This story is by Keltin Wiens and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
There seemed to be no air left. The fans stood by, too nervous to breathe and too anxious to look away. Time itself was hinged on each pitch and every failed swing of the bat.
Washington hadn’t won the championship in almost 90 years. Pittsburg hadn’t won it in more than 60. Something had to give. And it would, one way or another, explode into history tonight after the deciding game.
Approaching the plate, 42-year old George McNair, and he was down to his last game of his career. A right-handed batter who would pinch hit for Washington only when they needed a big hit and a boost, McNair stood in the chilly October air. His Washington team was down by a single run to Pittsburgh and it was the bottom of the 10th inning. Two gone, one man on, the last hope for Washington rested upon George’s shoulders.
His brown eyes looked to the pitcher’s mound and found a huge, hulking man standing there with a glove on his right hand and his left hidden behind his back. It was Whitey Schmidt. Closer to seven feet tall than to six, Schmidt had all the makings of an excellent big-league pitcher: a quick arm, stamina and an uncanny ability to forget the past and all of his past mistakes. One of those mistakes was allowing Charlie Armstrong a single to start the inning. But Schmidt fanned the next two batters, hitting them both with his vicious fastball that rocketed too quickly through the air for anyone to catch up to it.
George took a deep breath and stepped into the box. His journeyman career and his love of the game came to the forefront of his mind. George had spent 20 years in professional baseball and most of it was not glamorous. McNair moved an average once a year over twenty years, bouncing from team to team and from the majors to the minors. He was a product of the old way of baseball when men who relied on hunches and followed their guts believed they could win games. That’s before those men had to bow in the presence of the numbers, the algorithms and the hard fact that data doesn’t lie. He’d always been a very patient hitter, waiting for his chance to knock the hell out of it or walk to first.
Washington liked George because of his patience, his unrelenting focus on scoring and getting on base. Baserunners equal actual runners, George knew that. Twenty years in the game can do a lot to teach a man about humility and patience. Washington gave the man a second chance at love because the numbers told him they could afford to have him at the plate when it mattered. He couldn’t run like he used to, his knees groaned with every jog, but he could deliver when he needed to.
Schmidt dealt strike one. When George watched it fly by, Whitey smirked believing this championship was in the bag. The old man doesn’t have it, Whitey thought. Confidence and a certain thrifty disposition bloomed inside George. He knew the young gun would make a mistake.
Schmidt touched the brim of his cap. George’s grip on the bat tightened. It was the next pitch. Everyone knew it. Whitey’s young arrogance would cost him.
Schmidt’s arm heaved forward, pushing the ball with the force of a rocket.
It looked, for just a brief second, that George could count all 108 stitches of that baseball flying at him. The distance from the mound to the plate, sixty feet and six inches, has never moved slower, and in less than a second, it seemed as if the world was going to change forever.
The ball, as it left Whitey Schmidt’s left hand, was like a bullet from the end of a tall and lanky gun.Time stopped for George right then and the only thing that mattered to his 42-year-old eyes was the red and white mass hurling towards him, spinning an unknown number of times. Yes, it was a two-seamer. That pitch was Whitey’s favorite, and George and the good Lord knew it.
But, that didn’t matter now, the World Series was on the line. He heard everything in the crowd and none of it too. The fans were roaring so loudly, his ears might have cracked in half.
Somewhere a flash bulb pulsed and it sent the nerves deep in his eyes crying in pain.
Focus, he thought. The ball was halfway to the plate now and he knew it was destined to collide with the sweet spot on that wooden bat. He felt it deep in his gut. His heart thumped silently in his chest.
For George, it was like his life was passing before his eyes. He remembered all those long summer days when he’d play catch with his normally drunk father. Dear old dad would throw to him only on nights when he wasn’t at the bar. They threw in front of his mother’s petunias. As the baseball would come toward his boyish face, it pushed the smell of fresh grass straight to his brain and buried itself deep into his soul.
He began his swing now, a razor-sharp focus on the ball. His elbow leads, then the wrist. The spring that’s been wound tight in his sculpted torso pops. For every action, there’s an equal but opposite reaction.
The ball strikes the middle of the bat, right where he willed to hit it. Time and space bend in the middle of his bat. Hide on wood, ball on bat and the graying resolve of a player who was sold short on against the behemoth Schmidt managed to break a lot of hearts right then.
The ball snaps off the bat as if God himself willed it to be so. The Lord sent a bolt of lightning after that ball and it retreated into the air, yearning for safety where there was none.
Yes, that was the home run that saved George. This “old” man had triumphed. He didn’t need to watch it sail through the cool fall air. He knew it was gone.
Ninety feet later, his right foot hit first base. He turned his body to run to second. He caught Whitey staring at him in disbelief. No one had ever hit a homer off Whitey Schmidt in the postseason. Schmidt threw his glove down in frustration, angry tears welling in his eyes. George’s heart absorbed the elation around him and he seemed like he’d burst with pure joy.
It was the new era of baseball that sought out George. The greatest day of his life was when a team told him that his career wasn’t over, that he could still contribute. Well, it was now the second-greatest day of his life. Numbers put him running the base paths. Hunches put Whitey Schmidt on the mound that night and it was time for the numbers to outshine the hunch.
On to second and then to third and then to home. George didn’t know what made him do, but after he turned the corner to the promised land, he punched his fist into the air and bellowed. He just had to scream a scream that had built in him for so many years and would live on forever. His team was waiting for him at home, a gap in their joyous celebration just big enough for him squeeze in and score the winning run. It was over: the game, the championship and his career. There’d be no better.
He pumped his fist in the air again, the breeze chilling his face as he ran harder. Then he jumped on home. His team jumped with him and he could hear nothing but whoops and hollers. Washington had done it for the first time in generations. Before he knew it, George was picked up by his teammates and carried into the dugout to celebrate.