It had been a cold and rainy day the last time Steve set foot on the Lincoln High School baseball diamond.
He was the star of the team, a big hitter who could catch anything in center field, and a fire-balling pitcher who mowed down opposing batters like dry grass. He was also arrogant, entitled.
So, when Coach Brady had called for the team to take two more laps around the field to end practice because they weren’t hustling to his standards, Steve just plopped down on the mound and started popping sunflower seeds into his mouth.
It took about three seconds for the old ball coach to notice the lollygagger, and he was having none of it.
“Patterson, get off your rump, and get moving with the rest of the squad,” Brady had called from his station near first base.
Steve ignored the command and popped another seed.
Brady stormed toward the mound and planted himself two feet in front of his star player. He bent forward and growled, red-faced, into Steve’s grill.
“You think you’re special, boy, but you’re a member of a team … and I can replace you like that.” Coach snapped his fingers.
Steve could hear the other players chuckle as they ran by, and he waved a mocking hand.
“Have some respect for your teammates, son.” Brady’s voice softened, and he placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Get your hands off me old man.” Steve cast sullen eyes at his coach.
Brady stood up straight and squinted his steely eyes. “This is your last chance, Patterson. Get out there now, or you’re off the team.”
“Buzz off. I’ll be there on game day.”
The coach pursed his lips and nodded. “Maybe in the stands. But not on my team. You’re out.” He reached forward and snatched the hat off Steve’s head. “Turn in the rest of your uniform to the school office in the morning. I’ll let Mr. Carter know about your decision as soon as I’m done here.”
Brady turned and walked toward the dugout. “Round it up, boys!” He circled his hand in the air, and the team started filing in behind him.
By that time, Steve was on his feet and running after the coach.
“Hey, you can’t do this to me, Coach! This team is nothing without me!”
He caught up to Brady just as the first several boys clomped in from the outfield. Steve grabbed the coach by a shoulder, but several of this teammates lined up on either side of Brady. Steve pulled his hand back and looked at the other boys’ faces, all of them blank and hard.
“Fine,” Steve said. “Fine, you want to lose, go right ahead. But you haven’t seen the last of me, I promise you that.”
With that, he walked back across the diamond, stooping to pick up his bag of sunflower seeds along the way. He kicked the pitching plate as headed off toward third base and the parking lot beyond. Later that night, he found a huge hunk of the rubber stuck in his cleats.
Steve’s eyes watered now as he crouched down on that same mound and examined the rubber — a big chunk was missing, the crater weathered around the edges, browned with the years.
The rest of the field told him the same story — rusty bleachers, cracked and crumbling concrete blocks in the dugout walls, holes in the outfield fence.
Stanton County had been hit hard as factories closed down or moved out of the country in the two decades since Steve graduated, and the school system had felt the brunt. It wasn’t until an old teammate posted a picture of the baseball diamond on Facebook that Steve started to realize just how bad things were.
He stood and rubbed his arms with his hands. It was a cold and rainy Saturday morning in early March, just the sort of day Coach Brady would have reserved for one of his “character-building” workouts.
“You finally ready to take your laps, Patterson?” Steve snapped his head toward the ancient and gravelly voice barking from the first-base dugout. An old man in a baseball uniform shuffled toward the field.
“Well, guess you kept your word after all, huh? You told me I hadn’t seen the last of you.” Brady chuckled. “Took you long enough.”
Steve walked toward the man he hadn’t seen in over twenty years. “Coach, is that you? I can’t believe you’re still — .”
“Alive?” Brady broke in.
Steve smiled. “No … it’s just, I didn’t know you were still coaching.”
The two men stood just a few feet apart now. “I’m the only one who would do the job for free,” Brady said. “And even that price seems to be too much for the tightwads running this place.”
“I know times are rough.” Steve stepped forward and put a hand on the coach’s shoulder. This time, there were no teammates to break up their conversation. “I think I can help, Coach.”
“Nah, we don’t have an opening for a prima donna.” Brady growled.
Steve nodded and dropped his hands to his side. “That’s fair. But it’s been a long time, Coach.”
The two men looked at each other for few seconds. Finally, Steve continued.
“You know, losing my spot on the team cost me a scholarship.”
Brady frowned. “No, I didn’t know that.”
Steve held up a hand. “It was my fault, Coach. I was totally in the wrong. I just thought you should know, because losing my ride meant I had to find other ways to pay for college. It made me work hard, figure out what I really wanted. “
The coach grunted, shuffled his feet.
“It also made me realize you were right — nobody owes me anything, and I’m not special. I’m not perfect, Coach, but I’m not the same selfish little boy you sent to the showers that day here on this field, either.”
Brady looked around him. “Well, you’re right about that — it was this exact field. Nothing at all has changed about this place since you left, except everything got older, more rundown.” He chuckled. “Including the coach.”
“That’s how I think I can help, Coach. You changed my future right here on this diamond, and I want to pay back that debt, just a little.” He motioned toward the dugout. “Let’s get out of this rain for a minute — I want to show you something.”
When they were standing under the rusted tin roof, Steve handed Brady a slip of paper. “It’s not much, but my business is doing well, and I think I can help more down the line.”
Brady’s eyes bulged when he saw the amount on the check. “Son, this is more money than our program has seen from the school corporation in the last ten years. We can buy new uniforms AND resurface the entire field!”
Steve nodded. “Glad to hear that.” He looked the coach up and down. “Now, just one more thing.”
“What’s that, son?” Brady asked.
“Do you have your stopwatch with you?”
Brady reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the old digital unit, same one he’d used when Steve was in school.
Steve nodded. “Start it now, Coach.” He stepped out of the dugout and jogged toward the outfield. “I still owe you a couple of laps,” he called over his shoulder.
The old coach clicked the start button and watched in wonder as a forty-year-old man lumbered toward the broken-down outfield wall.
“One thing’s for sure,” the coach said out loud, to no one in particular. “That kid really is special.”
Sometimes something happens and we think it’s the worst thing that could happen to you. Funny how it turns out to be the best thing ever.
Sure is a funny old world we live in sometimes, huh?