Two months later, Bonnie walked with me through the airport lobby to the security checks. We both stopped and came to terms with what the next few steps would mean. The off-season had run its course, and it was time for me to board a plane that would take me away from her and back to the game.
“I’m not a big fan of good-byes,” I said.
“Me neither,” said Bonnie.
“I feel like I’m doing something wrong, like I shouldn’t get on the plane.” I searched Bonnie’s face. “Should I get on this plane?”
“You’re doing the right thing. This is your big chance and you’re going for it.”
“It feels different this time.”
“I wouldn’t know. This is my first time sending you off to baseball.”
“You’re not going to cry, are you? You’re allowed to, but I’ll just feel bad.”
“I’m not a crier,” said Bonnie. “If I do, it will be when I’m back in my car.” Then, as if on cue, she started to cry anyway.
There was no way around it: the next few months were going to be rough. I had prepped, coached, and encouraged Bonnie as much as I could. I helped narrow down dates and ticket prices to overlapping rendezvous cities for all the possible team schedules I had the chance to play on. I even upgraded my text-message plan so I could spam Bonnie with “I love you”s at all hours of the day. Yet, even with the combined force of all that preparation, there was no way of taking the sting out of what was ahead of us. If it’s not the distance baseball creates between you and your lady, it’s the lack of resources it gives you to bridge the gap. We would see each other a grand total of twenty days this season, if that—circumstances that are hard to overcome for any new relationship, let alone one vowing marriage.
Speaking of which, we still had a wedding to plan. Venues, caterers, décor, and all the other stuff that make a Big Day big. Bonnie and I split up responsibilities accordingly. All the accoutrements that would make the day one to remember were left in Bonnie’s capable hands. Meanwhile, I was left with the responsibility of earning ring money so I could make the engagement official by Western civilization’s standards, and asking her parents for their blessing.
Like the proposal, things seemed to be functioning out of order. Whether it was the fact that Bonnie’s parents were powerless against their daughter’s enthusiasm, or that they were simply incredible at understanding the unorthodox circumstances of my baseball career, they told me that when I was ready to ask for their blessing, they’d be ready to give it and, in the meantime, they would reinforce our pocketbook “within reason” when it came to planning the Big Day. I told them I’d gladly take their money, but held off on the blessing since I figured I should at least have the ring first.
While Bonnie’s parents were understanding, mine were not. My parents thought the entire occasion was a catastrophe waiting to happen. When I told my parents about Bonnie and me, my mom told me she’d heard this kind of talk out of my mouth before, and then,
I was single again. She told me I could talk myself into, or out of anything, and after a healthy, screaming Hayhurst debate on the subject, she told me she would believe it only when it happened. My dad, on the other hand, told me point-blank that Bonnie wasn’t the one.
“She’s cute, as far as that goes, but she ain’t it,” he said.
“How would you know?”
“She just ain’t. I know you. She’s a distraction, but you’ll get tired of her. You did all the others.”
“I don’t think you know me as well as you think you do,” I said, angrily.
“Don’t I? I don’t think you know you, is more like it.”
“How can you say that? The most you talk to me is when you’re yelling.”
“You don’t know shit about marriage. You just met this girl. You’re just gonna piss all you’ve worked for away ’cause you got some girl waiting? That’s just stupid, Dirk.”
“I’m not gonna piss it away.”
“Well, I don’t see you pulling this off doing baseball.”
“Then I’ll have to quit baseball.”
“Ah, Jesus, you see, that’s what I ...” He threw his hands in the air. “Just stupid. Just fucking stupid. Whatever,” he said. “It’s your life. I don’t give a shit what you do.”
It wasn’t the reception I was hoping for.
My dad was right about one thing: it was my life and I would prove my parents wrong when I worked things out in my favor. I’d make this relationship work and do fine in baseball, too. I didn’t have the best example of just how to make a marriage function, but I did have every example of how not to.
But as Bonnie dampened my shirt with her tears, I realized what a precarious position I was truly in. Was it confidence or arrogance that made me think I had this under control? This year would be like a tug-of-war, with Bonnie on one side, baseball on the other, and me in the middle trying to hold it all together. Could I really do it?
