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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Number of
Dolan's Destiny


by Gene Fehler

Numbers mean everything in baseball: 56, 300, 3,000, 60, and on and on.  Danny Dolan discovered a new number, but learning its true meaning didn't come easily.


Gone were the brick walls and the ivy. The friendly confines of Wrigley Field had given way to progress. One of the oldest, most picturesque parks died the way of so many others, bludgeoned into dust and debris by a huge wrecking ball. In its place stood a completely renovated, modern, spacious stadium. Danny Dolan played hooky from high school with his girlfriend Sandy to attend the Cubs' season openerthe first game in the new ballpark. The wind whipped in off Lake Michigan, spraying flurries of snow specks all over the field. It settled like dandruff on blankets dotting blue grandstand seats like tents. Fans waved jacketed arms toward their Cub heroes, white puffs of breath punctuating their cheers in thirty degree April air.


Dolan hadn't felt the cold. From the moment he first saw the playing field and the number 412 on the centerfield wall, a strange heat pulsed through him. The number marked the distance in feet from home plate to the center field wall. But for Dolan, the number burned a realization into him. He instinctively understood that 412 was his number. His destiny.


"How can you be sweating?" Sandy asked. "I'm practically freezing to death."


Dolan ran the back of his hand across his forehead. It came back damp. He wiped it on his jacket. "See that 412 on the centerfield wall?" he said to Sandy.


"Sure," Sandy said.


"That's my number. That 412 is going to change my life."


"It's what?"


"It's going to change my life. I don't know how. Or when."


"You're talking about that distance marker on the centerfield wall. The 412."


"Yes."


"And it's going to change your life."


"I know it sounds crazy .  .  ."


"Crazy? No, it's not crazy. Crazy will be when it actually happens."


I guess." He stared out at the number. "But I can't shake the feeling that the most important moment in my life will be represented by that number 412."


"I know why the number is important!" Sandy pulled Dolan's arm and led him toward their seats. They sat. She spread their blanket over their legs and snuggled against him. "Before the game's over I'll kiss you four hundred and twelve times."


Dolan smiled. "I can live with that." Then his eyes narrowed. "I wish that's what it meantkisses. But I don't think that's it."

 

She was kidding about the kisses, Dolan knew that. They had come to the game not for kissing, but for baseball, for history. They would forever be counted among the select few who were there to see the Cubs play their first game in their new ballpark.


Yet in spite of the excitement of the game, Dolan found his attention wandering frequently to that number on the center field wall. It was as if it had some mysterious hold over him, and for the life of him he couldn't understand what that hold was. He had never been one for reading books, no more than were required for school assignments. He had never been one noted for flights of fancy. The biggest fault his teachers pointed out was that his school writing assignments lacked imagination.


He didn't believe in mysticism or fate. He considered himself a practical, down-to-earth guy. Yet as surely as the cornfield spoke to the young farmer in Field of Dreams, Dolan could sense the number 412 whispering to him from the centerfield wall. It seemed to say, "I'm your number, Danny Dolan. I'm the number that will make yours a household name. I'm the number of your destiny."


***

Now, five years later, Dolan stepped from the passageway that ran from the locker room to the playing field. He paused for a moment as he always did to focus on the 412. Dolan was now the Cubs' starting centerfielder, playing every home game in front of the number 412. He acknowledged the number with a slight nod of his head. It was a daily ritual.


Not that he was superstitious. Not like some of the Cubs. The pitcher Saxtell clicked his heels together and hopped over the chalk line on his way from the mound after each scoreless inning he pitched. Before each at bat, their shortstop Connick spat on the back of his right hand and then rubbed the spit off on his right back pocket. The Cubs' catcher Zink always whistled the first four notes of "America, the Beautiful" after catching the third warm-up pitch before each inning.


Dolan scoffed at such superstitions. He didn't have to focus on the 412 or nod at it; he merely wanted to. He was merely showing the number the respect it deserved. Because he had discovered how the number would mark his destiny.


Last winter, the Cubs had told him they planned for him to start the season in Double A. But his hot hitting during spring training changed their minds. He was so impressive the Cubs traded last year's centerfielder, Surkont, for a young, promising closer, Lusk from Pittsburgh. In 51 spring training at-bats Dolan had banged out 21 hits. Even his outs were mostly line drives that fielders just happened to get in the way of. His spring batting average was an impressive .412.


