“The Profession of Baseball” by Victor Yipp

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“Good Afternoon, Cubs fans. We’re here with the newest member of the Cubs, Jason Chan. As you know by now, Jason came over last week from the Tampa Bay Rays in a multi-player trade. He was the American League speed king last year. Welcome to the Cubs, Jason!”

They were standing on the grass, midway between the Cubs third base dugout and home plate, engaged in a post-game interview. Real grass, Jason thought. And underneath, real dirt, dirt that didn’t jerk your ankle when you made a quick swerve on the outfield grass to snare a skidding ball.

The radio announcer motioned Jason a little closer to his mike. “Thanks. I’m glad to be here. Really.” He had to throw in the “Really.” Interviewers always welcomed a new player to the team. The subtext was, “Hey, are you okay with the deal, or are you pissed off that your former team dumped you?” Well, he wasn’t all that glad. The Rays were league champions last year. He was near the end of a five-year contract and was expecting to stay with the Tampa Bay team. But the Cubs had made an offer he and his agent couldn’t refuse. Business was business. So here he was.

He glanced into the stands. Fans waved their programs, a few shouting, “Chan! Chan! You’re the man!” He smiled. But his eyes lingered, in an area a few rows beyond the box seats near third base. Lower grandstand. Well, what did you expect? That they’d be there? His parents knew he had been traded to the Cubs. They could have attended the game, cheered him on. After all, he had sent tickets to them, box seats–just behind the Cubs dugout. He sighed.

But he did notice someone else in the stands, waving his program. Jason waved to his former high school coach.

The announcer raised his voice, retrieving Jason’s attention. “Sixty-six steals, you going to break that record this year?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry. Yes, I hope to.”

“Today’s attempt notwithstanding, of course,” the announcer replied. He intended it in a light, joking manner, but Jason knew the underlying message was: You’re still the new guy in town; no matter what you’ve done with other teams, you haven’t proved yourself here yet. Never mind that he spent only three years in the minors before he hit the big time with the Rays contract, becoming a Major League baseball player at the tender age of twenty-one.

“Yeah, I don’t know what happened. Lost my concentration, I guess.”

What the hell did happen?

* * *

In the third inning, following a slap single to right field, Jason had taken an aggressive lead off first base, his eyes riveted on the pitcher’s every movement, every slight tic of the shoulder, every minute pitch of his head. Aaron Roberts, a lefty, stared him down before he completed his windup, ready to send a slider to the next batter. Of course it would be a slider. Jason knew how Roberts pitched. But it didn’t matter. He was ready for the steal. Roberts knew this.

And Jason’s body knew, even before his mind did, when Roberts decided instead to whip a side arm throw to first base. Too late. Jason had already leapt back to the bag, his hand touching the base a full half second ahead of Roberts’ throw. Jason got up, brushed himself off. He grinned. Try it again, big guy. You’ll never catch me.

Roberts had to give up on him. He had to concentrate on the batter. He wouldn’t make another toss to first base. Jason sensed this like he sensed his legs, his calves and thighs tightening, then loosening, ready to dart to second base. Jason knew his pitchers. He had studied endless videos on Roberts, as well as many other National League pitchers he was bound to face with his new team. Pauses. Shifts in weight balance. Where the eyes pointed versus where the hands were headed.

So when Roberts committed himself to throw to the batter, even though he had a last-second chance to again snap the ball to first base, Jason sped off. He heard the pitch smack the catcher’s glove, heard the catcher scuffle, reach into his glove for the throw to the shortstop, who was covering second base. He felt the ball whistling past the pitcher, popping the shortstop’s mitt just after he hooked the base with his left foot. Too bad, Bub. Better luck next time.

“Out!”

“What?” Jason scrambled to his feet, face-to-face with the second base umpire. Actually, face to chest, for Jason was only five foot seven, one of the smallest men in the major leagues.

“S**t! I don’t get thrown out, don’t you know? Especially not with the lead I had.” That’s what he wanted to say. But he didn’t. He paused, taking a deep breath. He wasn’t about to be ejected in his first game with the Cubs. “I got here way the hell ahead of the ball.”

“Yep. Only problem was, you slid into his cleats, not the base.”

