LAKELAND, Fla. — His locker is isolated, off in the corner, next to a fire extinguisher. It is the kind of spot a rookie gets. He does not complain. This morning he’ll come by to grab his gear. Then he’ll board the team bus, and try not to let them know his heart is racing.
Come gather round dreamers. Today is the day. Climb into the pocket of Steve Searcy, a dark-haired, gap-toothed, 22-year-old pitcher who has been invited to the Tigers’ camp for the first time. A few weeks ago, he was with a friend in a Bennigan’s restaurant when they noticed a tall guy at the bar.
“Looks like Jack Morris,” Searcy whispered.
“He is,” his friend friend.
Should Searcy introduce himself? A rookie? Dare he? He swallowed. He introduced himself. He was thrilled when Morris, the star pitcher, had a few polite words of encouragement. And now, well, who ever thought? This afternoon, Morris will throw the first three innings against the Texas Rangers in the Tigers’ exhibition opener at Port Charlotte, Fla.
And Steve Searcy will throw the next three.
“How long have you been thinking about this moment?” he was asked Thursday, the day before he was to throw his first pitch against a major league team.
“How long have you imagined it?”
“I guess since I started playing baseball,” he said. “I think I was seven years old.”
‘They count to me’ Seven years old. Isn’t that about right? Seven years old, playing wiffle ball in a park in Knoxville, Tenn. Knoxville? Or Paducah? Or Hicksville? Or anytown? Isn’t that right?
Sure it is. For this is the daydream of every apple-cheeked kid who grips a ball and lets his mind go dancing. This is spring. The first pitches against major league hitters. How many of us have never fantasized about staring down a slugger’s bat, streaking the ball past him, hearing it thud against soft leather?
“You know, I’ve only seen one major league game in my life,” Searcy said, squeezing his glove. “I was in college and we were near Kansas City and our coach let us go see the Royals. It was awesome. I’d never played before more than 8,000 people and there were 40,000 there.”
He grinned. Awesome. And now he gets three innings. He jumped to the Tigers this year straight from Double-A, and Sparky Anderson has touted him as a possible fifth starter. Forget that these exhibition games don’t count. “They count to me,” he said.
All across this hot state, there are young arms, itching for a chance. Searcy is like a lot of them. Bright-eyed. Happy to talk. Calls his father every day to report on his progress.
“Are you staying at the condos like some of the players?” he was asked.
“No way,” he said, rolling his eyes, “I’m rooming with another guy at the Holiday Inn. We really can’t afford anything else.”
“Do you have anybody coming in for the game?”
“My grandparents, from Knoxville.”
“Well, I don’t really have a girlfriend. Maybe if I make some money, I’ll get one.”
A day for memories He looked over from his locker in the corner. Across the clubhouse were several of the other starters: Morris, Dan Petry, Walt Terrell. Each of them once had a day like this, their first three innings. Petry remembers his — “I did pretty good, and on the bus ride back, Mickey Stanley yelled over to our manager, ‘Hey! How about that Petry?’ It made me feel great.” But Terrell and Morris can only remember odd details, who it was against, a batter or two. Time rusts memories.
“Do you think you’ll remember this day 10 years from now?” Searcy was asked.
“Oh, definitely,” he said. No doubt Morris and Terrell once said the same.
Anything could be ahead for Steve Searcy. A career, a big contract, an injury, a release, glory, failure, everything, nothing. It doesn’t matter. Not
today. Today he gets three innings. Today there is a xeroxed sheet on the bulletin board in the clubhouse and his name is circled, and that means he gets on the bus. The guy with the locker in the corner.
“You know,” he said, “there’s been a lot of batting practice, a lot of ground balls, a lot of running to cover first base. But I’ll tell you. I’d go through it all again, just to get to this point.”
He smiled at those words, as if he’d wanted to say them his whole life.
Haven’t we all? CUTLINE