Frank laughed - a laugh that would have been scornful if it hadn't been tinged with good humor. "You haven't hit the ball for the last two-thousand-and-one tries, old man. What makes you think you'll get it this time."
A chuckle rippled down the bench.
Ron grinned. "Might as well start somewhere, boys," he said.
Dayton lifted his ball cap and scratched his head. "Odd number, don't you think? What did you pick 2002 for?"
Ron gave his bat one final practice swing. "'Cause its the next one," he said. "I'm turning over a new leaf starting today."
His name was called then and Ron turned away, scarcely hearing the hoots from the men on the bench. As he trotted across the grass, his mind flashed back to the first time his father had taken him to the ball field.
Nearly Fifty Years Earlier:
Little Ron crouched in the hallway listening to his parents' voices.
"Just take him, Paul," his mother insisted. Dishes clinked in her hands as she submersed them into her soapy dishwater.
"I'm not going out there, Alice. I'm not going to stand around and subject myself to the speculation of those boys who have no idea what war is like," his father said, his voice agitated.
"What is war like?" his mother asked, her voice low.
Ron didn't hear a response from his father.
"Paul, you can't just sit in this house and brood. And Ron needs a father. I can't do everything by myself. Why can't you just take him to the ball field?" his mother said.
"Do you want me out of the house? Is that it? You want me to leave you and Ron alone?" Ron could feel tension crackling in the air as his father spoke.
"You know that's not what I want. I want you, Paul. I just don't know where you went."
"That Paul is dead," his father said.
"I'm not asking you to be the same. I'm not asking you to erase the war. I'm just asking that you don't give up on yourself, and that you don't give up on being a father," his mother pleaded.
His father's feet shifted, boots scraping on the linoleum floor, and little Ron hurriedly sneaked upstairs to his room, afraid that his father might storm into the hall and find him eavesdropping.
But he didn't expect his father to come all the way upstairs, and it completely took him by surprise to look up from his bed and see his father in his doorway.
"Hurry up, boy," his father said. "I'm taking you to the ball field."
Little Ron strained his neck to look in every direction at once. Men loitered by the fence, watching boys running on the field.
"G'afternoon, Paul," one of the men called, idle curiosity flickering across his face. Ron felt his father's hand tighten over his own. He nodded in the direction of the men and then pulled Ron to an empty space on the fence.
After a couple of greetings, the men left Ron and his father alone. The two of them stood and watched for a long time. Then Paul sighed.
"Wanna give it a try?" he asked. He strode over toward the other men and picked out a bat and a ball.
Ron gulped eagerly.
His father handed him the bat, showing him where to place his hands. Then he stood behind Ron, reaching forward and placing his big hands over Ron's little ones, guiding him through the motions of a swing.
"Got it?" his father asked.
Ron nodded, wondering if he would ever get used to the weight and awkwardness of the bat.
His father stepped several paces away. He lightly tossed and caught the ball, rolling it around in his hand as though re-familiarizing himself with an old friend.
"Ready, son?" he asked.
Ron nodded, and his father wound up and tossed a gentle pitch in his direction.
Ron swung with all his might...and missed.
His father looked disappointed but he retrieved the ball and tried again.
Eight more times, he tried, and Ron ended up with a perfect score of 10 misses. He could see a couple of the other fathers watching him with a snicker. His father saw them, too.
"That's enough for today," his father said, shortly.
Ron felt a lump in his throat, and he tried not to cry. "I'm sorry, dad," he said.
His father looked at him, but Ron felt like he was looking through him to some place far, far away. Then his eyes focused on Ron and he reached out and ruffled his boy's hair. "Just don't give up on yourself," he said.
Ron swallowed the lump back and followed his father as they passed the other men on their way out. One of them smirked at Paul. "Too bad you couldn't get out here with your boy sooner," he said. "He's a little behind, isn't he? You weren't here to see, but baseball helped the war effort. My boys have been out here for a couple years."
Quicker than Ron could think, his father had the other man by the shirt collar. "You yellow-livered..." he shouted.
