Another chapter from my novel in progress. This is a fictional account of a recently drafted ball player departing for his assignment.
Philadelphia to Tri-Cities
I woke up at three in the morning because I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t contain my excitement, but somewhere beneath my joy was an anxiety. My bags sat in the corner with the khaki pants and collard shirt I was going to where on the plane. It was important to dress professionally for my first day on the job.
“I guess I should check to make sure I have everything I need,” I said, kicking back the plaid comforter I slept under for ten years. “I can’t afford to forget anything. Deoderant, toothpaste, contact case, contact solution, extra contacts, toothbrush. Check. Socks, underwear, t-shirts, shorts, one pair of jeans, sweatshirt, collard shirts. Check. Picture of my Mom, Dad, brother and sister. Check. Two baseball mitts, four wood bats, baseball socks, cleats, compression shorts, athletic shirts, belts, hats, batting gloves, sweatbands, pine tar and my confidence. Check.”
We left for the airport at six a.m. The airport would be crowded and I didn’t want to miss my flight to Tri-cities airport. I stuffed my bags into the trunk, softly closed the door and climbed into the passenger seat. Mom turned the engine over and sniffled.
“Come on Mom,” I consoled with a short smile.
“I know, I know.” Mom turned on the headlights and pulled the car out of the driveway.
Mom drove and we both sat in pensive silence. I scrolled through my mental checklist of everything I packed, double-checking to make sure I didn’t forget anything. The sun rose in the sky behind us as we crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge into Philadelphia.
“Do you have everything you need?” asked Mom.
“Yeah. I think so.”
Mom sniffled again and rubbed her wrist underneath her nose. “I’m really excited for you, Matt.”
“Do you cry every time you get excited?” I joked.
“No,” she sputtered with a spastic chuckle. “It’s just that I remember the little boy that begged everyday to have a catch. It doesn’t feel that long ago.” Streetlights were turning off from the rising sun. Mom turned her headlights off.
“Time flies when you’re having fun.”
“It’s been so much fun watching you play, Matt. You’ve given us memories that we’ll never forget.”
I thought for a moment and said, “There’s a lot more to come.”
The airport emerged from behind the highway. Planes swarmed the area like a beehive. Mom parked the car and walked me to the security checkpoint. I felt a knot twisting in my stomach. We unloaded the trunk.
“Here we go,” was all I could gather in my cluttered head of excitement, nerves, reflection, and anticipation.
We crossed the three roads of drop-off traffic to the terminal. “Where do I check in, Mom?”
She glanced at my travel itinerary. “Continental,” she quickly directed. “I’ll wait in line with you.”
The line was short and when we reached the counter the attendant asked for my destination. “Bristol, Virginia,” I mumbled.
“Name and I.D. please.” I handed over my driver’s license.
“How many bags are you checking today?” The attendant was sharply focused on getting me in and out of her line.
“Two,” I lifted the heavy duffel bag onto the scale and watched the numbers tick swiftly past fifty pounds.
“You’re going to have to pay to have this one checked. It exceeds the fifty pound limit.”
“Okay,” Mom swooped in for the save. “You can’t play without your equipment and you should hold onto your money until you get acquainted with your new situation.”
The attendant slipped a thin baggage tag under the handle and pinched the adhesive end securing the tag and bags final destination. I lifted the second bag onto the scale, watched as the attendant followed the identical procedure of the previous bag, swiped Mom’s credit card and handed me my boarding pass.
“Do you want to grab a quick bite before you head through security?” asked Mom.
“Sure,” I said. “Something light.”
We walked over to a busteling Starbucks café and waited in line. I noticed Mom occupied the space between unparalleled happiness and absolute fear. In my thoughts I gave her expressions a voice that sounded like the quivering utterings of a timid organ. The voice was warm but fluttered with uncertainty.
“My baby boy,” Mom rubbed my back and smiled painfully. I looked right through her weak veneer into her pain.
“Mom, It’s okay. I’ll be back in a few months. This isn’t much different from the past two summers.”
“I just want you to get there and back safely.”
“When are you coming to visit?” I ordered my Vanilla Latte and lemon iced pound cake then let Mom order and pay.
“Three weeks, I hope. You’ll still be there, right? I don’t have to worry about you being cut?”
“Let me get there before you cut me, Debbie Downer.” We enjoyed the moment of levity, collected our drinks and pastry, and sat down at a table.
“So, what happens if I miss my connecting flight?” I asked.
“You find another one.”
“Oddly, that’s what I’m most nervous about. I don’t know where I’m going to live and how I’m going to pay for it. Baseball’s the easy part,” I clearly postured with false bravado.
We finished our light breakfast. Mom walked me over to the security checkpoint. The line wasn’t crowded and Mom could walk outside the ropes as I zigzagged through the maze of ropes. When I reached the end I stood in a single file line along a wall. Mom was on the outside and I was on the inside. We inched forward one step at a time and just before I reached the metal detectors we hugged.
“I love you and I’m so proud of you,” Mom cried.
“Love you too, Mom.” I felt my stomach crawling up my throat as I sniffled. “I”ll call you when I land,” was all I could manage after our hug and I watched Mom hustle to the escalator and wave goodbye.
The air wasn’t cold on my skin but the linoleum floor, bland colors, and forced recycled air chilled the hairs on my arms. In line, I played with the change in my pocket remembering that I had to empty my pockets, take off my belt, shoes, hat, watch, and wallet before I entered the scanner.
“Do you have any metal on you sir?” asked a burly uniformed T.S.A. agent.
“I don’t think so.”
