When Shed Long, the smallest seventh grade baseball player in Alabama, tried to play football he was laughed off the field.
“Sorry sport, it’s just that this game is for bigger kids. You could get hurt.”
Shed walked home, feeling down and defeated. Why was he so small? He asked his mom what he should do to get bigger and stronger.
“You gotta eat like a big kid to be a big kid,” she said, eyeing his half-eaten pork chops. “Lots of milk, lots of meat, lots of broccoli and no lip.”
Shed shoved the rest of his pork chops into his mouth and tried to drain the last of his milk while he chewed. Sitting there with milk running down his chin, he swore he’d do whatever it took.
“Dad,” he asked one night after dinner, his stomach so full of ground beef he couldn’t move. “How tall you think I’ll be?”
His father looked to his mother, who was busy packing Shed an extra peanut butter sandwich for lunch the next day. His dad scratched his head and pulled up a chair.
“Shed, let me tell you something. You were born—” He cleared his throat, took a swig of the glass of milk. “Look. It don’t matter how tall you get. Makes no difference whatever. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. You understand?”
Shed shook his head. “But they won’t let me play if I’m not big enough. They say I’m too small.”
His dad cocked his head. “They don’t have to let you do anything. You gotta go out there and prove that even someone small can do big things. OK?”
Shed shrugged. His dad always gave good advice, but it was easy for him to say—he wasn’t the shortest kid in seventh grade.
The next year Shed stepped onto the baseball field for tryouts. He was done with football, but maybe he could still make it onto the school baseball team. All eyes were on the little kid in the dugout when it was his turn to bat. The coach handed him the lightest bat they had, but Shed shook his head and grabbed the largest and heaviest off the rack. He’d seen a bigger kid hit a home run with it earlier and thought it might be lucky.
“Hey, that bat’s taller than Shed!” William said from first base.
“Heavier too,” said another kid.
The infield laughed. Shed kept his head down. He’d been eating and stretching and lifting the heavy furniture around the house for months trying to get his bones to grow. He’d not gained an inch. Now, though, he felt that the bat was lighter than it was last season. He felt he could really swing it.
The pitcher smirked and threw him his best heater. The small kid at the plate whipped the big bat so fast none of the players even knew he’d swung until the crack made the pitcher flinch. Shed watched the ball fly over the chainlink fence.
“How’d he do that?!”
“That short kid can whack!”
“Little guy has power!”
Shed Long rounded the bases. He thought he’d be happy now that he’d proven them wrong, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile. This was only one day, he realized. He’d always be small. He would need to keep proving it, over and over and over again. His heart sank as he ran hard into the dugout.
Shed worked on his swing every day. He practiced on the bus, at lunch, even during class he’d be caught miming hitting a ball out of Fenway, out of Yankee Stadium, out of Alabama. As he grew older, the kids on the other team stopped whispering about his height and started whispering about the sound of the ball off his bat.
When he was drafted, he thought he’d made it. That the days of doubters and hesitance were behind him.
After his first year in the minors, though, there was a new problem he didn’t see coming.
“We’re moving you off of catcher,” said his coach after a rough game.
“But I’ve always played catcher,” said Shed. “That’s who I am.”
The coach shook his head. “We feel like you have… limitations. We’re going to move you to second.”
Shed thought about second base. He knew Jose Altuve, the only player shorter than Shed in the majors, played second base too. Is that why he’d been boxed into a position he didn’t want? His height?
Shed left the office and called his father for advice.
“Listen to the man,” his dad said.
“But dad, I’m a catcher. I don’t want to play second.”
“Sometimes you have to compromise on what you want for what you can get.”
Reluctant but resigned, Shed picked out an infielder’s mitt that night at a sporting goods store. It didn’t feel right—it was light and inflexible and too short. But he oiled and baked it until it was soft enough to play. It would have to do.
The next season Shed tried hard to learn his new position, but all he wanted to do was hit. He thought that’s what everyone else wanted him to do, too. As he played he began to hear the whispers.
“He’ll have to start moving better,” said his coach.
“Stone hands,” a player muttered after Shed dropped a grounder.
“He’ll never make it if he can’t glove it,” he heard a scout saying above the dugout.
“Even when he gloves it he can’t move his feet,” said the other.
Shed had worked so hard and so long to prove he could hit, he hadn't had time to focus on anything else. It felt like no matter how hard he worked there was always something else standing in his way. He was too short, not strong enough, couldn’t catch, and now he couldn’t play the infield. It was too much.
