S&R Fiction

Scholars & Rogues Fiction: “Fated to Shine,” by Ben Spencer

Fated to Shine

On the day of our conference match-up with rival Johnston High Wayne Laffey had one of his schoolwork flake-outs. While no one ever mistook Wayne for the studious type—he treated the subject areas like a tapas menu, devouring offerings that piqued his interest and passing over the rest—once Wayne locked in on an assignment it was impossible to wrench him away from it. I knew this from experience.

During the home half of innings Wayne kept retreating to his bat bag for the ostensible purpose of retrieving sunflower seeds, but it didn’t take long to figure out he was actually sneak-reading passages of 1984. He’d zip open the bat bag, pour a few sunflowers in his hand, and then speed-read a paragraph or two under cover of nylon before turning his attention back to the game. A couple of the other guys noticed it too, but they, like me, accepted it for what it was, Wayne being Wayne. Besides, what do you say to a guy with a .584 batting average and a veritable gaggle of college and pro scouts sitting in the stands hawk-eyeing his every on-field move? Get your head in the game? Of course not. Wayne had to carry the burden of being great; the least the rest of us could do was pretend not to notice his nerd-boy tendencies.

I’d known Wayne was in trouble in 6th period when Mrs. Nickels assigned the book. He got the same feverish look he had when we studied the Russian Revolution. Back then Wayne chewed my ear about communism so much I warned him I was going to tell the rest of the team he was a goddamn pinko if he didn’t quit spouting his communist propaganda, but Wayne being Wayne he just laughed at me and wondered aloud what it would be like to be the first American to flee to Cuba to play professional baseball. I had no doubt Castro would welcome him, and not simply for being a communist sympathizer; word was the mother-lovin’ Yankees had already told Wayne they were going to make him a first round pick. Luckily the Yankees and I both got a reprieve when Mrs. Nickels assigned Animal Farm. I’m not certain the book tempered all of Wayne’s communist leanings, but at the very least it gave him pause for thought.

I suppose it was Wayne’s prior exposure to Orwell that made him so psyched when Mrs. Nickels assigned 1984. He thumbed through the first few pages before class ended, kept his head buried in the novel as he stumbled towards his locker after the bell, and continued reading snippets in the locker room before Coach Windham came in to deliver the pre-game pep talk. I never saw him slip the book into his bat bag, but once the game started I knew exactly what he was up to. Wayne was a weirdo, but unlike most weirdos you couldn’t shame him for his strangeness. He was a weirdo headed places, like the Majors. The rest of us would’ve given our left nut for his weirdness, so long as it came packaged with his knack for hitting a baseball.

Anyway, the game ended up tied 2-2 going into the home half of the seventh. We’d been up 2-1 in the fifth, but Wayne made an uncharacteristic error at short, booting a ball that allowed an Eagles runner to knot the score. I eyed the scouts in the stands from my position at second when it happened, trying to get a read on their reactions. I couldn’t help but wonder how many spots in the draft and how many hundreds of thousands of dollars the error might cost Wayne. Wayne, of course, was unfazed. He spent the bottom half of the fifth more entranced by his bat bag than ever. Come the bottom of the seventh Wayne was no longer even putting up a front. It was clear to anyone who wanted to see that he’d given up watching the game for the pleasures of Orwell. Luckily, no one was paying attention. We were captivated by a rally materializing before our eyes, courtesy of a hard-hit single and a couple of walks with only one out made.

Suddenly it dawned on me that Wayne was on-deck. While the rest of the team brayed words of encouragement to Sammy Rollo, our 3rd baseman, in the batter’s box, I sidled up beside Wayne and punched him on the shoulder.

“Yo Wayne.”

“Yo what?” he replied, not even bothering to look up. The brim of his baseball cap pointed at the novel like a coordinate guide for his eyes.

“Dude,” I deadpanned. “You’re on deck.”

“Alright Wormy,” Wayne replied without averting his gaze, calling me my ballpark nickname (an embarrassing story but I’ll digress for a moment—let’s just say my attempts at a headfirst slide reminded my teammates of a certain break-dance move). “Two outs or one?”

