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It was one of those moments when Brian felt as if baseball was close enough for him to reach out and touch. Like his hands were around the handle of a bat. Or like he was on the mound, his fingers making sure the seams of the ball felt just right.
One of those moments when he could close his eyes and imagine he was a big-leaguer himself.
One of those moments, really, when he realized why his dad loved the game the way he did. Loved it too much, according to his mom.
Loved it more than anything or anybody.
Bottom of the ninth inning at Comerica Park, the Tigers having just scored to tie the game, Willie Vazquez, their shortstop, standing on third and representing the winning run.
And now came the fun part for Brian Dudley, not just because the Tigers had this kind of shot at a walk-off win, but because Brian got to think right along with Davey Schofield, the Tigers' manager, who was perched on the top step of the dugout near the bat rack, on the home side, the third-base side, of Comerica. This was when baseball felt like the greatest reality show in the world.
Willie, the fastest guy on the team and one of the fastest in the American League, was on third because the Tigers' third baseman, Matt Holmes, had just singled him there, bringing home the tying run with the same swing of the bat.
Curtis Keller, the Tigers' center fielder, was at the plate. Curtis could fly, too. And he had some major pop in his bat for a little guya good thing, because now all his team needed was a fly ball deep enough to score Willie to win it.
The scary part? For all of Curtis' talent, and his ability to hit the ball hard from the right side against any kind of pitching, lefty or righty, he struck out a lot.
Willie Vazquez liked to joke that Curtis Keller's strike zone had its own area code. "Sometimes Curtis swings and misses when I'm at the plate."
If Curtis were to strike out here, then the Tigers would have two outs, the winning run still on third, a sacrifice fly no longer a possibility. And that would leave things up to Mike Parilli, the Tigers' catcher, who was working on a seriously ugly 0-for-4 day. So what would Davey do?
Brian knew all the stats on Curtis, inside and out, the way he knew the stats on all the Tigers players. Not because anybody had made him learn them. Not because it was some kind of course at school. Brian knew stats because he wanted to know. Because his head was full of the numbers of baseball, all the numbers that not only held the sport together, but connected one season to another, one era to another. Kenny Griffin, Brian's best bud, liked to say that if you could ever crack Brian's head open like a walnut, decimal points would come spilling out.
Now, sitting here at Comerica, feeling like he had the best seat in the house, Brian tried to put those numbers to use the way he knew Davey Schofield would.
They should squeeze, Brian decided.
All Tigers fans knew how much Davey liked to play "small ball," liked to bunt and move runners and steal bases, especially because this year's Tigers didn't have the kind of home-run power they'd had in the past. The only problem with playing small ball right nowand it was a big problem, actuallywas that Brian knew that even he was a better bunter than Curtis Keller.
More than two months into the season Curtis still didn't have a single sacrifice bunt, even though he'd been batting number two in the order pretty much since Opening Day. He'd tried a few times. Six times to be exact, Brian knew, and he'd failed to advance the runner each time. Twice he'd even managed to strike out, which wasn't easy when you were bunting.
Yet Brian was sure the bunt was still the right play, especially against the Indians' big right-handed closer, Rafael Fuentes.
Because the other stat bouncing around inside Brian's head like a pinball was that Curtis had never gotten a hit off Rafael Fuentes, was 0-for-14 lifetime. And Mike Parilli, kneeling there in the on-deck circle? He was 1-for-20 against the guy.
If Curtis didn't get the run home, and get it right now, they were as good as in extra innings already.
"Lay one down," Brian said out loud, almost like he couldn't help himself.
From where he sat he had a perfect view of Davey going through all his signals. Those signals went to the Tigers' third-base coach, Nate Vinton, who then flashed them to Curtis. Willie didn't need the middleman; he was staring into the dugout at Davey the same as Nate was. More baseball stuff that Brian loved, the play having this kind of drama even before Rafael Fuentes delivered the ball to the plate.
Brian was never bored by any of it, whether he was at the ballpark or watching on television. He realized he wasn't just thinking along with Davey, he was thinking along with the Indians' manager at the same time as he brought his corner infielders in and left his shortstop and second baseman in their regular spots, knowing a ground-ball double play would get them out of the inning, provided they could double up a speed guy like Curtis.
It was the first midweek afternoon game since school had let out, and for Brian, this felt like the real start of summer, no matter what the calendar said. Summer was something you could hear and feel all around you at Comerica, filled with all this noise and all these possibilities and all this baseball. Yeah, this was summer.
