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Old 02-08-2005, 08:25 PM   #1
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Austin James: Playing for His Life

The sun was half down as Margaret and Philip James readied the dinner table. Actually, Philip was at the table while Margaret laid out the plates and silverware. Occasionally, he'd move something, just so he could say he did something to contribute.

Beyond the sound of rattling plates and crashing pots and pans in the undersink cabinet, another sound pierced the dusk every few seconds, seemingly perfectly spaced apart.

Pfffffffffffffttt SMACK!!!!
Pfffffffffffffttt SMACK!!!!
Pfffffffffffffttt SMACK!!!!

"Boy's hummin' it tonight, Marge," Philip said. "Good thing I hung that mat as a target, or the kid would knock down the damn garage."

Margaret checked on her pot roast and placed a pair of bowls, for vegetables, on the dinner table. She thrust open the silverware drawer, roughly grabbing far more than she needed before slamming it shut.

Pfffffffffffffttt SMACK!!!!

"DANG!" Philip yelped excitedly as Margaret stampeded through the kitchen, checking on everything without really checking it, just knowing the motions of what needed to be done.

Pffffffffffffttt SMACK!!!

"Eat yer heart out, Gibby," Philip bellowed again, now looking out the kitchen window to watch the show.

There, in a faint yellow light cast from atop the back porch and the last glimmer of fall's daylight in suburbia, Austin James stood next to a cracked white bucket of baseballs -- some old and tattered, a dozen brand new as a gift from his dad, and another 20 or so used but usable -- like a machine. Bend, grab, straighten up, glare, set, windup, release...

Pffffffffffffttt SMACK!!!

Austin had just turned 19, but he was built like a man. 6'2", 198 pounds largely composed of trunklike legs. In virtual silhouette, his frame somehow looked even more impressive. With each release, a workmanlike grunt emitted, sounding more like someone chopping wood than throwing a threaded pearl.

But this was work...the only work that had interested Austin since his first game at the age of 6. Everything since then was leading to this point.

The second-phase of Major League Baseball's amateur draft was to be held in January. And Austin James, from the hardly-baseball-hotbed town of Hicksville, Long Island, was ready.

He and Phillip had driven, taken the train, done whatever they could that summer to see as many scouts -- hell, as many baseball people -- as they could. Nobody was scouting Hicksville, that was for sure. So he went to them. And he impressed.

So now he waited, full of tunnel vision about his future.

After a long pause, he grabbed another ball. He dropped it when he tried to pick it up, rattling around the bucket, letting Philip know he was at the end.

Philip opened the back door.

"Let it fly, A.J."

His son nodded without looking, climbed the dirt mound Philip shoveled together 62 feet from the garage...60 feet 6 inches from the old gray mat with the white box painted on.

A picture of balance, Austin delivered...

Pffffffffffffftttt SMACK!!!!! ....

BOOM!!!

"Sweet Jesus," Philip howled giddily. "Atta Boy A.J.!"

Through the mat, right in the center, cutting a smooth, perfect circle through the wood of the side of the garage.

"MARGE!!! Did you SEE that, Marge. Someone's gonna take him...I just KNOW it...someone's gonna take my boy!"

CRASH!!!

Philip whirled around as a salad bowl struck the wall, shattering everywhere.

"SHUT UP, Phil," Marge hollered. "Just SHUT UP about it!"

"What the hell did you do that for?" Philip barked.

"Someone IS going to take him, Philip," Marge shouted back, starting to sob. "They're going to take his dream and they're going to take him from us."

Philip was confused. A.J. looked toward the house from outside as he collected the mass of balls near the garage.

"What are you talking about?" Philip asked. "This IS his dream, and they're not..."

"NO!!!!" Marge cried back. "I don't mean baseball will take him, Philip. I mean THEM!!!"

Marge pointed to the small television on the kitchen counter. On it was the president...Richard Nixon...and images from Vietnam.

It was November 1969. And the nation's first draft lottery since 1942 was about to be held.

