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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/books/entry_id/355649
Rated: 13+ · Book · Friendship · #984020
This is about the pitfalls of a superstar athlete who is trying to remain true to himself.
#355649 added June 24, 2005 at 5:56pm
Restrictions: None
Part III - The Birth of a fan

A.J. woke up early the next day as usual and felt no ill effects from his overindulgence the night before. He started chuckling as he remembered the crazy lobster dream and thought it might make a good story someday. He thought to himself, I should write it down so I don’t forget it later.

He went to the kitchen and made himself breakfast. If his mom had been awake she would have fixed it but he figured he is plenty capable and no sense waking her for nothing. He had lightly buttered toast, a banana and a tall glass of orange juice. When finished he put his glass in the sink, cleaned the counter and then returned to his room and gathered his running gear.

On his way to the center he pondered how to drop this bomb on his friend. He was worried that they would lose contact just like he had with Teddy. He considered what his dad said last night about doing research on baseball. So before he went to the center he stopped by the public library to look for books on the subject. He checked out a book on the history, “The history of America’s pastime”, and one about the rules. He couldn’t wait to get home and start reading. His was intrigued at how this sport was played and where it came from.

It was raining that morning when he arrived at the rec center so Kevin was in his office filing paperwork and mumbling his dislike for the task under his breath.

Hey coach! How’s your day? He said jokingly.
Don’t push my buttons small fry or I’ll have you filing until you’re twenty.

They both started laughing and then tried to imagine how people could do this job on a daily basis and still be happy. Why would anyone subject themselves to being baked by fluorescent lights all day long? Well A.J. was happy that he would not have to worry about that problem for several years and it brought a smile to his face. Coach, do you have a moment for me to ask a question?

Kevin pushed his chair back from the desk, sighed and said of course besides I need a break. So what’s on your mind?

What do you know about baseball?

Not as much as I should I’m afraid. I know the basic concept and rules but I like football more and never really got into it.

Can you tell me what you know?

Alright but it won’t take long I promise.

The two walked down the hall not going anywhere particular and ended up in the kitchen. Kevin fixed them a snack and poured 3 glasses of milk.

Why 3 glasses?

You’ll see.

And a moment later in walked Matty asking, “May

I have a snack too dad?

Please!” It’s already at the table slowpoke.

Kevin divulged his knowledge of the game of baseball as the 3 munched on an apple and sipped their drink.

Hope that helps but I got to get that paperwork done. That’s what I get for waiting until the last month.

Since it is raining we can run in the gym if you want, Matty said.

Do you mind if we skip our workout today? I would like to get started reading on these books I got today.

A.J. showed the books to Matty and he said, “No problem. I think dad can use my help with the filing. With that the boys did a high five and said in unison see ya!

A.J. went home and said hello to his mom. She of course was in the kitchen cooking. A.J. wondered if she ever did much of anything else other than cook and clean the house. Hope was shocked to see her son home so early. It was only 2:00 pm and usually when he went to the Y he didn’t come home until at least 6:30 pm.

Is anything wrong angel? You sure are home early!
No ma’am I just wanted to do some reading. I went to the library this morning.

What did you check out?

Just a couple of books about baseball.

Do you really like baseball? You’ve never mentioned it before last night.

I just want to learn more about the game that’s all.

You know if you need something to read there is always the Bible. Hope Smith always talked about the bible but not in a preaching way. She just liked to reaffirm her family’s beliefs in God.

Mom I read enough of that every week in Sunday school.

Okay I was just reminding you. Dinner will be ready in a few hours. We’re having pot roast and potatoes.

Sounds delicious I’ll be in my room.