Rocking her gently, I said, “We’ll call when we can, video-chat every chance we get, and be creative during the times in between. Before you know it, you’ll be out to visit me. The first two weeks are the toughest because of the routine change, but if you stay busy, the time will fly by. We’re going to do this—we are. I promise you.” And secretly, I promised myself as well.
“I know, I know,” said Bonnie. “It’s actually good I’ll have all this extra time to work on wedding details.” She offered me a melancholy smile.
“There you go. Focus on the prize. Speaking of the wedding,” I said, taking a gravely serious tone, “I think the most important thing is how we can fleece as many of our guests for as much money as possible. You know how they have jars you have to stick wads of cash into to make us kiss and stuff? We need more ideas like that. I want this wedding to be so profitable, we will consider doing it a couple of times.”
“Don’t worry,” said Bonnie. “I’ve been to so many other peoples’ weddings, I know all the tricks to use for my own.”
I kissed her on the forehead. “You’re the perfect woman.”
She pulled away from my embrace and looked me in the eyes. “In case you were planning it”—Bonnie patted me forcefully on the chest to make sure I got her point—“don’t even
of proposing to me on a baseball field.”
“I thought you said I could do it anywhere?”
“Anywhere but there.”
“Great, well, if you think of anyplace else I’m not allowed to do it, let me know.”
“I just don’t want to be on the big screen in front of a million people.”
“Big screen? Million people? You haven’t been to a lot of minor league ballparks, have you?”
“No baseball proposal,” she said firmly.
“Fine, no baseball proposal. Got it.” Bonnie went back to resting her head on my chest while I looked out the window to planes in motion on the tarmac. It was almost time for me to go.
“I just want you to know,” I said, “no matter what happens from here, this is the biggest year of my life. I always thought making it to the big leagues would mark my biggest year, but it turns out it was you.”
“This is the biggest year of
lives, babe. We’re going to have to start thinking plural now.”
“Weird,” I said.
“I think it’s great,” said Bonnie.
“Yeah, I guess I think it’s great, too.”
“You’re going to do awesome this season.”
“If I do, you’re the reason.”
“Whatever,” she said, tearing up again. “Listen, you do this, okay? You focus on this and don’t ever let me be the reason you didn’t try your best.”
“I won’t, honey. I’m a professional, remember?”
“I promise. I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too,” said Bonnie.
She kissed me, squeezed my hand, then turned and walked away.
She did not look back.
It took about seven hours to reach the Phoenix airport, if you count the layovers. Strolling down the concourse with my carry-on over my shoulder, I turned on my cell. There were oodles of messages waiting for me. Bonnie mostly. I didn’t reply to any of them; there would be time for that later when I was in my hotel and accounted for. Right now, it was important to get my mind right. There would be very little alone time now that I was once again bought property, and it was important to get focused on what I was trying to do here.
This was my sixth spring with the Padres. That’s a long time in baseball years. The first time I flew in to train with them, I dressed up: slacks, suit jacket, shoes, the whole production. I didn’t know who was going to meet me on the concourse, but I wanted to make a good impression. In fact, I thought it might help me get to the big leagues faster if my new employers thought I was a snappy dresser. What if Kevin Towers, the Padres’ general manager himself, was at the airport waiting to give me an extra-warm welcome only to discover I looked like a slob? The results could be disastrous. I didn’t sign a contract with enough guaranteed money to afford missing any first impression opportunities.
As it turned out, the guy who picked me up was a three-hundred-pound Samoan clubhouse attendant who had been collecting other confused, overdressed rookies all day. He didn’t know who I was and he didn’t care. To him, I was just another jock to wash and he wanted me to get in the van because he had to get back to the spring training complex in time to change the laundry over. Thus began a long series of revelatory moments in professional baseball, many of which were not as euphoric as the childhood fantasies I’d always held on to.