GH
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Old 02-08-2005, 08:45 PM   #2
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Hmmm... great open. I'll be following this.
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Old 02-08-2005, 08:55 PM   #3
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Ditto
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Old 02-08-2005, 09:28 PM   #4
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Ditto, Ditto. This is a fantastic start and has me hooked in only the first post. Good luck Gforce.
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Old 02-08-2005, 09:41 PM   #5
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The walls were a pale blue, but you'd never know it. Austin's room was filled nail to nail with posters...Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Juan Marichal...and his favorites on his beloved Mets (fresh off their Miracle), Jerry Koosman and "The Franchise" Tom Seaver.

Baseball Digest, newspaper clippings, books, magazines...anything baseball he had ever encountered was kept -- surprisingly organized -- in his room.

He lay in his bed that night, baseball in hand as it usually was, his fingers stretching, contoured sometimes in ways that would make Austin laugh, knowing he could never actually throw a ball with that grip. But he loved to experiment while throwing, and even while just holding the ball. Anything that could trigger something he could use.

His mother had calmed down, but she and his dad both sat quietly in the living room. His dad was in denial, his mom convinced the sky would fall on him completely...Austin came across as being in denial, too, but he wasn't firing missiles that night with no motivation. He was angry, too. He knew it was possible.

He was bright, always a good student, but he couldn't ever wrap his head around why we were in Vietnam in the first place. It always seemed to him we went with the best of intentions, but when it became clear we didn't belong there, our leaders couldn't bring themselves to withdraw and admit we lost lives to accomplish nothing. So instead they cost more.

But he also knew he didn't know the whole story. He loathed protests that targeted soldiers...young men assigned to a job nobody wanted. He knew what he felt, and that was enough.

Now, what he felt was fear.

He put his glove and sneakers in his closet. On the top shelf, protruding slightly, was an old plastic machine gun toy he had gotten years ago. He took it down and held it in his hands, staring at it...through it.

So much raced through his mind, at the same time a blank, or at least muddled, slate. Reflexively he put both hands near the bottom and made a slow, striding, swinging motion as with a bat.

He sighed a deep sigh, rested the toy against the wall, slumped into bed and without a sound cried himself to sleep.

GH

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Old 02-08-2005, 09:46 PM   #6
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Wow. This is, just, wow.
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Old 02-08-2005, 09:48 PM   #7
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Thanks, guys. Hoping it plays out as well as it seems to have started.

Appreciate the response!

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Old 02-08-2005, 10:27 PM   #8
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Great start! I love the bombshell (excuse the pun) at the end of the first post. Looking forward to more!
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Old 02-08-2005, 11:02 PM   #9
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Austin was up early the next morning. His dad was already outside, boarding up the side of the garage. His mother was brewing coffee in the kitchen.

As was habit when he didn't know what to say, Austin stood in the doorway entering the room, shifting his balance from right foot to left and back again, making the floorboards creak to get his mother's attention, hoping she would start the conversation.

"Good morning, Dukes," she said, using a nickname he'd had since he was a baby, when he would clench his fists and pump his arms when excited, "Putting up his dukes," his father would say.

"Hi, Ma," Austin said softly.

His mother walked slowly over to him, kissing him on the cheek and holding him tight.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Everything will work out fine."

"It's OK, Ma," Austin replied. "I understand." He paused a while, waiting for his mother to head back to her coffee. He could talk to her, but he hated the sullen look she'd get on her face when the topic was unpleasant.

"How's Dad?"

His mother turned to him and tried to put on her best face. "He's out there already...has been since 5:30. He had a tarp in the garage we never used. Says he can double it up and patch the mat, make it OK..."

Austin hugged her from behind as her voice trailed off. He opened the screen door and made his way to the garage.

There was his dad, in jeans and an old Brooklyn Dodgers sweatshirt, kneeling next to the hole Austin had tore through the garage. He'd sawed down board to nail over the hole already, and had stitched the tarp, triple folded, to the back of the mat.

Austin stood next to him, speechless.

