I take another half-hearted practice swing, standing flat-footed in the on-deck circle. But, really, I’m more focused on studying the pitcher’s motion. As usual, I’ve only seen this guy two or three times throughout the season, my rookie season. So, I continue to study every meticulous movement he makes.

     I see the way he looks into the catcher receiving his sign, how he either shakes off or agrees with the catcher’s called pitch. Sometimes, you can pick up what and how much conviction the pitcher has in the requested pitch from his battery mate. Then he stands back and comes set in a slow and methodical motion. Then.

     Bam.

     He twists on his back leg, rotating 90°, jerking his front leg up. His hand clutching the ball tightly inside of the glove as he brings his arms up to chest level. He starts to remove the small white-red striped ball from inside. He draws his right arm back, the ball flashes in your eyesight for a mere fraction of a second. He leans back, then lunges forward, his arm whipping from behind. His front leg stabs into the dirt in front of the mound planting his drive leg firmly. His arm rockets forward, slinging the 9” 5oz ball straight at Walt, the batter. It reaches home plate in less than half a second.

My eye glances up to the scoreboard “99mph.” Wow! That’s going to be tough to hit, I think, silently taking another practice rip. But I think I’ve got him measured at this point. That’s the fifth pitch that Walt has made him throw, fouling off the last two batting.

     I stand bat on my shoulder, waiting for him to throw his next pitch. It’s cold enough to see my own breath every time I breathe. Yet somehow, my body isn’t feeling it. I’m anxious, nervous for what could happen in the next few seconds. The pitcher throws his next pitch. The stadium erupts into a frenzy of flashes that are almost blinding. Another element that I’ll have to account for.

     The umpire screams, “Ball four, take your base!”

     Suddenly, my body is overcome with a penetrating coldness. Not from the weather. But deep, deep from inside. My eyes widen, my heart pounds in my chest, I start to sweat a bit as realization comes full circle. I am about to live every child’s dream. I stand frozen in the on-deck.

     I’m about to step into a batter’s box on a Major League Baseball field in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded, two outs, and my team down by one, in game seven of the World Series. Every kid’s fantasy, right?

But, terror grips at me, clawing at my every fiber. The umpire and catcher turn their heads to me, staring, waiting for me to stride to the box. I go to move, but my legs won’t budge; they feel like they’re weighted down by massive lead boots. My throat is dry as the Sahara desert. The contents of my stomach suddenly feel like butterflies circling about.

     I can’t move. It feels like the whole world is staring at me. I know that can’t be true, but I know that at least 45,000 people are. The stadium sounds louder than a rock concert. My walk-up music blares over the speakers. The announcer calls my name over the P.A. system. But I haven’t moved.

     I hear from the dugout, “Go get him, kid,” my teammates urging me on.

I take a deep breath; I’ve got this, I’ve measured this guy, I think to myself. Summoning my wits, I knock off the donut ring from my bat and step forward, heart still pounding. I get two steps when I catch movement from the opponent’s dugout. An older, greying-hair man has sprinted onto the field. I chuckle as he’s moving faster than me. I see him raise his right arm, pointing to the outfield, or more so the bullpen.

It’s the manager of the other team. I stop dead in my tracks. Oh no, he’s making a pitching change. I gulp as the arid feeling in my throat returns. I’ve spent the last few moments studying this current pitcher, and now he’s not going to be the one throwing pitches to me. I look back at my dugout. I don’t know why; my teammates can’t really help me at this point. I’ll just have to wait and see who the manager’s called upon.

The bullpen door flies open; a tall, lean, straggly man appears, running across the outfield to the mound: Jason (Killer) Miller. Of all people in the world, it’s Jason Miller. I shake my head. The butterflies turn into albatrosses.

Miller and I have a history going back to our college years. We’ve squared off many times, and nearly every time, he’s gotten the best of me. In fact, I didn’t get a hit in our last fifteen meetings and struck out eight of those times. Clearly, their manager has done his homework.

He reaches the mound, takes one look at me, and smiles. It’s not one of those smiles like, “Hey, buddy, what’s up.” No, it’s one of those “Oh, it’s you; I’m going to crush you and all your hopes and dreams” smiles.

I run a quick search of my memory banks; I know he throws 95+, with a nasty wipeout slider, every once in a while mixing in a changeup. So, at least, I know his arsenal well. I can’t hit it, but I know it.

