Hunter Rains sighed as he clicked off the TV. Still no agreement between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners about starting the 2020 season, which of course, had been delayed because of the nationwide shutdown from the Covid-19 virus. I’m dying to play ball, and you guys . . . His thought trailed off. Well, I’m dying, sure enough.
Throughout the winter, Hunter had been looking forward to his own high school season, but then the cancer struck, and struck quickly. As he lay back on the bed, he recalled the entire sequence of events for the thousandth time: the symptoms, the visit to the family doctor, the first oncologist visit, then the second (how his parents both cried), the chemo, and now, here he was in hospice. At first, he cried, then cursed, then finally came to the conclusion that the Universe was a giant actuarial table and his name was assigned to the “Cancer, aged 18” box. Hunter shrugged to himself.
His doctor thought that Hunter might have until early April, but Hunter held on. He wanted to see one more Opening Day. April came and went with still no baseball, but a rumor made the rounds that the game would resume sometime in May. His doctors were amazed that he made it past Memorial Day.
Negotiations between the players and the owners sprang up again, but a July 4th Opening Day was pushed back to July 19th, and still they argued.
Hunter could wait no longer.
A couple of days ago, he had talked his grandfather into retrieving his uniform, and his grandfather had talked the coach into giving it to him. Hunter told his grandpa that it would make him feel better to see it hanging in the little closet, and oh, would he bring his glove and a bat and the ball bucket, too?
Hunter rose from the bed, taking a couple of steps toward the closet. Nope, he couldn’t wait any longer.
He called for an Uber driver, then changed into his uniform. He smiled. He knew he could count on grandpa, who may have been a bit suspicious about why he wanted these things, but grandpa never asked any questions. The entire uniform—the three-quarter length under sleeves, the belt, the stirrups, the sanitaries, even his jock were all there. So were his spikes, which he tied together and draped over his shoulder. He picked up his bat and glove with one hand, and tried to lift the ball bucket with the other, but it was too heavy now. He looked around and removed the pillow case, dropping in 10 balls. Quietly, he snuck out a side door and waited for his ride.
“What are you dressed up for?” said the driver. “There’re no games anywhere.”
“Oh, um, my little cousin is in hospice and he’s a big baseball fan. Thought it would make him feel better if I visited him in uniform.”
The driver thought about this for a moment, then said, “You don’t look so good yourself.”
“Take me to the high school, please.”
The car pulled into the student parking lot just before dusk.
It took a while for Hunter to walk from the parking lot down to the ballfield. Tired as he was though, he couldn’t help but smile. The bases were left out when practice had been shut down and no one had bothered to come out and get them. He sat on the bench and changed into his spikes, which crunched into the cinder warning track as he crossed it.
He loved that sound.
Hunter took the pillow case to the mound and climbed up on the rubber. He put a couple of balls in his glove and grabbed a third, then wound up and threw. He had nothing on the throw, of course, and it bounced weakly just past home plate. Hunter didn’t care. He threw the ninth ball and was about to throw the last, when he paused, shook off his glove, and went to the bench where he had left his bat. He strode to the plate, dug in to the right-hand batter’s box, and tossed the ball in the air. Swinging as hard as he could, he lofted a ball that landed softly in the grass in short left center.
Hunter suddenly found himself running to first base. Weak as he was, his instincts hadn’t failed him as he rounded into foul territory and hit the inside corner of the bag perfectly. As he touched second and made for third, he heard himself calling the action to an imaginary radio audience.
“Rains has rounded second and he’s steaming for third! The ball has rolled all the way to the wall. Trout has just now retrieved it and Rains is going for an inside the park home run!” He saw his third base coach waving frantically. Out of the corner of his eye, he was aware that everyone in the stadium, including his grandpa was standing and cheering. He saw the catcher lean towards the foul side of home plate to receive the throw, and so he angled his body towards the fair side and slid into home. He wasn’t going very fast, though, so it wasn’t exactly a slide. It was more like he sat himself in the dirt, tucking his left leg under him as he scooted his right foot across the plate.
Lying there in the dirt, he could feel the dew begin to settle across the field. He saw the first star blink at him, and he blinked back. He was amazed as he realized that, for the first time in months, he didn’t hurt anywhere. He laughed at himself when he wondered if his home run had won the game or tied it or if his team had lost anyway. He shrugged. It didn’t matter.
Search parties had gone out just before dusk. Hunter’s grandfather arrived at hospice after the others, including Hunter’s parents, who had already gone out to look for him. He was frantic, of course, but he suddenly had a feeling, and he looked in Hunter’s closet. He said nothing and hurried out.
He pulled into the student parking lot and hopped out of his car just as the first stars were coming out. Even as he began to run towards home plate, he was dialing 911 to have an ambulance sent to the high school baseball field, but he knew. He knelt in the dust and lifted Hunter’s frail upper body out of the baseline, hugging him closely. His tears smeared the dust on Hunter’s cheeks. This was the last of many moments that they would spend in a ballpark together. He saw the ambulance pull into the parking lot and heard a voice call out, wondering if anyone was “down there.” Hunter’s grandfather finally answered, “Yeah. Down here.” He relinquished Hunter to the paramedics and called his daughter. Then, he gathered up the balls along the backstop and Hunter’s bat. He headed to the mound and picked up Hunter’s glove, and as he walked back to the parking lot, he spotted a lone baseball in short left field. He walked over to it and picked up Hunter’s last hit.