When he saw that final spring average, he realized what the whisper meant: "Dolan, you're destined to be the first ballplayer to hit over .400 in the regular season since Ted Williams back in 1941. Except you won't stop at Ted's 406. You'll go six points higher."


Dolan and Sandy, who were married right after high school, didn't talk often about the number, except for an occasional reference to the 412 kisses, but he told her about the whispering.


"I don't doubt it," Sandy said. "I believe you will hit .412."


"That's awfully high. Nobody's hit that high in the big leagues since back in 1924, when Rogers Hornsby hit .424 for the Cardinals."


"Maybe you'll beat Hornsby," Sandy said. 

 

"No, it'll be .412. I'm sure of it."


".412's not bad."


Dolan grinned. "No, it's not."


"It sounds like a Hall of Fame number to me."


"You know," Dolan said, "sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be married to someone who didn't believe in me."


"You're a lucky guy," Sandy said, smiling.


Now a month into the regular season, Dolan was convinced the wall knew what it was talking about. His .394 mark led the team, and he knew his average would continue to climb once he had a chance to see all the pitchersonce he recognized their speed, knew what they threw, studied their pitching patterns.


He stood in the outfield, soaked up the sunlight, sniffed the fresh cut of green grass. He glanced at almost empty stadium seats. The game was still two hours away. The turnstiles hadn't opened yet to let fans pour in.


He did his stretching exercises. He jogged around the entire field twice. Then he raced easily through wind sprints, twenty of them, from left-center to right-center and back, running each one a bit faster than the one before, ending with a fullout sprint that left aging coaches gazing wistfully from dugouts. He shagged fly balls. He threw line drivesbulletsfrom deep left-center to a coach, Hawkins, stationed far down the right field line. He took his turn in the batting cage. By now the stands were half full of fans murmuring and buzzing and shouting. Most had come early just to watch him hit. He didn't disappoint them. He sprayed line drives to all parts of the field. He hit a few deep into the right field bleachers. He finished by laying down four perfect bunts, two on each base line. He did all the things necessary for his climb to .412.


By game time the Cubs, in first place by two games, were playing to a full house.


In the top of the first, the Giants scored two. It could have been worse, but Dolan made a diving, sliding catch of a line drive to strand two runners.


In the bottom half, Dolan crouched on one knee in the on-deck circle, studying Claybourne, the Giants' speedballing southpaw. It was almost scary how hard Claybourne threw the ball. The radar gun said he was one of the fastest in the game's history. Dolan watched Claybourne throw a fast ball to Daws, the Cubs' left fielder. Daws took it for a strike. Daws tried to bunt the next pitch, but could do no better than pop it up, right back to Claybourne. Then Claybourne threw five straight fast balls to Hennings. The first two were high and tight. Then Claybourne exploded three straight on the outside edge. Hennings was overmatched.


Dolan stepped into the batter's box to the right of the plate and burrowed with his cleats until his left foot was planted in its normal spot. He tapped the barrel end of his 34-inch bat on the outside back corner of the plate and went into his crouch He had studied film of Claybourne's previous games. He had a sense of Claybourne's pitching pattern. He'd thrown seven straight fast balls. Dolan knew Claybourne probably wouldn't give him a first-pitch fast ball. Dolan expected a hard curve, high and inside.


The first pitch sizzled in high and inside, just as he expected.  The split second it took for Dolan's brain to pass along the message that the pitch was not Claybourne's hard curve but his fast ball didn't buy him enough time to react fully. In the thousandth of a second just before the ball caught the bill of his helmet, Dolan knew he was in trouble.

 

As the helmet spun off his head, Dolan fell to the ground. He was only on the ground for a few seconds before he got up, breathing a sigh of relief. Instead of just hitting the bill of the helmet, it might have caught the helmet flush, or even hit his face. And at that speed...


Dolan waved off the rushing manager and trainer as he headed to first base. He felt fine. No pain at all. He was just a little dizzy, probably from the force of the helmet as the ball spun it around. He realized just how lucky he had been.


He was left stranded on first, and when the inning ended Daws  tossed Dolan's  glove to him on the way by.


"You okay?" Daws asked. "You had us scared for a minute."


Dolan grinned. "Fine. Could have been worse."


"I'll say." Daws jogged the rest of the way to left.


When Dolan reached center, he noticed that the 412 seemed blurred. Not much, just as if the painted edges were not as sharp and distinct as they always were. It was as if paint was trying to leak out from the edges of the painted lines. He turned toward home plate. He could see everything in that direction clearly enough. He could even see the seams on the baseball the pitcher held.