The shortstop placed his foot in front of the base, eager to demonstrate what the umpire  referred to. “You damn near took my foot off, Chan.”

I can’t believe it, he thought as he trotted off the field. I’ve stolen that base hundreds of times, the same way–it just didn’t make sense. How did I not see his foot right before I slid into the base?

Graves, the first baseman, patted his shoulder as he stepped down into the Cubs dugout. “Don’t worry, you’ll nail it next time.”

Jason viewed the replay on the dugout monitor. The ump was right.

* * *

“I’m sure it’s just first game jitters. And the team will be back on track tomorrow.”

Ouch, Jason thought. The announcer had to bring that up. The Cubs lost by one run. After his foiled steal attempt, the momentum had switched to the other team. He kicked the dirt. “Yeah.”

“This is kind of a homecoming for you, isn’t it?”

“Well,” he paused. S**t. Of course he figured this would be raised. They always bring in the family angle, home-town-boy-makes-good appeal to more than diehard baseball fans. But still, when it actually happens—“Yeah, I was born and raised here,” he replied, nodding with little enthusiasm. Just a mile south, in fact, he thought but didn’t bother to offer.

“And I understand, your parents still live in the house you were brought up in. They must be real proud of you now.” The interviewer glanced up at the box seats behind the Cubs dugout.

This interview needs to end, Jason thought. “Uh hum.”

He didn’t elaborate. After a few awkward moments, his interviewer got the hint.

“Well. Good to speak with you, Jason.” They shook hands. “Best of luck on your new career with the Cubs.”

Jason’s high school baseball coach bounded down the aisle, meeting him at the dugout. He moved pretty fast for an overweight, over-sixty guy.

“Coach Z! Damn.” They hugged. Jason stared at his coach’s thinning grey-heading-toward-white hair. “Hey. Where’d you get all this?”

“From years of trying to pound baseball sense into clueless teenage boys, what do you think?” They laughed, hugged again. “At least I’ve got one success story.”

After Jason showered and changed, they met for drinks at a bar several miles from the ball park.

* * *

Coach Zambrowski was a Godsend. Not only for perfecting Jason’s baseball skills. Coach Z had become a family friend, helping to smooth out tensions between Jason and his father, coming over for dinner, talking to his dad when he attended the occasional high school game, trying to get him to understand Jason’s passion for what his dad called “only a game.”

After they chatted about the trade and Jason’s career, Coach said “I visited your dad last weekend. You know, your parents aren’t doing well. Especially your dad. He had a stroke last winter.”

“What! He never told me. Every time I call them they always say they’re fine.”

“Of course they would. You know that.” Jason winced. “But you haven’t actually been home, in what, five years?”

Jason made a quick mental calculation. He was twenty-six. His dad was in his late forties when he was born, his mom ten years younger. That would make his dad around seventy-three or seventy-four. Jason was a late addition to his parents’ world.

He studied his beer bottle. “So? They looked okay last time I saw them.”

“He didn’t want you to worry,” Coach Z said. “He told me he didn’t want to bother you with his problems. He figured you were under a lot of physical and mental stress, keeping up your batting average, helping the Rays win the pennant. You know how he is.” Jason winced again.

“I just can’t believe he didn’t want to tell me about this. A stroke! Man, that’s life threatening.”

“Your dad’s from the old school. Doesn’t like to admit to his own problems. He keeps things inside. My dad was the same way. I didn’t find out about his lung cancer until it was too late.”

Jason sighed. “Yeah. I remember.”

Coach Z signalled the bartender for more beers.

“Look, I don’t want to interfere in your personal matters, but you guys, you know, you and your dad, never reconciled after you left home.” He paused and held Jason’s gaze. “I wish I could help.”

“My dad, he’s so…so rigid in his views, his outlook on life. You know. Wanted me to go to college. Become an engineer, a doctor, a ‘professional.’ Like, you know, other Asian kids. All I ever wanted was for him to respect my dreams. And I realized my dreams, didn’t I, I’m successful, I make more money than what I can spend. I even offered to buy them a new home. Why can’t he just accept me for what I am? Why can’t he, he be proud of me for what I’ve become, not for what he wanted me to be?” Jason took a deep swig. “Jesus, Coach, haven’t we gone over this before? My dad’s never going to change.”