I retreat back to the on-deck circle. Every incoming pitcher gets at least eight warmup pitches. So my at-bat will have to wait an extra couple of minutes. This may be a good thing, as I try to settle those albatross birds buzzing in my stomach. Taking a few more practice cuts, I fight to mask my feelings to the fans in the stadium and the millions watching at home. I seem as cool as a cucumber. But inside, it’s like a duck’s feet below water, churning away, keeping it afloat.

“Let’s play ball!” The umpire shouts. Miller’s got all his warmup pitches in.

I stride back to the plate, stopping for a second. I’ve forgotten what handiness Miller is. It comes back in a flash. He’s a lefty. So, the only advantage I have is I’m a switch hitter. So I take up my position in the right-handed batter’s box.

I like to stand right in the middle. I plant my back leg, twisting the toe in the dirt, making a little groove. Then I bring my front leg in, kicking the ground. I stand in, shifting all my weight onto my back right leg, leaning back. Holding the bat out in front with my left hand lining it up with Miller on the mound before swinging back behind me, gripping it with my right hand. The bat comes to a stop, resting comfortably just behind my head, suspended above my back shoulder. I stand ready for the first pitch of the most important at-bat of my life.

I fixate an intense glare out at my opponent. He does the same to me. Suddenly, the raucous crowd noise seemingly evaporates into the air. It’s like my eardrums switched off; no ambient sounds are being processed. I blink for 400milliseconds, but that’s all the time my eyes need to block out everything outside of the 60 feet 6 inches between Miller and me as he stands on the mound.

He comes set hands at his waist, breaking into his motion; here we go. His leg comes up 3 inches off the ground, applying pressure to his back drive leg, twisting slightly, showing me his back hiding the ball in his glove as long as he can. Finally, he pulls his left-hand back, exposing the ball. I catch a small flash of it just before it disappears behind him. I see his arm whip forward as he lunges violently, releasing it, slinging it in my direction.

The flashing camera lights I was worried about before are nonexistent in my tunnel vision. The same thing can be said for the ball, though. My eyes rapidly search for the sphere hurtling at me, speeding, cutting through the air at 100 mph. There, I pick it up. It’s almost on me, literally, as I realize it’s been aimed at my head. I bail out of the batter’s box, throwing myself to the dirt, heart racing.

Picking myself up, I hear the umpire ask me if I’m okay. I respond with a yup, dusting off my uniform, shooting Miller a death stare. The crowd also voicing their displeasure with the six-foot-six left-handed flamethrower, booing him incisively. He just smirks as he catches the death projectile the catcher just threw back. I nod; so, he wants to play some good old-fashioned hardball, eh? Back in the older days of America’s pastime, that would’ve been an innocent dust back, part of the cat and mouse game played between the pitcher and hitter.

I stomp back into the box, following my same routine. Planting set, bringing the bat back, awaiting the next pitch. Miller follows the same suit with his pitch. A model of consistency, same exact motion, delivery, and release point. The fastball blazes across the gap, right down the middle of the plate. I take it, just to give my nerves a chance to settle down after what just happened.

The umpire screams out, “Strike one!” This brings the count to one ball, one strike.

We get set to tangle for the third time, repeating the previous steps. The ball flies out; I see it spinning in the air. It’s rotating so fast that the red stitches become a dot in the center of it. Slider. I stand still, watching it go by; it’s low, way too low to put good wood on it.

“Ball two. Two balls, one strike!” the umpire shouts, informing the world.

I remember that Miller sometimes gets wild with his sliders. My brain starts to churn as I step out of the batter’s box. My eyes shift to my third-base coach, who runs through a series of hand signals touching his body, getting to the one telling me to take the next pitch. Got it.

Miller delivers his next pitch. Another 100mph heater blazes past.

“Strike two. Two balls, two strikes!” Another helpful statement from the umpire. Like I needed a reminder.

Now we’re down to our last strike. All that stands between us and defeat is one more fastball I can’t hit. The next pitch comes barreling down the tunnel. It’s another slider; it cuts across the plate almost into my back leg, another too low.

“Ball. Three balls, two strikes.”

Miller’s now thrown two sliders nowhere near the strike zone. Can I now eliminate that pitch? Would he dare walk in the game-tying run? I wonder. Checking with the coach, I get another series of signs. But I know, at this point, anything near the zone, I’m hacking at it. If I can’t put it in play, I need to at least foul it off.