A.J. tossed his book bag on the floor and put the library books on his bed. He kicked off his shoes, plopped on his bed and propped his head up on his hands. He opened the rules book first and started reading. He was able to follow the general rules that Kevin had explained but then it got confusing. He put the book on the floor and opened the other one. He prayed this one would be more interesting and he was right.

~~~~~~

Before he knew it time had come and gone. His mom was calling him down for dinner and it was 6:30 pm. As he sat down at the table his dad walked in the door and said, “Am I in time for dinner”.

Well this is a treat both my boys home before the food is even on the table.

They all bowed their heads and Mr. Smith gave thanks for their daily blessings. As they passed the steaming plates of country fried steak and bowls of vegetables A.J. asked his dad, “Can I pick what we watch tonight”?

Is there something special on?

I want to see if there is a baseball game on that I could watch. It is kinda research. I am trying to learn about the game. He then told his dad about the books he got at the library.

As they ate A.J. began telling his parents what he had absorbed from the well of information contained in the books. Chappy sat astounded at how much A.J. had learned in such a short amount of time. As they ate A.J. informed them that baseball was derived from an English game called rounders. He then proceeded to tell them that in 1839 a man by the name of Abner Doubleday sat in his hometown of Cooperstown, New York and wrote the modern rules for the game.

“Isn’t that where the Hall of Fame is?” asked Chappy.

Yes, it was placed there to honor the creator. But that’s not all Mr. Doubleday did - he also served in the Army as a captain during the Mexican and Civil wars. And historical records show that Captain Doubleday fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

Chappy was left speechless, not only had his son explained the origin of baseball but gave a history lesson at the same time - and he was excited about it! During dessert Chappy asked his son if there was anything else he could teach him.

Yeah lots more! And he started spouting off facts like he had known them for years. The first recorded game was in 1846 and the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional team in 1869 when the owner decided to pay the players.

Well after all that let’s see if we can find a game on the tube. Chappy took his son by the shoulder and as they walked into the next room he softly said, “I’m proud of you son”!

They sat together on the couch and Chappy turned on the set. He started flipping channels and finally found WTBS. As if by magic the announcer declared emphatically,” Stay tuned for Major League Baseball on your home of the Atlanta Braves”. A.J. sat staring at the TV in awe as the Braves beat the division leading Montreal Expos by a score of 6 - 4. A.J. sat through the whole game without moving a muscle. He didn’t blink an eye, get up to use the bathroom or say a word. He wouldn’t even look around during a commercial break in the telecast. A.J.‘s father looked on and found himself smiling. He thought to himself, “Attention baseball executives you just hooked a fan for life”!

~~~~~~

Over the next several days A.J. was given permission to eat his supper on the living room floor so he could watch more games. A.J. started watching the games not as a fan but as a student. He wanted to learn about this game that had snatched his attention so passionately. But as the Smith’s began to watch more and more games they found themselves rooting for the Braves. Maybe it was because the Braves were the hometown team but you just had to cheer for them to push that go ahead run across the plate. The television announcers were informative and kept you amused during the lulls in the game. They informed their viewers that the Braves were in danger of breaking a 3 year streak of being crowned the division champion.

Unfortunately the announcers also warned that the players were planning to go on strike and the season was going to end abruptly. This confused A.J. How could anyone who gets paid to play a fascinating game like baseball go on strike!? It just didn’t make sense.

~~~~~~

The team was trailing the Expos who seemed to win almost every game without even trying. In fact a lot of sport authorities were saying they had a good shot at winning the World Series.

The Braves were 6 games out of first place in their division but in good shape to win the wild card spot in the playoffs. The team was anchored by veteran players like Terry Pendelton, Fred Mcgriff and David Justice. They also had a young 1st baseman named Ryan Klesko who was said to have great potential. There was an outfielder, Deion Sanders, who not only played baseball but was also played football - and was good at both!

Fred Mcgriff was the teams power hitter with 34 homeruns and 94 rbis but the up and coming 1st baseman, Klesko, had 17 homers and 47 rbis. Their pitching staff was anchored by 2 veterans - Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Maddux was a crafty finesse pitcher who won 16 games, 10 complete, and had an era of 1.56. Glavine was a hard throwing lefty who also won 13 games. The experts said that quality left handed pitchers were difficult to come by. They also started a 20 year old lefty named Kent Mercker and a righty named John Smoltz who was 21 but had been with the team for 3 years already.

~~~~~~~

A.J. was dumbfounded at the thought of someone playing in the majors immediately after graduating high school. He wondered if any of the boys he had seen at the YMCA would be playing in the big leagues soon. He thought that some of them certainly looked like they could. Then sure enough, the players strike commenced and the season was over. A.J. was crushed! Just when he was catching on to the game it ended. Now he would be forced to focus on having to move from his childhood house.

