw me off for awhile, thinking that is was all some made up bullshit. I ended up having to look backward and forward a couple of years each way until I found the story. The paper laid it out over a few days in September of that year and it was all true. At least the basis for the legend was- Pete Green had in fact booted a ball and struck out at the plate, costing the Monroe Mallets the IBL championship. He did hang himself that very night, and at Tanner Field.

     Finding the rest of the story was more difficult. Depending upon the level, baseball championships can happen anytime within the space of a few months. The college championships are in April or May, for example. Pro leagues tend to be in the fall. That was a lot of old newspapers to look at. After awhile, I began to hone in on some specific dates that Tanner Field hosted a championship game. A pattern began to emerge.

     It wasn’t always in the ninth inning, but seemingly at the most crucial moments in a game, a shortstop would commit an error to lose the lead or the game. It didn’t happen in the blowouts but if things were tight and could turn on a single batted ball toward the left side, inevitably something bad seemed to happen to the home team… like clockwork.

     I read the post-game interviews. In the first few years, the shortstop would claim that he thought his third baseman had cut in front to make the play. Of course, no one else who had been in attendance saw as much. Eventually, the legend must have taken hold, because the visions of the third baseman stopped being reported. It became a ball that no one could get to or was misplayed. The fielder often just accepted responsibility for the loss.

     This occurred maybe half the time in the championship games at Tanner Field. Somebody must have caught on, because as the years went on the number of deciding games played at the stadium dwindled to nothing. In fact, our series would be the first championship played there in more than a decade.

     I closed my laptop at around two in the morning, convinced of two things. The ghost of Pete Green was real, and I was severely screwed.

     I never felt more dejected than I did at that moment.
                                                            *** 

     The series was best of five and we used all of them. I had played well though the first four- as leadoff I was hitting for average and my on-base was around .470. I was getting on for the donkeys to bring me home and we had done well enough to split the first four games. More important, I had played flawlessly in the field.

     Now, it was game five and we were the home team.

     I honestly thought that the ghost would make itself felt in the clubhouse when I first arrived, that there would be some kind of negative vibe, but I felt nothing. It wasn’t until later that I found out this wasn’t the home team clubhouse in 1978- there had been a remodeling a few decades later and the old locker room was now used for equipment storage.

     To say I felt nothing though is bullshit, I was nervous as hell. I was praying we could sweep in three. When that didn’t happen and we got to the deciding game, I prayed we would get up big early on Dickinson and hang on. That didn’t happen either. It ended up being a pitcher’s duel.

     It had been a good game for me, I was two for four with a walk but kept dying at second or third. We did get one in the fourth when Bill Carroll mashed one over the leftfield fence with nobody on. That had held up until now, the top of the ninth.

     When I saw Justin bounce one to second for the final out of the eighth, the butterflies hit me. The field had true dugouts, and I felt a sense of dread as I climbed the steps and ran out onto the field. That turned out to be justified.
Coach Evans had decided to go with Alan to close out the game. He was a southpaw, and Dickinson’s first three hitters were lefties, so it was the percentage play. He got the first out on a long flyout to centerfield. When I saw the catch, I thanked the baseball gods that we were playing on such a huge field. I would regret that thought.

     The next man up crushed a triple into the corner. There he was, the tying run, standing at third with one out. Alan hit the next guy on the first pitch. I looked over to our bullpen, but no one was up. Coach had decided to ride it out with Alan.

     The double play went out the window when the runner at first moved up to second without a throw. How could we risk it with only one out and the tying run ninety feet away? Now Dickinson had two chances to tie the game. I could sense a squeeze play and I almost felt relieved that the burden of keeping the game alive would now pass to our third baseman.

     Then Coach Evans came out onto the field, heading straight for the mound and motioning us all over.

     He was all business as he looked at us, “Gentlemen, we’re going to walk Osborne and load ‘em up for the double-play. Worst case on a weak hit is to go home with it but we need an out somewhere. If they tie it up, then they tie it up. They aren’t going ahead. We want to have at least two outs after the next play. Everybody understand?”

     I felt the butterflies attack my stomach again as Alan threw the remaining pitches to load the bases. It was back on me, this was the moment that kept happening again and again. The moment when Pete Green’s ghost would try to make up for his mistake from so long ago. He was coming, I could feel him. Right then, I made a decision that would change my life forever.

     Alan was nibbling at the plate and the Dickinson batter was doing his best to work the count. You could feel the tension through the entire stadium as the count went full. I jumped in anticipation as he fouled off the next two pitches.

     The next pitch was a hard grounder right at me. It was the perfect double-play ball- a can of corn. I didn’t even have to move a step- but I did. I went away from it and toward second base.

     A player appeared in front of me, running hard to his left, his glove outstretched. I knew it was the ghost of Pete Green- he was wearing that tight-fitting, rayon uniform that everybody in the seventies wore, white with blue piping- not our colors.

     The ball clanked off of his glove and deflected to where I had moved, into the middle of the field. I scooped it and underhanded to J at second. He stepped off the bag and threw to first, completing the double-play.

     I turned back toward third base and there was Pete Green. He had a smile on his face, one of relief. He was looking right into my eyes.

     “Thanks.”

     I heard him say that clear as day, and then he just disappeared right in front of me.

     Everyone was running onto the field towards the mound. I did too, but the reality that we had just won a national title hadn’t hit me yet. No one else would ever know that something much more important had just taken place.

     Just like always in this game, preparation had saved the day. I knew the ghost would show and what it would do. I had taken a chance, played the percentages, and it had paid off. If I had been wrong, I would be a goat right now, just like someone else had been long ago. But I wasn’t, and now the curse was forever lifted.

     Pete Green could finally head for home.
 
 
 
 
 

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