“One.”

“If Rollo gets a hit or a walk though, we win, right?” Wayne’s eyes stayed fixed to the text like lasers. He’d already read about a third of the book.

I punched him on the arm again, harder. “Hey asshole, I know you’re the shit and all that, but this is a big game. So how about getting off your lazy butt and getting in the on-deck circle.”

Wayne dropped the book to his lap. He rolled his eyes at me like they were languorous cue-balls. “Alright, Ministry of Love.”

“What?”

Wayne tossed the book at me. “Orwell, man. Cat freaks me out.” He shuffled towards the front of the dugout. “I’ll be back.”

I quickly stuffed the book in Wayne’s bat bag and reassumed my spot at the dugout fence. Out on the field the ump was punching out Rollo, but before the Johnston High players could so much as let out a whoop of excitement Wayne was ambling towards the batter’s box, twirling his TPX like a teenage Mays and sucking the wind out of every Eagle on the diamond. The infield chatter went from energetic encouragement to the nervous, irritable mumblings of a psych ward. The Johnston High Coach called time and consulted with the pitcher, who from what I could tell looked pissed that he was being made the fall guy for the coming calamity. He kept motioning towards first and our runner standing there as if expressing dismay over the strategy that had allowed Wayne to get to the plate without an open base to put him on. Conversely, our dugout teemed with the anxious energy of athletes anticipating a victory before the deed was done. Wayne was for one for two on the night with an intentional walk; his one hit a screaming double off the left field wall and his one out a comebacker line drive that just as likely should have taken the pitcher’s head off as it did end up in his glove. The only shock would have been if Wayne didn’t come through and we were forced to play extras.

The end came quick. Wayne responded to the pitcher’s nervous summation of a first-pitch fastball with an almost evilly athletic twist of his hips, the bat whiplashing through the zone and the ball instantly transforming into a pellet tracing the sky. We cheered, the Eagles’ players dug chins into collarbones, and the ball landed in the grassy green expanse separating the baseball field from the softball complex. Kids in the stands jumped into action, six or seven dutifully tearing down the left-field fence in pursuit of the souvenir. I followed my ant-line of teammates out of the dugout to meet Wayne at home plate. Out on the field Wayne lugged around the bases, as if mocking the very athleticism he’d just displayed.

When Wayne crossed home plate we atta-boy’ed and back-slapped him, and Wayne, in spite of himself, smiled.

 

*

 

Wayne was half-black, or half-white, depending on who you asked. The black kids at Mt. Pisgah considered him half-white because he didn’t act black. The white kids considered him half-black because, well, his skin color sure as hell wasn’t white. Nobody hated him, or picked on him, or really cared one way or the other. It was just that he didn’t fit in.

Wayne talked to me about shit he wouldn’t talk to anyone else because when we were in 8th grade I invited him to join my Rotisserie Baseball League. The league originally started with six guys but quickly ground down to two, Wayne and me, each of us managing three teams respectively. This being the early nineties, we met on Fridays at my house and poured over the box scores from that week’s papers, painstakingly jotting down hits and ribbies and homers and strikeouts and wins and saves and adding it to the season’s totals for our respective teams. I’m pretty sure Wayne loved the minutiae of tallying the statistics more than he did actually keeping up with major leaguers, because anytime I flipped the television on to the Braves he responded with slack-jawed disinterest, wondering why I had to spoil the beauty of fantasy baseball with the real thing. “Baseball is boring except for the box scores,” he had the temerity to pronounce, though you wouldn’t have believed he felt that way watching him gobble up grounders on the diamond and smashing ball after ball around the field during middle school BP. It was around this time that word was first getting out about his talent, an aptitude that had been on display since Little League but had accelerated with the onset of adolescence, and I was equal parts envious and befuddled by my friend, who treated the sport like a dilettante might one of his hobbies. If he had only been slightly better than me I would have hated him. But he was so far out of my and everyone else’s league that we had no real choice but to idolize him, and revel in the glory of his abilities for the short time we were privileged to witness them.