His dad told him they would not be moving until the first of the year but this did nothing to console A.J. in his mind he was still being torn from the comfort zone that he had known all his life. Now he didn’t think he would live there forever but at least until after high school.

During the next couple of months A.J. tried to stay positive and enjoy the time he had left with his friend. On Halloween he helped Matty and his dad put on a haunted house at the rec center that was a monstrous hit. And the Smith’s invited Mr. Jackson and his son over for Thanksgiving dinner where they stuffed themselves to maximum density.

For Christmas break the Smith’s flew up to Connecticut so that Hope could check on the progress of her mother’s recovery. This time Mr. Smith took off work, to the surprise of both his wife and son, and joined his family on the trip. Chappy truly was a changed man. He still worked long hours and always seemed to be on the go but somehow he found the time each day to spend some quality time with his family.
Everyone packed heavy since the weather was going to be harsher but nothing could prepare A.J. for what met him when they landed! When they left Georgia the temperature was a mild 58 degrees and the sun was shining as brightly as a mid-summer day. However when they arrived in New Haven the temperature was only 42 degrees and when the wind blew it felt at least 10 degrees cooler. There was also a blanket of snow that was the result of a storm that came through a couple of days prior to their arrival. The white icy substance was everywhere. It covered the ground, the cars, the buildings and especially the tree tops. To A.J. the snow reminded him of the slushy machine at the 7 eleven back home.

A.J. dragged his feet as the Smith’s walked through the airport with his aunt Amber. First of all he desperately wanted to be back at home with his best friend Matty. And to make things worse he surely wasn’t going to be able to run in this weather. Why did they have to leave everything he had come to know and love?

Chappy realized his son was lagging behind so he bellowed over his shoulder, “Get the lead out. Aren’t you supposed to be the fleet footed one of the family”? They collected their luggage and trudged through the parking deck until they arrived on the 3rd level where Amber’s SUV was parked.

On the ride to Amber’s house A.J. stared out the window at the passing landscape. As the asphalt disappeared under the tires and they drove further into the suburbs the landscape transformed right before A.J.’s eyes. Suddenly he noticed the beauty in the clean undisturbed snow drift. The rolling hills seemed to extend all the way to the state border. A.J. couldn’t wait to climb those miniature mountains so that he could glide back down in the blink of an eye on a sled that his aunt bought him especially for this visit.

The visit turned out to be better than A.J. could have ever imagined. His grandma had completely recovered, he spent almost every moment outside in the blistering cold snow and he loved every second of it, and his dad didn’t have to work.

