With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ryan had delivered a masterful performance. The velocity on his fastball complemented the sweeping break on his slider to the tune of twenty-six consecutive outs. One final out stood between Ryan and a perfect game: no walks, no hits, and no errors. Perfection was within his grasp.
Using his forearm to wipe the beads of sweat forming on his brow, he massaged the ball in his hands as if to summon a magic genie to grant him a final wish. Taking his position on the mound, he simultaneously looked into his catcher for the sign while placing two of his fingers over the red seams, a familiar texture to the pads of his fingers. Shaking off the curveball called by his catcher, Ryan had settled upon the tried and true heater with an imperceptible nod on this one ball, two strike count.
The complex movements of a pitcher and his arm are unnatural to a human body. The amount of stress and fatigue imparted by such an unorthodox motion is rarely appreciated. With a deliberate and repeatable windup, Ryan delivered the ninety-five mile per hour fastball just above the letters on the batter’s jersey. The swinging piece of lumber passed just below its target, the ball exploding into the back of the catcher’s mitt with a detonating crack.
Teammates from every position on the field and in the dugout swarmed the mound like ants toward a single kernel of corn. Buried beneath the pile of jubilant compatriots, Ryan didn’t feel the weight of those people on top of him. He would have cause to feel that weight in a different way later. Right now, all he felt was euphoria. Perfection had been attained on the baseball diamond.
Looking out the window of his 7th floor apartment, scotch on the rocks in one hand, the baseball he had used masterfully earlier that day in his other, he began to feel the weight and pressure that never seemed to visit him on the mound. The burden was originating not from anything outside that window, but rather from within.
Looking at the dirt embedded in the leather cover of the baseball, he stared deeply at it, as if he were peering into a crystal ball, trying to make sense of his tangled emotions. He had just attained perfection. Why was it that he felt so incredibly empty after such a momentous accomplishment? Ryan had everything he had ever dreamt of: fame, fortune, the applauding cheers and support of a huge fan base. Baseball came natural to him. He had what some would call an innate knack for understanding the subtle nuances of the game. Coupling that with the pure athleticism of his twenty-nine year old body resulted in a storied set of records, accomplishments, and accolades.
Rising from the black leather chair, Ryan found himself gravitating towards the acoustic guitar delicately balanced against the wall. Picking it up, taking it in his hands, he courted it as a gentleman would to a lady in requesting a dance. The choreographed dance that took part between Ryan and this instrument was as beautiful as any strikeout he had ever recorded in his career, probably more so. As the melodic chords began to echo from the hole in the solid body, the weight was lifted from his shoulders. An air of lightness came over him. There was nothing else in the world, just Ryan communicating with his soul through these six strings and the manipulation of his fingers over the fret board.
This was a recurring theme in his life, riding the highs of public recognition in the baseball world, followed by the ensuing loneliness and solitude of his personal life. He was too tied to the routine, too accustomed to the numbness to recognize it for what it was: a whisper from within.
The careful knock on his apartment door surprised him. Was it another reporter looking for the inside story? Was it a teammate’s attempt to drag Ryan out into a nightlife that felt foreign to him? The big city lights and flirtatious women did not appeal to Ryan. Despite his renowned acclaim in the public’s eye, he was a very quiet and reserved individual.
Looking through the peephole, Ryan felt the mounting anxiety of an anticipated confrontation melt away. It was only Callie. Turning the deadbolt and opening the door, his next door neighbor smiled, “Hey Ryan, how’s it going?”
Callie was the furthest thing from a baseball fan, and Ryan took solace in that. She was his welcome buffer from the fanatical experience in that other world he frequented on a baseball diamond. Working in the local museum as a curator, she was a recluse from the same mold as Ryan, enjoying the quiet serenity of her domain among the artifacts she collected and displayed.
“I heard you playing next door. Thin walls, you know? It sounded like you could use some company.” Ryan and Callie had an intangible connection between them. It wasn’t a surprise that the melancholy way Ryan strummed his chords on that evening sent a message to Callie next door. Their relationship was not. and never would be, romantic in nature. It was much deeper than that, almost like a familial bonding between brother and sister.
