The One That Got Away
Seth Zimmerman (17 years old)
Posted Thursday, September 06, 2012
The writer is a high school student at the Beech Grove Academy near Dover, England. He spent his middle-school years in New York City, the setting for this fictional story.
After twenty years of scouting for the Yankees organization, Jerome Sanders could measure the potential of a prospect after one swing. His job as a world traveller in search of talent had led him to players of all ethnicities and social backgrounds. He'd observed Japanese kids swing shiny Mizuno bats (discarded after the most invisible dents); he'd witnessed Dominican lads field ground balls with milk cartons; and he even recalled signing a Puerto Rican kid who'd learned to pitch by hurling rag balls at palm trees.
Whether on Astroturf in Korea, a beach in Cuba, or a sandlot in Chicago, Sanders evaluated prospects for the same virtue: did they have the humility to be torn down, in order to be rebuilt? His own roots played a part too: he was generally faster to sign a poor kid, the one who had made baseball his life, than someone who had other options. As a South Bronx native, he had known adversity. Success had come only after gruelling work and a lucky break. His paid goal was to keep the Bombers on top – the "most winningest team in history." His personal dream was to help minority hopefuls become a part of that legend. In short, he longed to see a Yankee lineup that represented the people – not just the wealth – of the city.
Stubbing out his Newport and crushing it with his foot, Sanders settled his bulky frame on a pigeon-splattered park bench and arranged his "homeless bags" around him in preparation for his next assignment. He was wearing a creased hoodie with a rip down one side, distressed jeans and scuffed Timberlands. He'd decided long ago not to copy the scouts from other clubs who, dressed to the nines in team paraphernalia, drew so much interest by their mere presence that every player was on tenterhooks before the first pitch was even thrown. No wonder the exceptionally talented upstarts would stiffen up and overreach. Often, this meant that the bench warmers would prevail over the normally consistent players; these tended to fold under the pressure.
Sanders twisted the lid off his bottle of Pepsi, adjusted his shades, and casually turned his attention to Brandon Smith, the 17-year-old Norman Thomas High starter the Yankees had sent him to take notes on today. He clearly had an arm: his fastball pounded the catcher's mitt loud enough to attract interest from the dog walkers near the backstop, who had yet to shed their scarves even though the temperature was approaching seventy. Conditions were as perfect as could be expected for Central Park in late April; in a month the grounds crew would be unable to keep up with the heavy use; the infield would be a mess, and a routine ground ball to short could foil even the most experienced shortstop.
The fifth inning concluded as the Brandeis second basemen flew out to right. "Smitty" glanced at the score sheets in the coach's hand, already aware of what they read. Six more outs, and he could be the author of the first perfect PSAL game for years. He resumed his spot away from the bullpen (the rest of the roster didn't want to jinx it, either) and noticed out of the corner of his eye that the homeless man with the Pepsi was still looking his way. Self-conscious by nature, Smitty always knew when someone was watching him, especially when he pitched. What did the guy want? Did he realize he was watching the boy The Daily News had called – just last Sunday – the most promising teen hurler in the tri-state region?
Half an hour later the game was over; the sun just slipping below the highest towers on Central Park West. Sanders got up, stretched his shoulders, and lit another cigarette. He watched, amused, as he pondered how to separate young Smith from his ecstatic teammates in an inconspicuous way. The fact that he had surrendered a walk in the sixth seemed to have done little to dampen his spirits, or his teammates' thrill at winning the game.
Sanders sighed as the jostling crowds made their way toward Eighth Avenue. Would he get his chance to make his pitch? As they entered the subway station, the team finally dispersed: several white kids lingered near the hotdog stand on the street corner; most of the blacks and Latinos seemed headed for the uptown trains. It looked like Smitty alone headed for the downtown platforms.
Sanders trailed him at a distance. The station was unusually empty for a Saturday afternoon. Sanders waited in the shadows as Smith purchased a Metrocard, and tried to ignore the stare of the nosey platform attendant, who was no doubt suspicious of both him and his bags. It was nothing new: the homeless were always assumed to be engaging in criminal activity. Did it ever cross their minds that an affluent kid like the athlete in front of him was just as likely to be carrying something illegal? It just went to show that while New Yorkers liked to think of themselves as a most confident breed, they couldn't help getting nervous when it came to cats from the ghetto.
In an attempt to avoid the possibility of contact with what was obviously a Central Park junkie watching him, Smith sought the solace of his iPod. He diverted his gaze as the man settled into the wooden seats, but then glanced at him again. It couldn't be – yes, it was. It was that same homeless guy who'd been sitting at the game. Was he stalking him?
Smitty contemplated his escape options while a bored rat, oblivious to the unfolding drama, crossed a murky puddle between the rails. What was delaying the C train? He consulted his watch for the fifth time in as many minutes before remembering that the MTA always chose weekends for track repairs. How convenient – no wonder the station was virtually empty.
Sanders was the first to break the uncomfortable silence. "I've been watching you all afternoon, young man. I got information that could change your life." This was a line he often employed when courting a potential draftee. No one would pass up the opportunity to play in pinstripes, but there was a telling correlation between those who had it in them to thrive as a rookie under strict league coaching, and those who would stoop to converse with a random bum. This was not to say that major leaguers – definitely not Yankee players – were selfish or arrogant as a rule. But Sanders (another legacy of his upbringing in the projects) preferred to recruit young men who were more likely to use their fame and fortune for good causes – a potential donor to the "Make-A-Wish" Foundation.
Smitty wheeled, startled. He had lived in the city long enough to know that strangers don't generally engage in conversation with each other, especially while waiting on some lonely train platform. What was this guy offering? Drugs? And what was this about changing your life? He was obviously the one who needed a change. Smitty was about to open up on him, but thought better of it. Regaining his composure, he resumed his vacant stare down the tunnel, pretending he hadn't heard.
Sanders continued. "You got sound mechanics, a fastball with movement, and a sneaky curve. But you need to be a little less aggressive – I know that's not what high school pitching coaches say. But minor leaguers will pound anything up and over the plate."
Smitty wasn't sure he had heard right. Funny this homeless guy knew so much about baseball. It didn't seem to go with his being such a creep. Well, maybe he had nothing better to do all day than watch kids like him playing in the park.
Smitty turned to the lights illuminating the darkness at the far end of the tunnel. At last, the local – his train – came to save him. He boarded it without another look, and with him went the chance he'd always dreamed of.
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