The adults blamed Wayne’s weirdness on his mother, Kimberly Laffey. She, from what I gathered overhearing snippets of conversation over the years, was an omnibus of the off-kilter, a prodigal child not entirely detoxified of her prodigality, returned to North Carolina from her venture into the exotic world of Austin, Texas with a fondness for quirky art, colorful dashiki dresses, and wine. The trouble, it seemed, started years ago with her SAT scores, which landed her an out-of-state scholarship to Hook Em’ Horns U. Her tenure there was short, three semesters before she transferred back home, but by then there was a baby in the oven and Kimberly had adopted a come-what-may ethos that confounded all those who had known her in high school. No one—least of all her parents—could make heads or tails out of the knocked-up nineteen year old who treated her pregnancy like a shameless personal venture. Most perplexing of all was her indifferent attitude towards the unknowing father. He, whoever he might have been, appeared doomed from the outset to live his life unaware of the child’s existence. Which apparently was Kimberly’s plan: the impression was she didn’t have the first desire to share the duties of raising her child. Confounding expectations, she birthed the baby—surprisingly, half-black—went to work in the town’s only wine bar, and, after her parents unexpectedly passed away in a tragic car accident, used the life insurance money to become the bar’s co-owner. By her mid-twenties she was firmly established as the town’s eccentric, and from that point forward was given the grace and leeway considered an eccentric’s due. If no one in the town was close to her, they were proud of her in their own way: she was living proof that Mt. Pisgah had and supported its characters.

When Wayne first started to exhibit signs of his extraordinary talent the fathers of the town banded together to foster his gift. A group of six dads, mine included, embarked on a mission of charity involving off-season trips to Mt. Pisgah’s batting cage—the aptly named Hitter’s Box—infield practice when the weather allowed, and the obligatory after-practice outing to Mickey Dees or wherever else hamburgers and milkshakes were served. Wayne never refused the workouts, but neither did he encourage them. He usually loafed through the exercises exhibiting such a fraction of his talent that the fathers, whose own sons were invariably in tow, either began to doubt Wayne’s abilities, or, absurdly, began to overestimate the talents of their own flesh and blood. My own father embarrassingly belonged to the second camp, and once spent a whole session of infield practice warning Wayne that I was going to give him a run for his money at shortstop the coming season. What was worse was that Wayne played along, smarting at his every error and putting on a show of increasing his effort level while not-coincidentally continuing to perform at a level even with mine. He even dead-panned it with me, stating soberly in-between grounders that he didn’t know how I’d gotten so good these last few months. I waited until my dad wasn’t paying attention and hissed at him to fuck off, which garnered a grin so wide that from that moment forward he dropped the charade and did his best Ozzie Smith impersonation, devouring grounders with such fluidity and grace that my dad was blessedly rendered mute.

In high school, the pressure intensified. Scouts attended games first by the singles, then by the fives, and later by the dozens, quietly laying claim to their own section in the Mt. Pisgah bleachers, and becoming, over time, a side attraction to the proceedings on the field. Wayne’s freshman and sophomore years the scouts were mostly from the collegiate ranks, but by the time I joined Wayne on Varsity the scouts had changed. The college men with their relatively informal ways of gauging talent had thinned, making way for professionals with increasingly serious demeanors, men who scribbled in their notebooks at exponentially higher rates and whose eyes never left the diamond—like FBI agents on stakeout, those guys—once Wayne jogged out to play. No one had to tell us who they were: Major League scouts. We teammates of Wayne harbored fantasies about catching the scouts’ attentions, thinking every slightly above-standard play we made in the field or every solid contact we made with the bat would trigger in the scouts the recognition that Wayne wasn’t the only talent on the diamond, but as the games went by and our shortcomings were invariably exposed we resigned ourselves to what had been our fate all along—watching Wayne’s shooting star ascend.