"Good thing I came out here early," his dad said. "Ya chipped the headlight."

"Sorry, pop."

His dad laughed. "Sorry? For doing what you do? Son, don't EVER apologize for anything you're working for, got it?"

"Yes, sir."

"I thought maybe later we'd head over to the park, I'd catch for you."

Austin knew then how much his dad was hurting. Always by his side, always urging him on, his father hadn't been able to catch for him in years, once he threw too hard for his dad's hand -- wounded in WWII -- to take.

His dad didn't back down, of course. Hell, he was the toughest S.O.B. Austin ever knew. Austin had to tell him he wouldn't pitch to him anymore, after his dad's hand swelled to almost twice it's normal size following one session. He couldn't close it, and even today his handywork is extra effort because of the pain. But it always gets done, and he never complains.

"I can't throw much today, Pop," Austin said. "I threw a lot last night."

"I know, pal. Just wanted to help you out a bit."

His dad paused. "Just do something to help," he said, looking downward and starting to walk away.

"You always help me, Dad," Austin replied. "Always."

The two walked back toward the house, smelling the fresh coffee from inside.

"When you served, did you get scared?" Austin asked.

"No," he replied quickly. "No time to be scared. We had a job to do and we did it."

Austin knew his dad was telling the truth. But that bred a follow-up question.

"You ever been scared?"

As they approached the steps to the back porch, Austin's dad rubbed his shoulder firmly. He stepped ahead and held the back door open for his son. Austin stopped and looked his dad in the eye, awaiting an answer. When it came, it both shocked and relieved him.

"Not until now."

GH
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Old 02-08-2005, 11:08 PM   #10
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I'm really loving the dialogue, GForce. Realistic and still excellent.
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Old 02-09-2005, 09:51 AM   #11
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Nice twist, GForce. Baseball is the context, but the conflicts of real life offer so much more drama and emotion. Nice to have the tension of the draft hanging over A.J.'s head - I'm sure it was that way for many many young men in 1969.
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Old 02-09-2005, 11:49 PM   #12
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Can't wait for more, GForce!!
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Old 02-10-2005, 03:06 PM   #13
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He hadn't slept for the better part of a week. School was in session, but he was delaying entrance to college until after Major League Baseball's amateur draft. Now he was regretting the move.

He could have possibly gotten a deferment for Vietnam because of his classification as a student. But he wanted to take those months to prepare for the draft, tour the country with his dad and audition for scouts or whoever else was willing to watch.

Today would be a long day. The longest of his life, though depending what happened tonight, that would surely change.

They were going to televise the drawing. Politicians were gathering in Washington to draw numbers. Each day of the year had its own capsule that would be drawn, one by one. Those born on the first date chosen would be first expected to enroll in the military...the first to join the fight.

October 18. If this went down badly, no birthday would ever be celebrated the same way again. His entrance to the world would also be the date that punched his ticket to war. Austin found that disturbingly ironic.

Both his mom and dad stopped into his room separately, intermittently throughout the day. He sat on his floor, playing his tabletop baseball game, spinning the arrow over the circular cards. Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb...all there. He made cards of his own, too. Wrote formulas and everything. Had an 8-team league he tracked stats for in woodworker's detail.

His parents asked if they could get him anything, a drink, a sandwich. Dad offered to play catch, as he always did.

Austin broke to help his dad shovel the walk after a half-inch of slushy snow came down that afternoon. His mind wandered often.

At one point a military plane flew overhead. Austin dropped his shovel and stared, following its trail until it faded into the distance, tracking its likely path when out of sight. His dad watched from a distance, knowing the feeling well. Twenty-eight years or not, the day you learn you're going to war is a day for which the details tend not to escape your mind for very long.

Philip did all he could do. He stood next to his son and stared into the distance as well. Austin looked for clarity in an uncertain future. Philip, his arm around Austin's shoulder, simply looked for hope. Neither search was successful.

The sun would be down soon. Dinner would be eerily silent. Nobody ate much.

