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A Single Happened Thing photo

It was the summer of Monica Lewinsky and Mark McGwire and Armageddon. I was on a short business trip to Philadelphia—a handholding, as it is known in the office. I was sent, via Amtrak, to coddle one of our midlist writers, a frighteningly serious young man who had written a frighteningly serious biography of Benjamin Franklin in which the author claimed to have uncovered letters and papers confirming the latent homosexuality of this particular founding father. In every other respect, his was a good, thorough, scholarly account, the first reappraisal of Franklin’s life in more than a decade, and yet the only piece people seemed to want to talk about was this homosexuality business. I might have known, but that would have painted me a shade brighter at book publicity than I actually was.

The plan, originally, was for me to escort the author to his interviews and appearances, and to be available to accompany him to dinner that evening, but he begged off on dinner. I understood; it must not have been an easy thing to spread such salacious information about a favorite son like Benjamin Franklin, especially to an audience of Mummers and Brotherly Lovers. To have to spend an awkward night on the town with his lowly publicist was perhaps more than he might have thought contractually expected of him.

So there I was, blessed with an evening alone. No Nellie. No girls. No social obligations. Happily, the Phillies were in town, so I taxied out to Veterans Stadium for what was left of a rare midweek doubleheader— the by-product of a tropical hurricane that had downgraded its way up the eastern coast. I was not alone in this. The resurgent Phillies were suddenly respectable, sitting unobtrusively in the vicinity of .500, and 25,000 fans would head out to the park on their own version of the same idea. The Phillies’ ace, Schilling, was scheduled to pitch the first game against the strangely uniformed Arizona Diamondbacks, and the forecast called for a clear night sky, with temperatures in the low sixties and the clean scent of recent rain all around.

It was a tremendous August night for baseball, and as I strode through the tunnel leading to my section of upper deck I was hit by the bright green of the stadium carpet, the soft-tilled reddish brown of the dirt around the bases, the too-soon klieg of the pre-dusk lights overhead, the miniature sameness of the ballplayers below. One misstep brought the familiar feel of a squeezed pack of Gulden’s underfoot, flattened to the concrete floor—and, now, smushedstuck to the bottom of my shoe.

The first game was nearly wrapped when I arrived, with Schilling putting the flourish on a four-hit, fourteen-strikeout performance.  I used the time between games to record the starting lineups for the nightcap and to consider that the only missing ingredient was a pennant race, some sort of final accounting for these late-summer games. The Phillies were a good young team on the come, but they were well off the pace, and the D-Backs (or Snakes, as the desperate-for-a-nickname sportswriters had quickly taken to calling the already nicknamed upstarts) were at the caboose end of the National League. It would have been nice if these games meant something in the larger sense of the phrase, although they meant just enough to the couple dozen fans in my section, approaching the right-field foul pole. We’d sprinkled ourselves among the few hundred seats as if we were contagious, splaying our legs across the empty rows in front, spanning our arms across the seatbacks at our sides. We were, a lot of us, alone, and I wondered at that, but then I realized, of course we were alone, for who but the lonely take in a meaningless late-season doubleheader, midweek, in the cheapest seats in the house? Without our children or our friends as props, we showed ourselves as we truly were: baseball fans, middle-aged, with little to amuse us beyond these ritual doings on the fake grass of an obsolete stadium.

(Aw, hell . . . we were very nearly obsolete ourselves.)

And then, second game, bottom of the third, two outs, Glanville on second and the purposeful young slugger Rolen at the plate, the skies opened up and swallowed my world whole. I don’t mean to overstate, but I can’t think how to tell what happened next without some sort of drumroll. (Cue the man in the lighting booth!) It happened before I could realize it. Rolen kept fouling off Arizona’s kid pitcher, Sodowsky, and the count held at two balls and two strikes for the longest time. Understand, those words, the longest time, are carefully chosen, for the count held at two strikes as if it were freeze-framed. It is difficult to recreate here the tension of those long moments, the feeling that we were all being led down a path never before taken. It was a palpable, edge-of-the-seat sort of feeling. It was, I have no doubt, the single longest turn at bat in the history of the game. At some midpoint in the duel, I made a note to kick myself for not keeping a pitch count or setting my stopwatch at the outset, for it soon enough seemed to be some kind of record stalemate. There must have been ten foul balls by the time I sparked to what was happening, and another ten before the half-full ballpark began to recognize the tension, and another ten after that before the scattered few of us in our section of upper deck were standing with every pitch.

I was counting now. We were all counting now, and Rolen’s hot bat only added to the drama. He had gone three for four in the first game, with a home run and five runs batted in, and he would go on to drive in another four runs in the second, and he had us cheering. Oh, did he have us cheering! The bat was like a magic wand in the young slugger’s hands, an extension both of his meaty forearms and his very will. Whatever Sodowsky threw at him, Rolen was ready. A fought-off pitch down the third baseline, a looping slice just out of the first baseman’s reach, a nothing nubber beyond the batter’s box. It was a moment hasped by time and put on pause—or, better, a series of such moments, and if it weren’t for the now rhythmic movements of pitcher and batter, the scampering of ball boys to retrieve the foul balls, the sleight-of-hand soft-toss of a new ball from the bottomless pockets of the home-plate umpire back to the pitcher . . . well, if it weren’t for the odd, monotonous choreography of the dance, the place might have seemed pretty much still. There was movement and no movement, progress and no progress, haste and calm. We stood and cheered, sat and waited, stood and cheered.

Counting off another tally of five in my scorebook, I thought: Isn’t it just like the world, to stop spinning and leave me reeling?