After he was traded to his new team, the Mariners, they moved him all around the field. They didn’t trust him at second, either.
That’s when he met the other new guy, JP.
JP played short and he’d been told he couldn’t hit and couldn’t field, though at least he’d been to the majors before. They decided to work together and prove themselves on their new team. They hit and fielded grounders early before games and stayed late going over film after.
Shed thought he was getting better, and JP agreed. But he was still hearing from the scouts and the coaches that he had a hard time with his footwork to his left and that he couldn’t field the ball clean.
When JP got called up to the majors, Shed felt happy for his friend, but disappointed. He’d always imagined they’d get to go together.
Coach Brown called Shed into his office that same day.
“I want you out and on a plane to Boston,” said Coach Brown.
“What? I thought JP—”
Coach smiled. “You’ve been called up, too. You made it. You’re gonna be a big leaguer.”
Shed smiled, then looked down at his hands. “What position do they want me at?”
Brown shrugged. “My guess is they’ll try you at second.”
Shed took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Thank you, coach.”
Shed called his parents as soon as he could. They were excited for him, of course, but even during his special moment Shed felt a familiar pressure. The pressure of having to prove himself once again. No one thought he could field. Were they right? Could he play second in the majors?
Fenway Park was still just a baseball field. The bases were the same distance apart, the bags were the same height, the same amount of infield dirt. There was something strange about being there, though. The fans, the history, the Green Monster towering over him. It made him feel small.
He took his spot in the infield across from JP. They nodded at each other.
“Just another game,” said JP.
Shed chewed his lip.
Everything seemed bigger and more important at Fenway. The grass a little greener, the sun a little brighter, his hands a little shakier. It was like baseball tryouts all over again, only the whole world was watching.
The game went fast, the first hour flying by without a ground ball he could field to prove to everyone he belonged there.
Mookie Betts stepped to the plate in the third inning. Mookie was the reigning MVP, with speed and power and only an inch taller than Shed.
Shed lined up near the second base bag and looked at Edwin at first. There seemed to be an acre of dirt between them. It was moving left that gave him trouble. The play that the evaluators kept dinging him for. Shed crouched and waited, hoping the ball would be hit anywhere but to his left.
Be ready, Shed told himself. Play big. Play big.
Mookie swung at the second pitch.
The ball jumped off his bat, rocketing directly to Shed’s left. Shed was caught off guard. He turned and ran while trying to track the flight of the ball at full speed.
He saw Edwin hesitate, unsure whether he trusted Shed’s range enough to get there in time. But Shed didn’t let up.
The ball bounced once and slowed, it wasn’t going too fast. He could get it. He could get there if he took a good angle, if his footwork was solid, if his hands were soft. He would only just make it, but he could get there.
Disaster. Shed felt his right foot stumble beneath him. He hadn’t accounted for the change in height from dirt to grass. Sloppy. His footwork again. Maybe they were right. Keep going. Keep going.
No! He had too much momentum to stay on his feet. He was going down. He braced himself for impact. He’d never get another first chance.
But the ball was still close. He could see it out of the corner of his eye. If he could just reach for it maybe he could save the play.
Shed pushed off the grass with all his strength, diving forward. He stretched out his too-short glove as far as his arm would reach.
He felt the ball impact the top of his mitt. Got it! But the ball was already squirting out of his glove. He was going to lose control.
He squeezed the ball and prayed his hands would be sure enough to hang on through the impact with the grass.
He slid on his chest and looked up. The ball dangled on the tip of his mitt like a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Whew.
But the play wasn’t over yet. Mookie was fast and he’d be hustling up the line. Shed would have to be quick and his throw would need to be strong and true.
He slid to his knees and looked at first, where Edwin was waiting and Mookie was trying to spoil his big moment.
Shed dropped his elbow and tried to whip it over to Edwin on an arc, hoping it would close the distance in time.
Shed watched Mookie leap forward, trying with one last lunge to beat it.
The umpire pumped his first and Shed slumped over in relief. He’d done it. He’d thrown out the MVP in his first game. In front of his parents, in front of the world. He stood and began running to the dugout. Behind him he heard Edwin congratulating him. Ahead of him, JP waited, grinning.
As Shed ran he realized he couldn’t smile. He’d made the play. He’d proven himself. But it was only one play. He knew he’d have to keep proving himself, again and again. Just like he’d been doing all his life.
He was ready.