"Dad!" Ron yelled, alarmed. He grabbed his father's sleeve.
"You brute!" the other man said, pulling to free himself. "You think you're a war hero, don't you? But what were you really doing over there?"
Paul dropped the other man's collar like a load of manure and stormed away. Ron had to trot to keep up with his father's long strides. Neither one of them said anything until his father pulled open their screen door and stepped into the kitchen. Alice was bent over the stove but she looked up as they entered.
"I'm never going there again," Paul said, his voice raging with the conflict inside of him.
And Alice looked at Ron with sad eyes.
Ron reached the mound and nodded to the pitcher and the catcher.
"Morning, Ron," the catcher said. "Nice day today."
"As beautiful as they come," Ron agreed.
The catcher shifted his mask. "My wife and I were talking about this field this morning. Hasn't changed much over the years has it?"
Ron looked at the new floodlights, the digital scoreboard, the taller fence, the shiny bleachers, and the manicured grass on the field. There had been a few changes since he had been a boy. His eyes wandered to the gate on his right. It still had the same rusty latch. If he squinted he could almost see Lila leaning against it, her yellow dress fluttering in the breeze. "Nah," Ron said aloud. "It's the same field, all right."
Nearly 45 years earlier:
"I want to make the team," Ron said. It took all his courage to say that. He jutted his chin out and waited for the four high school baseball stars to register his words.
"You?" Sammy asked, incredulous. Sammy was a catcher, and he could read the field as well as the coach could. Ron's was not a face he expected to see out there.
Tristan and Mike doubled over in laughter. Tristan was a pitcher. He had dreams of making it to the big leagues. Mike was a stumpy guy, but his quick reflexes had proven him both as a batter and as a shortstop.
"Ron, you've never made a hit in your life," the fourth boy said. His name was Hollis -- he was the jack of all trades in the baseball field -- an even tempered guy unless you called him Holly. "What makes you want to try out for the team?"
Ron crossed his arms. "I want to make the team," he repeated stubbornly.
Tristan and Mike laughed again.
Sammy shook his head. "Forget it, Ron. Go find something you're good at," he said.
Ron didn't budge. Eventually even Tristan and Mike stopped laughing. For a minute everything was quiet.
Then Hollis slapped Sammy on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's throw the kid a few balls. We could use the practice, right?"
The other three grumbled good-naturedly but they grabbed their gear and trotted onto the field. Ron was elated by his success.
"Keep your eye on the ball," Hollis directed as Ron grabbed a bat and stepped up to the plate.
Ron nodded, settling into the wide-legged stance he had seen the others take. He tapped his bat on the ground and then held it over his shoulder.
Hollis and Tristan flipped coins, and Hollis won the right to pitch first. He stepped to the pitcher's mound.
Sammy signaled for an easy pitch.
Hollis lobbed the ball, straight and gentle, to Ron.
Ron swung...and missed.
"Come on!" Mike protested, throwing his hands up. "I can't believe he missed that. We're wasting our time, guys."
"No, hang in there," Hollis insisted. "Let's give him 15 minutes, okay?"
It was then that Ron saw her.
Lila Mosgrove. The most beautiful girl in high school. She picked her way across the gravel road and stopped, leaning against the gate. Ron held his breath, as if she were a mirage that would disappear with his exhale.
"You ready, Hoben?" Tristan called derisively.
Ron pulled his eyes from Lila and nodded to the pitcher.
The pitch came, and Ron swung.
Fifteen minutes later, Ron had accomplished nothing except to rack up more misses to his perfect score.
Lila was still standing by the gate. Ron watched to see which boy she was waiting for. Who would she leave with?
Sammy left, followed by Mike and Tristan.
Still Lila stood there, her little yellow dress fluttering in the breeze.
"Have you had enough?" Hollis asked him.
Ron shook his head. "I want to make the team," he said.
"Stubborn kid," Hollis snorted. He picked up his bag. "I'll meet you out here tomorrow."
Ron's heart soared. After his performance, he did not think any of the boys would help him again. But Hollis hadn't given up on him yet.
