Aunt Mini peered at the diamond, which she certainly considered to be one of her best friends. Only this diamond was marked off in 90 foot increments and made of dirt. She adjusted her New Market Rebels cap and cheered wildly when her summer son, Jackson Stuart was introduced before the game that would decide the Valley Baseball League championship. Aunt Mini was Jackson’s host mom which meant that she had housed him, fed him, washed his laundry, and listened long into one night on her front porch as he tried to talk his way out of a two-week slump that had gripped him right before the All-Star break.
Many summers ago, some ballplayer, as ballplayers are want to do, tagged the Rebels’ number one fan with the nickname, “Aunt Mini,” derived from the fact that she was all of 5 feet tall “in high heel cleats.” None of the players even knew her real name which was fine by her because Aunt Mini viewed having a nickname as a sacred rite of passage. It meant that in her own way, beyond being a fan, and beyond housing a player every summer, she was part of the team. Being named to the Council of Cardinals or to the President’s Cabinet would have been quite the inconsequential association compared to this.
The Rebels were nursing a 3-2 in the top of the seventh when, with a man on third and two out, a Staunton Brave hit a routine grounder to Jackson. Perhaps the ball hit a soft spot in the infield dirt or perhaps he came up on it a tenth of a second too soon. In any case, the ball ticked off his glove, trickling between his legs and the tying run scored. Jackson looked at his glove as if he expected the soft leather to explain this error, but the glove remained silent.
The game stayed tied through the eighth, the ninth, the tenth. In the bottom of the eleventh, Jackson made an attempt at redemption by hitting a one-out triple, but as sometimes happens, redemption is dependent on other people, and he was stranded at third.
Staunton scored a run in the top of the twelfth when the Rebel hurler wild-pitched a run home, but New Market answered in the bottom of the inning on an infield hit, a bunt, and a two-out bloop single. The game remained tied.
By the sixteenth inning, it seemed that the game might go on forever. It was now past midnight and the joke in the stands was that the game had lasted two months, seeing how it had started on July 31st and now, August 1st had arrived.
One New Market run would lay Jackson’s error to rest. One Staunton run would turn it into a ghost.
In the top of the seventeenth, Jackson made a brilliant stop up the middle to start a double play.
“That makes up for that error,” said the man sitting next to Aunt Mini.
In the top of the eighteenth and with two out, Staunton’s ninth place hitter jumped on the first pitch he saw and drove the ball on a line to right. The ball never seemed to get more than five feet off the ground, but the Rebel right fielder couldn’t get to it, and it cleared the four foot fence for a home run. Staunton’s dugout, along with the dozen or so Braves fans who had remained long into this summer night, exploded with cheers. When New Market was quickly retired, three up-three down in their half of the eighteenth, the Braves and their fans erupted all over again. The game, the season, and the summer were over.
Jackson came off the field and threw his glove into the dugout where he sat for some time hungry, dirty, down. He couldn’t stay there forever, much as he would have liked, and when he finally arrived back at Aunt Mini’s he found her seated on her front porch swing. He started to speak, but his emotions were no longer constrained by the game and he had to fight them vigorously.
Aunt Mini rose and reached up to gently place a finger on his still silent lips.
“Errors happen. You have a long drive home tomorrow and you’ll need to get out of here first thing. Go pack.”
Jackson smiled faintly and nodded as he entered Aunt Mini’s house for the last time. “And while you’re packing, forgive yourself,” she called after him.
Years later, he finally did so when he watched his eight-year old son burst into tears after taking a called third strike with the bases loaded for the final out of the game in which a win would have sent his team to the regional playoffs. He didn’t say a word to the crying boy, just put his arm around him as they made their slow walk to the car.
That night, Jackson went out to his front porch and called Aunt Mini.
The idea for this story was provided by Joanne Burns who happens to be the Host Family Coordinator for the New Market Rebels. I don’t think the story turned out anywhere near the way Joanne had in mind, but this is how the seed that she provided came to fruition!