“Come on in,” said Ryan as he stepped aside to invite her in. “Do you want a drink? I have some chardonnay in the fridge.” It was the bottle of wine that was shared between Ryan and his last attempted romantic endeavor pressed upon him by his agent. “Get out, see the world,” his agent had said in a suggestive way. The unfinished bottle was indicative of the date’s outcome. It wasn’t that she wasn’t attractive, in the physical or mental sense; he was just left without any compelling interest to pursue a relationship at this point in his life. There was too much else going on.
“Sounds good,” said Callie, “just a half glass for me though. I have to be at the museum early tomorrow morning. We’re procuring some wooly mammoth tusks from an archeological dig site in Arizona. It’s going to be a busy day of cataloging and setting up the new display.”
Grabbing two goblets from the cabinet, Ryan decided to join Callie, switching from scotch to wine. Pouring a half glass in each one, Ryan carried them out to the living room while taking note of the excitement in Callie’s voice. “You really have a knack for taking otherwise ordinary things and infusing a breath of life into them.”
Deferring the compliment as was custom for Callie, she shyly responded back “Well, you do too you know.” Taking a sip from his glass, Ryan responded “How do you mean?” He didn’t feel attached to anything other than his next scheduled pitching performance, even if that connection was contrived in nature.
“That guitar, your music, it’s beautiful, poetic, and moving,” she said as she casually pointed to the instrument that had resumed its position resting against the wall. Ryan was taken aback. His narrow view, blinders only allowing him to focus on the catcher’s mitt and throwing strikes, obscured the observation posed by Callie. When Ryan didn’t respond, Callie continued on, “Seriously, you have a gift, don’t you see that? Even on those days and nights that I don’t knock on your door, I can sense your emotions through the vibration of those strings I hear on the other side of the wall.”
Caught in a momentary flashback, Ryan recalled the very first time he picked up that guitar. He didn’t even know what to do with it. And yet, his hand took hold of it, gripped it, and strummed the strings like he had done it a million times before. Sometimes the things that come to us so naturally are taken for granted until someone brings it to our attention. His presence in the sporting world had received the lion’s share of his attention. Callie’s recent words fell upon him with a warm sensation that he could not explain. The words wrapped around him so as to not let the feeling escape.
Coming back to the present without a word being said, Callie shook her head while smirking, “What are you smiling about?” Ryan hadn’t realized that a smile had materialized on his face. “I don’t know,” he said, “let’s just say it’s good I have friends like you to help open my eyes.” The creaking sound from the neighbor’s door opening one apartment down could have been mistaken by Ryan for the door that had just been opened within him, Callie’s words being the key to unlock it.
“You know, we’re hosting an event in our cafe on Saturday afternoon to promote the new exhibit. A little music would spice it up a bit. I think it would be a great idea to bring your guitar and play a set during lunch. Heaven knows we could use a little energy to help excite our patrons about the new offering,” she offered with a mildly sarcastic grin, eyes rolling.
Ryan’s next start was scheduled for this Saturday. But, being a night game, he could certainly fit this suggestion into his schedule. As much for himself as for the help it would provide his friend, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, “Sure, why not?”
Seated on an unassuming bench near the center of the rotunda, the bubbling fountain provided a soothing backdrop to his melodic sounds. The tables situated around the fountain were filled with hungry patrons, black forest ham and Gruyere cheese sandwiches for the adults, gourmet peanut butter and jelly for the kids. The hum of conversation filled the cafe, sound waves bouncing and reflecting off the stained glass ceiling and columns supporting the architectural masterpiece.
With trepidation, Ryan brought the instrument into his grasp and began the familiar strum of his favorite song. In that moment, he could only hear the percussive sounds emanating from his instrument along with the trickling sounds of water meeting water in the fountain. At first, Ryan presumed he had retreated into his own private world, hearing only that which he was focused upon. Glancing up, however, he noticed that all eyes were on him. He had commanded the attention of every patron in that cafe.
As he began to play the final verse, the lyrics he sang brought a smile to his face. Two simple words, why not, had changed his life. Such an innocent statement in an otherwise ordinary day has the power to produce extraordinary results when we choose to embrace them. Inside those thirty minutes, Ryan forgot that he was pitching a baseball game that evening. He wasn’t concerned with giving up walks, stolen bases, or home runs. He was already home and he had no need to run anywhere.