It was Nicholas Sparks who detonated the bus. Titles of Austen, Steel, Roberts, RPE, Martin, even the early works of Kristin Hannah slipped under the radar to the rest of the team. But walking through a bus of pent-up, testosterone-clogged minor leaguers with A Walk to Remember made the eight-hour bus trip something of the same.
“Getting your nails done, too?”
It’s expected from him—the real macho man who slammed his bat in rage after his third strikeout of the night. He also spent forty-five minutes in front of the mirror applying a black foundation under his eyes then blotting it into a fade.
He leans over my seat then looks back to his clique. “It really is. Nicholas Sparks.”
The front of the bus laughs.
I get it. Wolves testing the resolve of a potential pack member. Rams butting heads to earn Alpha status. I was like him once. Trying to be the baddest. Trying to be the toughest. Peacocking my feathers wide enough to guard myself from realizing how weak and broken I truly am.
But strength is not dominance. It’s exploring the unknown terrain of who we are and accepting what we find. Yet, with thirty baseball players strapped in a metal tube chugging through the flatlands of Illinois, butting heads is inevitable.
“Hey.” Another teammate leans over the bus aisle. “Gronk.” I hardly nudge from the page. “Your boyfriend give you that book?”
I should have hit him, but I’ve already taken a three-game suspension for a bench-clearing brawl, and this book means more to me than a few derogatory comments. This book gives me hope. This book means I’m one page closer to the man I idolized my entire life—my father.
Growing up, my dad sharpened me. Pushed me. The dream of professional baseball became his as much as it was mine. I missed birthday parties, and he missed work. My mom learned how to sleep during the day and drive across the country at night. My brother spent his birthday in a hotel room because we made nationals; cake at 6 am, first pitch at 8. Then in 2014, the St. Louis Cardinals called, and our dream became a reality.
But after three years, the dream sputtered. The Cardinals cut me and now on the tail end of a 2-year independent minor league contract. Before my eyes, the chase transformed into an ambush, and my career, this game, our dream—was ending.
This baseball dream had welded our family together, so once this season ends, and my career is over, what will we have? I wasn’t ready to leave the game; rather, I wasn’t ready for the game to leave us.
Before I left home for my last season, my dad said he had some books for me to try. Not read, try as if it was a pull of homemade Appalachian shine. He knew I loved to read, especially on bus trips. Mostly ‘guy stuff’: biographies of war heroes—the type with a one-word title and “the autobiography of a Navy Seal” beneath. He reads what you’d expect from someone who ran two businesses outside the Central Pennsylvania coal region in jeans and cowboy boots. His retirement ceremony consisted of hanging a sign: “Back from Mexico. Decided to retire. Thank you for 36 years” and locking the front door.
We were predictable as our demographic shows, but my dad was the master of two things: 1) texting with T9Word 2) subtlety.
He handed me a book by Richard Paul Evans. “You ever read him?”
“Naw,” I said, figuring Richard Paul Evans was a Patterson knockoff.
He shrugged. “Mushy.” I looked for his lasted biography, perhaps a Western if we’re feeling wild. My dad grabbed another book. “How ‘bout this guy?”
It was Nicholas Sparks. My dad’s not reading Nicholas Sparks. No way. Of course, I wouldn’t be caught dead watching The Notebook, let alone reading the book.
“Maybe Alex has read it.” My girlfriend. He tossed it back on the pile.
I know my dad like I know the seams on a baseball. He was telling me something. It was his subtle invitation to a world that heals wounds, fixes broken pasts, and although my dream of baseball ended in smoke, happily ever after can exist—even if it’s on a page.
I walked over to the pile and pulled another Richard Paul Evans. “You read this one?”
“Soft but…” He nodded. “Good story. You might like it.”
From then on, we burned through books. It became a scavenger hunt, digging through yard sale boxes of bent spines of mass paperbacks and church sales, filling backs of books, five for a dollar.
I left for spring training with a bag full of baseball gear and Romance books. It became our new topic to analyze, complain about, and enjoy together. We discussed RPE’s fragrant sentences and predictable endings. We both agreed we could get over Nicholas Sparks’ character dumps in the first chapter for his heart-wrenching twists in the last, and Danielle Steel started zinging them off a bit too quickly.
Our critique group continued throughout our last season.
My parents would come to games, still holding the same hope and wonder in their eyes watching their son play professional baseball, but now it was different. Our post-game meal consisted of a book swap between a beach town Steel and a second-chance Sparks. Conversation poured out of us, sometimes without a mention of the game. Books. Family. Life. What else could possibly matter?
After my parents watched me play their last game, my dad gave me a gift for the ride home. I smiled.
We accepted baseball was ending, but with every story of broken hearts turning full, a new spark catching flame, and a bond strengthening over trials, we discovered something bigger than a game. By the time baseball left us, we had found precisely what our characters have been searching for all season—a new beginning.
I took his book, smiled, and thanked him. He nodded. We shook hands before I stepped on a bus headed across the flatlands of Illinois.
“Your boyfriend give you that book?”
I smile. “My dad did.”