"See ya," Hollis called as he left.
Lila was still by the gate.
Every day, Hollis practiced with Ron. Sometimes the other three boys came, too. And Lila came.
She never spoke to Ron as she leaned against the gate. And Ron certainly never spoke to her. But she was there.
Ron signed up for the baseball team. The coach promised him that he would never leave the bench. And so Ron came to the games, sat on the bench, and cheered for Hollis, Mike, Tristan, and Sammy.
Eventually, the four baseball stars got busy. Their lives carried them forward like a rushing river, and they were soon caught up in the excitement of it. But Ron's life crept forward, gently meandering like a small stream. There were no great talents that kept him in high demand.
One by one, Tristan...then Sammy...then Mike...and finally Hollis were unable to practice with Ron. In the end, Ron went to the field by himself, tossing a ball in the air and swinging at it as it came down. And still he missed.
But Lila still came.
In his senior year of high school, Ron went to Lila's house, only a few weeks before the school dance. He knocked on her screen door and waited, hoping that it would be Lila and not her father who greeted him.
His hopes were met. Lila smiled through the screen and then joined him on the porch. He asked her to the dance. And she said yes.
At the dance, he asked her a question he had been pondering for a long time.
"How come you always come to my practices?" he asked.
She furrowed her eyebrows thoughtfully as she danced. Her feet never missed a step, even while her mind was far away. "Maybe you inspire me," she said softly. She looked up at him then, her face earnest. "If you never give up, why should I?"
And that night, Ron found a new goal, more important than baseball. A year later, his new dream was met: he was married, setting up his new home with Lila by his side.
Ron squinted at the pitcher. It was Hollis again. After college and a long career, Hollis had returned to their small town about 6 years before and made himself at home in a house only 2 doors down from where he had grown up. It was good to have him back. And it was no surprise to see him join the little ragtag team of older amateur ballplayers that Ron was a part of.
Hollis spit on the ball and rubbed it against his pants. He didn't seem to be in any hurry to make the pitch. Ron's eyes wandered to the bleachers.
Lila was there. She smiled at him, her eyes alight with eternal hope.
Ron's eyes fell to the bottom of the bleachers. A man was trotting up the steps with youthful energy. He turned as he reached Lila, and Ron saw the handsome young face just before Lila was engulfed in his embrace. A grin broke out across Ron's face as he recognized his son. What a great surprise! Ron had no idea the boy would be home to see this game. The Minor Leagues had been jealous of his time. Ron shook his head. How a boy of his ever made it into the Minor Leagues was beyond him. But the boy had combined Ron's determination with his own natural skill, and was doing very well.
Hollis cleared his throat and Ron looked back to the pitcher.
Two thousand and one misses.
A voice whispered in his mind: "Soon to be two thousand and two misses." Ron shook his head and frowned. "Not this time," he whispered back fiercely. "I won't miss -- I'll break my record."
Two thousand and one tries.
Hollis wound up and delivered the pitch.
The world seemed to spin into slow motion. Ron could hear his own breath, slowly inhaling.
Two thousand and one tries.
Gripping the bat, Ron swung it around to meet the ball.
Two thousand and two tries. He closed his eyes.
Ron felt the force vibrate through the bat before he could get his eyes open. He had hit the ball. Open-mouthed, he watched it sailing over Hollis' head. The entire field and bleachers were silent -- so silent that Ron thought he could hear the ball whistling through the air.
Then the crowd erupted. The word "cheers" does not describe the emotion of the day. They screamed, they clapped, they whistled, they threw their hats in the air. Hollis ran and grabbed Ron, locking his arm around his neck and scrubbing the top of his head. "You did it, old boy," he murmured with tears in his eyes.
Ron twisted free and swung a fake punch at his friend. Then he turned to search the bleachers. Lila wasn't there. Swinging around, Ron saw her standing by the old gate, her hands clasped together in front of her face, too proud of him to express herself any other way.
"I told you I would do it," he shouted.
And he did...on the two-thousand-and-second try.