Owen Cross grew up with two loves: one a game, the other a girl. One of his loves ruined him. Now he’s counting on the other to save him.
Owen Cross’s father is a hard man, proud in his brokenness, who wants nothing more than for Owen to succeed where he failed. With his innate talents and his father’s firm hand guiding him, Owen goes to college with dreams of the major leagues—and an emptiness full of a girl named Micky Dullahan.
Owen loved Micky from the first time they met on the hill between their two worlds: his middle-class home and her troubled Shantytown. Years later he leaves her for the dugouts and the autographs, but their days together follow him. When he finally returns home, he discovers that even peace comes at a cost. And that the hardest things to say are to the ones we love the most.
From bestselling author Billy Coffey comes a haunting story of small-town love, blinding ambition, and the risk of giving it all for one last chance.
“In one evening, a single baseball game, Coffey invites us into a lifetime. With lyrical prose and aching description we join Owen Cross on a journey of love, loss, faith, the unexpected—and America’s favorite pastime.” —Katherine Reay, author of Dear Mr. Knightley and The Austen Escape
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
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June 5, 2001
We cross the river when I see in the rearview that the cabbie has something to say to me. His voice carries over the traffic and jackhammering and the bustle of the city: "You ain't got a chance, you know that. Right? My guys, they'll murder ya."
I meet the old man's eyes with my own.
"Always got your number," he says, spinning the last word in that peculiar northeastern way — numbah. "Know why that is?"
The cab trundles on. Across the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and an East River that seems at rest, its skin a brackish and polluted russet. Onward sits a mass of ball fields laid out in clover patterns. Infields more sand than dirt, grass the color of dying wheat. I think, Nothing can grow here but concrete.
I tip my head at the thin glaze of grime over the window. "How far's it?"
"Forget about it" — Fahgetaboutit — "I'll get you there."
A tangle of brown walls and roofs rises to our right. The cabbie calls it Mott Haven. I see the Harlem River winding like a dirty thread past the maze of cars to our left.
"Where'd you get the call from?"
"Bowie," I tell him.
"Yeah? For good?"
"Only tonight. Cup a coffee, then I'm back."
"Well, enjoy it, mister," he says. He's got me by thirty years at least, but I let it go. "Greatest place to be in the greatest city in the world, that's where we're headed. I coulda made it. You know? Could be you." He shakes his head. At the memory or the traffic, I cannot know. Then he adds, "Knees."
The road dips into what looks like a tunnel, plunging the cab into dim evening. Exhaust trickles through unseen cracks. I wonder how anybody can breathe here. There are no woods. No hills. The only mountains are made of concrete and windows.
"Here, coming up on the right. End of the tunnel."
The cab lurches upward toward sunlight. I press my head against the glass and the residue of a hundred hands. Through a copse of trees rises a curved façade of fading stone like a hand reaching heavenward. The size of it. I have never felt so far from home and so close.
"Yeah." The cabbie laughs a smoker's chuckle and tilts the cap back on his head. Watching me while maneuvering among cars. "You rubes. Crack me up. Haunted. You know? Whole place. Them ghosts rise up. Seen it a thousand times. October rolls 'round, they come. It's our year."
The façade winks from sight amid a jumble of buildings and roads and comes once more as we approach the exit ramp. Two words are writ large along the ring of its top, each letter dark blue and capped and spelling a dream. The green sign above the overpass says E 161 St Yankee Stadium Macombs Dam Br Next Right. The cab wheels rightward into the lane. At the curve, the building rises. Here trees and shrubs bloom in the June warmth.
I ask him, "You got any idea where I go?"
"'Round the side, that's where I'll take you. You ain't the first rook I hauled up here. Won't be the last."
At Ruppert Place he throws the gear to park and nods toward a mass of barricades. "Players' lot's over there, and that's their entrance. Should be a guy for you."
I pay him and add a tip. He lays a finger to the bill of his cap. Only the one bag is beside me, a change of clothes and my mitt. I open the door to a heat that steals my breath. The cabbie calls to me from a window he opens halfway.