Ten minutes, things went on in this way. Fifteen. We fans flashed each other looks, as if to confirm that we were all in on some quiet piece of history. Instinctively, we sought out our ticket stubs, fisted into the pockets of our jeans, and thought they might now be worth something. In this, the second game of an otherwise inconsequential doubleheader, in a sport bounded not at all by time and hardly at all by space, we were caught inside the longest stretch of time between a single happened thing and the next happened thing. It was like stepping into a strange fold in the universe . . . and we were desperate for proof of our being there. We indicated our watches, our programs. We shrugged as if to say, “Damned if I know.” We took each other in, for there weren’t so many of us in the upper reaches of the right-field stands that we couldn’t imprint the faces around us in the midst of such an uncommon unfolding. We wondered how this moment would be recorded, if it would be recorded at all, if we weren’t perhaps imagining it.

One guy in a tight-fitting “Cubs Fever: Catch It and Die!” T-shirt pointed frantically to his radio headset, which I understood to mean a kind of confirmation. After all, a not-happening thing such as this not-happening thing could not possibly not happen without someone in our ears to offer play-by-play. Otherwise, where’s the context? How could we ordinaries ever grab the importance of what we were experiencing without the express written consent of the Philadelphia Phillies and Major League Baseball? Who were we to judge on our own?

Finally, twenty-two minutes in, and thirty-seven pitches into my late-in-the-game count, Rolen connected on a screaming rope down the right-field line. Actually, to set off what happened next with a qualifier like finally is to cut it short, for Rolen would take another swing before doubling to the gap in left-center. But it was this penultimate foul ball, the thirty-eighth (by my count), that put my story into play—and those of us in the upper reaches of the right- field stands on alert.

Truly, amazingly, the ball could not have left Rolen’s bat fast enough. We have all, by now, seen McGwire’s record-wounding sixty-second later that same summer, a soon-to-be-fabled drilling that made the left-field fence at Busch in about a heartbeat. This bullet off Rolen’s wand reached our section of upper deck in the same rush, and I barely had time to think it was a good thing we were all still standing. I would have had no chance at it if I had been stretched out in my seat, as I had been just a few beats before. As it was, I had a good few rows to myself, and I quick-stepped over the row in front of me to the railing and extended my bare right hand into the coolwet night air. Reaching, I thought of the dozens of nights I’d spent out at Shea, Iona in tow, willing a foul ball our way so I could see the smile on my daughter’s face when I made an athletic grab and presented her with the souvenir.

(Or, more likely, so she could barehand the ball herself—and then of course I’d be the one left beaming.)

Man, was that Rolen ball hit! I might have even closed my eyes to it, I can’t recall, but it was my play to make, my moment to step from these other lonely upper-deckers and take my bow. In that one protracted instant, I allowed myself to regard my catching this one foul ball as a sure thing, and I fast-forwarded to the other side of what might happen. I could see the ball in my hands, the fans below cheering my surprising agility in catching it, the players themselves looking skyward in admiration. In a flash, I could see myself shaking off the sting in an exaggerated pantomime, wanting to let the rest of the world know that it hurt to make such a dramatic catch, but not so much that I couldn’t laugh it off. Not so much that I couldn’t roll with it and collect the attaboys! of my upper-deck brethren like we were all in on some small, secret triumph, like this sort of thing happened to me, near me, in relation to me pretty much all the time. There I’d be, magnified on the Diamond Vision scoreboard, pumping my fists in excitement.

It was all so right there.

And then it was gone, for just as I stretched and leaned over the railing as far as I could stretch and lean over the railing, just as I relaxed my hand and waited for the ball to find it, just as I allowed the rest of the scene to write itself in my head, another arm outstretched my own and caught the ball.  My ball. My one chance to shine.

From nowhere, it seemed, a tweed-coated forearm hauled in my prize. I thought, Damn! Nothing’s ever mine. My disappointment was perhaps more than it should have been, to have lost out on a five- dollar souvenir. And yet I was overwhelmed by a deep, suffocating regret. If you must know, I was devastated. There had been no one around, certainly no one in arm’s reach, and yet somehow I was beaten, for that is how these moments left me feeling. Beaten. Duped. (Stunned!) There had been, I gathered, a remarkable catch, judging from the ovation the gentleman to my left was apparently receiving for making it, but the next moments remain a muddle. Soon, though, I could see there were backslaps and colorful congratulations and even an awkward high five, received by the strange interloper with the kind of graceless unfamiliarity that belied the athleticism of his great grab.

I turned and considered the man with the ball. I’d spent all that time taking in the few faces around me in the stands, but I’d never seen this man before. He was about my age and height and weight, although he carried himself as if from someplace other than the middle of the height and weight charts. He wore his medium size as if it mattered. He seemed to be about five-eight, but he had a powerhouse of a body. (There were muscles, I could swear it, in his small hands!) Surely, I would have noticed his clothes. He was dressed like a throwback—a tight-knit tweed suit (three-piece, far too heavy for August), a felt bowler, spats. And if not for the clothes, the rest of the package might have stood out on its own. The man’s face was dominated by a smartly handlebarred moustache and framed by the kind of sideburns Neil Young used to wear, back when he was singing about how everybody knew this was nowhere, trimmed into an arrow shape at the end, pointing to a small mouth and an unusually bad set of teeth. He tossed the ball up and down in his remarkably small right hand, like he was looking for a game, and then he stopped to reflect on the weight and heft of his prize, the hand-sewn stitching, the official markings. It was as if he had never seen a baseball before.

“That young fellow from the Philadelphias,” the man said pleasantly, looking up from the ball and indicating the batter’s box, which now seemed about a hundred years away. “He swings the hickory like all creation.”

The words hung in the night air, as if from a different time.


image: Aaron Burch