The three sat in the living room. As 8 o'clock approached, nobody moved. Then Austin stood, walked haltingly toward the TV, and turned it on.

The war lottery was ready to begin.

GH
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Old 02-10-2005, 09:38 PM   #14
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Brilliant stuff!
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Old 02-10-2005, 09:58 PM   #15
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This is terrific, i can't wait to read more. Keep it up.
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Old 02-10-2005, 10:15 PM   #16
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Fantastic stuff, keep it up!

If he does get drafted I have a pretty good idea. But I want to read more of your stuff before I write (or sleep)
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Old 02-11-2005, 05:14 PM   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WillTheThrill
Fantastic stuff, keep it up!

If he does get drafted I have a pretty good idea. But I want to read more of your stuff before I write (or sleep)
Believe me, I have it all planned out already

GH
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Old 02-11-2005, 06:21 PM   #18
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It was cruel. Simply cruel.

Politican after politician, parading through aisles, shaking hands. The media interviewing one after the other, most defending our presence in Vietnam, and the need for this lottery. Sure, there were some dissenters. But not on this night, at least not officially.

To delay this event that was surely torturing more than just the James household to show pictures of the people who were letting it happen...to keep these young men swirling like wind socks in fear and confusion was not right.

"Can I get anyone anything," Marge asked softly, seeking an excuse to escape for a fear-laden sob.

"No, thanks, Ma," Austin answered. His father just shook his head slowly.

Though many politicians were on the scene, the drawing quickly became low key. It opened with an invocation. Young men and women representing the Selective Service's youth advisory committees across the country gathered to take part in the drawing, removing the political appearance from the actual drawing, a ploy that fooled nobody, certainly not the James' around their television.

Briefly, the media showed scattered small demonstrations outside, mostly from young people, none of which were a danger of disrupting the proceedings.

Selective Service director Lt. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, a tough nut in his 70s, greeted the youth members before shaking the hand of Rep. Alexander Pirnie, a Republican from New York who would draw the first capsule.

Austin had read in the paper that Selective Service experts expected the top third of those numbers drawn would be drafted. So the top 120...heck, Austin thought, odds could be worse.

He began to work himself into a belief he would be spared. "Odds on my side," he thought.

Austin was shifting on the floor, on one side, then the other. Knees pulled to his chest, flat on his back, every which way possible. His mother had returned with a soda he didn't request but was glad to have. His dad had taken care of himself...scotch, from the cabinet next to his easy chair. There was nothing easy about this.

Pirnie reached into a rotating bin and pulled out a capsule. The first children to go would be those born...

Sept. 14.

"Another 300 sighs of relief and I may actually be relieved," Austin said, trying to add levity to the situation. His dad cracked a smile, his mother, too. I'll be fine he thought. This is not my destiny.

The youth committee members lined up to draw the subsequent capsules...Pirnie was the only elected official with a role. Next drawing...

April 24.

Still safe.

Austin was now on his stomach, his long frame stretched out across the carpet. His eyes closed, drawing him back to a time, once upon.

The floor used to be hardwood. When he was little, Austin would take a running start from the front door and slide...Jackie Robinson stealing home. His brother, Joseph, would do a great Yogi Berra impersonation that would crack him up, even at the age of 6.

He clipped the leg of his mother's old coffee table once, knocking it off and sending the table crashing to the ground. Then she did the Yogi, flipping her lid, but hers wasn't an act. It was a damn nice table.

December 30.

Joseph called shortly after dinner. "I love you, A.J.," he said. "And you'll be fine."

Joseph was in California, working in advertising. He was Austin's elder by 4 years, his destroyed left knee keeping him from having to serve. He was in a car accident his senior year in high school that many felt ruined his chance at being drafted by a Major League club. He was a fast switch-hitter, with a stick-'em glove and a line drive stroke. How Austin loved watching him play...peppering bullets to all fields...

...bullets.

February 14.

What does it feel like when they hit? he wondered.