“Have you emptied your pockets?” I turned out my pockets and put my hands behind my head ready to be cuffed. The strong-shouldered security woman lifted one eyebrow and squished her lips in impatience as she pointed to my waist. I thought to myself, “Is my fly down?” My fly was in the upright and locked position but the sun light pouring in from the windows bounced off the belt buckle and slapped me in the face. “Sorry” I said as the four-person crew folded their arms in impatience. I imagined their voices ringing through my head saying “rookie”
I made it through the metal detector but my bag hadn’t yet. “Sir, do you have any explosives in your bag?” My mind went blank. The simple act of asking the question made me doubt that I hadn’t packed any. “I don’t think so. Did you find any in there?” By this time I had taken so long to make it through security that other security guards seemed to be showing up at my line. Even though I was a recently contracted professional athlete I had to look up at every security guard. I felt like every one of them was six foot four and two hundred and thirty pounds. Even the women looked like they could bench press a Volkswagen.
“Do you mind if we search your bag sir?”
After some digging the security guard found a bottle of cologne that was not properly packed. “Sir, you’re going to have to check this,” the security woman boomed.
“How do I do that?”
“You’ll have to return to the check-in counter.”
“I don’t have that kind of time.” The line behind me lengthened by the minute. “Just get rid of it.”
“Sir?” the security woman quizzically retorted.
“Yup, just chuck it or give it away as a gift. It’s Armani Code. Nice stuff.” I practically tripped over my untied sneakers as I skimped away, embarrassed.
The flight was less interesting than the security check-point. I found my seat quickly and tried to fall asleep dreaming about the luscious green infields I would play on at my assignment. The stands arched up into two tiers behind home plate hugging the foul lines for an intimate setting fans could enjoy. Each base shined like bright white teeth against tan skin smiling out to the centerfield fence. Locker rooms were furnished with luxurious black carpeting with a White Sox emblem embroidered in the middle of the room and leather couches for the players to nap on during breaks. My locker was filled with White Sox shirts, shorts, bags, bats, batting gloves, warm-ups, and a pristine new mitt.
The wheels of the puddle jumper that had been held together with duct tape and gum touched down around one o’clock in the afternoon. I stepped out of the fuselage to a wall of heat and humidity. My clothes immediately sucked to my body in the sticky heat. The strap of my carryon bag felt like a cheese grater against my shoulder. But the nervous excitement of reaching my final destination numbed the pain.
I dialed Mom’s number and checked in with her. Then I did the same with Dad, my brother and sister as I walked briskly to the baggage claim. At the baggage carousel I noticed a young face across from me. He wore a Tar Heel blue athletic shirt and cargo khaki shorts. I could tell that he might be another player from his thick forearms, athletic frame, and the Phiton bands he wore around his neck and wrist. “What a gimmick. My left foot those bands make you run faster, jump higher, and hit the ball further.” I silently mouthed to myself shaking my head. After my bag slid down the carousel I made a course outside to where the Phiton boy was standing.
“Are you here to play for Bristol?” I asked with humble assertion.
“Yeah,” said the blond haired southerner.
“Nice, so am I. I’m Matt.”
“Brent,” he replied, giving me a stiff handshake.
“Where are you from? I sense somewhere south,” I ventured.
“Yeah, Missouri,” Brent answered. “How’bout you?”
“I’m from New Jersey.”
“Oh. New Joysee,” quipped Brent, cracking the most quotidian Jersey joke available.
“Yeah. I’m from southern New Jersey. We don’t really speak like that.”
Brent let go a nervous laugh, “Oh.”
“What position to do you play, Brent?”
“I play everywhere. I haven’t had a home since high school. I think I’m shortstop, I played third in college primarily, but I’ve also played the outfield and Major League Baseball seems to think I’m a second baseman.”
“Shees!” exclaimed Brent.
“Yeah, so I don’t know where I play. I just go wherever they tell me to.”
Just then, Mr. Bentley, a local fan, volunteer, and front office jack of all trades picked us up not long after Kent and I suffered through our first long awkward silence. He drove a 1996 Ford Windstar with no less than three human size dents on the passenger side.
“Ya’ll here for the Whit Sox?” he yelled from the driver’s seat. We nodded in the affirmative, opened the rusty sliding door and piled in the back. “I’m gone take ya’ll over da field ta meet the staff before da rest team show up,” Bentley told us. My adrenaline began to spike again at the excitement of seeing my home field for the first time.
We entered the city of Bristol and Bentley made an aggressive left turn into the stadium parking lot that toppled Brent onto his gear. I tried to identify foul poles, dugouts, locker rooms, or even the façade of a stadium but the only building I saw was General Stonewall Jackson High School. Behind the school the landscape opened up to a weathered concrete structure that showed its age. Kent and I unloaded the Windstar as Bentley held out a crooked finger pointing to the clubhouse. We were in the shade but to get to the clubhouse we had to traverse the simmering asphalt.
I switched the strap of my carryon bag to the other shoulder. Brent and I picked up our remaining bags and headed toward the clubhouse. Everything was heavy but the air seemed to sit on my shoulders like a ten ton elephant. As I drug my heavy bags and Dumbo with me I saw the field to my right. The fence was plastered with advertisements for local businesses, colleges, and the White Sox.
Then I saw the grass. It was patchy, sun scorched, and brittle. The infield dirt was dry, baron, and weed ridden. I climbed the stairs to the clubhouse and pushed the door in that felt pressurized against the oppressive heat of a mid-summer day in Bristol, Virginia.
A round, salt-and-pepper haired man stood in the center of the chilled locker room pouring over a document with another goteed younger gentleman.
“Hiya boys. Mike Colardo. Skip or Chief’l do. What’s your name?”
“Matt,” I said, firmly shaking Mike’s thick hand.