Curtis got into the batter's box. Rafael Fuentes was ready to pitch. This close to the field, Fuentes, at 6 foot 4 and 245 pounds, looked as big to Brian as Shaquille O'Neal. Fuentes liked to pitch from the stretch and was doing so now, eyeballing Willie Vazquez as he juked around off third base. One more drama, Brian knew, this one between pitcher and base runner.
Fuentes stood there so long, as if frozen, that Curtis stepped out of the batter's box and went through his whole routine of getting ready againloosening and refastening his batting gloves, then taking a practice swing.
Brian knew that some people hated all the starts and stops of baseball, all the breaks in the action. Not Brian Dudley. He wasn't ever going to be somebody who came to the ballpark and as soon as he got there acted as if he had somewhere else to be.
When he was at the ballpark, Brian was always where he wanted to be. Sometimes he felt more at home at Comerica than he did at his own home.
Curtis dug back in. Fuentes began his pitching motion, checked quickly one more time on Willie, then blew strike one right past Curtis, high heat, pure cheese, Curtis swinging right through it. The pitch measured 97 mph on the huge scoreboard towering over left field at Comerica.
Lay one down, Brian thought again.
The first and third basemen were still in at the corners, had to be, just to make sure. But they had seen Curtis swing from his heels the way everybody in the ballpark had, like he was trying to hit one all the way to Canada.
Fuentes' right arm came forward again. Another fastball. But Curtis Keller had dropped the head of the bat.
Not the kind of bunt they taught you in Little League, where you squared for a straight sacrifice and practically made an announcement to the infielders that you were bunting. No, this was the way you bunted, even with the third baseman charging in, when you were bunting for a base hit, when you deadened the ball and came racing out of the batter's box like a sprinter in track coming out of the blocks.
Curtis actually laid down a beauty, the ball dying like a toy car that had run out of batteries as Willie Vazquez, coming the other way, blew right past it.
Gus Howell, the Indians' third baseman, made a great play on the ball, flung it sidearm, nearly underhanded, toward home plate. If the runner had been a slow one, the throw might have had a chance. But it was Willie who slid across home plate with the winning run and then bounced right up, clapping his hands, yelling, "Yeah! Yeah, baby!"
You had to be close to the field to hear him because all around, from every corner of the ballpark, came the happy roar of Comerica, the sound baseball made when your team won.
The Indians were already walking off the field. Game over. The Tigers in the dugout were pouring out onto the field. Even though it was only June, everybody already knew it was going to come down to the Tigers and the Indians in the American League Central this year. The Tigers had just swept the first series of the season between the two teamstheir biggest wins of the young season.
Brian was on his feet now.
He saw Davey Schofield grinning at him from the other end of the dugout.
"Lay one down?" Davey said.
Brian said, "You heard?"
Davey said, "Man, I think the peanut vendors heard. Now I even got a kid knowing all my brilliant moves before I make 'em. Must be because your father played."
"Must be," Brian said, the sense of celebration suddenly leaving.
"Where's he now?"
"Japan," Brian said.
Davey motioned to Brian, letting him know that it was all right for him to join the celebration on the field.
"You wear the uniform, you're part of the team now," Davey said, putting an arm around Brian's shoulders.
Brian walked that way with the Tigers' manager toward home plate, picking up Curtis Keller's bat when he got there. Doing his job.
As far as he was concerned, the best summer job ever invented by mortal minds. Batboy for the Detroit Tigers.
He was part of the team now.
He still couldn't believe he'd gotten the job, over all the other kids in the Detroit area who wanted to spend their summer getting paid to be at Comerica for Tigers home games.
Now that he'd been doing it for a week, Brian realized he'd never really understood as a fan what the job meant. The hours you had to put in every dayeight usually and sometimes nine. All the work you had to do in Equipment Room No. 3 next to the Tigers' dugout before you ever got near the field. Before you could even wear your uniform with "Batboy" on the back instead of a number.
He'd always just assumed that being a batboy meant collecting foul balls and handing players new bats if they broke one.
He never knew how many pine tar rags were required for every game, how many rosin bags. He didn't know that the Tigers actually employed four batboys: one for the Tigers' dugout and clubhouse, one for the visitors' side, one each to sit down near the stands behind first and third base to collect foul balls.
Brian Dudley, rookie batboy, didn't know that one of his most important jobs once the game was over would be shining shoes for the next game.
He was the son of a pitcher, one who'd survived fourteen seasons pitching in the big leagues, and yet he didn't have a clue what batboys actually did.
And wouldn't have cared a lick if he had.