Coach Z. gazed at his beer bottle. He looked back at Jason. “Yep, you’re right. He’ll never change.”

Jason reddened. He knew what Coach was getting at. But why should he do anything? He wasn’t the one in the wrong. Jason was at a loss for words.

“Oh, by the way. That botched up stolen base this afternoon?”

Jason grinned. Always the coach.

“Your head was tilted toward third base. Not where it should be. Looks like you were distracted.”

“S**t.” Jason slammed his fist on the table, rattling the beer bottles. “How about signing on with the Cubs as a coach?”

“Nah. I’d rather sign up for retirement.”

They embraced as they left the bar.

“Jason?” Coach Z said. Jason turned. “Cut him a little slack.”

Jason shook his head as they parted.

Jason couldn’t get into the groove over the next few games. He was thrown out on another two steal attempts. He fumbled an easy grounder that had dropped right in front of him. He struck out twice in one game. And worst of all, Cubs fans started booing him. S**t, something had to change.

This is kind of a homecoming for you, isn’t it? That interviewer’s words pressed down on Jason. They visited him on the fielding error, the strikeouts. Nobody had welcomed him home. Well, a couple of buddies, guys he had known since grammar school, had attended a game. And of course, Coach Z.

Thursday was an off day. Jason walked the mile from his Lake Shore apartment to the ball park, planning on getting in some extra batting practice. He looked up at the marquee. “Wrigley Field.” And underneath, “Home of the Chicago Cubs.” It had not changed since he was a child.

What happened to those tickets he had sent them, he thought. Box seats, prime location, not like the seats he and his dad sat in, many years ago. They were in the grandstands beyond third base, rows and rows up from the field. Jason had taken his mitt to the games, hoping to catch a foul ball. He took his baseball cards, the ones with Cubs players on them, hoping to catch a signature after the game. They walked to Wrigley field, he and his dad, one mile up on Clark Street. He sensed the stadium blocks before they arrived. Felt the breeze from Lake Michigan. Felt the ivy on the outfield walls, felt the hard plastic seats, the cracking of peanut shells, the smack of a Sammy Sosa home run rocketing over the left field bleachers.

He could still feel his dad’s hand, warm and hard, shepherding him across Addison Street, through the gates, into the stadium. They had gone to lots of games. His dad was already retired when he was a young boy.

He remembered the day he told his father about trying out for the high school baseball team. His father was in his rocker, smoking a cigarette, reading the newspaper. “You’re too small, son. You’ll get hurt. Let the big boys play. Baseball is for them, not you. You should go for the chess team. You’re good at chess. Use your brains. You won’t get hurt.”

Jason seethed. Of course. All Asians are small. Does that mean we don’t even try? We go for the safe stuff? Why do you have to be this way?

It all went downhill from there. Not on the baseball front, though.  That night he went back to his room and sulked. But the next day, he whacked his bat at pitches, peppering hits past the infield. He scrambled around bases. He shagged grounders. He hustled. He made the team.

Jason was high school all-city shortstop three years in a row. His father eventually came around to his games, even bragging about him to his neighbors. But he also pushed Jason on the scholastic front.

“You keep up your grades, son. Make the honor roll. Do good on your ACT exams (Jason knew this meant scoring in the top five percent of all students). Then you can stay on your baseball team.”

“Yeah, Dad,” he had replied, with little enthusiasm.

“Education. That is what counts. Not sports.”

Jason went along, for awhile. He was a good student. He made his grades, his college exam scores. But when it came time to apply for college, he faked it. To avoid his father’s badgering, to buy time, he sent out applications to all the universities his parents wanted him to attend. Harvard, University of Chicago, Stanford. The applications were not filled out. Jason was about to violate the Holy Grail of Asian American culture: he was not going to college. He was not going to be a “respected” professional, a doctor, a dentist, an engineer. He was going to be another kind of professional—a baseball player. That was his passion.