His dad had been wounded, but not from a bullet. A truck exploded, and metal from the blast pierced his hand, as well as his chest and leg. He was scarred along his left pectoral muscle, but the penetration wasn't too deep, a testament to the rock-solid build of his younger years.

Dad was a man's man. Tough as nails, romantic to the core, could fix anything, make anyone laugh...just everything. God, how Austin looked up to him...longed to follow in those steady, firm footsteps...always with purpose, always with direction.

A hug from dad was never old. It was never unmacho. It was strength, pure strength and he fed off of it. Each day, every day, like morning coffee.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Marge howled.

Austin crawled to his father's lap, his mother collapsing on top of him, a wailing mess of unwavering devotion. Philip wrapped them both in his powerful arms. "Oh God, Dad!" Austin gasped. "I...I..."

Philip's pot was empty. There was nothing, at that moment, to say. So he just held on. Tightly. And prayed the words would come.

GH
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Old 02-12-2005, 05:17 PM   #19
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"Yes...yes, sir. We appreciate it. Yes, I'll pass that on to him. Thank you!"

Philip hung up the phone. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the third team to call in the past week, wishing Austin luck but letting him know they were going to bypass him in the draft. Boston and the Baltimore Orioles had preceded them.

Philip and Austin had driven a few thousand miles since graduation in June. The only way to get Austin's name out there was going to be to beat down doors and make scouts see him. Most who saw him were impressed. Eighteen years old, touching 95 miles an hour, will do that.

But he had an erratic breaking ball, and he had faced mediocre competition at best. His team wasn't very good, and won 4 games all year that he didn't pitch.

Austin hadn't touched his glove since the lottery. Mostly, he went for drives, walks, sat in his room. Friends called to check on his draft number. His friend Mark was selected early as well, 3 dates after Austin. Steven, a guy up the block, had his date come up early as well but will likely get a deferment because he provides for his mother and siblings since his father died last year of a heart attack.

Austin hadn't spoken to Mark in days. He didn't want to brood with someone else. He didn't want anyone asking what ifs. He was doing enough of that on his own. All he wanted to do was turn back the clock. Mark sought levity when he told Austin everyone would think he was from Texas, but Austin was in such a fog the joke didn't resonate.

Philip was in the basement now. He blamed himself. He told Austin to put off school to participate in the baseball draft. They didn't select college kids often, at least not early. It was stupid advice, he told himself now. Austin wasn't going to be drafted early anyway. He had to chase the scouts down and, despite the success of that trip, he wasn't going to overtake studs from across the country who people had been watching.

If Austin had gone to college he could have been taken in the baseball draft, and he could have gotten a deferment if he was called by the military. They announced the draft lottery in August, so Austin had time to enroll. But he didn't.

In a corner of the basement sat a green canvas duffel bag. It held Austin's baseball gear, the bulk of it anyway, other than his glove and favorite bat. But there was catcher's gear, bases, several bats and balls beaten beyond use.

Philip grabbed the bag by its strap and, one-handed, hurled it across the basement, smashing into a set of steel shelves that held food overflow from the upstairs pantry. The bag hit the concrete floor of the basement with a loud, echoing sound and the shelves rocked before falling over on top of it.

"GOD DAMN IT!!!" He yelled. He clenched his own hair in his hands, burying his face in them, falling to his knees. He heard footsteps, the creaking stairs.

Austin was there.

He slowly walked next to his father and knelt beside him.

"Can I bring it with me, Dad?" Austin asked. "It got you through."

Philip welled up but held back the tears.

"I need you with me, Dad. And this is as close as I can have."

Austin reached in and pulled out a bat, then another, setting them on the floor. Philip reached in as well. Together, father and son emptied the bag, on the cold, hard floor.

Austin paused, tracing the black stenciled print.

"U.S. Army...Philip J. James...31476523."

Like father, like son.

GH

Last edited by GForce; 02-13-2005 at 05:24 PM.
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Old 02-13-2005, 04:42 AM   #20
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This is turning into a very powerful story. Great writing, I really love it; getting to know all the feelings of the characters.
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