LAKELAND, Fla. — This is a baseball story. It happened last week. The Tigers were about to play the Red Sox in an exhibition game. I took a seat on the wooden bench near the bullpen. The sun was hot and I pulled on a pair of sunglasses.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder.
” ‘ow you been?”
At first I couldn’t place the young man. He wore a white Tigers uniform, but he was not a Tiger. His skin was too soft, his face too young. Then it hit me: His name was Mark Ettles, and I had met him last August, during a weeklong stay with the Fayetteville Generals, the Tigers’ minor league club in North Carolina. I had gone there to write a series of columns and Ettles — who comes from Australia — was the first player I met.
He was a good kid, I remembered, a lean, dark-haired pitcher with a hard-work attitude. On my first day in Fayetteville, I gave him and his three roommates a ride home from the ballpark because it was raining and none of them could afford a car. That was life in the minors. We became friends.
“Mark, what are you doing here?” I said now. “Don’t tell me you jumped from A-ball to the big leagues.”
“Naw,” he said, smiling. “I’m still in A-ball. I’m with Lakeland now. We play across the way, so they sent me over in case these guys run out of pitchers.”
He looked around and tugged on his official big-league cap. “It’s great, isn’t it?” What will never happen, does
It was great. Oh, sure, Ettles was really just a warm body. But you couldn’t tell by looking at his grin. This was The Show. The major leagues. It was as if someone had opened the TV picture and let him crawl inside.
The game began. We sat next to each other on the bench. Occasionally, one of the big-league players would walk by, and I made sure to introduce Mark. Paul Gibson shook his hand. Dan Petry talked to him about fishing.
“Koinda funny, isn’t it?” Ettles whispered, with that accent. “One minute yaw down in the minor leagues, the next minute yaw here, rubbin’ elbows with the guys.”
I smiled at his excitement. Baseball is full of kids who come a long way to fulfill a dream, but not too many come from another hemisphere. Ettles studied the Boston batters, one by one, inning after inning. We both knew his
chances of pitching were slim. And tomorrow, he would be back in Class A ball, where you pay for your shoes and you get one helping of meat loaf in the cafeteria line.
But today, he was here.
“What would you do if they suddenly called you out?” I asked, nodding toward the mound.
“Gawd, I’d be nervous, you know?” he said. “But I’d love it. . . . Who knows? Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll go through a lot of pitchers.”
“Maybe,” I said. The memory will be cloudy
It got late. I had to make a phone call in the press box. I slapped Ettles on the knee and said, “I’ll be looking for you in the ninth inning,” but I didn’t mean it. You stick around this business long enough, you grow a little cynical of Cinderella stories.
But wouldn’t you know it? An hour later, under suddenly dark and threatening skies, the score was tied, 9-9, top of the ninth, and I glanced toward the bullpen — and there was Ettles, warming up.
I raced down in time to see him open the gate.
“You’re really going in?” I said.
“Yep, gotta go,” he said, smiling. Then he put on a serious face — lest the other guys think he was some giddy rookie — and jogged to the mound.
Well. By now you’re waiting for the perfect ending, right? He strikes out the mighty Red Sox and the Tigers brass says, “Wow! Let’s bring this kid up!” But that is not what happened. Instead, he got clobbered. Marty Barrett, the former World Series star, tagged him for a double. Mike Greenwell, a .300 hitter in the majors, whacked his pitch over the wall.
More batters. More hits. Ettles took a relay and threw to third — and the ball went into the outfield, and a run scored. The crowd moaned. This was a nightmare. By the time he finally got the third out, four runs were in, and Ettles, no longer a kid, trotted slowly toward the dugout.
That would normally be the end of the story. Except just then, a crazy thing happened. The skies opened and it began to pour. Fans scrambled for the parking lot. The base paths turned to mud. Sparky Anderson came out of the dugout, told the umpire, “Let’s call it,” and they did. No one complained. But under official scoring rules, the top of the ninth had to be struck from the record. The box score ended with the eighth inning.
Ettles took his glove and walked back to the minors. Officially, he never even pitched.
Opening Day is five days off. The newspapers are full of promising headlines and action photos of Jackson, Canseco, Gooden. But remember this: For every player who starts, there is a horizon full of guys who had their one inning of spotlight and got washed away by a storm.
Sometimes, the chance never comes again.
This is only a baseball story, I know, but I keep seeing that kid, trotting off in the rain. It doesn’t seem fair what life can do to dreams. It really doesn’t.