I anxiously, nervously await the next pitch. In my mind, I’m all set and geared up for another heater. Miller gets his sign, comes set. I’m ready. A flurry of movement, here comes the pitch. No spin, fastball. I’ve got him. I see it. I rock back, coiling, readying my body to explode forward, lifting my front leg striding. Planting my left foot firmly. My hips start their rotation, displacing the energy and momentum my legs have generated. My torso twists, bringing with it my hands along with the bat.

The 9” ball, made of cork and rubber, wrapped tightly with yarn and covered with cowhide, connects with my 2.5” wooden bat. The crack is unmistakable, and there’s nothing quite like it in the world.

I’ve loved that sound ever since I was a kid growing up watching games with my dad. I loved the other sounds, along with the smells of grass, dirt, hotdogs, French fries, the vendor yelling “Hotdog, come get your hotdog!” and people frantically cheering, some booing, depending upon their allegiances to the two respective teams playing. To me, there isn’t anything like it in the world.

Except, this time around, I hear a noticeably different sound as the ball screams off the bat in the opposite direction of where it needs to go. My hands sting from the mixture of cold air and the vibrations from the wood stick in my hands. I timed the pitch just right, but I missed the location. The ball ricocheted off the bat closer to the handle, sending it careening up and over my head and out of the field of play. I just missed it. But it didn’t end the game, as the foul ball bought me another pitch.

I step back out of the box, giving my hands a moment to stop stinging before stepping back in. Here we go, one more time. I can see Miller’s face. For the first time ever squaring off against him, I can see a small tinge of concern. I’ve got his fastball timed now, and he knows it. He can’t throw another slider for fear of walking in the tying run. He doesn’t trust his changeup enough, from what I can tell. He knows it, I know it, the crowd does too, and so does everyone watching around the world. The next pitch will inevitably be another fastball, and, this time, I’m going to crush it.

I get set; he gets set, nodding at the catcher agreeing to the fastball like there was ever any doubt. He readies; here comes the pitch.

Fastball.

I’ve got him dead to rights. It’s right down the chute, heading down the middle of the plate. I react, coiling, letting loose. The bat whips through the zone. Connection. That sweet, sweet sound of a bat cracking against the ball in the sweet spot. For the first time, I notice the camera flashes in the stands. The home crowd stands on their feet, and the stadium just about erupts into bedlam as the ball soars through the cold night sky, becoming nothing more than a small dot.

I start my jog down the first baseline, eyes still fixated like everyone else’s on the white dot as it reaches its apex in the sky. The other players start to circle the bags, slowly watching the ball as it starts to make its return. For a moment, everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve is coming to fruition. I’ve just done what every kid dreams of, winning game seven of the world series with a walk-off hit.

As I approach first base, out of my peripheral vision, I catch someone streaking across the outfield. It’s their centerfielder. He’s racing to the wall, slowing down, timing something, timing a jump. My eyes dart back up to the ball. Oh no, I’ve put too much height on it. The cold night air and wind have wrapped snugly around the ball, reducing its momentum. It’s tumbling down; my heart instantly goes from my throat to my feet as he leaps. To my teammates, the home crowd, and my horror, the ball disappears into a black abyss. It doesn’t disappear beyond the wall but into the centerfielder’s glove for the third and final out of the World Series.

I stop looking, shocked. We’ve lost; I’ve lost. Miller is jumping around the mound like a schoolboy. His teammates rush past me to congratulate him and each other. I hang my head walking solemnly back to the dugout. How am I going to look my teammates in the face now? Walt approaches from behind me and whispers in my ear. “It’s okay, kid; we’ll get ’em next time,” he says, perking me up a bit⸻

“But Grandpa, how is this one of the best moments of your career?” Samual asks, breaking into my recounting of what I consider the most defining moments of my career and life. “You lost the game.” I look down at him and his brother Johnny with a smile. “True, Samual, very true,” I say. “But I learned a valuable lesson about life that night. It’s not always about winning. Sometimes, you have to fail to be a good winner because it makes you humble, and it makes you appreciate it more because you know what the opposite feels like. The best success stories often are preceded by failures. It also drove me the rest of my hall of fame career. You see, Walt was right. Two years later, we were back in the Series, and I found myself back in a similar situation, and that time, I got the knock, and we won the game. Sometimes, Samual, we learn more about ourselves in defeat than we ever do in winning. That’s what makes that game, that single at-bat, one of my most cherished baseball memories.”

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