The first player I shook hands with told me he knew my college of origin, Kent State, and that he remembered playing against us during a regional matchup. He said he suspected our conference to be fairly weak since we didn’t seem very good. I informed him that I started that particular game and he asked if I knew someone in the Padres organization, because he didn’t understand how I got drafted. I started to wonder that myself after one of the higher-ranking player development figures, a man we would later come to call Wyatt Earp because of his obsession with the radar gun, watched me throw a bullpen less than twenty-four hours into my career and said, “Eighth rounder? I expected better.”
My first roommate was a Mormon guy who staunchly avoided tea and chew. However, he did not avoid regularly bringing girls back to the room and sleeping with them, with me in the room. The next day, I found out my prudish Christian scruples on kissing and telling, and exactly what can be kissed and told about on a woman’s body, were not shared by the bulk of my new coworkers.
But the worst discovery of my young career, and the one that would haunt me for years to come, was learning just how hard life can be for those players who profess baseball ignorance. My first spring training locker was not too far away from a gentleman named Valenzuela Jr. The person who occupied that locker was not very athletic-looking. He was short, stubby, and rather rounded when compared to the other tall, sculpted Adonises who made the professional ranks. I thought he might have actually been one of the favor drafts I was accused of being just a day earlier. If it was true, then, considering my own experiences with the title’s implication, I thought this round young man might need a friend. I introduced myself, then asked what I thought would be a harmless small-talk question: “Junior, eh? Did your dad play too?” When he told me I was a fucking idiot, I honestly had no idea why.
People get pretty offended when you don’t know the history of their greatness, and everyone who becomes pro thinks they’re great, at least for a little while. Stuff they did in college, stuff they did in high school, stuff their parents did. They all know someone who knows someone; they all have a friend a couple of levels higher up in the system; they all think they know something you don’t, some inside track on how they will soon be great themselves.
The bitter irony of it all, which coaches point out at the start of every camp, is that most of us, no matter what our pedigree, won’t make it to the big leagues. Of those who do, almost none will have careers long enough to retire from. Our life in this game is short, though none of us chooses to accept this when we’re young and dreaming of playing for decades. For a rookie, signing a minor league contract means the world is your oyster and the future is as bright as the lights atop a big league stadium. If it doesn’t work out, we feel we’ve got nothing to lose since we’ll always be able to say, “At least I made it pro,” and how many other people can say that?
After a few years of grinding in the game, that statement isn’t good enough. Even though we realize what we’re playing for is nothing greater or less than a simple window of time, that moment becomes the center of our universe, a moment where we’re on top of the heap, a moment in which we can actually make our history worth remembering. We lose sight of the fact that baseball, for all its high drama and patriotism, is a lottery ticket job with few winners and lots of losers.
Once the game is in your veins, it’s hard to kick the habit. It keeps you hooked through hope, and strung out on chances. It makes you believe that just a few days in the big leagues will justify all the years you traded trying to get them. A rational man would walk away from the whole thing once he figured out what was happening to him, but baseball is not a rational place. There a very few careers that offer you such a life-changing opportunity mixed with the fulfillment of victory. The trouble is, you’re not buying that opportunity with dollars, but with years of your life you can’t have back once spent.
Now I was betting years of Bonnie’s life alongside my own. I knew Bonnie would let me chase my window of time as long as I wanted, even beyond the point of lying to myself about the window of time that I had. At present, I honestly believed I still had a chance and, like I said in the kitchen at my parents’ house, it was the best one I’d ever had. But that could all change in the blink of an eye, and if it did, I had to be willing to change with it.
I never wanted our life together to become one of scraping by with crossed fingers, taking handouts from our parents like mine still did from theirs. For me, this was a make-or-break year. If I went backward, if things went south, I needed to be the rational man and walk away. I didn’t want it to come to that, but I was no longer playing for some loose ideal of greatness or an opportunity to make some trite statement about how close I came. I would never be a twenty-year veteran with hall of fame numbers. I would never be a franchise icon. I would never have my jersey retired. If I was going to marry Bonnie, the only way I could rationalize remaining in the game was if I was going to use it to meet the needs of an adult player, not to fulfill the dreams of a child.
If I was going to keep pushing, I needed my best opportunity to become a reality, and I needed it to happen this year.