SINCE HIS FOURTH BIRTHDAY, Tyler Ames had logged nearly twenty thousand hours training and practicing and preparing for the game of baseball. Two decades of wins and losses, warm-ups and strikeouts, game after game after game. But there was one thing Tyler had never accomplished.
He’d never been perfect.
Tyler adjusted his Blue Wahoos cap and dug the toe of his shoe into the soft dirt of the pitcher’s mound at the Pensacola Bayfront Stadium. Redemption was at hand. Bent at the waist, the ball an extension of his arm, Tyler stared down the next batter. Nearly five thousand fans screamed beneath the lights on this beautiful August evening.
Here . . . now . . . Tyler actually felt perfect.
As if tonight even the ghosts of his past were cheering for him.
His heart slammed around in his chest as he reeled back
and released a pitch. Ninety miles an hour, he thought. At least ninety.
“Strike!” The umpire stood and pumped his right arm. “One ball, two strikes!”
One more, Tyler caught the ball from the catcher. Just one. A breeze blew in from the bay, but Tyler couldn’t stop sweating. Breathe, Ames. Just breathe. They were the words he told himself every time the game got tense. He dragged his arm over his forehead, stood straight up on the mound, and took a deep breath.
One more strike. Tyler squinted at the catcher’s signals. The dance was as old as the game: catcher signaling the pitch, pitcher waiting for the right signal, the pitch he wanted to throw. The signal came.
No. Tyler shook his head. Not that one. The catcher changed signals. Again Tyler shook his head. The third signal made Tyler smile. At least on the inside.
The change-up. Perfect pitch for this batter, this moment.
Tyler glanced at the stands. Four scouts from the Cincinnati Reds were here. If things went well he could bypass triple A and join the Big Leagues. As early as next week. The Majors. His dream since winning the Little League World Series twelve years ago. Six years making minimum wage, trekking around down South on a bus would all be worth it after tonight. He could do it. He had never pitched like this.
Not in all his life.
Tyler wound up and released the pitch. It flew from his hands like a blazing fastball, but halfway to the plate it braked. The batter—a new third-round pick out of Texas—swung early. Way early.
Tyler jogged toward home and high-fived his catcher, William Trapnell. Six innings, eighteen straight batters. Fourteen strikeouts. Three ground-outs to first. One caught fly ball. Jep Black, the Blue Wahoos manager, met him at the dugout. “Got someone to hit for you, Tyler.” He patted his back. “Rest your arm.”
Tyler nodded and took a spot at the end of the bench. This was his second season with the Blue Wahoos, and though the roster changed constantly, he generally liked his teammates. Several of them shouted congratulations.
“You’re perfect tonight, Ames.” William swigged down a water bottle, breathless. “You own this.”
Tyler gave him a thumbs-up. “Thanks. Keep it up.” He volleyed a couple more compliments, slid a jacket over his pitching arm, and leaned back. He could relax this inning with the designated hitter taking over.
He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with the ocean air. Hadn’t he known this would happen? When he got moved up from the Dayton A team last spring he had expected great things.
Tyler blinked and stared at home plate. The first Blue Wahoos batter was up. Tyler worked the muscles in his hand, making a fist and releasing it. His team was at the top of the lineup. Plenty of time. Tyler squinted at the distant lights, the sponsor signs on the outfield walls. Like a grainy YouTube clip, the seasons ran together in his mind. Star of the 2002 Little League World Series. In high school, California’s Mr. Baseball. Most recruited pitcher in the history of UCLA.
How had it all gone so wrong?
The fallout with his parents, his back injury, the public drunkenness charges, the girls. He had fallen out of grace with his fans and everyone he loved.
Sami Dawson most of all. Her name made his heart hurt. Sami, girl . . . where are you? What happened to us? He closed his eyes again. He had loved her more than life. But that was a hundred years ago.
Cheers interrupted his personal highlight reel. He opened his eyes and watched their centerfielder hit a triple. Blue Wahoos up, 3–0. He massaged his right arm. It was sore, but a whole lot better than usual. He had three more innings in him. Definitely.
A picture filled his mind. He and Sami, both of them seventeen, sitting together on her grandparents’ roof. Aww, Sami. We thought we had forever back then. The stars had looked brighter that night, the silhouette of the trees like something from a dream. No one had believed in him more than Sami Dawson.
What was I thinking? How could I let you go?
Tyler gritted his teeth. Tonight was where it would all turn around. He would Google his own name tomorrow and see something different. Tyler Ames: Perfect. Story after story would say the same thing. He’d made it. Finally found his way. He would be perfect and everyone would know. Maybe even Sami.
Buried would be all the headlines still there at the moment.
Tyler Ames: The Kid Who Didn’t Live Up to His Potential.
Minor League Purgatory: The Story of Tyler Ames.
The Sad Life of Tyler Ames: Mr. Baseball, Mr. Joke.
Tyler exhaled. The pain of his past was as close as the nearest computer. Any kid with a cell phone could read about the hero he’d been.
And the failure he’d become.
Every game, every inning of the past few years was like an act of penance now, a way to absolve himself for the sins of his past. And every single pitch had led to this.
The chance to be perfect. No hits, no walks, no one on base. Perfect.