"Good luck. Coulda been me, but you enjoy it. Just watch those ghosts, you hear? They always watching" — Dey awlways wahchin.
"I'll do that. Appreciate the ride."
I shut the door and the cab is gone in a yellow blur, the man back to somewhere in the city or back to LaGuardia, another fare and one more dollar made. The sun is high over the stadium. I sling the bag over my shoulder and realize I didn't pack a toothbrush. Skip, he'd understand. Mom would kill me for it if she were here. Mom'd moider me. But as I take in this place of hallowed ghosts and gods, it is neither Skip nor my mother who fills my thoughts. It is a girl I fear has followed me and a man I know is close.
"We made it." I tilt my face to the sun and the blue around it reaching higher and higher. I say, "You and me, we're finally here," but do not know to which one I speak, the girl or the man or both. I settle on both.
Where the barricades end I am greeted by a grinning man dressed in khaki pants and a white shirt. A lanyard badge bearing the Orioles logo dangles above a blue tie stained with a dollop of yellow mustard.
He shields his eyes from the sun. "Owen Cross?"
"Rick Mills, assistant to the traveling secretary. Welcome." He reaches out a hand that is swallowed to the wrist in my own. "Any problems getting here?"
"Good. Know it's short notice." He winks at me. "Let's get you settled. Clubhouse is this way, then I'll take you to see Mike and get your uniform. Flying back tomorrow?"
"That's what they told me."
"Well, cup of coffee in the Show's still a cup," he says.
I nod. "Sure is."
He leads me down the tunnel and through a door set into the wall that opens into a sprawling carpeted room. Sofas and chairs are set into the center. Lockers ring the sides, each wide enough to fit two people or even three inside. Dangling from wooden hangers affixed to the corners are jerseys bearing the names of players spoken of in the bush leagues with the hushed tones used for royalty. I spot Bobby Kitchen's jersey hanging near where two wide-screen televisions are set into the wall. The sight of that jersey sends a shiver from my toes to my head. It births an image of home and a childhood now long past, me and Travis Clements and Jeffrey Davis riding our bikes down to the 7–11 and sorting through the Topps and Donruss baseball cards we'd bought, me squealing when I came across one of Country Kitchen himself.
Though a little before noon on the day of a night game, already a few Orioles players are there. They mill about, joking and shuffling a deck of cards before shaking my hand.
"Here," Rick says, finger pointing to the last locker in the row. "Put you here since it's just for tonight. You can leave your stuff. Mike wants to see you first off."
I drop my bag onto the metal chair and follow him through the clubhouse to a narrow hallway where a door stands. Manager is stamped on the frosted glass. Rick knuckles the frame and enters, motioning me forward. The man behind a battered metal desk stands to welcome me. Mike Singleton has been the Orioles' manager five years now, a journeyman outfielder in the seventies whose claim to fame is a '79 World Series ring and the fact that he collected home runs off four Hall of Fame pitchers during his career.
"Thanks for making the trip up," he says.
"Thanks for the call."
He sits but doesn't tell me to join him. "Wish I didn't have to. Hate calling up guys for one game, least of all in June. Hate it more against the Yankees. But our backup catcher's on bereavement down in Tallahassee with a sick daddy until tomorrow, and, well." He studies me. "How old are you, son?"
"Twenty-nine," I say. Thirty next month, I don't.
Mike shakes his head.
"Rick'll get you suited up. We got Johnson throwing tonight. Pitchers' meeting's in an hour. Doubt you'll see any action tonight, Carter —"
"Cross," I tell him.
Mike waves that off as though my name doesn't matter. "You're insurance, nothing more. Brooksie's our catcher, and God willin' he'll keep in one piece until Lopez gets back tomorrow. You just do what needs done. Meet the guys, enjoy yourself. Get a taste of the Show."
"Skip or Mike'll do."