Through it all Wayne just kept being Wayne, though to the discerning eye, like mine, it seemed Wayne’s Wayneness became a bit more pronounced over time. Not that his output ever decreased—anyone who saw him field a grounder or swing a bat immediately understood why big league scouts lit the Mt. Pisgah bleachers like a resting murder of crows—but underneath his veneer of talent it seemed to me his insouciance towards the game was increasing. By senior year I swear the dude didn’t even know who we were playing half the time or what our record was or how close we were to making it to states. All he did was hit and field and talk about whatever academic novelty had him fascinated this week. Which was fine—I mean hell, what did it matter if he didn’t care if we won so long as he propelled us to victory? But all that changed once we made it to the state playoffs.

Because that was when Wayne started reading Vonnegut.

 

*

 

After practice the day before the 2nd round of states Wayne reached into his batbag and flashed Slaughterhouse-Five at me like a street corner vendor showing off his wares.

“This guy…” he said, referring to the dog-eared paperback like it was Vonnegut himself, “…is blowing my mind.”

I’m sure if I didn’t roll my eyes I did something of the like.

“I bet he is, you friggin’ weirdo.”

I’d always joked with Wayne about his geeky tendencies but this time there was a bit of scorn in my voice, like I was actually warning him against letting his nerd-boy fixations screw up the season for the rest of us.

“Dude was actually in Dresden during the fire bombings,” Wayne said, talking to me as if I had a clue what he was going on about. “He was a freakin’ POW. The only reason he survived was because he was in an underground prison cellar when the bombings started. So, the war ends, right, and he comes home and starts writing this sci-fi novel about what he experienced during the war, and it’s all about whether or not humans have free will, whether we’re destined to play a certain role in life no matter what. Billy, the dude in the novel, visits the planet Tralfamadore…”

“Wayne,” I said, interrupting him. Rollo and some of the other guys on the team were walking up on us, and I wanted to spare Wayne what dignity of his I could.

“Yeah, yeah, I guess you don’t want to hear it,” he said, right by half. Rollo walked by and pantomimed a choking victim, the closest approximation I suppose he could come up with to being forced to listen to Wayne ramble on about whatever. “Forget the book though, cause here’s the kicker…the novelist, Vonnegut, is still alive! And he’s coming to a bookstore in Greensboro Friday night for a signing!”

“Damn,” I said, my voice as dead as coffin-kept skeleton, “shame we’re going to be playing in the third round of the states on Friday.”

Wayne looked at me like I’d just broken the news to him about Santa Claus. “Nah man, we play games on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“Not during states we don’t. We win tomorrow, we travel on Friday.”

“But…damn…man…” Wayne sputtered, not wanting to believe. There was nothing to argue, though. The truth was the truth.

Neither of us spoke for a minute. Vonnegut, I supposed, was out there somewhere rasping his old man breaths.

“Say we lose on Tuesday…” Wayne suddenly postulated, his voice slipping into a register usually employed by conspirators at the birth of their plans. He looked at me with cohort-desiring eyes, hoping against all reason that I’d betray my lifetime-love of baseball and fall in league with him.

Or maybe he just wanted me to suggest that losing was in fact a possibility.

“Hey man,” I said, jutting my finger at him in my best schoolmarm impression. “Don’t even think…” It suddenly dawned on me to change tact. I dropped my finger, shook my head, and slumped my shoulders. “You’d really do it, wouldn’t you? You’d really throw the game just to see some dumb old author.”

Wayne’s eyes danced a nervous jig. What I’d accused him of was serious, an unpardonable sin. If word got out, well, throwing a game was Chicago Black Sox territory, the sort of offense that could derail even a blue-chip prospect’s chances. Wayne might have acted apathetic toward baseball, but I never got the impression he was about to turn his back on his future. Or, even if he sometimes considered it, he wasn’t yet ready to commit.

“Nah man,” he said, certain that he was on the terra firma of culpable deniability. “You’re way off. I’m just saying…we could lose. Not that I’d want us to, but we could.”

I fixed him with an unyielding stare. “Yeah, well, if we do, I sure as hell hope you go four for four. Because I’d hate to think how people would react if they found out you threw the game.”

“I never said…”

“Stuff a sock in it, asshole.”