The way he didn't care that he was being paid $7.50 an hour.
Because the truth was, Brian would have paid them to have this job, if he'd had the money, paid them to be on the inside of what had once been his father's world.
Pretty much his father's whole world.
It was as if he'd climbed down out of the stands and into a dream, climbed down from where he used to sit with his dad for Tigers games before his dad had walked out on him and his mom for good.
At fourteen, Brian was a decent enough ballplayer, good enough to be the last kid picked for All-Stars this summer from Bloomfield Hills, where he and his mom lived. He was a righty hitter who could hit to all fields, using the whole ballpark the way his dad had taught him, even if he still hadn't hit a home run at any level he'd ever played. And he'd made himself into a solid outfielder even if what he really wanted to be was an infielder. Third base was his spotthe position his man Hank Bishop had played when Brian was old enough to first fall in love with the Detroit Tigers.
But Brian was a realist. He knew he was never going to be an actual big-leaguer himself, and would probably be lucky to make the varsity in high school when the time came.
So this summer was going to be his summer to be a big-leaguer, to be on the inside. Be a Tiger.
It all happened because of a letter he wrote.
He'd written the first one the summer he'd finished sixth grade. It was the summer his dad left them, even though it felt like his dad had been leaving them for a long time. Until then, baseball and the Tigers had been about the only thing he'd been able to share with Cole Dudley, who'd been one of those specialty left-handed relievers who seem to be able to find work in the big leagues until they finally had run out of arm or run out of stuff. Cole Dudley had pitched for ten different teams in ten different cities in his fourteen years before finally retiring"about five minutes before baseball retired me"when he was forty, after one last half season with the Seattle Mariners.
He wasn't bitter about his career ending, or about never having been a star. It was simply that he loved the game too much, and when he tried to live a life without it, with Brian and his mom in the house in Bloomfield, he just couldn't do it.
Brian was eight when his dad retired, and as sad as his dad was about it, Brian was happy, because he would have Cole around all the time then, or so he'd thought.
And for a while, it was great for Brian, because baseball was finally something he could share with his dad in person. His dad bought them two season tickets up behind the Tigers' dugout on the third-base side with amazing views. Yet for his dad, the seats never seemed close enough. He always looked uncomfortable being so near to the field yet not being on it. The game was all he'd known since he was a boy Brian's age.
Even now, Brian could remember the nights when it seemed like he could call every pitch the pitchers were going to throw.
He didn't know how to be a dad with anything else, didn't know how to talk to Brian about anything else. But he could talk about baseball and talk about pitching, and when he was gone, it was as if those nights at the ballpark were all he left behind.
That and the note he left on Brian's desk, the one he found when he got home from school one day."BI'm sorry. I'm no good at being your father. I'm no good at anything besides baseball. Dad"
That was the summer Cole Dudley took his first job as a pitching coach, traveling the West Coast as a roving minor-league instructor for the Diamondbacks. He didn't even bother to file for divorce. Brian's mom would do that later.
The very next day Brian went on his computer and found out the name of the Tigers' clubhouse and equipment manager, Jim Schenkel, and wrote him a letter applying for the job of Tigers' batboy.
A few days later he received a letter back from Mr. Schenkel, on Detroit Tigers stationery, telling him that he appreciated the interest, but that twelve-year-old boys were too young to work for the Tigers, and that Brian should get back in touch in a few years. And in the meantime, Mr. Schenkel wrote, Brian had better keep up with his schoolwork, because the big thing he looked for in his batboys was A's.
"And I don't mean the Oakland A's," was the way the letter ended.
Brian didn't tell him that he was Cole Dudley's son, because that summer he didn't feel much like Cole Dudley's son.
That was two summers ago.
Brian knew by now that most batboys in Major League Baseball were sixteen, but he couldn't wait any longer, couldn't bear the idea of having another summer go by and looking out on the field and seeing other kids doing his dream job.
So in April he had written Mr. Schenkel another letter, not a handwritten note this time, typing it out on his computer, his mom making sure the form was exactly right.
The way Brian made sure the words were exactly right.
Dear Mr. Schenkel:
My name is Brian Dudley. Maybe you remember me. I live in Bloomfield Hills with my mom and I wrote you a letter the year before last applying for the job of batboy. You were kind enough to write me back the same week and inform me that I was too young and to get back to you when I was older.
I didn't mention this to you the first time I wrote you, but my dad is Cole Dudley, who was in the major leagues with a lot of teams, even though the Tigers was never one of them.
