He looks like a ball player now—broad shoulders, high cheekbones, and a detached calm I’ve never mastered. He’s 6’4, but wearing cleats and standing on that mound of clay, 1,500 people screaming his name, he’s larger than life.
His brother won a state title seven years earlier. His father won it all in ’69.
And now it’s his turn.
It’s the Florida high school baseball Final Four, and my baby brother is all grown up. And at that moment, I want nothing more than to be him.
* * *
Okay, you say. That’s fine.
A little strange, but whatever.
But why are you writing this here? In your final column, space reserved for waxing sentimental about four years of working for Harvard’s only student daily?
Why are we 2,000 miles away, at a high school game in a minor league stadium, watching a kid in baggy pants and a flat-brimmed cap?
* * *
Because that’s where this all started, at that very field—Ed Smith Stadium, spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds—with those same red-capped kids.
It was a decade ago, almost to the day, late May of 1995, and Key West High School had just won its eighth state title in front of 2,500 fans, including a little 11-year-old girl with braces and stringy blonde hair.
The air was thick with Florida heat and the smell of Budweiser and Cuban cigars, but a chill ran down my skinny little spine when I watched those boys pile onto each other, a writhing mass of heroic, euphoric red, and on that day I fell in love.
Not with baseball, that came later. No, I fell in love with what that team meant to my little rock of an island, with the fervor and the passion, with the tears of the grown men and the glee of the little boys.
Those kids in the red caps were heroes, and at that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be them.
* * *
Two years later, I was a freshman in high school, and my older brother was one of those kids in the red cap. Gender dictated I couldn’t be, but pride dictated that I had to be something.
That’s why I started writing.
First for the local weekly, then the local daily, five articles a week by the spring of my sophomore year, every single one on the front of the sports section, above the fold.
Key West is an island with an almost unrivaled literary tradition, stretching back to Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Frost, and even today it houses more Pulitzer Prize winners per capita than any city in the United States.
But to the locals, the most famous writer in town has always been whoever covers the Key West High School Fighting Conchs, so I did.
Somewhere in the middle, I fell in love with the game of baseball, its silent rhythm and cadence, the subtleties of its design, its pastoral beauty.
Somewhere in the middle, I fell in love with the writing, with trying to translate five senses into words on a computer screen that then become words in 40,000 newspapers the next morning.
But at the beginning? I just loved being as close to those kids in the red caps as possible.
That’s why this story starts there.
Every story I’ve ever written started there.
* * *
I’ve written quite a few of them now. About your sons, your roommates, your teammates. Maybe even about you.
I wrote about a high school shortstop named Khalil Greene, back before Peter Gammons knew his name and girls screamed it from the stands of Petco Park.
I wrote about a freshman quarterback named Ryan Fitzpatrick, back when he was a backup, before Mike Martz started comparing him to Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce.
I’ve been writing about sports for eight years now, and this will be the last story I ever write. And somehow, that’s okay.
* * *
The year my older brother won a state title, I was 14 years old, but I looked about 10, and I covered the game like I had every other that season. After the final out, as those kids in the red caps climbed on each other in a jubilant dog pile, all sweat and smiles, I walked down to the field, press credentials hanging from my neck, notebook clutched in both little hands.
For three years, I had wanted to be a part of a state title celebration, and now I was about to be standing on that grass, as close as I would ever get. But when I reached the gate, I was stopped by a tournament official in a white polo.
“I’m sorry. No fans are allowed on the field.”
I reached down to my neck and showed my credentials. “I’m press.”
He looked at me skeptically. “I don’t know how you got that, but no little girls are allowed on the field.”
I turned away, and walked slowly back up the stadium steps, broken. When I reached the first loge level, I glanced back onto the diamond and a figure caught my eye. It was my little brother, 11 years old, right in the middle of the tangle of red. No stadium official had stopped him. No stadium official noticed him. He was just a boy where he belonged.
As I turned and kept trudging up the steps, I clenched my teeth, and blinked my stinging eyes. It was the first time I had ever been jealous of my baby brother.
* * *
Now he’s all grown up, and I marvel at it every time I see him standing on that mound, tall and lean, clear eyes blazing under that flat-brimmed cap.
He pitched a no-hitter that day, by the way. In the state semifinals.
But as his teammates swarmed him, all sweat and smiles, it was different. I waited in the front row by the dugout for him to come to me, reached up and wrapped my arms around his neck, and told him how proud I was.
I didn’t realize I wasn’t in the dog pile.
My little brother’s all grown up, and he’s not the only one.
* * *
He’s here today, watching me, probably even reading this. My dad’s crying by now, has been since the third sentence, and my mom and older brother are sitting next to him and shaking their heads in amusement.
After four years of writing stories about you, for your parents to read, this story is about me. This story is for them.
This story is my last. And finally, that’s okay.
—Staff writer Lande A. Spottswood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Peter Scully can be found at the fruit wheel in Oneida, N.Y.