At dinnertime on a breezy May Sunday, unable and unwilling to avoid it any longer, he decided to tell his parents. But he was terrified. His Asian friends weren’t much help—“You’re making a mistake, Jason.” “Just do what your parents want.” “I hate to say it, but it’s just too hard to go against them.” “Look, they work their tail off for us, the least we can do is make them proud.” “Hey, why not go to college, get your engineering degree or whatever. They’re paying for it anyway. Join the college baseball team. They win, you win.”

He blurted out, “Mom, Dad. I’m sorry I have to tell you this. I decided not to go to college. I’ve been meeting with a Major League scout. They’re offering me a contract with a minor league team, the Nashville Tigers.”

His parents were stunned.

“No,” his father said. “You can’t. I won’t allow it. You’re going to college. Baseball is just a game. It is not real life. My son is not going to be a baseball player.”

“Dad, about college,” Jason stumbled over the words. He had to admit that he had not really applied. They deserved to know the truth, he decided, and not from someone else.

“You lied.” His father stared him down.

“I, I couldn’t help it, Dad. You and Mom were pushing me so much. I didn’t know what to do. I know you have expectations of me. And…”

“This is a mistake. I’ve told you before. Baseball is not a profession.”

“But look at how I’ve done. All-city team. Led my school to the playoffs. This is what I want to do, Dad. It’s in my blood. My coach even agrees with my decision. Didn’t he tell you?”

“It’s not his decision to make. High school baseball is not the major leagues. You won’t make it. You’ll fail.” His father paused, shook his head. “You’re our only child. Such a disappointment.”

His mother nodded. “Think of your future, son.  There’s still time. How about if you re-apply. Tell the schools you made a mistake. It may be too late for this year, but next year you can get in.”

“Yes,” his father agreed. “We’ll tell that scout you changed your mind.”

But Jason had already left the argument. He knew what he had to do.

* * *

 

“Hey. Jason.” Owen, the Cubs equipment manager, opened the gate beneath the large Wrigley Field sign. “Coming in? I saw you staring at the marquee.”

“Owen,” Jason replied. “Yeah, of course.” He walked up to the gate and paused. “I, I was just remembering going to games as a kid. I walked here with my dad, since we lived just a mile south.”

Owen smiled. “You’re lucky.”

“Huh?”

“I grew up in Arkansas, far from major league baseball. I didn’t see my first game until my twenties. Now, when I see all these kids in the stands, with their dads, moms, whoever, I kind of wish that I was one of them. You know? There’s nothing like going to a baseball game with your dad. Nothing.”

“You have any kids, Owen?” Jason said.

Owen’s expression changed. “Nah. Unfortunately, my wife and I just…couldn’t.”

Jason sighed. “Sorry, man.”

Owen held the gate open. Jason gazed at Owen, at his grip on the gate handle. He took a deep breath. “Hey look. I, I forgot something. I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll be here till five.”

Jason turned and walked down Clark Street. He had only a mile to go. He passed shops, older housing stock, bars and restaurants of his youth. Some were missing, such as the cigarette/newspaper stand on the corner of Clark and Belmont. On the way to the ballpark, his dad had picked up a cigar to smoke on the way. Invariably, the cigar would be halfway finished by the time they arrived at Wrigley Field. His father snuffed out the ashes against the stadium wall before they went in for the game.

On a side street, Jason noticed some kids playing catch. The ball dribbled away, toward him. He picked it up, tossing it to the boy nearest him. The boy stared back at him. Was he wondering why his favorite ball player was wandering down Clark Street in jeans and a tee shirt? Jason turned, continued walking, hiding his smile.

There it was. The house he grew up in. A mini-Victorian, built when, in the late 1800s?  His parents had lived there for the past forty years. The clapboards were still painted in dark, steel gray. So was the front porch. The wooden steps creaked as you walked up. The house was still so creepy-looking. Kids were always attracted to it on Halloween nights. Half were too scared to dare knock on the front door.

Christ. Jason reddened, embarrassed. How could they live here, in this old dump, with a lot the size of, of, why, his spacious apartment on the lake had a bigger footprint.

Five years ago, the day he had signed his major league contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, he flew back home. Surely, he thought, his parents would be happy for him.