Chappy did take a day trip to Reading, Pa. to check on the house they were moving into after the first of the year but that wasn’t really work. One morning he woke up and was on the road before the roosters even had a chance to crow. He checked on the house, stopped by the corporate offices and was back before dinner was on the table. He told the family that the house is beautiful and the neighborhood looked blissful. The joy that illuminated from Hope’s face, while her husband talked about the new house, would rival the dazzling luster from the Christmas tree. Hope was positively thrilled at the prospect of a new house and not to mention having her husband home on a more consistent basis.

~~~~~~~

Christmas Eve was spent with the women preparing a feast for the following day and the boys outside engaged in a deadly battle against 3 neighborhood boys and their fathers. They were outmanned but they were not outsmarted. Earlier in the morning A.J. had gone and constructed several barriers along his aunt’s street. At each checkpoint he fashioned an ammo box that was filled to the brim with pre-made snow bombs.

The plan of attack was an ambush. A.J. walked up to the boys, who were rolling the bottom of a snowman, with the initial insult to the male ego entow.

“Hey guys cute snowman”!

And with that A.J. propels the first shot of the war and hits center mass of the red headed boy from 2 doors down. The builders of the abominable snowman paused and looked at their kamikaze assassin.

What do you say fellas? Are you up to the challenge?

And with that the chase was on. Even though the ground was slick A.J. was still able to swiftly maneuver to the first check point. He passed the barricade and as his pursuers followed in hot pursuit Chappy pelted the enemy with an array of crabapple sized snowballs. They were meant to simply confuse their adversaries and draw their attention away from A.J. who had already cleared the fire zone and crossed the street to the next shelter.

As they tried to defend themselves against Chappy’s assault he ducked behind the ice packed sanctuary. A.J. began his attack which allowed his dad to traverse the frozen tundra. They were taking return fire but most were grazing shots.

The comrades rendezvoused at the final battle fort. It was a gigantic mound of snow that had been pushed to the sidewalk from the snowplow’s morning run through the streets. It had sat in the polar air all morning and transformed into a barricade of ice.
When they both took cover behind the wall they were slightly winded, their clothes were damp and they were grinning from ear to ear.

This is the most fun I’ve ever had during winter. Thanks dad!

Chappy stopped momentarily to prevent the tears from rolling down his cheeks and freezing to the side of his face. Son today has truly been my pleasure.

Now let’s finish these guys!

With that they grabbed a snowball in each hand, took a deep breath of brisk air, stood up and opened fire. They immediately took several blows but kept on firing as if nothing could slow this juggernaut.
The battle lasted for about 45 minutes but to the warriors it seemed as if a lifetime had flashed before their eyes. When Chappy and A.J. went into the house they were soaked from head to toe and neither could feel their extremities.

The exhausted soldiers stepped through the back door and into the laundry room. Chappy quickly started undressing and after seeing this A.J. followed suit. When they were down to their skivvies they walked gingerly on their frostbitten feet into the den where a roaring fire was burning. They wrapped themselves in blankets and plopped down on the couch. A few moments later Hope brought 2 cups of hot chocolate to the shivering teammates.

That was great dad!

Yeah we sure took it to them! You did a great job distracting them and letting me get into position.

I couldn’t believe how accurate your shots were. It seemed as if every snow bomb you threw hit its target.

We definitely make a great team son.

Without a doubt, replied A.J.

As the boys sipped their hot chocolate the color returned in their cheeks and A.J. was beginning to feel his fingers and toes again. There was a little tingle of pain but dad said it was normal and would go away soon. He was right of course 20 minutes of roasting in front of the fire and the pain was gone.

Hope, Amber and their mother joined them in the living room for a holiday tradition. They turned the TV on at 6:55 pm and prepared to watch “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Midway through the second movie A.J. was snoring.

Christmas morning was arrived and everyone woke up filled with joy and holiday cheer. The women immediately started on breakfast while Chappy sat in a recliner and read the paper. A.J. was camped out in front of the tree. He stared at all the presents and wondered how many were his. He occasionally picked one up and shook it trying to determine what’s inside until his mom caught him. She looked at him with a fake scowl on her face and threatened to make him wait until next Christmas to open his gifts.

When breakfast was ready everyone sat at the table, locked hands and praised God for all that he had blessed them with. Then they dug into the seemingly endless table of food. They had a large bowl of scrambled eggs, a plate of both bacon and sausage, another bowl of grits, sliced fruit, hash browns and a large stack of toast. There were plenty of choices when it came to beverages as well. There were pitchers filled to the brim with orange juice, tomato juice, milk, and for the adults a fresh pot of coffee. A.J. asked if he could try a cup of coffee and his mom said, “No it will stunt your growth”.
With breakfast complete the adults fixed themselves a fresh cup of joe and headed to the living room for the opening of the presents. Chappy acted as Santa and distributed the gifts with the instructions not to begin unwrapping until all the gifts were handed out. Chappy returned to his pre-determined seat in the recliner and the okay signal was given to indicate that it was okay to start shredding the paper. A.J. tore into the first gift and before you knew it everyone had the holiday wrapping flying around the room.

At the end every inch of the floor was covered in the festive holiday designs. There was a genuine appreciation being projected from the recipients as they shared with each other the blessings they received on this special day. Even A.J. was pleased with the traditional socks and underwear he got from his mom and aunt. As he said thank you they responded in unison, “You can never have enough socks or underwear”.

Hope grabbed a trash bag and started picking up the paper and empty boxes. Chappy stopped her and said I think there is still one more gift. Hope looked as shocked as everyone else at this statement. They all leaned over and peeked under the tree but saw nothing. While everyone’s attention was turned towards the tree Chappy reached under the recliner and pulled out an oddly wrapped gift.

The wrapping job looked as if it had been performed by a toddler. What are you guys looking at the present is right here.

They all turned and A.J. asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. Who’s it for?

Why don’t you tell us sport? And with that Chappy tossed the wad of wrapping paper across the room to his son’s open arms. A.J. caught the gift and closed his eyes for a moment before looking at the gift tag. In that moment of solitude he prayed that the present was for him. He was thankful for all he had received that year but one more gift is always nice!

A.J. squinted and read his name on the tag. His eyes widened to the size of golf balls as he read the tag again and asked softly, “is it really for me”?
I guess if that’s what the tag says, replied his dad.
A.J. turned the package over and over in his hands and noticed there was practically a whole roll of tape sealing the odd shaped bundle. He squeezed it and figured it was some sort of clothing when it squished with ease. His heart sunk ever so slightly but he didn’t let it show.

Well open it son! We all want to see what you got, his mom said in a heightened and excited voice.
He ripped at the paper and realized that there were no clothes in this precious last gift. When the paper was split far enough he pulled the gift out and held it up. It was a brown Rawlings brand baseball glove.

This is incredible!

But I don’t know how to catch, dad?

Well maybe it can teach you this spring? And if you want we can place you in little league?

Thank you dad! This is the greatest gift ever!

And at that comment, Chappy turned his head as a tear swelled up in his right eye.