You also told me to keep my grades up, which I have. Over the past two years I've worked harder than ever at my schoolwork, telling myself that with every paper I wrote and every test I aced, I was working my way toward Comerica.
I know I'm "officially" too young for the job. But I'm ready for this, Mr. Schenkel. I'm sure every boy who writes you tells you how much they love the Tigers and love baseball. But no one loves the Tigers, or knows them better, than I do. It's not just statistics, it's the history of the team, too. I know that Mayo Smith was the manager when the Tigers came from three-games-to-one down to beat the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. I know it was Sparky Anderson who said, "Bless you, boys" to the '84 Tigers. I know about Al Kaline and Kirk Gibson and my personal all-time favorite player, Hank Bishop.
Before my dad left my mom and me, he used to take me to Comerica a lot and tell me about when he first started going to Tiger Stadium when he was my age. And even after he left, and I felt like I'd lost a big part of my life, I still had the Tigers.
Maybe there's no way around me being only fourteen. But I hope there is. Working for the Tigers, even if it's just for one summer, is my dream. And my mom, even though she isn't too big on baseball since my dad left, is always telling me that you can't know if your dreams are out of reach until you actually reach for them.
I guess that's what I'm doing with this letter.
When he didn't hear back right away, the way he had the first time he'd applied, he just assumed that he was too young and that was that, end of story.
Ten days later, though, the letter came telling him he had the job.
Mr. Schenkel told him he'd made a copy of Brian's letter and sent it to the commissioner of baseball, Mr. Bud Selig, and that Mr. Selig had called the day he received it and said, "We need more kids like this in baseball, not less, whatever their age is. Whether their dads played in the big leagues or not."
Then, according to Mr. Schenkel, the commissioner of baseball had said to him, "This boy is the boy we all were once."
At the end of the letter Mr. Schenkel asked for Brian's mom to get his school transcript, and explained how she could go online for the rest of the forms she needed to fill out.
At the very end, Mr. Schenkel wrote, "See you when school's out in June, batboy."
His mom didn't like it at first. She talked about what a hassle it would be getting him back and forth from the ballpark, and how it was going to mean rearranging her work scheduleif she could even do that. Yet Brian knew it wasn't the hassle that was bothering her, it was that he was getting a job around a Major League Baseball team.
She had thought her life had stopped revolving around baseball a long time ago, and now Brian wanted, more than anything, to go spend a summer working at Comerica Park for the Tigers.
They went around and around on this one night at the dinner table until finally he had said, "Mom, this is my dream."
And she had looked at him hard and said, "Couldn't it be a dream about something else?"
He'd shaken his head.
She'd sighed heavily then, rubbing her temples with her fingers and closing her eyes. Finally, after the longest moment of Brian's life, she said, "Then go for it."
He had the job. And after what felt like about 400 years, especially once the Tigers' season started in April, school had finally ended and summer had arrived.
Now every day and night when there was a home gameand when Brian didn't have a game with All-Starshis mom would drop him off on Montcalm Street on her way to her job as producer and news writer at WWJ, Detroit's all-news radio station. Brian would walk underneath the pedestrian bridge that connected a parking garage to Comerica, walk through the security entrance to the ballpark, slide his official Tigers' employee card with his picture on it into the time clockhe never got tired of doing thatand went through the lobby and into the elevator that took him down to the service level.
Once he got down there, Brian would turn left, feeling every time as if he was walking toward the Magic Kingdom of baseball, and travel the thirty or more yards to the Tigers' clubhouse entrance. Then he would walk through the double doors, poke his head into Mr. Schenkel's office on the right to see if he was there, to let him know that he'd arrived for work.
This was usually around three thirty in the afternoon.
After that he'd walk down the steps to the field level. And before he'd go into Equipment Room No. 3 to change his clothes, he'd go into the dugout and walk up the steps and stand on the edge of the green grass of Comerica Park.
And each time, it was as if he was seeing all that green for the first time. Seeing how perfect the infield dirt looked after it had just been raked, and the dirt around the pitcher's mound, and around home plate.
He'd look at the signs in the outfield and the skyline of the city and up to where the announcers' booths were, look around at all the empty seats as if this were the first day that baseball was ever going to be played.
And every day he would go and stand right in front of the Tigers' dugout and count the rows back to the twentieth row where he and his dad used to sit.
Sometimes he would close his eyes and imagine the two of them sitting there, see himself at nine or ten eating popcorn or a hot dog with one hand, his glove on the other.
Brian had the best seat in the house now, he knew that.
But those two seats had once seemed like the best in the world.