Rick leads me out and farther down the hall, past the video rooms and where the trainers are already at work on the players who need them. The equipment room is on the end. "Scooter," he says. "Been with us forever."
I am greeted by an elderly man with a face of white stubble who asks my sizes. Scooter repeats my last name back to me slow, letter by letter, as if Cross could be spelled a dozen ways.
"You come back, I'll have you ready. Take this for now." He hands me a hat. The fit is good.
"Welcome to the Show," he says. "You a preference for a number?"
"Nineteen, if you got it."
Scooter says "Nineteen" the way he spelled my name to me. "Nawp, ain't anybody using it. That your uni down in Bowie?"
"Nosir." I swallow hard. "Was my daddy's."
I get settled and greet a few of the players before sitting in on the pitchers' meeting. Jason Johnson is there. He is quiet and does not acknowledge me, too focused on the game. Brook Fordyce, our catcher, runs through the strengths and weaknesses of the Yankee hitters. Brooksie lets me sit near the front as he takes over the meeting. It is a mass of numbers and formulas and computer charts mixed with what can only be called superstition — according to the pitching coach, tonight's moon is near full.
"Pitch'm off the plate," he says to Brooksie and Johnson. "Keep'm off balance, but make sure to pitch'm low. Full moon makes the balls fly."
A new uniform and a fresh pair of spikes are waiting at my locker when I'm done. Number 19 across the back, Cross in a slow arc above. I change and follow a group of guys down the tunnel toward the dugout. They make fun of my accent, call me Hillbilly. I am informed of the best restaurants close to the hotel and where I can find the best women after the game. It does not matter I'm a seven-year busher. None care I'm here for a cup of coffee. They hold their own memories of sorry hotels and buses stinking with sweat and grime, truck stop food and showers that would leave you howling each time someone flushed a toilet. For this night, I am one of them.
The way is brightened by a wedge of blue sky framed by the tunnel's end and a section of the right field stands. Sounds reach out like angels calling me home — laughter and shouting, ball meeting leather. I find a spot at the end of the bench as the players separate each unto their own kind, outfielders and infielders and pitchers last. Breathing deep the smell of dirt and grass, the aged wood and steel of a place that until this day existed in my dreams alone.
I stand and walk toward the dugout steps. The new spikes clack against concrete littered with tobacco spit and empty husks of sunflower seeds. Where the field meets the dugout I stop and rest my hand upon the railing. Below me is a straight line of groomed dirt to one side and the dugout to the other. I wonder how many steps I have taken to arrive at this place. Years of fear and doubt and trying flood me, the faces of those I've lost along the way, but as I move from dirt to grass so thick and soft my spikes sink to the ankles, I know I belong here.
I have always belonged here.
Most of the veterans along with Mike and the hitting coach are still around when my turn comes for batting practice. They gather with reporters or lean their arms against the netting. I grab a bat and enter the cage with that quiet murmur surrounding me. Taking my stance in the box, set- ting the bat to hover over my left shoulder.
I think, The Babe stood in this spot. Gehrig. The dirt behind this plate belonged to Yogi and Dickey and Howard and Munson. But where I should look for the pitch, my eyes instead wander to the third deck of stands in the far right. I see my father's words scrawled on a long-ago note left next to his living room chair and a baseball for me to sign. My eyes pick up the pitch too late. I muscle the swing and catch the ball at the end of the barrel, sending it dribbling along the infield grass before it veers foul in a slow curve. Talk behind me falls to quiet. Heat builds at my back. I cannot bear to turn my head.
The BP pitcher reaches for another ball from a crate of dozens. I tap the plate and remember it's seventeen inches like Dad said, seventeen whether at the high school field in Camden or at Yankee Stadium, and at the next toss I feel that bubble of eternity building and hear the bat connecting with an echoing crack, the ball arcing high and long out toward right, landing deep in the third deck with an echo against a seat I barely see. Another there, another, chased by early fans wearing the battered gloves of their youth. Now a voice behind me tinged with humor, one I pray is Country Kitchen's but that may belong to a manager believing me too old and spent to be here:
"Dang, son, what they feeding you down in Double-A?"