~~~~~~~~~~

The Smiths returned home on December 29 and A.J. couldn’t wait to show his new glove to Matty. He handed the glove to Matty and wearily asked, what do you think?

You have a good glove here. All it needs is a little oil to soften it up and she’ll be ready to go this spring.

New Year’s Eve there was a party thrown at the community center. The Smith’s celebrated the upcoming year with Coach Jackson. The boys were too young to attend the grand affair at the center so they had their own party at A.J.’s house. Their parents said they could stay up as late as they wanted but only made it until 11:40 pm. As the boys snored their way into 1995 the Smith’s toasted the start of the New Year and an unknown future. A month later the Smith’s said their goodbyes and commenced their journey to Reading.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Reading, Pennsylvania is a relatively small town; it has a population of 81,000 people and is located about an hour northwest of Philadelphia. It is also only a 3 hour trip to New Haven, Connecticut. This last tidbit made Hope exceptionally happy. It meant that she would be able to see her mom and sister on a more regular basis.

When they arrived there was still a mountain of snow on the ground. A.J. remembered the fun he had a few months ago and his outlook on the move brightened expeditiously. He still longed for his boyhood home and his friend Matty but the thought of another combat mission with his dad kept A.J. from loosing control of his emotions. The vans assigned to transport their belongings arrived about an hour before the Smith’s and were sitting idle in the driveway.

Even in the bitter cold of the winter afternoon it took the muscular lifters no time at all to unload the trucks. As they drove away the family began the task of piecing together their new home. Mrs. Smith would have her husband move the couch or entertainment center several times before settling on its final resting place. This furniture dance they performed reminded A.J. of a jigsaw puzzle. The way you have several pieces that look similar and it takes multiple attempts to find exactly where it goes.
A.J. helped when he could but most of the work was completed by Chappy. They took a break at around 5:00 pm and went to town to get a bite to eat and explore their new surroundings. They got home at 9:30 pm and everyone was exhausted. Instead of trying to put the erect the bedrooms tonight Chappy made an executive decision - tonight they would sleep on the floor of the family room. Hope built a pallet of blankets and pillows while Chappy built a roaring fire in the fireplace. With as cold as it was outside he was thankful that there was a woodbin in the basement and especially that his company had stocked it prior to their arrival.

The company also filled the pantry and the refrigerator and this Hope was grateful for. She rose early and located the box of pots and pans. She cooked bacon, eggs, oatmeal and toast. Now that a hot meal filled their stomachs the Smith’s had the energy to complete the construction of their habitation.
The next morning Hope took her son to register him for school. He was placed in Mrs. Rothenburg’s 5th grade class. After his mom kissed his cheek and told him she loved him he was escorted to class by the principal. They entered the room and a wave of nausea swept over him. He could feel the eyes of the students burning holes in his clothes - wondering who he was and where he came from. The teacher introduced him to the class and showed him his desk.

