All batting cages should feel like a cave. It is within this grotto that one learns patience and grace and silence, but also learns their own sound, their echo. Halogen lights, artificial turf, nets ripped and retied, a beat-up speaker blaring tinny music, and most importantly, the sound of a wooden bat meeting a cowhide ball.
Like everything in baseball, a batting cage has a certain rhythm. Close your eyes, and you can anticipate the next crack of the bat. There are few words exchanged between pitcher and hitter. The occasional "attababy" or "there it is" but nothing more. There is only rhythm and motion and sweat.
He reaches for the towel on the ground, already damp from the morning workout. He wipes his brow, and as he starts collecting the balls he's bashed all morning, his mind escapes the cave. His thoughts venture beyond the concrete walls, to an urban jungle and the biggest decision of his life.
The Mariners' emblem is a compass rose. The compass is the last hope of the desperate sailor, lost on a starless night. When all hope is gone and the storm brews, the rose leads the way to port. It was only fitting that after leaving the Yankees on his own starless night, he found home with a compass rose.
He was the same, these past few months between October and now. Lost. Hurt. Unsure. He had to tolerate the celebrations of lesser teams as they stormed through the postseason and his sat at home. He and his team, failures alike. He tried to fight through his pain to help. It wasn't good enough. He wasn't good enough.
He remembered how his team turned on him when he left for Seattle. Teammates who were once friends mocked him. Old coaches, too. They said the money would change him, or show who he really was. That it wasn't about the baseball. Just the money and nothing else.
His hands told a different story. The broken body he played through, too. He never wanted anyone outside his clubhouse to know how he ached. Hell, he didn't want his teammates to know either. He strides back toward the plate, his body feeling more whole than it has in a year. The balls are coming his way again.
He sees Lloyd, a good man and a good coach. Gone because they weren't good enough.
He hears Felix, on the phone, pleading with him to come to Seattle and win a championship.
He remembers when Jack told him their offer, how he'd make more money than he could even imagine.
He hears the boos at Yankee Stadium. He sees the disdain in the familiar faces. How they loved Jacoby and how they hated him.
He smells the fresh cut grass of the first day of spring.
Only when the baseballs need retrieving does he again pause and reach for his towel. He looks towards the upper-right corner of the back end of the cage, where he has worn the net thin. Where every swing means a trot around the bases or a comfortable cruise into second. He needs baseball again. He needs to show them just how much he has left.
The music suddenly stops as a text comes across. The session is done for the day, the baseballs placed back in their bucket. He checks the message on his phone, a familiar number.
He smiles. It's both a challenge and a welcoming. A salute to what must be done this year, and the years thereafter. He looks back in the cage; his other hitting partners have shuffled off. He spots a tee sitting amongst the bucket of balls. A batting partner that never leaves. He replies.
Back in the cage, he places the first ball of the next hundred that he plans to hit atop the tee.
Upper right-hand corner. He's trotting around the bases.
He pops his gum.
Now, the second ball.