He opened the bullpen gate and walked out onto the wet grass. He was wearing a blue hoodie and a blue hat, silver letters etched above the brim and pulled ever so slightly down on his forehead, as if in response to a sight better gone unseen.
His head was turned to his feet. Sometimes he would look up to spit out sunflower seeds and then lick his lips. But after it was the feet again. In the dugout he removed the hoodie, smoothed his once-golden hair back and affixed his hat like a crown, knowing full well the meaning of the metaphor. Later he would step up to the mound, pick up a baseball, and throw it very hard.
It had happened three hundred and fifty eight times. Thousands, if you consider the ones that didn’t count. Some were transcendent, moments both he and millions of people would never forget. Others were no less memorable, but with the passing of years, seemingly bursting at the seams with Meaning, demanding that the final ledger get ready to take note of something just up and around the corner. Somewhere else was last night.
The first pitch was clocked at 90.8 miles per hour, and it was fouled off by Marcus Semien, who would go on to strikeout. Then there was a routine grounder. Stephen Vogt touched one with the top corner of his bat, almost just outside the edge of the opposite zone and it went up and far, over the outfield wall and out of play. Then, later, another strikeout.
After three innings he went back into the dugout and untucked his jersey—he would not be back out for even one batter. Twenty-four thousand were there, many with his likeness printed on cheap cotton drenched over bodies filled with the weight of what could have been, perhaps a few drops of beer. They only had the chance to say goodbye to one other.
On the game went. The other team was winning. He sat on the bench, and maybe it was then that he told himself he would put in extra work this winter, forgo all the luxuries of what a near-two-hundred-million-dollar-athlete’s offseason could look like and suit up with teenagers trying to learn where the edges of the plate are. If so, it’s clear now that his consciousness froze at 10:11 PM on the evening of October 1st, 2016, and it will continue to rest there for the next couple of months as trades are made, free agents are signed, and well-earned vacations are had.
There were three outs to go and one of his closest friends stood in the box wearing a word across his chest which had become like a second home throughout the years, perhaps the only one that saw more in him than he ever had seen in himself. He stared at ninety-four out of the zone, then swung and missed. There were two more outside, and then a foul off his hands, almost. Then, after propping up his left knee and writing a line in the air with his bat one last time, he swung through the strikezone, and missed. Although he was near tears, the victory was still his—he was, indeed, swinging a baseball bat.
Soon it was over. It would be unfair for us to say anything is necessarily that different in this moment, after his friend struck out and he was back in the clubhouse. It’s not for lack of effort that he has sat through eleven-and-a-half meaningless game 162’s, as if more leg reps would have rescued Richie Sexson’s on-base-percentage, or winter ball solidified the rotation in his mid-season absence. But you might wonder what it’s like to live the majority of your adult life with at least a nagging subconscious doubt that a different world is possible, and then see two fall through your fingers in the blink of an eye. You have to wonder how much more he believes now than he did before, not in hope or want or loyalty, but in the mere possibility that something different might happen. In fact, it might be precisely the spark that ignites the engine of history—for every revolution needs the belief that something else is not merely possible, but inevitable.
Late in the game Kyle Seager connected with a belt-high fastball and it flew into right field, almost over the fence to give him his 100th RBI on the season. It landed in the glove of Matt Olson. Robinson Canó took off his jersey in the clubhouse only two-tenths of a percentage point away from a .300 average on the season. The distance between each of these and the benchmarks they were aiming towards is, I think, larger than both the distance between today and the hope of Next Season, and larger than the distance between April 2016 and October 2016. Want is not a currency nature accepts as payment.
But the good news is that one of those gaps is indeed surmountable. So we once again do what we know best.