They were not. When he arrived, walking through the front door, it reminded him of the feeling he had when he was a teenager and his grandfather had died. His grandfather’s ashes were in an urn on a mantel in the front room. All their Chinese relatives and friends had gathered to mourn him.

That same feeling hovered over him as they sat down to dinner. His parents had served his favorite meal, a whole white fish, baked and bathed in a gingery, sweet and sour sauce, with an aroma that took his breath away. His father said they had heard the news of his contract signing on TV. He had even congratulated him. But if there were an urn present, Jason felt, it would contain the ashes of a college diploma.

It was the last time he had been home.

* * *

 

Jason walked up the steps and tried the front door. Unlocked. Jesus, what was the matter with them? He stepped inside. A mustiness greeted him, the smell that came with keeping your windows shut year round and never vacuuming the threadbare carpets.

He stepped into the hallway and looked to his left, into the front room. Everything had shrunk, or so it seemed. The hallway was half as long as when he was a kid, the front room was tiny, the furniture was miniature. Jason squinted his eyes. It was early afternoon, but with the shades drawn, he could barely make out his mother, sitting in her rocker, her eyes glued to some daytime soap opera on the portable TV just two feet in front of her. She did not appear different from the last time he had seen her. She turned and met his eyes. She teared. She grabbed the arms of her rocker, slowly pulling herself up. She creaked when she stood. Her head leaned forward.

“Mom, let me help you.”

She waved him off as she crept the ten paces separating them. She was shorter, but that was because she was hunched over. But why was she hunched over? She had always carried herself proudly, head up, back straight, gliding from room to room. Now she leaned against him, her head against his chest. Her thin, bamboo like arms gripped his waist, surprisingly tight. She smelled, repulsing him for a moment.

“Good God, Mom. Haven’t you taken a bath lately?” He knew the answer, of course. “I’ll get a home health aide to stop by. She’ll be able to help you get in and out of the bath.”

Jason’s mother said nothing, just kept her arms around him. He felt her labored breathing against his chest. She moved her head slowly back and forth. He felt the dampness of her tears. He shuddered, taking several deep breaths, holding back his own tears, until the shuddering subsided.

Her arms finally loosened. “Stay for dinner, son.” She spoke into his chest, haltingly, as if she were having trouble getting the words out.

“Well, I don’t know, Mom…” Jason stepped back. “Where’s Dad?”

She nodded behind her. “Where do you think?”

In their tiny back yard, tending to his garden.

As he stepped through the kitchen to the back door, Jason noticed the Cubs tickets, sitting in the middle of the kitchen table.

His dad had all manner of plants, flowers, herbs. Jason didn’t know one from the other. They were neatly arranged in a three-foot-square plot just to the right of the back steps. Five more steps and you’re in the alley.

“Hi, Dad.”

His father sat on a five-gallon can, bent over, a trowel in his hand. He inched up his head and pointed it in Jason’s direction. He nodded. “Son.” His voice was low, raspy, his breath, labored.

My God! Jason was shocked at his father’s appearance. His face was thin, his eyes blood shot. He had lost almost all his hair, hair that used to be so rich, so black, just in the few years since he had been home.

Jason squatted next to his father. He touched the soil. Thick, moist, rich.

“Plants grow good here,” his dad said.

Jason dug his hands into the soil. He rubbed them together. His hands now matched his father’s. He scanned the perfectly trimmed, ten foot square lawn of their back yard. “The grass looks great, Dad. Just like Wrigley Field.”

“It’s better.”
Jason smiled. He stood.

His father reached up to him. Jason hesitated, then held out his hand. It was like lifting a young child, a child who creaked and moved in slow motion.

They walked up the back steps together. His father’s hand was warm, shaky but still strong.

“Um, Coach Z told me about your stroke. I’m sorry to hear about it.”

“Coach Z. Nice man,” his father said. He continued, “Doctor said I need to exercise. He said walk. Walking is good exercise.”

“Yes,” Jason agreed. “I walked here from Wrigley Field.” He paused and took a deep, cleansing breath. He cleared his throat. “Remember when I was a kid and we walked to the ball park together?”

He father nodded. So did Jason. They stepped into the kitchen. Dinner was ready.

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