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The Player’s Dish: Jake Gronsky

What do a bench clearing brawl and a baseball career have in common?

Welcome to our latest feature here at MLB Daily Dish: The Player’s Dish. In this weekly column, we give MiLB players past and present, as well as other baseball personalities a chance to tell their own story in their own words on whatever they’d like the world to know.

This week’s guest is Jake Gronsky. Jake is a recovering professional baseball player turned author. My his book, A Short Season, was named 2018 CIPA Book of the Year. His other work has been featured in the Best American Sports Writing of 2019, ESPN, the FOX Sports Network, and other fancy-pants places that he says will mean nothing when until he’s dead. Until then, find him here and here.

How The F**k Did I Get Here?

Six pitches before the punch

I dig into the box against another pro-ball reject and wonder how many fastballs I had to miss, how many errors I had to make, and how many wrong turns I had to take to end up here. A lifetime ago, I was in Florida. A St. Louis Cardinal. A minor leaguer fighting and scraping my way to The Show, and against all odds, I believed I would make it. I’m now facing a DII finalist in this consolation prize of professional baseball we call Independent Ball.

I’m 0-2 on the day. Hitting under my weight. His 87-mph fastball had me bounce into a double play less than an hour ago. He flips another hanging slider. I ground out again. I sit on the bench, staring at the scoreboard of a game that will be forgotten before it ends. The next batter steps to the plate filling in the holes I dug as if I was never there. I lean back on the bench. How the f**k did I get here.

Three pitches before the punch

Our clean-up batter walks to the plate in his light-up green spikes and matching neon accessories. No one’s impressed by him, except, of course, himself. He puffs his chest and walks around home plate to gloat for a bit longer. Both dugouts simultaneously roll their eyes.

The greatest aspect of Independent Baseball is egos are usually gone (except this schmuck). Everyone here has either been passed over in the draft, traded, or cut (including this schmuck), all of us knowing what it feels like to hold a dream that’s stopped breathing.

Mine happened two months ago when the Cardinals handed me an Acknowledgement of Release form and gas money. Like a dog without a leash, I was lost. So when the manager of this Indy Ball team called to offer a contract, I said no. I didn’t know what to do with my career, my life, or myself.

Instead, my teammate (who was chopped down the day before) and I made the only reasonable decision. We drove to the beach and burned our last few hundred bucks on a cheap motel and tiki bars. When the money and booze ran dry and a golf-carting incident left me scrubbing gravel out of my road rash, I decided to give my manager a call.

I can’t look at his neon accessories any longer. I walk to the cooler and take sip of water.

It burns like tequila.

Two pitches before the punch

Our clean-up hitter steps out and looks toward the outfield skyline and somehow, it catches my eye, too. The summer sun melts behind a city, dusty and forgotten by time, but as the sounds of the game echo against the cement walls, the world seems to fade from its edges. Something pulls at me. Something I haven’t felt since I was cut. It was the same feeling that settled into the hearts of every player in this dugout long ago: A dream.

People will say to grow up. Move on. Just let it go. But to a ballplayer, that’s impossible. There’s something about a diamond of dirt, the crack of a bat and cowhide and twine launching into the sky that makes hope and marvel at a dream that against all odds will become ours. Because to a baseball heart, a home run on a summer night is the closest glimpse of Heaven we’ll ever know.

We watch the ball clear the right field wall, and so does our clean-up batter. He’s still standing at home plate, bat in hand, before the ball lands into a new world. He flips his bat. The pitcher doesn’t appreciate it. Words are exchanged. His light-up shoes dance around the bases. The next batter steps in.

One pitch before the punch

There are three types of people when the benches clear.

Type A: the fish. You got your pretty-boys, your pitching rotation, your slick-fielding shortstops who never had the bat for pro ball, your I-don’t-want-to-be-out-here-but-can’tstay-in-the-dugout teammates usually standing behind someone else, possibly holding a few teammates back if they’re feeling frisky.

Type B: The wannabe tough guys. These are your loud-mouths, your relief pitchers, your back-up catchers, your run-in-from-the-bullpen-pitchers-only-to-arrive-after-the- shouting-is-over guys. Again, usually harmless and great for Twitter memes.

Then there’s Type C: Your wild cards. This guy. That guy. Iconic. Or in this case, our guy was the 8-feet-tall-Paul-Bunyan-first-baseman-who-rides-a-Harley-Davidson-to-the-park wildcard.

The pitcher kicks his leg and throws an 89-mph fastball under the chin. Words are exchanged. Our hitter takes a step toward the mound. More words are exchanged. The pitcher takes a step toward the plate. Dugouts exchange words from the top step. Our hitter takes the fatal step forward. The 8-foot-tall first baseman charges.

Benches clear.

There’s one clear sign that a player’s career is over.

It’s not getting cut or playing Indy Ball or facing a ten-year minor league sentence without the possibility of a call. A player’s career is over when the flame dies.

I saw it happen to a player I looked up to. He was everything you would want in a prospect, knocking on the door to the big leagues. Cannon for an arm. Built like a linebacker. Power like a young Dave Winfield. Played the game like he stole it. I was fortunate enough to be his teammate, watching in awe while he torched the diamond night after night, and I can guarantee every father left the park telling their kid to play like him.

I went to see him play in a league similar to this after he was cut from AA, and couldn’t recognize him. I heard his name called to the plate but didn’t see him. It was a person I’ve never met before, and neither did he. I left the game in the fifth, and didn’t go back to another.

Now, it was my flame that was beginning to flicker. But every once in a while, when a man runs in from first base, screaming, cursing, barking at the people in your jersey, something snaps. So when he yells, “Hit me, P***y,” oblige.

I see my shot.

His face turned. Jaw, broadside open.

I reach back.

People will say to grow up. Move on. Just let it go. But to a ballplayer, that’s

impossible. There’s something about a diamond of dirt, the crack of a bat and cowhide and

players and fists launched into the sky that makes a flame grow hotter and against all odds,

we believe our shot will land.

I take it.

But at the last minute, his head turns. My fist slips past his jaw and nicks his brim.

Arms wrap around me. I’m pulled away.

My shot. My Career. My dream. Missed.

Three days from now I’ll finish my suspension. Pay my fine. Take ice off the swollen side of my face and start the greatest hot-streak of my career. But none of that will matter. Because tonight, I felt something. Something part of myself that was once numb and fading fast had now been rejuvenated and I realized it was never about whether or not the punch landed.

It was feeling the flame ignite one last time. And perhaps, knowing that it never left in the first place.

I’m lifted into the sky and thrown into the harden clay like WWE SumerSlam, and I can’t stop laughing. I look up from the bottom of a pile of bodies with a mouth full of dirt and stare at the summer haze still perched above the lights. I see a diamond. A hope. A dream still burning through the sky like an electric current.

Because to people like us, a home run on a summer night is the closest glimpse of Heaven we’ll ever know. And tonight, it’s more beautiful than ever before. I feel a dream stitch its way back around my heart. I smile, thinking: How the F**k did I get here?