It was the fourth game of the World Series, Braves against the Yanks. I was fifteen, chubby, and redheaded. I was out for my nightly walk, sweating, and breathing heavily beneath the rigors of exercise.
Chubby boys and exercise mix about as well as milk and Mountain Dew.
It was late October. People on nearby porches watched me pass by—like they did every evening—waving hello to the chunky kid doing cardio.
“Hey, Critter,” said Jermaine, who was sitting on the porch with his father, watching the game on a portable television.
Jermaine was my age. His old man played piano at their church. His family called me “Critter” sometimes. I don’t know why.
I waved back. “Hey, Jermaine.”
“You wanna watch the game with us, Critter?” his father asked.
I removed the Sony transistor radio from the pocket of my Husky jeans and waved it. “No thanks, I’m listening to it now.”
And I kept walking.
I passed the porch of Mrs. Renteria, the old woman who prepared hundreds of tamales in her kitchen and carried them to local construction job sites in Igloo coolers, selling them for a dollar a pop. She was raising two granddaughters and a grandson with those tamales. I once ate nineteen in one sitting.
“How about those Braves?” said Mrs. Renteria.
“Vamos, Bravos!” I said, just like she’d taught me.
This brought a grin to the Mexican woman’s antique face.
I passed Mister Alverado’s house. He was in a wheelchair from an accident at a factory. He was listening to the game on a boombox. Mister Alverado raised his Coors as I passed by.
“Them Yank pitchers are killing us,” he shouted. “We need to get this offense going.”
We briefly discussed our mutual hatred for the Bronx Bombers.
And I walked onward.
I went for a lot of walks back then. Because, you see, the doctor told me I was fat. He’d said it outright. Just like that. “You’re fat, son.”
And the doc was right. After my father left this world, I adhered to a strict Pop-Tarts-and-Little Debbie diet. I had gained considerable fluff, which did a number on my self-image.
I went straight home after that doctor visit, looked at my bare torso in the mirror, and I cried in shame because I hated my reflection.
Then I ate three oatmeal creme pies to dull the pain.
After that I started walking. I began leaving the house on foot, under the cover of blackness, so nobody would see my hideous body. I tucked my father’s old mini radio into the pocket of my Sears, Roebuck & Co. jeans, and listened to Braves games as though it were my religion.
One foot in front of the other. Right, left, right. Inhale, exhale, repeat.
I walked until my feet developed blisters. I walked until there were red stains on my Chuck Taylors. I walked until I started to lose weight. Bobby Cox and America’s Team were my cardiovascular companions.
That summer, I became a nightly fixture in that little neighborhood. All the neighbors knew me, since I passed their houses each evening. Over time, I worked my way up to walking four or five miles each night.
That night, however, as the World Series droned through my little speaker, I was walking faster than normal. I was a nervous wreck. The Braves had locked horns with New York in Game Four, and we were losing our butts. It was a bloodbath.
The sad part was that the neighborhood was decked out in Braves paraphernalia. There were tomahawk flags flying from working-class porches. There were handmade posters in front yards which read: “Honk if you love the Atlanta Braves!”
There was a gal down the street who painted a big red sign that read: “Marry Me, David Justice,” even though Justice played for Cleveland that year.
By the final inning of the Series, I ended my walk at Jermaine’s porch, exhausted and sweaty. I watched the final strikeouts with Jermaine and his old man.
“It ain’t looking good for us, Critter,” said Jermaine’s daddy.
It was bad.
The Braves ended up losing, four to one. And after the game ended, I couldn’t help myself, I started crying a little.
You see, sometimes a boy can want something so badly in this life that it breaks his little heart when he doesn’t get it. This is, of course, the primary lesson of being human. Learning how to lose. Learning about failure.
But when you’re fifteen, everything feels raw. And when you’re fifteen and grieving your father, all emotions are ten times more potent.
I wanted Atlanta to win more than anything. I wanted them to win it for me, and for the ghost of my old man. I wanted the Braves to sweep the Series because I wanted to be excited about something again. I wanted to smile.
After the loss, Jermaine’s daddy flipped off the small TV. The world went dark. He looked at two disappointed boys, dressed in Atlanta Braves finery, and he said:
“Aw, cheer up, guys. Maybe next year we’ll get a second chance.”
Well, that was twenty-two years ago. But as of last night, the Atlanta Braves beat the LA Dodgers to become contenders in the next World Series.
And this is that second chance, Critter.