During lunch A.J. sat at the end of the table just out of talking range of the other students. He still had the feeling of being watched but it wasn’t nearly as bad as this morning. By the end of the day A.J. was starting to feel like a part of the class. His mom was waiting for him at the front of the school when class let out and she took him out for a celebratory ice cream. Mom isn’t a little cold outside for ice cream?
Well let’s make it hot chocolate instead.
Okay but what are we celebrating?
Just the fact that you are the greatest son ever! Your dad and I just want you to know how much we love you. We understand that this move is hard for you and we want you to talk to us if you feel overwhelmed or lost in the shuffle.
Sure mom but ya’ll can relax. I’ll be fine.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the next 3 years A.J. grew to call Reading home. He still missed Matty but he kept in touch by letter and each summer he would go back to Georgia for 2 weeks. One of A.J.’s favorite things was to check the mail when he got home from school. Some days there would be a letter from Matty and some days there wasn’t. When there was a letter A.J. would get a snack, sit at the kitchen table and not move until he had read every word. On days that no correspondence arrived A.J. would change into his running clothes and head out on his daily workout. All in all A.J. had adjusted to the move quite nicely and his mom didn’t have to worry about him anymore.
There wasn’t a local YMCA and the track team at school was only for 8th graders. But he still ran everyday no matter what the weather was like. He had really developed into a fine runner and had dropped his mile time to under 10 minutes. His other hobby became baseball of course. A.J. continued to follow the Braves and they quickly became his favorite team. He even got to see a couple of games during their World Series run in 1996.
He also started rooting for the Phillies - the Reading Phillies that is. The Reading Phillies are the AA affiliate of the Philadelphia major league team. A.J. couldn’t believe that a real live baseball team made its home in the same city as he did! The team’s logo has a giant locomotive and A.J. thought that this made them wicked cool!
Even though his dad still worked some weekends, but not nearly as much as when they lived in Georgia, he made it a point to take A.J. to at least a couple of games a month. And his mom let him go to a few more with a group of friends - provided one of their parents went with them of course. All in all A.J. was quickly becoming a true fan of the game - a fact that would serve him well later in life.
~~~~~~~~~~~~

A.J. never joined little league like his dad had suggested that Christmas morning but he did continue to run. Three weeks before his 8th grade year A.J. went to the school for open track tryouts. He had never really ran in a structured setting, except with Matty, and this made him a little nervous. Then while everyone was changing into his running gear, and joking and cutting up, the coach entered the locker room and shouted, “Anyone not on the track in one minute can just go home! I don’t have time to waist waiting on those who think this is fun and games”! This startled A.J. even further. He knew Coach Moore from health class the previous year but he had no idea that his teacher had this kind of a mean streak. He finished dressing in record time and sprinted out to the tract with all the other boys in tow.
Coach led a fifteen minute stretching session in which no one said a word. He then dictated a brief overview of how the tryouts would be conducted. He broke the applicants into 2 groups - sprinters and distance runners. You didn’t get a say in which group you were in coach simply told you where to go no questions allowed. If you didn’t like his system then as he clearly stated in the locker room - you can go home and save him the trouble of cutting you from the team.
Once you were in your designated cluster Coach Moore explained that he only had a certain number of positions available on the team. There were to be 3 sprinters, 3 cross country runners and 3 boys who would run both. He would work out the sprinters first and then the journeymen. After the last torture session was over you had 10 minutes to shower and change clothes. The results would be posted outside his office on the way out. If you made the team you were to return tomorrow to discuss the season ahead and uniforms.
The inquisition was open to anyone who could endure coach’s wrath and there were aspirants of all shapes and sizes. The tryouts were grueling and several potential candidates fell to the waist side with extreme cramping and vomiting.
Everyone thought that Armageddon was had arrived during the 1st groups test. The Lispon twins, Blake and Eric, were laughing at some of the more athletically challenged boys and it made Coach Moore’s entire body turn the same shade of mercury in a thermometer. These brothers had just moved to town from Pittsburg and were said to be two of the fastest young men in the county. There last school had allowed them to be on the 8th grade team due to their exceptional talent but coach sent them packing without blinking an eye.