And then I was gone. My bat-bag slung onto my shoulders, a wide arc that would have clipped Wayne on the turn if he hadn’t called upon his cat-like instincts and leapt clear. I’d like to say I hated him then, but the truth was I felt happy that he’d justified my anger at him for his lack of fealty towards the game. It evened us out, at least in my mind; he had talent, but I had devotion. For once we were equals. It was a moment I could hold on to forever: no matter how far his star ultimately ascended, I would always know in my heart of hearts that I cared more about the game of baseball than the prodigy I’d grown up with.

Later on I felt differently. Once life happened and I realized that walking away from the game had always been an option for me. I loved baseball back in high school—still have a crush on it today—but then again it had always been fun for me, never magnified to the level of life. Once I realized how the things we’re beholden tend to consume us, I guess I understood why Wayne wanted to go see Vonnegut.

His future was written in stone, but seeing Vonnegut was not.

 

*

 

East River High had a murderer’s row of a lineup, two Division-One prospects and a cavalcade of other hitters you might have mistaken the two college-bound guys for on any given day. McClatchy, our pitcher, sure couldn’t tell the difference, because the lot of them had their way with him the first few innings, plating seven runs before the end of the third. Wayne was our only bright spot, tripling in a walk in the first and belting out a moon shot in inning number three. He was on a workmanlike mission: no rally cap banter or infield chatter—that wasn’t his style—but no bat-bag book reading either. Whether it was a front or the genuine article I wasn’t sure, but for once he seemed completely focused on the game.

Down seven to two, we started our comeback. Coach yanked McClatchy for Williams, our junkballer, and though he didn’t dam up the East River torrent completely he did slow it to a trickle, allowing one per in the fourth, fifth, and sixth. Luckily, our bats came alive at the same time. We transformed into a troupe of Wayne-impersonators, picking up the slack while East River High kept the real McCoy under wraps. Their decision to intentionally walk Wayne the rest of way did them little good, because we simply supplemented what they’d taken away. By the end of the sixth inning we’d whittled their lead to one, ten to nine.

In the top of the seventh our dugout was a pen of wild animals, the customary cool aplomb of our teenage stations jettisoned for the enacting of rituals well-known to keep a losing baseball team alive. No one—especially the seniors—wanted to see the season end. Hats were turned and folded until they looked like Frankenstein-duckbills growing out of the tops of our heads, the dugout wire was besieged by hands holding on as if for dear life, and rally chatter reverted back to Little League days, chants invoking the baseball gods to do us this one last bidding.

The inning evolved, as late innings tend to do, into the bizarro sport baseball sometimes becomes when the pressure is high and players are striving for and against the final out. Our first batter struck out, but their catcher dropped the curveball that did the trick. In his haste to atone for his mistake he compounded it, throwing a bullet down the right field line. When the dust had cleared the tying run was at third. Getting him across should have been simple enough, but a safety squeeze went awry: their pitcher made a sprawled-out catch of a bunt pop-up and almost doubled off our runner in the process. A respite of conventionality included a strikeout and a walk, but the inning’s weirdness wasn’t done. With runners at first and third Rollo sent a screamer at the second baseman, but instead of parlaying his impressive body block of the ball into the game’s final out the infielder had a brain fart and checked back our man at third. The howls from the East River stands were immaterial. Wayne was up to bat, and there was nowhere to put him.

In the dugout I yelled words of encouragement like the rest of my teammates, but unlike them I closely studied Wayne for signs of perfidy, fleeting gestures that might signal his intent to throw the game. So far as I could tell there were none. If anything he looked more focused than I’d ever seen him before, which, upon consideration, was worrisome. A façade, perhaps, to cover the coming foul-up, or, worse: maybe he was actually nervous. Still, Wayne was Wayne, and watching him settle into the batter’s box in his customary manner—trench in the right cleat, trench in the left, loop the bat and cock the body—calmed my anxieties that we were about to witness anything different than what we’d seen innumerable times before.

