Tommy Cole leaned in for the sign and shook his head for the third time. He stepped off the rubber and waited for Doyle Richardson to make his way to the mound.
"I give up, Cole. What do you want to do?"
"Let's throw Smoak another four seamer, D. He won't be looking for it."
Richardson's jaw dropped. "Are you crazy? Have you forgotten the last fastball you threw him nearly took your head off before it hit the scoreboard in center."
"No, and neither has he. Smoak knows I won't throw him another one, D; that's why he's sitting on my curve. If I throw that pitch anywhere near the plate he'll kill it."
The veteran catcher adjusted his face mask.
"Maybe I should give you this mask, just in case you're wrong and Smoak is hunting another juicy fastball."
Tommy rubbed up the ball as he waited for Doyle to resume his position behind the plate. He checked the runner on first, went into his stretch, and fired a four seam fastball right down the pipe. Smoak stood immobile as the ball hit the catcher's mitt like a rifle shot. He stared out at Cole, touched the brim of his cap, and was on his way back to the dugout before the umpire had finished pumping his right arm and bellowing strike three.
Richardson raced out to the mound along with the rest of the team. The game, the season, and Tommy Cole's college career were over. As he was being carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates, Cole wondered if this was the last game he would ever pitch.
* * *
Pop was waiting when Tommy came out of the locker room. "You don't look very happy for a guy who just won the big game by striking out an All American third baseman named Benji Smoak."
Cole shrugged. "Uh huh. Well, you can tell me about it back at my place. I've got some new cards I want to show you. We'll pick up a pizza."
Warren Cole had never been much of a player-- he told Tommy he had reached his peak in Little League-- but he had never lost his reverence for the game and the men who played it. In four years he had never missed any of his grandson's home games.
"These are good, Pop. How many baseball cards do you have now?"
Cole smiled. "Good question. Probably a couple thousand. I've sold some of my best ones to other collectors. Helped put your Dad through college. Speaking of college, let's hear it, Tommy. What's wrong?"
"Ah Pop, it's not great news. I spoke to the Boston scout. The Red Sox have me fifth on their draft board for pitching prospects. That means I'll probably be a mid to late round pick."
"How much is that worth?"
"Fifty thousand signing bonus, at best. Could be as little as ten grand if I go in the late rounds."
Cole looked at his grandson. "Let's hear the rest."
"The scout said Boston liked my mechanics and my poise on the mound. They rated my curve, slider, and change-up as plus pitches, and they were impressed that I could field my position and hit better than the average pitcher."
"But," Pop said.
"My fastball won't play in the big leagues, Pop, and we both know you can't teach velocity. Eighty-nine miles per hour will look like a beach ball to hitters used to seeing a hundred and two."
Pop shrugged. "You can spot the fastball and work on the movement. Guys like Maddux, Keuchel, or Moyer never blew anyone away, and look what they accomplished."
Tommy swallowed a bite of pizza and looked away. "That's not all, Pop. The scout said Boston wasn't sure I had the right stuff. That's why I'm not higher on their board."
"Not the right stuff? What the hell ...?"
"They don't think I can pitch inside because I haven't hit a single batter in four years. When hitters figure that out they'll take command of the plate and eat me alive."
Warren Cole frowned. They both knew that Tommy's reluctance to pitch inside stemmed from a pitch that got away in a high school game his senior year. The hitter couldn't get out of the way of one of Tommy's two seam fastballs that rode up and in and caught the boy on the side of the head. The kid recovered, but he never played another game and now required a hearing aid.
"So ... what's next?"
"I don't know, Pop. The signing bonus will buy me a couple of years, but the scout admitted that my chances of making it to the top were slim. Nobody can make a living playing minor league ball. I need fifteen more credits to graduate, but my scholarship is done, so I'm kind of between a rock and a hard place."
"That's just one more semester, Tommy. What about your Dad?"
Tommy snorted. "Come on, Pop; Dad is Dad. You know what he's like, too busy chasing the next client, the next dollar, to give me the time of day. I was never more than an item on his To Do list twenty-two years ago."
Warren said nothing because it was all true. The shame of being unable to write a tuition check for his only grandson's final semester of school washed over him. He needed every bit of his modest government pension and social security to make ends meet.