I finish my swings and step out to nods and quiet cursing. Fans gather along the first row of seats above the dugout. A boy leans over the edge with his father close and holds out a pen and a ball peppered with scrawled names. He says to me,
"Sign my ball, mister?"
"Sure? Ain't worth as much as some a these other guys'."
But the boy says I'm a player and today I am. I take the ball and the pen he hands me.
"What's your name?" he asks.
"Owen Cross. How 'bout you?"
His daddy says, "Named him after his granddaddy's favorite player."
"Oh yeah? Let me guess: Babe."
The boy chuckles.
"No? Yogi? Thurman? No, wait — Lefty."
I find a spot where the seams of the kid's baseball come near together and scrawl Owen and part of Cross as the dad says, "Mickey."
The pen freezes in my hand. The boy grins, flaring some- thing in me, anger or sadness I cannot tell, they feel so much the same. Buzzing in my head.
"Your name's Mickey?"
The father looks away. He says, "There's Ripken," and louder, "Hey, Cal, Cal, sign a ball for my boy." He reaches to take the ball from my hand and sees it only half signed, tells me to hurry. I can't. I can't sign the ball because of the boy's name, hearing it said. "Hey, c'mon, man, it's Cal Ripken."
I hand the ball back and watch the two of them scurry down the line of seats to the far end of the dugout. The boy looks at the ball and me and I hear him say, "He didn't sign it all the way, Daddy," and hear the father say it doesn't matter, that guy's a nobody but it's Cal Ripken over here, and all I can do is duck inside the dugout and find my place at the end of the bench, murmuring the boy's name over and over again.
I was twelve when Paul Cross moved Momma and me from Stanley. That was June of '84, after Dad lost his job at the mill where he'd spent twenty years of his life after blowing his elbow in the fifth inning of a doubleheader against Virginia Tech. I was old enough to know we were dire but too young to comprehend its depths. Dad looked for work everywhere. He would have taken anything. That's how he ended up being the janitor at a high school sixty miles away in Camden and how we ended up in a tiny ranch house at what felt like the edge of the known world near the Shenandoah National Park.
He spent much of those first weeks learning the ropes down at the school, coming home every evening wearing a wearied grin and a county uniform of blue pants and a gray shirt that stunk of cut grass and floor wax. We'd go into the backyard and have a catch while Mom fixed supper, him the pitcher and me the catcher, working on my movement and pitch calling as I crouched behind a trash can lid set down as home plate. We ate mostly in the quiet tones that come with a family growing accustomed to a new life. Each of us recalling the day's events, Dad's at the school and Mom's at the job she found shelving books at the library, me telling of the friends I'd met, Travis and Jeffrey and the boys who gathered every morning at the ball field in town. In the evening Dad would retire to the spare bedroom down the hall where his old trophies and baseballs were kept, relics of a life Paul Cross felt was stolen from him.
I am able now to understand the weight he must have borne, the burden of so many golden yesterdays from which such a sour present was birthed. He was a hard man, my father, and from that hardness came a love for Momma and me that we mostly shriveled under. And he was proud in his brokenness. I believe that was why he turned us to religion after our move — Dad's way of seeking out what meaning could be had from what his life had become. Two weeks later Reverend Alan Sebolt baptized the three of us along the muddy banks of the South River. Jesus laid hold of Paul Cross with a vengeance I can only compare to my daddy's love of baseball. He spent a week in our shed making a wood- burnt sign that said As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord; he hung it above the front door and wielded the Bible as one would a truncheon. As for me, I could only suppose my dunking some form of punishment. I thrashed about in the current as the preacher's hands clamped down, wanting every sin washed away. Some creature, fish or devil, took a nibble at my knee.
Excerpted from "Steal Away Home"
Copyright © 2018 Billy Coffey.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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