Coach Moore was new to the school but he had been an Olympic runner and his program was the main reason why the Lispons moved to Reading. As they were escorted off the track by on of the assistants the boys began cussing and yelling at the coach, “Wait til our pop finds out what you did? He’ll have your job before you can spit”! Coach paid them no attention and if one didn’t know better you would have thought him to be deaf.
A.J. was placed in the distance group for his long legs and thin frame. A.J. never measured how far he ran and was concerned that he could not make the grade but he managed to survive. The last audition of the day was a no holds barred mile sprint. A.J. was tired but felt confident about his chances of finishing near the front of the group. A.J. did better than he expected - in fact he won the heat! The moment everyone crossed the finish line Coach Moore bellowed at everyone,” Ten minutes and counting gentleman. Get a move on”.
Despite being exhausted and their muscles burning all the boys sprinted toward the locker room. A.J. showered and changed faster than he thought possible. As he was walking out of the locker room coach was in the process of tacking up the team list.
Coach you got a second?
Sure, what can I do for you?
I just wanted to say thanks for the opportunity to try out for the team.
You’re welcome. I can’t wait to see how you perform under the pressure of a full season.
You mean I made the team?
Yeah but your spot is going to have a lot of responsibility. You are going to run the relay races as well as some cross country trials.
Do you really think I can do both?
I wouldn’t have given you the spot if I didn’t but it is gonna be a lot of work. Now get home and I’ll see you tomorrow.
During dinner A.J. told his parents about the days events and they couldn’t be more proud. A.J. was so excited that he didn’t think he would ever fall asleep. But once he lay still for longer than five minutes his muscles succumbed to the fatigue and he was off in dream world.
The next morning A.J. reported back to the school just like he was ordered to the day before. When he arrived coach was walking out of his office with the Lipson twins following close behind. The twins stared at the floor and looked as if they had just lost their boyhood dog. The team entered the gymnasium and sat in the bleachers. Also sitting in the stands were the boys who Blake and Eric had made fun of at the tryouts. Coach gave one quick blow of the whistle that hung around his neck and silence came over the room.
Listen up. These young men have something they would like to say.
Eric cleared his throat and spoke in a humbled tone. My brother and I would like to extend our sincerest apology to the boys who we were laughing at yesterday. It took great courage and strength for you to endure the tryouts. You hung in until the end and that is more than some others can say. I am sorry you guys didn’t make the team but you should be proud of your accomplishment. We hope you can forgive us and maybe we can even try to become friends.
We accept your apology and I am sure we will see you around in school. As for being friends, well only time will tell.
With that they got up and left the gym. Then Blake Lispon spoke up and said I would like to tell the team something and Coach Moore said,” The floor is yours”.
My brother and I would like to apologize for embarrassing the team. We promise that if you take us back it will be the smartest thing you ever did. I’m not being arrogant but I guarantee if you let us on the team and we work together then we will be state champs!
All those in favor of letting these young men on the team raise your hand. Everyone paused briefly and stared at Coach Moore as if waiting for him to tell them what to do. A moment passed but to the Lispon twins it must have seemed like forever. Just when they thought their fate was sealed a reluctant hand slowly stretched towards the sky. Pretty soon almost everyone had raised their hand in aproval. Okay, majority rules. You’re on the team but one slip and I will send you packing understand?
Yes coach.
All right we’re wasting daylight! Let’s get to work!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the next couple of weeks A.J. ran more than he thought humanly possible. Practice felt more like boot camp and Coach Moore was the drill instructor. He would bark orders at the team and watch out if someone messed up or wasn’t paying attention. It was grueling work but everyone helped each other struggle through the rough times and before you knew it the team was running like a well oiled machine.
The upside to these torture sessions is that every boy on the team was faster than ever and in the best shape of his life. The team was also developing into a tightly woven family that no one could unravel. The team ate lunch together, studied together and were regularly seen hanging out in the community together. Coach also had another unusual ritual that the boys performed before every meet.
As the team marched onto the track before a competition they could be heard for several blocks. Two rows of four well trained athletes would march and sing cadence from the locker room all the way into the arena in perfect unison. This routine served several purposes that no of the boys would figure out until later in life. First it got the team thinking and acting as a single unit. Plus the singing opened their lungs up, warmed up their cardiovascular systems and prepared them for the battle ahead. But probably the most important thing it did, and coach loved this part the best, it intimidated the other competitors.