Pop got to his feet. "Let's get you back to school, Tommy. This is a day for you to celebrate. We can figure out the rest later."
* * *
"Tommy?" Warren rubbed his eyes and looked at his watch. Six o'clock. A.M.
"School's out and the dorms are closed. Dad said I couldn't come home since I'm a grown man now and need to act like it. I guess his job as a father is done."
"Well come in, come in. Jesus, Tommy, I'm sorry. You know you can stay here as long as you need. I never thought your Dad would do something like this."
Warren fixed them cereal and toast for breakfast. "Sorry, I'm not much of a cook. Your grandma tried to teach me but it didn't take. The good news is the pantry and refrigerator are full and I've got enough peanut butter and jelly to feed a classroom of first graders for a month."
Tommy watched his grandfather reach for several bottles of pills.
"I take these whenever I remember it. Getting old isn't all it's cracked up to be, Tommy, not when you have to watch your weight, your blood pressure, your cholesterol, and a thousand other things."
"I never knew it was cracked up to be anything at all, Pop."
"Ha, very funny. I've got some errands to run. The spare key is on my bedside table. Put it on your key ring. Supper's at six; don't be late. By the way, I think I have a solution to your problem. We'll talk about it later."
"Pop?... thanks ... for everything. I don't ..."
"I know, son. Welcome home."
The sun was sinking behind a bank of clouds to the west when Tommy unlocked the apartment door.
"Sorry I'm late Pop. Traffic out there is brutal; everyone's in town for graduation. I talked to the finance people in the admissions office about a one semester student loan or a work study program. No luck. Apparently those are geared toward deserving underclassmen rather than some low achieving senior who needs an extra semester to graduate. I guess you're stuck with me for a while."
Tommy hesitated and glanced around. Something was wrong; the apartment felt empty. Pop was never late.
He found him in his chair at the kitchen table. He could have been sleeping, except for the fact that he wasn't breathing. Tommy checked to be sure and then slumped into the chair across the table from his grandfather. He laid his head down and wept.
* * *
It was late when he got back to the apartment. His father was cutting short a business trip and would be home tomorrow to handle the final arrangements along with the myriad details that death seemed to require. He had sounded annoyed on the telephone.
Tommy was exhausted, but too tired to sleep. He wandered into the kitchen and saw an envelope on the counter that he hadn't noticed earlier. A small velvet box, something that would hold an expensive piece of jewelry, sat next to it. Tommy opened the envelope and removed a single sheet of paper.
Maybe I should have told you this earlier, but I thought you had enough to deal with. A year ago my doctor gave me six months to live. I told him then I had no intention of dying before my grandson finished his college baseball career. Guess I showed him.
Anyway, it feels like my time is about up. You'll probably be the one to find me. I'm sorry about that. Now, there are a couple of things you should know. I visited the apartment manager earlier today and prepaid my rent through the end of the year, so this place is all yours for the next 7 months. I also transferred two thousand dollars into your account. I wish it could have been more.
I'm sure you've noticed the little black box on the counter. I believe it contains the answer to your problems. You'll know what to do with it. One last thing Tommy: that Red Sox scout is a lousy judge of character and talent. You've got the right stuff, son. Don't you ever forget it.
Tommy dried his eyes and reached for the box. His hands trembled as he opened the top and looked inside. He forgot to breathe as he stared at the contents.
Impossible. Oh, Pop.
Whenever his grandfather talked about his favorite player it was in a soft, hushed voice, as if he were in the presence of God. There was nobody like him, Pop said. Nobody. His candle burned hot and fast, and then he was gone, leaving behind a trail of memories and a card.
Tommy closed the box and reached for his car keys. He had almost four months until the start of the fall semester. The fast food restaurants were always hiring. With a free place to stay and food in the pantry he could bank most of his paycheck. Along with the money Pop had transferred to his account it should be just about enough to cover his final tuition payment.
He put the box in his pocket. He would stop by the bank first and rent a safety deposit box for the Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card, the Holy Grail of baseball memorabilia, the card that had recently brought over one million dollars at auction.
Tommy's thoughts turned to the following spring. Somewhere out there would be a high school or college looking for a baseball coach with the right stuff. Pop always said when one door closes another one opens. Tommy closed the door behind him and hurried to his car.