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Foul Territory Chapter 2

     It was January in Eldersburg, Maryland, where I’d lived most of my life, and I was counting down the days until pitchers and catchers would report for spring training. It was eighteen degrees outside. The sun was out, but with snow everywhere, the sun was more of a nuisance than a relief. If you were unlucky enough to be outside, you had to have sunglasses or go blind.

     It made my living room warm and cozy, though, with the sunlight streaming in through the bow window. So cozy, in fact, that by nine o’clock that morning I had decided I wasn’t going out the door until I had to. In fact, I resolved not even to get dressed until three o’clock, after my shower. I spent the rest of the morning bumping around the house doing some menial chores, made myself a sandwich and ate it, watched some of the Survivorman marathon currently airing on the Science Channel.

     When I grew bored with that, I checked the computer. Russell Kiske had yet to respond to my message. I considered the possibility that he might never reply. Part of me hoped for it. I’d already gone out on a limb, maybe it was time to scramble back to the tree.

     I watched more Survivorman until the time came when I had to get ready for work. I checked Facebook one more time on the way out the door: nothing. Well, that was that, I guess. Live and learn. No more friending people I barely remember.

     I got to work at four, stocked some produce for a while, came home at 10:15. I went straight to my computer. Well, well. There was a response. Apparently this wasn’t over. I opened the message: “Good to hear from you, Keith! What’s your favorite memory from that season?”

     My initial reaction: What is this, Twenty Questions? I had to rein in my irritation, reminding myself that I’d asked for this, that I’d wanted to talk about baseball.

     I typed out a reply that, although it certainly wasn’t my favorite memory, the one thing I remembered most clearly about that season was the one and only game we lost. In the bottom of the sixth, with the score tied 2-2 and a runner on second, I pulled a Bill Buckner and let a sharp ground go right through my legs. The baserunner scored, and we lost.

     Then I went to bed, wondering what Russell might say about that.

     The next morning, his response was waiting for me. “LOL. I remember that, and also that you took a lot of ribbing for it. Prob why you still remember it. Sorry! If it makes you feel any better, I remember striking out a lot, and not being very popular with the rest of y’all because of it. If my dad hadn’t been one of the coaches, I might’ve quit!”

     I remembered Russell and his strikeouts, too, but I’d forgotten that his dad had been one of our coaches. When he showed up, that was. Regarded as something of a weirdo by the rest of the team, Russell’s dad would often disappear for days or even a week at a time. I remember we used to make fun of him for that, and for his hair, which he wore long, and his full brown beard. In those days we had “hippies,” and a lot of them, but Russell’s dad had been too old to be considered a hippie. He was a dad, he was a baseball coach. He was “establishment.” He had no business wearing his hair like that.

     But he’d been a hell of a coach. He’d understood the game. In fact, as I thought about him, I remembered that he’d been the one who had taught us the basic principle of fielding ground balls: that if the ball went between first and second bases, the second baseman fielded the ball and the shortstop covered second. And vice versa if the ball was hit between second and third.

     I relayed that to Russell, and I asked him if his dad was still around. I was starting to get into this.

     A few hours later, he sent a reply. “Sadly, my father passed five years ago. How about yours? I remember that he was the one who bought us ice cream at the Tastee Freeze after every win.”

     That was also true. We’d spent a lot of evenings at the Tastee Freeze. It seemed Russell remembered more about that summer than I did, but it was all starting to come back to me now.

     “My dad’s gone too,” I replied. “I miss him a lot. Remember that one night, right after we won the championship, you spent the night at my house, and he bought us about a hundred packs of baseball cards?”

     Later that afternoon: “I sure do! We spent the rest of the night sorting them all into piles, dividing them up, and adding yours to the ones you already had. In fact I think that may have been the last time we saw each other!”

     This guy’s in love with his exclamation points, I thought.

     “I believe you’re right,” I replied. “You moved to Virginia just before the school year started. I see you still live there. Do you ever get up to Maryland anymore?”

     I got no reply to that before hitting the hay that night, but the next morning, it was waiting for me: “Not too much, but I do travel a lot for work. If I ever do end up in the Baltimore area, I’ll give you a shout! Maybe we could meet for lunch or something, talk about old times!”

     I typed out a reply that I didn’t fully mean, but that propriety required: “Please do. I’d enjoy that.” Then I went to work. I had the ten-to-four shift that day.

     That was the way the conversation ended, and I was okay with that. It’d been fun, once I’d gotten past my initial reserve, but toward the end I’d grown tired of the slow pace of cyber-convo. Give me real dialogue, between two people in the same room, any day.

     Not that I did much of that, either, these days.

     The snow melted, and came again, and melted again. On Valentine’s Day, a nor’easter came rumbling up the coast and dumped fourteen inches on us, paralyzing the Baltimore metropolitan area for three days. Eventually even that melted, too.

     Snowdrops sprang up in my flower beds out front, then crocuses. Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. Then came the position players.

     The hyacinths bloomed. Walking to and from the mailbox, I could smell them as I passed, though they were fully twenty feet from my path. Meanwhile, in Florida, Grapefruit League games began.

     I still thought about Eleanor from time to time, but I’d been dead-on when I’d had the feeling that the last break-up had been … well, the last break-up. I hadn’t spoken to her since that night, except one time when she came over to retrieve some of her stuff. When she walked out without even saying goodbye, I knew it was real.

     I forgot all about Russell Kiske.

     In April, with tulips coming up and the forecast calling for snow flurries, the Orioles at last came north to Baltimore for Opening Day. My son Jesse and I bundled up in cold weather gear and went to Camden Yards to watch them beat the Rays.

     I loved my Birds through thick and thin, and I made sure my work schedule wouldn’t preclude me from watching them. I don’t think my boss was happy about it, but he knew if he refused me, I’d simply quit. Hell, I was retired. I still needed a part time job to make ends meet, but it didn’t have to be that job. I lived alone and I had no one else to answer to, and baseball was one of the few things that gave me joy. Hadn’t I earned the right to pursue that interest in my dotage? Damn right, I had.

     Apparently the boss saw things my way.

     By the All-Star Break in July, the O’s and the Yanks were in a neck-and-neck race for first place. I’d seen every inning of every game so far, living and breathing with each pitch. I’d been to Camden Yards to see four or five in person, and the others I’d watched in the comfort of my Fortress of Solitude.

     Noticing that a potentially pivotal three-game series against the Yankees would be happening in Baltimore on the last weekend of July, I procured myself two tickets. Jesse would be on vacation that week with his wife and kids, so I briefly considered the idea of asking Kathleen if she’d like to go.

     Fat chance. My daughter had taken her mother’s side when we divorced, and she’d somehow found a way to blame the whole thing on me. She avoided me whenever possible, and when she couldn’t avoid me, she was barely civil. We hadn’t spoken since her birthday in March. She didn’t like baseball, anyway. 

     I wasn’t sure yet who would be sitting next to me, but I was damn sure going to that Friday night game.

     That’s when I heard from Russell again.

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