He turned again toward the center field wall. The number 412 was still blurred. He shook his head. His head felt fine. There was no concussion, he was sure of that. Because he could see everything else clearly, he concluded that the blurring of the 412 had nothing to do with him. Maybe the paint had run, and he just hadn't noticed it earlier.


The first hitter was Browner, the Giants' light-hitting second baseman. In three years in the league, Browner had only five home runs, one of them an inside-the-park job. Dolan knew all about Browner from the pre-game meetings when they went over all the Giant hitters and their tendencies.


Dolan moved a few steps to right center and in several steps. The number 12 on the back of the pitcher Franz now seemed blurred. Dolan rubbed his eyes, shook his head slightly. The thought flashed through his head that perhaps he should call time, make sure everything was in focus. One misplay is all it takes to lose a ballgame.


Franz pitched. A high fast ball strike. Dolan saw the ball clearly. Everything's fine, Dolan told himself.


Browner stepped from the batter's box and picked up a handful of dirt. Now Browner's number 4 was blurred. Everything else was clear; the only things blurred as he looked toward the infield were Browner's number 4 and Franz' number 12.


Dolan took a step forward to start to shout for time. But before he could do it, Franz delivered and Browner sent a drive deep over Dolan's head. He turned and sprinted to where he knew the ball must come downdeep center fieldas long a drive as he'd ever known Browner to hit. Dolan was going full tilt when his foot met the dirt of the warning track. He was two steps from the wall when he left his feet, thrusting his gloved hand far above his head. The ball cleared his glove by an inch, maybe two, and hit the top of the 1 on the painted 412. It caromed off the wall and into Dolan's face a split second before he crashed into the wall.


Each time he awoke in the days that followed, Sandy was by his bedside, but he didn't have the strength to open his eyes or to speak. He'd doze off again, dreaming of images of players floating through space: Hornsby, Williams, Dolan. Each had large block numbers on his back: Hornsby a 424, Williams a 406, Dolan a 412. Each one was holding a Hall of Fame plaque.


Every so often Dolan would hear Sandy's soft voice. Her sweet voice. He wished he could see her and know what she was saying.


It was still a long time before the burning sensation subsideda heat even greater than the first time he had seen the 412 sign. Then, when the throbbing red fog finally lifted, Dolan's bandages were explained to him.


When the doctor told Dolan about having had to surgically remove his right eye, Sandy was with him, holding his hand.


"But you're alive. Thank God for that, Dolan," the doctor said. Dolan felt Sandy's hand squeezing his.


He sagged on his pillow, saw beyond the darkness of his bandages the detritus of his destiny. Then the whisper came. He wondered if anyone else heard it.


He lifted his head slightly toward Sandy. "What floor are we on?"


He heard Sandy gasp. Finally she said, "The fourth."


"My room," he said. "It's 412, isn't it?"


"Danny .  .  ." her voice faltered. "I hadn't .  .  . it's a crazy coincidence."


"You didn't tell them to put me in room 412?"


"No, Danny. Of course not. I didn't even think about the number until now."


"I thought maybe, as a joke, you..."


"Jokes should be funny."


"I guess it's not funny," Dolan said. "Or maybe... maybe it is, in some way I can't even begin to explain."


"Not to me, it isn't," she said. "I haven't laughed in days. I love you, Danny."


"It's been a long night," he said. "A long, dark night. And I'm really in room 412?"


"Yes," she said. "But I can have them move you to another room if you'd like. Do you want me to?"


It took him a minute to answer. "No, don't change rooms," he said finally. "I'll stay here, as long as you stay with me."


She stayed with him. Each time he awakened from another dream, she was by his side. His head was thick with white wrappings, and one eye was gone completely. Buried deep beneath his bandages was an empty crater where his eye used to be. He knew his playing days were over. But the whisper in his ears spoke his number clearly to him, and he took some comfort in that. It was his number. No doubt about it. For better or worse. In sickness and in health it was his destiny.


Then one day he awoke from a dreamless sleep and reached to touch Sandy's long, soft hair. She leaned to him, brushing her lips against his cheek.


"Hitting .412 isn't everything," he said softly. "There's more to life than that."


"There's us," Sandy said. "There'll always be us."


Dolan rested his head on his pillow, held Sandy's hand, smiled past his pain, and thought of kisses.