It was the last game of the summer, and fall was nipping in the air, even there in the Florida panhandle.
Henry dreaded the last out even more than usual — the onset of winter felt more dire than ever as his first year of retirement came to a close. So he settled back with his bag of popcorn to enjoy the ninth inning, hoping to see one more big play from the center fielder.
The young man didn’t disappoint.
With the home team holding onto a slim lead, the visitors’ big slugger came to the plate and smashed a ball deep. The center fielder turned and ran toward the fence with the crack of the bat, put a foot on the wall, and leaped over the top of the railing to snag the ball, which looked like a sure home run.
In the stands, Henry pumped his fist and cheered. This young man reminded him a lot of himself … “Hustling Hank Harris” they called him when he made it to the major leagues when he was just nineteen. He played as hard as he could, all the time.
The fans loved him, but his body couldn’t stand up to the all the dives and collisions and hard swings. By the time he was twenty-one, his knees hurt all the time. By twenty-two, he was out of baseball and in the army.
He didn’t have any regrets, though. In the service, he became an engineer and met Liv, and their life together had been beautiful for the past fifty years.
Still, he missed the game most days and was glad to have a chance to savor a few hours under the late summer sun, no matter the level of competition. The local barnstorming team was made up of factory workers looking to blow off some steam, a few former athletes turned pencil pushers just trying to stay in shape, and one or two young guys who still had dreams of going pro.
Most would be lucky to even be on the team the next summer. Life had a way of getting in the way of dreams. Henry knew that.
He stood and waited at the outfield gate where the players exited to head to their cars after the game.
“That was some sort of hustle you showed out there, son,” Henry said as the young center fielder trotted by.
The boy smiled and stepped to the side to let the other men pass. A few slapped him on the shoulder. Two or three gave him a “see you next spring” or “great game” as they disappeared into the parking lot.
“Thank you, sir,” the young man said. “I just really enjoy playing the game and want to give it the proper respect.”
“Well, you’re doing a fine job of it,” Henry said. “I look forward to seeing you next summer.”
He patted the lad on the back.
“Thank you, sir,” the center fielder said again, then continued on his way.
“Oh,” Henry said, holding up a finger. “I almost forgot to ask you. Where’d you learn to step up on the wall like that to make a catch?”
The boy stopped and looked back, smile even broader than before. “I learned that from my grandfather,” he said.
Henry nodded. “Well, you don’t see that sort of thing very often.”
“Gramps learned it from watching his favorite player, back before the war.”
Henry raised his eyebrows. “Who was that?”
The boy shook his head. “You probably never heard of him. Didn’t play long, but to hear Gramps tell it, he was really something. A real hustler! In fact, that was his name — Hustling Hank Harris.”
Henry shrugged and managed a small grin, corners tinged with sadness. “You’re right, son.” The old man turned toward his own car. “Never heard of him.”