The first pitch settled it. Wayne unloaded on a curveball—no pitch-taking Casey he—and sent the rawhide skyrocketing towards what seemed certain was its opposite-side-of-the-fence destination. So positive was the team of what we had witnessed—and how could we not have been?; to think otherwise would have been to deny our many recollections of the selfsame scene—that we began to file en masse towards home plate, Pavlovian dogs reacting to the sound of Wayne’s cracking bat. But then the front of the line stopped, and when I turned my head toward the outfield I understood why. The center fielder was not, like his predecessors before him, turned with his back to us, but instead was facing the diamond and settling under what appeared to be a long pop fly. The last brief moments of my baseball career rushed by me. The center fielder caught the ball, and the game was over.

No one blamed Wayne. Once the shock of the final out had worn off everyone remembered the paramount thing about baseball, which was that above all else it was a sport of averages, a truth even the most talented of players were beholden to. Wayne, like all prodigies, stretched the limits of what seemed possible, but even he inexorably succumbed to the laws of math. Inside the dugout there were backslaps of consolation, pardons of liability, whole and heartfelt expressions that the responsibility for the loss lay at the team’s feet, not Wayne. His status as a baseball demigod remained secure.

Me, I didn’t jump on the forgiveness bandwagon. I still wasn’t certain Wayne hadn’t thrown the whole shebang. Maybe it was unfair, but I figured I’d reserve judgment until after Friday. See if Wayne went to the book signing, and if so, determine for myself if he’d done so with a clear conscience. Then, if I was satisfied, I’d think about us being friends again.

Our bat-bags brushed against each other on the long, loser’s walk from the baseball field to the bus. He looked my way, and I couldn’t resist.

“Got anything good to read in there?” I snorted.He turned his head without saying a word.

 

*

 

Senior year after the baseball season ended was like the closing scenes of a movie you’d originally enjoyed but were beginning to think had gone on too long. The rigmarole of the school day—going to class, eating lunch, visiting the locker, going home—had become so obviously pointless that you couldn’t help but laugh at the frivolity of it. As a senior class we had become like spent kabuki players at the end of a production, our movements bleeding into farce.

Wayne’s final two weeks at school were undoubtedly more pointless than most. The June MLB draft, scheduled only ten days after graduation, beckoned, and with it fortune and fame. I’m sure going to school must have seemed like the most inane activity ever, but still he went, ambling down the hall with that slacker-athlete’s walk of his and taking care to avoid a run-in with me. If we had been friends once we were on different paths now, the date moved up a month earlier than expected.

I’d already learned that he hadn’t seen Vonnegut. Not because he’d told me, but because I had read about it in the paper. I had happened upon it by mistake, ironically because I was reading a cover story on Wayne. Turning the page from Wayne’s bored-looking mug on the cover to where the story continued on page A7 I glanced at A6, and there was the news brief that told me what I wanted to know. Vonnegut had been forced to cancel not only the Greensboro signing but also every other appearance on his book tour due to an unexpected illness.

Initially I experienced a touch of schaudenfreude.  I daydreamed that Wayne hadn’t learnt the news until he reached the bookstore, and then I delighted in imagining the look of disappointment on his face when he discovered the old fart had gotten ill. Serves you right, I thundered at my envisaged Wayne from the god-seat of my mind, and Wayne, rightly cowed, shrunk in terror at the sound of my voice. My imaginings had a sense of poetic justice to them. Wayne had robbed me of my dream of a state baseball championship; it was only fitting that the fates had robbed him of something equally as precious.

Two days before graduation Rollo threw a party at his parents’ lake house. The entire baseball team was invited, and Wayne, despite his longstanding indifference to high-school keggers, made an appearance. I was on my fifth beer when I approached him. I thought I’d catch him off-guard with a snide comment, but he, forever and always the one with superior instincts, anticipated what was coming and cut me off before I could say a word.

“You know Wormy,” he turned and slurred at me as I approached from his flank, seemingly employing the same talents to spot me that he did to read a curveball when it left the pitcher’s hand, “go ahead and believe whatever you want. Because the thing is—it doesn’t matter. That curveball was destined for that center fielder’s glove a long time ago. Just like I’m destined to play in the big leagues, and you’re not.”

