“Down and ready, Cubs!” a boisterous fan shouted from the bleachers. “Down and ready!”
The stakes could not have been much higher. After getting blown out 12-0 by the Dodgers in the season’s first game, the upstart Cubs had rebounded to win six of their next eight games and now had a chance to take over first place in the standings with a win over the Braves. The intensity was just about unbearable. We needed one out to squelch this rally and maintain our tenuous lead against the league’s best team.
I watched the Braves coach load the pitching machine, a contraption that looks like a giant mechanical grasshopper.
“Down and ready, Cubs!”
The batter took a good cut but fouled off the first pitch. He stepped out of the batter’s box to regroup while the coach loaded the machine with another ball. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my right fielder sitting in the lotus position, studying a handful of dirt as if it might contain gold nuggets, or secret clues about his future.
“Rees, get up,” I whispered urgently. “There’s two away. We still need another out to get out of this jam.”
Rees rose and released his handful of dirt with a flourish and a heavy sigh.
“Coach Cox?” he said. “Do you know what a sasquatch is?”
“Yes, Rees, I’ve heard of them,” I replied. “Bigfoot, right?”
“Yep, that’s it,” he said. “I’ve been learning a lot about them. Have you ever seen one in person?”
The batter took a pitch low and inside. The base runners crouched into a sprinting posture. Out of the corner of my other eye, I saw my centerfielder using his right foot to fashion cool patterns in a patch of mud left over from yesterday’s heavy rainfall. He was grinding his foot as hard as he could, as if he were trying to put out the world’s smallest and most intense forest fire. The mud was now up to his ankle, and when he tried to pull his cleat out of it, his foot came right out of the shoe.
“Down and ready, Andy!” I said, trying to get his attention.
“Coach Cox, do you know who’s winning?” Andy said, reaching down to pluck his shoe of the mud like the world’s ugliest flower.
“We’re up right now, but they are making a comeback,” I said. “This is a big out right here.”
The batter took another pitch, one that looked like a strike to me.
“Coach Cox, do you like Chinese food?” Andy said.
With the count standing at 2-1, my second baseman, Hunter, retreated about eight yards into right center and turned toward me, with his back to the batter.
“Coach Cox, can I play catcher?” he said. “I tried it last year and I can really do it! I like football, too. I’m probably going to play this fall.”
Fortunately, the batter swung and missed at the next pitch instead of hitting it to second base, or to centerfield, where Andy was still working on getting his right shoe back on.
“Down and ready, Cubs! Down and ready!” I shouted, clapping my hands for emphasis. “One more out! Keep your heads in the game!”
I made a mental note to talk to them in the dugout about maintaining focus on defense, the importance of understanding each situation and what the situation required of them. In the midst of my mental note-taking, I looked over and saw that Rees had removed his hat and his glove, and had both his hands in his hair. He looked exasperated, wearing the expression of a 35-year-old man who just found out his car is being repossessed.
The Braves coach launched another pitch, which hit the plate. The count was now full, the crowds from both sides shouting encouragement, some standing, some leaning forward in their seats on the bleachers.
“Coach Cox, this hat makes my head really just too hot, really too hot,” Rees said. “Is your hat hot, too? Can you come over here and scratch my head?”
I went over and scratched Rees’ itchy head, just as the batter smacked the next pitch into deep leftfield. By the time my leftfielder, Justin, retrieved the ball and threw it into the infield, all three base runners had scored. When the throw from second to third got through the third baseman’s legs and leaked away like an ink stain down a white shirt, the fourth run scored and the game was suddenly tied, eliciting a heavy groan from the Cubs’ fans on the visitor’s side.
We finally got the third out and ran into the dugout. I got all the guys seated while the Braves took infield practice.
“OK, guys, we’re still in this thing,” I said. “We can still win it.”
“Coach Cox, when are we having snacks?” said my shortstop, Elijah.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, SNACKS!!!” several others chimed in at once.
“What are we having?”
“I hope it’s Rice Krispie treats!”
“I hope it’s ice cream!”
“Coach Cox, Justin said there was a bee on my hat,” said Noah. “Do you see a bee on my hat?”
When Charlie singled to left field and Jack doubled to right, we had runners in scoring position with just one out. We were that close to taking command of the game again, that close to the top of the standings. One of the coaches approached me and suggested we move our pitcher, Max, from the right side of the mound to the left side in the next inning, since the Braves were tending to pull the ball. A defensive shift. Good idea.
Just as our next batter stepped up to the plate, I heard that awful sound, the worst possible sound a little league coach can hear at a moment as fraught as this one. The bright tinkle of the ice cream truck, which I soon saw coming like the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, rounding onto Henry Street and pulling into the parking lot about 20 feet beyond the center field fence.
In literature, this is called deus ex machina, or as translated from Latin, “god from the machine,” which Wikipedia tells us is “is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.”
I accused the Braves’ coaches of authoring this particular act of contrivance, though, truth be told, their players were as distracted as ours by the unseemly and “unexpected intervention” of the ice cream truck in the game’s biggest moment.
Of course, the next two Cub batters struck out, their eyesight blurred by visions of Brown Mules and Nutty Buddies, and our rally was blown out like a candle on a birthday cake. In the bottom half of the inning, as the ice cream truck continued to play the maddening tinkle ever louder, the Braves mounted another rally and won the game on a swinging bunt single.
It was devastating. I tried to think of the right thing to say to the team, some words of encouragement to soften the blow, something that would ease the pain and help them to get out from under the weight of this crushing disappointment.
“Guys, the baseball gods can be fickle sometimes,” I began.
“Coach Cox,” Max said. “Which do YOU like better: ice cream sandwiches or Creamsicles?
“I want you all to know how proud I am of you,” I resumed. “Even the best teams come up short now and then. The most important thing …”
“Coach Cox,” Andy said. “How much longer do you think that ice cream truck is going to stay there?”
I just sighed. Obviously, they were still in shock. All I could do was let them go and let them feel their feelings when they were ready. We huddled together and did the all-hands-in “Go, Cubs” routine, whereupon 11 tiny rockets in blue jerseys blasted off toward centerfield. Less than two minutes later, the ice cream truck had vanished in a murky, roiling, screaming mass of blue.
I tried to think good thoughts, but all I could come up with was this: I hoped that not one of them had the correct change.