For the first time.
What would his parents say after tonight? His father’s face flashed in his mind. Funny. Whenever he thought of his dad, he thought of him angry. Correcting his pitching form, scrutinizing his weight training, questioning him.
Another run scored and the Blue Wahoos were back in the outfield. Tyler felt warm and focused. More ready than ever. Jep Black’s words from earlier that day ran through his head: “Tonight’s your night, Ames. Go out there and prove me right.”
Jep had been talking to scouts from the Reds ever since the season started. Tonight, finally, the scouts were here. They actually wanted him. That’s what Jep said. The Reds’ director of player personnel knew his name and his numbers. Every wonderful statistic from this season. Tyler was just what they were looking for. They even knew about his past.
And they still wanted him.
Tyler set his jacket on the bench and jogged out to the mound. On the way he stopped and talked to his catcher.
“More of the same.” He brushed his glove against William’s shoulder. “Talk to me, Trap. Keep me perfect.”
“You got it.”
He reached the mound and glanced up. When was the last time a guy in the AA minor leagues threw a perfect game? The Pensacola faithful were on their feet. Tyler Ames was about to make history. They could feel it. This was their night as much as it was his.
The beautiful oceanfront stadium had opened two years ago, and already it topped the list of places to see, things to do on the Florida Panhandle. The fans had bought into the Blue Wahoos, the team more than any individual player.
But tonight was different. Tonight the Blue Wahoo fans loved Tyler Ames. They knew his name. He could hear them.
Bottom of the lineup for the team from South Carolina. Easy as the waves in the bay, he thought. If only his parents could have been here tonight. If Sami could see how he’d made good after all. He was going to be moved up to the big show. It was actually going to happen. Breathe, Ames . . . just breathe. He focused on William’s glove. The batter was a washed-up second baseman from the Bigs who had been sent down to the AA leagues after an injury. He couldn’t swing a bat the way he once had.
Williams flashed him a signal. Tyler nodded. Yes, a fastball. That’s exactly what he wanted. He lifted his knee and wound up the way he had ten thousand times. In a burst of motion he fired the ball over the plate. The batter didn’t swing, didn’t even have time to blink.
“Steee-rike!” The umpire was getting excited, too.
Tyler kept a straight face, but all around him it was happening.
His teammates were behind him. He could feel the focus of his infield, feel the gloves of the outfield ready to react. He threw a slider and the batter connected. At the crack of the bat, Tyler’s heart skipped a beat. He watched the trajectory overhead. Get it, he thought. Please get it. His teammate at centerfield responded. Fly out.
One down. Still perfect.
A grounder to first took care of the next batter. Tyler felt stronger now than he had at the beginning of the game. He settled himself on the mound and stared at the catcher. Change-up to start the batter. Tyler liked it. He wound up and caught the guy watching. Strike one. The second pitch was outside, same with the third.
The fans at Bayfront Stadium fell to a hush. He couldn’t throw another ball or the batter would walk. Breathe, Ames. He could be perfect. It would happen. He stared at William. His catcher signaled for a fastball. Tyler shook his head. Not for this batter. The guy had hit four home runs this month.
Next he called for a curveball. Atta boy, William. Perfect pitch. Tyler gave the slightest nod. This was it. A curveball would sail straight toward the plate and break hard to the inside. By then the batter would bite, and the swing would be a strike.
Another notch closer to perfection.
Tyler settled back on his heels, glove up, ball in his hand. The windup was everything it needed to be. He uncoiled himself and released the ball just as he planned, like he’d done all his life. But this time he heard something snap. Instantly fire ripped through his arm and down his torso, the sort of pain Tyler had never known before.
“Steee-rike!” The umpire made the call.
Tyler was already on the ground, writhing beneath the searing pain. The noise from the stadium dimmed and the only sounds were his racing heart and his own terrible groaning. People were running to him, but he couldn’t hear them, couldn’t make out their faces. He felt like demons were ripping his arm from his body. The world around him faded, every voice and face.
The first uniformed medic reached him, a man Tyler had never seen before. He dropped to his knees and put his hand on Tyler’s good shoulder. The guy looked like a linebacker. “You’re going to be okay.”
No! Tyler wanted to shout at him. But the pain was too great. I’ll never be okay again. The man was staring at him, his eyes bright with something Tyler didn’t recognize. Peace, maybe. Something otherworldly.
“This isn’t the end, Tyler.” The medic’s hand felt warm. “It’s the beginning.”
Tyler shook his head. Angry tears filled his eyes. Of course it’s the end. The name on the medic’s uniform caught his attention. A name he’d never heard before.
Figures. Brand-new medic. What would he know? “My . . . shoulder!” The pain was killing him. Sweat dripped down his forehead and he could feel his body shaking, going into shock. Tyler lifted his eyes to the stadium lights. A strange darkness shrouded them and then gradually, everything else began to fade.
Sami would never want him now. She would blame him for making the wrong choices all those years ago. I’m sorry,
Sami. I still love you. If you only knew how much. Two more medics with a stretcher rushed toward him, and the rest of the team gathered at a distance, silent, shocked. Tyler had one final thought before he blacked out.
He wasn’t perfect.
And after tonight he never would be.