And with that, he downed the beer he was holding, turned, and walked away.

Two weeks later the New York Yankees selected Wayne with the 14th pick of the Major League Baseball draft.

 

*

 

Nine years later Wayne was playing in the American League Championship Series for the Cleveland Indians.

Wayne had been something of a journeyman shortstop up to that point, a top-level prospect who had never quite lived up to his potential, but as the sportscasters were fond of pointing out during the telecast, this was the season he’d turned it around and become the All-Star caliber player many had long believe he could be. The only biographical item the sportscasters enjoyed discussing more than Wayne’s turnaround was his well-documented eccentricities: he was known in the clubhouse as “The Yogi of Yoga” for his pregame stretching routine, and throughout his career he’d given numerous off-kilter interviews wherein he’d divulged his love of, among other things, Woody Allen films and magical realism literature. Prior to this season there had been many in the baseball world who had blamed Wayne’s non-baseball related interests on his failure to live up to his potential, but now that he was hitting .337 the criticism had abated, and some had begun to suggest that his alternative personal life might in fact be the reason for his success.

As the series progressed Wayne was in top form, coming through in clutch at-bat after clutch at-bat. Watching him I was reminded of high school and how, until his fateful final plate appearance, you could count on him in the pinch like clockwork. It was almost comical watching his Cleveland Indian teammates rally around his talent the way we used to at Mt. Pisgah; his performance, now as it was back then, seemed the one constant in a game replete with variables.

The series was a barnburner. Every game was a promise of the finale, and sure enough, when Game Seven inevitably arrived, it didn’t disappoint. Cleveland took a 3-2 lead into the top of the ninth, but with two outs the Angels’ ancient Hall-of-Fame-bound outfielder belted a two-run homer to give the L.A. boys the lead. The home run was so dramatic that the announcers were ready to give the Angels the League Championship title then and there, but somehow the Indians rebounded to mount a rally of their own in the bottom of the inning, scrapping together two infield hits and a walk to load the bases with two out.

Fortune deemed that Wayne would be the batter. The announcers, understandably influenced by his series-long run of successes, began to write the prologue of his heroics during their at-bat babble, but where they saw a sure thing I saw a mirror image of the too-tense posture he’d exhibited before flying out in the state playoffs all those years ago. Watching him, I couldn’t help but wonder what activities Wayne had on his mind for the following week besides playing in the World Series. Maybe there was an author in town (not Vonnegut, of course, who was long dead) or maybe Wayne was eager to get a head start on his off-season Yoga routine. Before he swung the bat I envisioned the way it would end, a routine pop fly that would make the overexcited crowd cheer at contact but would break their hearts once the ball nestled into the outfielder’s glove.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. On the second pitch Wayne ripped an authoritative drive down the left field line, sending not only the first but the second runner across home plate with the arms-raised-to-the-sky pose of a Kenyan marathoner finishing miles ahead of the pack at the finish line. As soon as the runners had crossed home plate the camera cut to Wayne, but by the time it reached him the “Yogi of Yoga” was already at the bottom of a pig pile of Cleveland Indians.

The camera caught up to him in the locker room. Over the din of champagne corks popping and grown men whooping I tried to hear what he had to say. Unfortunately, it was impossible. The scene was such that even the announcer was having a difficult time hearing Wayne’s replies.

It was then that I noticed them. Above Wayne’s right shoulder, at the edge of the camera frame. A row of books, ten or twelve, lining the upper shelf of Wayne’s locker like a misplaced Barnes and Nobles bookshelf. They sat there in inanimate silence, incontrovertible evidence of Wayne’s Wayneness.

When the interview was over the camera panned away, but before it did I saw Wayne turn and, apropos of nothing, reach out and touch one of the books on its spine.

Maybe it was Slaughterhouse-Five.

Maybe it wasn’t.

Maybe it was fate that helped Wayne deliver the hit.

Or maybe he had simply moved on to reading different authors, ones with different views on destiny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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