Coach truly believed that even though his team might not be the fastest on the track but they were certainly the most disciplined and well conditioned. He also was of the mindset that if you act and think like winners then you are winners. This philosophy worked perfectly that year. The team didn’t lose a meet all year and beat a team from Philly in the state finals without even breaking a sweat. Two weeks after the championship the school held a banquet and presented Coach Moore with a gigantic trophy to display in his office and each member of the team received a gold medal. A.J. and the rest of his team mates were on cloud nine for the remainder of the school year.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Everywhere he went Chappy would patiently wait for an excuse to bring up his son the track star and if there wasn’t an opportunity then he could create one. Chappy had never been more proud of his son. Not just for wining the state championship but for trying something new and not giving up when it got hard.
A couple of weeks had passed and Chappy was still telling the tale of the state finals as if he had run them himself. On one of their bi-weekly trips to the barbershop Chappy was reliving the events while his son sat captive in the barber chair. A.J. could feel his cheeks filling with blood as his father told the story once again of how his son demolished the competition on that magical afternoon. And if sitting through his dad act out the race for everyone in the shop wasn’t embarrassing enough what happened next had to of topped the cake!
Ben Stephens, one of his teammates, and his older sister Amber walked in right in the middle of Chappy’s reenactment. A.J. sunk in the chair and tried to hide his face as his friend stared at this spectacle. A.J. could handle his dad acting like a fool in front of his friend but not his sister.
Amber Stephens was a sophomore in high school and A.J. thought she was an angel. Amber sometimes came to her younger brother’s track meets and would cheer on the team. A.J. always found it difficult to concentrate while Amber was present. He couldn’t explain what it was that caused this phenomenon but when she was there his mind simply was not in the game. He found himself constantly searching the stands for the brown haired green eyed beauty. And when he caught a glimpse of his buddy’s elder sibling A.J. got nervous and the feeling of butterflies in his stomach overwhelmed his intestines.
At the end of the act Chappy took a bow and everyone, including Ben and Amber, clapped feverously and laughed so hard their sides hurt. Ben walked up to A.J. and began to chat. His sister also approached and rudely interrupted.
Hey A.J. how ya doin today?
Okay.
I never got a chance to tell you congratulations after the big race. You guys were incredible and I think that you ran the best race I’ve ever seen.
A.J. swallowed the lump in his throat and managed to say thanks. We couldn’t have done it without the fans cheering us on.
You’re being modest. You could have run circles around those guys if you felt like it!
I’m not that good, really!
You’re cute. I like you.
And at that A.J.’s hair cut was complete and it was the next patron’s turn. A.J. climbed from the chair and told Ben he would see him later. Then he turned to Amber and barely managed to look Amber in the face. Well actually he looked more at her chin but still that was something and said, “Nice talking to you”.
Chappy said his goodbyes and they walked out the door. When they were in the car Chappy turned to A.J. and chuckled. I hope I didn’t embarrass you too bad in front of your girlfriend.
She’s not my girlfriend dad. She’s out of my league.
Son she’s only a couple of years older and besides you’re a stud just like your old man! Don’t ever be afraid to go after something you want. Just like in track, if you don’t give life everything you got then you won’t cross the line first. After a moment of silence Chappy cleared his throat and said son I am extremely proud of you. I couldn’t have asked for a better child.
Thanks dad. I feel the same way about you.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After track season ended A.J. found himself with idle time on his hands. He still ran on a daily basis and on more than one occasion he raced one of his teammates. The problem was he wanted more so after school he started going by the high school and watching the varsity baseball team practice. He sat in the bleachers spellbound at the sight before his eyes. The team he used to watch back at the Y was good but this team made those guys looks like amateurs. It wasn’t that the team back in Georgia was bad they just seemed to play more for fun. On the other hand the varsity team was all business. They were extremely focused and practiced with a purpose. The odd thing about this was the harder they practiced the more they seemed like they were having fun. They rode each other’s back when someone wasn’t playing to their potential and cheered them on when they were on fire. This reminded A.J. of the major league teams he watched on TV and sometimes while watching the team practice he would daydream about being on the squad. A.J. had become enamored with the game of baseball and he wasn’t even aware of it.

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